Being Asian On Tinder Means Getting Rejected Or Fetishized And Neither Feels Good
The hazards of dating while Asian and male.
I swipe right on every person until I reach my “like” quota, at which point I’m notified I need to wait for 12 hours.
I wait 12 hours, and start again. After a couple of days, I get a match.
I scroll through her photos, and stop at the fourth. She's Snapchat-stickered two strawberries onto her cheeks and added a touch of digital red blush.
Her description is brief:
I like the 4 S’s:
Swilling to put up with the fact I’m a weeb
A quick Google search tells me that “weeb” is shorthand for “weeabo” — someone obsessed with Japanese culture, in particular anime and manga.
“If one squeezes your strawberry cheeks will their fingers smell like strawberries?” I ask.
“They don’t smell like strawberries,” she replies. “But they taste like them.”
We decide to grab bubble tea and go for a walk in the park. She asks for my last name, to which I reply “Chen.”
“Oh my god, I think you're like the fifth Chen I’ve been with this year.”
I’m not sure how to respond, so I give off a nervous laugh. She tells me about her “preferences” — she’s not into white dudes. She only dates Asian guys, citing an attraction to our smooth, hairless skin and almond-shaped brown eyes.
“I don’t like my blue eyes,” she tells me while brushing away her hair, which she dyed blonde because “that’s what Asian guys like more.”
She tells me she’s host of an AMWF (Asian male, white female) Tumblr feed. She opens up the page to offer me a look. I laugh nervously, again, as I scroll through the posts — GIFs, photos captioned with messages of white woman domination, and short, thrusty video clips of white girls and Asian guys going at it. I continue to scroll down, until I realize I’m nowhere near the bottom.
There’s a scene in the 2017 film Get Out where the black protagonist starts to get suspicious that his white girlfriend’s family is out to get him. Despite being reassured that he’s the first black boyfriend she’s ever had, he stumbles upon a red box hidden in her room filled with old photos of her cozying up with other black men. The slow widening of his eyes as he flips through photo after photo allows the audience to feel something that would otherwise be difficult to articulate. I’ve had some of my own Get Out moments over the past year — sometimes it’s a quick look at a Tinder match’s Facebook profile and clicking through numerous photos of her with faces just like mine staring back at me. Sometimes it’s entering a bedroom greeted with pillowcases, bedsheets, and walls plastered with the faces of airbrushed Korean pop idols. On their faces I see the eyes of a stranger — someone from another country, with different values, who speaks a different language, and likely didn’t binge four hours of The Simpsons daily as a child.
I imagine my dates projecting that K-pop ideal — with soft facial features, “beastly” yet slim bodies, and androgynous fashion — onto my sluggish body and outlet mall wardrobe. My individual identity feels stifled by my physical resemblance to a group I don’t feel any genuine connection to. And this wave of Korean cultural media influence, known in South Korea and within the idol community as hallyu, isn’t going anywhere.
Technology has allowed K-pop to spread its pretty face across the screens and into eyes of Western young people. The global K-pop fanbase has risen from 30 million in 2013 to 70 million in 2017. In the same period, YouTube views have tripled, with K-pop boy band BTS’s pageviews exceeding those of Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, and yes, even Drake. BTS has managed to do what no other K-pop acts before it have done: find a way into the top 10 of the American charts. It’s basically modern-day Beatlemania.
Elizabeth “Dori” Tunstall, a K-pop fan and Dean of Design at OCAD University, uses the motto of legendary K-pop star Rain, “Endless effort, endless humility, endless modesty,” to emblematize the type of man idealized in this movement. He is intellectual (most K-pop idols need at least an undergraduate degree, if not a master’s), self-restraining, and obedient to authority — a group of traits often referred to as “soft power.” Young women are a major part of shaping contemporary interpretations for “ideal masculinity,” and their infatuation with K-pop is redefining how East Asian men like me are being seen in North America.
