Susan Munroe/Seeking Asian Female
Filmmaker Debbie Lum poses with Steven and Sandy, her documentary subjects, on their wedding day.
It's hard to watch Seeking Asian Female, Debbie Lum's
uncomfortably close look at the phenomenon some call "yellow fever" —
when usually non-Asian men fetishize Asian women as romantic or sexual
partners — without squirming. And at first, it seems like it wasn't so
easy for Lum to document the phenomenon.
"I had to fight the
urge to turn around and leave," Lum says in a voiceover, right before
she meets the character we know only as "Steven" for the first time. She
told me this guy had one of the "worst cases of yellow fever" she has
Steven, an earnest, bespectacled, white American man with
an unsettling penchant for Asian females, is not exactly the most
appealing of potential suitors. He has a tendency to evaluate women
based on their level of "Chineseness." As he beckons Lum inside his
messy apartment, he tells her with unabashed glee: "You look very
Chinese, with the bangs. You know I like that." Later, Steven excitedly
describes his love interest Sandy as "looking so Chinese. You can't look
any more Chinese than that." What makes him an expert on looking
Chinese is pretty unclear, though he doesn't seem too concerned about
He seems to lust after Asian women for their supposed
beauty and docility. "I mean I'm an old guy, I'm 60," he tells Lum
before meeting Sandy, musing about his ideal woman. "Do I want the farm
girl to take care of me? Do I want... an intelligent business woman to
help me grow back and forth? What do I want? ....There's this Vietnamese
movie called The Scent of Green Papaya that has this servant girl who cooks these beautiful meals. Gee, would it be like that?"
Sandy, a 30-year-old woman from the Anhui province in China. Sandy
finds Steven on an online dating site and seems to be seeking a
potential entryway to the U.S. and some economic stability. (She takes
two separate photos of them and makes a sort of endearing, sort of
creepy couples picture, much to his delight.) Steven visits her a few
times in China, they hit it off and she comes to the states on a K-1
Sure, Sandy takes care of him. But she's
hardly the demure lady he hoped for, just as he's hardly the flashy
American she might have expected. Throughout the film, a frustrated
Sandy describes wanting to get out of the relationship as soon as she
has enough money and schooling.
The film has a whole bunch of
flashing warning signs that say this relationship Might Not Be A Good
Idea. I cringed a lot. When a frustrated Sandy confesses that she'd
"lose face" if she told her family and friends in China about her
house-less, money-less American beau, I found myself asking, Why are you doing this?
yet. Over the course of the film, something remarkable happened for me.
Sandy and Steven, together, started to seem like it may not be such a
bad thing after all.
Debbie Lum/Seeking Asian Female
Steven kisses a photo of Sandy, his bride from China.
There was something unsettling about the film, and my reaction to
it. Why was I feeling sympathetic to Steven, who fetishizes Asian women?
Can a relationship, borne out of something perhaps a little twisted on
both sides, evolve into something genuine? Is it even fair to judge
someone else's relationship? Lum, who like me is Chinese-American, told
me that she began making the documentary because she was sick of dealing
with men (usually non-Asian) who shared Steven's creepy fascination
with Asian women. But as she made the film, Lum's thoughts changed, sort
of like mine.
After Lum settled on Steven as a subject for her
documentary, she thought the film would be about his relationship with
Sandy. She had no idea that she'd become intimately wrapped up in their
courtship: she soon found herself their designated (and reluctant)
translator, and from there, the couple's de facto marriage counselor.
Sandy finds a cache of photos of Steven's ex-girlfriend on his computer
— the ex was Chinese, natch — she freaks out. Lum translates their
fight. "I can only prove my love day by day," Steven says. (Lum refuses
to translate that for him.)
"This is going to be an adjustment
on both of our parts," a teary-eyed Steven tells the camera after his
fight with Sandy. "This is not China, and I am not Chinese. I'm hoping
for the best."
As Lum gets closer to the couple, she starts to
see beneath the surface of their relationship — that there might be
"There's this whole other individual there,"
Lum said of Steven. "When I see couples like Steven and Sandy, I think
about their stories now, as much as I think about what it reads as, or
what it looks like from the outside."
Lum, by the way, is
married to a white Irishman. But she says her relationship with her
husband is different than Steven and Sandy's. "Steven and Sandy's is a
kind of modern take on an old-fashioned arranged marriage," Lum said.
"They went into it with a really pre-determined desire to be married
above everything else, whereas my husband and I kind of just met."
Yet she sometimes wonders if others think of their relationship as one tinged by yellow fever.
Sandy and Steven, by the way, are still together. Sandy now speaks English fluently, Lum said.
came to this film thinking of Steven as "an Asian fetishist" and of
Sandy as "an opportunist." Having spent a little while getting to know
them through Lum's lens, I saw their nuances. Parts of their
relationship — their fights, their daily interactions, their worries —
became incredibly human, completely relatable to an outsider.
Except I feel like there should be a "but."
narrative still doesn't sit well with me. The way Steven thought about
Asian women — stripping them of their individuality, layering on
pre-conceived ideals, replacing people with types — was challenged when
he met Sandy, a real person with layers of her own. They might make the
relationship work, yes, and I might even want them to. But in that case,
their road to happiness feels marred with potholes that still need to
be examined and considered.