Code Switch
9:03 am
Sat May 11, 2013

'Seeking Asian Female' Takes A Close Look At A Fetish

Originally published on Mon May 13, 2013 4:49 pm

It's hard to watch Seeking Asian Female, Debbie Lum's uncomfortably close look at the phenomenon some call "yellow fever" — when usually non-Asian men fetishize Asian women as romantic or sexual partners — without squirming. And at first, it seems like it wasn't so easy for Lum to document the phenomenon.

"I had to fight the urge to turn around and leave," Lum says in a voiceover, right before she meets the character we know only as "Steven" for the first time. She told me this guy had one of the "worst cases of yellow fever" she has seen.

Steven, an earnest, bespectacled, white American man with an unsettling penchant for Asian females, is not exactly the most appealing of potential suitors. He has a tendency to evaluate women based on their level of "Chineseness." As he beckons Lum inside his messy apartment, he tells her with unabashed glee: "You look very Chinese, with the bangs. You know I like that." Later, Steven excitedly describes his love interest Sandy as "looking so Chinese. You can't look any more Chinese than that." What makes him an expert on looking Chinese is pretty unclear, though he doesn't seem too concerned about that.

He seems to lust after Asian women for their supposed beauty and docility. "I mean I'm an old guy, I'm 60," he tells Lum before meeting Sandy, musing about his ideal woman. "Do I want the farm girl to take care of me? Do I want... an intelligent business woman to help me grow back and forth? What do I want? ....There's this Vietnamese movie called The Scent of Green Papaya that has this servant girl who cooks these beautiful meals. Gee, would it be like that?"

Not quite.

Meet Sandy, a 30-year-old woman from the Anhui province in China. Sandy finds Steven on an online dating site and seems to be seeking a potential entryway to the U.S. and some economic stability. (She takes two separate photos of them and makes a sort of endearing, sort of creepy couples picture, much to his delight.) Steven visits her a few times in China, they hit it off and she comes to the states on a K-1 engagement visa.

Sure, Sandy takes care of him. But she's hardly the demure lady he hoped for, just as he's hardly the flashy American she might have expected. Throughout the film, a frustrated Sandy describes wanting to get out of the relationship as soon as she has enough money and schooling.

The film has a whole bunch of flashing warning signs that say this relationship Might Not Be A Good Idea. I cringed a lot. When a frustrated Sandy confesses that she'd "lose face" if she told her family and friends in China about her house-less, money-less American beau, I found myself asking, Why are you doing this?

And yet.

And yet. Over the course of the film, something remarkable happened for me. Sandy and Steven, together, started to seem like it may not be such a bad thing after all.

There was something unsettling about the film, and my reaction to it. Why was I feeling sympathetic to Steven, who fetishizes Asian women? Can a relationship, borne out of something perhaps a little twisted on both sides, evolve into something genuine? Is it even fair to judge someone else's relationship? Lum, who like me is Chinese-American, told me that she began making the documentary because she was sick of dealing with men (usually non-Asian) who shared Steven's creepy fascination with Asian women. But as she made the film, Lum's thoughts changed, sort of like mine.

After Lum settled on Steven as a subject for her documentary, she thought the film would be about his relationship with Sandy. She had no idea that she'd become intimately wrapped up in their courtship: she soon found herself their designated (and reluctant) translator, and from there, the couple's de facto marriage counselor.

When Sandy finds a cache of photos of Steven's ex-girlfriend on his computer — the ex was Chinese, natch — she freaks out. Lum translates their fight. "I can only prove my love day by day," Steven says. (Lum refuses to translate that for him.)

"This is going to be an adjustment on both of our parts," a teary-eyed Steven tells the camera after his fight with Sandy. "This is not China, and I am not Chinese. I'm hoping for the best."

As Lum gets closer to the couple, she starts to see beneath the surface of their relationship — that there might be genuine feelings.

"There's this whole other individual there," Lum said of Steven. "When I see couples like Steven and Sandy, I think about their stories now, as much as I think about what it reads as, or what it looks like from the outside."

