I groaned as all the signs I had ignored collided like pieces of Tetris and sank deep into my gut.
It was a Saturday afternoon and I was sitting in bed browsing through Bumble. I had been on this supposedly classier version of Tinder for about two weeks. I wasn’t hopeful to meet anyone significant. As a junior doctor, it is rare that I stay in the same place for more than a couple of years and I was due to move in the next few months – Bumble was just my way of social profiling. A guy got a “yes” swipe from me if he wasn’t butt-ugly and overtly obnoxious on his profile.
Justin was thirty-one and a corporate professional. I gathered that much from his job description as “Director” and the grey suit and collared shirt that he wore in his profile picture. He was white with curly black hair and grey eyes behind wire-framed glasses. If he walked down the street, I probably wouldn’t have looked back at him but his profile read, “I travel between Asia and Australia for work. I was born in Canada and can speak French.” Call me an intellectual snob, but in an app where most guys couldn’t be bothered to type full words, a profile that contained a complete sentence was a refreshing “How are you?” in a sea of “Sup?” Aw! I really like this one! He can write in full sentences! I thought to myself. And besides, surely he would be interesting if he’s travelled so much.
I swiped right and messaged, Hi, in the in-app messenger.
Hello. Lovely to meet you, he wrote back. Tell me about yourself.
I smiled. First contact confirmed my preconceptions: He was eloquent, or as eloquent as someone can get on a dating app. He seemed like a gentleman. I was impressed.
Call me an intellectual snob, but in an app where most guys couldn’t be bothered to type full words, a profile that contained a complete sentence was a refreshing.
Over the next few hours, in between my two loads of laundry and meal prepping, we messaged about the weekend, our careers and future plans. He told me he had a Masters of Economics from a university in Canada. I told him about my work as a junior doctor: I’m training to be a psychiatrist, I told him. There’s so much we don’t know about the brain.
His response was short, You’re such a sweet girl.
Okay. I didn’t think having to engage with severely drug-affected patients at 4am on a regular basis allowed anyone to be sweet. A worm of irritation slinked into my chest.
Where are you from? he asked.
I mean what are you?
I sighed and tapped, I’m Vietnamese-Australian.
I went to Vietnam two years ago. I loved the culture. You are gai dep.
I suddenly felt cold and still. Calmly and measuredly, I wrote, Don’t you think you should like a girl for their individual merit?
I put the phone down, tense. My first thoughts about Justin had been wrong. He was now scoring very highly on how to piss me off with the least number of characters in the shortest amount of time. I had chosen to tell him about my career, to which I had dedicated eight years of my life, simply for it to be summarised as “sweet”. I doubted that if I had been a white woman or a white man, he would have used the same description.
Being sweet and docile is an image that prevails about Asian women in Western culture. A Google search of “Asian women” will bring up multiple opinion articles from (mostly white) men telling other men to date Asian women over women from other races because we are more soft-spoken and traditional (Asian Woman Planet, Global Seducer, Love Compass). These men sprout pseudoscientific explanations for this image, claiming that we have higher oestrogen levels, meaning we also look younger and smaller and are biologically more desirable as a result.
He was now scoring very highly on how to piss me off with the least number of characters in the shortest amount of time.
The flipside of the docile Asian stereotype is evident in the flashing dating ads that adorn the sides of these articles: East-Asian women smiling demurely at the camera, a contradictory message that Asian women are hypersexual objects: exotic, erotic, commodified. This fetish is a particularly sensitive subject for Vietnamese women which goes back to the Vietnam War: our mothers and grandmothers were visible to the West as prostitutes or mistresses to Allied soldiers, notably fictionalised in the musical, Miss Saigon. The stereotype of a publicly docile woman who is a vixen in the bedroom enhances the idea that all Asian women are there for white male consumption.
I remember being 12 and shopping on Oxford Street with my mum. I was shuffling through dresses at a discount clothing store. My legs, bare under my cotton sundress were cold every time the store fan rotated towards me. I smelt the sickly-sweet smell of beer and looked up. Two Caucasian men were looking straight at me. They both had crew cuts and sleeve tattoos that stretched up over their arms. The shorter one had bloodshot blue eyes. “Ni hao ma,” he seethed at me. I stared at him but said nothing. I knew I was safe inside the shop with its security cameras.
“You would look pretty in that dress,” said the taller one, pointing at a yellow dress on the rack.
“You would look pretty in a bikini,” added the short one. Then they casually made their way out of the store.
“What were they saying?” asked my mum in Vietnamese, her voice snappier than usual.
“Nothing,” I replied. “They were just being gross.”
The stereotype of a publicly docile woman who is a vixen in the bedroom enhances the idea that all Asian women are there for white male consumption.
To my surprise, Justin responded to my last Bumble message about an hour later: I just prefer Asians. They have attributes I like – they’re smaller, slimmer. Once again he made me feel sick. “Small” and “slim” for Asian fetishists have pornographic connotations: the fantasy of a small Asian vagina, which is a slight improvement on the “sideways vagina” myth of the nineteenth century.
But can’t a female of any race be small and slim? I messaged back.
It’s just a preference. I don’t know why this is a problem.
Perhaps it was because Justin was well-educated and seemed eloquent, qualities I erroneously linked with being fair-minded – that is to say, not racist or sexist, that I kept trying to argue my case, even though it was past midnight. I was determined to make this white man see.
It is offensive because I am an individual and you have a preference for my race, not me. I’m not just this Asian stereotype that you can pull off the Internet. Furthermore, you used my language without knowing the connotations behind the words.
I have said ‘gai dep’ to lots of women and no one has ever said anything bad about it.
Maybe no one had ever said anything to Justin about it, but here’s what I can tell you, my reader, about it: Gai dep means “beautiful girl”. Gai generally means “girl” or “female” but in Vietnamese the meaning is derived from context. Gai on its own has connotations of the sex industry. In Vietnam, men met gai in bars where they sat on their laps and sweet-talked them, unbeknownst to their wives at home. Gai dep is also an affectionate term that my grandfather called his daughters because they were always little girls to him, short for con gai or “female child”. All this and more, which was too complicated to explain to Justin via dating app. I can’t even, I wrote.
It’s late and I don’t want to argue about this all night, he replied. Let’s agree to disagree about this and not let it get in the way of our relationship.
Lieu Chi Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Western Sydney. She is currently developing a collection of ghost stories for The Big Black Thing: Chapter. 3 (Sweatshop).
The article is part of a collaborative series by SBS Life and Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement which is devoted to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives. Sweatshop is directed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.
The Family Law episodes one and two air on Saturday, 12 January at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS VICELAND simultaneously. All six episodes will also be on SBS On Demand that night.
Seasons one and two of The Family Law will be available on SBS On Demand from Saturday, 29 December.