I wasn't even out of high school when men began greeting me with "konichiwa, beautiful" on the street. (I am not Japanese).
In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.
I was a freshman in college when I dated Pierre—not his real name—for two whole months. An architecture student and a self-identified Francophile, Pierre wore black turtlenecks, owned a beret, and probably would have named himself Pierre if he'd had any choice in the matter. Our first date was at a Parisian-style cafe; our second was a screening of Amélie. In retrospect, these were probably red flags. In my defense, I was 18.
Though I could excuse his penchant for cultural appropriation, I couldn't overlook his peculiar dating history. All of his exes, I soon learned, were Asian. A handful of data points aren't enough to constitute a trend, but even my 18-year-old self realized that there was a very low statistical probability that this could have unfolded in an arbitrary or unconscious fashion. Pierre, who didn't exhibit much self-awareness to begin with, claimed that his dating disposition could be explained by the qualities he sought in a partner. Asian girls just happened to be more likely to possess his preferred traits: According to him, we weren't nearly as loud, crass, promiscuous, or out of shape as white women.
Luckily for Pierre, my dating history was beginning to exhibit a pattern, too. In fact, Pierre was emblematic of the spectacularly bad taste in men I’d cultivated in my young adulthood. Prior to meeting my now-boyfriend of three years (my fluke success story), I dated several serial cheaters, at least one confirmed homophobe, and way too many Asian fetishists to count. I cringe at the memory of each of these illustrious gentlemen, but years later, it's the latter group that continues to make my skin crawl. An enthusiasm for Asian folks might not seem so bad, especially next to an irrational hatred of gay people. But my personal experience has taught me that even "positive" stereotypes are frustratingly reductive.
Though Pierre clearly meant what he said about "white women" as some sort of compliment, I was far from flattered. Actually, I was confused. At age 18, I shared more in common with the flighty, unkempt women of Pierre's nightmares than I did with his geisha girl fantasy. I was, in fact, the very embodiment of all of the things he supposedly hated—loud, crass, promiscuous, and out of shape. Somehow, my race managed to obscure all of these qualities. There are many faults for which I administer free passes (timeliness and hygiene, to name two), but I'm rarely capable of overlooking generalizations about my race, no matter how positive. My heritage, though a part of my identity, hardly says much about me as a romantic partner.
I was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles. If you heard my voice without knowing what I looked like, you'd probably assume that I was a teenage white girl. My idea of fashion is a pair of skinny jeans, not a kimono. My parents are immigrants, but I am, for all intents and purposes, American through and through. Yet I wasn't even out of high school when men began greeting me with "konichiwa, beautiful" on the street. (I am not Japanese). As I got older, the catcalls took a turn for the lewd: "Me love you long time!" "Sucky sucky!" I've lost track of the number of times a guy has gotten in my face and yelled the name of a random Asian country as a primitive courting strategy: "Hey, Korea!" "Vietnam?" "You Thai?" Even seemingly respectable men in respectable settings would introduce themselves and ask, "Where are you from?" only to frown and follow up with "No, really" when I responded with "California.”
When I entered college, it didn't help that I spent my free time writing a blog about my sexual experiences. I was Suzie Wong 2.0, a ripe target for fetishists all over the World Wide Web, and the slurs flung my way for my frankness about sex were as racialized as they were gendered. By the time I met Pierre, I'd already encountered countless fetishists trying to score submissive mates or a membership in the Joy Fuck Club. What’s more, I thought I knew how to avoid these guys—the kind of men who said they were looking for "Asian princesses" in their dating profiles, who expected me to walk on their backs one night and wield a wok the next.
But I soon learned that while a negative bias against a minority group is fairly easy to identify, a fetish can be much trickier to detect and dissect. Are attempts to speak Mandarin just misguided efforts to impress me, a non-native speaker? Should I be flattered when a guy compares me to Lucy Liu, an Asian actress to whom I bear little resemblance? Is being attracted to a woman for her race really any more offensive than dating her for her looks? Unlike sexually transmitted infections, there’s no test for yellow fever, and a fetishist is rarely inclined to disclose the affliction.
I developed a finely-tuned fetish radar. I became wary of guys who were overly curious about my "culture" or who inquired about my ethnic background within moments of meeting me. Later, I discovered that even a guy without an all-Asian cast of exes or a raging hentai addiction could be capable of fetishizing me. Some of the guys I slept with, who'd only ever been with women of their own race, appeared to view me as an exotic sexual experience. Unlike Pierre, who considered himself well-versed in my Asian ways, these guys were saddled with a special sort of ignorance. To them, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon might as well have been a sexual position. I bet some of them half-expected to encounter my mythical sideways vagina. (Spoiler alert: My junk's no different than a white chick's).
I was never invested enough to attempt to alter the racial consciousness of these one-night stands. I just filed my discomfort at being sexually objectified into my “bad sex” box and moved on to other conquests. So when I met Pierre, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional letdown of being misunderstood by a man I actually cared about. By telling me that he liked me because I wasn't white, Pierre actually made me feel bad about myself. I had only managed to win his attraction through an arbitrary twist of genetic fate. In his presence, I felt like the sum of a bunch of stereotypes pulled from Hollywood films of a less politically correct era. He thought he was flattering me, but all I really wanted was to be desired as an individual, not as a symbol of my supposed culture.
I tried to get Pierre to see me beyond my race, but I couldn't even challenge his views on the issue without him becoming defensive and lodging even more offensive comments. Like Pierre, many guys with whom I discussed the topic failed to recognize the racism inherent in forming a racial preference in the first place. They pointed to ex-girlfriends who fit their stereotypes and asked if I would have preferred the alternative of being viewed as undesirable because I’m not white. They couldn’t see that even if their assumptions weren't obviously insulting, they nonetheless imposed an arbitrary set of expectations on radically different women. In that sense, the random dude on the street shouting ""Ching-chong! Ching-chong!" at every passing Asian gal is not so different from the guy who invites me to dinner and earnestly asks, "Do you prefer to eat with chopsticks?"
Though I was already mentally over my short-lived romance with Pierre, the extent of our incompatibility didn’t sink in until I actually hopped into bed with him. Our first and only sexual encounter was a very literal interpretation of coitus interuptus: I stopped the action halfway though and asked to leave his apartment. Pierre asked me what was wrong, but I couldn't summon the courage to tell him the truth about my flagging interest. I hoped that he wouldn't call again, and he never did. It was the closest I ever came to playing the role of delicate lotus blossom.