Early in Seeking Asian Female, a documentary that premiered this month and is available to stream on PBS, a string of interview subjects, all Caucasian men, young and old, are asked to state their name and dating preference. Each declares that the woman for him, no matter who she turned out to be, would undoubtedly be Asian: "I know for a fact that I'll end up marrying an Asian girl. I just know that"—a certainty built on a particular kind of fantasy: "I think they give more consideration to how the man feels than sometimes themselves."
Filmmaker Debbie Lum chooses from among them Steven, a 60-year old Californian, for her subject, in part because of his guilelessness—He admits to the camera, "There's this Vietnamese movie called The Scent of Green Papaya that's got this idyllic servant girl who cooks these beautiful meals. And you think 'gee, would it be like that?"—and in part for his pro-activity. He goes through scores of Chinese Internet pen-pals before finding 30-year-old Sandy, a woman from Anhui, to bring back to the States and marry. "She looks so Chinese!" He expresses the giddy excitement of a child at Christmas, anticipating that he will get his wish. "I like the Chinese look."
In a voiceover, Lum wonders, "What kind of woman would move country to marry a man she met on the Internet?" In Sandy, we find the answer to be "a brave one." As it follows Steven and Sandy through their early days together, this becomes Seeking Asian Female's most resonant message.
Depictions of so-called "mail order brides" and the men they marry are rarely flattering sketches of either party, as so much of the time they ought not to be. The image comes to mind of seedy casino-lit clubs in desolate, degenerate parts of the world shown on TV new-zines, where "romance tour" parties feature harems of young women surrounding icky old men, awkwardly keeping up an over-exaggerated enthusiasm at the prospect of marrying one. Typically, one or more party appears to have unsavory motives to subjugate or manipulate the other: To to snag an unsuspecting husband for a green- card and money, or to take advantage of an innocent young woman. Or just as frequently, stories elicit only pity for seemingly desperate women looking for a ticket out of an impoverished country. It feels as if the struggle for self-possession has already been lost as they recite for the camera white-knight fantasies of escape. We shudder to imagine what might be in store.
But the focus of Seeking Asian Female is not, and indeed could not possibly be, merely about the vexations of realized fantasy or the psychology of "yellow fever," as Lum set out to explore. Sandy is no object of anyone's wish-fulfillment. Her marriage to Steven is far secondary to her self-sufficiency, bravery, and intelligence in defining who she is. Immediately after moving to San Francisco, she sets about learning English, making plans to go to college, in the hopes of finding work as a nurse. We learn through Lum's voiceover that in China, Sandy had moved from her village at age 18 to Shenzhen, the country's fourth largest city, and worked her way up for the factory floor to an office job, so that she could afford to buy her parents a house in their home town.