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Deconstructing 'Asian fetish' - the appeal of physical appearance and/or cultural traits

The so-called 'Asian fetish' (which typically targets only East Asians/Southeast Asians) has long been a hot topic of debate in interracial dating forums. Some say Asian fetish' is just a harmless preference for specific physical characteristics, such as narrow eyes and flatter noses, as harmless as some people's preference for dating, say, fatter partners. Others say 'Asian fetish' is objectifying and demeaning. It invites a superficial kind of attention from people who base their judgment of individuals largely on appearance, and worse, it is part of the larger phenomenon of racial stereotyping.

I believe that the 'pro-Asian fetish' and 'anti-Asian fetish' camps probably do not disagree as much as they think. The difference is in how they define 'Asian fetish'. After all, few, if any people in the anti-Asian fetish camp would begrudge a woman the right to prefer tall men or chubby men, or whatever preferred physical characteristic as the case may be. On the other hand, many people in the group that claims 'Asian fetish' is harmless may not approve of non-Asian men who date Asian women because of alleged cultural characteristics like submissiveness and a willingness to do all the housework without asking men to share the load. The majority of people who say that they have a special attraction to Asians probably would not approve of racial stereotyping, that is, making assumptions on someone's behavior and values based on their race.

Many people who defend the right to prefer Asians based on physical characteristics probably think the guy who asks his partner, "Can you wear a kimono in bed?" or the woman who asks her boyfriend to 'speak Chinese in bed' because it is a turn-on, are objectifying their partner, or at best, more interested in a fantasy image than an actual individual. Some individuals in the 'pro-Asian fetish' camp claim their attraction to Asian physical characteristics has nothing to do with any attraction to Asian culture. Is this true, or is it just the PC thing to say to avoid being lumped together with those people who really do have Asian fetish, i.e. those who see their partner as an exotic turn-on based not just on appearance but also on allegedly linked cultural characteristics? Probably, the claim is true for at least some of the people who make it. At any rate, it would make more sense to differentiate the pro-Asian fetish camp into the 'it's ok to like people based on physical characteristics" group, and the 'people who get turned on by Asian cultural trappings in association with physical characteristics' group for the purposes of discussion. Or we may get the phenomenon of two groups/individuals going at each other's throats when they are actually largely in agreement.

Now that we have defined (at least for the purposes of this article) the 'real' Asian fetishists as people who seek out individuals with specific physical attributes primarily because they link these physical attributes with certain cultural traits; the question is, is this fetishization of appearances in association with assumed cultural characteristics harmless? Many Asian American women believe it is not, and back their point by describing annoying experiences of having to deal with limiting and degrading stereotypes when dating non-Asian men. Typically, the issue arises when the assertive, independent Asian American woman (who is culturally not too different from her non-Asian peers) is expected to conform to the fantasy image of a mysterious, exotic and submissive Oriental female.

Perhaps this clash of expectations is not lost on some American men who prefer Asian women for their cultural traits. Many consciously make the choice to steer clear of Asian Americans and limit themselves to immigrants. Of course, not all immigrants have the desired cultural attributes sought by these Westerners (Asian cultures are very diverse and in many cases, immigrant women are even more career-minded and 'untraditional' than their American counterparts), but let us just assume for the purposes of discussion that Western 'culture-seekers' do find a larger pool of people with the desired behavioral traits in this 'alternative market'. Here we see a third group, distinct from those who like Asian physical traits but do not associate them with any behavioral characteristics, and also distinct from those who get turned on by the imagined association of physical traits with more abstract cultural qualities. This third group comprises of people who might not have any special attraction to the 'Asian look' and do not find it any more a turn-on than any other stereotypical 'racial look'. But they gravitate towards Asians, consciously or subconsciously, because of certain cultural traits that may actually exist within Asian populations to a greater degree than they do in Western populations. Of course, in real life, the boundaries between the three groups is not always clear, but for the purposes of this article, we will assume these distinctions do exist.

The membership of this third group extends beyond people who prefer date Asians to people who may not have dated Asians but have many Asian friends. Now is the more-cultural-than-physical 'preference' practised by this third group healthy? I guess the answer might lie in the specific cultural traits that these people gravitate to, and also in the personality traits that occur more often among people who prefer Asians than among those who do not prefer Asians. Not all individuals who have a special liking for Asians have these traits, of course, but from my own observation and the observations of a number of immigrant Asians, I have noticed some recurring themes in the immigrants' descriptions of the non-Asians who prefer Asian company. Those who 'like' Asians seem more likely than the average person to have one or more of the following traits:

Sensitive nature or fragile ego

In East Asian/Southeast Asian cultures, people are less likely to criticize others openly. Even if someone disagrees with your opinions, s/he might not always say so. In some East/Southeast Asian cultures, people also do not feel comfortable saying "no" directly, and would find a indirect way to say it without hurting anyone's feelings. This cultural trait of masking potential disagreements makes sensitive people feel more at ease. Being around polite people who usually say "yes" at least on the surface is certainly nice for those who have a weak ego in need of boosting. To give an example, one of my Asian sources mentioned meeting a black professional who could not handle anyone disagreeing with him or suggesting something contrary to what he wants even in an amicable, constructive way. This ultra-sensitive man happened to be married to a Korean woman.

