The Myth Of The Rice King
Why does Vancouver have far more white male-Asian female couples than vice-versa? The reasons are many and complex, and sometimes surprising
Saturday, February 14, 2004
Three Asian-Canadian women were in Whistler's Village Square one day in 1987 and noticed a couple of young Caucasian men eying them. The trio quickly identified them as "rice kings" -- white men with a thing for Asian women. They decided to play a practical joke.
As one of the men came over, the women pretended to be Japanese tourists. "Konichiwa," he said, stretching out the last syllable and bowing ever so slightly.
Each woman held a hand up to her mouth and giggled at the hackneyed Japanese greeting. They kept it up as the guy tried cross-cultural pick-up lines such as, "What is your name?" and "You come dancing?"
Two of the women, who spoke some Japanese, made it more convincing by whispering some words in each other's ears. The charade lasted for a few minutes before the women burst out laughing and told the guys off in their more habitual east-side English.
Fortunately for me, there is a epilogue to this story more apropos of Valentine's Day. One of the women, Karen Soo, is today my wife. But as a Caucasian man married to a woman of east Asian extraction, I have heard many more anecdotes and pointed jokes over the years about the mythical rice king.
The name descends (as do so many of our buzzwords these days) from gay slang, a "rice queen" being a gay white man with a thing for Asian men.
If anything the rice king has an even worse rep. He's the leering creep who takes commerce courses at UBC just to meet Asian women. He trolls the nightclubs with the Shonen Knife CDs in his car and an all-Asian porn stash in the closet.
At best he connotes paper lanterns in the living room, anime books about schoolgirl heroines and The Pillow Book on DVD.
At worst he brings to mind mail-order brides and German sex tours to Pattaya's beachfront strip.
No doubt the rice king does exist -- just about any single Asian female in this city will attest to that -- but I'm not sure he's the ubiquitous social phenomenon he's made out to be. I say this in part because I had never dated an Asian woman before I met Karen and in conversation with other male halves of biracial couples, I discovered I was not alone.
So how do you explain the fact that this city -- indeed any North American city with a big Asian presence -- contains a lot more white male-Asian female couples than Asian male-white female?
It's a question that flares up in Internet chat rooms from time to time, especially in the U.S., where matters of race take on a decidedly sharper edge. Words like feminism, social status, self-esteem and otherness get bandied about and hung out to dry.
The 2000 U.S. census indicated there were 2.5 times as many Asian women as men married to white spouses, and Larry Shinagawa, a professor at Ithaca College in New York state, says the pattern is similar in most English-speaking countries. In fact the ratio tends to widen wherever the Asian population is the largest and most established. In 1990 Shinagawa studied marriage records in San Francisco and found that Asian women married partners of European extraction at four times the rate Asian men did. In Sacramento, the ratio was 8:1.
'THE EROTIZATION OF RACE'
Statistics Canada does not publish comparable statistics, but just check out the late-night sushi joints or the prenatal classes at Women's Hospital. White male/Asian female couples appear to outnumber all other interracial pairings combined.
In his book An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future, the apocalyptic social critic Robert Kaplan repeatedly remarked on the preponderance of WM/AF couples in Vancouver (a city he considered a model for Americans). Vancouverites, he wrote, were succumbing to "the erotization of race."
But while Kaplan blithely put it down to what is often called "yellow fever" on the part of white men, he furnished no evidence to support this assumption.
My own experience suggested something different. Whereas Karen was my first Asian girlfriend, I was not her first white boyfriend. In fact with just one exception, her dating history was exclusively with Caucasians.
This too, I discovered, was not uncommon among Canadian-born women of Asian descent. And it couldn't just be explained in relative numbers; it's not as if there was any shortage of Chinese boys at John Oliver Secondary School or the University of B.C. back in the 1980s and early '90s.
I have come to believe that, consciously or otherwise, it's the Asian women who more commonly gravitate toward white men.
A quick perusal of the personal ads in a local community newspaper seems to support my contention. While only one of 46 SWMs professed to be seeking an AF (most of the men did not appear too picky, or even require that the respondent be single), four of the six self-described SAFs were looking
specifically for a SWM.
If anything our city is not filled with rice kings so much as Asian women who are inclined to date white men -- Wonderbread queens, if you will. (Asian-American college students sometimes use more deprecating terms, such as "twinkies" or "sellouts.")
Based on what I was hearing from the mostly university-educated, Asian-Canadian career women in my life, I developed my own pet theory as to why they are so inclined.
