“Me love you long time” Sticks Around For A Really Long Time

by Thuc Nguyen

Vietnam War movies are all the rage, again. With this, there still isn't any evidence that they show Vietnamese people or specifically Vietnamese women as whole humans. Apocalypse Now just had its 40th anniversary and a has a full theatrical run for “Final Cut” all over America. Spike Lee just wrapped Da 5 Bloods and Peter Farrelly is making The Greatest Beer Run Ever. All of these projects are made by men and focus on soldiers, just like their predecessors Apocalypse Now (Cuts 1 & 2), Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.

You may think the phrase “Me love you long time” started in 1989 with a 2 Live Crew track where female vocals ooze “Me so horny. Me love you long time”. These words predate the rap act in popular culture, as they were said by actress Papillon Soo Soo, who portrays a Vietnamese prostitute soliciting American GI-s, in the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket that came out in 1987.

Over time, the phrase has entered various areas of pop culture, school yards and the music and apparel industries, often called out by people who know that it's racist and sexist. It's used to reduce Asian and Asian-American women to sex objects. It's our turn to make sure its use of turning Asian and Asian-American women into jokes stops with us. Etta Devine, a writer in LA, puts it well, “Me love you long time was viral before there was viral”.

In Season One of Hulu’s hit Emmy nominated show PEN15, “me love you long time” is said by a white boy who bullies the half-Japanese lead created and portrayed by Maya Erskine. Maya says boys would hurl “me love you long time” at her in middle school, in Los Angeles. The show which has deftly tackled racism has been renewed for a new season.

As for the accuracy of Kubrick’s screenwriting, I spoke with Pulitzer winning author Robert Olen Butler, who was in his twenties when he served in the American War in Vietnam as a translator. Bob tells me, “My sense of the phrase is its inextricable relationship to a comparable phrase: The “short-timer.” A short-timer was a young woman who was willing to sell temporary time and access to her body. I had a strong sense that very few, if any, of the “short-timers” were hardened prostitutes”. He says that “long time” means the women's availability over the duration of the soldier's tour or beyond. In the context of Kubrick’s scene it seemed to imply the duration of a sexual encounter.

Through the years, “Me love you long time” isn’t just something related to a Vietnamese prostitute. It’s become, for some, a way to label or put down any Asian looking woman-- “casual racism”. A story from Chicago went viral in July 2019 where Connie Cheung, a twenty-seven year old Chinese-American job applicant, got an email that she was accidentally copied on. The email was about her from one male interviewer to another male recruiter referencing Cheung merely with the line “me love you long time”, mocking her application by calling her this. The man who did this said he wrote that because an Asian woman said it in a movie and he presumed Cheung is Asian too, again reducing “Asians” to a monolith and seeing no difference between Vietnamese and Chinese. The man also didn't seem to see Cheung as a whole human, likening her to a prostitute because of her race.

“Me love you long time” has made it into mainstream entertainment after the 1980s. I've been told it's in the cartoons South Park and Family Guy, and in the movies 40 Year Old Virgin and Tommy Boy, with instances characters coyly offering sex for payment of goods or services.

Non-Asian women have appropriated the phrase in the music world. Fergie’s used it in a track, as well as singers like Nelly Furtado and Mariah Carey. Non-Asian female vocalists in a 2008 MTV article by Jennifer Vineyard liken it to reclaiming the word “bitch”. I beg to differ. It's not the same and Asian diaspora women should be the ones reclaiming it.

Elizabeth Wolff and Corinne Malvern in the production of an English-language Madame Butterfly by Henry Savage's English Grand Opera Company, at the Garden Theatre in New York City, 1907.

Elizabeth Wolff and Corinne Malvern in the production of an English-language Madame Butterfly by Henry Savage's English Grand Opera Company, at the Garden Theatre in New York City, 1907.

