I love how you can drive down long and winding country roads without a care of how fast you are going; the bends in the road cradle you to a safe speed. When you aren’t anxiously checking your speedometer every so often, you can take in all of the scenery—those light-shadow-light speckles on the asphalt directly in front of you as the treeline in your periphery periodically bursts into field, front yard, and farmland. I love it.
Splash. Field. Splash. Farmland. Speckle, speckle. Fish sauce?
Fish sauce — an odd smell to announce itself now, as I drive, windows down, through rural Virginia. I am heading back to Charlottesville from Philadelphia after attending the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting. While the main reason I went to ASA was to figure out whether or not I was a sociologist (TBD), I’m not opposed to saying that my trip to Philly was also about getting away from Charlottesville’s therapeutic white liberalism one year after August 12th. ASA’s Annual Meeting was held right next to Philly’s Chinatown, and that’s where I ate every meal (mostly noodle soups, especially multiple variations of 紅燒牛肉麵). It was a huge breath of fresh air to be in a space covered in Chinese signage, bustling with Cantonese-Chinese-Chinglish chatter, and oozing out the sweet scent of tropical fruits, sticky wafts of 叉燒, and the unmistakable consummation of street stink and 臭豆腐.
Maybe there was a bit of fish sauce in the air there that tucked itself into my pocket right before I left. Or maybe it was the fish sauce in Umma Choi’s homemade kimchi that embraced me warmly the evening prior, when I spent the night at a friend’s place in order to break up the drive.
Fish sauce fills my nostrils, and for a brief moment I am teleported out of my car and into a reverie. I am back at my Korean American friend’s house, eating Umma Choi’s cooking; I am walking the streets of Philly’s Chinatown; I am dining in at my favorite cash-only hole-in-the-wall pho place; I am rummaging through the sauce cabinet in my kitchen. As I curve gently with the road, I slide into pleasant memories. As the road straightens out, my reverie realigns itself with my reality, and I remember how fish sauce is, to the olfactory habitus of American society, well, fishy, which is to say suspect and repugnant.
Splash. Field. Splash. Front yard. Speckle, speckle. I remember where I am.
“It had to be him,” I think to myself. How else to explain the presence of my aromatic driving companion? Maybe he ate something with fish sauce before we hooked up, and the smell somehow made its way onto me when I mounted him — me, working both of our cocks, him, caressing my left ear with his tongue. Maybe the smell of Southeast Asian home cookery simply followed him to that seedy, $39/night motel room we were in and grabbed onto me just as tight as I was grabbing onto him. Who knows. Fish sauce fills my nostrils, and for a long stretch of road, my mind settles on the fact that I just slept with another Asian American (albeit mixed race) for the first time.
Earlier this morning, I was at my friend’s house browsing on Grindr while getting ready to complete the drive home. I was on Grindr, because I was curious to see what kinds of people were in the area. I did the same thing at ASA, changing my Grindr tagline to “visiting Philly for a conference; interested in exploring the area’s sexual geography.” While I don’t have a clear academic definition of “sexual geography,” what I meant by my Grindr tagline was that I wanted to get a sense of how place mediates the possibilities and experiences of sexuality. That’s what I was up to in Philly, and earlier this morning, when I read “asian/white” on the profile of a man I found attractive. After chatting a bit and exchanging a few more face pics, we decided to meet up for coffee. After chatting some more in person, we decided to get a cheap motel room.
In a previous blog post, I nourished a latent sense of queer futurity by criticizing my almost exclusive attraction to white men through a disidentificatory reading of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (2006). In the past two months, I have had multiple conversations with friends that have encouraged me in my thinking around race and sexuality, but also prompted me to translate some of my thoughts into action and get more creative with my sexual praxis. My friends were right. It’s one thing to ping-pong between bodies of literature around race and sexuality and another to explore race and sexuality through engaging with actual bodies, one thing to critique the internalization of white supremacy as a precondition of producing particular racial/sexual selves with big confusing words like I am doing here and another to attempt the anti-racist reconstruction of one’s racialized sexual habitus vis-à-vis sex. Hence my eagerness to meet up with this mixed race Southeast Asian guy from Grindr. At least in theory that’s what a liberatory sexual praxis would look like.
“Something felt off,” I think to myself, glowering in disappointment at the unsatisfying yellow-on-yellow sex I just had. My sexual encounters with white men were much more pleasurable than this most recent motel romp. I tighten my grip on the steering wheel, tense with disappointment toward my disappointment. Having slept with a variety of white and mixed race men, my erotic experiences regress into a distinct bell curve of pleasure that peaks around my white bedfellows and tapers off the farther away from whiteness I go. How to begin untangling the socio-psychic knots of my racial and sexual embodiment, especially when my yellow body rehearses the scripts of an internalized racial hierarchy of sexual pleasure that functions to reproduce white supremacy, that same white supremacy that has marked my body as such, that same body of mine that coughs libidinal shudders in the naked presence of a body like my own? This question follows me around whether I want it to or not, much like the smell of fish sauce.
A few days earlier, I was standing at the edge of a packed auditorium listening to critical race theorist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva give his ASA presidential keynote address, entitled “Feeling Race: Theorizing the Racial Economy of Emotions.” Championing an affective turn in the sociology of race, Bonilla-Silva exhorted sociologists to take seriously the various ways people feel race in their everyday lives by paying attention to how processes of racialization and the ongoing issue of racism are as much affective realities as much as they are social, historical, and structural. His voice echoes in my head: “As racial subjects, we experience, learn, and live racialized relationships, not just objectively, but emotionally; therefore, our racial subjectivities are neither innocent nor symmetrical and express and reflect power differentials” (19:00). My brow furrows in frustration, as if to nod to the truth of Bonilla-Silva’s words and cry for help. How to tear out the racialized pleasure differentials that have been forcibly braided into my sexual subjectivity?
I pull into the parking lot of a gas station general store. I feel my bladder bulge. As I walk up the southern style front porch and prepare to enter the red double doors, I am halted by two signs affixed to each door: “Bathroom for customers only!” I enter anyway, determined, and am immediately greeted with a panoply of processed foods, sugary snacks, and beer. The store is filled with white patrons. Directly in front of me is a deli serving sandwiches, donuts, hot dogs, burgers, fries, fried chicken, and other American convenience food. I spot a fishing and outdoor recreation section in the corner of my eye. I am suddenly out of my head and sensually reengaged with my surroundings. My determination melts instantly as I become acutely aware of my otherness.
I make a hard left towards the beverage section instead of a right towards the restroom. I don’t want to draw any attention to myself, so I pick up a bottle of water and take it to the cashier. She greets me with a terse “Hi” and then breaks all eye contact. I pay in cash. She seems aloof. Despite purchasing my right to be in this space and use their restroom as a customer, I don’t feel like I belong.
I use the restroom as fast as I can and then speed walk back to my car. Buckling my seat belt and pulling out of the parking lot, I get back on the road, no longer accompanied by the smell of fish sauce.
About Daniel Chen
Daniel Chen is a queer second-generation Taiwanese American who is exploring a career in academia. He has lived in the state of Virginia for the past 14 years, and is especially interested in questions of Asian American subjectivity in diasporic areas where opportunities for pan-ethnic and ethnic-specific Asian American community formation, conscientization, and political activism are sparse. He is also interested in how queer of color communities navigate racialized sexual attraction and hopes to pursue this specific line of inquiry at the graduate level in a gender and sexuality studies program. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 2017 with an interdisciplinary B.A. in sociology, anthropology, and media studies and currently work as a baker in Charlottesville.