Yellow Fever

I saw a tweet the other day that said “Germanic women are like Jaguars. Rare, flashy, beautiful, but shitty maintenance. Asian women are like BMWs. They are practical machines, but they’re practically being given out for free.”

When I was 9 or 10,  I was looking for something in my dad’s closet, and a porn DVD fell from the top shelf. Or maybe it was a VHS. All I remember was that it had a lot of naked Asian women on the cover. I couldn’t reach the top part of the closet, so I just tried to hide it as best as I could. I’m not sure I even fully understood what it was at the time, but I knew it was something I was not supposed to be looking at.

Several years after I found the porn DVD (or VHS?), I was at a bar with my friends in Germany after the Bitburg High School prom. I was drinking a sex on the beach with Char, Megan, and Mariel. They laughed when I faked a New Zealand accent and lied to a group of grown men flirting with us, telling them that I was from Auckland. We were all seniors in high school, still a month away from graduation. Some of us, including me, were not yet 18.

“Let’s do blowjobs!” one girl suggested. I had never heard of this before, but she came back with a tray of shots topped with whipped cream. She said that you’re only allowed to use your mouth, and you can’t pick up the glass with your hands. I licked the whipped cream off, and then spilled the rest of it all over myself when I couldn’t get my mouth to fit around the rim of the shot glass. As the night went on, another man approached me, and I was, for the first time in my life, extremely drunk.

“Are you angry about something?” he asked me. He had a slight southern drawl.

“No,” I said, rolling my eyes. “But I’ve been told I have a resting bitch face.”

He bought me a Jack and Coke, and we chatted for a while. I didn’t lie about where I was from this time, but I did lie about my age. I told him I was 19, and he said he was 24. He told me he had been stationed in Korea before Germany, and I mentioned that I am half Korean. I took another swig of the Jack and Coke, which tasted like old dishwater, but at that point I didn’t care. I leaned in to kiss him. It was my first kiss.

We texted often after that, and I admitted that I was really 17, not 19, and still in high school. He said he didn’t mind, just that we had to be careful and I couldn’t tell anyone about this. He was getting out of the Air Force and moving back home to Texas in two months anyway. Maybe because he thought there would be no consequences since he was leaving soon, he asked me to send him nudes. I told him, truthfully, that I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I had never even kissed anyone before him. I knew I had been seen by my peers as a prude, but if they knew what I was getting into now, I’d be called a slut. I might not have been sexually experienced, but I did know that for girls my age, there is no in-between.

He asked to see me again, and at first I met him on the path that goes through the cornfields just outside of Spangdahlem Air Force Base. A few weeks later he asked me to meet him in a hotel room on base. I went to meet him, but I was very clear that I had limits to what I would do. I was not ready for what he wanted from me, and besides, I barely knew him. He didn’t really ask me much about my life, nor did he tell me much about his.

When I confided in my friend Zach, a former Bitburg student who moved back to the States at the beginning of senior year, he told me that he was pretty sure this particular airman was in a relationship with another Bitburg senior girl a year or two ago. At first I doubted whether Zach was telling the truth, but there was no reason for him to lie. Maybe he confused him with someone else? The girl graduated before I moved to Germany, so I never knew her. I searched her name on Facebook out of curiosity. She was also half Asian. Filipino or Thai, I think. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe I was just another underage, mixed-race Asian plaything.

The airman said he had no idea who the girl was when I confronted him about it. He said that I was the first high school girl that he’d messed around with. I couldn’t tell if he was lying or not. It didn’t matter anyway, I decided. He moved to Texas, and I was somewhat relieved that I never had to see him again.

*

In early August, I was back at the same bar for my friend Char’s 18th birthday. An Asian-American man, presumably in his mid-twenties, tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was half Asian. Half Korean, I told him. He high-fived me and said he was too. He told me his name was Dan.

We hit it off immediately, in part because of our shared ethnicity. We talked about the places we had traveled to in Europe and elsewhere in the world. He had also been stationed in Korea. I told him I was going to move to Leiden, the Netherlands, in two weeks for college. I was planning to double major in business administration and media communications in college.

He was so much different than the other airman. He hesitated when he learned I was 17, but we decided it wouldn’t hurt to just be friends on Facebook and get to know each other. What could really happen? He did not expect me to do anything I didn’t want to do, nor did he ask me anything that made me uncomfortable. Instead, he told me about his mom, who is Korean and lived in Massachusetts, and I told him that my mom was adopted from Seoul when she was a baby.

