By: Joanne Chew
I’ve realized recently that my views on dating have absolutely come full circle. In previous pieces I’ve
written I touched on the stifling environment I grew up in upheld by traditional Asian values, even
though my parents tried really hard not to embody that. I’m sure they would have been much happier if
I had gone down a more traditional path, and their lives would have undoubtedly been much easier, but
they always put my happiness first, and said at the end of the day, if I was happy with myself, then that’s
all that really mattered. The older I get, the more I can respect how large of a sacrifice this is, and one of
the reasons I’ve chosen to delay marriage and/or having children. I don’t know if I’m ready to be that
I read a quote recently by Emily McDowell: “ ‘Finding yourself” is not really how it works. You aren’t a
ten dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under
cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that
became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. A
remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.”
I can now see where this full circle really started. In the community I grew up in, I remember hearing
from an early age that my only shot at having a good life was to marry well, because I didn’t exhibit any
of the signs of being a child prodigy that was so often revered in Asian communities. I didn’t appear
remarkably gifted in any one particular area. (Why I will always root for the late bloomers). All the
parents were talking about who got the best grades, who was best at playing the piano, and as the girls
grew up, who was the prettiest, who was the thinnest, etc. I never fit the bill in any of these categories,
so before I had left my teens I was already constantly hearing that at least my parents would have
company in their old age, because I wasn’t going to go very far.
Some of my best friends growing up were boys, but I was also teased and bullied constantly by other
boys in school. I learned to not crave attention from the opposite gender, and to just go about my life.
Things shifted rather drastically after I graduated high school, when I had set my sights on becoming an
actress, and finally felt excited about my life having a clear and specific direction that couldn’t be
compared against any of my peers, because I was the only one in my community pursuing this path. I
grew out my awkward haircut, and my appearance gradually became more polished as I gained an
awareness through having to get headshots done fairly frequently and observing myself on camera. This
is also a very natural progression as any of us grows up, regardless of what profession we enter. Our
appearances inevitably change.
All of a sudden, boys who were not the ones who I grew up with at church were calling, and although I
had already turned eighteen, my father took it upon himself to listen to my phone calls. When he
overheard me telling my mother an older man approached me at the bus stop on my way to my college
classes, repeatedly asking when I would agree to have lunch with him, he insisted on driving me to
school until the man stopped showing up at the bus stop.
That summer, I went to “acting camp” in Los Angeles. It was the first time I had been away from home
on my own for longer than a week. I remember feeling homesick, so I wandered into a pet shop to buy a
present for my dog, because it was the first time I was away during his birthday. There, I encountered a
man who made polite conversation in the beginning, but later on remarked that Asian women made
good wives because they were known to be docile and submissive.
Sigh. It starts.
Not long after that, I brought the first boy home to “meet the parents.” My mother told me she had a
very visceral gut reaction, that I should stay away from him, but she said she knew better than to
interfere. “I haven’t forgotten what it was like to be a young lady. You probably would have run off and
gotten married, or just wound up pregnant. I had to let you figure this out on your own.”
It was my first time hearing from a man I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and the “I
love you’s” happened fairly quickly. I wasn’t used to this type of attention and never expected to hear
those words because of all the preconditioning that happened as I was growing up. It was intoxicating.
Long story short, my mother was right. When I finally took off the rose-tinted glasses I had been wearing
in that situation, I saw the holes. It was the first time I encountered narcissism. I had mistaken
someone’s jealous nature and controlling demeanor as their degree of love and interest. It was my first
time experiencing the types of men who will say whatever they want to get their own way, and then act
like those words had never transpired once they got it, or when we had finally woken up and taken
them off the pedestal they felt entitled to be on, because they were always right, and who were we to
Too often when we encounter experiences that leave us broken for a long time, and we tend to rush
into new relationships thinking that it’ll heal whatever we had just been through. It’s a vicious cycle. We
will keep attracting the same experiences and the same types of people. It’s become quite a cliché, but
it’s completely true. Until we learn to fully love ourselves, we will keep attracting those who cannot, or
will not love us, and this isn’t just in the romantic sense.
I’ve encountered this type of man all over the place, in the variety of jobs I’ve held down since moving to
Los Angeles in between my acting jobs. My “survival job” resume is over fifteen pages long. I’ve worked
over a thousand events since graduating high school. I was exposed to a lot of misogyny and
harassment, much of which had to do with being an Asian woman and the men who had fetishes for
that. I remember speaking to a former employer of mine saying I no longer wanted to work a specific
type of event because I was sick of being heckled and harassed, and he shrugged it off, saying he’s seen
far worse and that this goes with the territory of being “a cute Asian girl.” I’ve seen men literally start
salivating at the mouth if I was out with my mother and they overheard us speaking in Chinese, even if
they had no idea what we were talking about.
