Seeking Asian Female

Documentary filmmaker Debbie Lum thought she had the perfect couple to exemplify "Asiaphiles." But it turns out that Stephen and Sandy were not about to be typecast so quickly.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP the "Making it Work" episode. Now, you know, lots of people - lots of folk, they don't like other folk because of their race. That's just part of the American story. But some people, they flip the script and they might like other people a little bit too much because of their race.

DEBBIE LUM: You know, it's hard to grow up in America as an Asian woman and not encounter some Caucasian - usually Caucasian man who has this sort of unusual attraction for Asian women. There's terms for it like yellow fever, rice king, or Asiaphiles - it rhymes with pedophile for a certain reason. In my life I've been hit on by so many men who would sort of stare a little bit too long, then they kind of come up and try to speak to you in the Asian language that you don't speak. I was really tired of being objectified and I thought, oh, hey, wouldn't it be a great idea to just turn the tables and point the camera in their direction? I decided to make the documentary, "Seeking Asian Female."

So I went on to Craigslist and websites like asiafriendfinder.com, which, they specialize in introducing Western men to Asian women. And I started asking the men who post ads there if they would talk to me for my film. I just wanted to understand why.

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.

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.

LUM: But Stephen in particular had this kind of unfiltered quality about him and would say things like, you know, I was probably originally looking for a slave when I first started - I mean, I'm quoting him. And he would kind of laugh about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

STEPHEN: I feel like a servant girl who cooks these beautiful meals and he's like, gee, would it be like that? No.

LUM: Of course as an individual, I felt a little bit disturbed, but as a filmmaker he was quite fascinating so then I started filming him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

STEPHEN: She looks so Chinese.

LUM: What does that mean?

STEPHEN: You can't look any more Chinese than her.

LUM: What does that mean, she looks so Chinese?

STEPHEN: You look very Chinese too.

LUM: He really wasn't sort of marriage material for any woman. He didn't have a lot of money. He didn't own a house, he didn't even own a car, yet he had such an extreme undying commitment to find an Asian woman, I thought he was just sort of living in a fantasy. He showed me all of these files that he kept - mail-order catalogs. There were just pictures of hundreds of young Asian women.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

STEPHEN: These are different girls that I've written to. They're all just so beautiful.

LUM: He asked every single woman who he met, who he got to a first date with, if they would marry him. You know, I've been watching him search for, you know, many years and I was cutting his storyline that he was never going to find anyone. And then I got this call from him and he said, would you like to film my wedding? I found somebody in China who's going to marry me. I couldn't believe it. I almost felt sorry for Stephen.

These women that he was dating online, they knew that he was sort of this prey that they could take advantage of who would just send them money. So by the time he met Sandy, I had this really bad feeling that this was just going to get really ugly. So the first time I met Sandy was when she walked off the plane at San Francisco International Airport and landed in America for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

STEPHEN: This is Sandy.

(Foreign language spoken)

(Foreign language spoken)

(Foreign language spoken)

LUM: She seemed really sweet. She seemed really innocent. I was thinking, how is this possible? She's 30, he's 60. And then I find out she doesn't actually speak English and Stephen didn't speak any Chinese. All of a sudden I'm thinking, oh, my gosh, this poor young woman, she has no idea what's happening.

And I felt this overwhelming need to sort of protect her. The first thing that Sandy did was that she took over the kitchen. And she just started scrubbing and cleaning. He loved it, obviously. He was in heaven. You know, she would cook these elaborate Chinese meals for him. She told Stephen, I knew you weren't rich, but I didn't know you were poor.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

: He would say you - you, your husband's going to have a house, have a car - no, no house, no car, no money.

LUM: Sandy came from Huangshan (ph) in a Anhui province. Anhui province is one of the poorest regions in China and she grew up as a tea farmer. Then she migrated thousands of miles to Shenzhen, China. She found her way out of the factory floor and eventually became the executive secretary at a fashion company.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

: (Speaking foreign language through translator) Everybody says it doesn't make sense, you should try to find a younger guy. And why would you choose him? I felt like we had so many similar interests and hobbies and he's just so special.

He's really not like anyone else. In China, it's not like I could ever marry someone rich. I've never wanted to marry for money. I think you marry the same kind of person that you are. It's better to be realistic, right?

STEPHEN: Sometimes I'll come home and she'll be hiding behind the refrigerator or something - one time she was hiding in the closet and she lets me look around. She'll be in there smiling and it's like funny. It's funny. The day is full of little things like that. It's easy to share.

LUM: Even though Sandy seemed like she really liked Stephen, who could really tell? And I was sitting there thinking, you know, is this really just an act? And then I got a call and it was Stephen saying, you have to help me. We've had a major misunderstanding. And so I show up at their apartment. Sandy had found all these pictures that Stephen had collected of all the Asian women from before and she just went ballistic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

: (Speaking foreign language) In China, if you break up with someone you can't still be friends. She asked him to buy all these things for her. Chinese people can't casually accept precious gifts from other people. Stupid.

LUM: Oh, my gosh, these are genuine feelings that she has for him. Sandy was really hurt. So I'm hearing them fight and they're not communicating. It was really hard to watch them struggle. So I began translating.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

: (Translated by Lum) OK, Stephen, why is it that you still have pictures of Molly?

