Caught That Yellow Fever. Not!

When he lived in the Middle East, my dad used to work for an international company managing global ship repair projects. He spent a considerable amount of the latter part of his career studying and working with the Japanese shipping industry, building a slow and steady relationship with them and eventually winning them over as clients. When my dad resigned years later, as a courtesy, he flew to Japan one last time.

“Because it is my final business trip, the company is fine with me taking a family member along,” my dad told my mum and I in the living room after he had come back home from the office.

“I’LL GO!,” I hollered before my mum had a chance to speak.

That week I spent in Tokyo sealed my fate. Upon returning, I got a call from an ad agency I had interned with in Melbourne, asking me to join them full-time. I flew back to Australia and found an electric blue and pink desktop background of Shinjuku, which I gazed at with adoration every day at work—a pact to myself to save up my salary as best I could and head to Tokyo again in a year.

In those 12 months that I was diligently saving, I was also researching. Being from an advertising background, I can see now that it was Japan’s pop culture that I was instinctively drawn towards: I lost myself entirely watching anime, Japanese sitcoms and movies whenever I fell into the rabbit hole of preparing for my trip. Bleach, Miyazaki, Samurai Champloo, Nujabes—all names that are still like round honey toffees on my tongue.

I loved the solid, deep sounds of spoken Japanese and enjoyed the male version of the language most, which has much more attitude and a lot more sounds to play with—like the ze’s, the yo’s and the zo’s, or the lazy way they finished some words with the aa’s in a way female characters rarely did. My fascination with the words opened me up to look at Japanese men in a way I hadn’t before. I started to like some of the high cheek-bones I saw, and how thick, dark and well-cut their hair could be. In Melbourne city, where good fashion is well-practiced, it was easy to take my greedy eyes to the streets, where I had my pick of good-looking men from East Asian countries in suits, well-cut jeans, baseball jackets, sharp sneakers, you name it.

I started to share my new observations with friends and family and didn’t expect the response I received: “HAH! You’ve got YELLOW FEVER.” It happened so often and each time it caught me off-balance in a way that I didn’t have a chance to really stop and think about what was being said. All I knew was that there was something funny about me finding these men attractive and it wasn’t funny in a good way. Not fully understanding my own feelings just yet, I clamped down in embarrassment and kept my new found interest firmly to myself.

I moved to Tokyo and lived there for two years. When I moved back to Melbourne, it was with a TCK boyfriend who was ethnically Korean. Reuniting with my girlfriends and chatting once again about life, love, sex and dating in the time I had been away, the rhetoric hadn’t changed: “They’re not even like real men, Ava! They’re all hairless under their shirts. Come on! It’s gross!” I remember zipping my lips shut right after my mate yipped that particularly distasteful ‘observation’ at me, feeling confused, smaller and not at all two years wiser since I’d last had a conversation like this. Was there really something that wrong with my sexual preferences?

After getting used to hearing the ‘yellow fever’ and ‘Asian fetish jokes’ from my peers repeatedly, I was able to look more directly at the discomfort their comments were causing me. I realised I was embarrassed about being accused of having such a specific ‘type’. I didn’t want to be associated with such a wildly narrow way to look at the world and the people in it. As a proud TCK who considered herself open-minded, I started to worry that I might have overlooked a massive flaw in my perspective.

I was also ashamed of the vivid memories the words ‘Asian fetish’ brought to mind fresh after living in Tokyo. Over there, my female Japanese peers were fetishised and objectified by men daily—when men regularly read porn on crowded trains on the commutes home, or when it was common to film up skirts at train stations with their phones. Like my girlfriends, I learned to pull my dresses tight against the back of my thighs when I was walking up staircases, and to glaze over the call-girl classifieds that hung as ads off the ceiling of subway carriages as I zoomed to work in the morning. Those were my experiences of what an Asian fetish was and I didn’t want to appear like I had those kinds of feelings towards anyone. This was something my friends couldn’t have known but it was mortifying to me.

I kept quiet for a fair while after that and might have buried my thoughts entirely if the dialogue in the media hadn’t started to change. Content creators like BuzzFeed and online journals like The Huffington Post started real conversations about East Asian stereotypes and how ridiculous all of us were for following them. I found it was very easy to agree with their arguments. Why do we assume East Asian men are one-dimensional nerds, doctors, scientists or kung fu instructors when some of them actually are phenomenally delicious?

More videos and articles appeared online asking ‘Why the hell can’t we recognise that East Asian men are attractive?!’ TCK Comedian Ally Wong is even (hilariously) quoted saying: “Asian men are the sexiest, they have no body hair from the neck down. It’s like making love to a dolphin.” And even better: “Asian men have no body odour. None. They just smell like responsibility.” I found that my (now ex) friends had fallen into the same trap a lot of these articles were posting about—they only saw the world through bad stereotypes.

With a little more self-reflection, I was relieved to uncover that I don’t actually have a racial type at all. I took solace in my numbers—I’ve dated evenly across the race spectrum without any prior awareness that that’s what I was doing. And during both my stays in Japan, I didn’t remember anything about the men. I was too busy fondling the street art, cool ceramics, new sakura, and dusty local temples.

With the gift of hindsight I can see now that I wasn’t weird or narrow-minded. My mates were being racist. I can also understand why crowing “yellow-feverrr” was an appropriate response to them (though still, unforgivable)—I was probably one of the few people they knew who was smitten with Harry Shum Jr. or stared through my lashes at the bartender in that Korean restaurant we were at. Of course they would call something out that was out of the ordinary back then, not that it was ever okay to do so. Slapping a label on it would have made them feel more comfortable, even though it was unfair on me.

Even though “I have the right to see fine in any colour”, I am glad that the conversation is changing about men from East Asian countries. I know if anyone were to ever make a yellow fever joke now, they would be more likely to get shut down swiftly in a way that wouldn’t have happened before. Mostly though, I am very, very satisfied that I was so right when my lame, old friends were