Few issues in the field of sex and relationships are subject to more misunderstandings, stereotypes, and myths than interracial dating. In the context of Asia, the best known example of this is probably the “yellow fever” trope, which describes people — often though not exclusively white men — who objectify or fetishize those of Asian descent, mostly women, based on the presumption that they are more traditional, obedient, reserved, and sexually exotic.
But what about the reverse? Who are the Asian women dating these men? The equally stereotypical explanation would be that such Asian women desire to secure a “sugar daddy” who can provide them a materially better quality of life. However, the economic rise of Japan, South Korea, and later China has complicated this narrative.
My research partner and I spent a year interviewing Chinese women in Australia about their dating preferences and online dating habits on platforms ranging from Tinder and OkCupid to Chinese apps like Momo and Tantan. We found their preferences were shaped by both their life experiences and their understandings of their Chinese and migrant identities. Yet their dating practices were as rigid as they were polarized: Every single one of our interviewees expressed a strong racial preference, either pursuing white men exclusively or maintaining a strict “never swipe right on whites” policy.
In practice, the latter refers to an exclusive preference for Chinese men. In our interview questions, we were careful to avoid framing interviewee’s dating preferences as a dichotomy between “Chinese” and “white.” Yet most participants defaulted to this framing of their own accord, contrasting potential Chinese partners with Australian residents, whom they variously referred to as “Westerners,” “foreigners,” or “locals,” but who in all cases were imagined to be white. No one expressed an interest in dating outside of these two groups.
This in part is due to China’s rising economic power. New Chinese arrivals, as well as many of their parents, increasingly see themselves as a privileged group, and the only other privileged racial group they acknowledge is Caucasian.
Within these two groups, Chinese-Australian women’s dating preferences are generally polarized and heavily influenced by their life experiences. Many of the Chinese women we interviewed — especially those who grew up in China and emigrated as adults — saw dating white men as a means of escaping from the patriarchal gaze to which they felt subjected to in China.
This group of women, which was typically characterized by fluency in English, liberal arts backgrounds, and experience living in multiple countries, believed Chinese men found women over a certain age, divorcees, queer women, or women with darker complexions generally unacceptable. They thus saw in the local dating pool an escape from these disciplinary standards. Put simply, they saw white men as more “female-friendly” and more inclusive of women stigmatized in the Chinese community.
For example, 37-year-old divorcee Zheng Xin — to protect the identity of our research participants, we have given them all pseudonyms — told us she was only looking for non-Chinese partners. “Chinese men are very wary of divorcees,” she said. “In Chinese culture, once you’re divorced, you’re deemed damaged goods — ‘left-over food’ — and you can only date divorced men.”
But she said her current boyfriend, a man born in Germany who now works in Australia, didn’t care about her past: “For him, there is no problem at all. My marital history has nothing to do with my character. Also, in the first few weeks of our dating, he didn’t ask my age at all. You know, age is often the first question asked by Chinese men.”
Another interviewee, Sarah, who identified as bisexual, had a different reason for preferring an interracial relationship: She was looking for an open relationship and was not considering marriage, and she believed Chinese men to be more conservative and only “looking for wives.”
While the awareness of gender and sexual diversity may be higher in Australia than in China, portraying white Australian men as universally more “female-friendly” than their Chinese counterparts is merely another form of racial stereotyping, one that mirrors an earlier generation of racial imaginaries. White men were once stereotyped as wealthy and powerful, a means of material advancement, but now that the global economic order has tilted toward Asia and China in particular, a new type of myth has emerged to justify these preferences: one saying white men are more caring, emotionally available, and less discriminatory. The Chinese-Australian women we interviewed no longer frame their choice in material terms, but in spiritual and moral terms, positively contrasting their preferred dating partners with “backward,” patriarchal Chinese men.
Yet these negative appraisals of Chinese masculinity are hardly universal. A number of the women we interviewed praised Chinese men for just these attributes, claiming they were more mature, family-oriented, filial, and stable. Often, women in this group were less comfortable in international or multicultural spaces, and they appreciated the lower linguistic or cultural barriers to dating within their own ethnic group.
In explaining these dating preferences, they sometimes turned to occidentalist stereotypes of hedonistic and libidinous white men, including referring to white men as an exotic and dangerous Other, and stating point blank their refusal to date them. These perceptions can be mediated and amplified by the realities of online dating: Some female users of the Chinese social app Tantan, a choice of app that itself suggests a preference for Chinese partners, complained about their negative experiences with the app’s small non-Chinese user base. (In our interviews, Chinese-Australian women interested in dating white men primarily used Tinder, not Tantan).
Helen, a 21-year-old who had been studying English in Australia for 18 months, claimed the white men she’d seen on Tantan just wanted sex. She and a number of other women we interviewed claimed Chinese men were more mature.
It bears saying that these preferences are shaped by the social circles and circumstances of Chinese people living in Australia. Many Chinese women, even those who have lived there for years, feel marginalized in Australian society and say they rarely have contact with non-Chinese Australians. They are therefore less comfortable dating across cultural and linguistic lines.
For instance, Haley is a 28-year-old nurse who has been in Australia for seven years. She has permanent residence in Australia and is effectively bilingual in English and Chinese. However, there is a very stable division of labor in Australia’s medical industry: Doctors are mostly local Australians, while nurses are mostly migrants, primarily Chinese or Filipinos. There is very little interaction between doctors and nurses outside of work. “I don’t even remember when the last time I talked to Australians was,” Hayley said during our interview. She also said she had a “fear” of white men she couldn’t explain, and she automatically rejects any that show up on Tantan.
In the early days of the internet, there was widespread hope that digital technologies would help break down stereotypes and bring the world closer together. That hasn’t happened. If, however, interracial dating is thought of as a kind of prism, one reflecting a wide range of intersecting dynamics and biases, a peculiarity of online dating apps is how they tend to crystalize these preferences. By bringing together a highly diverse dating pool into one place, they bring these preferences, and their underlying biases, into the light.
This research for this article was conducted in collaboration with Chen Xu, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, Xiamen University.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: SiberianArt/Getty Creative/People Visual, re-edited by Sixth Tone)