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The dynamics of dating as an Asian American woman

Concurrent racial and gender identities create a complex web of dynamics for Asian American women romantically interested in men.

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Since she was young, Natalie Song always grew up thinking that she would settle down with an Asian man.

“I think I would be open to [dating someone who is a different race], … but at the end of the day, I think I will [still] end up with someone who’s Asian,’” Song, a Korean American woman, said.

Now 21 years old, all the men she has dated have been Asian, including her current Vietnamese American boyfriend, Andy Huynh.

Just like many other Asian American women romantically interested in men, the intersection of Song’s concurrent racial and gender identities largely impacted Song’s choices in her dating life. Effects may look different across Asian ethnicities, yet certain cultural aspects lead to shared struggles. In particular, some Asian cultures’ emphasis on respecting one’s family and elders, when coupled with some Asian American women’s individual need to navigate their own personal identity in relation to their place of upbringing and their portrayal in popular media, creates a complex web of dynamics as they enter the dating world.

For Song, the pressure she feels to date an Asian man has both external and internal roots. Her upbringing in numerous cities around the world introduced her to populations both abundant and lacking in Asian presence.

“I always thought, ‘Oh, I just naturally like Asians more,’ but I never considered that maybe it’s the environment shaping me into thinking that … you belong with your own kind,” Song said.

Her parents never outrightly told her that they wanted her to date an Asian man. Still, she “always thought about it” after overhearing her mother express sadness that her daughters would probably end up marrying white men upon moving from Southern California to Colorado when Song was five years old.

“[My mom] has never told me explicitly, ‘You cannot date outside your race,’ but it’s always been a factor for me, thinking about the cohesiveness of the relationship with my family,” Song said.

Filial piety, or an attitude of respect toward one’s parents and ancestors, is a widely adopted and respected standard of Asian culture. Stemming from this concept, the emphasis that Asian American women place on gaining familial approval of their significant other is a large factor in determining their dating choices.

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For Tiffany Mankarios, who is half Egyptian and half Japanese, this idea is one that has deeply impacted her dating life, even since her first relationship.

“In high school, I was a cheerleader. There was this football player that I was kind of interested in, and he was African American,” Mankarios, 22, said. “My parents were very upset. They grounded me, and they took every single resource that I could use to communicate with this individual or see this individual [away]. … It was very traumatizing for me, seeing how my parents were talking about this African American person and treating me as though I wasn’t important because of my preference and dating choice.”

Since this experience about five years ago, Mankarios hasn’t dated anyone. Now a graduate student, she said she “was a little bit more open to dating,” but that she would now only consider dating a white man, due in part to her parents’ own differing cultural backgrounds.

“If I were to marry a white person, it wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh my god, what is this brand-new culture?’” Mankarios said. “My parents, they’re both from their original country, so their relationship ending wasn’t so surprising because they’re culturally so different. The fundamentals of their culture are just opposite.”

Two people, a man and a woman, posing next to a beach.

However, for Megan Tsern, her family’s opinion of her white boyfriend’s race wasn’t a large deciding factor for her when entering her current relationship.

“All of the aunts and uncles who I’m related to by blood have married white people,” Tsern, who is half Chinese and half Taiwanese, said. “My parents are very used to [Asians dating white people].”

Despite this, Tsern, 21, said that the cultural differences between herself and her boyfriend, Max Lee, are obvious.

“It’s noticeable that Max and I come from very different places. [My parents] make jokes about it sometimes, and I’ll make jokes about it sometimes. It’s definitely there, but it’s not necessarily something that they’re super concerned about,” she said.

Two people, a man and a woman, posing on a rooftop. The man is white and the woman is Asian.

For Tsern, a larger factor to consider as she began dating was internal, as she grappled with her desirability in relation to her race. Tsern grew up in the Bay Area, which she said was predominantly white and Asian. The racial makeup of her hometown made those two races her “type by default,” with her one boyfriend in high school being of Asian descent.

“I definitely had crushes on white guys before … but the thing is, I never really felt like I could ever date them, just because they were either a little — for stupid high school reasons — ‘out of my league,’ or I just never had the courage to talk to them,” she said. “I think it definitely impacted me in a time where I was trying to grow into myself and figure out literally anything about dating, because I never really felt very desirable, ever.”

