Yellow Fever


Born and raised in La Habra, California, Dan* didn’t see many Asian Americans before college. Now 22, he attributes his Asiaphilia to UC Irvine, where he’s a studio art major and an astounding 58 percent of students claim Asian descent.

But his Asian fetish actually originated in high school, in trig class, where he met a Vietnamese American girl named Ann. Although born in the United States, Ann was raised in Indonesia until about a year before Dan met her. She spoke English well, but not perfectly. They shared the standard high school dating experience: dinner-and-movie dates, study dates, boba dates, kung fu lessons, meditation with the girlfriend’s Buddhist monk uncle. The relationship ended in a pretty standard way, too: Dan suggested sex, Ann resisted, things spiraled. There was an ultimatum and then a breakup, and then—classic—threats of suicide.

Later, Dan sought answers on Ann’s blog, where she labeled him a “standard American boy” and called him out for pressuring her into sex. She ended the entry with a note of disgust: “Get over yourself.”

Perhaps it was the pain of that rejection and the desire to overcome it, but Dan says Ann’s rejection changed him. When he began dating again, he found himself looking for Asian girls. He went through a string of them—one-night stands, flings and friends-with-benefits. He frequented places like Club Bang in Hollywood, which attracts a number of Asian patrons—and Asiaphiles like Dan.

Although there was one detour on the road to full-blown Asiaphilia—Desiree, whom he describes as a “white feminist with armpit hair”—Dan openly professed his preference for Asian women by his third year at UCI.

His friends back in La Habra eventually got the idea he had a fetish.

“Date a nice white girl,” they urged him.

“White girls,” he’d reply, “are sluts.”

My friend Christina has been fending off Asiaphiles since her teens, when she was a waitress at her aunt’s Thai restaurant. Much older men would often leave her a tip and their business cards scrawled with numbers and notes that were always a variation on the same theme: “You’re such a cute little Asian girl.”

It’s the same today wherever she goes, including one recent weeknight at Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa. A group of us went to catch somebody’s boyfriend’s band. A hip bar with an interior ripped out of an IKEA catalogue, Detroit would seem safe from Asiaphiles. But as Christina, who’s Filipino American, stood listening to the music, a full Amstel Light in one hand, she was approached by a thirtysomething white man in a collared shirt, the top tactically unbuttoned to show off a gold chain that made him look like something out of South Beach. He put another full Amstel in Tina’s other hand. She smiled and thanked him.

Then he looked at the rest of us, all Asian.

“You’re by far the most attractive women in here,” he said. He pulled out his wallet and asked if we’d like drinks. “I really shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “I just bought a house on the golf course.”

We declined.

“You know, I just got back from Bangkok,” he went on. “The women in Thailand are all gorgeous. You’re all gorgeous! It’s just that whole area.”

That whole area? Bangkok? Thailand in general? Southeast Asia? The greater Asian continent?

It’s funny: Asia is about 17,212,000 square miles—nearly five times the size of the U.S. About 60 percent of the world’s population lives there. Yet these guys seem to lump all Asians together, not to mention the teeny tiny fact that people such as Christina are Americans.

But he wasn’t finished. He inquired about Christina’s nationality and complimented her on her good breeding, background and “blood,” the last of which left her thoroughly creeped out. By the end of the night, the guy had even doted on her “delicate” fingers, and grabbed her arm when she tried to escape to the smoking patio.

Less than a month later, again at Detroit, another forgettable guy with crusty hands sauntered over to our table and said breathily, “I love this table! I just love it!” He stared at Christina, gesturing toward her with one of those crusty hands. “Especially you!”

By the time we’ve reached adulthood, most Asian American women have experienced so many episodes of Asiaphilia that it becomes something we laugh about over dinner. There was the time that one smooth-talking (and way too short—I hope you’re reading this) guy from LA Weekly‘s marketing department asked me where I was from.

“Los Angeles,” I said.

“No, really, where are you really from?”

There was the 20-year-old UCI economics major who swears that Asian women’s vaginas “feel different somehow—very smooth and naturally lubricated.” Or the guy who sauntered up to me and asked, “You must be great with a chopstick, huh?”

Wink, wink.

It pisses us off—no, I don’t want to see your killer Chinese-character tat; it probably doesn’t mean what you think it means—but we’re not sure what we can do but laugh.

“It’s been happening so long I just let it roll off my back,” Christina says. “I used to have a mouthful for every guy, but they’d just laugh at me and say, ‘Oh, she’s a feisty one!'”

I was the 10-year-old girl swooning and singing along with Rivers Cuomo over the three-chord riffs of Weezer’s “El Scorcho,” that song about half-Japanese girls that do it to him every time. Oblivious to its implications, I was pleased that the man in the Buddy Holly glasses had a penchant for Asian girls because, you know, that way I actually had a chance. It was better than being invisible. After all, how many times did I come across references to Asians on television or radio? Let’s see, there was professional tennis player Michael Chang, who provoked squeals of delighted pride from my parents, the unsportiest people you’ll ever meet, whenever his matches were on television. And there was Margaret Cho and her hopelessly unfunny, short-lived ABC comedy series, American Girl. And that just about wraps it up.