Stereotypes of Asian women have been rampant through-out entertainment history, as either being a demure flower or dragon lady. From Madame Butterfly (1904) to Miss Saigon (1989), Full Metal Jacket is just part of a line of Asian female identifying characters to be classified as self sacrificial for white male domination and consumption, sexual and otherwise-- Children don't go around quoting the latter two, but they sure do love saying “me love you long time”. In 2002, The Quiet American starring Michael Caine was no different – it perpetuated the idea that Asian women are compliant demure sexual creatures put on earth to please men. This is the same from The Karate Kid to The Last Samurai, Asian female characters have no agency and serve as “exotic” partners making tea for and/or bathing white men. 

The trend of othering hasn't ended. The Australians just released a Vietnam War movie called Danger Close and the front page of its IMDB is 100% white people. The only two Vietnamese women are credited as “Female Viet Cong” and “VC Female”, not terribly humanizing.

NICE, the series

NICE, the series

Many Asian-American women have found “me love you long time” completely de-humanizing and traumatic. Naomi Ko, a Korean-American woman who created and stars in NICE, the series, tells me about hearing those words. “The first time it happened to me I was in high school, visiting a nursing home in Minnesota. An elderly white man said it. It was horrifying. The second time I was in college at a house party and then the guy added, “love me MORE long time because you’re ugly”. Both times white women made excuses or said nothing”. 

Phung Huynh, a Vietnamese-American boat person refugee painter and educator, recalls that she was a ten year old visiting her teenaged male Vietnamese-American cousins in Miami, who were laughing and pointing at the Full Metal Jacket scene on tv. I remembered being confused and upset”. 

Kate Marley, a twenty-nine year old American actress adopted from South Korea by white parents, heard it on the playground in a Catholic elementary school in Tacoma, Washington. She felt uncomfortable and couldn't figure out why boys were directing this broken English at her and not at any other kids. She's also seen “me love you long time” in porn.

Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon

Viet Thanh Nguyen, decorated writer (Pulitzer, Guggenheim, MacArthur) and public intellectual, denounced the musical Miss Saigon in The New York Times on August 3, 2019. When I spoke with Professor Nguyen recently about “me love you long time”, he succinctly stated, “It's a terrible phrase that became a racist/sexist way for people to provoke Asian/Asian-American women. It was sampled by 2 Live Crew, which probably helped to account for its popularity, which shows that orientalism is both black and white.”

Today, “me love you long time” is still uttered in disparate situations- from playgrounds to when guys talk about “scoring” with Asian women. I spoke with people in the Facebook group “Murderinos of Color”. Group member Seraiah Apelian, twenty-two, says she remembers hearing it as a toddler and recently from teenagers where she lives in New Mexico. 

Gabriel Nivera, a thirty-four year old photographer, who grew up in The Philippines who I also met in “The New Yorker Movie Club” online group would hear men try to use “me love you long time” as a pick up line! He also says he hears it from white men to Asian women on the street and in bars still in North America, and from guy friends in the present day who talk about their hook-ups with Asian women. For him “As an Asian guy, it's pretty fucking offensive”.

People of varying cultural backgrounds think it’s possible to alter “me love you long time”’s place in history from here on out. Lauren Bradley, a tv writer, thinks that “transforming it will be hard. At it's core, it's about reducing Vietnamese women to an accent and sex work. But I think the more blowback white people get for saying it, the better. I also think it's the duty of people in control of culture -- entertainment, fashion, etc.-- to not use it as a joke. Eventually the phrase will work its way out of common lexicon if future generations don't see it as effective.” James Bryson Hyatt, a screenwriter, says “Start shaming people who use it. To hell with trying to transform it”.

Bing Chen, Chinese-American, is a founder of Gold House Collective, which has been a booster for films with Asian-American leads. Most recently his group gave a hand up to Lulu Wang's The Farewell at the box office, which features Nora Lum as Billi, a Chinese-American lead who is completely not sexualized. Bing's advice is: “Stereotypical mockery seeks ownership: phrasing like this compartmentalizes how communities are spoken to, how they're (mis)treated, and therefore what they are capable of achieving within the "owner's" system. But to paraphrase Toni Morrison, definitions do not belong to the defined-- they belong to the definers. Halting the persistence of racist sentiments isn't just incumbent on the perpetrators--it's up to us.”

Full Metal Jacket’s official tagline is “Vietnam can kill me, but it can’t make me care”...