“So you’re a rice queen now, is that what you’re telling me?”
“What’s a rice queen?”
Feigning ignorance, I tried to catch my fellow expat out as we lay back in our plastic cod-colonial seats in a gay bar in Saigon and fingered our drinks, mine a cheap beer, his a grossly overpriced margarita. Despite my conceited trick of wanting my friend to give me a long and potentially offensive explanation, he was having none of my pretended innocence. Around us were draped and dangled the darlings and despots of the scene. Later that evening we would watch a mock-wedding starring Ho Chi Minh’s finest drag performers, who arrived in otherworldly bridal plumage and walked down an aisle formed of reverent boys, stood choir like, hushed, gratefully taking part in the communion.
“You know what I mean, white guys who only go for Asians”.
I had been dating my Vietnamese boyfriend for six months, and I had only just unwittingly stumbled into this exotic world of rice queens, sticky rice, potato queens, and other assorted characters, which the uninitiated may well expect to meet in an advert for prepackaged convenience foods. I already knew about rice queens from my boyfriend’s description of club nights in Melbourne, where he had gone to university. He described to me nights for white guys to meet Asian guys and vice versa, and a variety of nights catering to other novel combinations. I thought I’d had a fairly comprehensive experience of the scene in the UK whilst I’d been there, but I’d never encountered a club night based on racial preference.
Other terms I heard were new to me: yellow fever – having a newly acquired interest in Asian guys; sticky rice – Asian guys who go for other Asian guys; potato queen – an Asian guy who goes for white guys. Yellow fever is used a lot by the straight expats out here too, but they seem to lack similar racial monikers that are endemic in the lingo of gay. I have now heard my fair share of the local expat patois, the winking, smutty language of our international coterie, and although these terms have a punch to them, I don’t like what they imply.
I hardly need to spell out what’s suspect about labelling guys from Asia as rice. It reduces people from one of the most diverse areas of the world, in which more people live than anywhere else, into a stereotyped picture of glutinous homogeneity. And before you cry ‘political correctness gone loopy’, I’m not arguing we all suddenly cut out our tongues and become polysexual uber-beings with a rainbow like array of sexual partners. However, I would like us to think about how the words we use can hide deeper assumptions, and how they cause some of us to feel degraded and ashamed.
Underneath the questionable racism of these names there lurk a few ideas about relationships between people from the West and Asia that don’t seem to go away. Becoming newly enlightened about the possibility of having sex with those who don’t share the same skin colour as you is smuttily referred to as some kind of disease or fetish, the dreaded yellow fever. It is as if one had suddenly developed a serious issue with shoe sniffing or stealing underwear. And just as one can recover from a disease, it is implied that this stage of your life will soon be passed. A brief dabble before returning to the fold.
A few months after I had split up with my boyfriend and returned to the UK my parents remarked that it was for the best, and that I really shouldn’t have thought about bringing him to the UK. That strange disbelief when you hear these views from your otherwise sensible parents: “we can’t go letting in everyone from abroad, there isn’t room!” They’d been happy to humour my relationship whilst I’d been away, but turned their noses up at it becoming a lifelong set up. Why is it that so many relationships between people from the West and Asia are seen as either lighthearted juvenile experimentation or the desperate remedy for an aging libido?
People seem amazed when the sexual proclivities of those around them change and adapt. In the UK I’d fancied the type of people who I’d been surrounded by growing up: my school mates, Jamie from Eastenders or that one with the curtain fringe from A1. Now the blond centre parting does nothing for me. These early crushes tended to be on white people, because one had to look very hard to find any other ethnicity represented as sexy. It is still rare in the UK to find Asian men represented as serious romantic figures in the media. In China, surprisingly, you see Chinese people everyday, in the media and on the street, so it’s no revelation that the looks, fashions and quirks of China begin to develop an appeal.
Desire seems to flow towards whatever object is placed just out of reach. This changes; old loves and interests wax and wane; new locales, loves and privations create new cravings. But for some reason, although we have triumphed over those who said we couldn’t express our desire for anyone other than members of the opposite sex, we now happily package and limit ourselves by the words we use and the damaging ideas we have of what it means to date someone from that still confusing place: abroad.
I’m sure the ever resourceful English language will soon gift us new slang that zestily embraces our experiences, and whilst we leave the tongues of our peers to babble and brew up outrages in bars it will do us all good to examine our assumptions about inter-cultural relationships, and question why some of us feel the need to label other people’s desires so readily. Although relationships between people from different countries can present to us all sorts of challenges, they also give us the opportunity for discovery and the breaking of new ground, personal and cultural.