I was pretty eager to sit down and watch “Seeking Asian Female“, Debbie Lam’s new documentary exploring ‘Yellow Fever’. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the whole Asian fetish thing, and, admittedly, a bit defensive about it — my wife is Asian and I’m Caucasian.
I suppose the thing that gets my back up is the hinted presumption that all white people with Asian partners are somehow suffering from a fetish. Of course this is as silly as the spouses of all well-endowed people having a big bits fetish, or all those with red-headed lovers having a twinge for the ginge. But only a few minutes into the film you’re left with little doubt that the film’s focus, Steven, is suffering from a quick-get-him-in-a-bath-of-ice fever.
The documentary introduces Steven with a voice over from Lam explaining how the genesis for the film came from the constant leering of men, like her subject, that have caught the Asian contagion and constantly hit on her because of her race. Steven helps this along by leering and hitting on her — and then awkwardly taking a wall-covering amount of photos of Lam filming him.
Twice divorced, the 60-year-old parking attendant first started looking east (as he lives in a San Francisco suburb, I guess technically it’s west) after his son married an Asian woman. Steven has had several Asian girlfriends, but his preference is for the Chinese. “China is just amazing right now. The vitality, the growth; there seems to be an endless supply of women over there,” he tells the camera with a chuckle, “… they’re all just so beautiful.”
After exploring Steven’s comprehensive collection of
mail order bride penpal books, and his shelves adorned with pictures of various women of the Asian persuasion; the documentary begins to follow his relationship with Sandy, a Chinese woman from Shenzhen who is about half his age.
The age difference between the two is not all that deeply explored in the film, which is a shame, as it certainly plays a huge part in the stereotype here in China. To say seeing an old white guy with a young Chinese in tow is commonplace would be an understatement. In expat communities across China, I doubt there is any greater stigma.
Instead, the documentary follows Steven and and Sandy’s relationship online at first, and then in more detail when Steven returns from a trip to China with Sandy on a 3-month fiancee visa. Sandy’s English is limited, and Steven’s Mandarin is virtually non-existent, so Lam is frequently left playing the translator between the two — a fact that has both audience and director alike begin to question her objectivity to the subjects.
We travel with Steven and Sandy as they traverse money problems, jealousy and a litany of cultural differences. We watch as Sandy’s wide-eyed excitement of being in America begins to fade and turn to apprehension, confusion and frustration. Through it all though she comes off as confident and pragmatic. Despite the documentary’s premise and setup, never do you feel that either Steven or Sandy are victims of any sort, and I think that’s the biggest take away from the film. They’re sometimes bumbling and sometimes flawed, but we all are, and while Steven’s initial weirdness is creepy, his relationship with Sandy is as normal as any other modern relationship.
For me, it strengthened my belief that relationships come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The moment we judge or criticize, and I’ve done both, presumed motivations (“He’s just in it to have a cute young thing on his arm.” / “She’s just in it for the money/Green Card.”) we admit our own ignorance towards why we do the things we do. Ultimately, Steven and Sandy may have a less than conventional relationship than some, but I was left feeling that despite their differences and the challenges unique to their relationship, they certainly didn’t seem any better or worse off than the rest of us.
“Seeking Asian Female” aired on PBS on May 6th. It can be viewed online (in some areas) here. If you’re in China, and unable to watch through PBS, or purchase the DVD, the film is circling the torrent sites as well.
Additionally, there’s a 5-part Web series related to the documentary called “They’re All So Beautiful” available on Youtube.