It's not because Asian women consider white men any more attractive -- though, as with everything else, there's faction out there that blames Hollywood for warping our sensibilities -- but because they represent a kind of rebellion (dare I say liberation?) for young Asian women.
To many, a white boyfriend represents someone who (usually) moves out of home once he's finished school, someone who (possibly) knows how to cook and do his own laundry, someone with (probably) more liberal views of sexual roles than the Asian boys their parents foist on them. He means fewer family expectations. He means never having a mother-in-law who bosses you around.
That may have something to do with it, agrees Mark Simon, the former publisher of the Asian-Canadian youth magazine Banana, which was preparing a feature story on interracial relationships when it folded last summer.
(The story was one of the most contentious the magazine had ever undertaken. Everybody had strong opinions on it, Simon remembers. "Some people thought it was more of a status thing. Other people thought it was more of a love thing. Those were the main dichotomies," he says.)
Simon, the son of a French-Filipino father and a Chinese-Vietnamese mother, has his own explanation of why Eurasian couples are so strongly skewed toward Asian women and white men.
Asian men face much stronger pressure than women to maintain the family's heritage and traditions, he says. Immigrant parents who, however reluctantly, accept their daughters' Caucasian boyfriends are not so liberal with their sons.
Simon recalls a time he brought a white girlfriend to his widowed mother's birthday party. Simon mere was mortified when the young woman wore a sundress and sandals.
"My mom says, 'How can she wear that? She has no respect for me. What kind of class is she going to bring to this family?' And I say, 'Whoa, it's just a date, Mom,'" he recounts.
Respect for parents is not foreign to Western society, of course -- it's in the 10 Commandments, after all -- but respect means different things in different cultures. In Western society, it's enough to proverbially make your parents proud. Asian parents expect children to give them attention and make them feel important, Simon says.
Historically, more practical reasons for the male-female disparity came into play.
Audrey Kobayashi, a professor of geography at Queen's University, has studied Japanese-Canadians, who have some of the highest rates of "outmarriage" (marriage outside their ethnic community) in Canada, at least partly because of their geographic dispersal and the dismantling of social institutions during their internment in the 1940s. Canadian-born Japanese today outmarry at a rate upwards of 95 per cent, Kobayashi says, and that includes men. It was a different story for their immigrant parents, however.
"Looking at Japanese immigrants, more than half of women are married to someone of another ethnicity, but the rate is quite low for men," she says. Kobayashi accounts for the disparity in the fact that the men tended to arrive in Canada already married, whereas the women were more often single.
'WHOLENESS OF BEING'
To Shinagawa, the director of the Centre for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, the preponderance of WM/AF couples is the symptom of an unconscious hierarchy of sex, race and class peculiar to North America, with its entrenched white majority and spectrum of less established visible minorities.
What's happening in North America today is different from the Asian war-bride phenomenon of the last 50 years, where American servicemen -- typically from a rural or working-class background -- married middle-class, English-speaking women they met in their postings across the Pacific, he argues.
The newer pattern shows college-educated, Asian-American women choosing white men who may not have distinguished themselves personally but who come from middle- to upper-class backgrounds.
Their choice, Shinagawa contends, is not about money; it's about maximizing their "wholeness of being."
"Asian males have been fairly economically successful, but they've been limited in terms of their pursuits," he says. In popular imagery and, to a lesser degree, in reality, they are relegated to careers in technology, finance and ethnic business. They are not seen as artists, academics or political leaders.
"In the politics of desire you're looking for somebody who has the opportunity to fulfill your aspirations [of transcending your social orbit]," Shinagawa says.
In other words, chicks dig the poet, and in the minds of many Asian-American and Canadian women, white men fit the profile. Shinagawa holds out hope that dating and marriage patterns will change as Asian Americans -- especially in their Californian heartland -- gain further economic power and diversify into a broader range of occupations. But the stereotypes depicted in television and other popular culture must change too, he says.
Implicit in Shinagawa's argument is a strain of social Darwinism -- that our choice of mate has less to do with love and more to do with our desire to advance ours and our progeny's social status.
An even more discomfiting theory, articulated by right-wing pundit Steve Sailer in The National Review ("Is Love Colorblind," 1997) and influenced by the research of controversial University of Western Ontario professor Philippe Rushton, holds that Asians are perceived to embody traits
considered desirable in women -- such as short stature -- while African-Americans more commonly display "masculine" traits, such as above-average height.
