When you see an Asian woman and a white man together, what runs through your mind? Do you see just another happy interracial couple? Or do you wonder, is he another white guy with yellow fever? (Or worse, do you think he’s another Julien Blanc or Chinabounder, a man who comes to Asia with the sole intent of preying upon the women for sexual or personal gain?)
That’s the idea behind Gerald Zhang-Schmidt’s guest post. He’s a guy who happened to come to China because he loved the culture. But since he has a Chinese wife, some people wonder if “Chinese culture” is really just a coded way of saying “Chinese women.”
I have written before about how privilege can be a double-edged sword. When you are part of the majority that usually goes unquestioned, you have it much easier than those who always have to somehow justify themselves. At the same time, you will be put on the spot much less because everyone assumes they know what you’re about.
Usually, you read about Asian Male – Western Female relationships here on Jocelyn’s “Speaking of China,” and it is a topic of interest by the same token. It is the unusual coupling/pairing that draws attention while the opposite WMAF relationship is a dime a dozen.
Ah, yes, another white guy in China. Who cares?
Speak Chinese in public, even just a few words, and you will be praised. And then you will find yourself compared to Dashan. (Or right now, internationally, perhaps to Mark Zuckerberg.)
Get into a relationship with a Chinese woman, get ready for everyone knowing just perfectly well why and how that would have happened. Oftentimes, it seems everyone will think they know better than you, without ever having so much as done anything more than caught a glance of you.
At risk of sounding like bad Chinese “news” pieces, “everyone knows” of some “rotten apples,” and it’s been killing the atmosphere. I wrote about my relationship to my wife, who is Chinese, and the thoughts it raised before on my blog. One comment that immediately popped up accused me of “yellow fever.” Fittingly, right next to the link to a more recent post talking about how “yellow fever” is a demeaning concept.
So, I spoke to a fellow passenger on a train in China. She asked me what had led me to China and I replied that I’d had an interest in Chinese culture for as long as I could remember. She then asked me if by interest in Chinese culture, I actually meant the girls.
My then-girlfriend and I went down the road, heads turned and stared. Not just in her small-town hometown, where the police hadn’t had any idea about how to handle my residence registration until they checked in with their higher-ups. But even more so in the somewhat bigger cities where people obviously, in disapproving looks and mumbled comments, expressed their dubious opinion of our relationship.
I can’t blame the Chinese, though.
Pretty much every culture around the world tends to “lose” the daughters to husbands, and pretty much everywhere, seeing foreigners “take away” women is seen as an indication of one’s own weakness vis-á-vis the “others.”
Add an awareness, even if just at the level of urban legends and social media hearsay, of (supposedly) rich foreign guys basically buying themselves brides (of course, such stories would turn into morality tales with bad endings), foreigners actually bragging about the ease and number of their Asian conquests, and stories of destroyed virginities (and thus, marriage prospects, as per traditional Chinese notions) and broken hearts. It’s no wonder there is suspicion.
It is just natural.
I find it less natural for foreigners to bring along their cavalier attitudes about dating and sex to China. Okay, one could argue that it’s not a big deal here, given the traditional attitudes towards the wife versus mistresses. But no matter what over-entitled and under-culturally aware people claim, a stranger in a strange land should act with more concern for his host country.
Nowadays, of course, the effects on foreigners aren’t just isolated to places like China. Everywhere, one lives in the shadow of aspersion cast by those who act… well, in this case, under the influence of their penises rather than their brains, it seems.
Argue that you are different, and in a case of “methinks [he] doth protest too much”, you appear defensive, and by association, guilty. But shutting up only gives more room for the worst voices out there. So, at least sometimes – thank you for the invite and the reminder to do so again, Jocelyn – I go on writing about this issue. Most importantly, however, I keep on living it differently, remaining true to the woman I fell in love with and continue to love, whose name I added to my own, and who I want to make happy.
