The room—loud with music and reeking of beer—was bright enough for Holly Li (W ‘18) to realize that almost all of the mostly–white fraternity brothers had brought dates who were Asian. It was a little after midnight, and she had just arrived at the on–campus fraternity’s house after a date night. She noticed there was a similar concentration of Asian women at past fraternity functions—by her count at least a third of the dates were always Asian women. As her date left to join the crowd circling the beer pong tables, Holly sank into the upholstery of a dingy couch. One fraternity brother sat down next to her.
“Wow, this school really has an Asian fetish,” she remembers saying to him. He slung his arm around her and slurred, “Yeah, we do.”
Dating application data shows that men of all races—except Asian men—respond the most to Asian women on dating apps. On Pornhub’s top searched terms in 2017, hentai (anime and manga pornography) ranked second on the list, Japanese ranked eighth, and Asian ranked 14th. These statistics speak to a larger problem that writers and academics describe as “Asian fetishization”—a problem that Asian students at Penn say exists right on our campus.
According to Yale–NUS professor Robin Zheng, racial fetishism refers to “a person's exclusive or near–exclusive preference for sexual intimacy with others belonging to a specific racial outgroup.” Under this preference system, Asian people are lumped together into sexualized stereotypes, romanticized, and exoticized.
This idea of racial preferences for Asian women isn’t new. In fact, it can be traced to ideas of Eastern exoticism propagated by European explorers in the late Middle Ages. Historians say the issue became especially salient in America during the 19th century following years of Chinese immigration to the west coast of the U.S.
But even though the problem has existed for centuries, it is still difficult to pin down and identify. Too often, the differences between a romantic preference and a fetish just aren’t clear, leading one to ask: is that just their type? Or is it fetishization?
Modern cultural assumptions are “inseparable” from the United States’ long history with Asia, explains Asian American Studies professor Josephine Park. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed to restrict Chinese laborers from immigrating into the States, and the government specifically kept out Chinese wives by accusing them of being prostitutes. When the United States fought in Asia—the Pacific War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War— soldiers often took war brides. They joked that their R&R in Asian villages stood for “rape and restitution,” explained Park. These brides were viewed as docile and a better fit for motherhood, in contrast to the growing image of the bra–burning American white woman.
These residual stereotypes about Asian women still persist today, often falling into extreme binaries. Media agencies regularly reinforce this idea by depicting Asian women as either the “dragon lady”—like Lucy Liu’s cold dominatrix character in Charlie’s Angels—or the “China doll”—like the docile Asian woman Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly.
“How can you tell if someone has a fetish for Asian women?” Park contemplates. “I don’t know! It’s impossible to judge because of the cultural elements that determine desire. But it is important to interrogate it.”
At Penn, many Asian students say they can trace their first experiences with feeling objectified to their first year at Penn. During Emily’s* (E ‘19) freshman year, she was studying on her laptop in the Hill Library when she was approached by some male students who also lived in Hill, two of them white and one Asian. Mid–conversation, they told her that she was ranked on their list of “hottest Asian girls.” They phrased it as a compliment, and she took it as one at the time.
Now looking back on that interaction as a junior, Emily explains that “things like this are part of the reason I’ve distanced myself from people who are not members of the Asian community.”
Sarah Cho (C ‘17) also had a negative experience similar to Emily’s when she was an underclassman. One night, she was walking past the Blarney Stone bar from a pajama–themed mixer in a matching Hello Kitty pajama set when she noticed a group of white college students standing outside the bar. As she got closer, one of the male students walked towards her and shouted, “ching chong ling long.” Then, “love me, baby doll!” She flipped him off and told him to leave her alone, but he kept walking. He followed her down the length of the street and his friends did nothing to intervene.
Sarah feels that her experience with harassment was clearly motivated by her race. But racialized motives are often blurrier in romantic settings.
A former a member of Sigma Delta Tau sorority, Sarah also says she has received comments from fraternity members at mixers that range from the sober “where are you originally from?” to the unrestrained “I’ve always wanted to fuck an Asian girl.”
Sarah isn’t alone. Ashna Bhatia (W ’17) says boys in middle school wouldn’t reciprocate her feelings because they considered her “too Indian.” Then, upon coming to Penn, she noticed that boys suddenly became interested in her racial background.
“You come to college and it’s like, ‘teach me Kama Sutra,’” she says.
After comments like this, Ashna says she has a hard time trusting the intentions of the white men who flirt with her. She is wary to date them, and actively puts up a “protective layer.”
This racial dynamic exists in the queer community as well, students say.
“Asians are assumed to be submissive … so I know a lot of Asian men who are queer who make it a point to be the dominant one in relationships, especially when it’s a white partner,” says Luke (C ‘19), a student who identifies as a half–white, half–Asian man and requested his last name be omitted.
“You know, as a form of decolonization,” he laughs.
The prevalence of dating apps on campus can minimize the risk of face–to–face encounters, making it easier for people to be more explicit in their statements. Casually leaning across the table on a Friday in Hubbub, Anshuman (C ’19), who requested his last name be omitted, thumbs through screenshots of Grindr messages. “Sup my curry n***a,” one reads. “Flash me that exotic chocolate ass.” It’s accompanied by emojis of a monkey, a dark–skinned man wearing a turban, and a pile of poo.
