The Asian men I never knew

"Why did my Japanese American mom and so many other women in her circle choose to be with white men?"

Published May 31, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)

Kimiko Guthrie's grandfather, Masayoshi Endo, with other family images in the background (Photo provided by Kimiko Guthrie)
Kimiko Guthrie's grandfather, Masayoshi Endo, with other family images in the background (Photo provided by Kimiko Guthrie)

Time and again I have heard that the phenomenon of Asian women in relationships with white men is due to white men's fetishization of Asian women — which is no doubt partially true. American stereotypes of Asian women as ultra-feminine, sexual, and subservient have fit well in our hyper-hetero society with stereotypes of white men as manly saviors and providers. But this explanation only sees the story from the white male perspective. So, the question I have found interesting is: Why did my Japanese American mom and so many other women in her circle choose to be with white men?

As a kid growing up in Berkeley in the 1970s and '80s, I was surrounded by Asian women and white men. All wonderful human beings who unconditionally loved and cared for me, a half-Asian, half-white only child who oddly preferred the company of grownups to other kids. But there was always an absence at our social gatherings, one that I never fully noticed until I was older. There were no Asian men. Not one. So, despite the joy, I received a clear, if unconscious, message: for Asian women to find love, happiness, and security, they must be with white men.

The exception was when, once a year, we'd drive to Los Angeles to see my mom's family. These trips were precious to our family and provided a glimpse of something rare to me: a world with Asian boys and men. My boy cousins and uncles, like my girl cousins and aunts, were warm, witty, good-looking, confident – in short, they defied all the stereotypes about Asian men that I had consciously and unconsciously absorbed throughout my childhood, and I loved them all. But this world was fleeting; soon we were heading back up Highway 5 to Berkeley and my fellow hippie-ish, mixed race and white friends.

* * *

My mom, who was imprisoned as a child during the Japanese American incarceration, had a difficult relationship with her father, my Jichan. She experienced him as physically present, yet emotionally absent. To this day, she grieves not having been able to connect with him and works to make peace with his ambiguous shadow. One barrier between them was language; by the time my mom, the youngest in her family, came along, her parents were fearful of their kids speaking their mother-tongue, as anti-Japanese racism was on the rise, so they encouraged them to speak English. But the barrier between my mom and her father was more than language.

After the incarceration, or "Camp," as everyone called it, my Jichan withdrew into himself. Speaking with other families who experienced Camp, I've learned my family wasn't unique; many of the first generation Issei men "went silent." A popular theory about the reason for this silence is that it was cultural – that in Japan, especially at that time, men were stoic in the face of hardship and felt great shame if they were unable to provide for their families. Japanese culture also tends to value introversion compared to the western preference for extroversion.

But there was more to these men's withdrawal than cultural tendencies.

Before the incarceration of all people of Japanese descent on the west coast, the FBI swept through communities, eventually arresting over 5,000 Issei men with no due process, targeting those they identified as strong community leaders. These men were held in small, temporary detention centers and, to this day, we have little idea what happened to them. Yet, knowing what we do about prisons with little to no public oversight, especially those born from wartime and racist hysteria (Abu Ghraib comes to mind), we can only imagine what these men suffered. Afterwards, most of these men coped with their trauma by not talking about it. With no resources for therapy or other social services, limited English, their families still locked away and their homes and businesses gone, these men were not simply culturally quiet in the face of shame; they were forced quiet.

The terror waged on these men did exactly what it was intended to do: break their spirits and weaken them, their families, and their communities, for generations to come.

The Issei men that weren't taken by the FBI were also taken from their businesses and homes, imprisoned with their families with no legal process and no idea what their fates would be. They were rendered unable to do what they had been raised to believe a strong man should do: protect his family. Even with masterful English, but especially without it, how do you explain to your English-speaking kids that this country that you have sacrificed everything for in order to give them a better life looks at their young faces and sees the enemy? How do you speak out against this injustice when you might get deported or much worse?

Some Issei men did in fact speak out in protest, despite these efforts to silence them. But for those who didn't, silence was a rational choice, a response to emotional trauma, and a direct result of the government's campaign to assert white supremacy on the Japanese American community.

As a girl, my mom longed to know her father. She once shared a memory with me of sitting outside her parents' bedroom door one night in the 1950s, wishing she could walk in and talk to them about life, philosophy and all she was going through as a typical, confused teen. But she didn't because she knew they wouldn't have been able to communicate; she would have stumbled over her Japanese and they over their English. Her father would have been embarrassed at his inability to give her what she wanted, and this awkwardness would have just amplified her loneliness. So she returned to her room. Recalling this memory made my mom tear up, and it made me cry, too. I so wanted to go back in time to help her cross that threshold. While my grandmother's English was also limited, she was emotionally expressive, and she and my mom managed to have a close, if strained, connection. But for my mom, her father was beyond reach.

* * *

The media has always worked in tandem with government institutions to support racist policies against people of color. From the Yellow Peril, to yellowface vaudeville acts, to depictions of bucktoothed, monkey-like traitors during WWII, to grotesque, buffoonish characters like Long Duk Dong from "Sixteen Candles," we've seen Asians dehumanized, with Asian men often cast as evil and asexual. In his essay "'Good Looking for an Asian': how I shed white ideals of masculinity," author Matthew Salesses discusses the history of anti-Asian racism in America and how, beginning in the late 19th century, white men were threatened by the presence of Chinese men who had immigrated here to work on the transcontinental railroad and feared these men would steal "their" women and jobs. He states that the stereotype of the asexual Asian man was born from this white male insecurity. We see parallels throughout history, with stereotypes of Black men as alternately lazy and predatory, and of course during the 2016 presidential election, we heard Trump cast Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, coming to steal "our" women and jobs.

