(Top collage: Marta Parszeniew. Images: John Kline, via; Baldwin Saintilus, via; Michell Zappa, via; Antoine Taveneaux, via;
I once asked my first boyfriend what his friends thought about me. Apparently they were amused that he was dating a Chinese girl, and teased him about "riding her like a Kawasaki". I was humiliated by their crude fixation on my ethnicity, and they didn't even get it right.
Growing up in New Zealand, I often grappled with being different. I never believed in Santa and rice was my go-to starch. By my late teens, I realised that being Chinese also gave me a typecast sexual identity: bashful, privately kinky and rumoured to be in possession of an extra snug, sideways vagina.
I first heard murmurings about "yellow fever" at university. I wasn't surprised that a piece of slang had been coined for men – and, it seems, predominantly white men – who harbour a special affection towards Asian women; we all know a guy whose dating history reads like a copy of the Chinese Yellow Pages. Plus, there are other hints out there: several niche dating websites cater to those seeking Asian women; in Pornhub's 2016 Year in Review, "Japanese" and "Asian" took pride of place alongside "lesbian" and "step-mom" in the top 20 search terms; and if you're a woman of Asian heritage, you might have had the pleasure of being approached by someone who thought using the phrase worked, in some inexplicable way, as a chat-up line.
So we know that so-called "yellow fever" exists. The question I've always wanted to ask is: why?
Dr Ed Morrison, a senior lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Portsmouth University, says the main evolutionary theory for mate selection is "optimal outbreeding" – that "the best mate is one who is similar to you, but not too similar". We usually choose people from the same sub population, but avoid genetic relatives because of the risk of mutations in offspring.
It makes sense that white men could be attracted to Asian women because they're sufficiently genetically different. But there has to be more to the picture, especially when it comes to men who are exclusively attracted to Asian women. As Morrison points out, "Even in multicultural societies, you are more likely to end up with someone of your own race."
If "yellow fever" isn't merely a product of how people are wired, where does it come from? Like all great mysteries of human behaviour, there's another vital ingredient here mingling with our evolutionary history and genetic predispositions. This ingredient, of course, is culture.
Compelling arguments tracing the historical origins of "yellow fever" have been made elsewhere. But I'm curious about the influence of porn. If you've ever watched mainstream Asian porn (and of course you have), you'll be aware of its USP. Japanese porn in particular portrays women as meek, hyper-feminine and virginal – but also yielding readily to sexual advances. And lord, the squealing. No other category of porn has its stars wailing at such a volume.
It's obvious to me that these pigtailed actresses are, well, acting. As an Asian woman, I can say conclusively that penises do not make me cry. Erika Nishimori, a part-time Japanese porn actress, confirms that the giggly reluctance and pitchy shrieks are part of the job. "I play embarrassing gestures. It is acting to cry and be scared," she says. "I am making it so that men get excited. There are few such things in truth."
So there we have it: Asian porn isn't real life. But like every other flavour of porn that hyper-sexualises women, distorted portrayals of Asian women could shape beliefs about what Asian women are really like. A recent study from the UK revealed that the majority of boys believed porn was realistic. What could this mean for Asian porn aficionados? According to Dr Elena Martellozzo, co-author of the study and criminologist at Middlesex University, "If boys are repeatedly exposed to pornography where women are extremely subservient and submissive, it can be argued that they may have inappropriate expectations of women in their sexual relationship." To make matters worse, the submissive stereotype also thrives in mainstream media, where Asian women in theatre, films, books and TV are consistently characterised as subservient, vulnerable, hyper-sexual creatures.
The discomfort of misrepresentation runs deep here. Perhaps toes or clowns turn you on; and fine: your sexy time is your own business if it's consensual and no one's getting hurt. But I'm not so cool with people being sexually attracted to Asian women if that attraction is fuelled by beliefs that we're delicate flowers, exotic but unthreatening, shy but open to coercion, servile and, perhaps most troublingly of all, childlike.
With porn being a multi-billion dollar industry in Japan alone, skewed representations are likely to stick around. Like my old economics teacher Mr Warren used to say of his beloved "market for chocolate milk" example: whenever there's demand, supply will flow.
So does this mean that all white guys attracted to Asian girls have had their minds warped by an onslaught of Asian porn?
Max* likes Asian women, and puts it down to being attracted to physical features like dark hair and slender frames. He's well aware of the stigma, and has "learned the hard way that admitting you like Asian women as a white man is looked down upon". Adam* is also "exclusively attracted to women with Asian features", but thinks "yellow fever" is idiotic. "Do white men who only like white women have white fever?" he asks rhetorically.
I get their point. If their attraction to Asian women is only physical, is it that different to declaring that you like redheads or curvy women? I understand the logic, but I'm not convinced it's that clear-cut. For one, it's overly simplistic to say you're attracted to the physical features of Asian women. This erroneously implies that Asian women are homogeneously petite, dark-haired and wrinkle-less. I also wonder if attraction can ever be "purely physical", or whether we're actually subconsciously making assumptions about personality whenever we assess appearance.
Ultimately, the reasons why people are drawn to each other are exceedingly complex. Dr David Frederick, assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University, studies how biological and social factors influence attraction. Further to the submissive stereotype, he hypothesises that a whole host of factors could contribute to the development of an Asian preference. For example, when white men have largely grown up around white women "Asian and other ethnic minority women [may] appear novel and exciting". Frederick also points out that good relationships can be positively reinforcing. "If a man has a particularly positive relationship with an Asian woman, this may increase his preference for Asian women," he says. "The physical features typical of Asian women can become paired with feelings of reward and pleasure, leading men to preferentially seek out relationships with Asian women in the future."
With so many conceivable explanations, the one thing I know for sure is that attraction cannot be reduced to umbrella terms like "yellow fever". I'm not keen on a term that indiscriminately labels men and objectifies women at the same time. I once heard a guy being diagnosed with "yellow fever" by his friends because he showed appreciation for an Asian woman passing by. Why was there a knee-jerk reaction to sexualise her ethnicity, like those stupid boys did when they compared me to a Japanese motorcycle? Surely a man can find an Asian woman attractive without necessarily having a deep-rooted and dodgy "thing" for Asian women.
Branding people with "yellow fever" is, in and of itself, pretty offensive. The term is used haphazardly and it commodifies Asian women. It might seem like a catchy little label, but it's not really that witty or accurate to conflate being attracted to Asian women with having a potentially deadly viral haemorrhagic disease. Even if our vaginas were particularly snug and magically sideways, they're not going to kill you.
* Names have been changed.
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