A few years ago, before I got married and I was still part of the dating scene, my then-boyfriend took me to an afternoon cookout sponsored by AQUA, D.C.'s gay Asian group. It was pleasant picnic, complete with hotdogs and volleyball. While everyone was serving themselves hamburgers and potato salad, an older white guy started to chat up one of the AQUA guys sitting near me. His opening line: "So, what country are you from?"
Not, "Hi, what's your name" or "Nice weather we're having" or even "Nice pants, where'd you get them?" I couldn't help but think that in his head he was hoping, Please be Thailand, please be Thailand.
It was an icky, though mercifully brief, moment -- I know the people who founded AQUA did so in part because they were tired of gay Asian groups being viewed as a place where gay white guys would go in search of exotic playthings. Can't say I blame 'em. It was also an icky moment for me, in that it was yet another instance where I'm mortified to actually be white, similar to how I'm mortified to be gay every time Perez Hilton opens his mouth.
I'm bringing this up now because of Jason Tseng's post a few weeks back at the main Bilerico site, where he riffs on his experiences dating rice queens:
Now, I have had my fair share of racially skewed relationships. In fact every substantial romantic relationship I've had has been with a rice queen. I had grown accustomed to questions asking where I'm from. Seeing their confused faces after I tell them "Washington D.C.", I have learned to always qualify this with "but my family is from China." I see their disappointment in learning that I don't speak my "native tongue," or that I have never been "back."
You'll note that it's taken me weeks to put something together with my thoughts on this. That's because I believe that, as a white writer, whenever I think, "I have an idea I'd like to share on race!" it behooves me to step back for a while before putting words to pixels.
So, as a bit more background, not long before that AQUA picnic, I was dating another guy, who happened to be white. That relationship didn't work out and, to be honest, I certainly could have handled the whole break-up a lot better. That's because as that relationship was winding down, I had started seeing the boyfriend who took me to the picnic. Although that relationship petered out as well, I soon after had the great good fortune to start dating the man who would become husband.
My husband also happens to be Vietnamese. After we had been dating for a while, I ran into my white ex-boyfriend in some social situation that required small talk and he joked that, "Now I know why we didn't work out, I'm not Asian."
As they say, "Ha ha, very fuckin' funny, motherfucker."
The term "rice queen" doesn't bother me insofar as it refers to me. It's not a particularly apt descriptor for me, but it's the kind of label where the more you struggle to disown it, the more you work yourself into a Gordian knot -- holding up past tricks and boyfriends of color as some sort of proof that you're a color-blind ambassador of racial harmony sounds even stupider than it reads.
What does bother me about it is that it reduces my husband, Cavin, to a physical characteristic, a fetishistic object of desire -- a dehumanizing reduction whether the person flinging the term "rice queen" is white or Asian (and both sling the term with regularity). It says nothing about the reasons I love him: his smile, his inherent goodness, his tendency to laugh at the slightest provocation. I also think he's hot, which all in all is a pretty great package to have in a husband.
Plus, I'm pretty sure he's not a potato queen, so I must have some redeemable qualities myself besides my Irish-German pallor.
I'm fully aware that there are plenty of white guys out there who harbor racist fantasies of exoticism in their pursuit of men of color. It's gross and it's inappropriate and I'm all for them being called out on it. Tseng is more than justified at recoiling from a lover who called him, in ridiculous sincerity, "[m]y perfect little geisha boy." While I can understand his decision to "go sticky rice," I hope that on some level we can all understand that broad brushes can't paint an accurate picture of anyone. We're not at a place yet where race doesn't complicate sexual and romantic attraction, but hopefully we are at a place where we can all try to mitigate the damage we do, intentional or not, to others.
(Postscript: In writing this, I'm struck by how much my experience is driven as a gay man. I really don't know how these same issues play out in lesbian relationships -- are the dynamics, the same, similar or vastly different? Anyone who has some thoughts on that, I'd love to hear them.)