Are Westerners Afflicted with "Asian Fever"?
Mimi Nguyen is a 24-year-old Viet Kieu woman who was raised in Moscow and lived in the United Kingdom for almost a decade beginning in her mid-teens. She has a swagger that, along with her bright pink hair, makes her a unique figure in the tapestry of Ho Chi Minh City.
Image source: Mimi Nguyen
“I had what I like to call a ‘white boy phase’ when I was in university. I dated them exclusively”, Nguyen said.
She remembers her first experience with what she called “the yellow fever thing … was when I was talking to this guy and I remember him explicitly saying that he wanted us to do a role play kind of thing. What he wanted was very specific; he wanted to play out a colonial role play where I would be tied up and where I would call him ‘master’.”
The concept of “yellow fever” is—depending on who hears it—controversial, offensive or a point of fascination. Perhaps the earliest known usage of the phrase comes from the afterword of the 1988 work M. Butterfly, a play from US playwright David Henry Hwang. He wrote that “Heterosexual Asians have long been aware of ‘Yellow Fever’—CaucAsian men with a fetish for exotic Oriental women. I have often heard it said that ‘Oriental women make the best wives.’”
Image source: Documentary "Seeking Asian Female"
Some would argue that it commodifies Asian people, especially women, turning them into a group of identical, interchangeable objects. This draws attention away from their humanity and places it on their bodies and sexuality.
Others argue that neither the phrase nor the phenomenon are worth worrying about. One might be inclined to ask, what’s wrong with preferences? For example, some women prefer tall partners, while others may have a penchant for men with “dad bods”. It’s quite probable that for every trait that exists there is a segment of the population that finds that trait attractive and are drawn to it consciously or subconsciously.
“Something About Facial Geometry”
I spoke with Tom Harlow*, a 39-year-old, white US national who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, regarding his stated preference for Asian women. “I think everyone I've dated for the past 20 years has either been Asian or half Asian. I think it's mostly an aesthetic thing. Something about facial geometry”, he said.
“For me to be attracted to an Asian, they only need to be objectively a six out of 10 [a “10” being assigned to a perfect mate], whereas if they were African or European they'd need to be an eight out of 10.” Harlow added, “I'm from Columbus, Ohio. There are Asians but not too many, maybe 10 percent of the population at best, probably three percent. So maybe there's an element of exoticism at play.”
But preferences are not wholly innocent and are often developed subconsciously, argues Dr David Frederick, assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University, who is studying the effects of social and biological factors on attraction. In an interview with Vice Magazine, he agreed that to white men who have mostly grown up around white women, "Asian and other ethnic minority women [may] appear novel and exciting." He adds that previous good relationships also factor into attraction. "If a man has a particularly positive relationship with an Asian woman, this may increase his preference for Asian women. The physical features typical of Asian women can become paired with feelings of reward and pleasure, leading men to preferentially seek out relationships with Asian women in the future." Also, often these expectations are not even derived from previous experiences but are deeply informed by stereotypes, which are steeped in power and race.
Image source: globalseducer.com
Speaking to Mimi Nguyen about the first time she felt the shadow that “yellow fever” cast on her dating life, she said, “I knew that Asian women were fetishized”, or desired solely for physical characteristics particular to their race, “but [the above sexual experience] was the very first instance of overt fetishization.”
She continued, “I don't think I ever liked receiving attention because I was Asian. It made me feel worse actually. When men would look at me and they would express in one way or another that they were attracted to me because I was Asian, it felt very dehumanizing. It felt like it could be literally anybody sitting here right now.”
Image source: facebook.com
Women As Art, Pleasure Products
Stereotypes about Asian people, and especially women, are founded in the colonial relationships between the West and the East. In the 1840’s, at the end of the first Opium War, the ports of China, Japan, and Korea were flooded with new traders from the United States and other Western powers from Europe. Western men came into contact with Eastern women, like the Japanese geishas, “the name coming from gei (art) and sha (person)”, Patricia Park writes in her thinkpiece “The Madame Butterfly Effect”.
Image source: c1.staticflickr.com
“She was a separate entity entirely from the paid-for-hire prostitute (though she did engage in sexual favors if she so chose). Still, the geisha became a highly sexualized image for the Western male,” Park writes.
At the end of World War II, United States soldiers infiltrated the ports of Japan to indulge in the network of brothels that employed tens of thousands of women, until General Douglas MacArthur declared them off-limits the following year. Similarly, Vietnam’s sex trade flourished during the American War. In her New York Times editorial “The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish”, Audrea Lim describes the way that soldiers from these wars often married women that they met in these places and brought them, along with the sexually-charged perceptions of Asian women being docile and servile, back to the West. Today US tourists flock to places like Thailand, where the booming sex trade industry brings in USD$6.4 billion dollars annually.
These histories and the images that they’ve created have palpable effects on the lives of Asian women worldwide. Nguyen describes a realization she had when delving into her interest in photography. “I've noticed that there's a very specific way that Asian women are shot in general, but also a specific way that white photographers shoot Asian girls. It's very sexualized and ... the models are [put into] very submissive positions. A lot of lower angle up-your-panties kinds of shots.”
The Case for an Asian Husband
Additionally, although they are not as common as their male counterparts, there are white women who date Asian men exclusively. Jen Lee* is a white American woman married to an Asian man living in California with their three children. When asked about how she developed her preference for Asian men she replied, “I moved to San Francisco after college. While there I met a lot more Asian men than I ever had before and naturally I found some of them attractive. I started dating an Asian guy and all of a sudden it became like a thing.” She continues, “I think my preference started from looks but then transitioned to cultural norms. American Asian men are generally highly-educated, driven to be successful, hold traditional family values and are good with money. They stand up for their families in the face of any adversity. These are things I wanted. I wanted a man that would defend his family and provide for them.”
“I didn’t continue dating him necessarily to make a statement”, Lee said. “I continued because I truly loved him.”
Image source: d2v9y0dukr6mq2.cloudfront.net
Love & Power Live in Disharmony
In the end, the reasons for attraction are as amorphous and difficult to pin down as they are subconscious. Often, it is difficult to explain why someone falls in love with a certain person or not. Attraction is not the problem, but attraction that is built on stereotypes can build up walls between people that shouldn’t exist where there is supposed to be intimacy. In a video from the series about fetishization “They’re All So Beautiful”, Dr Benjamin Tong, professor and psychotherapist at the California Institute of Integral Studies said, “Interracial relationships are not bad per se, but they can be problematic with the presence of fetish. Those relationships can become affected by the hegemony and the power of these stereotypes, thus putting pressure on the people in them to play these roles, or to push back against them. To truly discover who another person is right from the start is virtually impossible. We bring baggage; we bring projections. The difficulty in relationships is working through that so that the relating is authentic and real.”
Video source: AllSoBeautiful
Mimi Nguyen has a photo series on women called “Asian girl sees,” which you can see on her Instagram. Her handle is @1.48cm
Image source: Mimi Nguyen
*a false name was used
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