a collage of the "i don't need to know about your asian wife" shirt in front of screenshots of big ed and rose from tlc's 90 day fiance
Screenshots via TLC, Cancel Couture; Illustration by VICE Staff
Entertainment

How a Joke Twitter T-Shirt Exposes a Frustration Many Asian Women Share

Asian women are tired of hearing about your Asian wife—and a simple T-shirt design has made the discussion viral.
August 19, 2020, 5:02pm

If you're Asian, and especially if you're a woman, chances are that a man—often white and often older—has at one point told you about his "Asian wife." This information is typically irrelevant to the conversation if there even was one to begin with, and it's offered without any prompting, save for your appearance. I rarely ask about the cultural background of a man's wife, but many men have told me anyway.

Luckily, there's now a shirt that could hopefully prevent this exact situation. Available in white and pink or on a tote bag, the design reads plainly: "I don't need to know about your Asian wife."

The shirt started as a Twitter joke in early June by the international relations researcher Rui Zhong after she'd gotten "a little scrappy" with a man who'd mentioned his Asian wife as a way to disagree with her in a conversation. "I was doodling around on my tablet and was like, you know, I'm really sick of people using Asian wives as some kind of credential," Zhong said. "I drew it out, slapped it on one of those T-shirt websites, and I guess people sort of connected with that kind of feeling." By July, Zhong's shirt was real, sold through her store Cancel Couture, and boosts from popular figures in Asian Twitter had earned it a level of viral fame.

"Let me stop you right there," Angry Asian Man tweeted in mid-July along with a link. Two weeks later, the comedian, actor, and writer Jenny Yang posted a picture of herself in the shirt to a response of nearly 26,000 likes, as of this writing, as did freelance food and drinks writer Esther Tseng, whose iteration got over 23,000. "Seriously have never had a tweet go so viral," said Tseng, who has written for VICE in the past. Zhong's response, meanwhile, was more like: "I made this as a joke—what is happening?"

The "wife guy" is well-known: a man who "defines himself through a kind of overreaction to being married," the New York Times's Amanda Hess wrote last summer, necessitated by the year's establishment of the "cliff wife guy," the "elf wife guy," and the "fake wife guy." Instead of being the Instagram husband behind the camera, the wife guy turns being married into a shtick of his own, Hess described: "He is crafting a whole persona around being that guy. He married a woman, and now that is his personality.

But as Zhong's shirt and the response to it have articulated, there's a very particular kind of wife guy well-known to people of Asian descent, if not yet the rest of the world: the "Asian wife guy," whose outward identity is formed not on his own culture but on his wife's (or his girlfriend's or his former partner's). Through that relationship, the "Asian wife guy" absorbs elements of his wife's culture, often reimagining himself as an authority on that culture. This persona is exemplified by the white, American man on TikTok who recently incensed parts of Filipino Twitter, myself included, over videos like "how to make a Filipina happy" and "three more reasons why you need a Filipina girl." For other examples, watch an episode of 90 Day Fiancé.

Some people put off by Zhong's shirt assume she has an issue with people simply having Asian wives. That's not the case, Zhong reiterated. "I don't really care about people's marriages," she said. "I care when they use other people as resume boosters or conversation pieces." As she pointed out, many non-Asian people have Asian partners and manage to work that information into conversations organically.

Like most wife guys, the "Asian wife guy" makes his Asian partner's existence awkwardly and loudly known, typically through his encounters with other Asian women. "Oh my god, this T-shirt hit such a nerve," said Jenny Yang, who mentioned that she's also received this treatment from women hitting on her. "There's this weird kind of benign racism, where non-Asians feel like the way they connect with you—either romantically or personally—is through telling you about the Asian food they've enjoyed, or the Asian women they've enjoyed."

Zhong's shirt isn't the only recent and viral pushback against the "Asian wife guy" archetype. Earlier this month, the actress and YouTuber Asia Jackson posted a TikTok of herself minding her own business, when a voice—captioned as "a 50-year-old white man with a Filipino wife"—begins saying, "You're Filipino, huh? My wife is Filipino. We met when she was 16, but we didn't get married until she was 19..." As the audio continues onto mispronounced Tagalog, the camera zooms into Jackson's increasingly unenthusiastic face.

At best, the "Asian wife" anecdote is an attempt to find common ground. "Their intention is to connect to me, but also express that they have an interest in my culture," said Esther Tseng. Still, she described the encounter as often feeling like someone's playing a guessing game: men seem to use it as a chance to show what they know about Asia, its countries, and its cultures, instead of actually attempting to get to know her. As Zhong mentioned, the "Asian wife" becomes a type of credential for these non-Asian people.

As a conversation starter, this approach can be misguided. Men who have told me about their Chinese partners, for example, fail to realize that I am Filipino, not Chinese. Similarly, Jackson was surprised by the number of non-Filipinos who related to her video: Cambodian and Vietnamese women also shared experiences of men telling them about their Filipino wives.

