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Pet Sins May 2002

Asian women 'Marriage' Jokes - a long time white friend disappoints

I am glad that in your November issue, you brought up the idea that people involved in interracial relationships are not necessarily free from race-based stereotyping and racial prejudices. I would like to share a recent experience that painfully brought home for me the fact that even whites who have Asian friends and who have good will towards all people of color can be trapped by the stereotypes so prevalent in American media.

I am Asian. I had a white guy friend from college. We worked together on the same projects, ate together and drank together. We even had crushes on the same white girls. He was not one of those white guys who had a problem with Asian men dating white women. He had other Asian friends. He did not seem to have any Asian fetish and did not express any special interest in Asian women. He was definitely NOT one of those white men that Asian men are so leery of - the type of white man who is interested in spending their time getting to know Asian women but totally uninterested in making friends with Asian men. He was also friendly to blacks and other minorities. He seemed to treat everyone in an equitable way.

I always thought, if there was such thing as a decent white man free of racial baggage, he was one. I was too naive. I attribute his lack of the usual "mainstream" attitudes towards Asians to the fact that he was raised in a rural environment, relatively isolated from pop culture, and had little interest in television. I also thought that since he grew up in a mostly white state, he was less likely to form bitterly negative opinions of people of color.

A few years after college, he was visiting in my city and we had dinner together with some of his white friends. His white friends, a couple, asked him if he was still single. He said 'yes.'. Then, all of a sudden, he turned to me and asked, "Which country produces the best women for wives?"

I was taken aback by this question. I did not quite understand what he meant - why does he assume I should know about all the women of the world? The women of Africa, Latin America and Australia? But inward, I suspected that he asked me because I was Asian, and he was only asking the question with Asian women in mind.

I felt disgusted, not just for myself but also for the white American woman at the table. I told my friend that American women were just fine, and that they were just as likable as any women in the world. He replied, "but American women don't do what I tell them to do". I knew all this was said in a joking manner, but it did not diminish from the fact that this joke springs from deep seated racial stereotypes and assumptions. I replied with a joke of my own - telling them of all the ill consequences that might arise from having a wife that actually does all that you want her to do - like a robot without judgement that will cook the children just because you asked her to.

After the dinner, I asked him why he asked me that question. I asked him, "Why do you assume I should know about all the women in the world - African, American, Asian, European, Australian?". His answer confirmed what I already knew. He said, "I didn't mean all the women in the world. I was talking only about Asian women."

He continued, "I know it was a bad joke, but I was of the impression that women from some Asian countries are more submissive." He apologized for assuming that I should know about Asian women just because I am Asian. But to me, that wasn't even the problem. He did not see the fundamental problem - his stereotypical view of Asian women, based not on real observation but solely on hearsay.

This just goes to show that even white people who are relatively unexposed to popular media can still be infected by racist ideas floating in the atmosphere of America. Racism is in the air we breathe. It is inescapable, as this episode brought it home for me.

I was angry with him. I explained to him my view point and I tried to make him understand that East Asian behavioral protocols of trying to "read" the needs of people around you and respond to them without being asked (a protocol observed by both men and women) are often misread by Westerners as "subservience". But he repeatedly demanded that I should adapt to his cultural values. Not once did he try to compromise and meet me half way, or even try to understand my point of view.

I realized that it is almost impossible for someone raised in the ways of the East and someone raised in the ways of the West to have an equal exchange. The East operates by "give and take without asking". The West operates like "take when you can but give only when asked to (and sometimes don't even give when asked to)". The culturally East Asian person would most likely be shortchanged - giving more than taking - in a relationship with a culturally Western person. To cut the long story short, it got to the point I had to let him know that I would not like to have further contact with him because an equal exchange was not possible.

It was a wake up call for me. Good intentions are not enough to bring subconscious stereotypes into our consciousness. Even the best-intentioned white man can disappoint with his racial views.