A new documentary, which airs tonight on PBS, explores the psychology behind yellow fever–the phenomenon that sees white men attracted to, and sometimes even obsessed with, Asian women.
Filmed and directed by Debbie Lum, a fourth-generation Chinese-American from St Louis, Missouri, Seeking Asian Female looks to discover why many men see Asians as ideal wives, a concept that is ‘very painful for the Asian-American community,’ Ms Lum told ABC News.
According to the filmmaker, there is an overriding perception that women of that particular race are more docile and make for obedient life partners, a stereotype that is offensive and often untrue.
Indeed, according to Goal Auzeen Saedi, a post-doctoral fellow in counseling at Stanford University, the dominant perception is that women from Asia are ‘submissive’.
In a 2011 Psychology Today article, Dr Saedi explained that the men who desire Asian women–most of them Caucasians themselves–are sending an ‘underlying message about power, dominance and white privilege’.
It is exactly that attitude that Ms Lum sought to expose in her debut feature-length film.
‘Every Asian-American woman knows exactly what I am talking about,’ she said. ‘Men come up to you in a way that really looks like a stare, which lasts a bit longer than it should.
‘You can feel it,’ she continued. ‘It’s like they are looking through you.’
In the film, Ms Lum follows the lives of Steven, a twice-divorced 60-year-old on the hunt for an Asian bride, and Sandy, the Chinese woman half his age whom he meets on the internet and ultimately marries.
According to the website for the documentary, Steven first became interested in Asian women after witnessing the success of his son’s marriage to a Japanese immigrant.
The 60-year-old, who works as a garage attendant at the San Francisco airport, spent years looking through mail-order catalogs and dating websites, trying to find the perfect mate.
‘Over the course of the last five years there must be hundreds of different girls from China that I’ve been writing to,’ he explains in a trailer for the movie.
Finally, Steven meets Sandy–a 30-year-old factory worker who grew up on a tea farm in the remote mountains of China.
He flies out to Sandy’s home country to meet her, and two weeks later he returns to California with Sandy in tow, after she agrees to marry him.
‘I’m happy as a clam,’ he says in the trailer with a boyish grin as he introduces his fiancee to the film director.
But while Steven has fulfilled his fantasy by having a relationship with an Asian woman, the couple soon begins to struggle to communicate, since Sandy’s English is basic and Steven doesn’t speak a word of Chinese.
The trailer shows them bickering, with neither able to understand the other. ‘What?’ Steven yells to Sandy at one point. ‘Speak in English!’
Ms Lum, who speaks Chinese, becomes a translator and mediator as both Sandy and Steven turn to her to resolve their issues.
Steven admits to the filmmaker: ‘[Sandy] has read a lot of things to me in Chinese. I feel comfortable with it, but I have no idea what she’s saying.’
Ultimately though, their relationship works after Steven realizes that he can love Sandy despite her fiery temper, a trait which contradicts the stereotypical picture of an Asian female.
Today, Sandy and Steven have been happily married for four years.
‘[Steven’s] obsession with any Asian woman has been replaced with a real-live Sandy,’ explains Ms Lum, who admits that her own preconception of Steven was perhaps just as bad as those she sought to debunk about Asian women.
Still, Ms Lum said she hopes the film will start a conversation about negative categorizations in general – including those involving men like Steven.
‘The story is about expectations and stereotypes, which are very related,’ she said. ‘Stereotypes about white guys, and expectations going into a relationship.’