The Quad: Exploring the past, present and future of yellow fever from global to local

(Aileen Nguyen/Graphics editor)

By Cecile Wu, Audrey Pham

May 22, 2020 at 12:08 p.m.

My friend and I were getting breakfast one Tuesday morning before our lecture. We were munching on bagels, when, out of nowhere, he said:

“You know what’s funny? My friends always make fun of me for only dating Asian girls.”

As an Asian American woman, I found this interesting to hear from my white friend. He went on to describe his past girlfriends, and they only seemed to share one thing: ethnicity. I couldn’t help but think, is this yellow fever?

After looking into the subject, The Quad found some of the reasonings behind why people may have these dating preferences – and that they are just one of the many manifestations of stereotypes held about Asian women both on college campuses and across the country.

So what exactly is yellow fever?

Yellow fever is defined as a sexual fetish rooted in racialized and gendered stereotypes, most commonly held by white men for Asian and Asian American women, said Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies.

“If we view some of these stereotypes about Asians, particularly women but also men, they’re mostly shy, submissive and conformist,” Park said.

As Asian American women ourselves, we were fully aware of this stereotype. And as students at a university filled with young adults meeting and interacting with people of different backgrounds, it’s especially hard not to take notice of yellow fever as an underlying influence in many of our peers’ dating habits.

In speaking to Thu-hương Nguyễn-võ, an associate professor in the Department of Asian Languages & Cultures, the narratives of Asian feminization and rebellion are often created by those who seek power and are sustained by those in power.

According to Nguyễn-võ, in the early days of exploration in the 15th century, Europeans had already begun applying gender tropes in order to understand and act upon the land they were “discovering” in feminized, and therefore racialized, terms. Because the female identity was so closely tied to submission and weakness, applying this characteristic to the continent granted the explorers a sense of ability to control and master it, Nguyễn-võ said.

Through this, Asia became imagined as a land of the “other,” the “Oriental” – a dynamic that feminized and sexualized the Asian female, said Min Zhou, a professor in sociology and Asian American studies.

This gendered imagination of the Asian continent did not exclude Asian men. Nguyễn-võ references the book “Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest” by Anne McClintock, citing its exploration of this gendered and sexualized dynamic in relation to early colonialism. McClintock argues that colonialism is the basis for why and how both men and women in Asia become feminized, in effect emasculating Asian men. In that dynamic, the Asian woman becomes sexually available for white men.

Similarly, in the beginnings of French colonialism in Vietnam, French officials writing reports on French Indochina would comment on the perversion of gender roles that they had deemed traditional, Nguyễn-võ said. Vietnamese women in the north were bigger, taller and did all the physical labor. Vietnamese men in the north were smaller and performed little to no physical labor, Nguyễn-võ added.

“This gender role reversal was reasoned as the marker of lack of civilization,” Nguyễn-võ said. “The French had to restore a civilizational order to Vietnam and right the wrongs of this gender hierarchy. It’s not always that (Western society) see Asian women as submissive, small and weak, but also as threats, since they were bigger, stronger and more active in society.”

(Aileen Nguyen/Daily Bruin)
(Aileen Nguyen/Graphics editor)

Beyond the historical patterns, we also see these mixed-race and intercultural relationships play out in historical literature, further enabling Western-created stereotypes of Asian docility.

The Italian opera “Madama Butterfly” tells the story of an American G.I. who falls in love with a Japanese woman while stationed in Japan. The woman kills herself when he must leave. Similarly, the musical “Miss Saigon” is set in Vietnam and is a less critical iteration of “Madama Butterfly.” However, it features the same racial and romantic dynamic, according to Nguyễn-võ.

“The contexts (of ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Miss Saigon’) are very similar – an American military presence and the soldier being a representation of that imperial militaristic power that is marked as masculine,” Nguyễn-võ said. “The relationship between a figure like that and an Asian woman is in the context where Asia is supposed to be saved by American imperial militarism.”

This Western militaristic might seems to have begun a process of gendering and sexualizing the Asian identity, paving the way for yellow fever as we know it.

“(American imperial militarism) works on the same cultural logic and imagining about the gendered other – that Asian woman are sex dolls or submissive,” Nguyễn-võ said. “When they’re not submissive, they fit into this stereotype of the dragon lady.”

A historic example of an Asian woman who strayed from the stereotype of submissiveness is exemplified in Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of the Republic of Vietnam’s president, who played a heavy-handed role in governing. When asked by the American press in 1963 about a Buddhist monk who self-immolated as a form of protest, she reasoned that he had “barbecued” himself and that she would offer additional gasoline to Buddhists if need be.

The American press and public alike soon dubbed Nhu as a “dragon lady.” She was outspoken, and unfearfully so, and did not conform to the Western idea of the submissive Asian woman, Nguyễn-võ said.

