There I am in the kitchen, staunchly positioned in front of a flour-dusted cutting board and a small rolling pin. It’s as if I just stepped up to a podium and I’m soaking in the crowd — but in response, I only get awkward feedback from the mic. 

There’s a spotlight on me. It’s warm, and I feel its gaze without even looking up — I’m a lizard under a heat lamp. Over my shoulder is the watchful gaze of my white partner at the time: that cautious, expectational, authoritative set of eyes. His mom tells me he learned how to do this when he spent some time abroad in Japan. 

It’s in moments like these that my feelings of invalidation about my own sense of Asianness seem relatively silly. Since my entry to public school, I was reared with resentment towards Vietnam and all the cunning ways our migratory experience has brought so much clarity into our American careers. 

My mom raised me to be independent, so I often trailed off into my own exclusive Western ventures on the Internet or on T.V. More than anything, my faith in the rigid pillars of the model minority myth and my close proximity to whiteness (whiteness meaning the material opportunities and privileges enriched by being white) led me into a narrow channel of being susceptible to a personal pattern. 

So I come to you in a moment of sheer vulnerability: a holistic review of my dating history reveals that I have a tendency to attract partners who are really into Japanese culture — and that really concerns me. 

We are making gyoza. I’ve never made gyoza before. There are so many ethnic varieties of the dumpling: mandu, guōtiē, bánh bột lọc. In fact, the things universal to us humans are (1) we walk upright, (2) we have opposable thumbs, and (3) we wrap meat in dough. I think about my mom in our very own kitchen making wontons with her nimble fingers (and with such finesse!). 

They were gorgeously blistered and crisp; the thinness of the dough encased the meat filling at such a precise boundary. The wonton was so fragile, yet impermeable, simultaneously holding all and none of its weight. 

In retrospect, they were most likely pre-made wonton wrappers, which is exactly the reason why I feel so nervous. I think about the grandmas in YouTube street food vlogs who reel out dumplings at lightning-fast speeds. I dwell on their movements as I try to inscribe their technique into my own brain like I’m in ‘The Matrix.’ 

I wonder if, by some generational or cultural transitive property, I can hold myself to that same scrutiny and channel that same exactness. Ignoring the bead of sweat on my left temple that I want to itch so badly, I begin to roll.

I roll, I roll, I roll, and I roll, and I roll some more. I try to rotate the dough as I roll in a pseudo-professional way. A part of me begins to believe the grandma thing is actually working. I’m getting cocky until suddenly, with the grace of a football player slamming through a paper banner, my middle finger punctures right through the dough.

In its early stages, everything looked crystal clear. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. I began to catch small glimpses of an anime they’ve been really enjoying, a K-pop group on their Spotify Wrapped, or perhaps the most heinous: a string of Asian exes. 

Then I begin to wonder whether or not ignorance really is bliss. While I do give my previous partners the benefit of the doubt that they like me for more than meets the eye, there’s a point when desirability intersects with how I’m racialized. I’ve learned to stay vigilant because sometimes people are interested in me, not only because I can do a cartwheel, but because I’m Asian. 

Yellow fever, titled after its sickly counterpart, is a form of the social phenomenon of Asian fetishization, particularly how some white or non-Asian people become ill with infatuation towards an Asian person. It’s a lot more nuanced than a dating preference. Asian phenotypes and qualities are frequently itemized into a laundry list of exotic and objectifiable features. 

These are properties of orientalism, a term that describes the observations, assumptions and attitudes of Asia dictated by the Western gaze. In the United States, orientalism manifested into the legislature through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. 

The racial logic of this law created a chasm between Asian people and the rest of the social sphere. However, as the United States developed a racial tolerance towards Asian people later in the twentieth century, it enabled the appropriation of Asian culture even as the legacy of exclusion persisted. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act, despite being a historic piece of legislation, is an ongoing racial process; it constructs the unassimilable quality of exoticism that fundamentally changes how Asian people are understood in the American imagination.

For me, I was raised in a definitively Asian ethnic enclave, so “yellow fever” was not a particular point of contention when I was first coming to terms with my sexuality. As I began to outgrow the dating pool that once enveloped me, I started to enter more white-dominant spaces and encounter these issues on my own accord. It is a feeling of discomfort I keep filed away in the back of my mind, as I’m sure it is for other Asian people on campus. 

Looking at the bigger picture, I really do enjoy how our campus is ethnically diverse, like a picturesque ethnic quilt. Yet, as with any quilt, the stuffing is white. No amount of diversity quotas or Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity principles could distract from the undeniable truth that UC Santa Cruz is a white institution with intentions to favor its white students.

Speaking frankly, it was never really about the gyoza. Underperforming in front of a white person makes me feel like I know less about being Asian, and thus about myself. 

Even if it was never asked from me, I still feel like knowing how to roll gyoza is a criteria I have to surmount in order to affirm my credibility as Asian. As if it was summoned, my insecurity emerges from the flour to notify me that I can only be understood through my performance as an Asian person. 

White people are heralded for learning about my culture while I’ve been engaging with an internal cultural strife for my entire livelihood –– I’ve become somewhat spiteful. 

Sometimes, I feel like I’m being a bad Asian when there is nothing to feel bad about at all. 

To think about it dichotomically defeats its significance; what’s good and bad, or what’s right and wrong, is a Western modality of thinking that contradicts the fluidity of my upbringing. Racialization, then, is an extremely individual process and not an external one: my identity is composed by everything I feel told in the lens of my being.