I went on my first date when I was 16. This guy in my psych class, a senior, asked if I wanted to hang out over Memorial Day weekend. I said sure. We had talked a couple of times before, mainly about homework. He was funny and really nice. We went to see a movie. He told me I looked beautiful, and that he wished he had asked me to prom. The end.
Except it didn’t end there. That experience actually marked the beginning of a new fear of mine. When I went back to school the next week, I told a mutual friend that I had gone out with that guy. And my friend was like, “Dude, he has a thing for Asian girls.” My stomach turned. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.
When I took another look at his Facebook profile, there were some fuzzy pictures of him at homecoming and prom with different Asian girls. But it could be a coincidence, right? I didn’t want to think something disgusting about someone, especially someone so nice if it wasn’t true.
I didn’t find the Facebook pictures particularly condemning, but the whole thing still creeped me out enough that I just wanted to forget about it. Too uncomfortable to confront him, I broke it off before he could officially ask me to start dating. He had seemed genuinely interested in me — my interests, my family, my personality — but now I didn’t know.
What fear am I talking about, exactly? “Yellow fever.” Let me be clear: I despise this term. It is derogatively used to refer to an Asian fetish (particularly East or Southeast Asian, and I fit into both categories). I don’t know who needs to hear this — honestly, some of my friends, probably — but the phrase “yellow fever” isn’t funny. At all. It’s gross and offensive and degrading. Don’t say it. And especially don’t say it and then laugh.
I guess being fetishized is more of a concern than a fear. It makes me angry sometimes, too. Anyone with any physical “type” would already have me running the other way. However, the racial element of “yellow fever” brings it to a whole new level.
This is where the line gets blurry. I’m confident that most people wouldn’t think twice about someone who preferred, for instance, blondes. Or tall people. Or whatever. Right? You can’t help what you’re attracted to. I get it.
So why am I making a big deal out of this? Because it’s the way that people act on these so-called “preferences” that sickens me. The almost predatory pursuit of certain traits is uniquely damaging to people of color, who have been sexualized and objectified throughout history. As a result, fetishization and exoticization are things I will always need to be wary of in my dating life.
My mom is Japanese, so I studied at a language school there the summer I turned 19. My excitement to meet people from all over the world with a passion for learning Japanese soon turned a bit sour. One of the people in my class made it clear that he was there to learn Japanese so he could find himself a Japanese wife. I avoided him for the remainder of my time there.
That same summer, I found myself trying to buffer a friend from being hit on by a persistent, white American exchange student. He didn’t know my friend any more personally than anyone else. It was completely based on looks, and everyone could tell.
Stereotypes and dehumanization
For centuries Asian women have faced the stereotype of being inherently submissive, docile, and exotic. A desire for these fixed characteristics dehumanizes Asian women and reduces them to the Other, creating a strange power dynamic instead of an equal relationship.
From my perspective, having a fetish for a person who looks a certain way essentially screams, “My partner could be anybody, as long as they fit in this physical category.” A.k.a., “Your personality means nothing because I’m only attracted to you as a shell.” This also plays into the annoying trope of not being able to tell Asian people apart.
Moreover, my concern with yellow fever is that most of the time, I don’t feel “Asian,” if I can even lump it all together. Asian countries each have their own culture and identity, and Asian people come in all shapes and sizes, just like everyone else. I consider myself American more than anything, yet the mere appearance of my face and body can conjure up images of “the Orient,” a fictional place with exotic, novel people eager to be subjugated. Worst of all, I have no control over that.
As I’ve continued to date, I’ve wondered if I’m doomed to be suspicious of any guy who shows an attraction toward me. On the other side of the coin, I’ve also been told that I’m “pretty compared to other Asian girls,” implying that generally, Asian girls are not attractive. (People seem to have no idea how tasteless that is).
In the past, these kinds of comments have led me to wonder if maybe I should just take what I can get because I’d be lucky if someone were attracted to me in the first place. I know now that that’s wrong. I know now that I deserve someone who loves all of me. And I know that person would be lucky to be with me.