“Oh, God, another Asian girl/white boy couple,” I groan, dropping my fiancé’s hand.
He hates it when I do this. So do I, really. I know it’s unkind and self-loathing, but every time I see another couple of our racial makeup, a little part of me sinks. We live in San Francisco, so this dip is as common as the hills. In these moments, I wish we were anything else ― that he were my gay best friend or we were startup co-founders, that he were Asian and I were white, that we were exquisitely ambiguous races, or that I could sink like my feelings into the sidewalk, be a little worm, and date whomever I want without considering social perception.
Shame is neither the wisest nor most mature part of oneself, but it still has a voice. “Stop it you guys!” my shame wants to say to these other couples. “Can’t you see the more of us there are, the worse it looks?”
“It” meaning the prevalent trend of Asian women seeming to end up with white men. “It” meaning the perpetuation of Asian fetish.
The first time I heard the term ”Asian fetish,” I was the only Chinese kid in a tiny school. Other students in my class had been pairing up to date since fifth grade, exchanging love notes and making each other Alanis Morissette mixtapes. I waited for my ”Jagged Little Pill” cassette, but nothing came in fifth grade. Or sixth. Or seventh. Or eighth.
Finally, in ninth grade, I got an email on Valentine’s Day from a sporty, popular boy. The subject: DON’T SHOW THIS TO ANYONE. The body: a truly terrible poem asking me to be his girlfriend. “Oh, my God,” was all I could think. “Someone likes me!” Who cares if his grammar left something to be desired! I got on Instant Messenger and said yes.
When classmates heard the news, I learned the term Asian fetish. Friends told me he’d been suffering from it for a little while now. I had only been familiar with the word “fetish” in regard to something like “foot fetish,” so I understood the implication: to be attracted to an Asian person was a kinky, odd thing. To be taught at a young age that someone likes you because of a “fetish” tells you that you are by nature strange, abnormal. I internalized: to be attracted to me was to have some sort of perversion. And so I learned to think of all Asians as less desirable and to be turned off by people who were turned on by me.
Even as I forayed into dating this boy, I was put off by much of what he said. My friends weren’t wrong about his Asian fetish. “I just feel like Asian girls are deeper than other girls, y’know?” he said to me once.
I thought it would get better in college but every time someone non-Asian showed interest, the whispers would start: I heard he had a half-Asian girlfriend in high school. He took a Japanese class last semester. Huge fan of sushi. Like, big time.
Sometimes it was hard to tell what was a valid warning sign and what was not. Misguided compliments were a pretty good indicator, though. “Every white and Asian male is jealous that I’m with you,” my first college boyfriend said. Even at the time, I remember wondering, why would you assume that I’m only desirable to white and Asian men? He assumed that, of course, because of my race. Race-based compliments reveal when people aren’t seeing you as the individual person that you are but as a piece of something.
It took me a little while to figure this out, but once I became more settled in college, I met my first Asian boyfriend, who ended up being my husband. Sadly, he also became my ex-husband. This relationship was followed by one with another Asian male. Suffice it to say, I went a decade without the thought of white men or Asian fetish even crossing my mind.
Now it’s something I think about every day, because of said fiancé.
He came into my life during a period when I had sworn off men. I had been in relationships my entire adult life and just wanted to focus on myself. “Single for five years!” I declared my goal proudly. Eleven months later, he showed up at my door.
He was there for a party I was hosting, and he didn’t hit on me. He asked me questions and listened to my answers. We discovered we had gone to the same college, had the exact same self-made major, were both left-handed, loved to write, didn’t drink and couldn’t handle spicy food. A mutual friend we both loved was sick, and we initially started seeing each other just to visit her in the hospital. One evening we found ourselves alone together. I told him my plan to be single for a long time and that we could only be friends. He told me that he honestly felt more but would respect my needs. He never pushed, but we kept seeing each other, kept asking each other questions, listening to the answers. It never got boring.
As I started to consider lifting my relationship ban, that old white ghost came back again: the whispers of Asian fetish. He has a pattern of dating Asian women. Do you know how many Asian girlfriends he’s had? He just might have an Asian fetish.
“What the fuck?!” I demanded of him.
“I’ve never seen it that way!” he insisted. “I grew up in Cupertino, so most of my classmates were Asian, and not all of my girlfriends have been Asian … but yes, most I guess. I just never thought about it.”
I rolled my eyes at the luxury white men have to not think about race in their daily lives. I, on the other hand, started obsessing over it. I couldn’t be the girlfriend of someone who had an Asian fetish because that would make me complicit in a pattern that was rooted in violence and colonization. I was busy trying to be a progressive, independent woman and an Asian fetish boyfriend did not fit the bill.
On the other hand, he hadn’t once given me a race-based compliment or made me feel anything but respected. I knew him to be a good person, someone who was working on being better every day. That’s the kind of partner I wanted, the kind of person who’s so hard to find.
So I returned to him with homework. “You can rationalize your dating history all you want,” I said one night in bed. (Do Asian women have a reputation for being good at pillow talk by the way? Because I feel like I’m killing it.) “But you can’t deny how it looks from the outside. And most importantly, you have to consider how it makes the women you’ve dated feel. Think about how it feels to be one in a line of many women who look like you. How replaceable must that make one feel? How demeaning is that?”
Despite his tendency to be defensive (is that one of those hot white guy traits?), he took my request to step outside himself seriously. He asked me questions, and he listened to my answers. We delved into not only the dynamic between Asian females and white males but also unfair portrayals of Asian men throughout history, and the backlash that public figures like Constance Wu and Chloe Kim have contended with for dating white men. It’s an uncomfortable conversation, but we’ve continued it through the years.
The reason we’re still together is that I know I don’t have to wrestle with these discomforts by myself. If we pass three couples in a row who are white men and Asian women and I ask, “But seriously, why?!” he won’t pretend he didn’t see it too. He’s making an effort to not leave me alone in the awkward parts of our love, and I’m making an effort to not let go of his hand. We’re not perfect. But after I rise from the little dips of shame, I wouldn’t actually want either of us to be anything else.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.