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America’s Asian Fetish

By Anastasia Volkoff

Exotic /iɡˈzädik/ adjective: “introduced from another country; strikingly, excitingly, or

mysteriously different or unusual.”

I have a complicated relationship with the word “exotic.” The word itself evokes images

of foreignness, separating those it categorizes from a cultural norm. Like many Asian American

women in predominantly white spaces, “exotic” has been the most conclusive description of my

appearance for as long as I can remember. Although this label has been applied in a context

beyond my intimate relationships, its usage by white men, in particular, has forced me to

question the point at which my exoticism makes me an “other” within Western society.

White men have called me “exotic”, a euphemistic way of saying “not white but

somewhat attractive,” in comparison to their mostly white past partners. While the women they

had been with were fair, familiar, and palatable, I was quite the opposite. My darker coloring

contrasted the appearance of their typical girl, a stain on their otherwise unadulterated white

histories. I was not one of “them,” nor was I viewed as such. My existence was (is, and will

continue to be) squished into the restrictive narrative of an Asian sexual fantasy.

The fetishization of Asian women has a long-standing history in American culture. It has

extended its pervasive roots through landmark legislation in the nineteenth century into the

modern-day. Although legal policy may have changed throughout the years, white society’s

obsession with Asian sexuality has not. With “hentai” (erotic anime), “Japanese,” and “Asian” all

placing within the top 10 most popular searches on PornHub in 2021, Asian women continue to

be reduced to a one-dimensional fetish.

Starting in 1875, the Page Act was enacted to restrict Asian women from immigrating to

the United States. As a predecessor to the more commonly known Chinese Exclusion Act of

1882, the Page Act was one of the first federally implemented laws deterring immigration.

During this period, the anti-Asian sentiment in the United States was already raging. With more

and more Asians immigrating because of the Gold Rush, the racial purity of white American

lineage was jeopardized. At the same time, the concern that Asian immigrants were taking jobs

from white, low-wage laborers was heightened. Asian women became the perfect scapegoat for

white Americans’ fears.

Banning Asian women from immigrating to the United States was a way to prevent racial

mixing and suppress growing Asian communities. Asian women were considered a sexual

threat to the white-Anglo social order. They were labeled as “promiscuous”, “prostitutes”, and

“sexually submissive”-stereotypes that continue to reveal themselves time and time again

throughout history and media. Musicals from the 19th and 20th-century such as Madame

Chrysanthème (1893) and Miss Saigon (1989) play into the damaging trope that Asian women

are at the disposal of white men’s sexual desires.

Personally, Miss Saigon strikes a chord. The musical, written by Claude-Michel

Schönberg and Alain Boublil, tells the story of an American GI who falls in love with Kim, a

Vietnamese prostitute, while fighting in the Vietnam War. After Chris returns home to America,

Kim sends their son to live with Chris and his wife with the hope that he will be given a better

future. In the end, Kim is left with nothing. Her character is robbed of both a happy ending and

an identity beyond her “rescue” at the hands of a white man.

There is a misconception that we are willing to submit to white men because we need to

be saved––that we are not strong enough to exist as sovereign individuals. The “Lotus

Blossom” trope represents us as fragile and helpless. It sends a message to viewers that Asian

women are so powerless that we will allow ourselves to be used over and over again as an

exotic fantasy. The rape and prostitution of Asian women that originated with imperialism helped

create the stereotype of the submissive “Lotus Blossom”. It also gave birth to Orientalism, the

principle by which the West is viewed as strong and the East as weak. Women are already

viewed as the weaker gender––coupled with these racial stereotypes, Asian women are seen

as frail, and their bodies, disposable.

As a community, we have been forced to watch these misconceptions give rise to

violence. The Atlanta spa killings on March 16, 2021, in which six Asian women were shot and

killed, act as a testament to the lasting consequences of the damaging sexual stereotypes

assigned to Asian women. The perpetrator, Robert Aaron Long, used his “sex addiction” as a

justification for the killings, sending a message that our lives are expendable, serving to quell

the sexual desires of white men.

We are by no means incapable. As the fight against outdated narratives and anti-Asian

hate continues, we prevail. We have risen above centuries of bigotry and have thrived in a

country where our existence has been unwelcomed. We are educators, professionals, mothers,

activists, and artists. We have established ourselves despite the obstacles, growing our families

and passing on our cultures throughout generations. Our histories, our fights, and our lives are

too rich to simply be distilled into nothing more than “exotic.”

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