To All the Crazy Mixed Asians I've Loved Before
A few years ago, I started my own online dating experiment. Whenever a man started out the conversation by asking about my ethnicity or complimenting my “exotic” appearance, I would bluntly tell him that it made me uncomfortable.
How do you think it went?
Not well. Online dating as a heterosexual woman seems to be where white fragility and male fragility meet in joyous, unfettered union and they cannot even.
There was one interaction in particular that I still think about:
Him: Hey Maylin, where does your name come from? It’s super unique. I like it.
Me: It’s Chinese
Him: What part of China? Also, my guess is it’s not spelled that way in Chinese?
Me: What part of China is my name from? I don’t think it’s from a particular particular part
Him: Mandarin or Cantonese? Or other dialect?
Me: I don’t like where this conversation is going to be honest
And that’s where things really got interesting.
White Men Explain My Name To Me
Interestingly enough, white men who want to talk about my cultural background never seem that interested in talking about my German-American heritage. Never in the history of online dating has anyone asked me about my favorite president (Teddy Roosevelt), my most cherished constitutional amendment, or my thoughts on our national anthem.
You can’t make a meal out of someone’s unique ethnic name and then act like I’m the asshole for bringing race into it.
Here are some fun facts about me: my dad is Chinese and my mom is German-American. I was born in Maine, but spent time in Beijing as a kid. I’m ethnically half-Chinese and culturally very American, which makes it all the more disconcerting when white men treat me as both ethnically and culturally Other.
There’s something about my name, or maybe it’s my face (it’s definitely my face), that inspires a lot of curiosity from strangers who want to know where I’m from. Rarely are they satisfied when I tell them I was born in Maine. They want to know where I’m really from. I wish they would just come out and say, “Dude, what’s up with your face?”
Kim, a biracial Asian writer from Chicago, described it to me as “being a puzzle to figure out.”
Better that than explaining my own name to me.
Asian as Other
In online dating and in life, it’s death by a thousand cuts. It’s not one guy on Coffee Meets Bagel; it’s all the ones who came before, too.
There’s nothing subtle about Asian Americans being screamed at in public and told to go back to where they came from (side note: Cape Elizabeth, Maine is lovely this time of year!). But in a way, I appreciate the directness of the approach.
So many of the microaggressions that I’ve experienced are not quite so blatant, but the message is basically the same: You don’t belong here.
When it comes to dating, I think I just want what we all want: to feel like a unique human being, not an Asian-shaped, white-shaped or female-shaped object forced into someone’s pre-existing idea of the ideal or even good-enough partner
Funny enough, as Asian as I look in America, when I lived in China as a kid everyone around me could tell instantly that I didn’t belong. Strangers openly stared at me in public. They commented on my Western nose, European eyes and abundance of arm hair.
I’ve learned that people can always see difference—how else to explain that white people think I look like my dad and Chinese people think I look my mom? (Spoiler alert! I look like both of my parents). Sometimes I feel like an optical illusion in which my features only come into focus against a background of sameness—and then people only see those features that are most unfamiliar or exotic.
So while to be Asian is to be Other in America, to be Asian and biracial is to be Other everywhere you go.
And I don’t know why, but people want to talk about being Chinese with me more in online dating than in any other context. It’s like, yes, Brad, I know you studied in China your junior year of college but please don’t come at me with your "intimate knowledge" of the Qing Dynasty.
Representation as Belonging
Asian representation in Hollywood is historically pretty tragic. This most recent season of The Bachelorette had precisely one Asian contestant (#venmojohn #justiceforjohn). The last mainstream film featuring an Asian cast that was not a period piece was Joy Luck Club in 1993.
So imagine the pressure on Crazy Rich Asians, which comes out August 15, to show the world that movies headlined by Asian actors can actually succeed. If it doesn't succeed, there could be 20 more years of winter and 40 more years of Mamma Mia! sequels (all tea, no shade).
When I started reading about the movie's historic Asian representation, I quickly zoomed in on the casting of the male lead, played by British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding. Controversy initially surrounded the fact that Golding is biracial, AKA not full Asian. In an interview on The View, he discussed whether he is “Asian enough” for this role. Watching it, I winced. Because I know the subtext: it’s not really a question of “Are you Asian enough to play this part?” It’s really, are you Asian enough to be Asian at all?
Not Really American, Not Really Chinese
When it comes to dating, I think I just want what we all want: to feel like a unique human being, not an Asian-shaped, white-shaped or female-shaped object forced into someone’s pre-existing idea of the ideal or even good-enough partner.
Here’s how I responded to that online dating guy:
Me: I don’t like where this conversation is going to be honest
Him: Sorry, I used to live in China. I studied mandarin for three years. Why does this bother you?
Me: It’s like you’re doing a deep dive into my ethnicity, my other-ness. Empathizing [sic] difference and that I am not white, which I already know.
Coming soon to a theater near you: Exotic Asian girl cruelly destroys dashing, sensitive, cultured white man who has "only the best of intentions."
He apologized and said I was “reading way into it.” His diction, which was so confident and straightforward before, got all weird and stilted as he claimed to be a “big fan” of Chinese culture (loved your work in the Great Wall of China!). He mentioned not being used to “de facto American racism” and listed all the ways that he was stereotypically American, noting that these things didn’t define him.
I’m not 100-percent sure, but I think he meant that even though he had all these signifiers of being white-American, he wasn’t racist. He wanted to treat me as Other without having me bring up whiteness. But you can’t have your cake and eat it too, Chad. You can’t make a meal out of someone’s unique ethnic name and then act like I’m the asshole for bringing race into it.