(One notable exception to the stereotype of Asian men as asexual is one of Hollywood's first heartthrobs, Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese man. But his legacy goes widely unnoticed in the mainstream memory – another erasure of an Asian man that sexually threatened white male dominance.)

Each relationship is complex and unique; to try to speak for all Asian women who have chosen to be with white men would be insane. However, given this history, it doesn't surprise me that my mom, as well as many of the women closest to her, turned toward white men. Everywhere they looked in American culture – the government, business, media – they saw enticing images of white men painted as strong, safe, emotionally available providers, while images of Asian men were either nonexistent or weak, frightening, and shameful. Meanwhile, memories of their fathers and other male leaders in their communities being taken from them – if not physically, then emotionally – for the "crime" of being Japanese were still raw, open wounds.

As a girl, I never allowed myself to consider Asian boys as options for dating. I never thought, "I'm not attracted to Asian boys," or "My mom chose a white man, so therefore I will." And yet I remember, when I saw Asian boys in elementary and high school, feeling a strange sort of clamping sensation in my gut. I remember quickly looking away and looking instead to my mixed race and white friends. Even now, the memory of this sensation makes me sad and sick. I'm trying to remember the conscious thought connected to this sensation, but the closest I can come is not so much a thought, but more of a confusing, ghostlike outline of an absence.

As a young adult, I sought role models in the fields of writing and dance. I hungrily read books by Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Bharati Mukherjee, and Jessica Hagedorn, and joined Asian American Dance Performances, a politically conscious dance company run by women. But I found few men speaking out about their experiences as Asian Americans. This absence fit my unconscious bias of Asian men as somehow in hiding, not wanting or able to process their feelings and most certainly not wanting to express them publicly. I chalked this up to that explanation I'd heard so often: "Their silence is cultural." Placing responsibility only on them and Asian cultures rather than on American history. Discovering non-American Japanese male authors like Kazuo Ishiguro and Haruki Murakami was pivotal for me – these men hadn't been subjected to the particular brand of anti-Asian racism cultivated here, and their expressiveness had an ease and freedom to it that, up until then, I had mostly associated with whiteness.

In my 20s, I started to notice that when I introduced myself to white guys I met at parties as my more recognizably Japanese name (Kimiko, as opposed to Kimi), I'd see a spark of interest in their eyes. I recognized a certain currency in this. Like everyone, I saw who was running the country, who had the most access to power and security. I had experienced the benefits of white male privilege growing up with my white father. But I didn't just want to be with a white man; in some ways, I sought to become one! My education up until college was centered on the ideas and works of white men; why shouldn't I have aspired to this apparent greatness? I remember mimicking the confidence and entitlement of my white boyfriend, and found that moving through life in this manner, with him at my side, doors swung open faster and wider than when I was alone. I was unconsciously emulating the idea that a white man needed to be the main character of my story, as I'd seen in so many films, like "Amistad," "Dances with Wolves," and "Come See the Paradise," where stories about people of color are told through the eyes of white men.

* * *

Only now, at age 50, am I becoming more keenly aware of the losses in my life caused by my turning toward whiteness and the racism – external and internalized – that made me look so quickly away from Asian men. I feel the lack of Asian men in my family's daily life. I grieve the absence of the Asian men I never knew.

After reparations for Japanese Americans, some of my family members who had been reluctant to discuss Camp were more willing to talk about it. Something in this official, public acknowledgment of wrongdoing, along with what our country values most – a paycheck – allowed them to step out from the darkness into the light. The money didn't make up for the incalculable costs, but it was validation. It makes me think how necessary and overdue reparations are for Black and Indigenous communities in this country, who have been subjected to government-sponsored genocide and terror for generations.

Terror doesn't just stop; its emotional and practical effects are inherited.

The recent resurgence in anti-Asian violence – fueled by Trump's rhetoric as he sought to place blame for the mishandling of the pandemic away from himself – has been horrific. Seeing our elders attacked in broad daylight, often seemingly from nowhere – so much hate just waiting to physicalize – brings up old wounds and creates new trauma. It's yet another reminder that human rights can't be taken for granted, but must be vigilantly fought for and protected.

In spite of this, I am hopeful. I love that today there are so many thriving Asian men visible in all fields – strong, thoughtful men who even seem to be allowed to be complex and vulnerable (allowed to be human, the ultimate freedom). Authors like Salesses, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Brandon Shimoda, and others are expanding literature and poetry with their inspired voices; hot movie stars like Steven Yeun are becoming household names. My daughters and other young Asian Americans have these men to look to as role models and crushes.

To be American is to be culturally mixed, no matter one's ethnic background. All my relationships are interracial, because I am. There has always been genuine love between me and my white partners, between my parents, and between me and my dad – a human love that I truly believe transcends race and gender. That said, we can't deny the various insidious ways that white supremacy infiltrates our minds and most intimate spaces.

The other day, when somehow the subject of an imagined future husband came up in a conversation with my teenage daughter, she casually stated, "Oh, he probably won't be white." I had to smile a bit at her nonchalant sentiment, so different from mine as a teen. Of course, who knows who she'll love, and I hope she'll choose her partners based on love, not race. We all deserve the right to choose the loves of our lives from self-love, awareness, and empowerment, without the fear that being with someone who looks like us will be dangerous or, worse, the fear that they will be taken from us.

[CORRECTION: A previous version of this essay did not indicate that some of the Issei men chose to and were able to speak out. The story has been updated.]

By Kimiko Guthrie

Kimiko Guthrie is an author and choreographer based in the SF Bay Area. Her novel, Block Seventeen (Blackstone Publishing, 2020), will be coming out in paperback this June. She is the co-director of Dandelion Dancetheater and teaches in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Cal State East Bay.

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Asian American Essay Japanese Internment Racism White Supremacy