The Three Body Problem in Asian American Romance
An Exploration of Dating and Gender Relations in the Asian American Community
Psychiatrist Ravi Chandra, M.D. notes “This blogpost might evoke various reactions amongst readers, as it deals with sensitive topics in Asian American gender relations. All views are mine alone and do not necessarily represent the views of any other individuals or organization I’m affiliated with, particularly the Center for Asian American Media, where I’ve blogged about film and culture for 14 years, or Psychology Today, where I’ve blogged for eight years. I invite any feedback through my Psychology Today portal. My intent, as always, is to illuminate through the use of my own personal story, not to cause pain to anyone. I have written about gender relations before, as my bio at the end of this article indicates. Also, this is a long read, not a hot take — but it is, in the end, just one person’s reasonably informed perspective.”
“After I wrote this long essay, I discovered other commentary, such as Natalie Tran’s YouTube documentary on the “WMAF” (White Male/Asian Female) pairing, commentary on her doc, NPR’s Invisibilia episode by Yowei Shaw (A Very Offensive Rom-Com), the PlanA Magazine discussion of this episode and the blowback Shaw received while trying to report it, Celeste Ng’s article on being harassed by Asian men for her relationship with a White man, and Audrea Lim’s NYT OpEd on the alt-right Asian fetish. What I found most striking is that the word ‘compassion’ was not mentioned once in any of these; they all essentially took the tone of calling out one or another party, or trying to define what was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ — examples of power politics, not love. Ironic, to say the least. That seems to be the main problem in our relational world at this moment. Another apparent problem is that we as Asian Americans seem to be especially uncomfortable with vulnerability, particularly in this arena. I hope this article is a small antidote. If we are to become a fully-fledged community, even a beloved community, we have to look beyond the anger, fear, hostility and blame to understand one another as human beings who all need affection, safety, and belonging — and do better at providing these to each other.”
You may also like these hourlong lectures on Asian American Women’s and Men’s psychology. (Article begins below.)
A few weeks ago, at the China Live afterparty for the preview screening of ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE (ABMM), I was deep in conversation with an Asian American woman, a friend of a friend, also standing with us. We started talking film and being social, and I mentioned a few films that I loved and wrote about for CAAMFest37. “If you’d like, I can send you my reviews. What’s your email address?”
She paused and look stricken, then said “Oh. I have to figure out whether I should give you the email address I give to people I just met and don’t trust yet…” She eyed me for a moment. “Maybe I’ll just give you the middle tier email.” She looked at me again. “Oops. I guess I shouldn’t have said that out loud.”
I very quickly picked my jaw up off the floor, and proceeded to gently tease her about her faux pas revelation about her screening methods until she blushed, giggled, and took off her jacket, complaining that she was suddenly very warm. It’s a strange and mistrustful world where even email addresses can be concern for safety and boundary for some women — and somewhat ironic that we overshare our screening methods, and overshare online — and under share our need for warmth and community in the IRL…
This tiny awkward moment set me to thinking, though…about all the women who had ghosted me via email over the years, and the women who decided they would never respond to my (friendly and appropriate) texts. Was I middle to lower tier for all of them? Yes, obvi. My interaction with this friend-of-a-friend was certainly in the platonic category (though doesn’t uncertainty always hover around these interactions, causing some women pause?), but it was of a piece with the anxious or avoidant attachment with many women and men I’ve experienced so often here in San Francisco. I wrote a whole article about it for Psychology Today a few months ago: “New Year’s Resolution: Make San Francisco Nice Again!”
I really don’t know why I’m single at 52, or why my sense of community often feels anemic. (My birthday was just a few days before this lovely incident.) Or why I’ve never had a relationship last longer than about 18 months. It’s an unsolved mystery which I do my best to remain curious about, and not resentful. I’ve had this sneaking suspicion that there’s always been an elephant in the room, the third body, that interferes with my romantic and even friendly inclinations. Is it racism? Well, I have been told by half a dozen Asian American women over the years that they could never date me because of my brown skin. I’m still close friends with one of them — because I didn’t make it an issue, and I really loved and cared about her, and still do. Is it my looks? My age? My personality? My sparkling and unfortunate wit? Is it just a minor adverse consequence of fraught gender relations in 2019? Is the universe trying to make a monk out of me? Is it because, as one woman put it, “you’re accomplished…that’s intimidating.” But…but…I’m a teddy bear! (See my article “Battle Hymn of the Teddy Bear Psychiatrist.”) (Note: the above list of possibilities is not comprehensive, lol.)
