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My friend scrolls through the photos of a man on Facebook. He’s white, lives in a predominantly white neighborhood, and went to a predominantly white high school. But in many of his photos, he is accompanied by Asian women.
“Yes, he has yellow fever,” my friend confirms. No, not the potentially fatal viral hemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes, but rather a preference for Asian women. The term is most commonly ascribed to white men who seem to only ever date Asian women.
Yellow fever is a widespread phenomenon. According to data collected from online dating sites, all men except Asians prefer to romantically pursue Asian women. In fact, there are many dating sites specifically tailored for white men looking to date Asian women. There is even a Tumblr blog that compiles messages from “creepy white guys with Asian fetishes.” Yellow fever was also depicted in Debbie Lum’s documentary, Seeking Asian Female, which takes a close look at relationships between white men and Asian women.
So the real question is not whether white men have a preference for Asian women, but why? The answer varies depending on whom you ask. Some argue that it’s because Asian women are more docile, submissive, and tame than their raucous and outgoing Caucasian counterparts. Others claim that it’s a harmless preference on the basis of physical appearance, no different than a preference for blondes or girls with tattoos.
Unfortunately, neither of these answers is correct. Obviously, Asian women are simply not any more docile or submissive than any other ethnicity. It is egregiously misguided to assume that an entire ethnicity of women has one set of personality traits, and the fact that some men actually believe this reflects the limited experience they’ve had with real-life Asian women. Even worse, it suggests that perhaps they are viewing Asian women more as one-dimensional objects than human beings.
Objectification is already something that all women face regardless of race. Our cleavage is used in advertisements to sell products or services, and even well-intentioned men speaking out against sexual assault implore other men to imagine women as “somebody’s wife, mother, daughter,” never realizing that perhaps the woman is also a “somebody.” But when race gets involved, objectification takes on a different dimension. For Asian women in particular, objectification reduces them to infantile figures—delicate, submissive, and dutiful.
The fact that docility and submissiveness are viewed as favorable traits for Asian women is telling. It implies that non-Asian women are too loud, too opinionated, too intimidating, and that men would prefer women who keep quiet and acquiesce to their every demand. The stereotype that Asian women are meek, though blatantly untrue, nevertheless reveals that perhaps yellow fever is more than just an innocent preference based on physical appearance.
That’s because ethnicity is more than just physical appearance. Being Asian means that when I meet someone for the first time, they ask me where I’m from—“New York”—no, where I’m really from. Being Asian means that men compliment me by calling me exotic. Being Asian means that I’m expected to do well in math and become a doctor. Being Asian means that people are surprised I can speak English so well, never mind the fact that I was born and raised in America and can probably speak English better than most Americans. Being Asian means that when I walk down the streets, I am catcalled with “Ni hao ma!” as well as the usual “Hey sexy!” And that’s why we can’t pretend that yellow fever is nothing more than an innocent preference for straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes. It is rooted in a long history of fetishization.
It began when the United States first established a military presence in Asia during World War II. This led to the creation of local sex industries around the military bases, where thousands of women were coerced into prostitution for the sole purpose of servicing U.S. soldiers. Approximately 200,000 Japanese women were enslaved by Japan as prostitutes and serviced American soldiers after the end of the war under the “Recreation and Amusement Association.” This practice continued through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, with 85 percent of American soldiers reporting having sought a prostitute. As a result, some of the first encounters American soldiers had with Asian women were in the context of being sexually serviced. To them, the women were nothing but commodities.
The world is a different place today. Now white men and Asian women meet each other as classmates or colleagues, more or less equals. And when white men and Asian women begin dating, it’s often because they have a genuine romantic connection, not because he views her as a commodity.
After all, most men today are not even aware of this history. The fetishization of Asian women hearkens back to an era when there was an enormous power difference between white men and Asian women, and Asian women were used as nothing more than recreational activity for bored American soldiers. The decades-old history still resonates today with the continued commodification and fetishization of Asian women. It’s no coincidence that Asian women are often stereotyped as yielding and sexually adventurous, and it’s no coincidence that one of the most prevalent misconceptions about Asian women is that they have tight vaginas.
Yellow fever is dangerous because it strips away the individual identities of Asian women, reducing them to nothing more than an unfair stereotype of their race. Fetishization is a form of objectification, because when you seek someone out because she is Asian, you are seeing her as a racial trope rather than an individual. And that’s why Asian women are suspicious of white men who serially date Asians: we’re concerned that we’re just one in a long list of submissive objects for them to use at their leisure. hec
That being said, not every white man dating an Asian woman is intentionally perpetuating the legacy of commodification, and not every white man attracted to Asian women is deliberately reinforcing these racial stereotypes. There is nothing wrong with being a white man who is attracted to Asian women. Many times, it is a subconscious desire that you can’t really control anyway. So go ahead; pursue all the Asian women you want, so long as you understand the long and complex history of exploitation that used to shape your attraction to us.
The CDC tells me that yellow fever is incurable; however, with the proper treatment, it can be managed for the rest of your life.
Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, is a government concentrator in Mather House.
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