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On “Yellow Fever”

I had just gotten back from China, when I found myself on a party bus with a guy I was seeing on my way to a formal when he said to me “I just feel like I really want to have sex with a Japanese girl.” Facepalm. I had a conniption fit. And in response to my conniption fit he said: “well don’t you have things you want to do, like hook up with a black guy?” Double Facepalm. No, I told this granola eating, long-haired, alternative religion having, white male, I don’t reduce people to stereotypes or treat them like things I can collect.

Just so we are clear, I have interracially dated, several times now. It never once occurred to me that it was abnormal or special until I had people tell me it was weird at Stanford. We all dated outside our race. But I would never and have never gone out looking for men of a particular race. Though I joke about my desire to not date privileged men (which, everyone please calm down, is a joke) that applies more to the cultural jumps I would have to make and tolerate to be around men who read a lot of Ayn Rand and don’t appreciate my trophy wife jokes. I interracially date because it would be really hard not to and not in fact, be racist, especially as a white woman, and also because I have been attracted to different people from different races, because people are attractive. Given that this is the norm in the community I’ve grown up and my parents aren’t racist bigots, it was a bit of a culture shock when I got to Stanford and it seemed like the only acceptable interracial couple was Asian Women with White Men.

I studied China, and like everything I study I fell in love with the place. So I lived there for three months while learning Mandarin and became really well educated in Chinese history. It gave me fantastic insight and perspective on the world to have such a wide range of knowledge. Now I knew American history, Chinese history, and European history. My undergraduate adviser could make connections between anything and everything and I wanted that too. I didn’t want to have just one lens to look at things, so it was paramount for my growth. I didn’t think about the problems with the white men/Asian female trope until I acquired a few Asian male friends and also went to China. My Asian male friends explained to me that they felt desexualized by American culture, which was true when I looked at mainstream culture, though in my community, which has a large number of immigrants, Asian men were pretty much treated like all other men (meaning they needed a car and couldn’t have a baby mama-standards that make perfect sense in High School). I started noticing that most of my classes on China were populated by white men and Asian women. And then I went to China.

In China, it didn’t take very long for me to realize that something was amiss. There were 22 of us in the program and 1 Chinese-American male and 4 white females. Within a very short amount of time ALL of the white men admitted, proudly, that they had “yellow fever.” Why anyone felt the need to say that to me in a bar is anyone’s guess, but I have a gift for making people comfortable enough for them to say horrifying things I can’t unhear. The thought of “yellow fever”, by which white men have a strong preference for Asian females, just seemed wrong to me before I knew why this was happening. I was actually one of two people, the other being the Asian male (who I remain good friends with to this day), who was studying to had studied China. The rest of the crew was there for future business reasons, because they liked Asian girls or because they were trying to explore their own roots in depth. No one knew as much about Chinese history as I did, which is fine because I was the only one with that major.

Since I was being my sassy self, I decided, why not ask the source? And I did. I asked all of the men I hung out with in China why they had a preference. Universal answer: Asian girls are skinnier, more submissive and more ‘appreciative’ of white men and more willing to do ‘exotic’ stuff. I can’t make this up. It was so horrifying for me that I started taking long walks around the Beida campus with the only Asian dude in the program so that he and I could escape and pretend we were 12 and living in a magical secret forest (the Beida campus is really beautiful). I stopped going to social events. I stopped talking to people. I’m very sensitive about this sort of thing, when I see people getting exploited, especially by people I know well, it makes it hard for me to stick around.

Here is what is wrong with this. For one thing: it is racist. I am sure that China has women that act on the full spectrum of human behavior, so saying they are all submissive is a weird colonial hold over from when we still talked about white man’s burden. Skinnier and appreciative are more on the line of sexism, where in this universe women are trophies, but not full human beings, they are there to serve the men. Skinnier is also racist and highly problematic, again because it eliminates the possibility for diversity in the whole human spectrum. I met women who fit that stereotype and women who didn’t, and women who were hurting themselves to meet that stereotype which doesn’t sound that different from being at Stanford. That those were the only answers means that these men, all of whom were my age, were looking for a shadow of a human being. The sexual exoticism is both, it is the idea that men are entitled to whatever they want sexually, and that a woman is “better” (to be weighed and measured) if she will do what he wants, if her sexuality is defined by his. The assumption that Asian women have a somehow different sexuality from any other race reduces them to objects. I am sure Asian women, like all women exhibit a wide range of sexual preferences from the vanilla to the more extreme, because that’s what human beings do, and they are human beings. It is ok as a white male to find an Asian woman attractive, you just can’t feel that way for racist and sexist reasons and you can’t impose hundreds of years of colonialism on the body of the person you spend your most intimate moments with, ever. For any reason.

The fact that this was so socially acceptable that we could casually and openly discuss this in bars sort of scares me. In fact, many men at Stanford told me I was insane for pointing this out and treated “yellow fever” as a sort of rite of passage. It is part of a more problematic line of thinking among young men, which is that they are entitled to a sort of bucket list of sexual experience before settling down with a “respectable” woman. Instead of finding partners with equal interest in their sexual preferences they separate women out into objects to be conquered or gained in life experience before settling down their desexualized and virginal wife. With this line of thinking, they think they are entitled to certain experiences and that wives are not supposed to want to explore their own sexuality, so they must do that first before marrying. Women get reduced to points on a score card. And the women they do marry find themselves in marriages where they are never truly equal and full human beings, and where they will have had their sexuality sold out under them as one of their roles as wife.

This is what men my age tell me scares them about marriage, the loss of freedom and the fear of intimacy. And that is fine, that is human, I feel that too. But if they redefined the role of wife into one who is an equal partner, an equal explorer in this weird frontier known as life, then they wouldn’t “lose” their freedom and would experience greater and more secure intimacy because they would see the woman in this situation as less of a symbol of accomplishment. So in other words, gentlemen, you can be free when we are free. Human beings loving other human beings because of their beautiful humanity, that is what this is all about.

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One thought on “On “Yellow Fever”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve had several people, both non-Asians and Asians, imply that I was racist for treating those with “yellow fever” like they have the plague. As you mentioned, it’s okay for someone to like like Asian women for non-racist reasons, but I’m not going to stand for being reduced to a set of stereotypical qualities and a sexual conquest. That’s why I have such a problem with non-Asians who exclusively date Asians. They usually have this fantasy in their head that is nothing like reality, and it’s an insult to all other women that the guys don’t think they measure up just because they’re of a different race.

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