This week I showed one of my classes "Seeking Asian Female," a documentary from Independent Lens (PBS) that tells the story of an "Asiaphile," a sixty year old parking lot attendant named Steven, and his efforts to win the affections of his younger Chinese wife, Sandy. The film is available to watch online through the month, and I recommend it.
My class is composed almost exclusively of Asian international students, about half of whom are Chinese. I was a little apprehensive about their reactions: Would they be offended? Would they be embarrassed? In fact, they seem to have found it pretty hilarious, especially the scenes in which Sandy upbraids a befuddled Steven in Mandarin.
In the short class discussion that followed, one of the students, a comely young Chinese girl, asked me, "What's wrong with being attractive to white guys?" As I delicately waded into language of "fetish" and "objectification," I realized they were already familiar with these concepts via mass exposure to advertising and internet porn.
The students were asked to write a contrastive paragraph about the expectations that Sandy and Steven had before they married, and how these expectations were challenged by reality. It dovetailed neatly with a unit we had finished on discrimination, racism, and cultural stereotypes. (I've yet to read their efforts, but will do so this afternoon.)
What I didn't share with them is my own family history with yellow fever. My uncle married twice, first to a Japanese gal named Yoriko when I was about ten. She was the wayward daughter of a Shinto priest, and turned out to be -- to my uncle's dismay -- quite a pistol. When they visited, Yoriko used my underwear drawer to stash her snacks, and my panties reeked of dried squid for a full decade. Sadly, this was the only reminder of her once vibrant presence, as she soon ran off with her golf instructor and was lost to our family forever.
My uncle's second marriage came much later, and was a marriage in name only. His second wife was a Korean bar girl who had suffered a near-fatal aneurysm in my uncle's Seoul apartment while he was at work. She was grievously brain damaged as a result, unable to speak (although she could be distressingly vocal) and had an unsteady, lumbering gait. She required constant supervision and around the clock assistance, so her aging mom and dad were part of the package. My uncle married her -- or so he claimed -- so that he could get her on his medical insurance plan. He set her and her folks up in LA for several years, but they hated living in the US, never learned more than a few words in English, and soon were back in Korea, where he continued to support them (and still does, after his death). I sometimes wonder if my uncle took Jae Nam on, not so much out of compassion, but because he knew she was the one woman who could never leave him.
My uncle was only attracted to women who were extremely young, extremely petite, and otherwise "extremely feminine" in the worst sense of the Asian female cultural stereotype. His addiction to Asian girls took him on various sex tourism holidays. One trip to a Thai brothel resulted in his developing both oral gonorrhea and genital herpes simultaneously, the inconvenient details of which he shared freely. (I learned to carefully sequester my personal linens and towels whenever he dropped in.) My uncle's "yellow fever" persisted throughout his life even though it was based on a fantasy that his own experiences repeatedly disproved.