In Yang's estimation, the "Asian wife guy" approach tends to come from people who are "overly fixated by the idea of someone's culture being Asian, rather than someone who is trying to see another human being as a whole human being." It's an unfortunate truth for Asian women that sometimes people are interested in us solely because we are Asian, and at worst, the encounter with an "Asian wife guy" can be a way for a man to signal this particular affinity, a behavior that often leans on racial stereotypes and takes advantage of global inequalities.

The stereotyping—and the resulting fetishization—of Asian women is evident in the fact that a quick search for "Asian wife" pulls up on its first page of results websites advertising mail order brides; Quora posts asking "Do Asian women make better wives than any other race?"; pro and con lists for having an Asian wife; and an Amazon listing for a graphic T-shirt that states "Asian wife, happy life." Assumptions about who we are as Asian women can precede us.

"I think, from [the perspective of non-Asian men], they think they're doing us a favor, that they're being well-intentioned and nice, that they're trying to express that they love some person that's connected to our 'culture,'" Yang said, "when they don't understand that they're exercising a bunch of stereotypes, a bunch of assumptions, a bunch of flattening ideas about what someone's culture is, and misplaced goodwill."

Jackson's TikTok and the tweet of hers on which it was based were a direct response to this type of fetishizing behavior. In late July, an American man sparked anger on Twitter after he suggested that another man take advantage of his American status abroad. Though he appears to have deleted his account, his words live on in niche meme form, paired with an image of an Asian woman and a monkey, for example. "Dude, you need to come to the Philippines (after COVID)," he'd written. "Girls would flock all over you. I'm a 4 in the US. Here, I'm a 10. They LOVE white guys, and if you have blue eyes, the panties just drop to the floor."

That mentality is commonly adopted by men visiting the developing world. "I think a lot of white men recognize the 'white worship' that permeates the culture in the Philippines as a result of colonialism and imperialism, and I think they try to use it to their advantage," Jackson said. That behavior is often targeted at the most vulnerable: young, less educated women in dire financial conditions. Though Jackson knew this conversation was one shared by the diaspora, the popularity of her TikTok helped her realize how egregious the situation is abroad: she heard from a college student in the Philippines who was often solicited by men who assumed she was poor and needed a green card, and another Filipino woman who stopped spending time in a wealthy part of Manila because older white men kept asking if she was looking for a boyfriend.

"It's as if they hold this stereotype that all Filipino women are living in poverty and are desperate for their validation, time, and attention… and that they're entitled to it," she said. "I'm bringing this up because I think it stems from much bigger issues like class, colonial mentality, imperialism, entitlement, and exploitation."

Like Zhong, Jackson said that non-Asian people can bring up their Asian partners without causing discomfort by simply not objectifying them. “My mom is Filipino and my dad is African-American and he was stationed in the Philippines when he met my mom,” she said. Because her father grew up in California around lots of Filipinos, he was appreciative of the culture before being deployed. “When my dad finds out that other people are Filipino, the way he navigates the conversation is a bit more nuanced than ‘the women over there are beautiful.’”

It's clear from the responses to Zhong's shirt, Tseng and Yang's tweets, and Jackson's TikTok that people across the Asian community get it. Though the experience of dealing with the "Asian wife guy" might not be something we discuss outwardly, writing it off as a fact of life, these online moments have crystallized the shared frustration many of us feel.

To Yang, what's really worth pointing out is the fact that many non-Asian people seem to have learned just now that this experience is so common for Asian people, and especially women. "The fact that this tiny point resonated so much with a lot of other Asian Americans, so quickly and so easily, but struck so many others who weren't Asian as being foreign or something that they didn't know they didn't know," Yang said, "that to me is the crux of the challenge that we have as Asian American storytellers or creators."

Beyond his approach to strangers, the mentality of the "Asian wife guy" can have more insidious effects. "What was most shocking, however, were all the half white/half Filipino teens that were commenting on TikTok saying that this portrayal was exactly like their father," Jackson said. They mentioned fathers who were racist despite marrying women of color, and grandfathers who went to the Philippines and came back with a young wife. "I forgot that it affects these men's families. Even their teenage sons, daughters, granddaughter, and grandsons are affected and understand what's happening… It's really a lot more sinister than I expected."

Selling some shirts and graphic designs will remain just a hobby for Zhong, but she's happy that her Twitter quip did some good: she has donated proceeds from the shirt to groups including Black Lives Matter D.C. and People's Breakfast Oakland, inspired by the response the shirt got from tech workers in the Bay Area. Aside from its viral fame, Zhong isn't sure the shirt is "popular," but she said, "Listen, if I make a joke T-shirt that people find funny and I can funnel that money into good causes, then hey, that's great."

Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.