Over the years of being on dating apps, I’ve built up a personal list of automatic left-swipes: multiple gym mirror selfies, pro-hunting content (when I lived in Texas), pro-NFT content (now that I’m in New York), and the ubiquitous, unremarkable fish pic.
But the red flag that gives me the most pause isn’t one I can joke about over brunch.
There’s one thing I see over and over that fills me with an instinctual anxiety — a white man with pictures from his time in Japan.
Having grown up mixed race in the Midwest, I’m used to the questions that stem from some level of curiosity about my background — What are you? Where are you from? No, where are you really from? And while comments like those might annoy me, they aren’t the ones that make me nervous.
The white men who feel the most threatening are the ones who enthusiastically tell me how much they love Asian culture, who ask if I’m hafu, who call me “exotic” as if there’s no higher form of praise.
In certain ways, dating someone who already has an appreciation for my cultural background should be a positive thing. I wouldn’t have to explain why I keep a no-shoes household or why preparing a plate of fruit for someone is a deep expression of love. But that’s not exactly what’s happening here. There’s a thin line between appreciation and a fixation that goes too far.
My Asian friends and I are used to navigating this dynamic, looking up the past partners of the people we date, scouring Instagram grids in search of a pattern— nervous about what we might find.
And it’s easy for me to question if I’m simply overreacting, if I’m being too sensitive to all of this. Of course, white people are allowed to enjoy sushi and anime. Of course, someone can travel to a foreign country without wanting to conquer the people who are from there. And of course, people can have “a type” when dating.
Maybe it’s that my standards are too high, people suggest. But is it even a standard to ask to be treated like a multifaceted person?
I say “ask” and not “expect” because, to be honest, I stopped expecting men to see me as a whole person a long time ago. Because when you’re consistently reduced to a series of fantasies (conscious or not) — commodified, exotic, submissive — it becomes difficult to think that you might be worthy of your own humanity.
And it’s certainly true that I am highly sensitive about this point.
As a survivor of sexual assault many times over, that feeling of being dehumanized, and the loss of power that comes with that, lives deep within my bones.
My trauma has made me an expert in the art of compartmentalization — without which I’d never be able to leave my apartment — but there’s no way for me to avoid the truth that trauma and race are inextricably linked.
Following last year’s attack in the Atlanta area, the shooter told authorities that he was removing “temptation” when he targeted the Asian-owned and operated massage parlors. I remember being unsurprised by that explanation, having somehow known even before it was ever put into words.
And then I thought more about my own experiences, and how I had spent years intuitively dodging red flags before I’d been able to vocalize the real, concrete danger behind the screen. How it was a running joke that one of the men who assaulted me had “yellow fever.”
And it’s not just me. This narrative is all too familiar. The combination of violence and fetishization is part of the history of being an Asian woman in this country. Of the 10,905 hate incidents recorded by Stop AAPI Hate between March 19, 2020 and December 31, 2021, nearly 62% of those were reported by women.
Being dehumanized like this has both internal and external elements. There’s the feeling that I am being reduced to something less than my whole self, but there’s also a very real fear that comes along with this: The fear of how these men will react if I’m not what they expect of me.
And while I don’t enjoy the openly gross behavior I encounter in my life — from the catcalls to being grabbed on the train — that’s less insidious than this masked fetishization that hides behind reverence. Where I’m always one right swipe away from finding the wrong person.
Having been single for years, I get asked a lot about my dating life. When I tell people that I’m taking a break from the apps, they seem almost offended at first, like they’re insulted by my lack of effort. Then they usually make some sort of comment about how it must be tough out there, wading through all the similar profiles and the same conversations. And there is something familiar about it all but not in the way that they think.
I wish all the time that I no longer felt optimism, that I could bury myself in my instincts of self-preservation and simply stop dating for the rest of my life, that I could avoid these apps entirely.
But on the days that seem safe enough, I find that I am still pulled to put myself out there. Because the truth is that I do want a partner, and despite my best efforts, I do still feel hope.