Given my lack of representation in the media growing up, accompanied by a sense of not being necessarily seen as “desirable” by those outside of my race, should I really be complaining? Is it so bad to have this new global trend increase my dating options ever so slightly? As retired Hong Kong University professor Kam Louie wrote in his article “Asian Masculinity Studies in the West: From Minority Status to Soft Power,” “Whether Asian masculinity is trendy or effeminate, at least it has been mainstreamed.”
I grew up a child of the ’90s in the northeastern Toronto borough of Scarborough, right next to Pacific Mall — the scene of Russell Peters’ infamous joke on cross-cultural bartering. The 1989 geopolitical situation of Hong Kong led to an influx of immigrants in my neighborhood in Ward 41, where recent statistics show almost 70% of the population are immigrants. Of this population, 72% are first-generation Canadians — the third gens, such as myself, make up a lonely 4%. If you look through my grade school class photos, you’ll spot me surrounded by newcomers who looked like me, but they didn’t always act or talk the same way. Their culture wasn’t mine — they enjoyed different candies, cartoons, holidays, and music, and some had the type of “tiger parents” both revered and resented in Western society.
My Chinese Canadian mom was born and raised in Scarborough, and couldn’t speak any language other than English. Our weekly meal rotation included pot roast, chicken à la King, Buffalo chicken wings, and an occasional batch of fried rice. Any grade higher than a C was usually just fine with her.
My juvenile self quietly resented being boxed in with the “FOBs” — those who were “fresh off the boat.” It didn’t seem fair that I should be considered the same as people who thought, dressed, and talked in ways that felt deeply unfamiliar to me. I was a minority within a community made up of minorities, and as a result I grew up wanting to separate myself from my race — to escape the boundaries this identity placed on me in the eyes of others.
I did all I could to be defined by something other than my heritage. I wanted to be noticed for my pink/blue hairdo, or my shitty/awesome emo bands, or my Pippi Longstocking fanny pack, or any other regrettable choice I’d made as a teenager.
I wonder whether my desire to be different was fueled by a dislike of how Asian males were perceived in Western society, and my experiences feeling ignored and unseen in the “non-Asian” dating scene.
“You aren’t alone in the experience of feeling unattractive or just being seen considered as ‘foreign’ by women,” says JT Tran, a surprisingly successful dating coach whose company targets North American Asian men who can’t seem to catch a break. “There’s a lot of historical precedence of Asian men being forced out of the dating pool.”
This historical precedence Tran refers to are the social realities my grandfather faced as a member of the early 20th-century Chinese Canadian community. The 1923 Chinese Exclusion act made it nearly impossible for Chinese migrant workers to bring their families here, creating what’s since been deemed a “bachelor society” of Chinese Canadian men.
I recall my grandfather lamenting his treatment by Canadian society growing up between Vancouver and Toronto during this time. “They treated us like dogs,” he once told me, referring to his memories of being spat on, forced off sidewalks, and barred from entering numerous businesses. Relationships between Chinese men and white women were highly stigmatized and impractical. We’d be portrayed in newspapers with propagandistic messages as being “mystics,” associating us with undesirable and effeminate traits. And the women who decided to marry a Chinese man were stripped of many social privileges, in some cases even resulting in the loss of their Canadian citizenship. There were even instances of white women being arrested just for hanging around Chinese restaurants — expected instead to hang out around respectable social spaces such as roller rinks, movie theaters, and concert halls, where guys like my grandfather would be forced into segregated sections in the back, or worse, not even allowed in the door.
And for many Asian American men, the door has stayed closed. OkCupid released data showing that next to African American women, Asian men are the least likely to be matched with. And when it comes to marriage, 54% of US-born Asian American women marry outside of their race, compared to 38% of men. Pew research data shows that Asian men in the US need to make an additional quarter-million dollars in annual income in order to have equal access to the dating pool as their white counterparts.
It’s left me in a weird situation. It seems that I’m either rejected due to my race or fetishized for it. And neither feels good.
