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Global stories, local voices

|| Race is the darkest fiction

The Color of Desire

By Jean-Baptiste Phou

Whether we met at a bar or via the soon-to-be-outdated Minitel one sentence was recurrent: “Sorry, I am not into Asians”. That's all I was to these people: “Asian” and apparently, this placed me on the bottom rung of the desirability ladder.

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Growing up watching the Club Dorothée (similar to The Mickey Mouse Club), I became addicted to sitcoms. When Gérard appeared in “Les Filles d’à côté” (The Girls Next Door), a popular show in the 90’s, I was in a state of shock. It was the first time I saw an overtly gay character on TV. However, he was a comical character, lacking substance, had a very muscular body, was cartoonishly effeminate and I couldn’t entirely relate to him. On top of that, everyone around me made fun of him: “Homo!” “Faggot!” “Freak!”

Even if these insults were not directed to me personally, I really took them to heart. From very early on, I knew I was attracted to other boys. At the same time, I came to understand the mockery or even hatred that such a difference could provoke, if people knew how I felt. So I decided not to tell anyone and felt terribly isolated. In the Parisian suburb where I grew up, there were no other boys like me out in the open. As a teenager, I was convinced that I would end up alone, that my case was unique and hopeless. I wondered if this miserable and marginalized life that I foresaw was even worth it.

Located only a few kilometres from where I lived, I had heard of an idyllic neighbourhood in the centre of Paris called “Le Marais”, where handsome men would walk unashamedly hand in hand and even kiss in broad daylight. Not yet eighteen and with a knot in my stomach , I made my first foray into the bars of the French capital. Amidst the big buff guys, dressed in tight and trendy clothes, dancing to techno music, I obviously didn’t fit in. I was a suburban teenager with a complex, a skinny frame, floating in my baggy clothes and hiding behind thick glasses, in short a wallflower, totally invisible.

But my looks weren't the only reason I was rejected. Whether we met at a bar or via the soon-to-be-outdated Minitel one sentence was recurrent: “Sorry, I am not into Asians”. That's all I was to these people: “Asian” and apparently, this placed me on the bottom rung of the desirability ladder.

Not long after, with the advent of dating websites, this was even displayed in participants’ headline profiles: “no Asians, no fems”. A “don’t even bother” that was almost as common as “no pic, no reply”. Thinly veiled as “preferences”, racist comments abounded: “you all look the same”, “you are all bottoms”, “you’ve got small dicks”.

Other minority groups seemed to benefit from more favorable stereotypical traits: Black guys represented the well-hung stallion, Arabs were dominating macho-men. They were even the stars during popular BBB parties, named after France’s famous slogan Black Blanc Beur (“Black, White, Arab”) that supposedly represented a multicoloured France, but from which Asians were excluded… In reality, no matter which group, it all boiled down to oversimplified, pigeonholing stereotypes. Only White guys seemed to have the right to define themselves as they wished, in line with their personality, tastes and practices.

The gay scene turned out to be like a kind of ultraliberal and highly specialized market where products of all kinds were available: twinks, daddies, bears, underwear, leathers, S&M… and ethnicity was just another category among many, with “Asians” being the last link in the food chain, left aside along with “fems”, “fats” and “olds”. In a nutshell, all those who did not conform to the exalted image of muscle-bound, hirsute and well-hung virility.

I thought I’d find a community where I would be accepted and bloom. Instead, I discovered an exclusionary and sectarian environment.

Then I learnt about men who were only into Asians, that you could meet at certain parties and on specific websites. I decided to give it a go! What I discovered was a repulsive creepy scene bearing a resemblance to Phuket but without the beaches or the sunshine; unattractive White men of retirement age bouncing pretty “Oriental” boys, more or less consenting, on their laps. The conversations were all oddly similar:
“Let me guess where you’re from: …you don’t look Korean or Japanese… hmmm… Vietnamese… that’s it, you look just like a Vietnamese!”
“You were born in France? … So you’re a banana… yes a banana, yellow outside, white inside!”
“Oh, you are Cambodian! How great, I just came back from Laos! The boys there are so poor but they have such lovely smiles!”
And of course, the famous catch-cry that always followed:
“I just looooooooove Asians!!”

I had thought being desired for my ethnic background would be flattering, but it was quite the opposite. Instead, I felt diminished and turned into an interchangeable commodity.

People continued to look at me exclusively through the prism of race, somehow supposed to define my entire being. It summed me up. I was rejected for it. Fetishized for it. Who cares about my personality, my traits, my pastimes, the efforts I made to be original, my by-now-more-polished appearance? Nothing made any difference. I was stuck in this identity.

My entrance into gay life was strewn with disappointments. Even so, I couldn’t just accept that this was how it would be. Instead, I came up with a new strategy. Since it was “White” guys who objectified all others based on racial characteristics, which allowed them to place themselves on top of the pyramid, I decided to eliminate them from my preferences too. So, from that moment on, I decided to enter a phase of resistance: reclaim the humanity that I and others had been denied, using my body as my unique weapon. Not yet old enough to vote, I no longer considered carnal or sentimental relations as mere relationships, but instead as political and militant acts.

Nevertheless, I was careful not to repeat the same clumsy behaviors that others had had with me. It would not be my turn to categorize or fetishize. That’s how I met my first boyfriends. Guys that were important to me, first and foremost because I loved them, rather than because they were from the West Indies, West Africa or Latin America.

These first years of exploring love were also an exploration of different body shapes and skin tones. Yet there was one group which seemed to be totally out of reach, inaccessible, impregnable: other Asians. Whenever I tried to approach one, whether Vietnamese, Cambodian or Chinese in origin, I ran headlong into a wall. I was totally thrown by the way they expressed their rejection: “But I am not a lesbian!”, “I would NEVER go out with another Asian: it would be like sleeping with my sister!”. “Only White men can satisfy me!”