But it’s not only my issue — and it’s not just an Asian American issue. 45% of American adults are not married– but many of these are likely in some kind of relationship. 28% of American adults live alone, like me. 45% of Black women have never been married– almost twice the percentage of white women who’ve never been married. Loneliness is an epidemic, with staggering effects on physical and mental health, particularly for the youngest and oldest adults. (Also see my article “Loneliness: Social Media, the Internet, and Smartphones.”)
Still, the particulars for Asian American men are disheartening. (And while I write about heterosexual pairings, similar tales have been told by gay Asian men as well. And of course, I’m well aware that there are plenty of single Asian American women.) Asian American young adult men are about half as likely to be in a romantic relationship compared to their white counterparts, while Asian American women are similar to white women in young adulthood. And in data from the early 2000s, 40% of Asian American women said they would not date an Asian American man. 90% of non-Asian women said they wouldn’t date an Asian man. Meanwhile, only 10% of Asian men said they wouldn’t date an Asian woman. Grace Kao, Yale University sociologist, and her colleagues wrote “we find that despite the higher education and income of Asian American men, there is evidence that they are systematically excluded from having romantic relationships during adolescence and young adulthood.” (Quote and statistics from Kao G, Balistreri KS, Joyner K. (2018) Asian American Men in Romantic Dating Markets. Contexts, Vol. 17, Issue 4, pp. 48–53.) Have these numbers gotten better? Probably. Still, Asian men and Black women are the least desirable in online dating. Asian women are the most desirable, cause for perhaps vanity, insecurity, anxiety, fear, overwhelm and even frustration and outrage. And of course, Asian American women are oppressed or challenged in myriad other ways in society. (These data were also presented in the bestselling 2014 book Dataclysm, written by OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder.) If you add up the numbers of Asian American women who definitely and probably wouldn’t date Asian men, or end up choosing non-Asian men, it would still likely add up to nearly half. Somehow, I don’t think this is close to true anywhere in Asia. Just sayin’. “Out-marriage” rates to White men vary by ethnicity, but are above 50% for Japanese and Korean American women. Interethnic Asian pairings seem to be becoming more common, but trends are unclear to me, as I walk the San Francisco streets.
Are we moving from Beijing to Beige-ing? If so, what are the Travelocitys, Expedias and Kayaks involved? And is there something wrong with my browser? Also, how can we have compassion and respect for people who are traveling, no matter their destination, as well as those who can’t seem to get past TSA?
Of course, “Love is Love is Love” when you get down to it. Love is hard enough to find for any of us, so some may feel uncomfortable even raising these questions. I have plenty of friends, colleagues and patients in interethnic relationships, and of course I wish them well. But why does the out-marriage rate for Asians top that of all other ethnicities? Why is it that “(i)n 2015, just over one-third (36%) of newlywed Asian women had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity, compared with 21% of newlywed Asian men,” also topping the scales of out-marriage by ethnicity for women? (Livingston G, Brown A (2015) Intermarriage in the U.S. 50 Years After Loving v. Virginia. Pew Research Center.) The bottom line is that we should be dating human beings, of course, not races…but then — who gets to be a human being in our eyes? Who makes us feel more like a human being?
I think I’ve done my best to be sensitive to issues affecting women and Asian American women, as well as the issues that come up in gender relations, as a psychiatrist and citizen of this country and world. Over 75% of my patients are women, and almost half of these are Asian American women. I’ve seen most of them in therapy for many years, some over a decade. Well over half the friends I see on a regular basis are women, most of those Asian American women. I have been an advocate for women on issues of sexual harassment, sometimes at significant personal cost (but of course this could never be as serious as what the women impacted experienced). So I know that I’m appreciated for what I offer professionally and culturally. I hope I am deeply attuned to the needs and perspectives of women, particularly those with traumatic history, though we all have more to learn in life. But there is some strange relational disconnect outside my office that gives me cause for reflection on a more human level.