I’d love to add that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, but we humans are social animals to whom other’s opinions do matter a lot. However, it would help a lot, for a start, if you could at least not think the worst of us without knowing anything but our genders and ethnicities.
But what I love most about Big Little Man is how Tizon tells the story. He’s painfully honest about his own struggles with things such as identity and feeling inferior in an America that has traditionally marginalized Asian men. He also keeps you turning the pages with his superlative writing and storytelling skills, which is where his journalist credentials especially shine through (Tizon received a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1997).
Ultimately, this is a memoir I’ll cherish for years – and chances are, you will too. You must read Big Little Man. And if you’re like me, you’ll want to peruse its compelling pages again and again.
During his 20 years as a journalist, Tizon worked first for the Seattle Times and then the Los Angeles Times. A graduate of the University of Oregon and Stanford, he now teaches journalism at the University of Oregon. You can learn more about him and his writing at AlexTizon.com.
In this interview with Alex Tizon, I asked him all about Big Little Man – from what it was like writing about yellow fever and his own insecurities about penis size, to what he thinks it’s going to take for Asian men to be seen as desirable romantic partners.
You offer one of the most devastating critiques of Western men with yellow fever seeking Asian women that I’ve ever read. While you acknowledge at the end of the book that you’re now more accepting of these relationships, for a time this phenomenon actually angered you. How did it feel to revisit your past feelings on this issue?
It didn’t feel very good. It felt terrible, actually. And the feeling wasn’t limited to just this phenomenon. The writing process itself is painful to me, and when you combine it with the probing and remembering that were required to tell the story, the whole enterprise at times seemed too much to bear. Remembering the sense of exile that I felt as a young man actually recreated the feeling of exile. Remembering the indignation I felt upon seeing rich old white men buying the affections of impoverished 15-year-old prostitutes in the Philippines filled me once again with anger and resentment, and I walked around that way. It put me in a snarly mood. I wasn’t fit to be around people. I withdrew and took a lot of naps. I really hope my next book won’t be such a torture.
In your memoir, you courageously confront the pernicious “small penis” stereotype of Asian men in part by sharing your own very personal and intimate experiences. When I was reading this section of your book, I almost often felt as if I was sneaking a peek at your diary! What was it like writing so honestly about something most men would never dare to discuss?
People are surprised to hear that it wasn’t that difficult to do, really. There were sections of the book that were much harder to conceptualize and write about. If I were thirty years younger, I might not have been able to write about this topic because of adolescent ego and vanity that are still so powerful at that age. But I’m in my 50s, with a respectable record of romances, and am happily married. I’ve sufficiently proven myself, at least in my own mind. My insecurities have moved on to other areas.
The challenge in writing the penis chapter was to do it in a way that elevated the discussion, at least a little, from the junior high locker room level to something that addressed the symbolism of the subject. I don’t know if I succeeded. My wife thought the chapter was extraneous and a little puerile. In my defense, I was more interested in exploring what the penis represents in the various mythologies about race. It would be incomplete to talk about the Asian male experience without addressing the idea of his mythically small penis, just as it would be incomplete to talk about the black male experience without addressing his mythically large one. These myths exert social force. Both myths are hollow, of course. “Asian” covers too many people over too large a swath of geography, as does “black” or “African.” The riotous diversity in those swaths! When you make simplistic generalizations about such immense sections of humanity, you’re bound to be wrong half the time. Nevertheless, the myths endure.
You devote an entire chapter to exploring Asian men in American TV and the movies, from the embarrassing stereotypes to “yellowface”. It’s one of the most comprehensive takes on this subject that I’ve encountered. How do you feel about the state of the Asian man in American movies and TV for this year?
There are promising signs. ABC will have two primetime comedies this fall starring Asian leads, including one, Selfie, in which actor John Cho plays a lead role, and some predict a romantic lead role. We’ll have to wait and see if that pans out. There’s Steven Yeung on The Walking Dead, and Daniel Dae Kim in Hawaii Five-O; both of those are supporting roles but good ones.
