Like my fellow Asian girls who've been raised in the West -- from Ji Hyun Lee in Marie Claire to Ch!cktionary writer Lena Chen on Good.is -- I, too, have had my fair share of run-ins with guys afflicted with the so-called "Yellow Fever." Similarly, I have developed a finely-tuned fetish radar. So, you're an East Asian studies minor? You have a favorite manga-to-anime adaptation? When I say "Chinese," you say, "from what province?" and then subsequently name your favorite food dish from my hometown?
Folks, we have a ringer.
But perhaps unlike many Asian females, I don't believe that non-Asian guys who like Asian women, even those white guys who predominantly date Asian women, are necessarily racist. And in my experience, they're often no worse than many Asian girls themselves.
The problem I see is that this constant espousal of the stereotype of men who like Asian women oversimplifies complicated race, gender and sexual politics, and actually damages the dating prospects of Asian females and non-Asian males alike.
By promoting the "creepy [white] man with Asian fetish" stereotype in public discourse, we Asian women are shooting ourselves in the foot. We subtly reinforce that the predominant narrative of interracial dating between non-Asian men and Asian women is one of patriarchal, racist power structures, when we know that is not always the case. There is a world of difference between the old, ignorant fetishist and the average guy I've met who dates Asian women. In the areas of California where I grew up, where Asians range from 20 to 50% of the student population, a college-age male would have to make an active effort to exclude Asian females from their dating pool. And that, my friends, would be pretty racist.
But by constantly projecting this idea that men who specifically like Asian women are creepers, we risk making otherwise decent, respectable guys avoid dating Asian girls for fear of being labeled a creeper -- until we have nothing but creepers left.
Ironic as it is, I've met guys who have come to me and said, "I like this girl a lot, but I don't want people to judge me because she's Asian."
"I know this great bibimbap place in K-Town, but will she think I'm racist because she's Japanese?"
"I taught English in Cambodia out of college because it was a good opportunity; now everyone assumes I'm a sexpat."
That's not to say creepers don't exist. Ignorant men who assume things about Asian women's sexuality and physical attributes certainly abound, especially on the Internet. And since I moved to Bangkok, Thailand, I've become quickly acquainted with the ugliness of what sexual fetishism looks like when it comes in contact with socioeconomic inequality and neocolonial racism. This article is not defending those men who buy sex abroad or who assume their privilege grants them special access to "exotic" women, because what those men do is indefensible.
However, more often than not, I find the advances of fetishists to be less infuriating and more amusing -- because they are just so darn bad at seduction. Their attempts to woo me with their poorly pronounced "ni haos" and "konichiwas" are on par with little old ladies who exclaim "but you speak English so well!" to classmates who innocently ask me to translate a "Chinese" tattoo. Ignorant? Yes, but hardly worth griping over.
Another key point remains: We Asian girls who complain about Yellow Fever know for a fact that not every guy who dates Asian girls is a creeper -- as many of us tend to exclusively date non-Asian men ourselves. Lee admits this in passing, but waves it away with the age-old excuse: "Asian guys rarely hit on me, perhaps because many aren't raised to be assertive with women." Bullshit. Let's be honest: We have grown up in a Western culture, with Western standards of beauty and Western ideals of romance -- which is why we value "assertiveness" at the bar in the first place. We prefer Western men because we grew up in a culture that prefers Western men.
In a 2007 Columbia University study, researchers found that Asian female/white male pairings were the most common interracial coupling in America. However, when evaluating subjects' preferences, researchers found that white men showed no overall preference towards Asian women over any other race.
Asian women, however, showed significant preferences against non-whites and non-Asians -- that is, against men of African, Middle Eastern and Hispanic descent, leading to the ubiquity of Asian/white pairings. My friends and I often joke about this study: White guy says, "I love Asian women, you're so exotic and feminine!" Asian girl says, "Well, at least you're not black." Ouch, touché.
Jokes aside, let's face it: despite our Western educations and Western feminist sensibilities, we Asian American women live in a minefield of screwed-up sexual politics, and it's not all white people's fault. Those of us who come from more traditional Asian families know our parents would faint if we brought home an African American boyfriend; I've seen my friend's mother scream at her for having a Berkeley-educated Brazilian beau. Asian cultures can be remarkably xenophobic, and white people are sometimes given a "light-skinned pass." Long before the White Man set foot in China, having light skin was a sign of wealth and status, as it meant you didn't spend long hours toiling in the sun. Remember, Asian cultures are the ones that mass market skin-lightening creams, where people often get eyelid surgery to make their eyes bigger, i.e. less Asian. Ever noticed how anime characters are googly-eyed, outrageously buxom/muscular, with wild colored hair -- as in, everything Asian people are normally not? The messy body-image politics of our native cultures, combined with the even messier sexual politics of interracial dating, are constantly conspiring against us Asian American females. The sooner we admit this and treat it with some good humor, the sooner we can stop flipping tables every time our new date has a few too many Asian girls on his Facebook friends list.
But how do we as Asian women deal with an overall decent, respectable guy who doesn't just like Asians, but likes us because we're Asian? Is it really a dealbreaker? This gets even more complicated. A thoughtful (Asian) female friend of mine points to a quote from Stephen Elliott of The Rumpus.net:
To be desired is to be fetishized... this idea that I want someone to desire me but not objectify me with their desires is absurd. It's like saying I only want to date someone who is not attracted to people that look like me.Here's the thing, you already are a fetish. You are your lover's kink, exist within their circle of desire, starting with gender, and getting more specific from there." (emphasis added)
"In fact," he says, "there's no bad reason to love a person. A person is not less enlightened if they're only attracted to their own gender, or Asian women, or skinny people, or latex, or feet. You can objectify someone without treating them like an object."
Elliott points out that the complexities of desire, objectification and fetishization affect all of us, regardless of race, gender or sexuality.
So, with that in mind, perhaps the best question we as Asian women should be asking ourselves is this: Does he treat me like an individual? And perhaps the dealbreaker is then not what race of girlfriends he has or how often he frequents the bubble tea shop, but rather he who assumes anything about our personality based on our physical attributes, or disregards our autonomy because of our anatomy.