It rained three days out of seven in Punta Cana during the week of December 21, 2016. Light rain, just on and off, so it wasn’t really uncomfortable. But it was rain nonetheless, which meant I spent a lot of time inside or on the balcony under umbrellas, alone.
Listening to music. Going on Grindr. I had re-downloaded the app before my family left for vacation, and I kept noticing a certain profile nearby. It was blank, of course. No photo, no nothing, just his height — 6’3” — and a brief bio that said “Russian Model.”
He was probably lying, but I wanted to believe that he was telling the truth, because there weren’t many guys around. He seemed somewhat less sketchy than the rest. I decided to message him.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
Three minutes later, his response.
“Not into Asians”
I was huddled under a small archway by one of the resort’s pools, waiting for the rain to pass, when I got this text. Three short words, no period. Hastily typed, probably. Written without a second thought, definitely.
In my head, I could almost picture him responding, sunglasses on, lying on the beach, the sun turning his skin darker against that blue sky. He was one kilometre away, and yet the distance felt much greater.
I wondered for a while if I should say something. I wanted to be composed, wanted to compose, but the words didn’t come. There was a thin boundary between me and what needed to be said, a boundary I didn’t know how to cross — because I felt guilty. What should I have been more ashamed of? My skin colour or my reaction?
In 2012, I would have told you the answer was my skin colour. I was living in Calgary at the time, and I had been there for two years, training at the School of Alberta Ballet. That was the year when I started to bleach my skin. I dissolved tomatoes in milk overnight, coating myself in the mixture and sleeping in it. I rubbed lemons on my face and body. I used a papaya-based whitening soap that I had bought online from the Philippines for $24 plus shipping. Every night, like clockwork, in the dimly lit bathroom of my Mt. Royal dorm.
My roommates knew, of course. Naturally, they were worried. But I did it because I was hard-headed, because I was motivated. Motivated to look whiter. I had an agent for commercials and film, and whenever she’d send me on a call, the role in question had to be ‘open ethnicity.’
I was too chinky to audition for ‘white’ roles and too white to audition for ‘Asian’ roles. But I also performed these whitening rituals because I thought it would make people think I was prettier.
So many of the celebrities I admired growing up were white, and so many of the celebrities that are popular now are white. My roommate was white too, and everyone thought he was pretty. Looking at him was like drinking a tall, cool glass of water. It was easy, in my mind, to associate whiteness with prettiness. I wanted people to look at me the way they looked at him.
At the end of June, I graduated and moved back to Ontario. I felt like shit the whole journey back, because I realized I had to stop. I couldn’t let my parents find out. It would break their hearts — my mom’s especially. She’d think I was ashamed of her, but I wasn’t ashamed. I wanted change, which was different. Or at least that’s what I told myself.
So I stayed inside and avoided the sun. When I did go outside, it would only be after applying SPF 60. “To be safe,” I told people.
Looking back, I realize how stupid it all was. Skin is skin. And perhaps I had known this even then. But I’d done it anyway, because I was anxious; I felt and still feel different.
I think this is why the Grindr guy’s message bothered me so much. In three words, he had said aloud what so many people do, silently, when I send a ‘Hello,’ only to get no message in reply. ‘Not my type.’ But why?
There is no one answer. Types are preferences: they are personal, and everyone has one. This is fact. Types can be based on physical impressions, looks and smells, though sometimes they have sentimental significance, like, ‘you listen fully and with your eyes, and I like the way that makes me feel.’
I know that this is what matters nowadays, though perhaps it has always mattered this much. How we date has evolved — we have apps for it now. When you swipe through Tinder or scroll through Grindr, you make an immediate choice to interact with someone based on how they appear to you. Do you like the colour of their eyes? Do you like the cut of their hair? And what’s less talked about, but just as prevalent: do you like the colour of their skin?
I can’t speak for ethno-prejudicial trends in the heterosexual dating sphere. I can, however, speak with experience about the gay dating sphere, which is markedly Eurocentric. Gay men like white boys.
There’s this essay by Michael Hobbes, “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness,” which devotes a few paragraphs to this topic. Hobbes describes the “trauma of the closet,” loosely defined as a malaise or feeling of shame that queer persons inherit and bring with them into adulthood, because difference and alienation go hand in hand.
At one point, Hobbes speaks to a researcher of sexual trauma named William Elder, who, in 2015, alongside Susan Morrow and Gary Brooks, published a series of interviews in The Counseling Psychologist that detail sexual schemas common to homosexual men.
The conclusions: 90 per cent of the surveyed participants said they were exclusively attracted to partners that were “straight-acting.” Eighty-five per cent said that they were primarily attracted to white men. Those interviewed also said that most gay men find similar features to be attractive, like being tall, muscular, and white. In short, for me and the multitudes of gay men who barely meet one of these criteria, let alone five, Grindr and the gay dating world reify our deepest insecurities and prime us to expect rejection.
We are made to feel like we are not enough because we do not fit the type, just like the auditions to which my agent sent me: too short, too scrawny, too ethnic, and perhaps too gay. ‘You’re not what the role called for — we wanted someone more like him.’
In some cases, however, we experience the converse: fetishization. Just as harmful, but not as discussed. To fetishize is to view a person as the fulfilment of some wish. It is a process of consumption, of fucking the Other as a means of livening up the dull dish of mainstream white culture.
There’s a dichotomy, then: ‘Not into Asians’ versus ‘Super into Asians,’ ‘Asians +++++,’ ‘Asians >.’ It’s better than rejection, I’ve been told. Perhaps. Yes, fetishization equates to attention, but only a very specific kind — attention as objectification.
The last guy I went out with treated me like a fantasy. He was in costumes, incidentally, for film and television, and he called me cute all the time. I thought it was endearing at first, until I realized I was cute to him because he thought I was submissive. His exes were submissive, he said, and they had been Asian too.
‘Well, that doesn’t mean I’m submissive, too,’ I thought. Yet what I said was, “That’s nice.”
I gave a weak smile before seeing myself out. I thought that he was attracted to me for me, but in reality he was attracted to me as something that would fulfil his yellow-coloured fantasy.
So we’re left with a choice: rejection or commodification. Neither sounds like love to me.
It might seem like this lacks a point or has no answers, but the point is the writing itself — this is what I should have written one year ago on that rainy day in the Dominican. Not to explain desire but to elucidate some of its effects on me and other people like me.
Three weeks ago, I went out for drinks with a new friend. I’d known him peripherally before we crossed the line, dividing online friends from flesh-and-blood friends. We were sitting in a small booth at the back of a bar in Ossington when I mentioned I was writing an article.
He asked me what it was about, and I told him because I knew he would understand, and he did. He nodded and listened as if this was all old news. For a moment, in the half light, as I stared at him from across the table, I saw that he looked like someone I knew, someone like me.
When I finished, he asked me, “What do you think we can do about it?” I took a moment before answering. “I think all we can do is write it down, start a conversation,
and open up some minds,” I said. “Even one will suffice.”
We both nodded. The response felt insufficient, like there had to be more lurking out of view, but we both knew there wasn’t anything else to say. To speak was within our power. For others to listen was out of our hands.