This piece was originally published on Liminal Glory
As an Asian American man, wanting to be viewed as desirable is not based in superficiality, but an urge to abolish structural racism that disguises itself in desirability and sexuality politics.
– Phillipe Thao, “Crazy Hot Asians: Redefining Asian Male Desirability“
I’ve recently been in conversation with a fellow gay Asian friend regarding my problematic attraction to white men. I once half-joked that simply given the demographic of gay men in the United States, the probability of me ending up with a white husband is fairly high. I then proceeded to joke how I’d definitely change my last name for him so I could benefit from his white privilege.
It’s really strange — for all the work I’ve put into undoing the internalized homophobia and racism of my upbringing, I’ve still yet to extricate myself from the idea that the circumstances of my birth dictate what I should or shouldn’t do on a moral level. What began with toxic gender complementarianism now presents itself as a matter of racial complementarianism — something just as bad and twice as complicated.
All three of my past boyfriends have been white. Off the top of my head, all of my close queer Asian friends’ partners are white. And I honestly can’t recall the last time I saw a gay couple where both were Asian American.
Whenever I’m feeling particularly single, I go on YouTube to watch videos featuring cute gay couples (because I love myself), and I admit that every time I see a gay couple where one is white and one is Asian, something about it just strikes me as good. Something desirable, something to aim for — and it’s only been recently I’ve discovered how deeply rooted my tongue-in-cheek joke about ending up with a white guy actually is.
It’s disturbing how quickly my life has turned into a gay version of Yellow Fever. About every other week someone makes some ignorant assumption about my romantic life based on my race as I get messages on my dating apps about how much a guy “loves Asians”. There’s even a term for it: so-called “rice queens” are typically white queer men who exclusively date Asians.
Asian women have been dealing with such harmful stereotypes for just as long, and in the gay male community we share similar paradoxes — we’re expected to be submissive yet independent, demure yet intelligent, exotic yet familiar, sexy yet totally asexual. Before I can even get a word of English in, I am but a stand-in for thousands of people who share my skin color and sexual orientation.
And you know what? As much as I hate it, some part of me doesn’t resist. I realize I am part of the problem, and it certainly doesn’t help since I happen to fit the gay Asian stereotype so well. On some level, I get a kick out of code switching my way through the dashed expectations of white men. Thanks to a combination of Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome, my thoroughly American upbringing, and my two degrees, it can come as a surprise that my English vocabulary is more expansive than a lot of white Americans’. That I can quote Plato and analyze poetry and talk centuries of dead European composers.
At the same time a brilliant success and a horrible dishonor, the assimilated Asian American is an expert navigator of two cultural identities and yet garners the full merit of neither.
The problem is not with dating white men — there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem is the way I’ve been centering my desire on white approval and benefitting from white privilege by mastering the navigation of Western culture. In some twisted way, being on a white man’s arm would be making myself into my own trophy for winning at the assimilation game. That is white supremacy by any other name.
The process of decolonizing one’s desires comes with a life of powerful paradox. For me, as a relatively small and physically fragile gay Asian man who is easily crushable, white desire is a mixture of both a fear of being overpowered and also of a craving for security within the folds of white privilege. I deliberately avoid dating anyone significantly taller, older, heavier, or stronger than me in order to minimize power difference.
But in my self-perceived weakness I also let a sense of internalized racism get the better of me: more often than not, I succumb to the belief that I’m not worthy of being desired in a dignified manner, and the cheap fetishization I’m frequently the target of is the best I’m going to get. Intellectually, I know it’s false. But after years of living in a world where whiteness is a prerequisite for beauty and models of healthy Asian masculinity are woefully underrepresented, it’s often easier to let myself be reduced to an exotic object than it is to fight back.
Every once in a while I’ll look in the mirror and really like what I see. I learn to savor those moments. And as the months go by I find myself thinking it a little more often, and I have to stop the negative thoughts from intruding on my self-appreciation. I was never ashamed of being Asian American, but really loving the Chinese body I was born with is a goal I yet work to attain.
Because I know at the core of my heart that just because I don’t look like the majority of my Hollywood crushes doesn’t mean I’m not a different kind of beautiful. That my personal worth is completely independent of who I’m dating — let alone the race of the person I’m dating. That though in the end it’s certainly possible my future husband happens to be white, it wouldn’t be because I did both of us a disservice by underpinning my desire on his whiteness and my non-whiteness. It’d be because I fully recognized my strength as an Asian man and responsibly decolonized my desires.
It’d be because I’m worthy of dignity, respect, and a boy who recognizes that I’m amazing as hell. Full stop.
Jason Tong (pronouns: he/him/his) is a Chinese American choral musician and composer currently living in Los Angeles. As a gay cisgender man and baby Episcopalian, he spends his spare time writing about the intersections between faith, sexuality, and race. When he’s not working on decolonizing his identity, he’s learning about languages and dreaming of becoming a polyglot. Read more at Liminal Glory.