A common expression of the 'ego-in-need-of-boosting' is the kindly condescending non-Asian (usually white) person who tries to attach himself to Asian immigrant circles so he could take on a 'teaching role' and show them the 'American way'. In some cases, these people give helpful practical advice to new immigrants, but it should also be noted that more often than not, they come to teach and not to learn. They have little or no interest in learning about the immigrant culture beyond superficial things like food and celebrations. The underlying assumption is that while they have something valuable to teach the immigrants, the immigrants have nothing as valuable to teach them. Their 'helpfulness' is ultimately self-serving. They need to place themselves in the position of 'expert' and 'guide' to shore up their fragile egos, and they use East Asian/Southeast Asian immigrants as tools to serve this purpose.

Know-it-all attitude

"Know-it-all" behavior, which may in some instances be an expression of the "fragile ego", also occurs quite often among non-Asians who gravitate towards Asian friends. I have observed among non-Asians who date/befriend Asians at least five instances of the kind of person who always acts like s/he is an expert on every topic s/he is talking about and rarely, if ever, admits ignorance. In the worst case, the individual is ignorant and arrogant; he tries to put down everyone who happens to know more than him on any random topic. He is an insecure middle-age white man who happens to have married a Thai woman. Most Americans would have called him on his crap, but he has cleverly sought the company of people from a very forgiving culture.

In another case, the 'know-it-all' white boy was somewhat less obnoxious, but he had to pass himself off as knowledgeable about every conversation topic that happened to come his way. If someone talked about something he knew nothing about, the white boy feigned expertise by picking up a few key phrases from the person who did know the topic and then framing these phrases in big words and complex phraseology, trying to sound like someone well-informed on the subject. Of course this made him look like an absolute fool in front of people who actually knew what they were talking about, but he got away with this highfalutin by surrounding himself with Asian immigrants whose command of English was far below his. With all the obscure vocabulary being thrown around, he certainly sounded like an expert in the ears of people who did not fully comprehend what he was talking about. He happened to be dating a Chinese woman who was competent in English but not to the point where she could meet him on his level of discussion. She put up with his bad behavior and clung on to him even though she was upset he openly cheated on her on an ongoing basis because she was dazzled by his 'knowledge' and 'scholarly demeanor'.

Friends who are highly literate in Chinese have told me that a regrettable aspect of their culture is that people emphasize academic success to the point that they sometimes value brains over character. The Imperial-era satire titled "The Scholars" (available in English translation) provides a glimpse into a centuries-old values system that has men rushing to marry their daughters to cruel, cowardly, selfish young men just because the potential son-in-law aced the Imperial Examination. Is the vain white boy's dating choice a coincidence? Or did he conveniently locate in another culture a social niche that could tolerate his glaring flaws? Of course, not all East Asians are fooled by him, or I would not have been told this story. Quite often, East Asian individuals are very perceptive and they see right through you. They are only too polite to make it known, so you go on entertaining the flattering illusion that you are appreciated and adored.

The two individuals described above happen to be white males. But the arrogant, know-it-all 'friend' to Asians really could almost just as easily be a woman of color, from experiences shared by my other sources. One type of 'friend' who has been mentioned more than once is the self-appointed psychoanalysts (a position that the persons involved in are not professionally qualified for) who have the hubris to tell their Asian friends what to think with messages like "I know you more than you know yourself", "let me tell you what you really think and feel," and "I know what you need, and I'm going to tell you how you get it cos' you don't know." This echoes the ego-serving 'mentor/guide' role mentioned in the preceding section.

In East Asian culture, self-deprecation and praise of others are considered good manners. So for the show-offish talkers (who may be from within or outside the culture) whose ego needs to be stroked, it is gratifying to have for an audience someone who has been conditioned to put himself/herself down and praise you. But just because people appear impressed with you does not always mean they really feel that way.