Just because I don’t have all the same signifiers of being white-American (loves baseball, from the Midwest, loves apple pie), I’m still American and I fucking deserve to be here too. I memorized and recited Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address from heart when I was nine, so fight me.
I get that it must feel painful to have a stranger on a dating app tell you that you are making them uncomfortable. But I’m going to lay my cards on the table here and say that feeling like the Other—being reminded that I don’t belong—is fucking painful too.
No one has squinted at your face in an effort to work out exactly which of your features are Asian and which are more white, commented on the slope of your nose or the shape of your eyes, or wondered aloud at what percentage you must be.
For me, reading as Asian or as racially Other is not something I put on or take off everyday, like my favorite Harry Potter scarf (just kidding, I live in LA). It’s not one year of living abroad or three years of studying Mandarin. It’s my life.
Is Biracial Representation Even A Thing?
There’s another movie coming out this month with a bunch of Asians on screen, Netflix’s teen romcom To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before based on the novel by Jenny Han. I didn’t realize watching the trailer for the first time that the main character is supposed to be biracial, Korean and white.
That’s probably in part because the character of Lara Jean Song Covey is played by Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor, who is not biracial.
I scoured the internet for commentary on the casting of an Asian-American actress as a biracial character. I found nothing.
If representation truly matters, what does representation mean if you aren’t even on the map? What does it mean when it hadn’t even crossed your mind that this could be something that you even wanted or deserved in the first place?
As someone who is biracial and Asian, it’s hard to imagine that during the casting process, not a single person brought up the fact that a person who is Asian doesn’t usually look like a person who is mixed. Blame genetics, but you can tell. Believe me, people can tell. People have told me. Many times.
So I cried. Being biracial not only means that you look different, but that your experience is also completely different. And here was this character who was written as biracial, and somehow her identity as the daughter of people from two different ethnic backgrounds wasn’t important enough to be reflected in the casting of the film.
I don’t bring this up because I think my pain is more unique or more important than the pain of other marginalized people. I write about this because, so often, biracial people just want to be included in the conversation in the first place.
I didn’t know that representation mattered to me until I had the faintest hope that it might even apply to me in the first place. Sarah, a young woman from California who identifies as half-Chinese and half-Scottish, also shared this sentiment with me. “I never thought I would need representation," she said.
I don’t fault anyone involved with the movie (the team fought hard to keep the characters Asian at all), and I’m looking forward to seeing it. But I also think that eliding the experiences of biracial Asians with all Asians doesn’t make sense. To be biracial or mixed-race is not to be one thing or the other, but both at the same time. As a culture, we don’t do well with duality. It makes people deeply uncomfortable. To be both, our culture says, is to be neither—to have no place to call your own.
Dating While Mixed
In the process of writing this article, I talked to other racially mixed Asians about their own experiences. The truth is, there is no singular mixed Asian experience—which can feel even more alienating. Some of us look Asian to other people, and some of us just look confusing. And I haven’t even touched on dating as a biracial Asian man or dating while biracial and queer. Although we might share many of the same feelings around Otherness, we don’t necessarily share the same opinions around Asian and biracial representation.
in some ways, I will never belong. Not in the way that I would belong if I were 100-percent white, the way that a white guy from Ohio who loves apple pie and baseball belongs.
But I think Sarah said it best: “If you’re white, you can date someone white and feel at home. If you’re Asian, you can date someone Asian and feel at home. But if you’re mixed, you can’t date a full Asian or white person and feel at home [. . .] it’s a whole other type of pain.”
There’s also the nagging feeling that something must be wrong with you, or why would it be such a struggle?
I talked with my interviewees about our experiences trying to suss out if a normal-seeming guy has a hidden Asian fetish (or as Kim put it, “a secret folder of anime porn”); about feeling either eroticized as Other or undesirable; about never trusting the guy who taught English to schoolchildren in China for three years because he will try to, according to Kim, “out-Asian” you.
My God, the specificity. It’s like even though we are all so different, we’ve literally encountered the same guy—because dating is not just dictated by who you desire, but also by who desires you.
Whiteness and Belonging: A Coda
What hurt even more than being objectified as Asian by a random dude on a dating app was (white) friends and family defending him as “a nice guy” who meant well.
Because in that moment it felt as though no other marker of identity and belonging mattered—not gender, not family, not growing up together or going to school together, not being from the same place or having the same last name.
Whiteness was the only thing they seemed to have in common with this stranger, but it was also the only thing that truly mattered.
It reminded me that in some ways, I will never belong. Not in that way. Not in the way that I would belong if I were 100-percent white, the way that a white guy from Ohio who loves apple pie and baseball belongs. As long as white supremacy is the American norm, people who are read as not white will be excluded from the narrative.
Don't get me wrong: there are good things too about being biracial—and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. There’s nothing wrong with me; there’s a lot wrong with our culture.
I feel an independence being biracial that I think is unique. I don’t feel the need to insert myself into every other narrative, I don’t demand that other people see things from my point of view, and I feel more comfortable critiquing the cultural narratives around me. Call it a mixed-race privilege.
I’m trying to embrace the complexity of race and representation. I can be excited about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and I can feel into the pain of not exactly seeing myself on-screen—yet. There’s something about permanent outsider status that makes you want to stand up and scream, “I’m here! My story matters.” Maybe one day, it will.