Conversations about yellow fever, or Asian fetish, a term coined specifically for men who have a special affection towards Asian women, has been around for decades. But only in the United States does there seem to be debates. And now, more Asian-American women are sharing their opinions and stories.
Growing up in Vietnam almost my entire life, there aren’t many dialogues on yellow fever. I only came across this concept when watching a video from Asian Boss interviewing pedestrians about their thoughts on yellow fever.
There are plenty of explanations for this certain preference. Elaine Kim, a Professor of Asian American Studies from UC Berkeley, shares, “Part of it has to do with a fascination with something that seems physiologically different.” Another explanation from Dr. Ed Morrison, a senior lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Portsmouth University, states “The best mate is one who is similar to you, but not too similar.”
When it comes to understanding why yellow fever exists, the explanation is fairly consistent: intertwining factors involving Asian vs Western values, prostitution during war times, the stereotypes from Asian porn, and the portrayal of the East as exotic in many Western cultures and in media. Therefore, I decided to dig deeper to better understand why and how Vietnamese women have become fetishized.
Hollywood plays a role in perpetuating yellow fever
Vietnamese women, just like any other Asian ethnicity, are distorted on Hollywood’s big screens. A line from a YouTube video titled “The Portrayal of Vietnamese Women in Hollywood” summarizes this image:“In these films, Vietnamese women can’t help being a delicate Oriental flower, who lacks the agency and is stuck in a star-crossed romance.” Kim, a Vietnamese woman who was involved in a tragic love story with Chris, an American G.I, in the popular musical, “Miss Saigon” is the perfect stereotype of being submissive and shy. In “Good Morning, Vietnam,” there’s Trinh, another image of a shy and traditional Vietnamese girl as she responded to an American soldier’s pursuit, “My brother, ok, friends. Vietnam ladies, not friends.”
Perhaps the most iconic image of Vietnamese women in Hollywood would probably be the Vietnamese lady wearing revealing clothing, swaying her hips as she walks, and flirting with American soldiers in “Full Metal Jacket.” This time, the Vietnamese woman no longer has a shy image like Kim or Trinh. Throughout the scene, her interaction with the US soldiers was sexualized when she was trying to bargain a deal with them, as she said “me so horny” or “me love you long time.”
Ho Chi Minh City: Is it the modern-day “A Doll’s House*?“
According to an expat interviewed by Kimberly Kay Hoang, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, “Asia is like Disneyland for retired men…where men could fulfill their racialized desires for dark, thin, and cheap women” (quoted from Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work). Many of them cited other reasons, such as “[Vietnamese] women [biet chieu chuong] know how to accommodate and please men here.” Others come solely “because we want to look at beautiful women [who] are slender;” and features such as small eyes, long black hair are particularly attractive.
The Vietnamese women who worked in brothels interviewed by Professor Hoang seem to play along with this fantasy. H., an interviewee cited in the book, stated, “[We] Vietnamese women … act like women so that they can act like men.”
*Note: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen is a play that tells a story of a married couple named Nora and Torvald in the 19th century Norway. Throughout the story, Nora struggles to live up to society’s expectations for women, and constantly having to please her husband.
When yellow fever meets the opportunists and white fever
From “Seeking Asian Female,” a documentary on yellow fever published by the Public Broadcasting Service, Asian women who were interviewed in the video cited masculinity, independence, and not having to handle responsibilities from in-laws as reasons why they are particularly attracted to non-Asian and non-Vietnamese men men. Sheridan Prasso, the author of the book “The Asian Mystique, Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient,” stated in the video that, “All human beings, want to marry into higher status,” and thus many women are engaged in what’s called hierogamy. How does that play out in Vietnam?
Back to “Dealing in Desire” again, of all the twenty-five women that the author interviewed working in brothels and hostess bars, they told her they “chiều chuộng” (accommodated) men because they provided workers with access to US dollars and a more urban and cosmopolitan standard of living.
Balancing both perspectives and implications of modern day dating
Although it may seem materialistic and disheartening, it can’t be denied that both parties seem to take advantage of what they don’t have themselves. Non-Asian and non-Vietnamese men get their satisfaction through exploiting what they deem as exotic from Vietnamese women. Meanwhile, many Vietnamese women are able to gain an avenue to break away from the traditional Vietnamese norms.
Looking into the future, it seems like this pattern is not ending anytime soon due to increased exposure to the outside world in Vietnamese society. And of course, it’s worth noting that not every Vietnamese woman or non-Vietnamese man who are involved in interracial dating look for validity and status in each other.