Cultural habits are hard to break, though. One show on TBS, 2 Broke Girls, that was called by the New Yorker as “so racist it’s baffling,” features an Asian male character straight out of KKK central casting: a diminutive, sexless, bumbling, language-challenged restaurant owner who is a constant butt of jokes, and he takes it like a true spineless loser. He’s the 2014 version of Lloyd Lee on Entourage, and Hop Sing on Bonanza. White America needs at least one per generation to remind itself that, oh yeah, this is what we think of Asian men. Chop Chop!
A few weeks ago, I watched a movie called Edge of Tomorrow in which the lead character was played by Tom Cruise. I like Tom Cruise. But the movie was based on a Japanese graphic novel, written by a Japanese author, in which the lead character is Japanese. There’s another movie coming out soon – same situation, based on a novel out of Japan, but the lead role was given to blonde, green-eyed Garrett Hedlund, who I’m sure is a terrific actor. When Hollywood starts casting Asian men in roles originally conceived as Asian men by writers who are also Asian men, then I’ll know we’re making real progress.
Regarding your romantic life as a young man in college, you wrote, “My sense was female eyes did not see me…I was undesirable.” The three distinguished young Asian men you profile in your book, who you single out as examples of progress, also admit to challenges of dating at universities where most women are white. What do you think it’s going to take for Asian men to be seen as desirable partners?
Time. And a re-positioning of the world order, which is happening as we speak. Desirability in men is so often tied to power. As Asian nations and diasporas, and Asian Americans, both male and female, continue to accrue power – economic, social, political, corporeal – the more appealing they’ll become, and the more influence they’ll have in affecting ideals of beauty and desirability, which will be redrawn in their likeness. It’s a matter of time. Of course I’m talking about historical time: decades and generations rather than weeks and months.
While your entire book is an incredibly fascinating portrait of Asian manhood, I especially enjoyed your chapter on the Chinese concept of Wen Wu (文武) as it relates to masculinity: “For the past two thousand years in China, you could not be merely a tough guy to be considered an ideal man. You also had to be scholarly, poetic, and wise. The manliest of men were philosopher-warriors, and more philosopher than warrior. A cultivated mind was more highly esteemed than big biceps or deft swordsmanship.” How did it feel to discover this tradition of masculinity, and that it had such a long history?
It really put in place a missing piece of the puzzle for me. But it was more a sense of re-discovering it rather than discovering it. Because I grew up with it in my family, only I didn’t realize it at the time. We didn’t have the language for it, nor sufficient knowledge of our own history. But when I realized that the dynamics of our family, specifically the ones that shaped my father and brothers, were part of an old tradition of masculinity (I like the way you put that: a tradition of masculinity) that went back to the ancient Chinese, whose teachings influenced the whole continent, it made sense of things I’d been trying to figure out. It also liberated me in a very real way. I was freed to be the man that I was raised to be.
You write briefly about your first marriage to a white woman, which ended in divorce. You stated, “I don’t believe our ethnic and racial backgrounds played a huge role in our breaking apart, but they may have played a role.” How much do you think ethnic and racial backgrounds matter in relationships?
I have to believe that it will matter in different ways and in different intensities for different couples. I can really only speak to my own experience, and I’m more and more believing that I underestimated the influence, on a subconscious, molecular level, of our families or, as I put it in the book, our clans. I think the Emerson quote I use in the book, that we’re each a quotation from all our ancestors, is true. The wider the gulf between our ancestors, the greater the potential for disconnect in present-day relationships.
But I also know of a few interracial and interethnic marriages that are as solid as any I’ve encountered. They make it work. They do the impossible work of bridging impossibly wide gulfs. And let’s face it, the gulf between men and women everywhere and in all times can seem impossibly wide. But these couples seem to have what it takes for any couple of any background to last a long time: humility, deep friendship, an ability to create a spark now and then in some area of life. A little luck doesn’t hurt either.
