Fever Dream: An Asian American Girlfriend’s Take on Yellow Fever

December 6, 2012 at 1:05 am 2 comments

You’re Staring at Me: The Asian American Female as Commodity

Hopefully you’ve all seen Debbie Lum’s documentary Seeking Asian Female (2012). Like Lum, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of “yellow fever” for as long as I can remember, namely because of firsthand experience with the phenomenon. For one, I technically wouldn’t be here without it; additionally, as an Asian-American woman, I’ve often wondered if the romantic interest in me was a result of who I am as an individual or if it stemmed from something more nefarious.

But, before I get carried away, it might be pertinent to define yellow fever. I’m not talking about the viral infection spread by mosquitoes. In this case, yellow fever isn’t so much an affliction as it is a fetish, exhibited as a non-Asian (usually white) male’s sexual obsession with women of Asian descent. Symptoms of yellow fever include learning phrases in various Asian languages in an attempt to seduce Asian women, thinking it’s okay to ask Asian women for massages with “happy endings,” and general obliviousness to how awkward their behavior is.

Yellow fever, in its essence, is a fetish for an exotic other.

From where does this fascination with the other stem? One possible explanation is the concept of orientalism, as coined by Edward Said. Though he writes about the Middle East in relation to the West, the core argument can be applied to the Far East as well. Said defines orientalism as a system of thought in which the East/Orient is placed in opposition to the West/Occident in an inherently unequal relationship. The Orient is constructed as inferior to the Occident, and in this subjugation is most often represented as a feminized object of desire. It is a vast landscape filled with the other and shrouded in mystery.

Orientalism persists through media, reinforcing the established images and informing how we operate on a daily basis. Through novels, television, and movies, we are inundated with images of dragon ladies, lotus blossoms, and whores. And, since much of what we know about the world is learned through the media, it hardly comes as a surprise that these images have permeated our consciousness and, in some cases, been accepted as truth.

It is from these images that I have become a commodity of sorts. Yellow fever afflicts the white men who have been exposed to orientalist images and therefore assume that I speak Mandarin (I’m Filipino/Swedish) or speculate about my sexual deviance because of the shape of my eyes or the texture of my hair. Once, someone asked me how I felt about not having a typical Asian body type. Another person told me that, being mixed, I had the best of both worlds. Orientalism is another manifestation of Western misogyny placed in a racialized context.

It’s interesting to note that, within the system of orientalism that ignores nuance in favor of vast (and often untrue) generalizations, yellow fever includes a fixation on specific aspects of the Asian female body. Yes, some men with yellow fever are simply caught up in the novelty—one white man in Seeking Asian Female noted that his relationships with Asian women feel more “special” than those with white women because they are interracial. But others choose Asian women because of a specific stereotypic trait—some mention hair, some mention body type, and one man (my personal favorite) deemed the undereye area the most appealing on an Asian woman.

The simultaneous fascination with Asian women as a group and with minute details raises some scary questions for Asian American women in interracial relationships—when someone expresses interest in us, is it because of our characteristics as individuals, or was it our perceived aura of exoticism that drew in the attention? If a relationship began because of an initial outbreak of yellow fever but developed into something deeper as the involved parties learned more about each other as individuals, is that relationship devalued? Do we self-orientalize?

As of right now, I don’t have any clear answers for these questions. I suppose, as I stand now, all I can do is act upon my own inclinations and remember the historical and ideological reasons behind yellow fever.

But, just because I understand it doesn’t mean it creeps me out any less.


Seeking Asian Female (2012). Dir. Debbie Lum.

Kang, Laura Hyun-Yi. “The Desiring of Asian Female Bodies: Interracial Romance and Cinematic Subjection.” Screening Asian Americans. Ed. Peter X Feng. Rutgers University Press, 2002. 71-98.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women On Screen and Scene. Duke University Press, 2007.

By Kayla Dalsfoist

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Topic of Our Choice: Model Minority in Film Film Festival Reflection

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. asianamericansinmedia  |  December 21, 2012 at 1:53 am

    This blog post is a good introduction to your final project. How many posts do your plan to do? I think that, given the premise of the class, you should ground your subsequent posts around media representations of or about “yellow fever”. I would also like to see more extensive engagement with some of the text sources you cite – for example, Celine Parreñas Shimizu’s chapter on tourist porn in The Hypersexality of Race.

    Your introductory post also raised a number of questions for me, and I would like you to consider them as well as you proceed to develop your subsequent posts: Is yellow fever exclusively heterosexual? If not, how does a queer context affect it’s power dynamics? (Rhetorical question: as I mentioned at the Seeking Asian Female screening, there is a body of activist writing and scholarship on this subject from a gay Asian male perspective, see the media work by Richard Fung, Hoang Nguyen, and Wayne Yung, and the scholarship of Fung and Nguyen. I also recommend Kristina Wong’s web project Big Bad Chinese Mama – http://www.bigbadchinesemama.com/ – a spoof mail order bride site)

    Can difference be sexualized without it becoming a racist fetish? Can race be highlighted in sex and desire without exploitation?

    Prof Ma

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