Exotification – I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower

“I love Asian women!” “Asian women are so hot.” “Japan, Korea, China?” “Asian women know how to treat a man!”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you? If they do, congratulations, you’ve come across (or you are) a man — probably white — with so-called “Yellow Fever”.

As an Asian woman living in a country full of white men, I meet these guys a lot. You know, the ones who blurt out all of the above sound bites, who try to guess what ‘type’ of Asian I am, whose favourite actresses are Gong Li, Lucy Liu and Zhang Ziyi, who insist on discussing Korean/Japanese/Chinese dramas with me despite me not having seen the series in question, who tell me about all the other Asian women they’ve dated, who complain about how ugly white women are and why Asian women are so much better, and who try to get me to tell them that white men are so much better than Asian men.

Of course, such exotifiying sentiments are meant to be complimentary. After all, the patriarchy asserts, what could be higher praise for a woman than the approval of a white man?

Only…it isn’t praise. It is patronising and dehumanising, and inextricably bound up with the social power of race and gender. To them, ‘Asian’ is our defining characteristic, in a way that ‘white’ would never be used to define themselves. When the “Yellow Fever”ed men speak to me, they aren’t speaking to me, they’re speaking to their idea of an Asian woman, their fantasy made flesh. They’re speaking to every Asian woman they’ve ever seen in the media, every Asian porn actress they’ve ever leered at on their computer screens. My personality tries to push itself forward, but is rendered invisible, obscured by the lenses of racial stereotype.

And what a horrifically misogynistic stereotype it is too. Have a wander round any online dating site or Internet forum discussing Asian women, and you’ll notice that one of the most attractive things about Asian women, according to white men, is our apparent ability to “treat our man right”. But what does “right” entail? Well, to put it simply, “treating a man right” is to treat him as superior. Time and time again, Asian women are lauded for our supposedly meek and gentle natures, for our submissive attitudes, for our rejection of feminist values. (Hah!) Through their fetishisation and racist assumptions about Asian women, they reveal their attitudes towards relations with women in general: one should be quiet and meek, contented with a subordinate status, and eager to serve.

How, you may ask, do these men reconcile their ideas of Asian women with the existence of Asian feminists? Easy; they decide that she has been “brainwashed” by Western feminist values, has been contaminated, and has neglected her cultural roots. The fact that they assume submissiveness to be so inherent in Asian women that any feminist ideas must be mere parroting of the ideas of white women, is insulting in the extreme. Nor do I appreciate their assumption that Asian culture is static. I would love for them to cast their eye over their own cultural history, going back hundreds of years, and then tell me — what is “Caucasian culture”? And by rejecting the values their ancestors espoused, have they betrayed their cultural roots?

So please, men with ‘Yellow Fever’, stop objectifying, fetishising and exotifiying us. Instead, try seeing us as individual human beings with individual, unique personalities. Cool idea, no? And next time you have the urge to tell me about all the Asian women you’ve dated and how much you loved Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Memoirs of a Geisha — don’t.

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30 thoughts on “Exotification – I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower

  1. I can only imagine the drivel you’re exposed to. Snore!
    A great piece!
    I don’t know if you’ve seen this before – it’s a comedy – and some of what you wrote (in how they seem to know what sort of ‘Asian’ you are) reminded me of it.
    Hope it makes you giggle ;) (watch to the very end)
    Paula x

    • Thanks!!
      Hmm, the Youtube link says “This video does not exist”. How odd. It’s alright though, I think I know which one you’re referring to! Does it involve a Korean woman going jogging, and being hassled by a white American guy talking about kimchi? I love how she turns the tables on him in the end =)

    • Which is so absurd. I live in a university community where every single Asian and Asian-American woman I have met is either a working professional or studying to be one. And it does not look to me that they are copying anybody.

  2. As a ‘brown’ Southeast Asian who was always forced to tick the ‘Asian – Other’ box for my ethnicity, I always feel insulted by how Americans stereotype all Asians as being East Asian, while the British stereotype all Asians as being South Asian. I don’t fit into either category, although I can relate to both, but the worst thing is when an ignorant white person tries to shove me into either pigeonhole, because duh, what other type of Asian could possibly exist beyond that, and oh of course, all Asians have exactly the same culture anyway!!!

    • Thanks Sheema, you make a really good point and I need to check my own privilege & language.

      I think white people feel uncomfortable about the word ‘Asian’ ONLY because we have separate (though related) stereotypes for Middle Eastern (Muslim, hospitable, prone to ‘extremism’) South Asian (Hindu, spiritual, peace-loving) and East Asian (godless, cold-hearted, wise, inscrutable). Since we can more or less distinguish these three groups visually, we feel nervous about lumping them all together, rather than about having these ridiculous & terrible stereotypes and lumping unique individual PEOPLE into them in the first place.

