Swipe White

Jennifer Chong Schneider considers what it is to be Asian, maligned, and fetishized in dating — and questions her own desire when she dates someone of her own ethnicity for the first time.

Jennifer Chong Schneider | Longreads | December 2018 | 15 minutes (3,673 words)

Last summer, my friend and fellow English professor, Danielle, was punched in the face by a white man. When she called the police on him, she was arrested for fighting. She sent me this information in an email, and later I saw pictures of her bloody nose, split lip, fractured teeth. She is a black woman, and I can think of no other reason for her arrest.

After this episode of violence, before she left the country for good, fed up with America and its racist antics, Danielle gathered her friends to say goodbye. We were at a bar and there was only one white woman at the table, a salacious marketing peon who regaled us with sex stories in the style of a late 1990’s HBO show. She told us about her current sexual conquest, a Puerto Rican man who is muscular and masculine. Then she looked at Danielle and said she also loves to have sex with black men, adding that all black men have huge dicks, Puerto Ricans are next in line, and Asians have the smallest dicks, because she slept with an Asian person once. She insisted white men were the only group with any diversity. “White men are unpredictable,” she said, “there’s no rhyme or reason.”

I stood up, put my hands on the edge of the table and considered flipping it over, but decided to just leave. Danielle followed me out and asked if I was upset. I told her I was leaving to go have sex with an Asian man with a huge dick, and the anger rose inside of me for a reason I couldn’t articulate at the moment.

In the morning, Danielle forwarded me a pages-long email from the white woman, prefacing it by saying she and another black professor at the table spent hours berating the white woman until she cried; but she cried not about her sexual racism, but because she liked me and now I’ll never be her friend. I read Danielle’s message and deleted the other.

***

Question: When was the last time you slept with someone of your own ethnicity?

I am the only Korean in my introductory Korean class, other than the teacher. The teacher dedicates part of every class to talking about Korean culture. She says that she can’t in good conscience tell us about Korea without mentioning how racist and patriarchal it is. She points at me and says, “Do not think they will be kind to biracial people.” My teacher, in a motorized wheelchair, adds, “People with disabilities are not regarded as full people there. I could never live in Korea again.” She motions to the woman in front of me, who is Nigerian, and says, “Darker skin, no. Not kind.”

A few days ago I started sleeping with a Korean man who lives close to me — the first Korean person I’ve ever had sex with.

I raise my hand and ask, “My mother once walked out of a Korean movie because she said that all the men were addressing the women by their first names, but all the women were addressing the men with honorifics. Is Korea more patriarchal than the US?” The teacher laughs until her face is pink, then says, “Do you think the US is patriarchal?

“Korean women are taught from birth to be submissive,” she continues “Korean men rule all aspects of society. Women’s rights are in their infancy in Korea. When I have spoken to Korean women about this, they often tell me that I am the first person who has ever noticed or mentioned their submissiveness to them.”

I raise my hand again and ask, “My mother is the oldest daughter in her family, and she said that when she was 13, she had to drop out of school to work and take care of the other children, and that her mother essentially ‘retired’ at that point. Was that common?” The teacher looks confused. She maneuvers her motorized wheelchair a little closer to me. “How old are you,” she asks. I feel slightly violated.

“35,” I say.

“You don’t look 35,” she says.

“Well,” I joke, “I am half-Korean.”

She wheels back to the chalkboard. “Your mother must have come from a very conservative family, like the Tea Party in this country. Right of the right wing. But also she is a war baby, and her generation was very conservative. Even ten years later, daughters were already finishing school and attending college.” I think about my father, a white, abusive, racist farm boy from Iowa who joined the service after failing at everything else. He was even dishonorably discharged from the service. The worst white American man must have been miles better than the Korean men my mother had to choose from. When I was older, in college, in my first adult relationships, my mother told me that she would disown me if I ever dated a Korean man. I only now understand what she meant. A few days ago I started sleeping with a Korean man who lives close to me — the first Korean person I’ve ever had sex with. I am already deeply infatuated with him, and I realize that I have much deeper relationships with any person who is not a white man, whose face does not, or cannot, resemble my father’s.

I raise my hand and all the other students in the class are now looking at me. “If Korea is so patriarchal, and the men hold all the power, and they are the normalizing force, and women are submissive, what does it mean when Korean men come to America, and are feminized and marginalized by the white patriarchy here?” A Thai man and a white male teenager sit off to my left. They both look down at their books.

