The other day on the social media platform, Twitter, a person raised concern over the use of the term “Yellow Fever” for the supporter group of the Wellington Phoenix in the A-League. The concern revolved around the use of the term when describing an “attraction” to women of Asian descent which is understandably offensive to many. Yellow Fever also refers to a medical condition which has been used for more than a hundred years.
It is possible for words and expressions to exist with various meanings and connotations but it is all revolved around context. We usually use the context a word or phrase is being used in to determine it’s purpose rather than just the existence of the word or phrase. In context, the term “Yellow Fever” for the passionate supporter group of a team that’s main colour is yellow is obviously unrelated to a sexual preference to Asians just as the use of the phrase for the medical condition is unrelated to Asians.
Having said that, it doesn’t mean someone can’t still be offended by the use of the term because “being offended” is a very personal emotion. What offends one person, another person can be ok with. You can be no more offended on someone’s behalf as you can be hungry for them.
If someone is offended then you can feel empathy for them just like you can empathise with someone who suffers a loss or even enjoys a triumph. Empathy is an indirect concept unrelated to the catalyst responsible for the feeling but more to the feeling itself be that offense, sadness, or joy. You’re either offended or you aren’t. It is somewhat disingenuous to claim offense on behalf of a group or an individual.
If people are genuinely offended by something, it is important to not dismiss it out of hand as being overly sensitive or invalid. The recent events of “blackface” and banana throwing at black players are prime examples. It’s not the place of members outside the targeted ethnic and racial groups to decide what is and isn’t offensive for them. We all have a responsibility to respect the sensibilities of every group and be mindful that all our actions are done with tolerance and respect for others. This includes considering the impact on others that our choices have.
There are certain historical and societal factors we need to admit such as the term “yellow” has been used derogatorily towards Asians in the past and still now. That doesn’t mean we ban the colour yellow or the use of it as an adjective or noun. It would be ridiculous to abandon a word or phrase because of a negative connotation in a certain circumstance.
Part of being an intelligent society is being able to discuss such things in an open and honest manner. Disregarding the fact that certain words, phrases and practices can cause offense is as unhelpful in the dialogue as labelling something offensive without context. Anything can be offensive but not everything is offensive.
What I’d like to focus on is the term and concept of “yellow fever” and my own experiences with it because our own experiences are the only things we can talk about with absolute authority. I don’t like the term and the use of it or “yellow” to describe Asians makes me uncomfortable. I do get offended when someone uses it towards me but I generally don’t like people assuming things about me no matter what it is.
Living in Japan has made me susceptible to the charge of having a preference for Asian women but this makes a lot of assumptions such as my reason for coming to Japan and staying in Japan. It is also ignores a very important fact about Japan and that is that it is one of the most homogenised nations on Earth. If the vast majority of the members of the community belong to one ethnic or racial group then it stands to reason most of the people you interact with are of that group. I can understand where this lazy generalisation comes from but it is still offensive to me whereas I know others who don’t care and even embrace the tag.
Can I be attracted to women who are Asian? Of course but that or any other single feature or characteristic is not the determinant for my attraction. We as individuals are the sum of all our parts, it is what makes us who we are and to be defined by just one part is a disservice to who we are. Identifying with our own culture, race or ethnicity is a very important part of who we are but when others define us as that alone, it can be disappointing. Understanding a person’s unique individuality is not only respectful but a vital ingredient in forging real relationships with people.
I have met many foreign men in Japan who proudly declare they have “yellow fever” and absolutely no interest in other women. I’ve met Japanese women who openly tell me they don’t like Japanese mem as though it would be a desirable quality to me. Generally these two groups can have a happy life together but when you’re basing a relationship on such a shallow predilection than the happiness will be fleeting.
Nothing turns me off a woman faster than when she admits to liking the idea of someone like me rather than me personally. I imagine this is how many Asian women feel when someone reveals to them that they like what they are more than who they are. Yellow fever in this case is an obsession and obsession is more often than not unsettling rather than flattering to the object of it. It is no better than reducing a woman or a man to a body part that you like.
As for the use of “yellow” in yellow fever, I touched on earlier that in non-Asian cultures it has historically been used in a derogatory way towards Asians. Strangely enough, a few times in Japan I have had to correct Japanese friends and students on it’s use because they think it is the norm for describing Asians. They call Europeans white and Africans black so often don’t know the negative connotation of “yellow” that Asians who have grown up as a minority in other countries do. Although it feels strange being white explaining to Japanese that they shouldn’t use the word “yellow” for Asians when abroad, it is important to do so because it can be and often is considered in other cultures to be an insult when used in the context of Asians.
This brings me back to the original point of the Yellow Fever supporter group for Wellington, in that context is it possible to connect the term to Asians? “Yellow” would refer to the colour of the jerseys the team wears and “fever” would reference the passion the fans have for the team. The level of offensiveness we feel towards the use of those two words in this context is our own personal choice. Intent and offense is not always black and white. Being able to intelligently assess the context that something exists is very important in creating understanding and unity. Offense for offense sake is as polarising and decisive as ignorance.