Verbally competitive, always has to win the argument

Some East Asian/Southeast Asian cultures emphasize conflict avoidance and getting along. It is not that East Asians in general do not argue, just that it is usually done in rather specific contexts such as a discussion for the sake of discussion, or when something larger than personal (or extremely personal) is at stake. In social situations, if someone becomes argumentative or verbally aggressive, other people might respond by backing off or even agreeing, not because they think the more aggressive party is right, but because they want to keep the peace. I know of a few rather verbally combative women who happened to marry/date East Asian men. But just because the examples given here happen to be women does not mean that the verbally competitive, "I'm always right" type of person is always female.

In the examples I came across, when the non-Asian women start an argument, the East Asian men often take the initiative to apologize to the women before things really get 'out of hand'. This does not mean that the men really think they are wrong. For the East Asian men, who is 'right' in a disagreement is less important than harmony in a relationship. So they back off. (The Chinese have a saying, "take a step back and the sea will become wide and the sky will become empty.") For one of the women, such exchanges with her boyfriend were more of a cultural misunderstanding. Often, when she just wanted an impersonal debate on a particular topic, her boyfriend misunderstood her forwardness for anger and quickly apologized.

In another case, the woman was cynical and liked cutting others to shreds. Her basic approach boils down to "if you don't think like me, you're a bad person and you should change." She had a tendency to largely limit herself to people of the same gender when it comes to telling people off. One might actually be convinced she really believed in her self-righteous harping on certain orthodox ways of living/thinking if she was equally enthusiastic in applying it to all people, instead of using it as a tool to bludgeon other women. All in all, she was a less-than-pleasant character who hid her 'fight-mentality' and mean-spiritedness behind concern for 'right thinking'. Perhaps her spouse's East Asian trait of preferring 'tolerance' over 'truth' in conflict situations is what preserved her marriage so far. Most people do have difficulty living with someone so full of sensitive self-righteousness and quick anger.

I am not at all implying all East Asian men will put up with such negative personalities, or that there are no Western men who can handle a woman like that, just that there might be a higher likelihood in Eastern cultures than in Western cultures of finding an individual who can put aside the abstract principles of 'truth' and 'rightness' in favor of the tolerance and compromise that make the day-to-day living-together bearable. The New Scientist article Westerners and Easterners see the world differently provides some insight into this cultural difference.

Uncommon selfishness

The "selfish type" is also quite common among those who seek out Asian company. One common manifestation is the Western man who seeks out an East Asian/Southeast Asian wife based on the idea that she will do all the housework and he would not have to do a thing. A Thai woman told me about how her black male friend wanted to date her because he had seen his brother's Korean wife take care of *everything* (he emphasized *everything*) around the house without troubling his brother. He assumed that other Asian women would behave similarly and thought that it would be nice to get a diligent wife to take care of everything for him too. Now why would a man want a wife who does *everything* around the house unless he is a lazy, selfish person who wants to do *nothing* at home?

One of the Asians I talked to described a non-Asian girl friend who does not think twice about imposing on other people's time and resources but refuses to return the favor. This egocentric individual had occasional insight into how her selfish behavior was alienating friends and associates, but quickly went back to her old ways. The non-Asian friend repeatedly took full advantage of the East Asian friend's culturally-conditioned behavior of being obliging and accomodating to her requests, but she was too self-centered to spend time helping the friend when the East Asian friend needed just one favor similar to what the non-Asian asked for and took so freely on multiple occasions. She is now an ex-friend. But I suspect the average Westerner would probably have taken a much shorter time to transition the selfish individual from friend to former friend.

Another expression of the 'selfish type' who seeks Asian company is the mild-mannered 'nice' type who may actually turn out to be more selfish than the blatant cases of the man who desires a wife who does all the work, or the woman who wants a friend to take from but not to give to. These seemingly 'nice' people appear sweet until people no longer suit their interests or stroke their ego, and then they turn on their friends in a flash. These non-Asians-who-love-Asian-culture-and-people may have spent years dabbling in Eastern religions, typically utilizing Buddhist meditation to get the physiological "feel good" benefits. Yet they picked up none of the Buddhist values of understanding, tolerance, compassion and consideration for others. They remain very selfish and unable to see beyond their own interests. Indeed, their whole interest in Eastern religions (and people) is all about "me, me, me", e.g. using meditation to feel good about themselves instead of actually transcending the self.

Even more extreme is the individual who thinks the whole world should keep him happy. Such individuals seem to be over-represented among those who try to insinuate themselves into East Asian/Southeast Asian circles. One example is a white boy who rips his company off and neglects his work. His lack of integrity also extends to his personal life - he takes things from friends without returning them. When people point out his specific acts of dishonesty and irresponsibility, the white boy turns around and call his accusers 'evil' and 'cruel' for 'persecuting' him, i.e. for holding him accountable, instead of admitting the damage and harm he caused to others. When friends remind him that he should not repay their kindness with rudeness, he rationalizes his way out by saying, "it is your choice to offer me kindness. I did not ask for it, and if I don't repay it, you have no right to complain."