You write about initially feeling uncomfortable with being lumped together with all the different ethnic groups from Asia under one label (“Oriental” when you were growing up, and “Asian” today), as if Japanese and Filipino is “the same thing”. At the end of your book, you state, “For the time being, and until we collectively move on to more enlightened ways of identifying ourselves, I guess I am an Asian guy.” What do you think would be a more enlightened way to identify ourselves?
Almost anything other than “Asian” or “Black” or “White” would be more enlightened. Nationality or ethnicity or geographic location would be an improvement. Perhaps the more specific the better. I am a fisherman from the Pacific Northwest of the North American continent. When I traveled to my mother’s home province in the Philippines in the early 1990s, I was enchanted to meet people who identified themselves, not as Filipinos or even as Tarlacenos (from Tarlac Province), but as people of such-and-such mountain or such-and-such river. They harkened from a very specific place, and identified themselves accordingly.
I’m watching the HBO series Game of Thrones, which is roughly based on medieval Europe, and I love the way the characters identify themselves with these very long, compound sentences: I am Alexander of House Tizon, Son of the First Men, Subject of the Seven Gods of Hodor, Squire for the Protector of the Realm, Native of the Andals and Ally of the Cebuano Fishers of the Black Sea, etc. I mean, it gets a little long-winded but it’s so eloquent and beautiful and rich, and so multidimensional. Wouldn’t it be great if we did the same in identifying ourselves. It might require the creation of a new language and a new tradition. Might it actually enrich our experience? Because what we name ourselves, I believe, profoundly affects how we see ourselves as individuals, and in turn how we conduct our lives. “I’m Black” or “I’m White or “I’m Asian” seems to open the door to such a limited reality – small and ridiculously vague at the same time.
Among some Indian tribes in New Mexico, there are over a hundred words for sunlight. There’s a word for the light that peeks over a hill in the morning. There’s a word for the light as it moves behind a particular kind of cloud. There’s a word for the sun just as it disappears below the horizon, and so on. You have to believe that their experience of the sun had more dimensions to it, was richer, and more poetic and precise. If we can figure out how to identify ourselves in ways as textured and layered and nuanced, we’ll have done a kindness and maybe come closer to the enlightened approach I hint at in the book.
A huge thank you to Alex Tizon for enlightening us all about Big Little Man through this interview! For more information about Tizon and his writing, you can visit his website AlexTizon.com (where you can also find links to him on social media sites). You can purchase Big Little Man at all major online retailers including Amazon.com.
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.
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.
Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a friend who urged me to read an essay by Virginia Proud of Tales of Expatria. She dubbed the essay “controversial” but then again, as she put it “blogs thrive on controversy” and encouraged me to introduce the topic. Well, she said the magic word — “controversy” — so of course, I immediately clicked on the link and dove into the first paragraph.
But when I finished the essay, a feeling of dread settled over me…which had nothing to do with Virginia’s essay per se.
First off, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed the essay. The writing was exceptional — humorous, thoughtful and self-reflective — and you could clearly tell that Virginia has, as you might say, “been around the global block” in her own experiences as an expat.
If you spend enough time in Expatria you’ll meet this chap, we affectionately call him the LBH. The Loser Back Home. Best described as someone you wouldn’t normally touch with a barge pole, but transplanted to foreign soil, is suddenly hot property, especially with attractive, young local women….
The LBH has always been with us and probably always will be. I remember my first LBH encounters as a teenager, when my family lived in Hong Kong. I couldn’t understand these corpulent old buggers with their gorgeous Chinese wives, until my mother pointed out their diamonds. It was the glory days of British rule and massive salaries and no one cared if the men were boring, ugly, stupid, or even mean. But then again, money and power has always been enough to make men wildly attractive, even back home….
Yes, the LBH — or, as people call him here in China, the Loser Laowai. Or for the purposes of this blog, the white Loser Laowai who only dates local Chinese women.
