I used to know a dude who seemed to think having an "Asian fetish" was a badge of honor. It wasn't that he happened to date Asian women; he wouldn't date anyone else. And he talked about it. A lot.
Any kind of "type" is inherently creepy when it becomes deliberate and self-determining. I mean, my mom tells me she always "ended up with" Jewish men; and a friend recently mentioned that for some reason she has dated four Scandinavians in a row. But of course, this is quite another matter from a white man seeking out, specifically, Asian women. In a piece in Salon, Laura Miller asks, "What is the deal with Western men's erotic obsession with the East?"
We all know the cliches: the creep looking for a "subservient" woman to cater to his every sexual want without raising a ripple or an opinion. Miller was prompted to look at the issue by a new book called The East, the West, and Sex, which chronicles this stereotype's long and distasteful history, from the 16th century, when the Western "Arabian Nights" myth took hold on, and, as she puts it, all the attendant "uncomfortable thoughts about race, power, sexuality, gender and history."
The book actually doesn't unilaterally condemn the dynamic; as Miller paraphrases, "In spite of the undeniable backdrop of injustice and exploitation, some of these encounters have been a Good Thing, offering to the men a reprieve from the repressive sexual morality of the Christian West and to the women a chance at a less traditionally patriarchal relationship than they might have had with many of their countrymen." Miller takes a dim view of this: as she points out, even if one can find the nuance in the story, the larger context is damning. And the legacy of this exoticized Orientalism speaks too loudly. As she puts it bluntly:
The power and wealth of Westerners — officials of colonial Britain, American GIs stationed in Vietnam, European expats in Thailand — when introduced into poor Asian societies where women have few other options, makes commercial sex pretty much inevitable. For all the rhapsodies about silken hair, "surrounding sensuousness," esoteric erotic arts and the ultrafemininity of Asian women, it is this economic imbalance that makes places like Bangkok so magnetic to Western men. A dollar goes much further there, whether you're buying hours of someone's labor at a sweatshop sewing machine or sexual services.
And we see the trickle-down of a reductive stereotyping every day. While very few men we know would admit to such retrograde "submission" fantasies, it can't be denied that in some ways the "Asian fetish" cliche has evolved in a way that's no less alarming for being less acknowledged. There are scores of young guys - white, hip, sophisticated, theoretically enlightened - who seem to regard having an Asian girlfriend as some kind of a status symbol. And, weirdly, they aren't embarrassed about it. The cliche is just as simplistic: in these cases, even if she's not subject to the old-fashioned "China Doll" image, she's reduced to a set of assumptions. Here's what one of my friends, a Chinese-American woman, says: "These guys who approach me half the time, clearly have "Asian fetish" written all over them. You can always tell...these dudes for whom an Asian girl, any Asian girl, is the ultimate hipster trophy." Adds another, "Maybe it's because they buy into this idea of some kind of inscrutable sphinx, and to them that seems like a good muse, because it's all about them." She also added, "the ironic thing is, it's the guys with the 'Asian woman' thing for whom we seem to be interchangeable. I mean, who just dates one kind of person, period - isn't that kind of a red flag? You'd never hear someone say, 'oh, I only date black women' - but I've heard guys say that about Asian women!"
Oh yeah, that dude I mentioned? He lives in China now. And yes, he's single.