Lum, by the way, is married to a white Irishman. But she says her relationship with her husband is different than Steven and Sandy's. "Steven and Sandy's is a kind of modern take on an old-fashioned arranged marriage," Lum said. "They went into it with a really pre-determined desire to be married above everything else, whereas my husband and I kind of just met."

Yet she sometimes wonders if others think of their relationship as one tinged by yellow fever.

Sandy and Steven, by the way, are still together. Sandy now speaks English fluently, Lum said.

I came to this film thinking of Steven as "an Asian fetishist" and of Sandy as "an opportunist." Having spent a little while getting to know them through Lum's lens, I saw their nuances. Parts of their relationship — their fights, their daily interactions, their worries — became incredibly human, completely relatable to an outsider.

Except I feel like there should be a "but."

This narrative still doesn't sit well with me. The way Steven thought about Asian women — stripping them of their individuality, layering on pre-conceived ideals, replacing people with types — was challenged when he met Sandy, a real person with layers of her own. They might make the relationship work, yes, and I might even want them to. But in that case, their road to happiness feels marred with potholes that still need to be examined and considered.

UPDATE:

A man we believe to be Steven Bolstad, Seeking Asian Female's documentary subject, responded to the post in the comments section. (We also reached out to filmmaker Debbie Lum to comment and are waiting on her response.) Here's what Steven had to say:

"So many of you like to pontificate upon my life. Making strong judgments about my motivations and my character. You must be perfect people! please let me bow down to you.
I have written several paragraphs in this conversation thread to clarify the perceptions of what people think I said or feel. But people just keep talking past me with the same stupid thoughts and not acknowledging what I have written.
So I reiterate my statements:

After meeting online and emailing and web camming daily for long hours into the night, I finally met Sandy in person nine months later on Valentine's Day, 2008. That first visit was two weeks long of 24/7 time spent together. We got to know each other very well with the help of our electronics and hand gestures.
We were quite sure we were the right thing for each other, so I made another short trip later just to meet her parents and tell them we were serious.
Another ten day visit in the fall to get to know each other even better.
Then the following year the three-week visit to go to the US consulate to prove we were really a couple in order to get the marriage visa.
By the end of May 2009 we came to the USA, and on August 22 we got married.
So as a couple we've been together six years, and as a married couple it will be four years in August.

Some people have laughed at my methods, but I find that certain things were key for me. My searching was thorough and my vetting process took time. I did a lot of communication back and forth with many people and some seemed very nice while others were not in the running. With emails you can find out quite rapidly the character and level of education of the writer and her intent. But I was pragmatic and practical in my approach I thought.
When I finally connected with Sandy we communicated every night through emails and web cam, and photo exchanges. We knew about each other's families long before we even met.
You may laugh when I say communication because the movie shows us having a difficult time. But it only became difficult when there were some serious differences or arguments. And while it appears in the film that we were always that way, truthfully that was not the case.
We get along wonderfully well, we have great chemistry.

There are so many problems with that phrase "yellow fever"
Lightheartedly I could accept it, but in reality it sounds far more strange than how I view it. Like an affliction rather than a preference.
I had never thought about it before until 10 years after the disastrous end of my second marriage. I avoided any romance for that period.
Then I saw my son find a beautiful Japanese girlfriend whom he later married. They seemed so happy and looked so nice together. She was very polite and amiable but definitely not a subservient type. She was a powerful go-getter for sure, with strong opinions, and high standards and a sense of purpose.
I thought maybe this might be a new and better direction for my life as well. So I diligently searched for ones I might have chemistry with.
Each nationality seems to have a personality of its own. Early on in my search and communications I discovered that the Chinese style of communication was what I enjoyed most.

