I remember the first time I listened to Childish Gambino. It was my senior year, his album Camp had dropped that past November, and while surfing the web, I came across his music video for “Freaks and Geeks.” Although at first I was confused as to why Donald Glover from Community was filming himself rapping and moving sporadically (was that dancing?) around some random warehouse, I was quickly won over by his flow and his wit. Halfway through the song, one of his lines caught me by complete surprise. I paused the video and replayed it to make sure I had heard it correctly: “Love is a trip, but fucking is a sport / Are there Asian girls here? Minority Report!”.
What?! Did Asian girls just get a shout-out in a rap song?! I listened to the rest of the tracks in Camp, and there was no denying: Childish Gambino had yellow fever.
A term that many people are familiar with, yellow fever is a fetishization of those of Asian ethnicity, usually for Asian females in particular. From Childish Gambino, to the men on OKCupid on this Buzzfeed article, to Steven from the documentary Seeking Asian Female, and to the guys on campus whose exclusively-Asian dating history we whisper about in hushed tones, the male obsession with Asian females is something often uncomfortable to talk about but that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society, and I, as a heterosexual Asian female, am all too familiar with its consequences.
When a guy tells me that he thinks Asian features are beautiful, that’s fine. I’m flattered. I’m not offended by people finding my almond-shaped eyes or black hair or olive-toned complexion attractive, but that isn’t yellow fever. Yellow fever is more than just a physical preference. Those with yellow fever are attracted to qualities that they assume all Asian women inherently have, such as that of being “docile and submissive and respectful to a man”, as one man on OKCupid enlightens us. This projection of generalized ideals onto individuals makes yellow fever a dangerously subtle form of discrimination.
Obviously, the men on OKCupid are extreme examples of this fetishzation – most of us would never be that misogynistic, racist, or just generally repulsive. But what about Childish Gambino, a public figure and entertainer? In his song “Kids”, Gambino raps:
Finding you is like finding Asians I hate
They say I got a fetish, nah, I’m skipping all of it
Black or white girls come with a set of politics
That’s all I was saying
In an interview, Gambino explains what he means by “politics”. His fetish for Asian girls stems from, according to Gambino, how Asian girls are easier to date because they’re less racially controversial and because their parents’ only requirement is that the guy is “successful”. Although this type of low-intensity yellow fever is less revolting than the OKCupid comments and thus more common, making broad sweeping statements about a certain race is unequivocally and unconditionally myopic, and taking these pre-conceived notions and applying them to individuals, especially in the context of something as personal as a romantic relationship, is offensive and hurtful.
Despite all the negative consequences it presents for individuals and for society, yellow fever engenders within me a more complex discomfort. After all, I still listen to Childish Gambino. I still scrolled through the entire Creepy White Guys Tumblr, unable to stop reading the racist objectifications. And I am still excited by the idea that there are guys out there who will be interested in me simply because I’m Asian. Why is it that on some incredibly messed up level, I think that I’m attracted to the idea of yellow fever?
Well, there are some personal factors. Growing up in a community that was 90% white (according to the 2000 census), I was one of a handful of Asians in a graduating class of around 300 students. In middle school, at a time when almost all of my white girl friends had white boyfriends, I was explicitly told by close guy friends that my Chinese ethnicity made me attractive in an “exotic” way but didn’t make me someone they would feel comfortable dating. As a 12 year old, I became bitterly conscious of what the definition of desirability and beauty was in this homogenous community and that I did not fulfill that definition. Even as I looked outside of my own experience and community, I recognized that Asian wasn’t the “American” norm for attractiveness. I would watch Friends with my older sister and internally register that Ross, Joey, and Chandler never dated characters that looked at us. I would read through Seventeenmagazine and CosmoGirl and wonder if I could use their make-up advice on my own complexion. At least Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were household names that my middle school friends and I recognized, but ask us the name of a cool, famous Asian woman actor? Silence.
Today, seven years later, society has made huge advances in the representation of Asian females in various walks of life. Even the Miss America 2013 pageant, an annual demonstration of America’s perception of female beauty, saw the crowning of Nina Davuluri, the first Indian Miss America (albeit with much controversy). Still, the past omission of a sexy Asian American female presence has affected me to such an extent that being objectified or hyper-sexualized feels like a privilege that I, as an Asian female, have been denied. It is somehow better to be fetishized and recognized than to be discounted and ignored. Even if yellow fever places Asian women on a pedestal through discriminatory means, at least the pedestal exists. This is what, I believe, drives my perverse fascination with yellow fever and why some small part of me, a part of me that I feel uneasy addressing, appreciates the fetish.
This desire to be recognized by society though is not limited to just Asian females and, instead, characterizes the general Asian American experience. On one hand, Asians are a minority, with all sub-groups aggregating to only 6% of the US population, and obviously have a different set of experiences from those of whites. On the other hand, Asian Americans are considered the overrepresented minority, with a median household income of around $16,000 higher than average US median income and with high enrollment rates in upper-level institutions, and thus are very often excluded from discussions about diversity and discrimination. Even at Princeton, Asian American challenges seem to be disqualified. Just last year, Princeton held “Diversity on Campus: Practices, Policies, and Culture”, a conference to promote diversity within higher education, without including a single Asian American in the discussion. Exclusion from both the majority and the minority has made it difficult for Asian Americans as a group to unify and coherently address the challenges they face and for Asian Americans as individuals to make sense of their identities within the context of American society.
The invisibility of Asian Americans has also made it so that even the slightest mention of Asians in the public eye is a cause for celebration. But what do we do if these mentions of Asian Americans are harmful or inaccurate representations? What should we do when, in the same way that Asian females are recognized through yellow fever, Asians receive recognition for the wrong reasons? Should we blame Ken Jeong, one of the first prominent Asian American comedians, for playing Leslie Chow in The Hangoverin an arguably self-degrading and culturally insensitive role? Should we condemn Lisa Chan, an aspiring young actress and recent UC Berkeley graduate who, for her first role, used broken English to portray a stereotypical Chinese woman in a campaign ad that aired during the Superbowl? Should we hold Julie Chen, a host on The Talk who has had an inspiring career in a field where Asian women are rarely seen, accountable for perpetuating harmful standards of beauty with her decision to get plastic surgery to make her eyes look more appealing to the American public?
What are we supposed to think about these individuals? And moreover, how should we feel about a society and culture that forces an ultimatum upon us: adhere to stereotypes or be invisible? These are questions that I’m not sure how to answer and that I grapple with when understanding my own identity as an Asian in America. Perhaps yellow fever must exist before we can point to what it signifies in a larger discussion of stereotypes and discrimination. Perhaps I shouldn’t feel a sense of guilt and self-repulsion that the reason why I like yellow fever is because it makes my Asian identity feel desired and attractive for the first time. And maybe, it is necessary to first take steps backwards before we can tell which direction is forward. But, I believe that through education, open discussions, and a genuine desire to enact social change, we, as a society, are beginning to see which direction is forward — my hope is that we continue moving in that direction.