This sentiment is not one felt solely by Tsern. Song said that growing up in Colorado, she “never considered” that a non-Asian guy would like her.

“The only person that I thought was a viable candidate for me was the other Asian kid in the school,” Song said. “It’s not so much like, ‘Oh, I’m worried that [white guys] are not going to like me,’ but [more like] we don’t fit.”

An Asian man and an Asian woman posing together in front of a cake. The man is holding a large frog plushie.

The environments in which Asian American women are raised have a profound impact on the way they view themselves, and in turn, the way they portray themselves as they develop — and eventually, when they enter the dating world.

However, this concept is two-fold, as the external influences on Asian American women are not limited just to their tangible environments, but also the portrayals of other Asian women in popular media. This fetishization, including but not limited to the depiction of Asian women as exotic, submissive and sexual, also holds considerable weight in affecting the ways Asian American women view themselves and their desirability in terms of how they move forward in their dating lives.

“I felt like if I wasn’t embracing Asian fetishization, I was not going to be loved or wanted or desirable,” Tsern said.

Tsern also considered the idea of needing to sort herself into one of a few Asian girl stereotypes, ranging from the innocent nerd to the “ABG,” or Asian baby girl – stereotypes that don’t necessarily exist for white girls.

“Because I was pretty social [in high school], people were like, ‘Oh, you’re on track to become an ABG.’ In college, someone would get a pair of falsies and be like ‘You want them?’ and I [would be] like, ‘No, you are not going to put those on me,’” she said. “I really want to reject that, because I don’t want to feel like I’m boxed into that, but no one assumes that stuff when white girls dye their hair or when white girls put on falsies … people just aren’t used to Asian people being people.”

For Mankarios, her Egyptian-Japanese dual heritage ensured that she never explicitly fit these typical Asian girl stereotypes. However, this didn’t immunize her from being fetishized physically.

“Somebody whose first impression of me is ‘Wow, you have a really nice ass,’ is just not for me,” she said. “There has to be more than that, because there’s so much more to me than that. There’s so much more to me than just having a nice body or having slanted eyes or curly hair … there’re way more things that equate Tiffany.”

Understanding the commonality of Asian fetishization demonstrates the ways in which Asian American women are viewed by non-Asian men as Asian entities before being viewed as individuals. For Tsern, this realization came while she was casually dating around during her first year of college.

“It was evident that my Asianness was at the forefront of their minds, and they were treating me as an Asian woman, not necessarily as a person,” Tsern said of the people she dated before meeting Lee. “Max treated me as a person first. I think he just so genuinely appreciated who I was, and I really, really liked that because I felt like that was really rare for me to find freshman year.”

A man and a woman posing on a round hanging chair. The woman is kissing the man's cheek.

However, despite the genuineness Tsern felt upon entering her current relationship, she said she sometimes still feels insecure, and hears her “high schooler voice in her mind,” asking herself, “Why me of all people?”

“[Lee] had never dated anyone of color before, and there were feelings of insecurity that came up,” she said. “He’s been really, really patient and done a really good job of listening and working through things with me. I’ve been trying to also be very patient and educate him about what it’s like [to date a person of color].”

Individually, Tsern said she feels that she is fighting an “uphill battle” to prove that she is her own person outside of her relationship.

“Unfortunately, when most people see a white man and an Asian girl dating, they’re going to make some assumptions based on so much history. [They think] that this white man has plucked this Asian girl from the fields of rice to be his little wife, and I am certainly not that,” she said. “I unfortunately feel like I have to constantly be fighting off that feeling that I am an accessory to him.”

Is there a way to untangle the web created by these intertwined factors? With so many issues at play – family dynamics, portrayals in media, locations of upbringing and internal dialogues on self-worth – maybe there is no single or correct way to navigate the already complex world of dating as an Asian American woman who is interested in men.

Perhaps all we can do is cling to this cultural identity and share it with those around us, whether they relate to it or not. We can work to change the narrative surrounding Asian women in media and humanize these characters, in turn humanizing ourselves.

If we choose to embrace the intersecting identities we are given as Asian American women and to find people who wholeheartedly embrace and love us for it, perhaps we are one step closer to finding contentment and satisfaction.