Sometimes I worry that I’m being too critical. After all, preferences are preferences. When I open up my incognito browser to look at porn, is it not preferences that guide my click path? Is being into smooth skin and almond-shaped eyes not the same as being into freckles and tight butts? The line between objectification and attraction is blurry — and we’re talking about the choices made between two consenting adults.
“What you consider fetishization is maybe just, for the first time you’re experiencing a girl [being] attracted to you for something outside of your control,” said Tran, who made the point that conventionally attractive white men or women won’t usually question why someone is coming on to them. Is my discomfort coming from my unfamiliarity with being seen as desirable?
I brought up this question with my Canadian-born Vietnamese friend Julius Crowe. Last summer, despite his reservations and the discouragement of his Asian American friends, he started to hook up with a white girl whose dating profile explicitly stated her strong preference for East Asian males.
"I did question what I was doing the moments that I was with her,” he said. “I was definitely looking for a hookup. I saw an opportunity. I took it. But at the same time, it made me question my own self-respect.”
“It’s like we're just some sort of experience, like we’re not people behind it,” said Crowe.
The concern is not that women are becoming attracted to our physical features — I’ve had women of my own race admire my eyes and dolphin-slick skin before, and it never felt weird. But when non-Asian girls exclusively date Asian guys and obsess over K-pop culture, I have a feeling it’s about more than how I look.
"You immediately see it in the person’s behavior,” said Crowe, describing the gut feeling he gets when someone’s attraction to him is more about his race than who he is as an individual. It’s the projection of an identity onto the physical traits of a body. When someone is into freckles, they’re not implying a preference for docile, “soft” masculinity — it’s exoticization.
We both don’t really wish to be exoticized. Which is confusing, because we do enjoy being desired. We want to be sexy, and objectified, and lusted over.
Crowe compared the feeling to being chosen last in a baseball team draft: “As soon as we get picked, we're like Do we take this option? Or do we not and then not get any for a while? It's a lot of conflicting feelings.”
These feelings of wanting to be desirable mixed with not wanting to be boxed in by our race are shared by other groups of Asian Americans. Any Asian American woman can show you some snapshots of the multiple racially motivated “pickup lines” she gets when she dares to navigate the online dating space. Heck, there are even Tumblr feeds and illustrated lists showing how women must navigate the space of being targets of “yellow fever.”
Gay and Asian YouTuber Collin Factor spoke about how it felt to be both sexually fetishized and sexually deflated by Toronto’s gay community in his video “NOT INTO ASIANS.” “No fats, no fems, no Asians” is often written right onto Grindr profiles without reserve. According to Factor, guys who date him are immediately pegged as “rice queens.” Others cheapen his relationships by labeling them as being based on preference or fetish, ignoring the real connection he has with his partners. It seems the judgments and perceptions of others are often the things that spoil it.
I continued to see the girl with the strawberry cheeks. It felt good to be desired, and it was oddly comforting to be with someone who didn’t see me as the “first Asian they’d ever dated.” To her, I was just like every other guy she’s with — and therefore distinguished by my idiosyncrasies, not my race. I became “the guy with pink hair who never showers and for some reason thinks journalism is a viable career choice.” It’s the closest I’d ever felt to being part of the norm while in an interracial pairing.
But we didn’t date. I didn’t take her home to my parents, and we never spent time together outside of my apartment. I guess I didn’t wish to be seen as another grain of rice for the queen.
I do believe genuine and loving relationships exist across racial lines. Where a connection is built on a pop-up discussion of bands we like or how (not if) the robots will eventually screw us all. But in a world of stereotypes and pornographic echo chambers, it’s becoming easier than ever to project a false identity onto the bodies of others, erasing the individual within it in the process.
So I’ve considered dropping online dating altogether. A friend recently told me that maybe it’s just not meant for everyone — and that that’s okay. Maybe he’s right. After all, there’s a lot more to us than a handful of photos, our race, and the distance between us. ●