Seeking Asian Female examines Asian fetishism and its effects, on both fetishists and fetishized. It follows one fetishist in particular, 60-year-old goofball Steven, in his quest to find the Asian woman for him. Then, he finds her, and the documentary switches focus to his preconceived notions clashing with the reality of Sandy, whose experiences adjusting to life with Steven and in America are heavily documented as well. Their relationship is difficult, the language barrier sometimes proving so impossible to overcome that the filmmaker herself begins to serve as interpreter. Sandy hates the way Steven keeps his house, forcing him to confront the fact that he can’t just grab up a perfect mate based on what he’s heard about Asians.
Incredibly awkward, positively “positive-racist,” Steven is searching for a third wife. His first marriage fell apart, along with his jewelry business, which threw him into a ten-year slump where he had given up on love. But, seeing the marriage of his son to a Japanese woman, he was reinvigorated and began searching for an Asian of his own. After another failed marriage to a Chinese woman, the film picks up as Steven feels he’s located his third and final future wife.
This first section is chock-a-block full of moments where Steven makes ridiculously racist comments or demonstrates his terminal case of yellow fever. He’s enamored with the Asian “look.” He fantasizes about having a traditional cook and housewife around. He seems to hit on Debbie, the filmmaker, admiring her very Asian haircut. He takes photos of her, which the film implies will be added to his collection of Asian ladies.
Considering that Steven has already been through this process of picking out, corresponding with, and then marrying a Chinese woman from China, he’s learned little from the experience. Though the targets of his affections are exclusively native Chinese, he’s made no effort whatsoever to learn the language. Debbie steps in to translate many times, resolving arguments and misunderstandings that could have ended the relationship, a role she comes to feel conflicted about. He still doesn’t understand Chinese culture, and doesn’t understand much of anything Sandy’s going through.
Steven’s frustrated and bewildered at the difficulties of bringing Sandy in. This isn’t what he bargained for. He expects Sandy to simply integrate as soon as she arrives, and although he tries to help orient her and teach about how things work, it’s clear he’s doing a lackluster job. He treats Sandy as a product that he bought, which, when you’re choosing between women on a website made for Westerners to connect with Asians to bring home, makes a lot of sense. The women on such a site want to come here because it’s so wonderful, and therefore people like Steven don’t have any responsibility to adjust how they live.
But they get married. And after Steven truly lets go of his Asian Girlfriend Collection and takes Sandy as his One (i.e., his wife), they make it. We’re left in an awkward position. The film started as a sort of thesis on Asian fetishism, and while it does show how it can affect people and a relationship, it’s overcome. Steven and Sandy are really a cute couple. So what does this say about the fetish?
Seeking Asian Female is of course sculpted to present a certain narrative. In a response to the film, Steven complains about the portrayals of both Sandy and himself, and the framing story of a white guy desperately seeking an Asian wife. He claims that certain parts were “built” from the many hours of footage Debbie shot, and never actually happened.
Likewise, we can’t know what their relationship is really like. As the documentary presents it, the couple gets off to a rocky start, and has to deal with language barriers, but ends up being just like any other marriage, really. The ghost of Asian fetishism fades away as Steven learns that he’s gotten himself into a relationship with a human, not an Asian stereotype. This is definitely a good thing. As dorky and annoying as Steven is, it feels good to see him happy. Sandy, who cries earlier in the film that she can’t go back, that she has to marry Steven or lose every bit of pride she had back in China, seems content and happy with her new life.
But it doesn’t sit right. It’s great that the marriage worked out, but in the parts where Sandy confided to Debbie that she would leave Steven as soon as she had the resources, I silently rooted for her to do so. She’s on drastically unequal footing. She has little money of her own, she doesn’t know how to live in this country independently, her husband can barely talk to her, and he treats her like a pet. If the marriage hadn’t worked out, where would Sandy be? Where would Steven?
Relationships take compromise, and Sandy compromises her whole life to be with Steven. All Steven has to give up is being a 60-year-old slob. He just has to make his life better, and she has to adjust to living in this disappointing country in a marriage she probably shouldn’t be in, giving up a decent job to be unemployed in a house with no money.
The marriage can work, and both people can be totally happy within it. I’m not aiming to invalidate it. But its heritage as an Asian fetishist match means a lot to how the relationship operates. It’s fundamentally unequal. Racism can lead to love, but can love really change racism?