A quick Google search defines “exotic” as either “originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country” or “an exotic plant or animal.”
I can’t count how many times I’ve been called this: by Metro catcallers, by Santa Monica street performers, by my sixth-grade history teacher, and by my father’s 60-year-old business clients.
It’s true, I guess — I am exotic, according to the formal definition of the word. I was born and raised in China, which is about as close to a “distant foreign country” as you can get. But when men call me exotic, they’re not using it to state a fact: they’re using it as a compliment, as sleazy alternatives to the cliche “hey, beautiful” to get my attention.
Which is a bit odd, to say the least. Normally, when you’re complimenting someone, you’re praising them for something subjective, such as their personality, or their intelligence. You wouldn’t call a redhead a “ginger” as a compliment, right?
Last time I checked, the overuse of “exotic” is a common symptom displayed by men suffering from “yellow fever,” a disease that’s particularly prevalent among Silicon Valley software engineers and countrymen pining for a mail-order bride. It’s a type of predominantly Caucasian sexual fetishism involving attraction to East Asian women on the grounds that they are submissive and obedient.
Throughout history, the stereotype of obedient and meek Asian women has been reinforced through mainstream media.
For example, Pierre Loti’s 1887 “Madame Chrysanthème” portrays Asian women as exotic and rare commodities through a story of a French officer traveling to Japan to find a “dainty and delicate” woman “not much bigger than a doll.”
Loti’s novel served as the inspiration for Giacomo Puccini’s famous 1904 opera “Madame Butterfly,” in which an American soldier travels to Japan to find a wife, a play that prefaced the horrible reality faced by thousands of Japanese women during World War II.
After Japan surrendered to the United States in 1945, U.S. occupation authorities created a network of Japanese brothels under a “Recreation and Amusement Association.” These institutions elevated American soldiers to the status of “white saviors” lifting Asian women out of economic stress, a notion that reinforced the concept of Western superiority and Asian submissiveness.
Furthermore, Chinese actress Anna May Wong’s role as the demure, delicate, and flower-like Lotus Blossom in “The Toll of the Sea,” a 1923 film adaptation of “Madame Butterfly,” also served to further this stereotype and normalize Asian fetishization in modern-day society.
These plays, novels and films homogenize Asian women, suppresses our individuality, and reduce our purpose of fulfilling the sexual fantasies of white men. They portray us as exotic objects, demoting our existence to a characteristic that we have no control over.
The racist image of a perfectly docile, exotic Asian woman created by these works also reveals the underlying sexism that still taints society today: it implies that non-Asian women are too loud, too disobedient, too individualistic, it perpetuates misogyny and upholds the idea of a patriarchal order of female inferiority and service to males.
The use of the word “exotic,” or the less common “oriental,” originates from the 11th century, in which white adventurers on the Silk Road sought to find fabric and spices in the “Far East.” As Asia became defined by its seemingly exotic commodities, these “oriental” aesthetics were projected onto its people and their physical appearance.
We have consequently become defined by our hair, eyes, and petite figure; our identities have become inseparable with the dainty, delicate and exotic commodities our cultures represent.
These racist stereotypes manifest themselves in our present-day dating culture.
Although we continue to place more and more value on diversity and inclusion, yellow fever gets buried under a facade of “appreciating other cultures.”
Sexual preferences that arise from centuries-long oppression are normalized, which only serves to further objectify Asian women and reduce our existence to fulfilling the sexual desires of men.
In a 2014 OkCupid survey, Asian women earned higher QuickMatch scores than women of black, Latina, and white descent. QuickMatch scores are the percentages of male users that expressed romantic interest in a woman’s online dating profile.
The popularity of Asian women on dating sites and apps inspired the creation of a Tumblr blog called “Creepy White Guys,” which is dedicated to posting screenshots of real messages received by Asian women from men on OkCupid.
“So, this message may come across weird or crazy, but I’m just gonna be honest and tell you what I’m into,” a message from a man named Ryan read. “I developed an intense interest in Asian women, particularly Chinese women.”
According to a 2011 psychology study conducted by Professor Bitna Kim, non-Asian males expressed positive, but stereotype-based, perceptions of Asian women.
“Almost all of the interviewees mentioned, in one way or another, that Asian women are submissive,” Kim noted in the study. “One said, ‘women serve the men, they do things for him that the western culture has long forgotten. It’s hard to pinpoint, and I’m not saying that western women don’t take care of their men, it’s just the way Asian women go about it. The presence, the mannerism, the movement of their bodies that are attractive to some of us.’”
In fact, even the use of the term “yellow fever” is a bit hypocritical. On one hand, it raises Asian women on a pedestal, defining and idealizing them on criteria that they had no control over; on the other hand, it’s an extremely belittlement — it claims that romantic or sexual attraction to Asian women is so improper that its existence must be plague-like and unnatural.
All women, Asian or not, should pride themselves on their spirit, on their intelligence, on their work ethic — qualities that they have the power to control, not innate characteristics like physicality or race.
We are more than our cultural heritage; while it is important in shaping us into the women we have or will become, it is not our defining characteristic, and it’s simply offensive to muddle our individuality and lump our unique accomplishments into one big category labeled “Asian”.
But, although harmful, “yellow fever” describes only a radical minority of men who prefer to date Asian women. Not every white man attracted to Asian women is basing his preferences on racist stereotypes, and “yellow fever” should not be used as an umbrella term to describe all interracial relationships involving Asian women.
The attraction is subconscious and cannot be controlled, but it is important to understand the complicated, centuries-long history of fetishization and misogyny faced by Asian women.
So when a man on my afternoon commute calls me “exotic,” I have every right to be upset that he is sexually objectifying and stereotyping me by the fact that I’m Asian. But when a non-Asian man calls me pretty and asks me out, I should avoid jumping to the same conclusion and make sure that I feel safe and respected before replying.