All posts by Stephanie Bai

Peace through ashes

When I was seven or eight, my grandfather passed away. I remember my father going back to China to visit him, flying across the world from our little town of Normal, Illinois to catch a glimpse of my grandfather’s dying breath, to feel the heat of his smile once more.

I remember seeing my father cry for the first time in my life when he came back. I remember my family, disjointed and punctured by sharp breaths that stood in for a question that nobody dared to ask. Death is such a greedy thing — it takes and it takes from the living, leaving us to clean up its mess.

When my grandfather died, I was playing the piano. My mother walked into the room and took my hands off the keys.

“Grandpa’s gone,” she said.

She wrapped her arms around me, and after my initial shock, tidal waves of mourning crashed through me, beat against my body, until I began to cry — to cry long, shaking gasps.

When I cried, my tears were not weighed down by the same gravity as my father’s tears that fell half a world away; for him, my grandfather’s death was like a universe being swallowed up by the sun. For me, my grandfather was but a couple of distinct memories saved in my mind, pressed between pages. He was the man with creased, milky skin and kind eyes, who gave me a little green purse with sequin flowers when I was six, the very purse that I toted around and stuffed Barbies in.

When I think of him, his face swims in my vision, blurry and snipped from photos I have seen.

When my father thinks of him, he remembers China and the village he grew up in. I imagine that what swims before his eyes is not just his father’s face, but also the sharp clarity of love.

When I cried, I loved. But it was not the same love as my father’s. My father’s love is bumpy, with tired grooves in its surface. Run your hand across it too fast, and you’ll get splinters in your palm. For he loves my grandfather wholly, without filter or remorse. I love him smooth. Well-rounded, light, and small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.

When we picked up my father at the airport, I had to be reminded to be respectful of his privacy. I think back to that day, how he walked to the car, with a brown book grasped firmly to his chest, his back hunched. “Hi,” I said weakly, when he opened the car door. He nodded, and then closed the door behind him. There was a certain quality about him that was worn, filed down to very last grain. I had no other words to say to him.

The rest of the car ride was silent. By the time we had pulled into the driveway of our little townhouse, gravel crunching under the wheels, my father said nothing still. When we unlocked the front door and entered our home, my father moved immediately to prepare and mourn in the only way he knew how: through a ceremony.

His choice in mourning was odd. Funny, even, in a bitter sort of irony. My father is a man reshaped by assimilation and learning to exchange his immigrant past for American horizons. He came here, his fingers entangled with my mother’s, both children of China stepping foot into the Western world. When I envision this, I like to picture them with wild, untamed hair and a gleam of irrefutable spirit in their eyes. It is a beautiful way to think of them.

Yet my father was always the one rooted more firmly in American ways. My mother still retained some of her homeland, wrapping it around herself in a protective shawl. She never gave up her mother tongue. Not my father. When I was a child, I remember hearing him mumbling English words under his breath when he read books. He would repeat words over and over until he could pronounce them right.

And yet, when he returned home from the airport that day, he decided to mourn for his father in the same way that our ancestors would have: through the weekly burning of gifts.

My mother explained this to me in the kitchen, hovering over a counter and peeling an orange. “Bao bei, in Chinese culture, when somebody dies, we honour our dead. We help them transition to the afterlife through gifts, gifts like red paper money,” she said, brushing the soft rind aside and pulling the orange in half.

“By burning the gifts, they can reach your grandpa in the afterlife,” she explained.

“Okay,” I said, nodding. “How long are we doing it for?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“What your father needs.”

When night fell, we took a metal bowl, gifts, and a lighter to the backyard. To begin our first ceremony, my father took the first sheet of paper money from the bag and flicked on the lighter. The flames licked hungrily at the fibres, beginning at a corner and curling its blackened edges in. He threw the paper into the bowl, and as the flickers of orange and yellow engulfed the sheet, we continued to feed the crackling fire. Soon, floating embers filled the air around us.

I held my breath. I was terrified by the thought that I might accidentally swallow scraps of a world I did not belong to, as if the blackened paper of the afterlife could forever settle like ash in the bottom of my lungs. The stars seemed brighter than they’d ever seemed that night, sprawled across the Illinois sky like pinpricks of heaven shining through black felt. Of course, the stars are bright there every night, but I wanted to believe that there was something special about that night, something given to the memory of my grandfather.

SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

 

Under the cover of darkness, the glow of the fire illuminated my father’s face. I remember looking at him and seeing silent tears streaming down his cheeks. I wondered who the man before me was. I remember wishing that I could understand his emotions, hold them as if they were my own, if only for just a moment.

I wanted to run my hand over the splinters, feel his raw love for myself. But grief is a quiet activity. It is a singular one. We may all partake in it, but during the ceremony, my experience took a different shape to my father’s, and my mother’s another shape from ours. In the backyard, the single thread holding my family together was our physical existence in that moment. On that night, we were both strangers and family in a single shard of time.

That time came to a close when the last dying flickers of fire extinguished into embers. We were still for a moment, breathing in the grassy Illinois air mixed with grey smoke. My mother broke the quiet, shuffling around and stooping down to pick up the ashes that blew out of the metal bowl. I helped her, touching the crumbling sheets that didn’t survive the trek to the afterlife. And I thought to myself that, down here, it’s just paper. Just burnt ashes. Not a man’s heavenly ticket.

My father just stood there, motionless. When he finally looked at us, his red-rimmed eyes brimmed with an uncaged intensity. He pulled me to him suddenly and hugged me tightly, crushing me against his chest. I could hear his heart thumping. And after he pulled away and walked back inside, I could still feel his tears pooling on the top of my head.

We performed this ceremony for months, following the same patterns from that first night. Slowly, my father began to cry less, sometimes just staring into the fire, the orange and red dancing in his black eyes.

Though I am not a spiritual person, after those nights, I’d like to believe that when the day comes, I will be. That I, too, will be able to find peace in the ashes. Because what I discovered those nights was that our ceremony was an expression of grief and of love, that burning red paper was a cathartic release. It is the symbolism behind the paper and fire, black skies and tradition that brought my father peace and drew my family together.

The ceremonies tapered off slowly. I can’t pinpoint an exact cause for this — appointments cropped up, groceries were needed, rescheduling became postponing. Life got in the way, I suppose, the way it always does.

But no matter what those nights in the backyard meant for us as a family, they were also meant for us alone. For my father’s sake. For remembrance, and celebration, and reconciliation. I believe this to be true. Because, mourning the dead — that is never for the dead’s sake. It is for ours.

My father’s silence finally eased too. Years later, after we made the trek from Illinois to New Jersey, the first conversation we openly had about my grandfather was in the parking lot of the Millburn Deli. It was a particularly stuffy summer day, and my father looked out of the windshield as he spoke, his gaze trailing off to a point beyond my sight.

SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

 

“He was different from other men,” my father said. “He was kind to my mom. He was good to us.” His voice trembled and he paused, his grip tightening on the paper bag full of sandwiches. “He loved you, you know? You meant everything to him. I just wish he got to see you more. It would’ve made him happy.” He wiped his eyes, clearing his throat as his voice softened.

“He was the kind of man who was the last person off the bus,” he continued. “Do you understand what I’m trying to say? He was always the last person off because he’d wait for everybody first. He was that kind of man. He helped people, he saw the world as a place to be helped. That was your ye ye.” He turned to face me, his clear-eyed vulnerability smoothing the wrinkles on his forehead, reducing the bags underneath his eyes. “That was your grandpa. That was your blood.”

I still grapple with that idea, to this day. Because I’m trying to understand what that means — family, blood, belonging. I’m trying to understand what it means to hurt together, to be a unit that moves together, knows each other, and loves one another. I’m trying to reconcile that with a past that has isolated us, through a pain that is singular, a mourning that is lonely. And I’m still trying to understand why that is and how exactly we can learn to truly know each other and recover. How we can wring the hurt out of our souls.

I do not have these answers, but for now, I can be patient. I will wait until I do. 

And I will grasp what I do have tightly.

I think back to the black night skies and sprawling stars. I can see the thin ribbon of smoke curling toward my grandfather’s ghostly cheek, tempting the moon to try to swallow it whole. But it is the silence that marks it. It is the vacuum of sound that I remember these nights by. It is the profundity of entire fistfuls of grief and love and melancholy that change a person’s character.

It is a portrait of my family that is permanently etched in my mind, of us standing under the heavens and waiting to heal.

A check-up on yellow fever

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?

Popular opinion

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.

KATE REEVE/THE VARSITY

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.

“Exactly.”

“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