To me, this topic feels like the “skeleton in the closet” in the realm of cross-cultural and interracial dating in China — a topic so icky I’ve wanted to stay far, far away from it. And in the few times I’ve gathered the gumption to attempt a blog post on it in the past, invariably I abandoned my drafts and turned my attention to other topics.
Yet Virginia was able to produce a splendid essay that, to an extent, dealt with this topic, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s a matter of perspective. After all, Virginia, who is originally from Australia, currently calls Budapest, Hungary home and referred to this LBH in a more universal sense. She doesn’t have to address the proverbial “panda in the room” that immediately comes to mind once you move the topic to China — yellow fever. And for the purposes of this blog post, I’m referring to those white Laowai men who prefer Asians and potentially have highly racialized notions about Asian women.
See what I mean? Loaded stuff.
In my opinion the majority of white men with Chinese women do NOT fall into this “Loser Laowai” category. But still, we all know there are white loser laowai out there hooking up with Chinese women. And like the yellow fever phenomenon, their existence does have ramifications for couples of white men and Chinese women around the world. As Christine Tan of Shanghai Shiok wrote:
The problem, to me, is that shallow, superficial relationships between white men and Asian women vastly outnumber the same sort of suspicious pairings between Asian men and white women. And sadly, these types of WM/AF pairings are the most visible ones, because they often create spectacles of themselves….They are the Douchebags, the Jerks, and the Ambitious who think dating a white man or Asian woman betters them, financially or socially….those are the types of WM/AF pairings we remember, because they were too in-your-face to forget.
Which unfortunately could lead to the wrong assumptions when you see a white man and an Chinese woman walking down the street. Again, as Christine wrote:
I know that the white male/Asian female pairing has numerous negative associations attached to it. Words that immediately come to mind: Opportunistic. Gold-digger. Fetish. Sexualization. White-worship. Money. Exploitation. Lust. Pinkerton Syndrome. ‘Sarong Party Girl’ behavior was something I was warned against growing up.
I think a lot about why those associations exist. There are poorer women in China and the rest of Asia who view a foreign man as a meal ticket. There are Asian women who only date white men because most of the men they meet are white, and/or they find them more culturally/sexually appealing. There are white men who only date Asian women because of the society they live in — where the women are mostly Asian — or yes, they do find Asian women more culturally/sexually appealing. There are white men who come to Asia to hook up with local women in certain seedier places. There are local women who go to these places to hook up with the white men who come to Asia.
But then there are cases like mine — a mutual friend introduces a man and a woman and they get along, they like each other, they both like eating, and books, and the Barbie store. And oh, by the way, they happen to be white and Asian, respectively.
There’s another side to this topic of white Loser Laowai who only date Chinese women — when the men justify their dating choices by insulting the women back home, which Virginia alludes to in her essay. I’ve addressed this before and find it abhorrent that anyone would defend their relationship in such a hateful way. But it happens, most often in anonymous online forums. And because the expat gender balance is so skewed — far more expat men, who are overwhelming white, than women — well, let’s say if you’re a woman like me, you need a lot of courage to speak up about it in public.
In the end, I’ll never be able to write something like Virginia, not with all the baggage that accompanies this idea of white Laowai Losers with Chinese women. Still, I believe the subject deserves a conclusion. So, as someone who writes about relationships, perhaps it’s fitting that I sum this up with a phrase used on dating sites around the world: it’s complicated.
P.S.: For further reading on this “thorny topic”, I recommend They’re So Beautiful, the companion website to the compelling documentary Seeking Asian Female.
Yes, it’s a conversation in part about “yellow fever” — but one with more intelligence, one that seeks to transcend the usual boundaries and assumptions.
The site really got me thinking when I discovered Jeff Yang’s blog post. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s an Asian-American journalist for the Wall Street Journal — and one who has written some of my favorite articles exploring why you see so few Asian men with non-Asian women (such as this piece).
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