Last night, American public broadcaster PBS aired Seeking Asian Female, a documentary about an older white male-younger Chinese female couple that I have been meaning to see for quite some time now. Filmmaker Debbie Lum follows Steven, a Northern California parking lot attendant in his 60s, as he marries Sandy, a 30-year-old woman from rural China whom he met on the Internet.
The hour-long film is chock-full of cringe-worthy moments, like when Steven tells Debbie that he “love[s] the Chinese look” that Sandy and Debbie both have. Despite my preconceptions about men like Steven, though, by the end of the film I started feeling a bit sorry for him. The relationship doesn’t work out very well, and the couple has difficulty communicating when Debbie is not there to interpret for them. Steven’s personal finance troubles and continued correspondence with a previous Asian Internet girlfriend push Sandy to the edge. Three-fourths of the way through the film, she threatens to leave.
Debbie, as the intimately involved and implicated filmmaker, wonders what Sandy is getting out of the relationship, and why she decided to come to America and marry Steven in the first place. As Debbie put it, “what kind of woman would move countries to marry a man she barely knows and has only met on the Internet?” Sandy had aged out of the marriage market in China, her lack of a college degree limited her economic prospects as an office worker in Shenzhen, and her family was still living “modestly” in their village in Anhui province. Marrying Steven was, in many respects, a good life decision. However, with poor English, little money, and no authorization to work in the United States, she was essentially stuck with Steven even as their strange relationship started to fall apart.
Perhaps it’s a bit much to ask, but I would have liked for the film to explore issues that go beyond Steven and Sandy’s relationship. How did yellow fever become a phenomenon, and what does this have to do with orientalism and gendered expectations? How does global capitalism structure the stark economic inequality between men like Steen and women like Sandy, and how does this inequality play out in their relationships?
Despite missing the big picture, this voyeuristic look into the life of an unlikely couple is definitely worth watching.