“But I’m Just Not Into Asian Men…”
“Wow, he’s actually not too bad looking – for an Asian man,” one white girl chimed.
“I don’t know…” another one droned. “I’ve never been attracted to Asian guys.”
I craned my neck, seeking out the object of their discussion but failing to notice him from a sea of bobbing heads. So instead, I turned my gaze back to my phone. On my lock screen was a photo of a white girl and an Asian boy – me and my boyfriend.
A few days before, my boyfriend texted to notify me about Steve Harvey’s most recent embarrassing comedy act, where he joked about a book titled How to Date a White Woman: a Practical Guide for Asian Men. After a few minutes of silent, body-heaving laughter, Harvey turned to the crowd on his American talk show, both asking and answering for them, “Excuse me, do you like Asian men? No.”
But I like Asian men – hence Jason, my current Vietnamese-American boyfriend. Apparently in Western society, the idea of a non-Asian woman finding an Asian man attractive is laughable. While stereotypes depicting Asian men as emasculate, nerdy, and otherwise unsexy are often exploited for comedy purposes (think: small penis jokes), they have real-world implications: dating preference studies show that Asian men are deemed the least desirable race among non-Asian women.
It actually blows my mind that some people so wholeheartedly believe in these stereotypes, as my experience with Jason has broken every one of them.
While in the presence of my Jason, one of my closest friends had explained that she would never date an Asian guy because – she lowered her voice and motioned with her hands at this point – “they have tiny dicks”. This girl had never dated an Asian guy in her life – so where could she, like so many others, have possibly gotten this idea?
Firstly, the stereotype of Asian men as emasculate or effeminate originated from the 1800s, when an influx of Chinese workers during the California gold rush led white American labourers to feel threatened (They’re stealin’ our jobs!). To address this threat, laws were established to prevent Chinese workers from owning property or from being hired at traditionally male jobs, forcing them to do what was deemed as “women’s work”.
Asian men were also prevented from marrying and having families thanks to the shortage of Asian women in the country, as Asian immigrants were banned from the US by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which didn’t end until 1943), and due to the anti-miscegenation laws that prevented Asian men from marrying other races.
This, in combination with their traditional long silk garments and braided hair, led white Americans to perceive them as effeminate – a convenient stereotype to combat their proposed threat to the status of white men.
Looking at my own boyfriend today, this stereotypical image of Asian men as being emasculate never even crosses my mind. His bedroom walls are decorated with his track and wrestling medals, and he has abs that even make the guys stare when he takes his shirt off at the pool.
Another thing that seems to blow people’s minds is when I tell them that Jason works at Amazon. They automatically assume that he’s a computer nerd, asking “Oh, so he works in tech?” seeking to reaffirm the stereotype – one that originated from America’s Immigration Act of 1965.
This Act allowed for a controlled influx of Asian immigrants to enter the US, permitting only those from the wealthiest and most educated areas in Asian countries. Skilled workers and graduate students specializing in science and technology were sought after. While these educated immigrants significantly contributed to the US’s success in the nuclear arms and space races against the USSR during the Cold War, their status as selected educated elites catalysed the stereotype of Asians as a “Model Minority”, which has evolved into today’s nerdy or tech-savvy stereotype.
This assumption of intellectual superiority may foster further animosity against Asian men, perhaps fueling the need to emasculate them in pop culture (because god forbid an Asian man be both smart and sexy!). Either way, Jason isn’t an Amazon geek; he’s currently one of Amazon’s warehouse workers.
Hollywood has also served as a huge platform for the spread of these stereotypes through its whitewashed casting and stereotyped Asian characters.
Yellowface was used in countless films during the 1900s, as exemplified by Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of a bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Giving white actors Asian roles is still not uncommon today. Look at live-action recreations of anime such as The Last Airbender, or in Tilda Swinton’s role as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. Most recently, controversy has surrounded the selection of Scarlett Johansson to play Major Motoko Kusanagi, the Japanese protagonist, in Ghost in a Shell.
When you do see an Asian actor in a role, that role is often stereotypically “Asian”. Take Rajesh Koothrapalli, the unsexy astrophysicist incapable of talking to women in The Big Bang Theory, or Han Bryce Lee, an emasculate foreigner unable to understand American culture in 2 Broke Girls.
Not only is this harmful to the perception of Asian men, as proven through dating website studies, but it also homogenises 48 Asian countries and cultures into one, and even pushes the message that it is impossible to be both nerdy and sexy, or both emasculate and desirable.
Furthermore, these stereotypes are very gender specific to Asian men. Unpacking those surrounding Asian women, including the idea of “yellow fever” (a racist term that objectifies and fetishises Asian women), is a whole other complexity, not to mention the combination of stereotypes surrounding Asians in the LGBT or gender-queer community.
When Steve Harvey appears on television and jokes about how undesirable Asian men are, it serves not only to highlight, but also to perpetuate the stereotypes that are so engrained in Western culture. And when two white girls in a restaurant casually dismiss the date-ability of one man because of his race, it not only strikes me as quite shallow, but it also serves as evidence of how normal these stereotypes have become.
Back in the restaurant, with my eyes fixed to my phone, the tension in my body faded. My lock screen photo smiled up at me through the face of a perfectly happy biracial couple. Those girls next to me who declared that they didn’t like Asian men – whoever they were – were missing out.
Cover supplied by the author