Cheryl Quan’s eyebrows furrow as she pauses, searching for the right words.
“It’s a lot,” she finally says. “And I hope I got it across. I want to be mindful of the language I use, and sometimes it’s hard for me to think of the right words to say.”
It is a lot, I want to tell her.
I had just spent 40 minutes asking the fourth-year U of T student, vocal activist, and Administrative Director of LGBTOUT about her experience as an Asian woman in the dating scene, covering topics from colonialism and white privilege to Tinder. This interview was about the intersections of love and race, of dating and division, and these are matters that have given everybody who I talked to pause.
I had to pause myself, writing this. I didn’t realized the sheer enormity of this topic until I began researching the social history, the generalizations, the stereotypes, the conflicting opinions.
To begin unravelling the complexity, I spoke extensively with three people about their perspectives and histories with interracial relationships. Qualifying experiences that deal with race meant examining implicit views of each race’s treatment, views, and experiences — things that need to be felt to be truly understood.
As an Asian woman myself, this topic is uniquely important to me. My identity also inspired different questions to pursue, including: how do individual experiences differ in relationships between Asian women and white men, how do these experiences change over time, and how do you reconcile racialized experiences with love and dating?
And, most importantly, at the end of the day, how much does this truly matter?
Relationships between Asian women and white men are often looked at through the lens of ‘yellow fever,’ a label attributed to men who prefer Asian women. But this preference comes with a whole host of issues, including stereotypes, typically about Asian women.
“It’s the weird paradox of being hyper-sexual or not sexual at all,” says Rebecca Gao, a third-year student at U of T who has been in a relationship with her white boyfriend for a year and a half. Either Asian women are like the kinky, openly sexual caricatures often portrayed in pornography, or they’re docile and adoring girlfriends. Think Knives Chau from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, before the blue hair dye and eponymous knife skills kicked in.
Quan notes that the stereotypes around and about her are that “I’m quiet, probably; good at math; or delicate and kind of submissive. And I’ve seen that reflected in the way people treat me.” There is a subtle power dynamic at play here. The combination of white male privilege with stereotypes about Asian women’s docility indicates that white men would likely exert more power in the relationship, which could be considered a conception of imperialism.
According to one academic paper, sexual relations between white men and Asian women are extensions of a primal, war-driven desire to imperialize the Asian woman’s body and conquer her submissive nature. The study points to the history of white male dominance in Asia, of colonization and conquests, and of blatant racism. These desires and power dynamics are maintained in the racial stereotypes of today, which eventually translate into relationships between white men and Asian women.
Reading this paper was chilling. It is disturbing to think that we can strip relationships down to such stark and violating generalizations. It seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? That some of our most intimate experiences — from that casual date to the depths of our love lives — should collide so violently with the cold realities of racial power plays.
A white guy’s dating experience
Mitchell Newman* is from Richmond, British Columbia. He has a history of dating mostly Asian girls, but he doesn’t consider it a fetish. He’s open about his dating history and he understands that people look at him funny sometimes when they hear about it.
When I ask him about the ethnicities of his past girlfriends, he says, “I’d say it was half Asian, half other races.” While he attended a well-ranked, diverse high school, being in the International Baccalaureate program put him in a small pool of students that was very much separated from the rest of the school. And the majority of students in this program were East Asian.
“In my program, I was one of the three white people,” he says. Proximity and exposure were two of the biggest factors at play in the genesis of his dating life. “It was more like you were friends with people who were in the same program as you, so I was in an environment with a lot of Asian people, and I learned a lot about their culture,” he says.
“I think people have a misconception that there’s a certain characteristic that makes me into Asians, but I think it was the environment mostly.”
David Frederick, Chapman University assistant professor of psychology, told Vice that “if a man has a particularly positive relationship with an Asian woman, this may increase his preference for Asian women.” He explained that “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.” This may be another explanation for white men’s preferences.
This might apply to Newman too. “I guess my most long-term relationship was with someone who was Asian, so I guess maybe subconsciously, I associate that with stability,” he concedes.