I was a year into college, still listening to Cuomo as he referenced Madama Butterfly, when a friend pointed out that Cuomo was merely exoticizing and objectifying Asian women, the social phenomenon that is Asiaphilia.

And just like that, my favorite Weezer album, Pinkerton, suggested a disturbing question: Was Cuomo, the god of cutesy, simple-but-not rock—the guy I’d been so thrilled at merely standing near at the Roxy a few years before—was he actually a quasi-racist, ignorant Asiaphile?

And even if he was, would he ever call?

Asian fetishism has a long history of being brushed off as a compliment, rather than offensive or bigoted. I’ve been told I ought to be flattered that so many non-Asian men “prefer” Asians and Asian American women. But the coalescing of an ethnicity into a whole, whether exotic, erotic, oversexed or virginal, is a real issue, collectively and individually. (I guess when it comes to stereotypes, Asian women have it better than Asian men do. There are two main themes when it comes to Asian male stereotypes: virginal and emasculated. Not to mention that super-fun myth that goes something like this: small stature equals small penis equals small chance of pleasure.)

Asiaphilia brings with it a set of more intimate considerations. I get to wonder if the man chatting me up is genuinely interested in me or interested in the idea of what he supposes me to be: demure and submissive, the forever-faithful geisha girl/bedroom toy.

The overwhelming ratio of males with Asiaphilic attraction to females suggests that this fetishization isn’t based on looks alone. Asiaphiles are looking for authority in their romantic relationships, premeditated or not.

This issue moved out of the theoretical and into the personal when I dated a white boy I met in college.

“Do you like boba,” he asked me.

“I don’t.”

“Ever visited the Japanese Garden at Huntington Library?”

“I have, but I prefer the Shakespeare Garden.”

“Ever read The Art of War?”

I was devastated. Couldn’t he see I was into the same things he was—Dostoevsky, early ’90s shoegazer music and Indian food?

It hurt. When someone homogenizes an entire race of people—even if that homogenization tends toward desirable—that someone is creating a wall between himself and the person in question. No one likes to be treated as an outsider, especially in the only country she’s ever known as home.

Things got worse when I heard the story of my friend Lydia, whose boyfriend’s Asiaphilic tendencies didn’t reveal themselves for months. By the end of the relationship, the guy had become an East Asian Studies/Chinese language double major, and never missed a chance to converse with her family in their native Mandarin. When she wasn’t around, he’d call her father to go out for Chinese food.

He’s gone, but his impact on Lydia remains.

“It always crosses my mind,” she says, “that I’m replaceable.”

As all good Asian-American Studies minors know, the roots of Asiaphilia are planted in the soil of colonialism. Our European forefathers, viewing any foreign culture as backward, erased what they could of indigenous custom and inscribed upon the people their own authority. Thus did bloom the stereotype of Asian docility, submissiveness and lotus blossom beauty.

It’s arguable that Asiaphilia, ironically, stems from legal attempts to exclude Asian Americans from the United States. The criteria by which many Asian women were permitted to enter the U.S. were not exactly morally sound: prostitutes, picture brides, war brides, mail-order brides. Sexuality was a prerequisite for refuge in the United States.

On the other hand, Asiaphilia flourishes in California, where Asians make up 12 percent of the population. If you doubt me, go to the clubs to see it—whether an average dance club or the booking clubs traditionally haunted by Asian men and women looking for significant others.

At booking clubs, women—normal, everyday girls, not paid professionals—gather in the center of the room while men in surrounding booths literally take their pick. Waiters drag girls from the dance floor to their tables. They even drag them from the restroom. But the women are there of their own accord, just as desperate as the guys “booking” them. The thinking goes that if the men can afford the tables they’ve purchased for the night—from $200 to $500—they’re likely a prosperous match.

With that kind of calculation, it’s little wonder that booking clubs welcome an increasing number of Anglo male patrons. Nicolas Cage once frequented Los Angeles’ largest such club, Le Prive; it was widely reported in Korean American newspapers—and with absolutely no disdain—that Nicolas met his Korean American wife at a booking club.

We’ve become the latest accessories; Asians are the new pink.

Gwen Stefani used Asians to underscore and dress up her solo career. While promoting her Love, Angel, Music, Baby album, she was attended constantly by four mute Japanese schoolgirls she re-named “Love,” “Angel,” “Music” and “Baby.” Stefani called them her Harajuku girls, taking that name from a particularly hip and fashionable Tokyo district.

