Does he like me because I’m Asian or despite it?

You need some medicine for that yellow fever. Graphic by Mae-Mae Han.


Content warning: discussions of racial violence, sexual violence and suicide

11 years old: a white male classmate gleefully informs me that once he takes over the world, I’ll be the first person he’ll enslave, number two and number three being the two other Chinese girls in our class. 

18 years old: my then-boyfriend insists my sexual desirability is first and foremost because I’m Asian. In the same breath, as I am combatting thoughts of suicide during the rampant Sinophobia of the pandemic, he casually condemns Chinese people and our apparent moral responsibility for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

20 years old: the guy I’m dating tells me we can’t be together because it’s a bad idea to be in a relationship with a Chinese woman amidst increasing U.S.-China political tensions. 

21 years old: an uncomfortably older man approaches me at a bar and clings to the small of my back, sneering in my ear that he’s thrilled to be in the U.S. because there aren’t any Asian women in his home country. He tells me he’s lapping up the opportunity to have sex with an Asian woman — me, specifically — for the first time. 

22 years old: multiple non-Asian men congratulate a guy I’m seeing on how “lucky” he is to be dating an Asian woman as if I am a prize to be won. This is not the first guy I’ve dated who has been lauded by other non-Asian men for the simple fact that I’m Asian. 

I wish I could say that I’m just particularly unlucky when it comes to men. Unfortunately, far too many Asian American women have similar tales of misfortune to share. 

Dating is hard for everybody, no matter who you are. Dating is even harder when navigating the modern-day manifestations of imperialism at the intersection of race and gender. 

“Yellow fever” is perhaps the most well-known manifestation, where people of East and Southeast Asian descent — in particular, women under the gaze of men in heterosexual contexts — are singled out in the dating pool in the form of racial fetishization. So much of a foreign “other” that even our anatomy is stereotyped as different, yellow fever constructs East and Southeast Asian women as submissive to the needs of Western men and alluringly exotic sex objects, ripe for the taking at the hands of Western men. In contrast to the strong, independent feminists of the West, Asian women are seen as the perfect doll-like epitome of traditional femininity and traditional subservience to patriarchy.

Yellow fever is not considered aberrational

Yellow fever is so deeply ingrained in our society, from our pop culture to everyday interactions. 

There’s the infamous “me so horny, me love you long time” from 1987’s “Full Metal Jacket”, used to mock a Vietnamese woman begging for the sexual attention of American soldiers. It became ubiquitous in 90s and early 2000s hip hop and is immortalized today in cult-classic songs like “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot and “London Bridge” by Fergie. In the hit TV show “Supernatural”, East Asian women are used as the running punchline for main character Dean Winchester’s obsession with porn of “busty Asian beauties,” and it’s brushed off as him being a typical hot-blooded male. Even in 2016’s arguably feminist “Fleabag”, Asian women are used as a punchline for the title character’s porn addiction. 

Even in the year 2024, I still see people making “jokes” about massage “happy endings,” “me love you long time,” liking the “yellow one” or being specifically into East and Southeast Asian women with minimal, if any, pushback from others — sometimes even as a way to hit on East and Southeast Asian women — as if it’s completely acceptable. Few other groups are subject to such targeted fetishization to where it’s so pervasive and normalized. In its normalization, Asian American women are less likely to label and report sexual harassment as sexual harassment because it’s just so much of our quintessential daily experience as Asian women. 

Emma Weigand, a senior marketing major of indigenous Nenet descent, believes the very nature of our fetishization as submissive exacerbates its normalization. 

“In any sort of situation, [such as] racist remarks, sometimes, men think they can get away with it — when in reality, that’s not something someone should [have] to put up with,” Weigand said. 

And while yellow fever is rooted in white supremacy, it’s a result of both racial and gender frameworks, and it’s just so commonplace that non-Asian men of all races engage and perpetuate it. I have experienced fetishization equally from white men and men of color alike with equal vitriol. 

Interracial dating for Asian American women

It’s no secret that Asian women commonly date non-Asian men. According to Pew Research Center data on heterosexual newlyweds, Asian Americans are the most likely to marry a different race. More specifically, Asian women are almost twice as likely than Asian men to be in an interracial marriage. In dating apps, Asian women are disproportionately preferred by men of other races, to the point where it’s now a trend for women to “optimize” their dating apps by changing their profile’s race to Asian. 

Dr. Casiana Warfield, assistant director of Counseling and Consultation Services, is no stranger to this pattern both in her research and her personal life. Her father is white, her mother is Filipina, and she is married to a white man. 

“All of my titas [Filipina aunties] are married to white men,” Warfield said. “ … I think it’s more accepted than a lot of other racial-gender combinations amongst heterosexual relationships.” 

However, while its prevalence is accepted, there is growing criticism of these Asian women. For example, when it was revealed that Derek Chauvin’s then-wife Kellie Chauvin was Southeast Asian, a fountain of discourse spouted, focusing on how this was emblematic of Asian women’s unparalleled reverence of white men. On the other side, the men in these relationships at times are automatically perceived as dating the woman specifically because she’s East or Southeast Asian; regardless of the individual situation, even if he doesn’t have an Asian fetish, her individuality and humanity are still stripped by others. Warfield recalls this happening to her as a teenager. 

“If anybody liked you, after you broke up, people always ask that person, ‘Do you have yellow fever?’” Warfield said. “ … I remember I dated somebody in high school, and he happened to date another Asian woman after me, and then it was like that was the ‘thing’ — like, ‘Yeah, that’s why he liked you, and it’s your ‘otherness’ and your ‘exoticness’ that is valuable.” 

