In my life, I've often encountered a certain type of Western guy who was attracted to Asian women. He tended to be older, white and yes, creepy. I wanted to know why, so I set out to make a documentary. What emerged five years later, after hundreds of hours of research, including interviews with men and women who posted ads for Asian women on sites like Craigslist and Asiafriendfinder, was "Seeking Asian Female", an eccentric, tender and at-times uncomfortable love story between a 60-year-old American man and his 30-year-old Chinese fiancée. I'm also creating a companion project, "They're All So Beautiful," an online video series and forum to discuss the nuances of race, romance and "yellow fever."
Though the concept dates back centuries, dating Asian women, or, more accurately, the idea of dating Asian women, has officially gone mainstream. While I spoke to a lot of aging white men, I also spoke with young hipsters, black men and Latinos who desire Asian women. I heard from Asian, Asian-American and many other women about their encounters with this so-called "yellow fever." I even interviewed a Chinese woman who's a yenta for men seeking Asian wives in Silicon Valley.
Throughout all this, a common thread emerged: myths and misconceptions about Asian women are as strongly held as ever. Understanding the difference between fantasy and reality made all the difference for these people and the true stories they shared.
Myth No. 1: Asian women make perfect wives. They have good family values and cater to the man.
Around 500 BCE, Confucius outlined relationships in which wives looked up to their husbands in perfect harmony. Times have changed, but the myth that Asian women make doting and dutiful wives still persists.
Julia Ma, owner and matchmaker of Your Asian Connection, says men who join her club are seeking "the old picture of Asian women -- traditional, take care of husband, cook dinner, clean house." She says, "Lots of guys hope for that," but the "new generation is different." Based in Cupertino, California, home of Apple, where over 60% of the population is of Asian descent, she introduces Asian women to Western men for a legitimate end goal of marriage. Her female clients are educated, often tech-savvy and, like her, many have been divorced. She believes that Western men are more accepting of this, yet conversely are thought to have poorer family values.
Still, Julia describes the high pressure in Asian societies for women to start families at younger ages than in the West. She proudly states that her female clients are "flexible" and "want to work together as a family unit" -- but she's quick to note that they're "picky" and have high expectations. To them, marriage must be a two-sided contract. A wife gives face to her husband in public, but in honoring his end in private, he must put family first (not himself), cater to her in-laws and, as is traditional in countries like China and Japan, hand over control of the bank accounts to her.
Myth No. 2: Asian Women are sweet, innocent and submissive.
The myth that Asian women are more submissive rings true for those who have never actually dated an Asian woman. Take for example Steven, the main character of "Seeking Asian Female", who saw images of Vietnamese women in films like The Scent of Green Papaya and wondered, would his future wife be an "idyllic servant girl who would cook these beautiful meals?" Traveling from California to China for several first dates, Steven experienced Chinese women with bossy, pragmatic attitudes and realized this "No B.S." approach perfectly complemented his dreamer, ex-hippie ways. At the end of his 10-year search, he found Sandy, from Anhui, China, who was half his age. After moving to America on the K-1 fiancée visa, her youthful, innocent exterior gave way. For Steven, the real-life experience of Sandy's emotional, controlling and fiery temperament was still quite biting.
On the flip side, are American men soft and naïve? Many Asian women think so. According to Jenny, who moved to the U.S. from Taiwan in her 30s, "For those Caucasian guys who like Asian women, their personality tend to be softer. They're not very masculine." Another interview subject, who moved to the U.S. for, and later divorced, an American white man, found them "simple" and "less sophisticated" than Asian men.
Myth No. 3: An American man is an Asian woman's "ticket to a better life."
Some Asian women do believe this myth to be true, but similar to Myth No. 1, have never had relationships with Western men. Julia Ma cautions, "Girls living in another country, they have no idea -- they think here is heaven, people with money, but it's nothing like that." Many Asian women living in rapidly growing world economies recognize that marrying a Westerner no longer guarantees a better financial situation. But sometimes Asian women "think they are marrying a 'more liberal' Western man," only to find out he's actually looking for a traditional Asian woman, explains journalist, Sheridan Prasso who studied this in her book, The Asian Mystique, Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient.
Others don't believe the myth but know how to exploit it, according to Elaine Kim, Professor at UC Berkeley. These women "know what they need to survive and to help their extended family. They saw an opportunity in that (Asian) fetish," then marry Western men "who wake up to find themselves among 20 of her relatives and he's totally outnumbered." She concludes, "the old colonial relationship between Western superiority and Asian inferiority is becoming an ever more distant memory that would be foolish to try to resuscitate."
Myth No. 4: Asian women are sex-crazed, and sex with Asian women is easy.
In our interviews, we heard these sorts of comments frequently: "Asian women are better lovers." "Asian women are sexier, wilder." The truth is, sexual stereotypes abound for women of all ethnicities, yet are often more extreme for Asian women. Compared to other fetishes on the internet, such as leather, shoe or redheads, "Asian women are fetishized more than any other fetish," says Prasso. The harder truth is, the Asian sex (and trafficking) trade remains one of the largest and most lucrative in the world, making Myth No. 4 partially true. If you pay for it, sex with Asian women is "easy." This may sound obvious, but not all Asian women are prostitutes, and none of the women we interviewed believed Myth No. 4 to be true.
The racist myth that "all Orientals look the same" was debunked long ago, but it bears reminding all Asian women are not the same either. By grounding our relationships in reality we get past our expectations and truly get to know each other as individuals -- we can't debunk all the myths, but it's a start.
Debbie Lum directed and produced the award-winning documentary, "Seeking Asian Female," which will air on PBS's Independent Lens in May 2013. She teamed up with actor and media strategist Maikiko James to create "They're All So Beautiful," an online video series and discussion about interracial dating, Asian fetish and much more.