Loving v. Virginia also just had its 52nd birthday. I treasure it dearly, as should we all. But after I read these statistics, they kept reverberating in my consciousness. “Almost half of all the single women in my Asian American community would not give me the time of day, romantically speaking, simply because I’m Asian…and then think of all the other raisons de no-Ravi…” It goes some way towards explaining what I’ve experienced, all these years — not just my dating experience, but also the strange way our community hangs together, especially here in San Francisco. Episodic, superficial, and utilitarian, to put a dark lens on it all. We’re close enough to get ish done, but not really that tight, from my perspective, until an issue or event galvanizes us. A perceptible, cottony avoidance hangs in the air between us, particularly after age 40, from my observations.
So, there is a third body problem that foils our trajectories, prevents us from orbiting each other in happy embrace, repels us to different suns. There is an antigravity in our midst. Something about this place called America blinds us to each other. It poisons Eros, clouds Psyche. In San Francisco, I think the third body is not just racism, media images, the predominance of power politics foiling gender relations based on love, or the preferences dictated by Empire, but capitalism, and our drive to make our mark and make a living which all too often put relationship with other Asian Americans on the back burner. Who doesn’t advance us holds us back. Buh bye. I overheard an Asian American man say this to his (White) date at a restaurant: “It’s not who you know, but which Whites you know.” Sometimes, we do this to ourselves. We add to the mass of the third body, quietly buying up the blockchain for subtle oppression.
Perhaps the deepest issues at the heart of all this are our experiences and fears of vulnerability, as Asian Americans. I don’t think Asian Americans as a group have caught up to a significant portion of the rest of the population, and certainly not to researcher Brené Brown. (See her TED talks on vulnerability and shame. She also has a great Netflix special, released earlier this year. Sharing vulnerability is actually the path to acceptance and a deeper strength, contrary to our fears.) To date another Asian American might be to remind us of our own vulnerability, and on some subconscious level, make us feel unsafe. (Of course to many of us, dating another Asian feels safe, and allows us to feel ‘known’.) Perhaps this is a factor in the “cottony avoidance” I’ve experienced in San Francisco. One consequence of a fear of vulnerability is an inability to deal with uncertainty, nuance, complexity and depth. I call it “The Mr./Mrs. Doubtfire Complex.” When in doubt — FIRE!!! When flooded with uncertainty or complexity, the amygdala’s quick way out is to recruit just enough cortex to form an opinion: an angry reaction, or a judgment, criticism or rule. That makes us feel safe, at least temporarily. It may help us set a boundary with what we find uncomfortable, or that which is genuinely threatening. But it’s often just a temporary fix, and leaves those on the other side swamped with the emotions that we cannot tolerate in ourselves.
This is the empath’s dilemma — to be perceptive, sensitive, and attuned to emotions, allowing them to be helpful to others who are on their journeys, yet often turned into human sponges, or even stigmatized for their sensitivity. Sometimes people call this “emotional labor” — but I think life itself is emotional labor, and it’s best to grow in compassion, mindfulness, relatedness, acceptance, non-attachment, and other qualities of mind and heart to best deal with the work we all have to face at some point in life.
I’m an open, honest, friendly man, not afraid to show his heart. I literally wear a Yayoi Kusama button proclaiming “Love Forever” on one jacket, and on another, a button for the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” All this friendliness and warmth might unsettle some — another possible source of the “cottony avoidance” I’ve sensed in our community. As much as we rage against toxic masculinity, maybe we really don’t know what to do with men who are sensitive, kind, thoughtful and also strong. And I’m not that dissimilar from a lot of Asian American men in my community, several of whom are single and my age or older. Doesn’t it reinforce toxic masculinity to say men shouldn’t talk about their feelings, that they should be guarded? And yet this is the message that many men in the Asian American community hear, from men and women. As I’ve said before (referencing Harry Harlow’s experiments on attachment), “the rolling wire monkey gathers no moss.” The wire monkey thrives on discomfort with vulnerability.
