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CAAMFest 2013

Memoirs of a Superfan, Vol. 8.6: Ai, Ai, Tell ‘Em That is Human Nature

Posted March 22nd, 2013 by chelseapark in CAAMFest 2013, Memoirs of a Superfan

Tickets at RUSH for Seeking Asian Female
Saturday, March 23, 2013, at New People.

Check out the FREE Seeking Asian Female: So Beautiful Panel
Saturday, March 23, 2013 7:00 pm

Ai, Ai, Tell ‘Em That is Human Nature
By Ravi Chandra, M.D.
March 22, 2013

I sat down with Debbie Lum, director of the great new documentary SEEKING ASIAN FEMALE, which screens once more at CAAMFest, and is on Independent Lens in May (  There’s a panel discussion on the topic as well this weekend, with Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man, filmmaker and queer cinema scholar Professor Hoang Nguyen, and moderated by Nicole Wong of Hyphen Magazine.   In April, Lum and her team will be putting up a series of webisodes and blogger commentary on the topic.

In brief, Lum followed a self-professed Asiaphile for five years, on his quest to meet and marry an Asian woman.  He uses online match-making sites to communicate with a woman from Anhui province, and she comes to the U.S., not speaking English, and he not speaking Chinese.  The director, trying to maintain distance and neutrality behind the camera, is drawn into the relationship as a translator.  It is a very personal movie, for all parties involved; Lum ends up having a journey during the film as well, as she moves from her preconceived notions based on a lifetime of being targeted by “Yellow Fever”, to an acceptance of this particular relationship, with all its nuances.  “I ended up with a much more human story of two people relating to each other,” rather than a portrayal of right or wrong.  “All of the ways I had thought about the issue had to be thought about differently after having filmed their story.”

Still, “We don’t like it when there are men out there objectifying us.  (But) when you get older, you realize people make a lot of mistakes in making a relationship,” including making projections that don’t match with reality or don’t allow the person to be who they really are.

Since we know that Asian American women older than 65 and also between the ages of 15-24 have very high rates of depression and suicide, I wonder how these projections and internalizations affect mental health.  I would argue that internalizing a devaluation – from family, society, or love interests – does profoundly impact mental health.  Taking on a subtle aversion to Asian American identity affects both the person with the aversion and the people they come into contact with.

My sense is that this topic is less of a hot-button issue than it was when I was in college.  Love is ultimately such a private issue – no one outside a particular relationship can ever completely know its ins and outs.  Debbie Lum has given us the gift of the possibility of understanding, through the relatedness of Steve and Sandy.  In the end, it is their capacity to relate that wins us over.


Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco.  You can find more of his writing and performance at, where he invites you to sign up for an occasional newsletter.   His Pacific Heart blog is at Psychology Today,  On Twitter he is @going2peace.

  • Ravi Chandra

    I stand partially corrected, post Panel. This is still a hot area – because there are still issues of race, class, and power surrounding the context of individual “choice” about relationship. Of course, it is still tremendously uncomfortable for women to be the target of the “male gaze”particularly when they are approached because of their race. It is still a big problem for Asian men, because it is another example of how they’ve been ‘desexualized’ by media and society. I learned a new word, ‘hiergamy’, which is the hierarchy of masculine sexuality (itself problematic because it assumes that there is an ideal of desirable masculinity, rather than a spectrum of positive possibilities, a far healthier construction.) I think the issue has become more nuanced for people of my generation, as we’ve had more examples of interracial relationships. My work requires me to be as open minded as possible and non-judgmental when it comes to my patients, who may either prefer relationships with Asian women or white men. The goal for any of these patients is self awareness, acceptance and mental health, which may involve an exploration of their projections and preferences. The beauty of Lum’s film is it brings us up close and fairly personal with a relatively extreme form of the relationship – a transnational match, with an older man and much younger woman. Somehow, they manage to make the relationship work. In the end, Lum is far less critical of the relationship, because of this fact. We still have a lot to do on the context that relationships arise in, though – those issues of race, class, power and gender disparity. I’m grateful that CAAM and Lum keep us thinking with their thoughtfulness.

    • Ravi Chandra

      Oh, btw, tune into next week’s This American Life – the topic for the whole hour is “yellow fever” and features an interview with Debbie Lum.