STEPHEN: It took a while to fade away, but I'm way over it.

LUM: Let me translate. (Foreign language spoken). She said that's what you say, but how do we know that your heart feels that way for real?

STEPHEN: I can only prove my love day by day.

LUM: Oh, my gosh, I can't translate that. At the end of the scene, I realized, wait a minute, they've kind of made up. And how much of that was because I was translating? This is not what you're supposed to do as a documentary filmmaker. You're supposed to be behind the camera and not influence your subjects. The objectivity had gone completely out the window. I didn't want to be in this documentary. It was supposed to be about them, but I was becoming a character in the story. We really started to insert my back story into the film that - yes, full disclosure, I'm actually married to a white guy.

The irony, of course, is that, you know, when I walk down the street with my husband, I'm sure other people are thinking the same thing about me. Like oh, she's such a sellout. When Sandy arrived in America, she came in on the K-1 fiance visa, and the way that works is you have 90 days to decide whether or not the person that you are engaged to is the person that you really want to marry. And if you don't marry that person, you have to go home. Eventually they asked me to translate more and more.

As I was translating them, I really started not just translating, but realized that I was kind of mediating and kind of becoming their marriage counselor. It got pretty crazy. I'd get these late-night phone calls from them. Anytime they had a conflict, they would call me. As they really got to know each other, the reality hit. Her real-life personality came out and she was no longer this sort of figment of his imagination or this kind of, you know, ideal woman. She demanded that he step up to the plate and clean the house as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

: (Speaking foreign language).

STEPHEN: What? Speak in English. We got to do that first before everything else?

: No. Only this. Clean house first.

STEPHEN: This is how I'm supposed to deal with it? You dump it in here?

: I'm sorry.

STEPHEN: That's how you dumped it. That's how you give it to me.

: (Translated by Lum) This is my life and the man I chose. It's too late to go home now. I'll lose face. If I go home, I won't - it's impossible. You see, in China everyone will talk behind my back. I won't be able to lift my head in public. So now I can only move forward. I can't look back.

LUM: I mean, it's really clear what you're getting out of this relationship, I think.

STEPHEN: Well...

LUM: What do you think she gets out of it?

STEPHEN: A chance at a new life, a new world? Oh, God.

LUM: So right when Sandy was really having some doubts about getting married, Stephen turned to me and he just came out and thanked me. He said if it hadn't been for you, Sandy would've gone back to China by now. She told him that. I absolutely question whether I had done the right thing at that moment.

Would she not perhaps be better off if she'd stayed in China or just went home? You know, Zhenhiang (ph) is like this thriving metropolis and she'd be living in her own culture where she could have a home, I mean, have friends and have her life. This had really gone too far. The success or failure of the relationship should not be reliant on me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

STEPHEN: You've done a wonderful miraculous job, even today, but you're not God. You're just a director.

MARRIAGE OFFICIATOR: Marriage should not be entered into lightly, but with certainty, mutual respect and a sense of reverence that does not include humor or...

LUM: Here they are about to get married and there's all these unanswered questions. Should it - you know, is it the right thing? Should she really go through with it? And as I was filming them, I couldn't help wonder - they had this idea in their mind that they really wanted to get married no matter what, no matter how absurd it was, no matter how difficult it might be. But at the same time, did I really have a part to play in them getting married?

My first instinct was just to pick her up and take her back to China. But, you know, that's also kind of making an assumption that I know the right thing for her. It's so easy to go to this place where Sandy was a victim, but that doesn't give her enough credit. She was somebody who knew how to take care of herself and knew exactly what was the right thing for her.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

STEPHEN: With this ring I thee wed and offer as a symbol of our true love.

OFFICIATOR: I now pronounce you husband and wife.

LUM: I watch Stephen progress. I watched him clean up his act, you know? Slowly he worked really hard to try to win the heart of this young Chinese woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE")

STEPHEN: At first, I went into this search thinking the traditional stereotype of getting someone who, you know, who would stay home and do the housework, clean, take care of me, that kind of thing. But that's not very growth oriented.

: Oh, my God. Everything looks good, clean. Thank you.

STEPHEN: That's what I like.

: Oh, God.

LUM: And I totally have a soft spot for Stephen now. Is it condoning yellow fever? My whole relationship to yellow fever changed in the making of the film. It still makes me uncomfortable when I see an older Western man with a really young Asian woman.

But at the same time now, I see those two people as individuals with their own story. I went into it thinking that if I did this film, maybe I might cure him of his yellow fever. And yet Stephen is still an Asiaphile. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Try to figure that one out. I mean, I don't know, you know, I'm friends with him and he's an Asiaphile.

WASHINGTON: Big thanks for the woman behind the film, Debbie Lum. "Seeking Asian Female," this film is playing in selected cities nationwide. I know you want to see it, "Seeking Asian Female." We're going to have a link on our website so you can ask them to come to your town at snapjudgment.org. Much love, of course, to Stephen and Sandy for letting us into their lives. That piece was produced by Stephanie Foo.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Making it Work" episode will be right back in a moment. Stay tuned.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: