Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Asian Fetish

Jimmy Zhao ’08 says his parents used to joke that if he ever brought a white girl home, at least they could be glad she wasn't African American.
If Zhao, who is Chinese American, did bring an African-American girlfriend back to his New Jersey home, it wouldn’t only surprise his parents. It would be a statistical anomaly.According to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by a sociologist at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, C.N. Le, just 0.1 percent of Chinese-American men have African-American wives, compared to 5.1 percent who are married to white women.
Zhao’s parents’ joke might be jarring to many, but it underscores the obstacles facing Asian-Americans who date across racial lines.At Harvard, students say, interracial relationships involving Asian students seem relatively common, and they may not draw as much attention as other interracial pairings.But even this prevalent form of interracial dating is bound by its own set of rules and expectations, which students say complicate every intersection of romance and race.
Relationships between Asian women and white men seem particularly commonplace, students say. According to Le’s data, a Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese woman is more than twice as likely as her male ethnic counterpart to have a white spouse.
Hovering over these relationships is the specter of the “Asian fetish,” Jean Yang ’08 says.
By that, Yang refers to a supposed white-male fantasy based on the stereotype that Asian women are exotic, or delicate, or more passive than females of other races.
Yang, who is Chinese American, says she would not want to date someone who was only attracted to her because of her ethnicity. Although the “Asian fetish,” is a familiar concept to her, she says it is not a concern in her present interracial relationship.
Christopher L. Hartl ’09 is dating a Chinese woman, and he says he doesn’t take the concept of the “Asian fetish” seriously.But other non-Asian Harvard men have told Hartl that, on average, they are more attracted to Asian women than to women of other races.
Even so, he says, “if somebody says that he’s only attracted to Asian women, it’s not so much a fetish as a preference.” 

"Kung Fu Fighter"

Interracial dating is more problematic for Asian men, says Edward Y. Lee ’08, who is Korean American.
Asian men do not typically date outside of their race because they are stereotypically viewed as “very un-masculine,” Lee says.
He points out that few Asian men play for American professional sports teams. And in movies, he says, Asian men still only play two roles: the kung fu fighter and the angry store owner. Asian women, in contrast, are portrayed as having increasingly varied and prominent roles, Lee says.
“It’s my goal to make the Asian man sexy again,” he jokes.
Data on interracial marriage suggests that few Korean-American men cross ethnic lines—at least at the altar.
While 24.3 percent of Korean-American women have white husbands, just 3.9 percent of Korean-American men have white wives, according to Le of UMass-Amherst. Fewer than 0.1 percent have African-American wives, according to Le.

Just as media portrayals in the U.S. may distort Asian-American masculinity, images of African-Americans abroad may make it less socially acceptable for Asian Americans to date African Americans.

In China, Jimmy Zhao says, “the only black people you’re going to see on TV are in rap videos or other negative images.” The result, he says, is that the immigrant parents of some Chinese Americans “make assumptions about [African Americans] as a people in general.”

Other Asian-American students agreed that older generations might be reticent about their children dating African Americans due in part to stereotypes about socioeconomic status.

“I think Asian-American parents more look at economic status, and they see black and Latino Americans as having a lower economic status than whites,” Quinnie Lin ’09 says. “Because a lot of these Asian parents come to this country with the goal of building a better life and getting ahead...they always strive for the best for their kids.”
The expectation can be that “ideally you would marry up, and by marry up, we mean marry white,” says Sherri Y. Geng ’09, who is Chinese American.

Beyond Color

Gayatri S. Datar ‘07, an Indian-American, also says that South Asian students usually face less family resistance if they date East Asians or Caucasians than if they date African Americans.
But, Datar stresses, religious tensions might weigh more heavily than racial stereotypes in their romantic choices.
“I’m sure that several Indian parents would much prefer their daughter to bring home a black guy than an Indian Muslim,” says Datar, who is Hindu.
Nationality can be a crucial issue when two nations have a history of conflict.

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