Behind the attraction
Newman’s attraction to Asian women isn’t easily defined, though. He explains that he likes less aggressive women, a characteristic that apparently overlaps with Asian values. “I kind of like people who talk about issues that are important but [don’t] just try to shove their opinions down people’s throats,” he says. “I wouldn’t even say that I associate that with Asian people, but that’s just a quality I like and I’ve noticed that quality more in Asian girls I’ve dated, but that’s only because I’ve dated more of them… I can’t say for certain.”
Part of his attraction also comes from his expectations of beauty, which are notably outside of the white mainstream perception and likely due to his high school experience. “I grew up in that environment, and [Asian girls] are the girls I find pretty,” he says. “Like, one of my friends, he’s of Indian descent. He grew up in Europe, and he grew up around lots of white people… now he only finds white girls attractive because [of] the environment he grew up in.”
Newman’s first experience with the idea of ‘yellow fever’ actually came from a difference in opinion about attractiveness. He was 16 and staying with a host family during his Québec exchange trip. While he and the host family’s son were scrolling through girls’ profiles on Instagram one day, “I was like, ‘That girl’s cute,’” Mitchell says. “He’s like, ‘No she’s not, she’s not cute at all.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, look, she has a nice smile, and she looks nice and stuff.’ And he’s like, ‘She’s not hot though.’ And I guess it was that moment I realized, ‘Am I — is there something wrong with me?’ And he’s like, ‘Do you only like Asian girls or something?’”
It was the first time that he had been told that the way he thought of or saw people was wrong or different. It was an uncomfortable, revelatory moment that stuck with him, like gum on the bottom of his shoe. “I guess I was just questioning myself. I was questioning what I think is attractive,” he says. “And then I think that may have spurred the fact that, in that time — then and [shortly] after — I dated two white girls. So I think that might have had something to do with it. I don’t think it was direct, maybe subconsciously or indirectly.”
Above all though, Newman believes that the term ‘yellow fever’ impacts Asian women the most. “If you’re dating a white guy and your friends are like, ‘Oh, he’s only dating Asians because he has yellow fever’… I bet it makes the girl feel objectified,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, he’s only dating me because I’m Asian, because he has some sort of weird Asian fetish.’”
Indeed, for Asian women especially, there is an underlying reductive quality to the term. Yellow fever traditionally refers to a viral, infectious disease, which implies that a white man must be experiencing a feverish delirium, or that Asian women are only desirable because they are like germs infecting men, like viruses that replicate and latch on to more and more hosts.
In either case, the language is degrading and may invoke a level of unease for Asian women in these relationships — that they may feel more wary, be more aware of the way they’re being perceived.
An East Asian woman’s dating experience
Viewed in terms of stereotypes and yellow fever, Asian women are forced to be more conscious of how their relationship’s racial dynamics are portrayed. “A lot of it’s just my own internal anxieties,” Gao says. “I don’t think my boyfriend has ever been like, ‘Huh, weird that I’m not dating someone who’s white.’ I don’t think he’s ever thought that, but I feel as if I think about it a lot and I feel as if other people think about it a lot.”
Even though Rebecca’s in a loving, committed, and equal relationship, these thoughts still infect her mind some days. This anxiety is compounded by the fact that racialized experiences are difficult to qualify, and words like ‘microaggressions’ have been offered to try and give people the language to express their inner feelings. Ultimately, though, it’s a matter of perception that is rooted in deeper systemic issues.
Just the idea of a submissive stereotype can come with the idea that Asian women somehow loathe themselves or each other for dating outside of their race. “I think that’s where a lot of my issues stem [from] whenever people are like, ‘You’re not a ‘woke,’ progressive, strong, independent Asian woman because you’re dating a white person,’” Gao says. “I feel as if it’s a thing of people thinking in that framework of ‘once you’re indoctrinated in this white society, especially if you’re an Asian woman dating someone who’s white, then you’ve become colonized, or absorbed.’”
Therein lies my issue with the theory of imperialization in relationships between Asian women and white men. That choosing to date a white guy is somehow forfeiture of agency and power for Asian women. After all, if white men are so obviously going to colonize Asian women, then clearly they must be weaker and more submissive, right?
