GR friend and contributor Anne Ishii is the web editor of the freshly launched online forum They’re All So Beautiful. The forum is the interactive community spawned from filmmaker Debbie Lum’s documentary Seeking Asian Female – recently featured on This American Life, now available on DVD, and premiering on PBS’s Independent Lens during Asian American Heritage month, May 6.
The idea is to get people talking about the issues of race, gender and fetish all wrapped up around Asian/non-Asian intimate relations. Any regular reader of Giant Robot, or old school GR message board members knows what we’re talking about. It’s a debate that can go on for days, and isn’t that what the internet is perfect for? This time, things are a bit different though, perhaps more enlightened.
I asked Anne how she weighs in on the conversation.
GR: “They’re All So Beautiful” is a series of questions that tie in to Debbie Lum’s “Seeking Asian Female” documentary. I’m just going to ask you all the same ones. So, let’s start with “What’s Yellow Fever?”
AI: I’m far from a role model on the matter of using the phrase because I also use racial slurs sarcastically to the disgust of everyone, but “yellow fever” is a colloquial phrase denoting Orientalism, specifically in the East Asian realm. It does NOT refer to all white men who like Asian women. There are no monolithic groups of race in 21st century America. I’m sure the guy fucking a Sailor Moon pillow every night doesn’t want to be lumped in the same category as Rupert Murdoch just because they both intercourse with Asian characters who are twenty years their junior.
GR: What’s the BEST Yerrow pick up line you’ve ever heard?
AI: A black man once said to me, “you can be my egg roll, I’ll be your fried chicken.” PRICELESS. I think the saddest pickup line I’ve heard is “I know karate.” Used more than once by perfect strangers to start conversation with me. I mean that’s cool you know karate, but I’d save that gem for after we got to know each other. Because honestly? I’d rather get boned by fried chicken than someone who reads SHOGUN twice a year for inspiration and keeps a prop katana on top of his TV.
GR: How many times have you been someone’s “first Asian girl”, and how did you help that person through the experience?
AI: Hmmmm, it’s actually only been said to me once but it was probably more traumatizing for him to find out he was my tenth white guy that day. (Kidding of course. Hi Mom, Hi Dad…) I have, however, been told I was the latest Asian woman someone dated, by several dudes. That’s always creepy; that they thought telling me Asians were their type was flattering, forgetting the cardinal rule of dating: don’t talk about your exes.
I have inadvertently played into yellow fever in the past, however, by having a chip on my shoulder about being Japanese-Korean. I’d be at pains to characterize myself by ethno-cultural constructs to a fault, whereas these days if someone assumes I’m Chinese or Filipino I just shrug it off. No, in fact I’m flattered. (Filipinos know how to party. Hello fetishization!)
Anyway, once upon a time, I did care about being unique in my yellowness. Case in point: I took a white boyfriend with me to a Japanese grocery once and he joked, “where is the dog meat?” I was mortified and was like, “dude we’re at Marukai, not 99 Ranch Market.” [BTW sorry, 99 Ranch Market, for suggesting you sell dog meat...] More tellingly, I continued dating the philistine for another two years. I don’t categorically blacklist people who say dumb things about my heritage, but I do cringe in hindsight.
GR: Let’s talk about fetishes. What are yours?
AI: Gay porn. Haha.
And let’s give it up for the hard core fetishists. I like a lot of things but nothing so much I’ll wear a furry costume and nipple clamps for twelve hours just to get off.
I would do anything for love, as Meat Loaf says. But I won’t do that.
GR: People are either blissfully proud of having “yellow fever”, like Steven in Debbie’s documentary, or they’re adamantly against the label and get worked up over it. What gives?
AI: Such a good question and certainly relevant to They’re All So Beautiful. A lot of white Asia specialists have been cagey with me about “yellow fever.”
It has less to do with race and more to do with gender. Women have to reconcile with their sexual objectification from a much younger age and then more frequently than men, so we’re just better prepared to talk about it candidly. We might just be reacting to their defensiveness in the context of our openness. Like, “I have no problem saying I’ve participated in yellow fever, so why can’t you?” I mean I went into relationships with black and Latino people with similar racial hang-ups. I feel weird about these issues yes, but not scared to discuss it.
Men, however, and white men in particular, are in a precarious position of having a responsibility to historically oppressive sexuality. I guess the more aware they are of this onus, the more defensive they get about discussing it. I’ll cop it to Freudian something or other. They feel bullied when asked to talk about what’s ultimately a personal issue. To this I say, “join the club.”
Anyway maybe I’m glad some of these guys are uncomfortable. If Harmony Korine, Gaspar Noe, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier (men, anyway) are allowed to quiz sexual dynamics by showing a woman get raped, I’d like to think I can ask similar questions and actually be thanked for sparing people the soul-hazing process. I hate to sound vindictive but the truth is, I hope their discomfort brings them closer to understanding what it’s like to have to think about and rationalize sex to the world, to say nothing of getting to know your own self. Some of us can stand to use a little more self-reflection. Love us, eat our food, talk about your sensei all day. Really it’s fine. We let you in after all. But please don’t get defensive when we ask why you’re here.
Then again privilege and fetishization go hand in hand. I find myself feeling defensive when single straight women say “I wish I were a lesbian because women are nicer than men.” I guarantee no lesbian wishes anyone be denied the partnership rights the way they have. I’m annoyed when a man says “women have all the power.” I guarantee not a single one of the quarter million US female victims of rape every year ever think they have “all the power.” I’m annoyed when white and Asian men vaunt black masculinity. I’m positive not a single black man thinks a one in two likelihood of getting stopped by cops is enviable. It’s a hairy line between respect and fetishization.
THAT ALL SAID, I don’t have a personal opinion about who’s dating who. I just hope as an editor, peers trust me to provide a safe platform for discussion.
GR: I feel like we’ll see a cure for cancer before we see a cure for “yellow fever”. Is it less like a cancer and more like Herpes? Should we just embrace and accept the afflicted?
Terminal illness is kind of a hard core analogy but I see where you’re going. I don’t believe racism is curable, but I want it to be cured. Lung cancer isn’t exclusive to smokers but quitting smoking certainly helps, so I guess if everyone stopped smoking the fetishization pipe we’d still have racism but it would have a more medical than sociological stigma. And yellow fever isn’t about racism it’s about image. Maybe in that sense it’s Herpes?
The irony of “yellow fever” is that the best cure is a serious relationship with an Asian. We are the ultimate vaccine.