Over the course of the next few days, we texted constantly. We talked about our favorite Harry Potter characters and his weird obsession with Tom Cruise. He wanted to know what my favorite movies were and what my family was like. I wanted to know everything about him too — did he speak Korean at all? What kind of music was he into?

We met up at the bar again the following Friday. I came with Char and my neighbor, Christina, and they joined a group of young airmen playing cards. When Dan saw me, he seemed uncomfortable this time. He was sitting close to me and making eye contact, but he was tense. He knew that being with a 17-year-old was wrong.

“Do you think there are alternate universes?” he asked me.

“Sure, there could be,” I said. “I read about the bubble universe theory in my physics class in high school. I mean, I’m not a STEM major, but the theory sounded cool.”

“You know we can’t be together. We can’t do this.”

“Maybe there’s another universe where this would have worked out,” I said, finishing my drink. I went back to Char and Christina. We danced at the bar next door and then went home.

I woke up to a string of texts from Dan saying that there had to be a way for us to make things work. I agreed. Char was covering for me — we told my parents I was going to hang out with her and some other friends on base. Dan picked me up in the bowling alley parking lot, a covert enough location. He took me to his apartment and put on a Tom Cruise movie.

“I like your tattoos,” I told him. He had a tiger, some hibiscus flowers (the national flower of Korea), and Korean lettering.

“I got them for my sister,” he said. “That’s her name written in Korean. Lisa. She died last year.”

He put his arm around me and kissed me. I was glad that I lived in a universe where we existed in the same time and space. Maybe somewhere, there’s an alternate universe where that moment exists forever.

*

I first moved to Leiden in mid-August, a few days before freshman orientation. I made friends quickly, first with my roommate, Kiyu, who was from Tokyo, and then with Mads, the girl in the dorm next to mine, who was from Buffalo, but had spent the last several years in Greece. I also became close with a Chinese girl named Weini, who lived with her Dutch fiancé on the other side of town. We all enjoyed going out together, but we also liked to cook for each other and study together. It seemed that my social life would be fun and relatively drama-free in college.

One evening in September, an Air Force veteran from one of my classes sent me a message on Facebook. He asked if I wanted to hang out for a bit. I figured he was just trying to make friends, as all the new freshmen were that first semester. He was in his mid-twenties, originally from Indiana, and had probably done six to eight years in the Air Force. His last base had been in England, and he was now using the GI Bill for school. We grabbed some takeout from a Japanese restaurant down the street, and walked along the canal by the windmill. I sat on a bench by the water, and my feet didn’t touch the ground. Dutch people are freakishly tall, and the bench was clearly not made for someone my size.

“You’re so tiny!” he said, laughing.

“It’s these damn Asian genes,” I joked. “When was the last time you saw a tall Korean girl?”

“I’ve actually dated mostly Asian girls. I don’t think I’ve dated a mixed girl though.” I sensed where he was trying to steer the conversation.

“My boyfriend is actually half Korean too,” I said quickly. “I met him in Germany of all places. What are the odds of that, right?” I wasn’t sure if Dan was really my boyfriend. We hadn’t had that discussion and it had only been a month since I’d met him, but we texted every day and clearly liked each other a lot. Plus, he said the next time I went back to visit Germany, he would clear his schedule just to see me.

About a month later, the veteran started dating a Singaporean girl from our university. He stopped hanging out with me once he started dating her. I supposed as long as he had an Asian girl on his arm, it didn’t matter who the girl was.

*

At the start of my second semester of college, six months after I first met Dan, things between us began to fall apart. We had seen each other every few weeks when I would go back to Germany to visit my family, but now it seemed I would not see him for a very long time, if ever again. He was getting out of the military and moving back to Massachusetts. We decided not to pursue a romantic relationship any further. How could we, living on different continents? I knew it had been too good to last.

After Dan left Europe, I was devastated, but my friends urged me to move on. I went to a party with Mads just before the end of the spring semester, and a grad student from Singapore struck up a conversation with me. I had heard about him around campus, mostly that he did a lot of cocaine. He was 30, and I was 18, but he didn’t seem that old. He hung out with a lot of the undergrads, who were probably buying coke from him. Before I left the party, we exchanged phone numbers, and he said that he would show Mads and me his favorite clubs in The Hague when we came back for the fall semester.

Around the same time, the Air Force veteran broke up with his girlfriend and started talking to me again. He texted me after our class together, asking me to grab coffee with him and hang out like we did before he started dating the Singaporean girl. I was lonely and sad, still missing Dan terribly, so I figured grabbing a coffee wouldn’t hurt.

“Have you seen that new show Fresh Off The Boat?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I think it’s great that we finally have a popular show with an all Asian cast! You don’t really see that many Asian characters on TV.”

