Lately, I’ve been pondering this paradox in my life surrounding the word “yellow.” In case you can’t tell from my lovely last name, I am in fact Asian, born in the United States and raised by
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two loving parents who emigrated from Taiwan because of those quintessentially American ideals of freedom and the pursuit of happiness.
I like to make a lot of jokes about the fact that I am yellow, maybe more than is appropriate in our society. For example, a conversation with two friends – one white, one yellow – recently went something like this:
Person 1: You know, I was really yellow when I came out of the womb.
Me: Me too.
Person 2: I still am.
I’ve noticed that my joking can make people slightly uncomfortable, as if the reminder of my skin color (which at the moment is more like a nice Vitamin-D-deficient light tan) is unnecessary (which is probably true) or discomforting (which it shouldn’t be).
Yet, I often hear “yellow” used in the context of the term “yellow fever,” a label for a person’s preference or tendency toward Asian people in the romantic and/or sexual sense, most often in reference to heterosexual males. I use this term all the time, and I hear it often enough at the College. It’s catchy, and with the disproportionate number of Asian females at this school, it is often far too useful and accurate of a description.
However, these days I’ve been feeling conflicted. It all began with the question of how it is less socially appropriate for me to use “yellow” to refer to myself, but more appropriate for anyone to use “yellow fever” when discussing a person’s romantic or sexual pursuits. I mean, if anyone in the Williams community were to start using the term “black fever” or “red fever,” there would probably be a mini-uprising that would force entries to have another awkward mediated discussion about the convoluted issues of race and hookups. And in overthinking this paradox, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that if anything, “yellow fever” is probably the more offensive term of the two in a hypersensitive and politically correct world.
Over the years, I’ve decided that the role of my race begins with first, an acceptance that I am Asian, and second, the realization that my race is only one facet of my identity rather than an all-encompassing term for who I am. For those of you who like sets, I am an entire set of characteristics that includes the term “Asian,” rather than just one element of the set of Asians. As such, I don’t mind calling myself yellow, as it is just one of the many adjectives used to describe me, alongside small, introverted, cynical and unathletic. On the other hand, a term like “yellow fever” begins with that set of Asians and reduces all the poor boys and girls on the victim side of yellow fever to their racial identity.
I highly doubt anyone wants to be labeled purely by his or her race. No one was outwardly racist against Asians where I grew up in Massachusetts, so I was never really aware of my race until I hit high school, when I befriended a crazy ball of energy who spent her free time longboarding and smoking pot. She would call me her “only Asian friend” and react to my good scores on tests with, “Oh, of course Tricia did well; she’s Asian.”
The somewhat flattering Asian stereotype – smart, hardworking, quiet, nerdy – began to travel with me wherever I went, and I sometimes felt as if my attributes were a result of my race, a feeling that came to a climax during the avalanche of college admissions. For all the schools that didn’t accept me, some people would reason that it was because I was just one of many Asians, a proposition that boggled my mind. I sincerely don’t want to believe this idea, and besides, I entered the college admissions process so halfheartedly and thank the gods that be that I miraculously got into Williams. But how can I not wonder a little how my life would be different if I were white, or black, or brown?
I suppose a term like “yellow fever” has increasingly made me feel off-kilter because it suggests that someone might be attracted to me purely on the basis of my race, a social construct that I have no control over whatsoever. It’s a weird feeling, and so I’m thinking maybe I should stop using a term with such a one-dimensional concept underlying it.
I would be lying if I said I have a solution to this issue, and I’m in no position to tell you what to do. Besides, I already feel conflicted and hypocritical just writing this op-ed. At the least, I hope you understand what it’s like to think in terms of each set of individuals, rather than that large set of Asians. Regardless of race, sexuality, gender, major or sport, a person is firstly an individual, a set of many wonderfully interesting characteristics that paint his or her portrait. For example, I love the color yellow and I’m happy to be yellow, but I’m first and foremost Patricia Ho, that quiet girl with short hair at Williams who takes biology classes and loves to play cello and piano and just happens to be yellow.
Tricia Ho ’16 is from Newton, Mass. She lives in Fitch.