John Graham, a 29-year-old “programmer by day, chef by night” living in San Francisco, became a fan-favorite contestant on The Bachelorette earlier this year. Dubbed “Venmo John” for his work on the payment app in its early stages, the biracial (Chinese and white) Chicago native was cut from the race for Bachelorette Becca Kufrin’s heart after five episodes. Graham later returned to TV for the summer spinoff show Bachelor in Paradise, whose cast includes former contestants who didn’t end up coupled with their season’s Bachelor or Bachelorette. On September 11th, during the finale of the 11-episode show, we’ll find out whether or not John leaves Paradise with a love interest after several weeks of seemingly nonstop date invitations.
HelloGiggles spoke with Graham over the phone about his experience as an Asian American male on a reality dating show, the summer of Asian men’s sexuality being portrayed on screen, finding confidence in dating, and growing up mixed-race in a predominantly white neighborhood.
HelloGiggles (HG): What was growing up mixed-race like for you?
John Graham (JG): I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and it just happened that in that area there were not many non-white people. I knew that growing up, and I felt slightly different. Kids are kids, and I was picked on for being fat or for being slightly different-looking. I think that’s an experience that a lot of kids go through.
I remember I was at a summer camp and one of the other kids in the camp came up to me and he was like, “Oh, you’re Chinese? Does that mean you have all these machine guns in your garage?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” I honestly didn’t know how to reply. A really funny question I got once—this isn’t mean; it was just very naive—one kid in school, he asked me, “John, so are you Chinese or are you Asian?” And I thought, “What? Who raised you?” I appreciate when people reach out to me and say, “This really spoke to me because I felt the same way” or “I hope you do well because I’m also Asian and I felt out of place when I was younger.” Or other people say, “I’m a software engineer, too,” and I don’t think they’ve ever had a software engineer on the show before. It’s cool to see an upward trend in Asian representation this summer.
I used to get “Where are you really from?” a lot. I’m generally fine when people ask, “What’s your background?” or “What’s your ethnicity?” And I think it’s good when people are proud of their background and heritage and their parents. I totally don’t mind if people ask.
But I think it can cross a line when they make assumptions or are disrespectful; it’s really off-putting. I also don’t like the phrasing “What are you?” It could mean, “I’m a software engineer,” or “I’m a dude,” or “I’m a resident of San Francisco.” I much prefer something more targeted. If you really want to know what their background is, ask, “What’s your background?” I have a pretty decent radar for detecting when somebody’s half-Asian. I don’t know if you do, too, but I feel like it’s like the brotherhood or the sisterhood. It’s the family.
On my mom’s side, which is the Chinese side, some of my cousins are one-eighth Chinese or some of them are 100 percent Chinese. So it’s cool to just see the full gradient. It’s fun to see that we’re all just family.
HG: There’s something about this summer with Asian representation, and I feel like you’re a part of that movement on TV.
JG: Especially on a network like ABC, traditionally, it was probably a little bit less diverse. But now they’re opening up so much more. It’s very timely, too, because very coincidentally I just saw Crazy Rich Asians and it spoke to me, too. I was so inspired.
For me—and it might be slightly different for Asian guys who watch it than Asian women—I felt like when I was growing up I never really saw Asian folks as the hot commodity or as the desirable guy that everyone’s going after. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and I would always play the comparison game. I would feel inferior or not as popular or not as cool as some of the other guys who were white or really good looking, in my mind. I think for me it was cool to see an entire Asian cast where everyone was so talented and everyone was so beautiful, and they all celebrated everybody’s diversity in an American Hollywood format.
HG: Watching this season of Paradise, I felt like I could’ve used this kind of representation a couple years ago when I was dating during college: seeing a half-white, half-East Asian person having a lot of people being interested in him and going on a steady stream of dates.
JG: I think that was one of the things I really appreciated about being on Paradise. It felt like race never came up as a thing, as a disadvantage. Honestly, we never talked about it unless it was just like, “Hey, I’m trying to get to know people. Where are you from? Where do your parents live?” But I never felt like I was ever judged or treated differently because of my ethnicity. I give a lot of props to ABC and the producers and the other cast members, too, for being so open and inviting and generous with their time to honestly give everybody a fair, equal shot, me included.
I probably came into Paradise with some internal biases. When I looked around, I saw people that were in the NFL, and I saw people that were the Coltons [contestant and upcoming Bachelor, Colton Underwood] of the world. He’s a good friend of mine, and I really like him, but in my head, I would play the comparison game. And I was like, “I’m not like this guy.” I’m really glad that everybody was so supportive and so open and approached everything with a blank slate and an open mind. And they let me choose my own destiny on the show. They don’t tell you what to do, they don’t make you say anything or make you do anything. I felt like the whole time they were supportive and they had my back.
HG: I wish dating were like that outside of the show.
JG: No one ever really cared, for that matter. Maybe it’s a California thing or a TV thing; no one’s going to raise a stink while they’re on camera. But it felt like a big, happy family, honestly. We were all on the same team. We were all supporting each other. There was never a racial undertone when we filmed.