Think if she had done the same with other ethnic groups—four African American girls barefoot and dressed in dashikis. Or four Latinas in sombreros and mariachi outfits. Jesse Jackson, the NAACP and the world in general, I’d like to think, would have gone out of their heads. Any other ethnicity and a hit would have been taken out on Stefani, or at least her recording career. But for some reason, if it’s Asians—cute, little Asians—we let it slide. Which explains why Stefani’s use of human accessories has been barely criticized, objections limited to the occasional irate blogger.

The Harajuku girls were a component of nearly all of Stefani’s publicity stops and showed up in her videos, too, portraying swashbuckling pirates in “Rich Girl” and ghetto cheerleaders in “Hollaback Girl.” While Stefani clunked around in high heels, the Harajuku girls padded around diminutively barefoot behind her. To top it off, it’s heavily rumored that the four were prohibited from speaking English in public.

Asiaphilia is not limited to women, but it takes on a different form when it’s applied to men. Gay Asian men have their own genre of racial obsessives known as rice queens.

Jayson has resisted revealing his homosexuality to friends and family, not because he is Japanese American, but because he is the son of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister and fears the scorn of eternal-damnation-and-hellfire-preaching peers. Only Jayson’s closest friends know the truth.

So it was that he met Julian, a Chinese American, in April of last year while cruising, a website patronized by bisexuals, the bi-curious, trannies, lesbians, gays and their hags. They chatted for a month before Jayson decided to visit Julian in New York. He scored a standby ticket for a redeye to JFK and arrived in Manhattan on a Thursday night. Both men nervously anticipated their face-to-face meeting, but Jayson completed the 2,700-mile trip to Julian’s apartment in Queens so late that they barely exchanged words. He crashed on the downstairs couch.

They got acquainted late the next day, going to Koreatown for barbecued spare ribs and awkward conversation, then took a train to a karaoke place in Flushing, where they got completely trashed on imported beer and sake. They headed back to Manhattan and a bar called The Web, so well-known as the destination for gay Asians that recommends the place if “you have a fetish for the Far East.”

Jayson and Julian paid the remarkably affordable $10 cover, ambled down a stairwell and headed for the bar. Two Irish Car Bombs and a shot of tequila later, they hit the dance floor. Things heated up fast, and as a Basement Jaxx remix thumped, Jayson soon found himself against the sticky club wall with Julian rhythmically thrusting, humping and grinding against him. It was Jayson’s first same-sex public display of affection, but even drunk, he was worried that someone was watching and would tell his conservative Christian parents.

Someone was watching: a white guy in his 50s stood no more than five feet away in one of those designer vintage tees you buy at Barney’s. He was staring at them, mouth slightly agape. He ran his hands through his thinning hair and smoothed out his shirt before jamming his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

“Wow. That was really hot,” he shouted over the music, edging closer. And then, putting one arm against the wall and leaning in, he confidently asked, “Can I join in?”

Jayson blinked at the intruder, assessing his age, his beer belly and his disturbing resemblance to Steve Buscemi. After an uncomfortable moment, Julian finally replied, “Uh, no, we’re good.”

The rice queen shrugged.

“He was strangely chill about it,” says Jayson now, still unnerved. “Like he’d done it before.”

Their mood broken, Jayson and Julian moved to a nearby worn, crushed-velvet couch and looked around the now-packed club. While The Web was mostly filled with young Asians and Asian Americans, there was also the noticeable presence of a handful of balding, mostly overweight white men. They stood along the outskirts of the dance floor, drinks in hand, trying to look nonchalant.

Rice queens are apt to approach any Asian man, but Jayson and Julian noticed that some tended to target the younger-looking males in the crowd, and usually those who were Southeast Asian.

“I think it’s because the Southeast is even more exotic to them,” Jayson says. “They figure, ‘Those countries is pooooooooo, so the boys must be enamored by this glorious western lifestyle.'”

But to be honest, that’s not always a stereotype. Cameron, a gay Vietnamese American in his mid-20s who used to work for USC’s influential Asian Pacific American Student Assembly, acknowledges that the goal of upward mobility can make white rice queens seem attractive to Asians.

“It’s the history of colonialism. The colonizers are attractive because they’re the ones with power,” he says. “If you want to move up in the world, you want to date white.”

Dan says his last girlfriend before undergoing what he calls “The Change” was another Ann. Annie, actually. She was Chinese American, a UCI student and a born-again Christian who claimed a “secondary virginity.”

By the conclusion of their five-month relationship, the secondary virginity had disappeared just as the first one had. Soon afterward, she made Dan disappear, too. Not long after that, Dan went through a tumultuous quarter-life crisis.

He’s now dating Frida, a fourth-year film major of mixed Mexican and European descent he met while working at a local movie theater. He’s glad to have renounced his narrow-minded ways.

“I was going through a lot of changes in my life and rethinking things,” he recalls. “My obsession with Asian women was one of the aspects of myself I found to be not healthy.”

He’s a new man, he says, living by a new philosophy: “Asian women tend to be mean, stingy abusers.”

*All names have been changed.