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April 12, 2012

Love and Race

interracial couple

MARRIED FOR 5 ½ YEARS Matt and Tram-Anh Poprik

Photo Credit: Chris Buck

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Want to date me? Fetishists need not apply —By Ji Hyun Lee

Sometimes men try to get my attention —By greeting me in Chinese: "Ni hao ma." If I tell them I'm Korean, they'll try Japanese: "Konichiwa." Perhaps they think all Koreans speak Japanese? My physical Asian-ness (fair skin, jet-black eyes, China-doll-round cheeks, and petite size) is apparently blinding — it's all they can see. In college, a boyfriend with a telltale string of Chinese ex-girlfriends asked me to try smoking a cigarette with my vagina — something he'd seen on an Asian porn site. (I dumped him.) Even in progressive New York City, I recently fended off a lecherous 40-something bus passenger who leaned in to tell me how "accommodating" he found the Korean girls who worked in the deli near his office. All my life, I've had to deal with guys with an "Asian thing" — men attracted to a stereotypical idea of Asian women: We're docile, hardworking lotus flowers —By day and sexual tigers —By night.

I haven't had that much experience with Asian men, I should point out. In fact, I've never dated one. Part of it may be that Asian guys rarely hit on me, perhaps because many aren't raised to be assertive with women. But I also haven't been interested in them, maybe because of how I was socialized: I tend to be attracted to aggressive men and often perceive Asian guys as passive. (I know, I know — I need to work on my own stereotyping!) But I've found myself in a dating pool of mostly white men, many of whom have offensive, clichéd views — in a word, fetishists.

It's a problem faced —By many women I know. Karen Lee, a 28-year-old Korean-American marketing executive in New York City, has unwittingly dated so many fetishists that she's edited her online dating profile to remove any mention of her race because a friend told her that "guys search for those words and then go through all the associated girls." But her tactics have been only so successful. After meeting one cute new guy, she checked his Facebook page and found that all of his newest friends were Asian women. "That was a red flag," says Lee. Now she's guarded. "Every time someone messages me, I wonder if it's because I'm Asian."

Lena Chen, 22, recalls a boyfriend who said he was into her because Asian girls were thinner, less loud, and more promiscuous than white women. "He was saying I only got his attention through an arbitrary twist of genetic fate," says Chen. That wasn't Chen's first experience with stereotypes about Asian women. When she chronicled her dating life as a Harvard undergrad on her blog, one commenter called her a "comfort woman," and she fielded queries about the mythical smallness of the Asian vagina.

Where do guys get this stuff? Pop culture is rife with female Asian stereotypes. Case in point: The 2010 film The Social Network, which dramatized the creation of Facebook, was bursting with hypersexualized Asian female characters who partied with the Harvard guys. One was depicted as so blinded —By passion that she even lit a fire in her boyfriend's bedroom. On Jersey Shore, cast member Ronnie once approvingly told his girlfriend Sammi that she looked Asian, causing a jealous blowout because he had an Asian ex. And the explosion of anime porn, featuring cartoon depictions of Asian women, perpetuates the stereotype that we're super-kinky.

According to Elaine Kim, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, the origin of some of these tropes may go back centuries to Japanese geishas, female entertainers trained in classical music and dance who performed for men at high-class social gatherings. Then came the seedy sex clubs staffed —By poor women that proliferated around U.S. military bases in Asia during the Korean and Vietnam wars. On a research trip to South Korea in 1987, Kim visited a sex club where women performed contortionist sex acts for patrons, including tourists and servicemen. One even put a knife in her vagina and used it to cut a cucumber. Kim also recalls racist myths about Asian women during her childhood in the 1960s: that they could gestate a ba—By in six months or had a slanted vagina to match their eyes. "The idea was that these women had different bodies, and it was exotic," says Kim.

Those myths might feel antiquated, but from my experience they're alive and well today in some form or another in the minds of many guys. So where does all of this leave me and my single self? Since I can't single-handedly re-educate mankind, I'm trying to make changes in my own life — like being more open-minded about dating Asian men. I'm noticing that the Korean boys who were invisible to me in high school have grown up into a handsome lot. I also joined a few Asian meet-up groups in an effort to get dates. My latest crush is a Korean doctor whom I met in the emergency room after I slipped while walking my dog.

My advice to other Asian women: Initially, it may be hard to gauge whether a guy is a fetishist or is genuinely into you, but if he has a bevy of Asian acquaintances (but can't keep their names straight) and keeps asking you how flexible you are, you've got your answer.

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