by Vivian Obarski
Lately I’ve been addicted to Viva La Union’s song “Chinese Baby.” If you’ve never heard of them, Viva La Union is a band that features John Cho (all hail the Choverlord, master of snark regarding Asian American race relations and Hollywood) as a member.
And in particular, these lyrics are sticking with me:
I want to integrate
Teach a foreign tongue to say my name
My name, it’ll be your name
I feel so alone in my own home
I want my very own
I feel so alone in my own home
I want my own Chinese baby
When I hear those lyrics, I think back to Debbie Lum’s complicated, but wonderful, documentary Seeking Asian Female. (A heavily-edited version of the documentary recently aired on PBS’ Independent Lens, but I chose to get the 82-minute documentary to see Lum’s vision in full.) Maybe it’s because the movie’s subject — sixty-something Steven Bolstad seems to bet a lot of his happiness on an entire subset of women.
I’ll admit — like a lot of people, I was expecting to see the curse of “May you get what you wish for” in that a white guy with a fetish for Asian women gets exactly what he wanted. But with less Madame Butterfly and more Landlady from Kung Fu Hustle.
Which brings us to Steven Bolstad — who I have to give props to for opening himself up to this for five years — a 60-something white male living in San Francisco in an apartment. On paper, he’s not exactly marriage material — divorced twice, no money, no house and a job as a parking attendant at San Francisco Airport — but online? Chinese women love him. He’s been to China before to meet some of the women he’s courted online and thanks to technology, they’re able to get to know each other more than through snail mail.
I’ll admit, I cringed at some of his lines. “I love the Chinese look,” he coos at a picture of his fiancee Sandy, which prompts Lum to ask, “What does that mean?”
And then there’s Sandy — the woman from Anhui province who will marry him. It’s funny seeing how protective Lum feels over Steven when she wonders, “What kind of woman would leave another country to marry him?” But it’s clear that she’s not a blank slate for Steven to project his fantasies on. Sandy’s 30 — an old maid by Chinese standards — and looked down upon for not attending university and coming from the country (why the documentary didn’t address the 30-year age difference between Sandy and Steven will remain a mystery).
Steven struck me as the kind of person who was going for the big gamble on happiness. In the 82-minute documentary, he talks about being divorced twice and how his quest for an Asian bride happened when his son married a Japanese woman and he saw how happy they were together.
When Lum gets sucked into the role of interpreter/marriage counselor, that’s when all of our preconceived notions as to what this documentary is explode into something else. This isn’t a movie about the fetishzation of a certain group of women. What we’re watching is two people developing a relationship across racial and cultural lines. And that’s when I found myself rooting for the couple, even though on the initial pitch, I was expecting a train wreck to occur.
And yet, part of me is still disquieted by the whole thing. Just the notion of seeking a certain mate from a very specific ethnic group is one of those unsettling things, but that could also be the Chinese-American part of me that has had to deal with stereotypes about my heritage my entire life. Perhaps it’s because I often find myself wrestling with these questions in my own marriage (I am well aware of the irony of a Chinese-American woman married to a white man critiquing a documentary about a white man marrying a Chinese woman) and the answer I keep coming back to is that he loves me as an individual, not as a stereotype or preconceived notion. But couldn’t the same be said of Steven and Sandy? I ask myself and I find myself chasing the tail of that question.
The problem is that as a hyphenate, the personal become political. The fetishization of an entire race should be discussed. In a 2011 study of the 2010 census, among interracial marriages, more Asian women married outside of their race than men. Why isn’t it more equally divided? Do stereotypes play a part in attraction (the most recent cringe-worthy example I can think of is BBC Sherlock’s The Blind Banker)? Why does the image of an Asian woman as a petite, subservient flower still persist (Don’t believe me? Check out the tumblr Creepy White Guys for a good example of the hazards of dating online)? How does this affect our view of Asian American men (who are often seen as assexual, or comically horny, not sexy and often nerdy thanks to such iconic characters as Long Duk Dong)?
Seeking Asian Female doesn’t quite address the history of that fetishization. Instead it morphs from following a Asiaphile and his attempts with Asian women to an examination of a cross-cultural, interracial relationship going through all the normal trials, but under a strict and short deadline. I think that Lum initially went in expecting one thing and came out with something else that was more complicated than what we were initially promised. While that may be frustrating for some, I find it to be a reflection of life and love. Or as Sandy says in the end, “No why. Just love.”
It sounds like the movie started out as a commentary on yellow fever and became more of a commentary on cultural cross-communication and how marriages grow… also a very interesting topic, but a different one.
Even if you start out with no real view of who your partner is (possibly because your view is clouded with racist crap)… in the end marriage works or doesn’t because you fight for it, struggle to understand each other, and work to to make it work. So they’re going to have to see past who they thought they were marrying to who they actually married (and if they still love each other then more power to them). You know, plus the additional culture clashes of being from very different worlds and speaking different languages.
I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much for cheering for them. If it’s clear that they’re in love (however weird or creepy), everyone loves a love story and most people naturally cheer for it. It’s also possible for Steven to be a good, loving person along with being a creepy fetishist (don’t know if he is, but he sounded lonely-creepy, not controlling-evil-creepy in the previews).
In the end it’s not up to us to protect Sandy from him… it sounds like she’s an adult who can make her own choices. 😉
Thanks for your review, Viv. I also watched this film expecting a train wreck. Even though by the end of the film the relationship definitely was less superficial and more complicated than when it started, I was still left with this question: “Did Sandy REALLY fall in love with him (and accept his flaws), or did she fall in love with Steven because she would no longer be alone and it’s WHAT WOMEN DO?” Just wondering… And that’s not a notion that’s exclusive to this type of relationship.