As we shift from Western presence in Asian countries to focus on Asian immigration to Western countries later in history, gender stereotypes relating to Asian men and women seem to have remained in many forms.

During industrialization, Chinese workers were brought to the United States in the 18th century to work on the transcontinental railroad. They were immediately placed in a subordinate position, according to Zhou.

Much of the Chinese immigration to the United States was made up of male workers who were stereotyped as being feminine for wearing pigtails. Few women were brought in, but those who were came as slaves and sex workers.

“This began perception of Asian women as sexual and men as asexual,” Zhou said. “Men were never treated as a desirable being with masculinity. Even in early novels, women were described as different and exotic.”

As it turns out, the Asian female identity of being “different and exotic” is the basis and driving force behind their appeal in the context of yellow fever today. According to Park, middle-class white women are the standard of beauty in Western society and are therefore normalized. Conversely, minority women are seen as different and deviant and, through this, desirable.

“There’s the theory of desire: People tend to desire what they can’t have, so it’s natural that human beings are curious about other human beings’ different backgrounds,” Park said. “Minority women are seen as deviant, but at the same time, they attract temptation because people are curious and interested, maybe sexually, about others.”

Yellow fever, it seems, may be rooted in a desire to know the unknown. The Asian woman, through her supposed exoticism and deviance, draws intrigue. She is thought of as traditional and submissive in ways that the middle-class white woman, who is thought of as liberated and independent, is not, Zhou said.

Asian men may be equally subjected to yellow fever. In the same way that Western imperialism targeted and feminized Asian women, so it did to Asian men as well.

In David Henry Hwang’s play “M. Butterfly,” he suggested that all aspects of Asia were feminized in this militaristic conquest, including Asian men. According to Nguyễn-võ, the white man who colonizes imagines the Asian “other” as one that is interchangeable; men and women were equalized by femininity, with mistaking a man for a woman becoming part of this cultural dynamic.

“To be taught at a young age that someone likes you because of a ‘fetish’ tells you that you are by nature strange, abnormal,” Tria Chang wrote in HuffPost. “I internalized: To be attracted to me was to have some sort of perversion. And so I learned to think of all Asians as less desirable.”

In coming to terms with this stereotype, Asian women may also imagine the gendered other – in this case, the gendered Asian male – in the same way that Western imperial militarism historically has. For instance, in terms of media representation, we seldom see Asian male actors play romantic leads, Park said.

Unfortunately, the Western imperialistic curation of the Asian and Asian American identity as one that is feminine and subservient seems to trickle down to the modern-day.

As legends metamorphose from books and plays to movies and on-demand TV shows, so have the tales of women from the East.

As discussed above, Asian women may be portrayed in media as either a docile sexual object or a “dragon lady.” The insinuation is that Asian women do not amount to enough to be fully fleshed out, empathetic characters.

An article from The Guardian gathered Asian actors to recount racist barriers they encountered in Hollywood. The article discussed problematic breakdowns of Asian characters, like a female Asian character who is “really only good at being pretty” and an Asian female description being followed by traits like “petite,” “slim” and “fragile.”

Japanese American comedian and actress Atsuko Okatsuka remembered being called in to portray roles like a Japanese schoolgirl – roles that she felt did not fit her – and the demeaning process in auditioning for it.

“I had to squeal a lot and speak in a very high-pitched cadence in Japanese. And giggle,” Okatsuka said in the article.

(Shari Wei/Daily Bruin)
(Shari Wei/Daily Bruin)

Now, everyday Asian women are speaking out about these problematic representations.

Skylar Zhao, a third-year psychology and sociology student, feels as though portrayals that draw from stereotypes feed into fetishism, and this usually stems from Western movies and media being shot from an objectifying white male gaze.

As we enter the present day and examine where the Asian identity stands within Western dating culture, we can see that when it is perceived through a narrow lens, like in media portrayals, it can affect Asian women in every aspect of their lives. For some UCLA students, it seems that yellow fever is alive and well, though for them it has changed from an imperialistic tactic to microaggressive dating preferences.

[Related: The Quad: Exploring the culture surrounding the subtle asian dating Facebook page]

Zhao agreed the phenomenon exoticizes Asian people and focuses on generalizing stereotypes, like the assumed docile, mysterious nature of Asian women.

“Yellow fever is also a reductionist move which sees Asian girls based on their race and not their personality, which is inherently racist,” Zhao said.

A lack of accurate portrayals may be interconnected with other aspects that maintain yellow fever; for example, the cultural differences between Western and Eastern societies.

Hope Safranek, a fourth-year statistics major, reflected on her experiences living in Taiwan, where her mother is from. She witnessed a subtle cultural difference between Taiwan, and other Asian countries, and Western culture.

“I feel like (in America) we promote this idea of individualism whereas in a lot of other Asian countries it’s about the family, about the entire entity, rather than the person,” Safranek said.

