For One Man, She Had To Be Pretty And Asian

For a California man named Steven, a perfect woman had to be pretty, submissive — and Asian. In the documentary Seeking Asian Female, filmmaker Debbie Lum followed Steven as he sought out, found, and brought over Sandy, a 30-year-old woman from China, on a fiancee visa. Then reality hit. Lum talks about her film with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are going to take a big u-turn now and have what I'm going to call some grown folks' conversation about something that I am sure, if you live in some parts of the country or ever check out dating websites, you will have observed.

Have you ever noticed that some men seem to have a thing for Asian women? We're obviously talking about non-Asian men here. Chinese-American filmmaker Debbie Lum did, partly because she herself has been the object - one might even say the target - of this fascination. So she decided to try to find out what it's all about.

She interviewed men who posted online personal ads exclusively seeking Asian women. This is just a sample of what she found.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's their hair. It's the long, black hair that's really eye-catching.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's the whole mysterious kind of look, dark eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I think they give more consideration to how the man feels than, sometimes, themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yeah. They are kind of subtle and kind of quiet.

STEVEN: This little thing right underneath the eye.

DEBBIE LUM: This is how I met Steven.

STEVEN: Just, you know, the eyelid cut - it's just like - knocks me out.

MARTIN: Eventually, Debbie Lum settled on one man to follow. You just heard him. His name is Steven and she followed him as he sought out and found a Chinese companion and brought her to live with him in the United States on a three month fiance visa. The result is the documentary, "Seeking Asian Female." It is featured at this week's Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland and filmmaker Debbie Lum is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

LUM: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Do you mind telling us just a few of the pickup lines that you have endured over the years?

LUM: You know what? People often come up to me and they'll say three words in Chinese and it's, you know, (foreign language spoken). They - it's so common.

MARTIN: It's so common? What do you do? The foot massages was the one I got disgusted by, asking if you give foot massages. I was like, what is that about, anyway? So, presumably, this is one of the things that sparked your interest in making this documentary.

LUM: Yeah. You know, growing up as an Asian-American woman, you can not live without encountering so many men like the main character of my film. Yeah.

MARTIN: What is up with Steven? I mean, when you met him - and one of the things you're very candid about is that you said you kind of - when you first met him, you really had the urge to kind of turn around and run away. So did I. But you found his apartment covered with photos of Asian women. He talked to hundreds over the course of a couple of years. What was that about with him?

LUM: Well, Steven has what we call yellow fever. He' has totally, full-blown obsession with Asian women and, when I met him, he had been searching online for five years looking for a wife from Asia and eventually decided that she had to be Chinese, not just Asian. And he really - he felt - he had been married a couple of times and he felt that his real only chance of finding a wife would be to find somebody in China.

MARTIN: Because?

LUM: Because...

MARTIN: Why did he feel his only chance at happiness would be finding somebody in China?

LUM: You know, he was...

MARTIN: Just go right there. Just say it.

LUM: Most - the stereotype is that men like Steven, who have an obsession for Asian women, this thing called Asian fetish, want somebody submissive, traditional, docile, you know, the perfect wife who's not going to talk back.

MARTIN: And what's fascinating is, when Steven finally meets Sandy(ph) online, he takes a couple of trips to China to meet her. They decide to get married pretty quickly. She goes to California. She arrives in the U.S. on a three-month fiance visa. Let's just say that there's a rude awakening and Sandy is not the submissive, you know, servant that he perhaps had been expecting. Let's play a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

STEVEN: A minor culture clash going on. I've been alone for 20 years and, all of the sudden, I'm trying to adjust. There's going to be an adjustment on both of our parts. This is not China and I am not Chinese.

MARTIN: Well, one of the things that precipitated this, just to fast forward a little bit, is that Sandy found out that he had been corresponding with a rather large number of other women and she put her foot down. Did this surprise you?

LUM: Sandy, from the moment she stepped off the plane, surprised me over and over and over again as I was making the film. She was not at all what I expected and, at first, I really did - I was just shocked that she was the sort of - she seemed to be the traditional woman that he was looking for and then, suddenly, she became a really powerful person in his life.

MARTIN: Well, I don't want to give, sort of, the whole story away here, but I just wonder if you think that their relationship was typical of the men who have this obsession or particular interest or yen for Asian women - is that they operating off a stereotype. But the stereotype is not true. I mean, that women - you know, these women - some of whom are very powerful in their own right and have their own agency and are not as deferential as they think. Do you think that that's typical, based on all the reporting that you did for the film?

LUM: Well, I would say that everybody has their own story and that's really what the film is really getting at. But, when you go out in search of a woman based on a stereotype or just an expectation, say you're dating online and you have this expectation projection of the person that you're looking for. When you meet the real person, no matter what your expectation is, it's going to be defied by the reality.

She is a living, breathing person who actually does talk and can talk back really well.

MARTIN: I do want to ask you about one thing, though. You know, there was a recent study by the Pew Research Center that really dug in on kind of the Asian-American population of the United States in a really profound and sort of significant way. And one of the things that they found was that, in 2010, nearly a third of Asian-American newlyweds married a non-Asian and the rate of intermarriage among Asian-Americans was higher. Well, Asian-Americans are more likely to marry outside of their race than whites, blacks or Hispanic. And I just wonder if you have any insight into why that might be?

LUM: Well, you know, that's something that has, I think, troubled the Asian-American community for many years and many generations and you have to stop and wonder, is it - does Asian fetish have any part to play in that? Because, also, when you look at that number, it's skewed in one direction. It's sometimes as much as double the number of white men with Asian women as it is Asian - white women with Asian men. So, yes. It's very curious.

MARTIN: It is curious. But I have to say, though, you went into this with some questions about the motives of the men and, frankly, I think - let's just say the women, too. Let's just be honest about the women, too, about why it is that they'd be willing to move, you know, halfway across the world to live with some man that they met twice. You know, so there's that piece.

But you kind of came away with a little different feeling after you met these two. Can you just talk a little bit about that without giving it all away?

LUM: Yeah. You know, I was - I went into it thinking I knew what these men were like and what I wanted to do was really show it to the world and almost do a sort of expose about what Asian fetish was like and what these women are like who are coming to the United States, you know, in search of - what is their real motivation for coming for these marriages? Is it for a green card? Is it for, you know, financial reward? What is it?

But the minute Sandy stepped off the plane and she met Steven - these are the two main characters - everything was turned upside down and, every step along the way, they would totally surprise me. And I realized that, actually, I had as many stereotypes about them as they did, maybe, about each other and that, in the end, it was really a piece about learning to overcome stereotypes and expectations.

MARTIN: Well, the film is actually very funny, as well as very moving. I hope - was that your intention?

LUM: It is. You know...

MARTIN: Probably not, actually. I mean...

LUM: Well...

MARTIN: But it actually is, although I will say that the creepiness factor that you talked about at the beginning is there, so you're very honest about that. Debbie Lum produced and directed the documentary film "Seeking Asian Female." It's being screened at the Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, which reviews documentaries from all over the world, and she was kind enough to join us in our NPR studios in Washington, D.C.

Debbie Lum, thank you.

LUM: Thank you.

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