In high school, the boys didn’t like me. A friend suggested that perhaps it was because our school was 80% Caucasian and in the heart of Portland, Oregon, the whitest major metropolitan area in the country. And it is true that the white boys at my high school usually dated other white girls. It is true that year after year, the rich white kids were the ones voted onto homecoming court and student government.
But it is also true that I was a little loud and a little awkward in high school. I spent most of my time doing math. I haphazardly dyed my hair at home and sported a brass-colored bob that I can now admit was ill-suited to my skin tone. So who knows. Maybe the boys just didn’t like me.
Years ago, I was seeing a white boy casually. When I met his family, his uncle immediately asked me about my “background”. I assumed he was asking for which university I attended, but he clarified he wanted to know where I was from.
“I’m from Oregon,” I said, which was my usual response to this question.
“No, but like, I see that you are Asian, but where exactly in Asia?”
I could have continued playing dumb (“Portland—do you wanna know the exact neighborhood?”), but the deep-seated desire to avoid awkwardness won out. So I told him China. I did not ask if he would have posed this question had I been white. After all, white people can be from many countries too.
His mother offered that she had once dated a Chinese man who was very nice, as if this had anything to do with me. I did not know what to do besides nod with feigned interest.
Later, the boy apologized to me for what they had said. Not long afterwards, I stopped speaking to him.
He assumed it was because of what his family had said. But it was also because he hadn’t stood up for me. But, mostly, it was because I had sat there in silence when I should have walked out, and I didn’t like being reminded of that.
My current boyfriend is half-white and half-Asian. He has a German surname. When we first started dating, I told a friend about him, and she, of course, looked him up on Facebook.
As she scrolled through his older photos, she frowned. “Is his previous girlfriend Asian too?”
I thought: OH NO SHE THINKS I’M DATING A WHITE DUDE WITH YELLOW FEVER, and scrambled to explain that he was biracial. My urgency to correct her assumption arose not out of disgust for a hypothetical man who fetishized Asian women, but out of fear that my friend would think I was the sort of girl who would date such a man.
My reaction reminded me of how many progressive Asian-American women, when telling me about their white boyfriends, rush to qualify their partners with “he’s really aware” or “I’m his first Asian girlfriend” or some other statement meant to say: he’s not one of those guys, the guys who lust after wide-eyed dolls in a kimono who speak broken English. As a corollary, I’m not one of those girls, the girls who hate themselves and wish to be adjacent to whiteness.
You don’t need to prove anything to me, I always want to reply but don’t. Because it isn’t about me. It is about how one of my friends wrote a viral essay about anti-Blackness in the Chinese-American community and then got ripped apart online for her supposed hypocrisy after Redditors dug up Instagram photos of her with a white boyfriend. It is about Constance Wu and Celeste Ng and every other woman of color who has been reviled for dating Caucasian men.
Strangely, I have never met a white man with an Asian girlfriend who justified his interracial relationship to me. No white man has felt the unprompted need to prove his lack of yellow fever; this burden only befell the women they dated.
Online, many articles penned by Asian women argue that we shouldn’t critique those who decide to date white men. Some say that, after all, we rarely know the details of someone else’s relationship, and who are we to erase a woman’s agency by assuming she must be with her partner due to self-loathing? Others claim that we shouldn’t chastise others for seeking the privileges and validation that comes with associating with whiteness, because of course that is what one would wish for in a world that devalues people of color.
Was it my fault for telling my date’s uncle that I was from China instead of Portland, or was it due to the circumstances of the world I grew up in that made me feel obligated to stay polite? Was it his fault for asking me a racist question, or was it due to the circumstances of the world he grew up in that made him feel like this was acceptable to ask? Sometimes it feels like I am playing a game that is impossible to win.
When I was in middle school, I had a list of traits for a dream boyfriend. Even though I had no explicit race in mind for this fantasy guy, in retrospect, whiteness was an implicit requirement—I wanted him to have dark hair and blue eyes. This was because Artemis Fowl, the protagonist of a children’s book series popular in the early 2010s, had dark hair and blue eyes. But this indicates the problem: in the media, people of color were only ever funny sidekicks, or tragic sacrificial lambs, and never someone twelve-year-old me might’ve developed a crush on.
In the years since, Lana Condor (of Vietnamese descent) and Henry Golding (of Malaysian descent) and Henry Shum, Jr. (of Chinese descent) have starred in romantic movies as subjects of desire. In the years since, I graduated from high school and enrolled in MIT and met my boyfriend, who does not have blue eyes but does have dark hair.
Since we’ve been together for nearly three years, we’ve discussed our potential children. He pointed out that they would be three-quarters Asian but carry German surnames, which could be useful in resume screenings and other situations where they could pass as white.
But I want my kids to grow up in a better world. I want them to be proud of their heritage, and I never want them to worry about adhering to whiteness.
With the global rise of BTS and other Korean pop groups, TikTok is now populated with girls lusting after Asian men. Still, this is only a different flavor of othering. I wish most for a society where dating as a person of color does not require one to defend their own individuality, their right to be seen as someone worthy of respect and agency. I wish for all of us to love and be loved, and to be able to do so without compromising our full selves.
Yesterday, my mom found a photo of my boyfriend and me on a spring break trip to Iceland, taken during our early days of dating. My cheeks are flushed and I’m smiling the way people do when they don’t bother to hide their happiness: with eyes crinkled into moon slivers, both rows of teeth exposed. For a moment, I was reminded of the giddiness of first love, how it lets you believe nobody else matters and anything is possible. Perhaps it is not the euphoria I am nostalgic for; perhaps it is the freedom.