“Look, I’m a tall guy; I’m just attracted to small, cute girls. They happen to be Asian, but I don’t have yellow fever.”
The friend I made in the beginning of the school year was trying to explain how he — a white male — did not have an Asian fetish, but he was doing a poor job at that.
Later on, I learned he was a dominant and masochist when he overshared his sex life and announced his BDSM test results to me and a few other friends. He liked the power dynamic between him and his petite Asian girlfriend. He was also an avid fan of Asian porn. Small and cute were the adjectives he used to describe his type, but in hindsight, I think they were synonymous with submissive and docile. To me, he has yellow fever.
The term “yellow fever” originates from the afterword to the 1988 play M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, who uses it to describe white men who have a fetish towards east Asian women. Similar to “jungle fever,” or having a fetish towards Black women, it holds a derogatory connotation. The attraction towards a person of color is not wrong or a problem, but a fetish rather insinuates the attraction to something that one should not like, and are therefore wrong or ill for indulging in it. The term has also broadened into a label for men with hypersexualized fantasies of getting romantically involved with stereotypical subservient Asian women exclusively or near exclusively.
This submissive Asian woman trope is manifested across pop culture and media. Asian women are underrepresented in this sector, but when they are featured, their roles are often limited to either the innocent and dainty Asian or the bold and rebellious Asian with a hair streak — a failed attempt at subverting the former trope and even a reinforcement of that exact stereotype. The character Lara Jean Song-Covey in the movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is one depiction of the shy Asian girl commonly found in many other films, shows and novels.
One department with a high demand for Asian women, however, is the adult entertainment industry. The top two most searched terms on Pornhub in 2019 were Japanese and hentai, which is sexually explicit Japanese anime or manga. Not far below are Korean and Asian, ranked fifth and sixth, respectively. Yet, the representation of Asian women in pornography still lacks diversity and upholds the aforementioned stereotypes to a highly sexualized degree. They are infantilized and dominated, all while putting up a smile. Somehow, the model minority myth follows through in pornos, too. Our stereotypically compliant and obedient demeanor — which they created — is what makes others accept Asians more than other races in the real world and in adult entertainment. Given the lack of diverse Asian characters and the abundance of the same and typically sexualized archetypes in Hollywood and American media, it comes to no surprise we are fetishized by Westerners.
As a Chinese-American female, it’s off putting to see non-Asian men lewdly comment about our ethnicity or race as a means to pursue Asian women. It is not flattering to know the selling point of our attractiveness is the misperception of how subservient and exotic the women of our race are. Being categorized as “oriental,” “lotus flower,” “delicate” and “China doll” is far from a compliment and more of an oversexualized degradation of our ethnicity or race. Rather than approaching Asian women with sentiments of exoticism, understand we are not foreign creatures without an ounce of self-will who are in dire need of a strong non-Asian man to colonize our bodies. Many of us were born and raised in America and consume Western culture; we are capable of holding intersectional feminist beliefs as much as the non-conformist American women who these men are so afraid of. We are not leftovers for the conservative men who believe Asian women will follow all their orders and not challenge the gender status quo unlike progressive white women or other women of color. We are not different from other American women, and to normalize the use of this misogynistic and racist language only perpetuates the dehumanization and objectification of Asian women.
Nonetheless, not all interracial couples are rooted in misogyny or the fetishization of one of their races. The problem is not interracial relationships, but the patriarchy and our society’s racial and gender norms. There is a fine line between cultural appreciation and fetishization. If it revolves around racial and sexualized stereotypes, it’s the latter and is part of the issue.
Cultural appreciation is seeking to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden perspectives and connect with others cross-culturally. A healthy interracial couple should abide by this, and both parties should work to dismantle racist and sexualized opinions from friends, family and strangers about their relationship. Communicating and addressing issues which may cause discomfort in the relationship is a good way to create a positive environment for both sides to thrive.
It’s important to treat Asian women with the same respect as any other human being. We are not submissive and virginal sex objects, and we’d rather you be attracted to us for who we are as an individual than merely for our race and what you sterotypically assume all Asian women to be. Not fetishizing us and not treating us as the “other” is just the bare minimum of what a decent person should do.