Tinder and tokenism: dating for East Asian American women
After the sad realization that I won’t be able to meet anyone new “organically” in the near future sank in, I finally caved last week and joined some of my friends on Tinder. I wasn’t looking for love: It was one of those pointless activities I did in order to avoid the mass of assignments I would eventually have to plow through at break-neck speed. Tinder is essentially a way to make dating a mindless game with no hard feelings and no real stakes. It’s an innovative marvel for the bored and lonely community, of which I am a long-standing member, whose cultural implications instantly fascinated me. Also, it was just fun.
But at some point in the midst of desultory swipes and disappointing openers, every person of color on a dating app asks themselves the question: Is my race affecting my matches? I have to come to terms with the fact that there are people everywhere, not just within the confines of Tinder, who will like me less or a little too much solely because I am an East Asian American woman.
I understand it’s naive to assume that people are colorblind, and I also don’t want them to be colorblind. I want my race to be recognized, heard and celebrated. I want people to acknowledge that my experiences are different from theirs and these experiences have influenced the way I see the world, but they like me still, maybe even more because of it. I want them to care enough to listen to me and try to empathize with a life, an entire culture outside of their own. I detest people who “refuse to see color” because my color matters to me. I am proud of it and I need it to be seen.
I also don’t want to be considered a novelty. I don’t want my appeal relegated to an otaku’s fetish, and I don’t want to receive kimonos for my birthday. The Asian fetish is an issue which calls back to "Lotus Blossom" stereotyping: the idea that Asian women are sexually submissive and available, especially for non-Asian men. I hate feeling exoticized and the sneaking suspicion that I am just a new experience for these men rather than a human being. Eventually, you learn the ropes and search for signs in people’s profiles. Self-proclaimed “sushi and boba lovers” are on probation and anyone who’s chosen to include “lets watch anime together” in their bio is an instant red flag.
If they’re cute and they seem to check out, you swipe right, and maybe they’ve swiped right back on you. These matches are generally followed by awkward conversations via in-app messaging. Being a woman of color on Tinder, you tend to amass horror stories. I am asked out to “pho or sushi” dinners, I have been super-liked by a man with “free match if your asian” in his bio. Non-Asian men proudly text me “i like me a asian girl” with heart-eye emojis or “tbh i prefer asians to white girls” as if they’re civil rights heroes. When someone once told me he’d never been with an Asian girl before and he was “tryna break the seal,” I had to make a conscious effort not to throw up or throw my whole phone in the trash. Seeing my heritage, my proud history, my rich culture, my parents’ sacrifices and my people’s constant struggle reduced and watered down to one man’s “idk something bout yall just does it for me” makes me feel sick. We did not come here for this. It is disrespectful and just plain wrong to steal away our humanity with your tokenism.
But I am happy to report that my experiences with messaging men on Tinder have largely been free of unnecessary mentions of my race or the size of their penises. Messages are, however, assailed by awkward miscommunications about intention and physical boundaries — “i dont do hook ups sorry king” — and annoying insistences on asking for socials. (Real adults shouldn’t use Snapchat, but I digress.) On the off chance that talking actually goes well though, you end up going on dates, and those are an entirely different anxiety behemoth altogether.
A good friend once told me that going on dates with strangers is “terrible — so, so, so terrible — but kind of fun.” Dating during a pandemic is even worse. It’s preceded by the awkward, yet obligatory “uh do you have coronavirus LOL” text you send to assuage your fears that this is a horrible idea. Wearing masks is a necessary precaution whose main side-effect is creating situations that feel almost purely platonic. Dating now is even more difficult for women to navigate because our prevailing logic surrounding first dates is to go to public spaces where there are a lot of people around for safety. As someone who has spent the last half decade on a steady diet of “Law and Order: SVU,” I’m thoroughly freaked out when I find myself in a secluded park off-campus on date number two.
Thankfully, no one has tried to murder me yet, but dates are often bogged down by excruciatingly fluffy, insipid conversation about favorite rappers and TV shows. If race comes up on a date, which isn’t often, I feel the other person over-compensating for our differences in ways that make me uncomfortable. I’ve heard that “the only race is the human race,” and I don’t know how to open my mouth and say that, yes, we are biologically the same, but we have cultural differences and are, indeed, separated by racism. There is more that connects us than divides us, but we are not one and the same. There should be nothing to fear in that gap, but there is so much to learn.
I know it’s pointless, but I still scroll through Tinder once in a while out of boredom. I feel guilty for participating in this superficial system and I hate swiping right on a guy whose best bio, of all the phrases in the English language, is “6’1” since that counts as personality.” Trying to walk that fine line between platonic and corny texts stresses me out, and the sight of sunburnt men who genuinely believe women go wild over pictures of them holding fish on a boat frustrates me. But, while I don’t take Tinder seriously, I do care about my racial identity, and I am tired by the knowledge that my race plays a factor in every experience I have, dating certainly being no exception. My agency in these situations, however, gives me hope: I can unmatch with every creep I encounter or aim expletives at men with classic cases of yellow fever. An odd satisfaction lies in this power to refuse. Online dating is annoyingly uninhibited at times, but the ability to instantly pick and choose at one’s discretion, free of any consequences, is an invaluable tool for women of color in the dating realm, because the real world is rarely so kind to us. And in the words of Luke, 21, less than a mile away from me, I just think that’s “pretty cash money, cute little fine thang.”