“I don’t know even know if I can put words to it, but it makes me really, deeply uncomfortable when people are like, ‘You’ve been colonized because you’re dating a white person,’” Gao admits.
“But it’s this thing I’ve read where it’s like, ‘Why are women — specifically women of colour — why’s the onus on them?’”
Disconcertingly, the burden is on Asian women to explain themselves, to validate their so-called ‘Asianness.’ Sometimes, people from their own community see their relationship as a betrayal to their race.
It’s a frank conversation I’ve had with my Asian friends throughout high school, something that we still return to every now and then. If we dated an Asian, there’s this odd pull of the gut, a question instantly sparked about homogeneity or conformity to our parents’ limited permissions for our love lives. So, if we were to date a white person, we sometimes wonder if it’s just an act of rebellion. Would we just be trying to prove that we’re different from the rest, that we’re ‘not that kind of Asian?’
It’s an uncomfortable subject to dwell on and an uncomfortable topic to discuss. Both questions make me step back and want to say that no, it’s not all about race. It can’t be. There are so many more mitigating factors to a relationship. But that can only change so much. At the end of the day, the questions and tension still linger.
How important is race?
There are mountains of generalizations that I can sift through when it comes to race — stereotypes, history, oppression, power dynamics. Deconstructing the idea of race and racial interactions, unpacking it until it’s completely accessible and understandable, is a layered, layered process far beyond the scope of this article.
According to Quan, these are issues that she’s discussed within her queer community. They often talk about intersectionality and examine relationships with different lenses, whether that be through gender or race. She believes that race influences our daily interactions and overall lives. She found that Tinder and its use in the LGBTQ+ dating community revealed some of the internalized racism.
“It’s not uncommon for people literally on dating profiles to be like, ‘No Asians, no Black people,’” she says. “I have these biases too that I’m working on. But a lot of us, when we look at someone with apps like Tinder, we decide whether we want to talk to them or not, and we would all be lying if we said it wasn’t racially motivated.”
To her, the discussion of race is necessary for open communication in relationships. “I think things like race and sexuality — I can’t not talk about them because they’re my life, right? And so, I don’t see it as a difficult conversation. It’s like any other, like, ‘What’s your favourite food?’”
“Because as much as you might love your partner in a completely healthy, valid way, there are still structures in society, in things like systemic oppression, that treat both of you differently [and] influences how you interact with each other. For example, a man acknowledging that he has male privilege is an act of standing in solidarity with his wife, who is a woman. He acknowledges her experience by acknowledging his privilege and how his experience has differed from hers.”
According to a study that interviewed nine couples of Asian women and white men separately, each set of partners found that being in an interracial relationship and communicating their differences in perspectives actually strengthened their sense of cultural heritage. For the white men, they noticed the differences in the treatment of their partners and the unique characteristics of their own European heritage. For the Asian women, they addressed their family’s culture more, and some even developed a newfound appreciation for it.
Paradoxically, the distance created by racial divisions may build a bridge in and of itself. For if Asian women reckon with the burden of validating their Asianness, then that also allows a reclamation of the self and of their heritage.
That being said, there are always different power dynamics in different relationships. Some may find that race factors more into unequal power dynamics and unhealthy stereotypes than others.
When it comes down to it, the topic of race and relationships is multifaceted. It can be seen from within and without, and it can also be contextualized within discussions of colonial and racist oppression that still hangs low around our society.
This is a valid interpretation, and to ignore the history of race would be to erase the power of it. And yet how do you qualify the dynamics of every relationship between Asian women and white men?
Love, attraction. Though these may be nuanced by and bound up in race, they can also be so simple.
As I wrap up my interview with Rebecca, I say, “I find that the bottom line is that every relationship is so unique and so—”
“And so personal,” she says.
“You never know what’s going [on] inside a relationship.”
“Exactly, which is why I feel like I can explore the history, I can explore the power dynamics. But there’s always something more to be said about two people that are in love, and that’s just what it is,” I say.
“Yes,” she says, “and that’s what it should be.”
*Name has been changed for confidentiality