When you stop looking for whiteness in yourself, you stop looking for it in your partners, writes Naomii Seah.
I decided to stop dating white men long before I broke up with my last partner of that persuasion.
It was the mid-autumn festival of October 2020. In my low-ceilinged North Dunedin bedroom, I crouched over the mooncakes that my parents had lovingly sent me all the way from Tāmaki. My partner was beside me, his lanky arms draped over my bed frame as he watched me peel the cakes from their festive red packaging. Although they were a bit dented, the ornate mooncakes were still glossy brown in their plastic trays, smelling of spiced flour and rich red beans. I cut little slices of them, putting one onto my tongue, salted yolk first; I loved the salty-sweet contrast of that first bite.
I offered a slice to my partner. He nibbled it tentatively. “It’s good,” he said, noncommittally. I watched his jaw wrestling with the thick texture of the red bean paste. “Have another one,” I said, hopefully, extending the tray. I felt as if I was offering him slices of my raw heart, still beating. He looked down at my extended arm and considered it for a moment. “No thanks,” he said, avoiding my gaze. We broke up in February.
As Grace notes in Re:’s new miniseries, Dating While Asian, food is a particular love language among Asian families. In high school, while I studied in my room at night, my mother would bring me carefully sliced apples, persimmons and pears, sometimes coated in a dusting of sour plum powder. Later, when I came home during university breaks, she would make a point of cooking my favourite dishes: laksa with thick noodles and sour-sweet soup; prawns coated in a spicy cereal batter; Thai style chicken with fragrant coconut rice. Being fed and feeding others was ingrained in my conception of love and care from the very beginning of my life. It was in the custom of serving others first at a meal, piling vegetables and sauce onto their plates; pouring tea for elders; and even the inevitable fight over the bill at the end of the night.
It’s funny then, that food, which made me feel so safe and held at home, became a point of anxiety in all my relationships.
The experience of sharing mooncakes with my last partner wasn’t a unique one. I had been faced with that excruciating disappointment before. Of course, partners weren’t rude about my cultural food, they were simply politely indifferent. It didn’t matter what the actual dish was – mooncakes, grass jelly, fish snacks, Kopi-O – all were met with the same reaction. And although I knew it wasn’t necessarily the case, anything less than a wholehearted embrace felt like the stinging slap of rejection. In turn, the rejection of my food felt like a rejection of myself, a core part of who I was.
For a long time, I didn’t understand why I felt so rejected in these moments. For most of my life, I had tried to shed all the Asian parts of myself like an old skin: my language, my customs, my traditions. I realise now having a Pākehā partner was, in part, an external marker of that effort. But shedding my Asianness was like trying to separate breath from lungs. Really, it was my Pākehā mannerisms and behaviours that I’d put on like a suit whenever I was invited to my partners’ family dinners, barbecues, or homes.
Yes the weather is lovely today; no I don’t have any Tongan ancestry; I’d love some more potato salad, thank you; wow this is great beer – homebrewed?; no, I haven’t been to the South of France.
At these gatherings, I always felt like a fish in the desert. As for my partners, they were usually happily oblivious to my discomfort, or else dismissive. Although cultural differences weren’t the only issue I grappled with in each relationship, it was an ever-looming presence; a perpetual grey cloud on a blue horizon. After my fourth ill-fated relationship with a brown haired, blue eyed, pale, Pākehā man, I had to ask myself: Why?
Dating is a political experience. Dating while Asian, queer and a woman makes it trebly so. And like all good politics, it disguises itself as emotion.
For me, politics donned the cloak of a wild, love-at-first-sight sort of chemical attraction. All of my past relationships shared a supersonic-speed attachment based on superficial interests like a shared love of literature, the beach, arguing. I think we shared a sense of otherness, too; a feeling that we didn’t quite belong.
Ultimately, none of those relationships lasted, not even platonically. They went like failed relationships usually do: we looked behind the others’ curtain, and we didn’t like what we saw. Like Victor and Eleanor, respectively the stars of the fourth and fifth episode of Dating While Asian, I came to realise that who I was dating was really an exercise in validation. When we first started dating, I knew next to nothing about each of my partners. So what was the attraction, really?
I can’t speak to what each of my exes was looking for when they dated me. But when I reflect on my relationships with each of them, I realise despite their differences, I was looking for the same thing in all of them: the freedom and acceptance I came to associate with te ao Pākehā. For me, it was part and parcel of that dizzying puppy-love; the alluring idea that my most intimate relationship would afford me a ticket into this exclusive world.
Long before I had the words to describe it, I could recognise the markers of this world. It was a world of brunches at cafes instead of potlucks at temples smelling of sweet, smoky incense; a world of ski trips in winter and baches in summer; a world of upper-middle class office jobs in air-conditioned buildings; a world of peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches cut diagonally; a world of “normalcy”; a world of belonging.
And while I loved each ex-partner for their unique qualities—gentleness, intelligence, humour—there was also this hope in the background that I could find the acceptance of wider society by an intimate association with white men. Of course, it didn’t go that way at all.
Like many others before me, and I’m sure many others after me, I realised when it came to dating, I was simply looking for the wrong thing.
I’ve been single for two years now. It’s the longest I’ve been by myself since I started dating in high school, almost a decade ago. In the time since my last break-up, as Victor puts it in his episode of Dating While Asian, I’ve been on “a bit of a dating bender”. Almost none of those dates were with white men.
I didn’t plan it that way – not really. It’s just that in that split second, over the mooncakes, I realised I wanted something else from my relationships. I wanted something other than this familiar, unpleasant ache that I seemed so attracted to. And it turned out that once I stopped looking for whiteness in myself, I stopped looking for whiteness in my partners. Like Victor and Grace and Eleanor, I’ve stopped looking for who I think I should be with; rather, someone I want to be with.
And although I still don’t know what that means exactly, diversifying my dating experiences has taught me a lot. Turns out when you date other people of colour, the question of heritage feels more like an exchange and less like an invasion. And that element of exchange has taught me that I deserve to have my culture, my food and my traditions enthusiastically embraced, not simply tolerated. Additionally, dating other women has opened my conception of romance to something softer, more gentle, less constrained by rules and roles and expectations. Without gender roles, I’ve learnt to play the romancer, which in turn has redefined my expectations of a partner.
After years of rushed relationships with the closest available man, dating slowly and with intention is a somewhat novel experience. Paradoxically, dating has become an exercise in self-knowledge. Figuring out what I really want, and what needs I really have, can be confronting.
It’s scary territory. It’s new territory. But I suppose that’s how dating is meant to feel.
Dating While Asian is available to view on Re:.