Don’t Call Me a “Lotus Blossom”

Jacob Lund, Alamy.


Don’t Call Me a “Lotus Blossom”

The Asian fetish experience

For our first date, Matthew* says we’re meeting at a buzzy Asian fusion spot in the city, right around the corner from his apartment in the Lower East Side. There’s a blizzard warning, but he raves the food is worth the hour-long bus ride from deep Brooklyn, with the best spicy chicken wings and a comprehensive selection of top-tier Japanese whiskeys. And even better, the owner’s a big fan of his band so everything’s on the house, and no worries about the bus being delayed. He’ll just wait inside and drink.

By the time I get there, Matthew’s clearly wasted, four drinks deep and talking to the wall about the moral implications of eating sushi in front of a fish tank. He greets me by asking if I think fish have feelings.

A few awkward conversation points later, he mentions that he’s already gone ahead and ordered. They’re several dishes he insists are incredible but it’s not exactly “real Chinese food.” I’m aware, I respond, pointing out that Asian fusion isn’t exactly a cutting-edge concept when there’s a Panda Express in every mall. Matthew tries to clarify, “I just meant that you’re probably used to way more authentic food.”

“Wait, do you think I’m Chinese?”, I ask, more baffled than anything else. Did he forget that I’m Korean or the time we had an entire discussion about visiting my grandmother in Seoul? He doesn’t answer, but his boyish face is turning the same color of the Sichuan chili peppers on his plate.

“You thought I was another Asian girl, didn’t you?”

But the sad thing was that Matthew’s mix-up was less than surprising. Infuriating, yes, but far from unexpected if I’d taken stock of all the red flags. There was his encyclopedic knowledge of anime, his nonstop questions about Asian rappers, his disappointment at learning that none of my cousins played Starcraft or that I only knew the Korean words for “hello”, “goodbye”, and “bulgogi.” His intense interest in my family and background wasn’t an attempt at genuine connection, but a byproduct of his fascination with East Asian culture and its interchangeable women. And of course, I’d fallen for it again.

My first brush with Asian fetishization was in middle school, when I overheard one of my classmates saying he had “Yellow Fever”. But the girls at school weren’t hot enough, at least compared to the shy and tiny submissives he saw on some virus-ridden porn site. They were “down to do whatever you want” and “never complained,” according to this pimply prize of a boy. And that’s how I learned about the West’s long-standing obsession with sexualizing people of color based on racist stereotypes.

Tongo Ro Images, Alamy.

As Renee E. Tajima wrote in “Lotus Blossoms Don’t Bleed: Images of Asian Women”, East Asian women are all the same, there to “serve… specifically as love interests for white men.” Because who doesn’t love being a sexual object that may not have autonomy but definitely has a vagina? We’re viewed as exotic and demure sexual playthings, Madame Butterflys and “China dolls” who are “utterly feminine, delicate, and welcome respites from their often loud, independent American counterparts.” Which is funny, because I’m regularly described as “the most unhinged bitch in the room” and I always take it as a compliment.

Yet decades of dating have taught me that, 9 times out of 10, a fetishist will still try. Most will immediately slip-up by saying something incredibly stupid like some guy at a bar who’ll pull out the classic “but where are you really from” when I say I’m from L.A., or the dude at the grocery store, who’ll slow down his speech and be over-enunciating his words before I tell him I’m a professional writer and probably speak better English than him. Or most recently, the 15-year-old at the mall that briefly made me question my sanity when he whispered “waifu” to me in passing. And of course, I was the “dumb bitch” when I asked why the fuck he was comparing a stranger to a fictional anime character and that he needed to stop jerking it with his Cheetos-crusted hands.

Then there are the ones like Matthew, who need a couple of weeks and a few drinks to show their true selves. Like the other boys, they grew up jabbing each other and saying “me so horny”, but went to a liberal arts college and figured out that it’s pretty fucked up to say that out loud. So their fetish goes completely underground, only making an appearance through some absurd presumption about my “Asianness” or how I interact with it. And so like every other East Asian woman I know, I’ve had to learn what behaviors will give me “the ick”, or the intuitive feeling that turns us off from someone. And even though I’ll sometimes feel bad about assuming the worst, it’s also hard to argue with a gut that’s already saved you so much physical time and emotional energy.

After all, I’ve gone on too many dates with too many Matthews in my twenties, which was easy to do when I was desperately lonely and wondering why no one seemed interested in getting to know the real me. Combined with being naive enough to believe external validation was the answer, it was easy to be lured in by the promise of a smart and successful guy, who appeared to recognize another bright, ambitious, and interesting soul worth listening to. Because in our online conversations, Matthew — and all the guys like him — seemed like they could be different. It seemed like they saw me as a person, instead of a subservient sex toy or a silent sounding board, and that kind of deception is a special kind of hurt. Because what I walked into was a date motivated by a racist fantasy. Which was precisely why I left him with a lapful of $200 Japanese whiskey at a table for one.

*Not his real name