Anshuman, a Mathematical Econ major from Tarrytown, New York who identifies as a gay Indian man, posted the pictures on a private Instagram with the caption: “Fetishization: A Saga.”
Some students have developed makeshift social tests to assess whether their potential suitors are fixated on their race. They’ve investigated dating history patterns through social media, or heard through others whether their partners are “creepy with Asian girls.”
Holly says dating history is often what raises alarms for her: “If I am the eighth Asian woman in four years, then I know.”
To other students, it’s not so obvious. “It’s not like they’re petting your hair and asking you to tell them about your parents’ immigration story,” Holly says.
Nick (C ’19), an architecture student from New York who identifies as a white, Jewish, heterosexual male, has had friends confront him about having a romantic preference for Asian women. Nick, who requested his last name be omitted, says he goes “back and forth between feeling weird about it.”
In class, he says he notices the racial breakdown of girls he’s attracted to and notes which are white and non–white.
“It’s not like it’s intentional; I feel like I happen to know a lot of Asian people,” he says. In fact, he believes that dating people based on race is “dehumanizing.”
“If I came to the conclusion that I was fetishizing Asian girls,” he ponders, “then what? How would I respond to that? It’s a very complex question.”
Ben (C ’18), a member of an off–campus fraternity at Penn who requested that his last name be omitted, says the notion of dating women from other ethnicities was “definitely appealing” to him when he came to Penn because it was “something new.”
Ben who identifies as a white, Jewish, heterosexual male, grew up in a mostly white neighborhood in Naples, Florida, where he didn’t know many non–white women. He says that he’s seen “really bad cases of yellow fever” on campus, but adds that it’s not just his fraternity—it’s a more pervasive “Penn thing.”
Speaking about his preference for non–white women, Ben adds, “I’m kind of over it now, but it was definitely something I looked for.”
Ben adds that he doesn’t see the harm in having a preference for Asian girls, and that he knows of friends who explicitly search for Asian women at fraternity events. He’s even heard friends joking about going to downtowns hosted by Sigma Psi Zeta, a multicultural, Asian–interest Greek sorority, in order to meet Asian women.
“I think other people can be offended by it, but I think that’s stupid,” Ben said. “People are just so sensitive here. It’s the PC thing. Like, if I were to say I want to go to a Sigma downtown to hook up with Asians, that’s offensive, you know?”
Cindy Fan (W ‘19), the president of Sigma Psi Zeta, found the idea that Penn men would go to her events only to flirt with Asian girls “quite disheartening,” as the events are meant to be empowering for women.
“The goal of our downtowns have been and will continue to be to create a safe avenue for all students to have fun and socialize,” she said in an emailed statement.
Andro Mathewson (C ‘18), who identifies as a white, heterosexual male, acknowledges that he has predominantly hooked up with Asian women, adding that “very few men” would admit the same. As a DJ, he says he likes Asian American girls because “they’re usually from California and like electronic music.” He thinks they’re more open and mature than white American girls.
“I’ve hooked up predominantly with Asian girls. Many guys would not say that because I know that many people will attack me for having yellow fever myself,” Andro says.
Being mixed–race can lead to its own form of fetishization. Luke believes this is because people are searching for “a more palatable version” of difference. Being half–Asian and half–white, he says he feels as if people come after him specifically because his appearance is slightly more white.
Although this does not affect every Asian person, students say Eurocentric beauty standards are pervasive within the Penn community. Even Asian culture itself seems to place a “premium on whiteness,” Holly says.
“In my East Asian experience, some families socialize you to think that dating a white guy is usually a good thing,” Holly says. “It’s an aspect of the American dream... It’s this idea of social mobility by marrying into the majority, assimilating through romance.”
For some, even being mistaken as mixed–race feels validating. “If you’re mixed, you’re expected to be prettier. I don’t know why that is, but when I was younger and people would say I was half–something, I would take that as a compliment,” Grace Lee (C ‘19) says.
Unintentional or uncultured jabs about Asian culture haven’t stopped students like Hana Yen (EW ’19) from enjoying it. “I love being Asian,” she laughs. She takes pride in her Chinese culture, speaks Mandarin Chinese, and feels that her ethnicity makes her a more empathetic person.
But at the same time, Hana also acknowledges that she’s often felt characterized as a “small, Asian girl,” and that size has to do with the stereotype of the small, submissive Asian. She, like many others, has been called “pretty for an Asian girl.”
A freshman year friend told her that he’d never been attracted to Asian girls before coming to Penn, but now she was one of the few Asian girls he was interested in. Hana says she’s confused by men who develop this preference in college, but doesn’t think it’s her job to decode their attraction:
“It’s not something you’ve done, it’s something the other person sees.” She pauses. “Your race should not dictate how sexualized you are.”
Ed. note: This article has been updated to remove Emily's last name.
Ariana McGinn is a junior from Manhattan, New York. She is studying English.
Angela Huang is a junior from Diamond Bar, California. She is studying Marketing & Operations Management. She is 34th Street’s Audience Engagement Director.