“How would I know,” the teacher responds, “I’m not a Korean man.”

***

Question: Who taught you how to date?

My Korean mother watches people whenever we go somewhere new. She studies what they do, how they move, what they say to each other. Because I grew up with her, I forget she is a foreigner. But she is. She struggles. She loves eating at buffets, and some of my earliest memories were of following her through aisles of steam tables in some Midwestern Golden Corral with a tray of miscellaneous food. When I was older, visiting from college, she asked where I wanted to eat lunch and I said I wanted to try a sit-down American cafe that had opened recently. We went and my mother opened the menu, sighed, closed it. It took me so long to realize how tiring it must be for her to order food from a waiter – someone who might not understand her accent – off of a menu written in an inscrutable font with euphemistic descriptions. It took me years, adulthood, a master’s degree, five years teaching immigrant students in New York, to start to understand how hard my mother’s life was.

Starting when I was 3 years old, my mother instructed me to rip the testicles off of the body of any man who tried to have sex with me. She taught me that all men were untrustworthy perverts, perhaps not knowing that I would eventually queer towards women. I was not allowed to attend middle school sleepovers at the houses of my friends unless they had single moms; there were only two girls whose fathers had abandoned their families in our rural town. Each of these girls was relentlessly horny. One of them showed me a drawerful of dildos and her mom’s sextape. The other was pregnant by age 14. Still today, I am in my 30s and my mother is in her 60s, and before she hangs up the phone, she says, “Good-bye, Jenny-fur, trust no one!”

***

Question: Who is the person you’re most generous with?

The Korean man tells me that he doesn’t know if he likes me. He says he can’t commit to anything. He says he’s a coward and fears a break-up. I hear him say the exact things I have said to so many people: I’m not the relationship type, don’t get your hopes up, I’m flighty and mercurial, I do not want to be your girlfriend. My last partner, a Pinoy, listened to these excuses and replied, “Those are all dumb reasons not to date. If you want to date me, I want you to be my girlfriend, and I will want to call you my girlfriend because we will be in a committed relationship.” Without that experience, I would not know that the opposite of commitment is not infidelity, but fear and shame.


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The Korean man invites me to his ex-girlfriend’s house, a single mother ten years his senior. She’s gone; he’s sitting the cats they bought together as kittens. I run my hands over the items in her house and remember that people can’t be known. The thought is huge and almost immobilizing. He takes out her garbage and cleans her house, unaware that I would ever feel uncomfortable being in their space. He invites me to sleep with him in her bed. I decline and wonder what he could possibly be thinking. He resists relationships because he fears failure, because someone leaving him might destroy the little self-value he’s built up. I resist relationships because I know deep inside of me that I cannot know someone, that I’m not perceptive enough to read their signals, because my parents were not logical or transparent people and often I found their behavior puzzling and harsh.

When the Korean man says he will come over, I buy fruit at the store, I make food in the morning, I prepare my house to receive him. He cancels and I can’t bring myself to tell him how much time I wasted in service of his absence.

He says he’s trustworthy, but what he means is that he’s transparent. He answers my questions with candor. To me, trust doesn’t mean candor; trust means that a person will take care with your feelings, and they will do it without effort. That they will consider whether their words will hurt you, and try to soften the blow when they give you bad news. That they will think about how their behavior will affect you at the moment and in the future. He talks about white women in a careless, aspirational way to me, as if what we both desire most is to date white women. He makes unconsidered, insensitive comments about my appearance and family. When I ask him about his feelings for me, he wavers, unable to see how his hesitation hurts me, especially if he backtracks and later says he likes me. My friend Danielle writes me from her new home outside of America, “I’m happy you’re still seeing him, and I hope you’re enjoying yourself. He’s letting you know he will leave you. Are you ok with that?” She softens the blow, even in email, because she really cares for me.

My mother was a sacrificial child, born into the unlucky birth position of eldest daughter. She was expected to give up her schooling and independence in order to take care of everyone else. Unwittingly, she passed that on to me. I don’t think sacrifice is romantic, I think it’s despicable, but I can’t stop doing it. When the Korean man says he will come over, I buy fruit at the store, I make food in the morning, I prepare my house to receive him. He cancels and I can’t bring myself to tell him how much time I wasted in service of his absence. In our first week of dating, he tells me, “I’m so empathetic, I will disgust you.” Almost three months later, he texts, “Please write down all the ways I have hurt you and why they hurt you.”

***

Question: Why are you single?

Everyone in New York who is single, is single for a reason. I went on a date with an attorney who couldn’t get erections because of his dose of Lexapro. He cut his dosage and ended up kicking my best friend’s dog and screaming at me. I went on another date with an editor who started out by telling me about his loneliness and need to leave the house, then he showed up an hour and fifteen minutes late to our last lunch date. He said he was at the grocery store. Everyone is single for a reason: that reason is that they want to be single.

I’m included in that statement. I love being single.

Reclaiming my time.

Reclaiming my time.

Reclaiming my time.

Other Asians have been among the meanest people on dates. I showed up to drinks with an Indian man who said I looked white in my pictures, but since I was here and half-Asian, he needed to tell me that he doesn’t date Asian women. “I like redheads,” he said, clearly a euphemism for white women. At work, in the breakroom, I tell Danielle about his comment and she gets super irritated that I didn’t think some black people have naturally red hair. Then she offers to help me burn down his house for saying he categorically doesn’t date Asian women.

I go on a date with an Asian man of unknown ethnicity (I don’t ask because I don’t want to make it seem like it matters) and he disappointedly tells me that he thought I was Jewish from my profile pictures.

I go on a date with a white man who is an Instagram celebrity. He spends the first twenty minutes of our date gleefully guessing what mix I might be.

I go on a date with a white man who tells me a story about how he hates racists, and in the story he loudly uses the n-word. When I chastise him, he says, “I can’t be racist, I went on a date with a Chinese girl once.” I tell him some of the most racist people will only date Asian women, and in the uncomfortable silence, I try not to think of my dad.

I go on a date with a white man, a former reporter for a conservative but mainstream newspaper. I tell him my parents are immigrants and that I’m mixed, and he says, “Oh, that’s ok, you can pass for white, no problem!” His eyes move over me and I imagine him re-styling me to emphasize what he thinks are my whitest qualities.

***

Question: Are your desires shaped internally or externally?

In an undergraduate Women and Literature class at Iowa, we are assigned the Adrienne Rich essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” The author argues that many women who identify as heterosexual have actually been socialized out of lesbian behavior from a young age, and that a lot of second-wave feminism doesn’t make room for queerness. Rich points to a slew of women-centered interactions ranging from breastfeeding to secret sharing to hand holding, and she says that women engage in normal, intimate lesbian behaviors, and that many of those are the foundation to queer attraction, but parents and culture will redirect their daughters’ attentions to boys. During classroom discussion of the essay, a white blonde student with a nose ring starts breathing heavily until she explodes with, “I’m not a lesbian! My boyfriend is a football player. This woman knows nothing about me. This discussion is an insult to women,” and she storms out. “She’s gay,” someone says when a few of us joke about it after class.

Her reaction is to the idea that her sexual tastes are shaped by outside forces; it is too confrontational for her to process.

***

Question: How are your desires shaped?

Growing up in rural Iowa, I was told that every Asian person I met was my cousin, grandma, sister, brother, etc. There was an older Korean woman who lived close by; my mother called her “Kitty’s grandma.” I called her Kitty’s grandma. Kitty was another Asian woman in town. I believed I was blood related to them for years, but when I was older, I found out that they weren’t even blood related. Calling someone “grandma” is a form of honorific that my mother couldn’t really translate for me.

There was a half-Korean, half-Chinese boy in my grade at school; his parents owned the Chinese restaurant in town called The Great Wall. My older brother worked there when he was in high school. I was friends with the son, Jeremy, and we went to high school homecoming together sophomore year. Before I left the house for the dance, my mother said, “I’m so glad you’re going to homecoming with your friend, Jeremy. He is your cousin.” He was not my cousin.

I go on a date with a white man who tells me a story about how he hates racists, and in the story he loudly uses the n-word. I tell him some of the most racist people will only date Asian women, and in the uncomfortable silence, I try not to think of my dad.

