Debbie Lum Talks About the Asian Fetish And Her New Documentary
The documentary, airing on PBS May 6, explores the marriage of a white American Steven and his Chinese wife Sandy, who met through an online dating website. They married after Steven’s short visit to China despite being unable to understand each other’s language. In the film, Lum's role transformed from a filmmaker to a translator and marriage counselor. She said it is an eccentric love story about the aging white man Steven and his obsession with marrying any Asian woman, and the young Chinese bride he finds online.
According to a Pew research survey last year, 36 percent of Asian female newlyweds married outside their race in 2010, compared with just 17 percent of Asian male newlyweds. Among all newlyweds in 2010, 28 percent were Asians, the highest of all races.
Neon Tommy spoke with Lum about her upcoming documentary.
Neon Tommy: Why did you want to explore the topic of the “yellow fever?”
Lum: As an Asian American woman, I think it’s impossible not to experience the “yellow fever” at some point in your life. I have seen so many guys that have the “yellow fever,” and then I think the “yellow fever” touches on the Asian American identity, specifically the idea of who we are as Asian Americans. In a way, it could be a painful issue for a lot of people in our community.
Neon Tommy: What went through your mind when you heard someone have a “yellow fever” about you?
Lum: I am an American born Chinese. I am the fourth generation and my family has been over here in the U.S. for 150 years. I was born in Virginia and I grew up in heart land of America, Saint Louis. There was hardly any Asian Americans when I was growing up. I guess the thing that really bothers me is that I always thought of myself as an American, and men who have a “yellow fever” would always approach me as if I am just an Asian woman or I come from Asia. It really hits on the issue, generally, of identity and belonging. First of all, the stereotypical way in which people think about Asian women, and you are not even an Asian woman. There is still a misunderstanding about Asian American women that is a definition that most people didn’t get.
Neon Tommy: Why did you make your documentary based on Steven’s story only?
Lum: I went on craigslist to talk to people who put on ads to specifically look for Asian women. I asked these men if he would be willing to be interviewed for the film that I was making. They were so candid and shared different types of ideas on my camera. I realized that there was a real life that they have been through. When I got the interview, I decided to make a documentary. I followed five men to see why they had five Asian women of their dreams. Steven was in the group, he was probably the oldest. He was the least likely marriage material, but surprisingly, He was the only one of all the people that I followed that actually got married. Once he found Sandy, the woman half his age who agreed to marry him over email. That story took it all.
Neon Tommy: In the film, you also function as a translator for Steven and his wife Sandy and their marriage counselor. What is your observation about his marriage?
Lum: The film is pretty much about the surprise that happened, the expectation that all of us have about each other, how they catch up with reality. When I met Sandy for the first time, and I knew about her for a while. He was 60, she was 30. When she got off the plane, she spoke very rudimentary English. They were not communicating with each other, but they had the chemistry. They must have known each other pretty well. My Chinese is very rudimentary, but my Chinese is better than her English. So I could communicate better with either one of them than they could with each other. That’s how I got drawn into the story.
Neon Tommy: Now you have a web series “They’re All So Beautiful” discussing about race and dating. What do you think people are missing about the “yellow fever?”
Lum: There is a huge variety of responses to “yellow fever.” I spent all this time with one person and he has a really bad case of “yellow fever.” The only criteria that he has for finding a wife is that she has to be Chinese and younger than him. By luck of a draw, he found a woman who actually wants to have a real relationship with him. So he was quite fortunate in that way, but what I see is that there is not a universal action to it. What one person thinks of romance could be an offence and painful to another person. People don’t understand that it is an idealization, and romantic objectification of women. It’s still an objectification of women. Some people cover that stereotype with cautious judgment that they make. Often what I hear is Asian women are certain ways. It’s another way of looking at people through the racial focus that is playing the hierarchy. We are all people, and everybody has their own unique stand. You may fit into a cultural box, but you may also be a different individual.
Neon Tommy: What do you want people to learn from your film?
Lum: I want people to think about the way that we project our expectation on other people, particularly in romance. It’s not healthy to stereotype Asian women. Also it’s not healthy to stereotype people that you think are stereotyping Asian women. The story doesn’t actually give you answer to the “yellow fever,” what sort of issues are painful to the Asian American community. It explores it from a very humanistic point of view. I hope when people watch the film, think of it as an experience of walking in someone’s shoes. After they leave the theater, they could look at the people behind the issue and understand the stereotype about Asians.