Writing these words raises fears of ostracism for me, and potentially fears of greater import for women in our community. I can hear women (or even men) exclaiming “how dare you question our/their choices!” “How dare you question our/their parents’ choices!” “This sounds like whiny toxic male entitlement!” “Don’t you understand that some Asian American women are traumatized by their experiences with Asian families and men, and understandably are looking for something different?” (But… there is obviously trauma outside Asian America as well…)
Some might question why I’m raising this issue at all, when there are examples of Asian American men acting out in horrible ways online and IRL with Asian American women who marry or date White men. It’s more important, they might say, to call out those behaviors and not put any more pressure on women. Needless to say, social media generally offers more heat than light on this immensely difficult and personal issue.
In my defense, I do question my own choices and wants all the time. I have regular dialogues with all my desires — it’s the only way to keep them under some kind of control at age 52. Why do we want what we want? How do our desires affect others? And I’m not really giving the women in my community the side eye…I’m just wondering what’s going on, here, in this space between us. I have to hope that in raising the issues I’m not making a bad situation worse, and that we can relate to each other more often with compassion and understanding than mistrust and anger.
But the internet.
To underscore my fears of ostracism, when a version of this article was initially posted, I got a highly negative, aggressive and reactive response from a couple of Asian American women, who I believe misread my words — yet accused me of misogyny, male entitlement and worse, while saying the data I cited supported a “canard” about dating patterns, without providing any evidence to that effect. I felt gaslighted and essentially blamed, shamed and scapegoated on this forum, in an attempt to control and overpower me — and thus, I would say, make me a “safe object.” These individuals had unfortunately likely been targeted themselves by male harassers. This blowback led to the unpublishing of the original blogpost, pending edits and further discussion — a process which led me to add over fifteen hundred words to its original length during a week of significant distress. Thankfully, I have supportive friends. The IRL works. Try it sometime.
In short, a few people thought my opening anecdote — to me about a verbal faux pas, an awkward moment and two people doing their best to manage it and help each other feel comfortable (I ended up emailing that film review article to my friend, and said she could share it with her friend if she wished) — was about misogyny and my feeling entitled to a woman’s email address. A totally hypervigilant and paranoid misread, which is perhaps a sign of the times, and another reason why it’s hard to make connections. Their concerns understandably sprang from a focus on a woman’s vulnerability and their read on power relations between the genders. Their concern about vulnerability didn’t stop them from opening their flamethrowers on me, though — leading me to conclude their main concern was power, and shouting me down was their version of empowerment. So-called “identity politics” are welcome in my book — but power politics is where it all goes downhill.
Regarding the anecdote: a male friend said “a man is always considered to be on the make.” I’m not sure how we’re supposed to be friendly with each other with this level of suspicion in our community. To my mind, it is a weakness of our community that we have not built a deeper level of trust. Perhaps that’s because there’s a lot of bad behavior — but how do we change course? Surely not by assuming all “behavior” that makes us uncomfortable — friendliness and warmth, to name two — are “bad.” (Not to say that my kindness is not well received by many people in San Francisco. There are in fact many kind people here, and I do still love this city. Still, I’m not the only one noticing that SF has changed in the last decade in this regard. See again my article “Make San Francisco Nice Again!”)
I showed the anecdote to a half a dozen women friends, all of them scholars and professionals, and none of them had the reaction of the women online, and some outright snorted and guffawed at those reactions. One said that I had been caught by the furor caused by the “Incel” and “MRAzn” groups.
Have our brains become eroded by the internet? Are we losing the capacity to understand nuance, complexity and depth?
Clearly, I touched a wound with my words. That my words were misread and led to an uproar is but a symptom of the wound. Perhaps I could have been more compassionate off-the-bat to the wounds expressed online as rage, misperception and name-calling, instead of being confused and exasperated. I hope I’m making up for it now. But the episode was also a clear example of not just what Emotional Intelligence psychologist Daniel Goleman calls cyberdisinhibition, but what I call cyberdysregulation. Without seeing each other face-to-face, without comforting each other with facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and presence, we can literally go mad.