Years later in Seattle, I was friends with a half-Japanese woman who was struggling with mental illness. She was hypersexual, a sex addict. She slept with hundreds of men and women but never had orgasms with them; she liked the power dynamics of sex. She watched me shower at her house, sitting in a chair in her bathroom like a paying john inspecting the goods. I told her it was hard for me to sexualize Asian people because of the way I was brought up and she said that she learned that if she wants to sleep with hundreds of people, she can’t be choosy about it.

***

Question: How are your desires shaped?

White aspirationalism is a term that describes the way non-white individuals, many of them immigrants, are susceptible to an overpowering urge to assimilate into whiteness as a practice of self-betterment. This can include wearing Tommy Hilfiger shirts and dating white people. White people, only subconsciously aware of their own social position, will reassure me that I “look white” enough, and that they can “barely tell” or it “doesn’t matter.”

***

Question: Why are you single?

I don a short dress and red lipstick for a party, then get on the subway in Brooklyn. Two men, one visibly drunk, tells me to SMILE. I scowl at him. He hisses at me, “Who ruined you, you bitch?”

“My father,” I reply.

***

Question: How are your desires shaped?

The Korean man’s parents were not war babies; they are war survivors, ten years older than my mom. One night I meet him at a bar, and he’s on the phone with his mother. He stoically says, “Uh huh, ok, yes, ok, ok, yes.” He hangs up and says, “My mother says she wants to die. She was sobbing and crying, I don’t really know why. Some fight with my sister.” I recognize this as a survival tactic he and I share: I cannot engage with or take seriously the emotional or manipulative abuse of my parents, and consequently, of anyone else. Growing up, I needed to isolate my feelings in order to function on a basic level. The trade-off is that I can’t always access those emotions naturally, or when I want, and it’s too easy to disengage from any emotional situation, whether I want to or not. Years ago, his parents stole his identity and bilked him for thousands of dollars. He cut off contact for decades until his sister had a child. Now his parents call and ask for money on a nearly weekly basis. “What do they spend it on?” I ask him. “They have to have the nicest brands of clothes — Tommy Hilfiger, Izod, everything perfect. They don’t have money for rent, but when they met my sister’s husband’s family, they took out a loan to rent a fancy car for the night.” If you can’t trust your parents, how will you trust anyone?

***

Question: Who taught you how to date?

Danielle is the only daughter in her brood; she has three brothers, who all got The Talk. Danielle eavesdropped with intensity. Her father gathered around her brothers and told them the story of how he met their mother. “I asked seven different girls to the dance, then your mother said yes, and we’ve been together ever since. That’s my number: 7. Each of you have a number. It might be 7, or 15, or 30, but all you have to do is keep asking until you figure out your number, and then you’ll know.”

I must remind the Korean man a bit of the Korean women in his family in the way that every single white man looks like he might be my in-law, backwater, inbred cousin; in the way that white people claim to not be able to tell Asians apart, I also can’t tell white people apart; in the way I thought Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner were brother and sister instead of husband and wife. People say we are not born into racism, that it is learned, but maybe it’s a little of both.

***

Question: Do white people think about it this much? When a Ben Affleck type meets his Jennifer Garner type, is it a racially fraught decision?

The Korean man has partnered with tall, white women with light colored hair and a lack of personal focus. He keeps mentioning how tall, white, thin, and big-titted they were. I don’t think it’s malicious, but I notice it’s kind of like a collector’s fetish. When I sleep with white men, a practice I rarely engage in anymore, they comment on my “perfect” body, intense face, full mouth — exoticizing my normal. I feel that the Korean man and I are approaching something like equals; as a result, I think he doesn’t find me physically attractive. Being a fetishized object is marginalizing, but it can feel good to be seen as an object, to hide your humanity away, to please someone with your ethnicity, something you have absolutely no control over. I imagine a lot of women have grown used to it as well. It’s rare to find a man who can find his equal attractive instead of diminishing.

***

Question: Danielle, I’m writing an essay on intraracial dating. What do you think?

Danielle says: It’s fraught. Black people tell me I don’t talk the way they do. We can be so cruel to each other, like we’re already family, like we already know each other, like we already see each other, like we are in each other’s experiences, and we can feel known, and we can feel discarded. It hurts, and it’s too much like family.

* * *

Jennifer Chong Schneider lives and works in New York City. She studied writing in Iowa and Wyoming.

Editor: Sari Botton