When I first matched with Andrew* online, I felt hopeful. There he was: cute, 30, a creative director, an avid reader. We had plenty in common — like that we both moved to Chicago to pursue our passions and agreed on the best place to get waffle fries after midnight. Naturally, we set up a date for that coming weekend.
Here’s where I admit that I rarely look forward to first dates. Call me detached or blame it on my Aqua moon, but I usually feel nothing but indifference. Still, I couldn’t help but notice my excitement as I rushed to get ready that night. After curling my hair (I really was trying) and sending multiple outfit option pics to my best friend, I was on my way to a trendy restaurant in my neighborhood.
To no one’s surprise, the date started off great. We laughed at our childhood stories as we shared mozzarella sticks and bonded over our knowledge of crime docs. By the time my burger came, I was convinced that every clichéd story about people falling in love was true.
Then, reality happened.
“I’m such a sucker for Asian girls,” he confessed, smiling as though what he said was an inside joke that we were both in on. I nodded like I understood, but my mind was already racing. Was he, a white man, only interested in me because of my race? Is it unfair to claim his one remark as fetishization? Racial fetishization includes being attracted to a specific group of people based on racial stereotypes instead of individual people’s personalities or interests. These questions followed me as we wrapped up the night and I half-heartedly agreed to meet up another time.
Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique or surprising: The fetishization of Asian women in America dates back centuries. One early example? The Page Act of 1875, which severely restricted Chinese women from immigrating to the U.S. out of fear that they were prostitutes. This hyper-sexualization was perpetuated by U.S. troops who sexually exploited women in Asia while serving; the demand for Asian sex workers spiked following World War Two, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The big screen also supported this submissive stereotype: When the movie Memoirs of a Geisha came out in 2005, I was one of the few Asian Americans growing up in a small Minnesota suburb and spent months awkwardly laughing off my classmates who would ask if I was a geisha.
Fast forward to today’s online dating world and it’s easier than ever for people to share remarks that are fueled by fetishization. Yet, a recent study by Bumble reveals that nearly half of users don’t know what the term means.
But this lack of awareness didn’t shock me — prior to my encounter with Andrew, I had already been receiving similar hurtful messages. Once, to say hello, a match asked how amazing it would be if my name was Jasmine. I didn’t respond. When another man suggested we cook together, I agreed — until he stated that he wanted to make “authentic” dumplings, since he assumed I would know how to fold the wrappers. Again, I didn’t respond. However, Andrew’s initial messages had been kind. Confused, I thought back on our conversations and recalled a brief interaction where he had said that most of his friends were Asian. At the time, I brushed off the comment. Now, I realize it could’ve been considered a clue.
Days after our date, I let Andrew know I wasn’t interested in seeing him again — and decided to set better boundaries on dating apps. When one match shared that he liked my “exotic” look, I told him that his message made me uncomfortable. His response? I unmatched him. Another time, a man told me he had “yellow fever.” After I said that term was offensive, he called me sensitive. My response? Unmatched. Overall, I matched and received inappropriate messages from men across different races, with most of them being from white guys. The pattern was clear: If I didn’t tolerate these racist comments, the men were no longer interested in me.
Just like how these men weren’t apologizing for their racist comments, I would not apologize for reacting to the experience.
When I mentioned my frustrating experience at a gathering one weekend, there were mixed reactions. Some gasped while others laughed. My friends of different races had the same reaction: “People love Asian girls” — like that was enough to explain away being objectified. “It’s just how it is,” they said. But that perspective was part of the problem, wasn’t it? I’ve received subtle comments like these throughout my 20s — one date kept saying he loved Asian women because of our “small” size. Or there was that other match who claimed he wanted to marry an Asian woman after his brief time living abroad in Asia. Even though the remarks were different, they were always presented the same way: perfectly packaged comments driven by racism and hidden behind the façade of a compliment.
Still, I wasn’t going to let these encounters stop me from trying to find a connection. As I continued to swipe, I felt empowered to be more direct. Just like how these men weren’t apologizing for their racist comments, I would not apologize for reacting to the experience. Where I once ignored a statement, I now shared how it made me uncomfortable. In situations where I used to give the benefit of the doubt despite what was said, I followed my gut. And during moments where I wondered if my honesty would scare men away, I reminded myself that the right person would respect my boundaries instead of judge me for them.
A couple months later, I matched with Oliver*, a tall white man who worked in finance and seamlessly walked the line between talking about stocks enough to be interesting but not annoying. He was witty, understood all the Twitter memes I sent (v important), and maybe had a better wardrobe than I did. As I rode the elevator up to his apartment for a movie night, I knew I was another good date away from officially liking him. Throughout the night, Oliver continued to impress me with his intelligence and spotless bathroom (that’s peak mental health, right?). When I complimented the charcuterie board he had made for us, he admitted that it was his first attempt at my favorite appetizer — because he usually only ate Asian food. This comment inspired my next question.
“Have all your exes been Asian?,” I asked, sneaking a look at him as I grabbed a piece of cheese.
“Yeah, I just connect better with Asian girls,” Oliver replied in a matter-of-fact way that could only come from a place of certainty that I wouldn’t be offended. He went on. “I relate better to Asian culture and think the women are more interesting.” Like the men before him, he smiled. But unlike those other times, I didn’t play along and couldn’t recall any past interactions that would’ve hinted at his likelihood to make such a statement. So I explained why what he said was problematic — and he reacted by attempting to justify that he hadn’t meant it “in that way.” You can probably guess the ending of the story: I ate more cheese (it’s the least I deserve), finished the movie, and never saw him again.
This isn’t to say my entire dating experience has been filled with these stories. I’ve gone on dates with wonderful men who were within my race and outside of it, have been in healthy relationships that simply didn’t work out, and have come across potential partners who respectfully answered my questions about whether their exes have been Asian. Being honest with myself has led me to confidently set relationship boundaries — and one of them is avoiding men who only see me for my race.
In the end, I date to figure out who I’m compatible with and adjust based on what I learn. Whether that discovery comes within two messages on a dating app or two years into a long-term relationship, there’s no right or wrong way to get to know someone — and I believe it’s never too early or late to change my mind once I do. Maybe it all comes down to this: I’m simply looking for people who are interested in me for who I am and not the idea of who they think I should be.
*Name has been changed.
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