I don’t think anyone who knows me considers me unsafe, thoughtless, or uncompassionate, particularly towards women and women’s issues, though we all can learn more in life. While I know my recent experience cannot compare in magnitude with how women of color like these are often abused when discussing issues of racism and sexism online, it reminded my why I have deactivated social media for years at a time, as I have discussed in my 2015 New York Daily News Op-Ed, “Deactivate Facebook and Become Human Again,” and in my 2017 book Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks. If we make it impossible to talk about our relationships and dissatisfactions online and in person, what hope is there for us?
There is understandable distress about the online and IRL behavior of those self-described “Incels” and “MRAzn’s,” but I think we need to be able to call each other in with compassion and humor, and defuse the call out culture, with its pitched emotion and often faulty logic, which blights any chance of reasonable dialogue about difficult issues. In the end, I sent the leader of this exchange a link to my last blog: Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 14.9: Family as Metaphor, Family as Reality, and an invitation to repair our relationship — albeit preceded by considerable pained anger at how I was treated online. Whether or not there is a repair in the future, I wish that online leader and others in the group well. Those who are suffering can cause suffering. I hope that I don’t cause more than I help resolve, but I’m sure I’ve made a few messes in my day as well. But don’t we all get to be human too? Last summer, I wrote the poem The Great Vehicle about our predicament.
I hope Asian American romcoms won’t all have to address violence and harassment going forward, as this blog was later understandably tasked to do. But if so, I have a trilogy in mind. When Hari and Sally Avoided Each Other Because Of Unresolved Childhood Trauma, then Love Actually — With Misogynist Zombies, and the finale, Four Asian American Weddings and a Funeral for Racism, Sexism and Homophobia. The prequel trilogy starts with Crazy Facebook Asians, believe me. Working on the scripts now…
While I remain, again, against the odds, a hopeless (or hopeful) romantic — I am a poet, after all — I’ve never been too big on romcoms. Asian American romcoms in particular seem like a culturally specific science fiction. Aziz Ansari’s romances as Dev in MASTER OF NONE, particularly season 2, seemed blatantly ridiculous, as his Italian girlfriend Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) became a life-sized human appendage to his ego, a ventriloquist’s dummy brought to life in a writers’ room. Manic Pasta Dream Girl. TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE (directed by Susan Johnson based on the YA novel by Jenny Han) was a highly praised breakthrough for Asian American girls and women, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t really any added visibility for Asian American boys and men. I think it’s really important that when any of us get a foothold, we do what we can to pull each other up. We are connected, and this goes against the grain of our current American marketing sensibility, which seems to want to disconnect us. This certainly applies to MASTER OF NONE as well, though it did have significant women of color characters in Lena Waithe as Denise, Dev’s friend, Claire-Hope Ashitey as a romantic interest, and other star turns. Even a great romcom based-on-actual-events like THE BIG SICK left me with a twinge of pain, as I remembered the times when I and others I know have been abandoned in our moments of need, so unlike Kumail and Emily. One of psychotherapist and writer David Richo’s “five givens in life” is that “people are not as loving and loyal as you’d like them to be.” That’s been the hardest one to swallow. Maybe we need films to feed our better angels.
The last month has brought us two Hollywood Asian American romcoms, films that give me hope that an onscreen virtual reality in our favor might undo that third body problem, and remind us that we have something more to offer each other, as Asian Americans. Perhaps they can give us permission to be romantic with one another, something not allotted at birth to our immigrant and children-of-immigrant souls.
THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR (directed by Ry Russo-Young based on the YA novel by Nicola Yoon) stars Yara Shahidi (BLACK-ISH and GROWN-ISH) and Charles Melton (RIVERDALE) as teens, Natasha and Daniel, who fall in love in one improbable New York day. Nicola Yoon, who is biracial, remarked that she wanted to write a romance about teens who could have been her parents. She succeeded marvelously. Daniel saves Natasha’s life after he is struck by her lightning in Grand Central Station, and then starts the ball rolling at a café with a few of the famous 36 Questions. (I seem to be more of a 36 Lifetimes kind of guy.) The sweet love story played out before the timely and foreboding backdrop of impending deportation (now there’s a third body problem), layered with history lessons of the connection of Koreans to the Black hair care industry and a tense portrayal of sibling rivalry with Jake Choi as Daniel’s older brother, made this an extremely thoughtful, well-paced, well-acted, watchable and heartwarming summer movie. Pay no attention to Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic, IMDB, etc. Only racism and trolling can explain the low ratings for this fine film to me, and I would be happy to see it again. THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR resoundingly delivers us the possibility that rises from being open to another human being.
Maybe that’s what so many of us are frightened of…the possibility that someone might change us, alter our trajectory. Is it so far-fetched to think that our fears of each other are indeed connected to our fraught political state? Have we fallen out because we’ve forgotten how to fall in — love? That the way out might be to fall in love, a little? Then, perhaps, a little more? A friend once commented that dating is not the path to social justice…but I’m not so sure that the two are totally unrelated. Maybe it’s about the state of mind we give each other and the world…
ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE (ABMM) is a definite antidote to the movie too many of us seem to be starring in, ALWAYS BE MY NEVER. Jiayang Fan of The New Yorker brilliantly points out the film’s delicious and numerous shout-outs to Asian American culture and conflicts. I won’t summarize her points or even try to emulate her — but boy, were we on the same page, especially compared to several White reviewers. ABMM got to me from the early moments of seeing young Sasha (Miya Cech and Ashley Liao, and in adulthood, Ali Wong) and young Marcus (Emerson Min and Jackson Geach, and in adulthood, Randall Park) becoming friends over shared Asian meals and laughter. It just felt good to see us in childhood: innocent, free, and just taking each other in. It’s something I only occasionally had, growing up on the move through the South and Midwest, but desperately wanted. Sasha, the latchkey kid, making a meal of spam, rice and furikake, melted me a little — I was a latchkey kid too, prone to frying up a baloney sandwich snack for myself after school. (Hey, I lived in Detroit.) Or trying to warm up my mom’s rasam in the Nescafé bottle she used to store it. (Note to self: Nescafé bottles shatter on the stove.) I loved how Sasha was a great financial success, while Marcus literally pissed on the model minority myth, while still being a really, really good guy. He was a “snack on the street” as director Nahnatchka Khan put it in a Times Talk at the San Francisco Public Library, subverting stereotypes of emasculation along the way by being vulnerable yet real, sexy, attractive and fun. He embarrasses himself at times, and is still lovable. Reminds me of someone I know… And everything from Keanu Reeves’ entrance on was laugh out loud funny and spot-on entertaining for me. Vivian Bang as Marcus’s hippie girlfriend was a real treat. I just loves me some Vivian Bang, especially since last year’s WHITE RABBIT. Not surprisingly, Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times and Stephanie Zacharek of Time really did not get this movie. Their lenses were all wrong. I’ve pointed out the divergence of some White reviewers from my Asian American reality before (here and here), underscoring the need for Asian Americans to do more to support Asian American creativity. We create space for ourselves in society every time we back our makers.
Films like these help us envision our possibilities. Asian American love seems elusive — but we can fall in love with each other. We can be open to each other. We can choose each other, in romance, friendship, and community. We can be each other’s top tier.
What are we waiting for? An Ocean Vuong romcom?
Who knows, we might get there, at this pace.
Keep ’em comin’.
Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. His free ebook on domestic violence and misogyny in the Asian American community is available online. You can find out more about him at www.RaviChandraMD.com, where you can read his latest outburst of poetry called 36 Views of San Francisco, and sign up for an occasional newsletter. Ravi will be running workshops on loneliness and self-compassion in the near future. Sign up to learn about these at sflovedojo.org. Comments about this article welcome at Ravi Chandra’s Psychology Today portal. You might also be interested in prior writing about Debbie Lum’s documentary Single Asian Female, Yellow Fever: The Exotification of Asian Women.)