      • Hi Rose-Anna, thanks for your response, you raise some interesting points yourself. I personally don’t think of Middle Easterners as Asian per se, just…’Middle Eastern’. I suppose that doesn’t make sense, but it’s probably more of a cultural thing – they feel too far removed from “our” culture; as I said, I can still relate to East Asians and South Asians when it comes to many things, but apart from the religious stuff, sometimes Middle Easterners do things differently or even the ‘western’ way, so it gets…confusing. And calling them ‘West Asian’ just seems weird. Also I guess it’s geographically confusing because the Middle East sort of lies in between Asia and Europe and Africa. So most of the forms I came across that asked you to tick something for your ethnicity would have a separate box for ‘Middle Eastern’, but nothing for a Southeast Asian like me, just…’Asian – Other’. I think some forms have started to add ‘Asian – Filipino’, which is a start, but still pretend that the rest of us don’t exist! (I’m Malaysian, btw)

        Interestingly, the three different stereotypes you mentioned also left out Southeast Asians, and none of those stereotypes would apply to us completely as we’ve had influences from all three. There doesn’t seem to be a set stereotype for us, which kinda confirms the point I was making that there seems to be kind of a vacuum or black hole when it comes to Southeast Asia, like white people don’t know how to define us or figure us out because we don’t fit neatly into any of the typical Asian stereotypes…which is why they then get confused and just try to put us into either pigeonhole…because how could any other Asians exist beyond those!

        The point I was making in my original comment is that you can’t limit the use of such an ambiguous word as ‘Asian’ in general to mean exclusively ONLY a certain group of Asians, whilst excluding the rest of us…which is what I see happening in the US and UK: they tend to imply that there are no other kinds of Asians. At the very least, they should define specifically which kind of Asian they mean. Western ideas of the term ‘Asian’ seem to be very limited, and exclude whole other groups/cultures, such as mine. That’s what I meant about feeling insulted – the rest of the world tends to forget, or not realise, that Southeast Asians exist and we are also culturally and physically distinct. Hope I’m making sense!

        • Sheema, this makes me wonder if it’s better/worse to be ignored, or stereotyped. Thank you for your thoughtful comments; I’m learning a lot from this entire discussion.

        • Thanks again Sheema = )

          I work for the London School of Samba and we collect some data on our members (as a charity we need to monitor how well we are doing community outreach etc) and I am very frustrated by the ‘ethnicity’ options, which is done in line with the official UK census. Many of our members are from Latin America and they are ALL ‘Other’ on the form!

      • Foreigners usually mistake SE Asia as part of the Sinosphere. The biggest civilisational influence in this region is actually India, with China playing second fiddle. Malaysia and Indonesia are also heavily influenced by Islam.

        That’s why I find it odd when Westerners regard the entire Asian side of the Pacific Rim as one undifferentiated entity. NE Asia and SE Asia belong to two separate cultural spheres. That’s not even mentioning the vast diversity within these regions.

        I’m Malaysian too, btw. Ethnic Chinese :)

        • Yes, exactly! As a homegirl you know what I’m talking about :-)

          China did play a prominent political role in the past…though I agree that its civilisational influence is less palpable/visible further south from Indochina. Still quite a bit of cultural/linguistic influence though – particularly from southern China e.g. Hokkien. I was amazed by how many everyday ‘Malay’ words are actually derived from Hokkien (though perhaps not as many and not as old as those with Sanskrit origin). And culinary influence of course.

          The default stereotype that Westerners seem to fall back on is that, if you’re a SE Asian but not Muslim, then you must belong to the Sinosphere (especially if Singapore is in the picture!). But if they find out you’re Muslim, then they assume that you must be culturally similar to Middle Easterners or Pakistanis.

          I suppose it doesn’t help that many SE Asian Muslims these days are abandoning their own native culture and becoming more Arabised.