“My ex said that it reminds her a lot of her family.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Did he think I related to that show too just because I have an Asian mom? I mean, the family in Fresh Off The Boat was Chinese, not Korean!

“Well, it’s pretty good so far,” I said. I could have gone on about how not all Asian-Americans are the same, and how there’s so much diversity within the Asian-American community that one show is never going to be representative of everyone, but I just sipped my coffee. We left the café and just meandered around the city.

We spent what must have been hours walking around Leiden, past St. Pieterskerk, along the quiet canals, and finally settled on the bench by the Rembrandt statue as the streetlights came on.

“Should we go back to my place?” he asked after we sat in the dark for a few minutes.

“Um, sure,” I said. “I don’t think my roommate would appreciate it if we went to mine.” I was supposed to want this. This is what moving on meant, right?

*

The Air Force veteran was gone by the fall. He was doing a study abroad semester in Thailand, and from what I saw on Facebook, he had a Thai girlfriend within a month of moving to Hua Hin. The Singaporean grad student texted me quite a bit over the summer, and it became clear that he was interested in me as more than a friend.

“I’ve never fucked a mixed girl before,” he told me via text. “I like that you look more white, ‘cause I usually can’t get with white bitches. White bitches don’t like Asian guys, but I wanna know if you taste more white or Asian *winky face emoji*.” I assumed this was just how older men flirted. It’s what every almost older man wanted from me, the barely legal half Asian girl.

I started seeing the Singaporean grad student on weekends, just going to bars at first, and later spending the night at his house. There were times when he didn’t take no for an answer, but I figured since I put myself in that situation, it was my own fault. It’s not like he was violent with me, he just didn’t really hear the word “no.” Maybe sometimes I didn’t say it, but I don’t remember saying “yes” either. But was it really assault if I kept hanging out with him?

He would sometimes try to put his hands down my pants or up my shirt when we were with friends. It was like he was trying to show people that he owned me. I would tell him to knock it off, but he wouldn’t listen. At a holiday semi-formal event we attended with some of my friends, he looked me up and down and greeted me with “nice tits,” before going to get a drink. I was embarrassed, and it wasn’t the first (nor the last) time I felt humiliated in public by him.

I later found out he groped Mads at a party we went to together when I was in the bathroom, and he hit one of his female friends, giving her a black eye, at another party. I ended things after a few months.

After I finished my sophomore year, I moved to New Mexico to be closer to my family. My dad was stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base after the two years he had done in Germany. Even after I moved, the Singaporean grad student found ways to weasel his way back into my life until I finally blocked him on all social media.

*

A year after I moved to New Mexico, Dan was in Albuquerque for a couple weeks for work. I hadn’t dated or been with any men since the grad student back in the Netherlands. Dan and I had stayed in touch, and though we hadn’t been able to pursue a romantic relationship before, it didn’t seem so far-fetched now. I was 20 and nearly finished with my degree at the University of New Mexico. Once I graduated, I figured I could go wherever I wanted.

Dan picked me up and we went to a Korean restaurant for dinner. I ordered bibimbap, and Dan ordered spicy pork bulgogi. We talked about work — he was working in a federal job now, and I had recently started freelance social media marketing and applied for a marketing internship at a museum for my last semester of college.

The waitress brought us our food and handed Dan a pair of chopsticks. She looked at me and smirked.

“Do you want a fork?” she asked me.

“No,” I said. “Chopsticks are fine, thanks.”

Dan and I laughed about the chopsticks incident later when we were walking to his car.

“It’s just because I look whiter than you,” I said. “Or maybe she thought I was Hispanic. That’s happened before too!”

“You do look whiter than me,” he agreed. “You have a white nose and I have a Korean nose. I hated it when I was younger.”

“Well, I think your nose is very cute.”

*

I finished my degree, and worked at the museum where I had gotten an internship for about a year to save money before I moved to Boston to be with Dan. A few months after I left, my parents told me they were getting a divorce.

My dad had a girlfriend, a Filipina woman in California who was the ex-wife of one of his former airmen. They broke up after a few months, and he started seeing an Indonesian woman in Dallas. I supposed as long as he had an Asian woman on his arm, it didn’t matter who the woman was.

Madison Block

Madison Block has a BA in Communications & Journalism from the University of New Mexico. In 2018, she won the Albuquerque Author Festival nonfiction writing contest. Her work can be found in Korean American StoryBurnt Pine Magazine, and Mom Egg Review. Madison currently lives in the Boston area and works in marketing.

@mblock507

@maddie._block

Featured image: Artwork by Rafik Wahba on Unsplash.

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