The Worst Pickup Line is Not ‘Ni Hao’
“Go Home Japs!” I think of yellow fever as both a white man’s burden and fetish. I was an ‘80s pre-teen when my first generation Japanese family was dealing with Bubble Economy backlash in Los Angeles. White America thought we ought to “go home” and I tended to agree. Nothing would have brought me more joy than to be surrounded by people who actually looked and consumed like me. This, coming from someone who would have been going “back” to the general blight of ethnically Korean relatives who live in Chiba-ken. That’s right. I’d have rather been a disenfranchised Korean in a Japanese suburb, than an Asian in Los Angeles.
“I know karate.”
Quickly, Los Angeles became the mecca for Korean immigrants, and suddenly my lifestyle started to upgrade along with the status quo. By high school I was a popular kid surrounded by a majority Asian student pop; by college I was an exotic wonder. No longer would I ever be the chink getting beat up, thrown in dark rooms. While I was still exclusively dating Asians at this point (if you can call sex on a shoe-sized dorm bed “dating”), this dating was also just a ritual that preceded marriage. It was still unfathomable for me to spend the rest of my life with and bear the children of anyone other than of Japanese or Korean descent.
But in the predominantly white college town I was also the doyen of an ethnic tollbooth where white people would pop in to ask about sushi, tofu and futons. One of my flat-mates insisted on calling me, Ishii-san! with a gruff emphasis on the “san!” Had I known anything about Jewish culture at the time I would’ve shrugged my shoulders and muttered his Jewish name like a yenta every time I saw him. Oh wait no I wouldn’t, because that’s completely racist. When I told him “Ishii-san!” made me uncomfortable, he gave me a long treatise on the virtues of preserving culture and that he was just trying to respect mine. He, after all, knew karate.
“Asian women taste better.”
By the time I was graduating college I did notice that at least in California, assumptions about Asianness had been tempered by the rise of Asian pop culture: indie rock, noise music and comics had particular cachet in my circles, but herein lay more treachery. Musicians and artists get away with the most abhorrent pickup lines, regardless of race. “I love the way Asian skin feels. They taste better,” was probably about as honest as one bassist could’ve been, and I still paid no heed because he made eye contact with me during a solo that night.
“I love sushi. Can you make some for me?”
By grad school I’d matriculated to full Asian fetish, but was now living in New York City: The Babylon of Ethnic Essentialism. The half-life of my Freudian pathology had expired and I was in a petrified state of “Asian chick” dating mostly white men. But most of the men I dated, including Asian-Americans, asked the same questions about my Asianness, to say nothing of all the strangers who say “ni hao” as I pass by, rhyming it with “and how!” as if answering a blind friend who’s just asked: is she Asian?
There is of course, nothing wrong with getting to know your lover. I just had an impossible time throwing back comparable questions to my partners. “What’s your African name?” “I love hamburgers. Can you make me one?” As a general note I think white men would do well to simply avoid those questions in the first interaction. You’d be surprised what else we have to talk about. And don’t tell us it’s because your background is boring. It’s not my fault the name Wayne doesn’t mean anything to you.
Asian girl friends and I never tire of sharing bad lines–the stripper at my best friend’s bachelorette party screaming “HIROSHIMA~~!” when he jiggled his butt on my lap, for example, a perennial laugh. Asian guys complain too. One pointed out that the only Asian women who complain about yellow fever are the ones dating white men, suggesting we’re the proponents of the very thing we complain about. As such an Asian woman with a white boyfriend I can’t disagree, but argue that conversely, Asian women with white men simply become more exposed to the more galling pickup lines.
“I love Haruki Murakami.”
To be completely fair and in the interest of full disclosure, I have been in the business of Japanese cultural trade for most of my adult life. If it isn’t manga and literature it’s gay porn and minimalist design. This means I no doubt suffer a kind of yellow fever myself. I still feel at complete liberty to joke about yellow fever though, because many white men still insist on calling attention to our difference. If I’ve learned one thing in the last 10 years, it’s been simply, to patronize better bars where guys don’t hit on women. I fell in love with the white guy I’m dating now, in just such a bar.
“It’s too bad Asian men are such pricks. That’s obviously why you hate them.”
I am now the editor of this website, which asks explicitly about the pickup lines which have and have not worked on me. This web-series is to be clear, a launchpad for a forum on the ubiquitous white-asian coupling. Proof is in the pudding: according to the 2010 US census, in fact, Asian women are marrying white men at a much higher rate than any other ethnic category. 57% of Korean-American women are married to white-American men. That represents a majority; one that gives pause to a lot of Asian men. Well… to men like my Korean haraboji.
I’ve asked several intelligent white men to talk about their own relationships with Asian women, but they are uncomfortable being pressed to write what amounts to apologies for self-professed fetishists they don’t identify with. I posit simply that the relationship between white men and Asian women has evolved to a cultural phenomenon, and at the rate we’re marrying each other possibly an event horizon. Like Salt n’ Pepa said, let’s talk about sex, baby.
“How do you say I love you in Japanese?”
Class won’t change how exotic I am to some men. It takes true indifference to my ethnicity for me to believe the fever is colorless. And I fully recognize that white is a color too. I’ll try to stay apathetic as well. I remain hopeful. In today’s post-Bubble, post-9/11, post-2008 world, America’s fascination with sushi has shifted to an obsession with ramen. I for one prefer a ramen-lover. What about you?