• Experiencing yellow fever on dating apps is terrifyingly common. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
I can tell from the way the person talks to me, the topics they choose to speak about, the manner in which they treat me, the tone with which they discuss race, if they discuss it at all.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

3 Aug 2020 - 4:06 PM  UPDATED 24 Mar 2021 - 9:51 AM

 “I have a real thing for Oriental women.”

“I’ve always wanted to have sex with an Asian.”

“I travelled to Vietnam a few years ago. I love the food!”

When I was 25, following a major breakup, I dipped my toes into the pool of online dating for the first time. I had never casually dated, and was cautiously excited to explore this new world.

The first Tinder date I went on was with a white guy who quickly revealed that he generally liked to date “Asian girls” or “hipster girls who ride bikes”. Lucky me, right in the middle of those two! He also referenced ‘Gangnam Style’, a whole two years after it was even remotely relevant. There was no second date.

In the years since, I’ve received more than a few messages on these apps fixating on my race or ethnicity, whether to test out their rudimentary Vietnamese or to straight out tell me about their sexual fantasies. ‘Yellow fever’ – a phenomenon whereby men (usually white) fetishise Asian women – is terrifyingly common, and in the age of online dating, your exotic dream girl is only a click away.

“But what’s wrong with having preferences?” I hear you cry. “We all have types!”

There’s a difference, though, between having a “type” and reducing people to a singular, uncontrollable factor about themselves, like race. I don’t message white guys to tell them I love garlic bread (for the record, I bloody love garlic bread); why would a white man think that telling me how much he loves bánh mì is a hot ticket into my pants?

This fetishisation often comes down to problematic stereotypes of Asian women: docile, subservient, sexually submissive but totally down to f--k. In the eyes of these men, we assume a monolithic identity. We’re both infantilised and sexualised – an accessory for the white man’s sexual and emotional satisfaction. They see us as a blank page, waiting for them to bring us alive on terms that are anything but our own. We are a trophy, a prize catch.

Karen, 26, didn’t list her race, or that she could speak Japanese, when she used OkCupid “to try and minimise my encounters with weebs”. “It kinda worked,” she told me, “but in hindsight, it’s really f--ked that I have to do so much to keep them away.”

Kelly, 26, has been called racist for stating on her profile that she wasn’t interested in contact from those specifically seeking Asian women (WHAT THE???), while Tash, 28, went on a date with someone who “proudly” told her he only dated Asians, and then “got angry and aggressive” when she pulled him up on his objectification.

The expectation of Asian women is that we’ll be quiet, obliging and never talk back. When I’ve told men off on dating apps for their overt sexualisation of me based on my race, their tones have often changed from sweet and flirty to violent.

“F--k you,” one said. “You’re not that good anyway.”

What’s interesting about the politics of sex and race online is that Asian men often face the opposite problem of having their sexuality and desirability erased altogether. “No blacks, no Asians” is a common catch-cry on apps like Grindr, with the more nefarious users going a step further to categorise ethnicities by food names (“no rice”, “no curry”). The archaic “small penis” myth continues to work against Asian men, who are often seen as effeminate or undesirable due to this Western social conditioning. The statistics don’t lie: as Asians, we’re often seen as a readymade fantasy or nothing at all.

Sexual fetishisation and racism existed before the internet, of course, but the rise of online dating has given further oxygen to predators. You can filter searches based on who you do, or don’t, want to find. You can prey more aggressively than you’d dare to face-to-face. It becomes a game, where the prize is a person who’s seen as an object. To be on the receiving end of that is both tedious and insulting.

That said, dating several people of the same race is not necessarily a sign of fetishisation – an ex and dear friend of mine currently has an Asian partner, but has also had multiple white partners, and from our interactions both as lovers and friends, I know that race was not a drawcard for him in either relationship. There’s a difference between singling potential partners out because of their race, and happening to get into respectful relationships with more than one person from the same racial background.

To assume that anyone who’s dated more than one Asian woman is a fetishiser, lumps all Asian women into a singular entity and personality type. I can tell from the way the person talks to me, the topics they choose to speak about, the manner in which they treat me, the tone with which they discuss race, if they discuss it at all. And I can tell from the way they handle my humanity – as a living, breathing being, or as simply something to be collected, stripped and pocketed.

I must also acknowledge that most of the people I have dated or slept with have been white men. This has drawn ire from some, with one man asking me on Twitter why I care about “the plight of Asian men” when I “never seem to date them”.

Growing up surrounded by Western media and ideals, I know I have been conditioned to have an unconscious bias myself, and I am trying to decolonise my desire – this is an ongoing process of unlearning. But at the same time, as Natalie Tran puts it, I belong to nobody. People of colour do not owe our minds or bodies to anyone – not those who look like us, not those who don’t.

As Australians, we are lucky to live in a country where we can, for the most part, exercise our sexual agency. We cannot help who we are attracted to, but we can examine the roots of that attraction and recognise their implicit prejudices. Our sexual desires and preferences do not exist in a vacuum – they are a result of what we have been surrounded by and taught.

White is still viewed as the default, which is why men like to tell me I’m exotic, exciting.

But I am not a stamp in your sexual passport.

I am not your China doll.

I am not yours at all.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @gisellenguyen, Facebook.cm/giselleanguyen, Instagram @heyschoolgirl.

The Swiping Game: What Is Yellow Fever? can be streamed at SBS On Demand. It is also available in Chinese.

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