I was a licensed massage therapist for a short while but left because I couldn’t handle the men who
came in with their fantasies of getting rubbed down by an Asian woman. I went to school for it, studied
hard about anatomy and muscle structure, and trained to pass my licensing exam. Of course, there were
always men who wanted us to do things that we would have inevitably lost our license over and/or gone
to jail for.
At the time I was seeing a man fifteen years my senior, and in the beginning, my parents had no
objection over the age difference. Having a more mature influence while I was out on my own in LA
could be beneficial. Once I started seeing the controlling and narcissistic patterns repeat themselves, I
broke things off. He was showing up at my apartment in the middle of the night when I had already
specified not wanting to see him. Things got to the point where I had to physically defend myself, but I
was lucky. I wasn’t hurt (physically) and he stopped what he had been trying to do. It’s been over a
decade and he still calls me from different phone numbers from time to time, because I’ve blocked the
previous ones he’s tried to contact me from before.
My girlfriends would constantly tell me, “You just keep attracting the bad ones, meet the right one and
you’ll change your mind.” For a time I fell into thinking that was what I wanted. I’ve realized recently
that I might actually not, and it was an incredibly liberating feeling. I know my experiences with men
have absolutely influenced my views on dating, and everyone is challenging me to look past all the
negative encounters. Are all my interactions with men negative?
No, but the positive ones were not people I was ever romantically involved with. The ones who helped
me realize my worth and any man who was adverse to me putting myself first simply didn’t belong in my
life. I’m not saying we never had any types of those feelings between us, but through them I’ve learned
that unconditional love can take on many forms, and romantic love might not necessarily even be the
highest form of that. We don’t need to share blood to become family, and the men that might actually
know you the best and have your best interests at heart might never have seen you with your clothes off
and never tried to cross that line, but at the same time, when you’ve been at your absolute lowest point
that few have seen you at, they’ve always been there. No strings attached, and never “expecting”
anything in return.
I’ve been at industry parties where I was simply trying to be friendly and expand my network, and many
men have interpreted that as an invitation that I was open to more. One actually pulled me to a corner
thinking I wanted to make out, and then expressed displeasure to my employer the next day, saying I
was “mean.” I no longer work for said employer, by the way. Experiences like this have led me to be
more guarded and some men have interpreted that as being stand-offish. One man I dated casually
remarked, “In the beginning I thought you were kind of a bi%tch but you’re actually really nice.”
I know this mindset and particular set of experiences is specific to me, and it’s happened for a reason.
I’ve become quite passionate in advocating for women who’ve survived trauma and abuse, supporting
the #metoo movement and upholding what it truly stands for, women (and men) taking a stand and no
longer tolerating harassment or any sort of abuse. The more active I’ve gotten, the more pushback I get
from certain men who believe it’s the anti-male movement (that couldn’t be farther from the truth), and
that women are just waiting to falsely accuse men for simply approaching them.
We’re just becoming more firm on our boundaries, and not feeling the need to apologize when we put
our foot down and refuse to tolerate disrespect. We are not obligated to every single man who shows
My need for certain boundaries has led to me growing pretty private about my dating life, to the point
where my own sister decided I must be a lesbian, and one night when I was home for a visit, announced
her conclusion to my parents and that it was okay as long as I found a nice person to take care of me.
They say that some of our most difficult relationships will be within our immediate family (this is
another story I’ll save for another time) and our significant others. I absolutely believe this to be true.
I’ve had total strangers interrogate me about my dating history when a webseries I worked on a couple
years ago ran into some negative attention because the storyline was about three Asian sisters growing
up, interacting with their single mother embodying traditional Asian values, dating, and in general
finding their way. Some male watchers took it upon themselves to bombard us with very hateful
messages because they were upset that our characters were either dating outside of our race, or
otherwise not interested in dating an Asian man out of rebellion because that was what they were being
pushed towards by our parents. They took it upon themselves to conclude we internally hated ourselves
or were ashamed of our culture, or because we wanted to emasculate Asian men.