(Caucasians lie in the middle on this scale, which Sailer concedes is conditioned by popular culture.) That would explain not only the relative abundance of white male-Asian female couples, but also the skew toward black male-white female marriages recorded in the U.S. census.
There are still more theories to be found in academic journals, books and articles that focus on factors, real or imagined, from Asian women's relative fluency in English to the legacy of European colonialism. One theory holds that traditional Asian politeness and timidity works against Asian males in a Western society, where they must make their own romantic introductions, but then I've had numerous Asian-Canadian buddies who were way smoother operators at a bar or college kegger than I could ever hope to be.
It's at this point you have to remind yourself that academics and intellectuals are in the business of concocting theories and convincing people that they apply, and that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Simon, who these days is working to establish an Asian-style night market in Burnaby, agrees that the phenomenon can be over-analysed.
"An interracial relationship is just like any other relationship. People have their opinion about the motives but ultimately it's between two people. Whatever's important in their lives is the important thing," he says. "I think if anyone -- just like in any relationship -- has something to say about it they're just jealous."
Either way, I think I can safely renounce my and thousands of my WM colleagues' claim to the title of rice king.
Asian Voices from Internet forums at Yolk.com and ModelMinority.com
"I have enough problems trying to find a Korean woman without everybody else stealing the womenfolk! I don't go after their women, why do they have to abduct my people?"
-DJ Kyoppo, an asian-american male from colorado
"I have two sisters who tend to date white guys but it doesn't mean they're not attracted to Asian guys. When I ask them why they do so they suggested to me that they don't want to get stuck with a traditional Asian man with traditional family morals .They are scared to think that they will be stuck at home taking care of the children instead of having the freedom to pursue a career."
-Sleepless, another self-described asian-american male
"Sure you guys get pissed when seeing a AF/WM couple; I sure as hell do. But you got to realize if these Afs are basing a relationship on race then they have already doomed their relationships. Let them suffer the torment of their self-hate."
Abolutmps, asian american female
"I hate to say this, but it could also be that not many of us Asian guys take a liking to dating/marrying out of our race, and some of the few that entertain the idea might be discouraged by the stereotyping and emasculation. Not to brag, but have you noticed that most of the AMs you see with WFs and LFs are exceptionally tall and handsome? That is very telling."
"AF/WM couples aren't the problem. They are the reflection of the problem Asian Americans face. Once we start gaining power (media, politics) Things would start to change.
"It's cool to date whomever you want to .But make sure he respects you as a person and is aware of your identity. Make sure he doesn't have some sick, pyscho-sexual agenda too. If he asks if you have a pillow book [an erotic journal] kept by women in Japan],calls you 'exotic,' uses the word 'Oriental,' whatever, beware."
"An interracial relationship is just like any other relationship. People have their opinion about the motives but ultimately it's between two people."
-Mark Simon, the former publisher of the Asian-Canadian youth magazine, Banana
Inset Article: Hollywood's Version. A Dearth of sexy AM stars
Are the differing depictions of East Asian men and women in movies and television a cause or a symptom of the imbalance in interracial romance? As with the role of TV violence, nobody has been able to say for sure.
But countless magazine articles and graduate theses have pointed out, Hollywood treats Asian characters differently, depending on whether they are men or women.
While Asian women can and increasing do play love interests for white male leads - Tom Cruise and Koyuki in The Last Samaurai being only the latest big budget example - Asian men seldom show a sexual side, to white female characters or anybody else.
From the James Bond franchise to Snow Falling on Cedars, it's the white start (Pierce Brosnan, Ethan Hawke) who gets the Asian girl (Michelle Yeoh, Yuoki Kudoh). The same goes for TV, where Asian girlfriends have crept into the lives of white male regulars in Friends, ER, and Ally McBeal.
By contrast, Asian male stars such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li somehow go through entire films showcasing their talents in martial arts or comedy without falling to Cupid's arrows. Despite showing rarely seen depths for an Asian leading man in Anna and the King and The Replacement Killers, Chow Yun Fat never actually gets it on with his white female co-star.
Even Joy Luck Club, both as a novel and a film considered breakthrough for Asian-American culture, depicts Caucasian husbands, flawed but ultimately loving, in contrast to the cold selfish Asian husband material.
It should be noted that the pool of pop-culture artifacts that admit to the existence of interracial relationships is a shallow one. Mainstream movies, television, and advertising have always tiptoed around interracial romance, to the point where interracial couples are under-represented generally in pop-culture, relative to their presence in the general population.
While that whitewash is showing signs of fading, we may have a longer wait before Hollywood serves up a sexy Asian male star.