|By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, AAV Editor
I watch with nervous dread as he makes his move. The older bearded man—maybe a professor, maybe a street person—casually picks up his magazine and walks across the Borders café to sit in the chair next to the beautiful young Asian woman, at least thirty-five years his junior. No way. He is out of his league. What is he thinking?
He leans over and begins to make small talk. She begins to inch away in her chair, as far to the right as she can go. She smiles and nods politely, while burying her nose deeper and deeper into TheAudacity of Hope. Still, he rambles on.
I am reminded of when I was the Manager of the UC Berkeley Glee Club Women’s Chorus. One of my jobs was to intercept and redirect these Asianphiles* from young, inexperienced freshmen who might not yet know how to recognize and handle them. I remember crossing the large choir rehearsal room so many times, sometimes running down the risers, to physically put myself across the path of Known Asianphiles from the Men’s Chorus as they walked in the door and beelined straight to the newest undergraduate Asian woman. “Hey Nick,” I distracted him by taking his arm, “Would you mind helping Eric here with that new tenor passage?”
Meanwhile, back at Borders, I overhear snippets of “Where are you from?” and “When I first studied Chinese,” and “My sensei at the dojo says…” I want to groan. Could this be any more stereotypical?
I catch the woman’s eye from across the room and make an “OMG this guy is so crazy” face. She smiles imperceptibly and does not let him see. We have made contact. We are sisters. She is not alone.
I have recently met a few anti-Asianphiles—men who do not go out with Asian women because they do not want people to think they are Asianphiles. A curious breed, I am not really sure what to make of these. I suppose I should be glad to have found men who have no interest in me and are safe with whom to be just friends—the Asian equivalent of a gay friend. Yet, to be rejected out of hand because I am Asian feels almost as creepy as being desired simply because I am. There is no nuance. I am more than my race, the color of my skin. Is this borderline racist? Or simply a function of desire? I remind myself what Cybil Shepherd says, “Some people just don’t like chocolate.” At least it is more upfront than those men my father warned me about in college, white men who are happy to date Asian women, but will never marry them.
I feel I should rescue this poor woman somehow, but I am also afraid of attracting the Asianphile’s attention. What if he then talks to me for an hour? Is that a risk I am willing to take for a stranger? Maybe I can deflect him better than she can, as I am American-born and more willing to not be polite, but I know that my body language will be like hers, illegible to him. Why doesn’t she just get up and walk away? Why should she have to?
Last week, a friend affectionately called me “China girl.” I did not have the energy to explain how offensive that was. I know he meant well, he simply did not understand the politics of his words, politics in which I live and work every day. So instead I rationalize, “At least it was not ‘China doll,’” which has all sorts of worse fragile inanimate object connotations.
Finally, the Asianphile disappears, and the woman is free once again, her body relaxed as she returns to her Barack Obama book. However, I have been thrust into a whirlpool of doubt. How I long for friends who get me and take me as I am, in spite of and also not simply because of my race. My Asian and Asian American girlfriends get me, with little translation or explanation. I have a few male friends of color, but they have their own issues with white women. I sometimes wonder if it is possible for us to really have meaningful relationships across the borders of race (and gender). I am not talking about mere tolerance of people of different races (and gender), but real understanding and meaningful friendships. I have to believe that it is, that our differences of experiences are not insurmountable. Yet sometimes I really wonder if it is worth the effort, I cringe at the first sign of disjuncture (again!), and I hesitate.
*The joy of writing for the ethnic media is that I do not have to define every single one of my terms. You already know what an Asianphile is: A man who likes Asian women simply because they are Asian women, who cannot differentiate between Asian women who are smart, dumb, beautiful, ugly, skinny, fat, tall, short, fair, dark, outspoken, quiet, immigrant, American born, liberal arts, engineer, etc. Also known as someone with “yellow fever” and a “rice king.” The offense is not that he likes Asian women, but that he likes Asian women without any sort of filter or discrimination. He sees what he wants to see and so any Asian woman is as good as another because they are all the same. He never really sees her. It is like the model minority stereotype. Yes, it is better to have a good stereotype than a bad one (here, better to be liked than not), but it is still a stereotype that is limiting and that denies us our individuality.