Asian fetish?

I'm attracted to Japanese women but I feel like a sex offender walking down the street holding hands with my girlfriend.

Published December 4, 2003 8:48PM (EST)

Dear Tracy,

As a sex advice columnist, a woman and an Asian-American, I am hoping you will have a perspective that can help me.

I am 33 years old, and have sowed far more wild oats than I ever planned to. When I was younger, I used sex to replace many things that were missing in my life, and it took me many years to realize that I could confront my feelings and needs in healthier ways. I am now at a point in my life where I want to settle down and move on to a fulfilling and permanent relationship.

One of the biggest problems for me emotionally (I now realize) was the fact that I lost my mother at a young age. She died when I was only 7, and though I was raised by loving and wonderful parents (her parents), it left me with deep-seated issues of abandonment and hopelessness. My mother was born in Japan, and though she was Irish, she grew up speaking Japanese. She did not move to America until she was 16, and my earliest memories are of speaking Japanese at home, because she always felt more comfortable with that language.

Three years ago, I began a relationship with a Japanese woman I worked with, and we lived together for two years. It was not until that relationship that I realized that I was missing a connection to my past all this time. The relationship ended, but I continued studying Japanese, and I have realized that my connection to that country is something that makes me feel happy and helps me feel fulfilled.

What I am worried about is the idea that I need to marry someone that also feels a connection to Japan. If this were about France, or Ireland, or some other country, I would not be dealing with some of the things I am dealing with now. Relationships between Caucasian men and Asian women are loaded with cultural stereotypes and judgment from all sides. For me, this is about one country, one culture, and my own upbringing. I would be as happy with a woman from any ethnic background, as long as we found a meaningful connection and cared for one another. But I plan to live in Japan, at least for part of my life, and the odds are that most women who would also want to do that would be Japanese.

I hate hearing the phrase "Asian fetish" because it implies so many things that make me cringe -- objectification, weird strains of racism, and the idea that white men who date Asian women are not looking for a mature, equal relationship. I am not interested in dating women just because they look Asian. I am no more interested in dating someone with a Korean or Chinese background than someone with a German or Pakistani background.

Sometimes I feel like I am putting too much emphasis on one aspect of a person's identity, but other times I think that it's no more unhealthy than a Southern Baptist wanting to date Southern Baptists. I am torn up about this, and I don't want to talk to people about it because of the whole "Asian fetish" thing. Is there hope for me, or am I just being emotionally stunted in a different way? Does even raising the issue of interracial relationships between Caucasians and Asians cause offense? Will the words "Asian fetish" ever go away? I've never heard of women who like Mediterranean men having a "Latin fetish," or Jews having a "Jewish fetish." It makes me feel like a sex offender just for walking down the street holding hands with my girlfriend.

Not a Fetishist

Dear Not a Fetishist,

Are you looking for approval? A permission slip from a person of Asian descent who tells you it's OK to pursue your non-fetish until you find the woman of your dreams? Or do you get a quirky thrill out of feeling like a "sex offender"?

I have mixed feelings about your dilemma. It is provincial and petty to get bent out of shape over a sexual attraction between people from different cultures, ethnic groups -- or "racial groups" as we once might have said. But all this cultural policing is good for the soul and educational, too. Thanks to this kind of politically righteous prejudice, we get to sample, remotely, what it might have been like to live under U.S. anti-miscegenation laws. However, if these laws aren't enforceable, we have the ability to obey or ignore them -- as we do with table manners. (And God knows, enough Americans are happy to ignore the concept of table manners.)

So, instead of feeling like the victim of other people's uptight rules perhaps you can think yourself lucky: Your understanding of human suffering is much fuller because you're attracted to a woman who does not look like your sister (even if she reminds you of your mother for intellectual reasons.) "Mixed race" lovers have been persecuted in the past and there are still people who think we should all be matched up with "our own kind" -- but their power is waning.

Why defend personal attraction on the grounds that it's "not a fetish"? Is there something wrong with having a fetish? What exactly is a fetish? Is a "fetishist" attracted to something visual? To an idea? Is attraction to a concept, culture, costume or other manifestation sexually immoral by today's PC standards?

There is nothing inherently wrong with having a fetish, or with knowing how to feed it. Many talented, interesting, productive people have fetishes. However, I find these terms -- Asian fetish, yellow fever, Asian obsession -- tedious. It's inane to apply these spam-like terms to the complexities of personal attraction in a multiethnic world. Attraction can be quite subtle, the result of many factors, some of which are too mysterious for words.

"Asian fetish" is often based on the assumption that only white people have obsessions, fevers and fetishes. Asians who find themselves in bed with white Americans are not often described as people in the grip of a sexual obsession. Does this suggest that Asians are more practical and less susceptible to sexual manias than other people? Beguiling but less than sincere about their own appetites and feelings? Or is it that Asian predilections and appetites just don't count?

If anybody hassles you about your non-fetish, I suggest you take them down that road and find out if that's what they really believe. I mean, what's going on here? Should we assume that you are the only one with the fetish?

As for seeking "a mature relationship with an equal," this is simply today's version of finding a "worthy" mate who descends from "the right family." It is the modern definition of respectability. People who preach at you about maturity and equality are bored with their own sex lives -- and they secretly wish they weren't so respectable. Ignore them. And stop trying to turn your unique affinities into something banal and respectable.

As you point out, your yearning for Japan has much to do with your mother's international aura and your early loss. You should be aware of one thing: the math suggests that you are ripe for a passionate love affair with a Japanese woman who decides to stay in the West at the moment when you are ready to plant your roots in Japan. This sort of mismatch is becoming more common in the 21st century and if your mother had lived a bit longer, she might have told you this herself.

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By Tracy Quan

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