“You have an Asian fetish.”
Never had I had this exact sentence said to me so many times as I did in my first two years of college.
I grew up in a moderately sized urban city just north of Boston, MA. Besides being the hometown of American rock band and one hit wonder Extreme’s front runner Gary Cherone, my city is known for being one of the most diverse cities in Massachusetts. How diverse? This past June, Malden High School was named the most diverse high school in the entire state. There is also a significant Asian population in Malden as well with people who identify as Asian making up 20% of Malden residents. Vietnamese Pho restaurants and Chinese take out places can be found within 100 feet of each other. In fact, there are probably more Asian owned nail salons in Malden than Dunkin’ Donuts chains which, in a New England city, speaks for itself.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s very difficult to grow up in Malden without being exposed to any kind of Asian culture. Not that I’m limiting Asian culture to restaurants and nail salons, but their very presence is indicative of a larger and pervasive Asian population.
Growing up in that kind of environment made me curious about Asian culture, particularly East Asian culture. Two of my good friends are Vietnamese with (we suspect) Italian in them and I was fascinated by their homelife since it was both so very different and so very similar to mine. I could see my own strict Haitian upbringing in their curfews, their inability to go to/have sleepovers, the constant phone calls and general over protectiveness of their parents that was borderline suffocation. Then I’d visit their home and would see the shrine to their grandparents with red incense sticks still burning in a small golden pot beside a bowl of freshly washed grapes and realize that there was so much I didn’t know about their culture.
I didn’t see it until I started picking classes my freshman year, but choosing Asian Studies was an extension of all of that exposure I grew up with. It seemed natural, right, more so than the government major I am also pursuing more out of propriety than out of actual desire. Thus why when I was first told that I had an Asian fetish normally by my white peers, I was shocked into confusion and mild annoyance.
It was usually told to me after I did one or more of the following: said that I was an Asian studies major, explained why I was an Asian studies major, or expressed sexual attraction to an Asian guy. It was normally said in a way that combined a matter-of-fact/just-pointing-out-the-obvious tone with a sly look in their eyes that indicated the kind of fetishization they were talking about was racial fetishization.
Racial fetishism is a variation of the Marxist commodity fetishism in which the stereotypes associated with one’s race becomes a coveted reality with value placed on it instead of a mere construction. This differs from sexual fetishism in which it is an object or a body part that is fetishized or imbued with sexual associations and value. For example, me saying I thought an Asian man is attractive because he would be so docile and hardworking is racial fetishism. If my reason focused less on the stereotyped characteristics I projected on him and more on his almond shaped eyes or his small feet, then that would be sexual fetishism. Though different, both the person as an object on which I project my ideas onto.
The fetish accusation always raised some questions in my mind, mainly, why is it that I cannot just simply have a fascination with Asian culture? Why does it in their minds always seem to take on a fetish like quality that, simply by definition, invokes irrationality and even wrongness?
I’ve always wondered if they would say the same thing had I stuck to my original plan which was to be a Latin American Studies/Government double major. I had taken Spanish since the 5th grade and even spent 5 weeks in Panama during the summer of my junior year in order to do some community service and practice my speaking skills. I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned that I didn’t realize I wanted to do Asian Studies until I sat down and registered for my fall classes. So the thought always occurs to me: what if I chose Latin American Studies? Would I have to explain my choice or even justify it as often? Would I be told I had a Latin American fetish?
The answer that I’ve personally decided upon is no. No, I would not have.
I came to this conclusion by focusing on the last situation I listed in which people tell me I have a fetish when I indicate that I find a random Asian man attractive. The reason is because I never get accused of fetishization when I claim a white guy’s attractive or a black guy or a hispanic guy. I can find Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Idris Elba, Antonio Banderas, and Miguel attractive without any talk of fetishization, however I can almost count on someone accusing me of racial fetishism if I mentioned Harry Shum, Jr. was hot. It’s really only exclusive to Asian men.
There are many things about this entire situation that fascinate me enough to think of possible research topics and theses I can do in the future, but for now what I keep coming back to is the importance of language in shaping our perceptions and revealing some of the internalized problems with society. To me, the “Asian fetish” accusation is indicative of how asexual Asian men appear in our media. Hardly ever the lead and never the guy that gets the girl, Asian men are almost synonymous with robots in American films and TV. The only Asian male characters that I can even think of that have sex without it being a part of some larger joke is Steven Yuen’s Glen in AMC’s The Walking Dead and John Cho’s Demetri in ABC’s cancelled FlashForward. Other than that, most of the sexual encounters I’ve seen Asian men have on screen are always framed in a narrative that portrays the Asian character as a poor sexual choice due to his nerdiness, his coldness, or his small penis size.
The other explanation that immediately comes to mind is an uncomfortableness by these people to admit their own attraction to Asian people in general. After all, the fetishization of Asian women by white males is thing that, although not new whatsoever, has recently been dragged back into the limelight. The creation of a program like “Seeking Asian Female” which debuted this May on a network as publicly available as PBS shows just how much of a hot topic “yellow fever” (I really hate that term along with “jungle fever”) has become.
I just think it’s important to consider the words we use and realize why we use them. Mostly because I’m tired of telling people I don’t have a fetish. Seriously, it’s right up there with explaining how my braids “work”.