They also forgot that characters actors play may not actually have anything to do with who they were in
real life. There was one individual who came to one of our first screenings (whom I later found out to be
behind a lot of the negative comments we encountered online, using a pseudonym, of course), and
came up to me later demanding to know if I had ever dated an Asian man in my personal life, or if I was
constantly dating outside of race like my character had been. It wasn’t any of his business, but I
informed him most of the men I had dated had in fact been Asian, even though I’ve also dated other
races, and our reasons for working or not working had absolutely nothing to do with race. It was always
Experiences like these have made me want to divulge as little of my dating life as possible, and I believe
that’s every person’s prerogative. A relationship belongs to the two people involved, not to prying minds
looking to absolve their own insecurities or hunting for juicy gossip.
The older I’ve gotten the more stressful the idea of marriage and relationships have gotten, but it’s not
in the way that you think. I’m at the age where many of my girlfriends are getting engaged, if they’re not
already married, and I couldn’t be happier for them, but at the same time I’ve been having many
instances of feeling claustrophobic. There’s more pressure for me to follow suit, and some people have
taken it upon themselves to cure me of my supposed “man aversion,” feeling the need to prove to me
nice guys still exist.
I know they do. There are so many of them out there, but that doesn’t mean I have to go out and marry
one just because that’s what everyone else is doing. It’s kind of funny now that the ladies in my old
community who didn’t think I was particularly smart, talented, or pretty, and wondered about my ability
to attract a decent husband (because that was the only way I’d be able to survive) are now asking my
mother why I’ve delayed marriage so long. It’s such a waste, because “I’m so pretty,” they say. I’ve
asked my mother not to show my pictures to them anymore, because they’ve been passing them
around to eligible bachelors they know thinking I’ll fall in love with one and move home.
In the past year, I’ve had to switch doctors and leave a church because they were trying to project onto
me that I was possibly becoming depressed because I hadn’t gotten married yet. What really depressed
me was how everything I had achieved had virtually become meaningless to certain people because I
hadn’t landed a man yet. I’d completed five marathons, earned a black belt, was an actress, artist, and
activist. My parents recently told me they were incredibly proud of all my abilities, and that they had
always been proud of my work ethic and strength of character. Of course they worry, like all parents do,
but my mother constantly tells me “You’ll handle things and get it done. You’ll survive.”
I’m still trying to figure out why so many people doubt my ability to survive without a man, and why
some people are actually offended by it.
I wanted my life in LA so badly, I moved out here without a car or a bed to sleep on, and in those early
months, I was never happier. I felt such a weight lifted because I was finally free of everyone’s
preconceived notions of me, and the future was bright and full of potential because I could go after my
dreams. I lost all that somewhere along the line, and I’m not exactly sure where.
At the end of last year, I decided to take dating completely off the table. I realized I was attracting the
same types of men over and over, being broken and recovering from the same experiences. I decided to
put the focus back on myself and my own healing, despite mounting pressure to go out and find a man
“before it was too late.”
I’ve never been happier. I started booking film projects that were encouraging me to stretch and play
different roles I was usually cast in. I was offered the opportunity to write about my experiences for
Overachiever Magazine (this is now my third piece, and I’m so thankful for the opportunity). I just had
my first art show and have been offered at least two more opportunities to show my paintings this year,
and support charities I’m passionate about in the meantime.
I reconnected to that sense of joy and freedom I felt when I first moved to Los Angeles, when everything
still felt incredibly brand new.
I suppose it’s the law of attraction at work now. I’ve found I’ve gotten far more male attention when I
stopped looking for it (to the point where I take steps to avoid it whenever possible, because at times
it’s gotten completely overwhelming). Some people resent me for that. There’s nothing wrong with
wanting to find a partner, or a stable relationship, but there is absolutely truth in the notion that we
repel what we search & push too hard for. We need to allow room for things to fall into place.
I’m not saying I’ll stay single forever, but the thought of that doesn’t scare or sadden me like most would
expect. I feel happy and inspired at the moment, and that means the world to me. The men of my past
have all presented me with important lessons, and if I’m not yet able to see that quite yet, it just means
I’m still in the healing process from certain memories and experiences, and for me, that’s far more
important than rushing off to find “the next one,” of feeling the need to fill an empty void that I don’t
actually feel exists in my life, it’s just one that is ingrained from societal pressure.
A man told me once, “Just do you, do what makes you happy, and let the haters and everyone else fall
by the wayside.” Best advice I’ve ever gotten, and I intend to live by it.
Joanne Chew is a San Francisco native who relocated to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, and has recently embarked onto new territory as an abstract artist. Other passions include advocating for women’s rights and promoting their empowerment. In her spare time, she enjoys studying martial arts and training for her next marathon.
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