Amy’s new friend Geraldine is a peroxide blonde. It allows her to be ditzy, she says. Geraldine is never shy although she calls herself an introvert. “I’m a social introvert”, she says. One day, as they were finishing off their second bottle of Chardonnay, Geraldine started talking about yellow fever. At first, Amy thought it was something that Geraldine had caught because when she was little, the Tamil mid-wife had told her mother that Amy had yellow fever. You see, to Amy, yellow fever is a malady. Amy’s yellow fever lasted a few months, her mother would remember. Eventually, it was discovered that Amy had jaundice and because she also had an infection, the jaundice was accompanied by a low grade fever. When Amy had her little girl, her daughter had yellow fever too; the paediatrician said that it was breast milk induced jaundice, a condition that some ethnic types are prone to.
Geraldine’s husband had recently developed a penchant for black hair and slanted eyes, she said to Amy over coffee one morning. In a drunken stupor, he had brought a lap dancer home; she was Indonesian, it turned out. The Indonesian was a college student who was dancing part time to pay off college fees. Geraldine took to the Indonesian immediately. There was a particular neediness in the girl that Geraldine felt needed to be attended to. Gilbert, Geraldine’s husband, thought he’d died and gone to heaven. He loved his wife dearly then.
Geraldine says she has many Asian friends. When she was at boarding school in England, her BFF was a girl from Hong Kong, called Gwendoline Chong: “a very lovely girl with such small hands”; then there was Emilie Taguchi from Tokyo whom she met while working in New York: “so cute, when she laughs, her eyes turn into slits”. She’s very privileged to feel their love and their hospitality, Geraldine told Amy. When Geraldine was little, her mother told her that Asian girls have w-shaped vaginas. Geraldine draws a W in the air when she tells Amy this; squiggly, you know, she affirms. Amy laughs because that is all she can do; Geraldine laughs too because she now knows it’s not true: the Indonesian has a normal shaped vagina, she tells Amy swearing her to secrecy.
Geraldine knows Gilbert has a bad relationship with alcohol and women. They’ve been married 10 years and she’s seen Gilbert change from drunk and horny to drunker and hornier. “What can I do?” she asks. Amy knows it’s a rhetorical question. But she’s so tempted to say “leave, you’re in a toxic marriage!” But she bites her tongue and allows herself to get hooked into Geraldine’s story, her pain and her confusion. Why do I do this, Amy asks herself constantly. She lives in a rhetorical nightmare too.
Last Tuesday, Amy found Geraldine busy cleaning. She’d invited Amy over for coffee and when she’d arrived, Geraldine was in the middle of cleaning out the kitchen.
“My OCD kicked in this morning. I have to clean. I just can’t sit around either, I feel fidgety, must be my ADHD,’ Geraldine says over the din of cupboard doors banging and bottles crashing down the rubbish chute, without looking over at Amy’s way once. There was a raw vulnerability in Geraldine’s voice that morning.
The condominium has rules about not throwing glass bottles down the chute. Amy worries about the cleaners getting cut by broken glass.
“Who cares! I don’t give a damn if people get cut!” Geraldine shouts out as if reading Amy’s thoughts. “I pay these people enough to make sure that the place is cleaned out.”
Amy thinks about a girl in primary school who was always fidgeting and couldn’t sit still. When she was growing up, kids like this were labeled “naughty”, “insolent” and “mentally retarded”. ADHD hadn’t floated to Asia’s shores yet, after all, it was the early 70s in Malaysia. Amy starts to wonder if ADHD is a condition that Geraldine really has or one that she hides behind — another rhetorical question.
Amy remembers that the girl’s parents — Mr and Mrs Chen — were health educators who came into school to talk about sex. “Pre-marital sex spreads disease. Babies are meant to be born healthily within a marriage blessed by God,” they told the students during assembly when Amy was 14 years old. Meanwhile, the Chen’s daughter was spinning on her bottom in the corner where she usually sits when the whole school gathered in the hall. “God keeps the family together, so extra-marital sex is WRONG!” their voices boomed through the microphone as husband and wife took turns to repeat the same phrase, as if emphasising the sentiment through a male and then female voice made what was said gender equal. Mr and Mrs Chen lived rhetorically too.
Geraldine says that she is against divorce. Her religion doesn’t allow for the family unit to be separated. The Indonesian will have to be part of her family make up now because she loves Jesus and will obey his Word. Geraldine tells Amy that Jesus is all about love and that people complicate things too much; life is meant to be simple — LOVE, she shouts out.
Amy was pondering on what it meant to love Jesus when the dog walks by and lays down by Geraldine’s feet. She was emptying out the spice cabinet then. The dog yelps as Geraldine kicks him in its groin, “get out of my way, you stupid dog!” Amy remembers the fidgety girl kicking her in the shins when she tried to help her with tidying up her desk before the school inspector arrived. The class teacher had paired Amy up with the fidgety girl because Amy was the loyal and helpful sort.
Image credit: The Journey of the Yellow Man No.11: Multiculturalism — Lee Wen. National Gallery Singapore.
Lee Wen is performance artist who is remembered for his performance of The Journey of the Yellow Man. This image — an inkjet print on archival paper — is a documentation of his performance and can be found in the National Gallery of Singapore. Through performance, Lee Wen interrogates the meaning of what it means to be an overseas Chinese from Singapore. He lived in London for some years and it was while living there that he started to feel anxious about his identity. He was particularly anxious for being mistaken to be a Chinese from mainland China. Lee Wen says in an essay: “[…] there is a greater sensitivity of prevalent racism when living in a predominantly “white” society. To the West, “the other” is often seen not only as exotic, erotic or primitive but also inferior and subject to colonization.” Inspired by Edward Said’s notion of ‘the Other’ and his own realisation of his position as a post-colonial person living in the West, Lee embarked on a personal research on stereotypical images of the Asian from a western perspective. He discovered a Swedish botanist by the name of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who had categorised people into four types with “The Asiatic (Homo sapiens asiaticus)” being described as “yellow, melancholy, and greedy” juxtaposed against the “(Homo Sapiens europeaeus)” as “white, serious and strong” It seems that western notions of the Oriental as “yellow” have deep roots.
This story is the result of Eva’s processing of conversations that she had with other women who are intrigued by the white man’s penchant for Asian women. “Yellow Fever” is a term used by many non-Asian women to refer to non-Asian men living in Asia who are married to or dating Asian girls. It is an unfortunate phrase replete with undertones of racism reflecting a sense of anxiety and alienation first established by Linnaeus in the 18th century. This story is Eva’s way of expressing her utter disappointment with the insidious and unconscious forms of racism that still exist within societies in the 21st century and especially amongst many Europeans who have chosen to make Asia their home. She asks a couple of rhetorical questions: Is “white fever” an appropriate term to describe Asian men married to or dating “white” women?; on the flip side, when a “white” woman is married to or dating an Asian man, does she have a type of malady, like her “white” male counterpart, referred to as “yellow fever” too?
When Eva discovered Lee Wen’s The Journey of the Yellow Man, she became interested in understanding the perception of the Asian through a western lens as “exotic, erotic or primitive”. Much like Lee Wen who seeks to break the bonds of categorisation through his performance, Eva would like her writing to challenge and break the bonds of intrigue caused by a great deal of misunderstanding amongst certain people about the condition of human attraction. Love is colourblind.
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