Apparently, the idea of two Asian men together was considered as something horrific, depraved, and inconceivable. Even though I was staggered by this intra-ethnic and internalized racism, somehow I too came to the conclusion that we were less desirable. How had we reached such a high point of disdain for our own and such self-hatred? Could it be that the colour yellow, supposed to represent our skin tone, actually represented the colour of disgust?

At the age of 24, I went to Spain for my studies before finding a job there. It was also about that time that I started to loosen my criteria. I stopped boycotting White men, telling myself that not all of them were racist oppressors. In fact, it was because I wanted to live fully, and to allow myself all sorts of new pleasures. If I was going to discover a country, I might as well go all in! Sexy Spanish men… here I come!

Ironically, whilst working in Barcelona, I met a White guy from… France! A few months after we started dating, I received a job offer in Singapore and we decided to take off and live this next adventure together.

As a mixed couple, we were immediately categorized: me as a Potato Queen - being a non-White dating a White man, whereas my partner was perceived as a Rice Queen being non-Asian dating an Asian. Considering my sentimental history, I really didn’t see the relevance of this label, but how could I avoid it?

Within the local gay community, everyone was designated by their ethnic background and ethnic preference. Asians attracted to other Asians were called Sticky Rice, while the term for White with White was Mashed Potato. Singapore being a diverse island, there were all sorts of dishes: Curry Queen for Indian fans, Satay Queen for fans of Malays and Indonesians.

These labels bothered me less than the divergent treatments my partner and I received. Whenever we would go out, doors were opened for him, people only talked to him, handed the bill systematically to him whilst they made me feel like his escort, when I wasn’t simply ignored.

In public, I constantly encountered the same unpleasant comments: “Your boyfriend found a job here and you followed him, right?” Whereas, it was exactly the opposite! I would constantly hear comments along the lines of: “He will have all the guys falling at his feet here and he’ll leave you”.

The few times we went out together to gay parties, I watched over, mesmerised, as boys literally threw themselves at him, some even pushing past me with their elbows in order to talk to him. While I experienced these micro-aggressions with great violence, my partner didn’t always notice them or worse, he would deny them, causing tension between us. Over time, we went out less and less, seeing fewer and fewer people. At least, together that is.

The day that he told me that he had had a “moment of weakness” with a Singaporean man, something in me broke. More than the cheating itself, what truly hurt me was the fact that it was with another Asian. How had my values shifted so much? Was my internal compass broken? Our relationship that was already in bad shape fell apart soon after this episode. A few weeks later, we broke up.

Along with the end of this love chapter, I resigned from my finance job in Singapore in order to start a new artistic career. I left practically everything behind me to start afresh in Cambodia, where my parents are from. In the twelve or so years of living there, on and off, I have noticed a tremendous change in the relationships between men.

During my first trips, the gay scene was very discreet. There were only a few bars and obvious prostitution targeting mainly foreign sugar daddies. Homosexuality was taboo and remained hidden. This changed rapidly over the course of the following decade, fueled by the rise of a more assertive youth which took its roots in the middle classes, connected thanks to dating apps and now used to seeing images of attractive Asian men on the Internet and in popular culture.

It was also in Cambodia that I had some brand new experiences. For the first time, when I met Cambodian men, I had the feeling that the racial issue didn’t invite itself into the bedroom.

I no longer had to perform the role of “the Asian guy” or respond to the expectations or projections that came along with it. I could be whatever I wanted, be myself, and even try new versions of myself. The act itself was no longer experienced as a power play that I was trying to free myself from, but rather as an act of liberated pleasure. In their eyes, I became once again a person in my own right.

Even so, I don’t idealize these relationships. Being Cambodian but coming from abroad, ethnically Sino-Khmer, entering another age bracket… there were surely other factors at play but these didn’t affect me anymore.

It took this entire journey to get rid of the weight and limitations linked to my skin colour, be they real or imaginary, external or internalized. With time, I learnt to identify and escape potentially oppressive situations. I became attuned to certain phrases, looks, and attitudes that could be problematic. I now move forward with my eyes open, prepared for whatever comes my way. Along with this quest of self-emancipation, I also stopped rejecting like I had been rejected. I give others the benefit of the doubt even if I can be mistaken. I have often been disappointed but sometimes pleasantly surprised.

Thus, love has come into my life once again, with a man I wouldn’t necessarily have let in if I had stubbornly maintained my previous positions. A man with whom I feel happy, at peace and complemented by, despite our differences, including ethnicity.

The racial issue sometimes interferes in our personal and social life, but becomes a secondary issue that we have learnt to handle together, each of us contributing actively. Most of the time we are simply caught up in everyday life, going through the joys and hardships of any couple.

The racial issue sometimes interferes in our personal and social life, but becomes a secondary issue that we have learnt to handle together, each of us contributing actively. Most of the time we are simply caught up in everyday life, going through the joys and hardships of any couple.

So, to this lonely, gloomy, angry teenager that I used to be; to this despairing teenager consumed by his dark thoughts… I would like to tell him that he will be seen, he will be desired, and he will be loved for everything that he is, in all his complexity and nuance, as a whole and unique person.

To all such teenagers.

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About the author

Jean-Baptiste Phou
Jean-Baptiste Phou

Jean-Baptiste Phou was born in France of Sino-Cambodian parents. He is an author, director, actor and chief in cultural project. His first play "Cambodge, me voici!" is published by Asiathèque in 2017