While some of these judgments are clearly uncalled for, dating is an interesting thing we practice as a society; it’s an intimate interpersonal act that is indelibly informed by historical frameworks of race and gender, whether consciously or unconsciously. Our dating doesn’t happen in a vacuum separate from the lasting effects of imperialism. 

Your “preference” is not a compliment

Some may think being fetishized is a positive thing. Shouldn’t you be appreciative if someone is into your type of woman? Shouldn’t you be grateful if you have a congenital “advantage” in dating? In reality, being fetishized is not a compliment, and it’s not something to be grateful for. 

For many Asian American women, if a non-Asian guy has a pointed history of pursuing Asian women or says they’re “into Asians,” it’s like “alarm bells going off,” as Warfield said. Considering how small of the population we comprise in most parts of this country, it’s rarely accidental. 

Kelly Tran, a sixth-year P4 pharmacy major and Vietnamese American, finds that sort of dating history from a non-Asian man concerning. 

“It becomes problematic if you look at their roster, and it’s only Asian girls,” Tran said. “If that’s really the only type of woman in the mix, then I would feel very uncomfortable, and I would take myself out of that equation or not even give [him] the time of day.” 

The violent consequences of yellow fever are well documented: the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting where a white man killed six East Asian women because he considered them a sexual temptation, the disproportionate amount of violent porn featuring Asian women and the subsequent sexual violence and murders. Unlike white women and Black women, Asian American women are more likely to be the victims of sexual violence from men of another race rather than the same race. 

Sure, most of the guys who are “into Asians” are not committing outright acts of violence. Even still, being “into Asians” or “finding Asian women more attractive” is not something to be celebrated. 

It strips you of your humanity and individuality. If you are into someone first and foremost because they are Asian, even if unconsciously, you are operating foundationally with the assumption that we are interchangeable and part of a distinct, exotic monolith here for your consumption. 

“I’ve heard people be like, ‘You’re the first Asian girl like I’ve done this with, or I’ve kissed,’ those kinds of comments,” Tran said. “ … That’s where it just becomes a little nasty because I’m not here to play your games. I’m not here to be that square that you check off.” 

Even something as seemingly innocuous as having a “physical preference” cannot be rationalized when there’s no singular look for our entire community. One common example is men who say they prefer East and Southeast Asian women because they’re attracted to short and slim women. If that’s truly the case, then you’re into short and slim women — not Asian women! 

“[Short and slim] is not every Asian person,” Warfield said. “And there are short Black people, short white people — like, what in the world? I’ve heard that a lot, like, ‘I like petite women.’ And I’m like, okay, that’s definitely not exclusive [to Asian women]. And when you’re also lumping in all Asian cultures — I’m thinking about Filipino people, I’m thinking about Cambodian people —  we’re not all petite. We all look different.” 

Warfield experienced this, where we’re regarded as equivalent objects, in an extreme way. In grade school, the male friend of the guy she was dating told her he couldn’t look at her anymore because he saw a porn star who looked just like her. 

“I guarantee they didn’t look like me,” Warfield said. “You were searching Asian women in porn, and it’s so prevalent on the internet, and you’re equating me with that.” 

And for all those guys who’ve liked my Hinge who felt their undying love for anime or life-changing travels to Japan or Thailand was the most important thing about themselves to showcase: if you want to date an Asian woman because you’re “into Asian culture,” it can be just as dehumanizing as explicit anti-Asian hate. Asian American women don’t exist as vessels for your exoticized and romanticized view of Asian cultures. 

The truth is that the men whose type is Asian women are oftentimes the worst to Asian women; the disrespect is inherent to the fetishization. The men in my past who hated when I discussed anti-Asian racism, who defended anti-Asian racism, who made anti-Asian racist “jokes,” who discredited my personal experiences with racism the most — were the same men who adored Asian women the most.

Like me for me

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you should automatically be crucified for being attracted to an Asian woman or being in an interracial relationship with an Asian American woman; to all my former hookups, if we’re close enough that you’re reading this, this article is probably not about you. 

But on the one hand, I don’t want my Asianness to be the qualifying factor for your attraction to me. If you think I’m hot, I want you to think I’m hot simply through my own virtue. And as a whole individual, I want you to appreciate everything that encompasses my being, especially the things I have autonomy in. I didn’t choose to be born as a Chinese woman, but I do choose the way I dress, the ridiculous jokes I make, the social issues I care about and everything else that makes me “me.” 

On the other hand, I don’t want you to ignore my Asianness, as a “colorblind” ex-boyfriend did. While it’s not all of me, my heritage is still a big part of me that I need my future partner to understand. 

Where do we go from here?

For the non-Asian men out there, just treat all people like the human beings they are. Warfield advises anyone who says they’re “into Asians” to really critically self-reflect why that is. 

“What are they associating with those features, with those people?” Warfield said. “Are you really seeing them as complex humans? Are there things that you’re bypassing and ignoring because you want to achieve having an Asian woman partner? I’m curious about that because I feel like our ‘preferences’ can’t help but be influenced by ‘-isms.’” 

For my fellow Asian American women trying to navigate the murky waters of dating, know that you’re not alone in your struggles. Feel empowered to take a stand for yourself and our community. I have been in too many situations where I have resigned myself to my racist degradation, or couldn’t even recognize it in the moment because of how blurry the lines can be, and I don’t wish that upon anyone. 

Ultimately, you are worthy of a partner who loves and supports you for every thread of your tapestry, the Asian parts and the non-Asian parts alike — each thing big and small that makes you uniquely wonderful.


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