I remember when, the week before I left for college, my parents sat me down to tell me about the facts of life. The lecture wasn’t about sex — my father, a physician, was prone to oversharing the grosser aspects of human anatomy, so I was horrifyingly aware of the mechanical aspects of reproduction as early as elementary school. No, the wisdom they sought to impart related to the Theory of Dating Relativity. Which is to say: The more similar your partner is to you without actually being a blood relative, the better.
Children of close family friends? Perfect. If that’s not possible, try someone whose parents are from the same hometown. Taiwanese is better than mainlander or Hong Konger, Chinese of any type is better than other Asians, but if you must stray outside of Greater China, focus on East Asia before Southeast or South Asia … and so on and so on, in an ever-expanding series of concentric circles.
My parents weren’t being racist (or at least not maliciously so): Their beliefs were shaped by the reality in which they were brought up, and the culture to which they’d immigrated. They’d seen the challenges faced by people in mixed relationships, and they wanted my sister and me to have an easier life. Things weren’t easy for mixed couples in the 1970s, particularly among immigrant groups, where social networks were critical yet fragile, and most community support systems were contingent on “insider” versus “outsider” status.
But have things changed? With last week marking the anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark June 12, 1967 Supreme Court decision that upheld the right for men and women of different races to marry, it seemed like an appropriate time to explore that question.
Statistics support the notion that interracial relationships are on the rise in the Asian American community: Mixed couples represented over a quarter of all marriages among Asian Americans in 1980, and over a third of Asian American marriages in 2006. And interracial couples with Asian partners are increasingly depicted in movies, TV and other popular entertainment, to the point where their racial differences are often not even germane to their characters’ storylines.
What many commentators have pointed out, of course, is that both the numbers and popular culture reflect a reality in which only half the Asian American community — the female half — are players. Call it the doubletake test: Seeing an Asian American woman with a non-Asian man is no longer noteworthy, but an Asian American man with a non-Asian woman still turns heads. That gender gap is reflected in interracial marriage statistics as well: According to the U.S. Census’ 2006 update, 19.5 percent of Asian American women outmarry, compared with 7.2 percent of Asian American men. And that, to some, speaks volumes about the sexual desirability and social status of Asian men in America.
As blogger Dialectic wrote on the popular Asian American online forum TheFighting44s (where four out of the top five most popular posts relate to interracial relationships): “If heterosexual white male patriarchy and what it did in the world were not so powerful, I think it would be fair to say that Asian American women and men would be ‘out-dating’ or ‘out-marrying’ at similar rates, and that we wouldn’t elevate whites, denigrate ourselves, or worry about whether we’re sexually and personally worthy of others to nearly the same extent that we do now.”
—From Jeff Yang’s Asian Pop Column, dated June 18, 2008