It actually took me about a year to finally realize how I feel about it this documentary.
In the five years of filming I never once saw a "rush" of the film nor saw the direction that Debbie was taking or how the story was shaped. .
I volunteered for this film (without pay) for the sake of Art. I gave it all the open honesty I could. So it was with some surprise that I found the emphasis on creepiness.
The past year of the movie making its film festival circuit I've been reading comments and reviews from everywhere.
Some reviews have been kind and generous. Some reviews have been ridiculously wrong.
Almost all that have had their own pre conceived opinions about me and my intentions and motivations but have never even talked to me nor asked me a question.

Sandy wound up not liking it much at all because it revealed too many personal things about herself. She's actually quite shy and very private.
I had told her it was going to be a movie on TV but that really doesn't sink in when one woman shows up with one camera to talk. So she felt very exposed. Overexposed.
Often in the movie she would be venting off steam about a problem or situation the way people do and say things off the top of their heads. It comes across as her desires ver batem or her secret plan. She felt disturbed about that.
-------
It was originally presented to me as a documentary essay on the phenomenon of the Caucasian male
/Asian female couplings that are so predominant on the West Coast.
After several months of filming it began to focus on my quest and finally my marriage.

But the final product appeared to be a vendetta on Debbie Lum's "ickyisms". Whatever gave Debbie the "cooties".

Five years of my life expressing total open honesty to an ever peering lens for the sake of art for a project that seemed worthy then to finally being reduced to a "creepy white guy" with no verbal filter. And in an interview later she stated I had a "creepy marriage".

Never in five years had I ever seen a "rush" of the movie. Never seeing how my story was being shaped or presented or exposed.
There were many many filming sessions.
There is much on the cutting room floor that I might have been far more proud of than the scenes that were selected. She shot a lot. She shot everything. She chose what she wanted to express her way of thinking.

But even in the honest scenes that were shown, the intention of statements I made seem twisted or manipulated to please the directors predilection.

My Chinese haircut comment in the beginning, for instance, was a surprise set up by the director who showed up for that days meeting with an extreme China doll haircut that she has never worn before or since.
It is not shown in the movie (even substituted with another later shot of herself with her normal haircut) but it was a provocative move to initiate my so-called creepy reaction.
I had reacted humorously to it, I thought, when she showed up with it that day, but was framed as looking ghoulishly creepy.

Being filmed was kind of an interesting part of my life, without really knowing what was going to come of it. I wanted to document what was happening myself with a few photographs. I am an avid photo shooter and take pictures of everything. But in the film it appears as if I was gawking at her all the time.
And in the end it was Debbie who asked me if I had any more pictures of her that I had taken. That she wanted to use them for the promotion.
Then later in interviews complaining that I made her feel uncomfortable because I took a total of a dozen pictures of her all while she was filming me for five years.
Someone might say that's ironic. Someone else might say that's hypocritical.

As far as her translations saving my marriage, in review I see many instances where she planted seeds of doubt that in the end might not have been very helpful at all

The cake ordering scene was another one where I asked an innocent question to the baker iabout the color of butter cream. Debbie, the skillful editor, has made it look as though I was making a racial comment.

The past year of the movie making its film festival circuit I've been reading comments and reviews from everywhere.
Some reviews have been kind and generous. Some reviews have been ridiculously wrong.
Almost all that have had opinions about me and my intentions and motivations but have never even talked to me nor asked me a question.
Settling on their opinions from anything Debbie might have told them in the film or about me in the interview.
And Debbie serves her self.

Another thing that shapes my character poorly as a creepy guy is the absence of a back story of my life, other than a few comments about being a twice divorced parking lot cashier.
Perhaps that is all one needed to have an opinion of me. But I was not always employed thusly. I had had a successful sales company for years.
I also owned a jewelry company with 20 plus employees and 40 sales people across the country.
That my disastrous second short-lived marriage left me devastated and emotionally drained for 10 years could have been a preliminary to my search for something new. A new way to approach a marriage.