        • Thanks both, you have given me new insights into the issue of stereotyping and racialising Muslims as well as the invisibility of SE Asians…

    • YES!! I’m not subjected to this one; as a “Caucasian” (where’s the Caucasus – Georgia?) I have all sorts of boxes to tick in the UK Census, etc but it has infuriated my children since they each started school. The UK Home Office seem to think that China is not part of Asia, that the Indian subcontinent is the whole of Asia and that Southeast Asia does not exist. Patronising, ignorant, racist twaddle…

  3. Though there is no argument that it can be disrespectful or humiliating to be objectified or identified by misguided idolization of a unrealistic fantasy, it should be noted this problem is not isolated to men, white men, or even westerners. The root issue is based more in gross misunderstanding of cultures and heritage. When I visit countries such as Philippines for instance, being a white male it is instantly assumed that I am quite wealthy, I desire companionship, and often pursued simply from my appearance. I rarely find it offensive despite it being an ongoing theme in my life and travels, but I take it as an opportunity to provide clarity on the matter and introduce some lacking insight on their part towards the reality of how things are. People are often so quick to fire up the defenses and go into attack mode when I often find that simple patience, discussion, and openness can alleviate the ignorance. Sure there are definitely those individuals who are simply to closely related to Neanderthals to provide insight, but the vast majority are quite enthralled to have an opportunity to learn and be given truthful insight as to how their perception is so awkwardly wrong.

    • I try to be patient and understanding when men very obviously objectify me for my race and body but I find it immensely difficult to keep my composure during those talks. Many times, they don’t want to listen and continue to shout lewd comments at me.I feel uncomfortable and unsafe and I’m not sure I could compare having people assume you’re wealthy and in need of companionship to having people assume you’re an “easy” Asian woman or “probably a prostitute.” Sure, we’re both seen as “other,” but the former resides on a much higher power plane than the latter so debunking a myth may be easier when the person listening actually respects you (or some false notion of you). There’s definitely an aspect of cultural misunderstanding and I think more exposure to different people (through travel or through the media) can definitely help. But sometimes, these things are just plain sexist and offensive and I’m still grappling with the right approach to handle these everyday situations.

      • Chris,
        If as you say, they “shout lewd comments” in your direction, that is not even a conversation. That is childish acting out and its all about their control issues. You don’t have to put up with that, nor should you put responsibility on yourself to try to get them to be reasonable.

        As to the bit about Asian women being easy, my response as an older white man is that women of other ethnic groups have gotten the same treatment in the past. Example: Latinas who used to get labeled “baby maker” which basically turns them into brainless reproduction factories with arms and legs; it indulges the old stereotype of the “Hot Tomale” latina — some kind of sexually hyper-active flamenco dancer. I can remember similar things in bygone days about Italian women (“so emotional!”), black women, even Native American women — you know, those “women of the earth” who apparently have nothing else to do accept ride horseback and have sex to be in touch with the earth or something. I mean, it really does get that stupid. Bottom line: all these stereotypes are categorizations designed to control that which cannot be controlled. The reveal more about the insecurities of the man then anything else.

  4. Pingback: Exotification: Tracing the Geographies of Difference & Desire | Bluestockings Magazine

  5. I know exactly what you’re saying. It goes the other way, too— I’m a white woman living in Asia, and I’ve been pursued by guys here who say “oh, Asian women are so uptight, but white girls are free and open” (ie we are all blonde sluts with big boobs like the lovely girls of American Pie and Girls Gone Wild). It sucks because I quickly realized that even if I dated an Asian guy here, they’d mostly just be looking for a good time, not a real relationship.

    I’ve also been pursued on public streets after dark, and I’m not talking alleys here, I’m talking crowded streets, where a drunk Asian guy might grab my arm and say, “Russian?” and try to pull me away somewhere with him. (Sorry to the stereotype about Russian girls, but they appear to have filled the role of “easy exotic” here.) The thing is, at least if it happens to an Asian girl in the West, you can complain and get some kind of social support from it. You could even go to the police if you felt it necessary. Here I tell friends about these things, and they just shrug it off with a kind of “boys will be boys” attitude, and “what do you expect?” One person told me straight out “It would be better if you just forgot this happened” when the Russian thing took place. No way in hell the police would ever take it seriously.

    I find it frustrating that I was raised to think that women’s rights have come so far, and then have these things happen to me and read about other things happening to you, amongst other women.

    I want to know when we are going to finish making sure women really have social rights and protection?! One of the best quotes I’ve heard lately is, “We spend so much time teaching women how to protect ourselves from rape; why don’t we spend that time teaching guys how wrong rape is in the first place?” I’m glad to have come across your blog. Keep up the good work! :)

  6. Pingback: Yes, you can have a Chinese girlfriend and still be racist | Lola Okolosie | FREE Article Distribution, Press Release Distribution, News Distribution - No Registration! Submit a Free Article or Press Release | BUZZSTAKE

  7. A guy who works in the same building as me emailed me with “Cherry Blossom” in the subject title. Lol. Tbh, I know the guy doesn’t mean to be racist and offensive. It’s really just ignorance and a lack of social/personal awareness in most cases i.e., non-creepywhiteguy cases. :)

  8. Pingback: Exotification — I’m not your pretty little lotus flower! | Jaago

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