The Soapbox: I Don’t Want Your Yellow Fever

As a kid, I was used to standing out for lots of reasons, like my “Star Wars” obsession or the black eyeliner and vampire chic that made up my high school wardrobe.

I never expected my race to be one of those reasons.

I grew up as an Asian-American among Asian-Americans, so I certainly wasn’t used to being viewed as what we English Lit majors call “the exotic other.” Even when I went to college in St. Louis, it wasn’t that much of a problem. I did go on a date with a guy who went on about his trip to Japan and the extreme “femininity” of its women, but that was about it.

It wasn’t until I moved to the UK that it kicked in: men – and it was always men – shouting “NEE HOW MA” or “KOH-NEE-CHEE-WAAAH” or even “Me love you long time!” as I walked down the street; starting conversations with “Soooo … are you from … China?” before they’d even asked my name; playing up their supposed interest in Asian culture while going on about how “feminine” and beautiful Asian women are.

Of course, many non-Asian people are genuinely interested in the cultures of Asia. I don’t mind if people ask me where I’m from during the course of a conversation, as long as it’s not the very first thing they ask. And it’s fine for non-Asian men (and women) to be physically attracted to Asian women – this is the 21st century, after all, and we do look good. Some people simply have a type which is more likely to be found in certain ethnic groups than others. For instance, I find prominent noses and curly hair attractive; other people might like black hair or brown eyes.

But what I’m talking about is Yellow Fever: the desire to fetishize Asian women as some sort of homogenous “sexy other,” and being more interested in our Asian-ness than who we really are.

I’m aware that these instances are more due to ignorance and objectification than hate. But while outright race-based hate is thankfully becoming less acceptable, ignorance is still flourishing. For instance, I once worked in an office here in the UK where someone referred to a Chinese takeout meal as a “C-word-that-rhymes-with-slinky,” all in a perfectly neutral tone of voice. I’d never heard him say anything remotely racist before, so it was a surprise. It wasn’t until I said, “Excuse me?!” that he even realized that term might be offensive. To his credit, he apologized right away – but the fact still remains that he initially saw nothing wrong with using that word. And I wonder: if people see it as okay to use that C-word, what other sentiments are they okay with?

I’m also aware that while I managed to mostly avoid this phenomenon in America, many other women aren’t so lucky. The Creepy White Guys Tumblr is full of messages received by Asian women that are dripping with entitlement, stereotypes, and sexual objectification:

“I’m just a big strong American man who will love and protect you…”

“Hey, do you know kung fu? How about fuck-fu?…”

“…I am obsessed with having sex with Chinese women while they tell me things that make me feel empowered …”

I don’t 100 percent agree with the Tumblr name – creepiness isn’t exclusive to any particular race – but it’s an excellent showcase of the sentiments that underlie the Yellow Fever treatment.

When men ask where I’m from before even asking my name, that suggests they’re more interested in my difference than they are in me as a person. All that “NEE HOW MA” or “KOH-NEE-CHEE-WAAAH” stuff? It’s just racial catcalling: the same as “Hey, baby,” but in an attempt at an Asian language. Because I’m Asian, you see, and I couldn’t possibly understand what “Hey, baby” means. And reverting to the tired “Me love you long time” cliché, or gushing about how much you love Asian women for their “femininity” and conflating culture with sexuality? That taps into age-old stereotypes of the Asian woman as the subservient geisha/lotus flower/sex wizard, and colonialist views of Asia itself. It all adds up to a desire to see us as the foreign other; a refusal to accept that we can assimilate into a particular culture and become just as much a part of it as anyone else. Yellow Fever is not complimentary. It’s ugly and racist and, like its namesake, needs to be cured as soon as possible.

In the meantime, if you do have a case of Yellow Fever, please stay as far away from Asian women as possible – because we sure as hell don’t want to be around it.

[Asian woman and white man image via Shutterstock]