In the end the obvious beauty of an Asian woman is only part of the attraction. The fallacy of the subservient woman had long ago left my thinking, but seemed perpetuated by comments in the film and in the reviews afterwards.
I was looking for a strong woman not a dishrag. I wanted a partner.
I had methodically searched for a long time in order to find the right chemistry with the right person.
My choice was pragmatic and practical.
I went to a source where they were also looking for me.
Yet some people complain that I should probably be bumping my head against the wall in my own country with my own race.
Ahhh! The Love Police! Isn't that great?
What two open minded individuals decide to arrange between themselves is not good enough for them.
No! It's wrong they say. I'm too old, she's too young I'm too white, she's too yellow.
ABCs are in particular severely judgmental. Often trying hard to intellectualize or pontificate on the base motives of other peoples emotions. So often with an air of superiority.

My personality tends to engage with people in an open almost flirty way.
I like to start discussions in a fun manner. Even at work I have an open amiable approach to almost every customer. A slightly teasing, open but friendly way to engage each person for the sixty seconds we have to interact. It makes my drudgery seem bearable and most customers seem to appreciate that a human is talking with them instead of someone reading the newspaper and looking the other way, or worse a machine.

The director seems to take my style as a personal affront. Or so she seems to state. If joking with someone who you have become to think is a friend is considered being hit upon, please don't take it personally. Not that interested, thanks.

Many misconceptions fade away with this film. Many seem to remain. Many arise anew.
While it does capture some truths, it does not show the entire truth.
In the end it is only Debbie Lum's view of our life and her version of our life.

I volunteered for this film (without pay) for the sake of Art. I gave it all the open honesty I could.
My paycheck? Insults.

As Dan Hicks said,
"Where's the Money?"

This is me. I am the guy. The Steven guy.

You know I find it odd that this movie is about me and my search for my wife and is so loaded with misconceptions that really never get cleared up.
"Yellow fever" Is not a term I use but have accepted lightheartedly.
But everyone commenting here has their own idea of my motivation and what they feel I should be doing or not be doing in my own life.
I mean, I volunteered for the movie to show that a regular guy can find a regular woman on the other side of the earth with the aid of the Internet.
That two people who can connect to each other and find they have chemistry is possible.
I did a thorough vetting search. I did not pick numbers of the shelf.
I talked to people who wanted to talk to me.
There are thousands who were looking for someone to respect them
And vice versa.

So I join this conversation here earlier with several paragraphs of my complaints about these perceptions.
Still no one addresses that for me or has a question for me.
Most all just talk past me with their own heavily opinionated and arrogantly expressed positions.
They have their own ideas of me and for me and for my life. Talk about misconceptions - wow!

I have heard from a few people who understood my comments about the Vietnamese film was sarcastic.
I really was NOT looking for a submissive wife.
Nobody else caught it. Even professional reviewers.

While many comment about me being a washed up white creep only proves my point that there is not much hope for me to search in my own country.
And how would one do that? Go to bars? Find somebody at work? Bump into someone on the street?
Give me a break.

If Norway had millions of women wanting to find a husband I might have considered that. Who would object to going with my own heritage.
Alas, this is not the case anyway.

The sheer largest volume of possible sources of educated, attractive, honest, earnest, available choices for mating rests in China.
They just happen to have a preponderance of beauty and charm as well.
The numbers were on my side.
The odds were in my favor.
It only makes sense to proceed in this pragmatic manner.

As I said earlier, once we connected online we spent nine months communicating every night for long hours with emails, texts, WebCam, photo exchanges long before We met in person. Then several lengthy meetings together in China to get to know each other very well.
A rather legitimate courtship I think.
So I really resent references to "mail order bride" and "arranged marriages"

We are two people with deliberate intentions meeting online for a common purpose.

As to the power differential some referred to, If my wife had been just the farm girl she began as I might accept that criticism. But she had gone to the city and worked her way up from factory worker to executive secretary with computer knowledge and a wonderful sense of style. And she has the most wonderful sense of humor.
She had a good job, she had a cool apartment of her own, and she had bought her parents a house and many appliances.
This is exactly the strong mate I was looking for. That she was young and beautiful was my good fortune.

We get along quite swimmingly. We have great chemistry.

What's your problem?"

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