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Before I knew anything about sex, fetishization, or “yellow fever,” I knew that my father was white, my mother was Asian—and I was neither and both at the same time.
From a young age, my parents taught me to list off my ethnicities for anyone who asked. If a stranger told me I looked “exotic” or “unique,” I was trained to nod and accept their comments as compliments. If someone asked me which parent was which race, I knew to let them interrupt me mid-answer, so they could guess.
“Your mom’s the Asian one and your dad’s the white one,” they’d always say. “Right? I mean, it’s just never the other way around.”
Your mom’s the Asian one and your dad’s the white one ... Right? I mean, it’s just never the other way around.
Despite being unfamiliar with the term as a child, “yellow fever”—that is, when a non-Asian person has a clear sexual preference for people of Asian descent—was never far out of reach. At first, it was the narrative that others would automatically apply to my parents. Then, later on, it became a nuisance I encountered first-hand.
Rooted in stereotypes about Asian women, specifically that we’re submissive and hypersexual, yellow fever perpetuates harmful notions of femininity and gender. Aesthetically, we’re also considered “safe”: exotic enough without straying too far from the comfort of whiteness.
White desire feels uncomfortable to me, but as the daughter of an interracial couple, I know this mindset might seem hypocritical. As someone who has been the target of fetishization—both for being mixed and for being Asian—I struggle to reconcile this objectification with the fact that I’m half-white.
After my parents divorced when I was 9, my mom raised me on her own. Racially and culturally, I identify more with my Asian side, but being biracial adds a layer of guilt and perceived “inauthenticity” to my experiences with race. People of color and white people have made it clear that I’m not enough of either race to own my experiences in the same way as someone who’s 100%.
For the most part, my parents subvert the yellow fever stereotype: My mom is an alpha female who suffers no man, and my dad doesn’t really care who he’s dating as long as he’s not alone. For a white guy from Ohio, my father has a surprisingly diverse dating history, but I can’t help but wonder if I’ve subconsciously dismissed the possibility that he has yellow fever because of what that would imply about my parents’ relationship, and therefore, my entire existence. No one likes to imagine their parents as sexual beings, let alone ones with a race-based fetish. If my dad had yellow fever, that would make me a product of it— a horrifying prospect for a woman of color who has experienced fetishization. What if he happened to be the kind of man I actively avoid?
Like many Asian women, I’m wary of white people who show romantic interest in me. Growing up in white suburbia, I was conditioned to believe that looking different from everyone else meant I was inferior. The fact that it was rare to see people of color—especially racially ambiguous ones—on screen only confirmed my flawed logic. When the people who’ve ignored and actively teased you for years suddenly want to date you, it’s easy to become suspicious.
This feeling was amplified when I started high school, and began to have more experiences with dating and, eventually, sex. Suddenly, people found my differences desirable, whereas before, they made me weird. At the time, I didn’t know I was being fetishized, but I was aware that these white suitors pursued me because they thought I was exotic.
As a mixed-race woman who’s neither white-passing nor Chinese-passing, I’ve also learned that yellow fever is largely psychological. There are countless people who barely look in my direction, only to do a complete 180 and launch into a spiel about their love for Asian beauty, upon discovering my race—regardless of whether they’re interested in sleeping with me or not. Moments ago, they couldn’t see any Asianness in me, but finding out that I’m Asian apparently causes my face to warp before their eyes. “Did you not find me attractive until you found out I was half-Chinese?” I onced asked a suitor. After he responded in the affirmative, I walked away in shock.
If you consistently gravitate towards one race over others, it’s worth asking yourself why that’s the case.
Ultimately, you can’t help who you’re attracted to—but if you consistently gravitate towards one race over others, it’s worth asking yourself why that’s the case. We don’t live in a post-racial society, so it takes time to unlearn every messed-up thing about race we’ve ever absorbed.
Despite recent progress, many still see interracial relationships as taboo, and mixed-race people are a physical manifestation of that. But I’m grateful for my racial identity. Indeed, having interracial parents taught me to challenge and expand my ideas of love and sexuality, to not let ingrained racism limit my options.