The notion Safranek addressed has been studied in sociology: Eastern cultures generally tend to be more collectivist than individualist Western cultures, associating actions not just with the individual, but their family and community, according to some studies.

In turn, Safranek believes there is less shame in America to pursue taboo fetishes, which she said may otherwise be suppressed in Asian cultures.

“I think because of those deeply rooted cultural differences, (the aspect of shame) transformed and yellow fever blossomed through that,” Safranek said.

Zhao had an additional approach to analyzing the effect of cultural differences. While cultures across seas are different, those who express dual identities from both sides can feel even more impacted by the phenomenon.

“Asian Americans are racially triangulated in a way that Asians tend to feel alienated despite growing up in America all their life,” Zhao said. “Yellow fever definitely makes it worse since it is creating an image of a foreign mysterious girl despite that they have lived here all their lives.”

Zhou also commented on the exaggerated effects of yellow fever on Asian Americans.

“I would argue that, growing up here, you are more affected by the negative impact of this stereotyping than international students are,” Zhou said. “International students, once they are here and encounter the racialized system, would be just as equally affected. However, they already have a very strong identity before they come here, unlike the children who are born here.”

While those who grow up in America versus in Asia share different experiences, so do those who have grown up in different generations.

Chapal Barua, a fourth-year human biology and society student, said that yellow fever can be perpetuated by older, non-Asian generations carrying stereotypical perceptions and sharing those learned beliefs with Asian girls.

“I have a lot of older people tell me lots of random inappropriate things just to spark up a conversation. … ‘Oh, you’re Indian right? You must know how to take care of your future husband. I hear you guys treat them like gods,’’’ Barua said.

According to Safranek, her Taiwanese mother also supports this idea of a generational, ideological divide, with older generations holding onto traditional ideas related to yellow fever like a sexist and controlling attitude.

However, she remarked that the generational divide may also be the turning point for problems like yellow fever.

“(My mom) said that, in our generation, men feel like they have less control over women than they used to. I think that’s because of the media, movements and marches. We are really able to voice ourselves and demand respect, while before it wasn’t like that,” Safranek said.

However, there are still experiences that illustrate the progress we need to make in our own generation. Safranek encountered an inebriated peer who targeted her mixed-race identity.

“I remember how he was talking about how he would love to hook up with a mixed girl. I was just like, ‘I’m so uncomfortable right now,’” Safranek said. “And that was this guy’s goal. … That just blew my mind.”

To Safranek, yellow fever seems to feed off a larger problem of overpowering masculinity and its sense of control. Women may feel wary of how to handle confrontations like these.

“Because as a woman, he probably didn’t expect me to say anything back. And as a woman, unfortunately, I didn’t say anything back. … I think it tied into this fear that I didn’t want any conflict,” Safranek said.

With that in mind, Safranek and others believe the most effective, long-term way to bring problems like the fetishism and exoticism of Asian women to the forefront is to work through the bigger, overarching movement of feminism.

[Related: Subtle Asian Traits]

“Over time, Asian women have been able to speak up more because of the feminist movement and because of how it progressively becomes more inclusive,” Safranek said.

As Safranek’s mother noted, generational differences have the potential to give way to changing beliefs. The incorporation of countering yellow fever into feminism may have been brought on by these differences seen in second-generation Asian Americans who, as mentioned before, feel more alienated in their country.

In turn, Asian American women who have grown up in the United States may facilitate the progression of sociopolitical moments for those less likely to speak up.

“For the native-born, their political consciousness is stronger, and their desire and drive to make a claim to this land as theirs is stronger,” Zhou said.

Despite their hard work in adapting to and integrating into the American socioeconomic sphere, Asian Americans may still face difficulty in shedding the quiet, submissive character to which they have historically been confined.

In many cases, socioeconomic achievement across the Asian American population is higher than that of the average American population. However, mainstream media largely fails to represent these achievements, demoting Asian Americans as secondary, Park said. This may be an unfortunate indication of the intersection of the model minority myth and the bamboo ceiling, a term coined by author Jane Hyun to describe Asian American career barriers.

In an article in The New York Times Style Magazine, author Thessaly La Force sees the bamboo ceiling in the overall perception that Asian Americans lack the brilliance or intuition needed in the American workplace, and are therefore less likely to be promoted into managerial positions.

In the end, my initial question of whether that simple conversation over breakfast was yellow fever turned into a larger realization of its ties to centuries worth of misconceptions. It doesn’t seem to be as innocent as the way people romantically approach others but rather as the way they have been conditioned by society to view groups of people.

There is hope that, by addressing the tendency people may have to see romantic partners first by their appearance and what characteristics they believe always come with these appearances, other issues of racial microaggressions can also be recognized for their daily impacts.

And we are already making strides, Zhou said.

“The second generation is doing much better,” Zhou said. “Given time, the Asian American community will be more vocal.”

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