We’ve all heard about yellow fever and the associated stereotypes. So what happens when you’re a Western man dating or married to an Asian woman and you’re supposedly living the stereotype?
That’s the heart of this thoughtful guest post by Gerald Zhang-Schmidt, who is married to a Chinese woman.
You may remember Gerald from years back when he collaborated with me to write about stereotypes of Chinese-Western couples. He also submitted a question about changing your name in China that’s become one of my top 10 most popular posts (and incidentally, he was the one who ended up changing his name!).
Want to follow in Gerald’s footsteps and have your voice heard on Speaking of China? Check out my submit a post page for details.
Maybe I just shouldn’t care.
It’s my own fault, after all. I’ve known Jocelyn, at least via Speaking of China, for years and read of her thoughts and travails with great interest. The way that Chinese society puts everyone into place, in their gender roles and in gendered expectations about behavior and the course of a life has fascinated me.
How could you not be fascinated? While public displays of affection are still viewed askance in many places, the requirements for an ideal partner are proudly and straightforwardly proclaimed in ‘marriage markets’? (“Westerners” may also see these advertisements as superficial and appalling, but one could just as well call them honest.)
How about a place where the women are portrayed as if they would prefer (and be preferred by) foreigners over their own men, whereas the men hardly even seem to stand a chance with anyone anymore? That’s where I’m caught squat in the middle. Speaking of China is all about the rarity of foreign woman – Asian man couples, draws readers because of that same rarity, and has lots of issues to talk about. Meanwhile I’m living all of those other, wicked, dominant, problematic positions.
I mean, according to all the talk about white male privilege – and its experience – I must clearly be privileged. I’m not supposed to talk, for it just reflects my attempts at staying on top and maintaining my privileged position. As the WM part of a WM-AF (white male – Asian female) relationship, I’m living the stereotype. “Oh my, clearly one of those guys with an Asian fetish and one of those stupid and/or calculating women dumb enough to fall for him.”
The privilege of being in a majority is that you’re questioned less. As a friend recently put it, “you are given more second chances.” For the same reason, though, you are also less visible — for better and worse. You don’t have to explain yourself nearly as much as the unusual Western (or other) woman who marries an Asian man or the lucky Asian man who was able to attract a Western woman. Because they are considered unusual, they attract attention. They get questioned. They have to explain themselves and live with the puzzled looks. But, they also get much-visited blogs and book deals for their memoirs. And so, they have a need, but also get a chance, of explaining themselves. In breaking the mold, they are viewed askance, but also as avant-garde.
Try getting a book deal for the story of a ‘stereotypically normal’ WM-AF relationship, when “everyone knows” (a favorite phrase of the Chinese students I was teaching) that it’s all just about the Asian woman looking to better her situation and the Western male with yellow fever.
Such observations of upsides and downsides all too quickly devolve into nothing but discussions of who’s got it worse or better, “the culture of shut-up,” as it was recently called. So who does have it better? The one in an extraordinary situation beyond usual stereotypes, yet facing more scrutiny because of it? Or the one barely noticed because the situation is so stereotypical, no one even bothers wondering?
It’s similar to how feminism and stereotypes are discussed in general terms rather easily, but then suddenly turn personal and get vicious, until the discussion turns into something that has nothing to do with them. The likes of a “sure, there is a privilege to being a white male, but *I* am hardly privileged (or do you see me becoming rich just so?)” even as the systemic difficulties of the not-privileged (and advantages of the privileged) certainly are there, or the “yeah, I’m all for feminism, I like strong women” from men, as if feminism were all about strength, let alone one person’s likes.
But that’s not what I want to discuss. I don’t want to discuss anything, really. I just want to provide my observations and make a humble suggestion. Relationships, be they romantic or otherwise, will always be influenced by ethnic, cultural, and other backgrounds and the views they give rise to. But relationships are, at heart, not between ethnic groups, not between social groupings, nor even between men and women. They are between individual people.
The trouble starts when we don’t want to see individual people and individual situations, and don’t suspend judgment. When we see someone who fits into a stereotypical opinion and immediately think we have a handle on who they are.
We should remember that we tend to not even understand ourselves half as well as we may think we do.
Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is an ecologist and cultural anthropologist who spent three years living in China, and now resides with his wife in his native Austria where he writes about the ecology of happiness, chili peppers and being at home in the world.
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