Well, if he had no intention of repaying kindness, he should not have been so ready to accept it. But try telling that to someone who has no sense of personal accountability, morals or fairplay. And he is certainly not the only highly educated, erudite white collar criminal (not always caught) who steals or abuses workplace resources and happens to have a yellow girlfriend. Often, such individuals do not fare well with many East Asians, as East Asian cultures highly prize reciprocity in personal relations, i.e., "if you take, you better darn well be ready to give back". But some of them happen to find a cozy shelter under the East Asian belief in tolerating 'non-crucial flaws' in friends - the definition of 'non-crucial flaws' can of course vary widely between individuals - in the light of the value that the friendship/relationship can bring (and for some women, 'whiteness' in a boyfriend is seen as a plus and can make up for minuses like serious character failings).

On the topic of tolerating 'non-crucial' flaws in others, I had an interesting discussion with a Japanese friend who could not understand why many Westerners are so quick to cut ties with people who have negative traits. For example, a few women I knew got angry with their families of origin for making racist comments about their birth children from a mixed marriage or their adopted children. They cut off contact with their families rather than put their children in a hostile environment. Another woman told a long-time friend who insulted her parents to never call her again. The Japanese woman could not understand why these people made such 'radical breaks' with their families and associates. Although the family or friend has said unkind things, the Japanese woman believes they should have been kept around because one never knows if one will need their help later. Other non-Japanese East Asian friends have also expressed similar opinions: "That person might be a mean-mouth, but why burn your bridges?"

Herein lies the disagreement between East and West, or at least between my friends and me. I believe that the daily negativity and unkindness that some people dish out can outweigh the potential benefits of sustaining a relationship for 'emergency' use. (In fact, the idea of keeping people around not because you like them but because they might come in handy later does bother me) Is it worth it being around relatives or friends who can do permanent psychological damage to your child with their cruel words just so that you can keep the door open for a roof over your head when you do became homeless? It is not worth it for most Westerners I've conversed with on the topic, but it is worth it for a significant number of East Asians who have expressed their opinion to me. Perhaps the key difference is that I believe that what people say can reflect what is inside them, while many of my Chinese and Japanese friends see cruel talk or other annoying (but not physically/financially harmful) behavior as more or less 'harmless' or at least tolerable. Part of this difference in attitude can probably be attributed to a difference in East Asian vs Western views on social interdependence. The BBC article Different view for East and West describes this idea much better than I can.

Tendency to externalize problems

Another recurring trait among some folks who are drawn to East/Southeast Asians is a tendency to blame others for their problems. Very often, these people are social misfits in some way. They blame Western society for not accepting them and they have an escapist fantasy about finding welcome and acceptance in Eastern cultures. There are usually two components to their misfit status. One is society's unforgiving attitude towards certain neutral traits a person might have, e.g. American culture tends to devalue quiet, shy types with intellectual interests. The other component is the person's own bad character and poor behavior. Typically a white boy who possesses the character flaws mentioned in the previous sections blames white America for 'rejecting' him, but he never really asks himself if it is because of any bad behavior on his part. He claims he likes Asian people better, presumably because they 'accept' him. But do they really? It is easy for him to fantasize about an idealized East where he is accepted and honored. But he forgets that people anywhere in the world do not like people who are mean, selfish or arrogant. Some people might be less open about voicing objections at another person, but it is quite possible that person might be disliked more than s/he knows s/he is.

Not all people who cherish the dream of the *other* culture as superior and accepting are obvious villains in serious need of self-reflection. But there is something to be said for improving your situation by first changing yourself instead of changing cultures or countries. By blaming one's own society and putting one's hope in another culture, one is absolving oneself of responsibility for one's role in one's own happiness. In some cases society is partly responsible for much personal misery, but it does not help the individual if s/he does not recognize her part in the equation and take responsibility for it. It is pleasant to imagine that a culture you do not know is better than the one you are raised in. But when people really get to know the 'mysterious other', it might not be what they seek. Finding a better cultural fit for one's personality is one thing, but absolving oneself of accountability for one's own flaws and one's own actions is another.

Well, it might not be true that everyone who has a special affinity for Asians (or any other 'unfamiliar' group perceived as Other) necessarily has dubious motivations, but for any of us, some introspection into our motivations might not be a bad idea.

Dyn Moe