HG: What was your dating journey like as you grew up? Did you always think of “the Coltons of the world”? It seems like you’re in a different place now.
JG: I guess I got into the dating game pretty late in the process. I was not involved in high school at all, in part because I was focused on the academics and in part because I was pretty insecure and shy. And I never really gave myself a chance to put myself out there. I was fairly chubby growing up, and I was picked on. It’s one of those things where—and I’m going to make fun of myself a little bit—I was embarrassed of having squintier eyes when I was younger. And when you’re chubby, your face is a little bit chubbier and your cheeks are bigger. So my eyes looked even squintier. And I was embarrassed about that because I was like, “I look even more Chinese.” And that bothered me when I was younger.
When I got to college, I was like, and this is me being a naive 17- or 18-year-old, “The only way I’m going to meet girls is if I have a six-pack and I’m in shape.” Which is not true at all! I started running and working out a lot more with the intention of boosting my confidence. I tried to put myself out there, and I started exercising a lot more, and I guess it was a good experience for me to just try putting myself out there more. In college, I never felt like there was difficulty just because I was Asian. Where I went to school, at Columbia, it was a pretty diverse group of people. I’ve also been on dating apps in the past with some varying success. Sometimes I met people who were definitely not my person, but I think the best part was the experience and putting myself out there. The only time I had weird ethnicity bumps in the road for dating was with an Asian girl. I was on a date and she was kind of weird about it.
HG: There’s a subreddit about the phenomenon of AFWM (Asian Female, White Male) and men who express distaste for Asian women who are not attracted to Asian men.
JG: I hope people like those guys that post about AFWM, I hope for those people—they seem probably just sexually frustrated and they blame other people, rather than giving themselves a chance to put themselves out there more. I hope for them they get a chance to see Crazy Rich Asians and see Asian guys being hot commodities that are cool and charming and successful, and I hope they look to networks like ABC and maybe even see me and be like, “Hey, this guy’s Asian and I can relate, and he’s putting himself out there and people respond well to that.” If they are taking to subreddits and being hurtful, then they can probably channel that energy into something more positive.
HG: Did you find confidence in yourself by throwing yourself out there all the time?
JG: Totally. The big thing was breaking down that initial meet-and-greet barrier. On Paradise, you don’t have that much time. The whole filming process takes several weeks, which is way shorter a time frame than most dating relationships. You’re forced to put yourself out there and move relationships along faster than they do in the real world. So if you don’t have enough confidence to at least see what could possibly happen in a relationship, then you’re doing yourself a disservice and you’re not taking advantage of Paradise. So I put myself in that mindset more. And if it doesn’t work out, now you know; there were cases where it didn’t work out for me. I’m glad I learned early on rather than just dwelling on something and not acting on it. I certainly left Paradise with so much more confidence than I would’ve expected. And I’m really grateful for it.
HG: Was filming Paradise different from Bachelorette for you?
JG: I entered Bachelorette with a bit of those insecurities that I had when I was younger. I’m not that small; I’m 6-foot-1, and I enjoy exercising. I was like, “I’ll be fine.” And then I walk in and I’m like, “Is everyone here in the NFL and a professional model and a bodybuilder? Dang, who are these guys?” I was in my own head about most of that. And that was my own fault. Nobody said anything or did anything. I had the same opportunity and the same chances as everyone else. But it took me a while to open up because I was afraid of what other people might think; I was afraid of what Becca [Kufrin] might think. It didn’t really matter. No one cared. That was a beautiful experience for me to internalize, that no one cared.
By the time I realized that, it was, like, week four, and we were in Park City doing this lumberjack date. And I was like, “Well, at this point I don’t care anymore. I just want to have fun and see what could happen with Becca.” So I really opened up. And that was a really good week for me; I had so much fun. But by then, Becca had already built a strong relationship with a bunch of the other guys. She didn’t know me quite as well by then. So I didn’t get a rose for week five.
So I told myself with Paradise, it’s like a second chance. And I really wanted to hit the ground running because I didn’t want to be closed off to any opportunities from the get-go. I made an explicit effort to talk to everybody, to sit down with everybody, even if it was just for 30 minutes or something, to get to know them. I really appreciated how open everybody was and responsive people were to just chatting and being friends without any racial biases.
HG: It sounds like you would recommend the Bachelorette experience.
JG: I had a really great experience. I didn’t find love on The Bachelorette, which was what I was hoping for, but I still left with so many amazing takeaways and so many new friends that, of course, I would definitely recommend it if someone had that opportunity.
HG: Do you have a favorite Asian American story being told on TV shows or movies right now?
JG: Honestly, what I’m watching now is reruns of The Office. Keeping up with successful Asian stories is not my strong suit right now. Someone mentioned to me To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and they said it was pretty good, so I really want to check that out. I appreciate most when Asian culture or diversity is not the main part of the story. It’s like, “This is it. Let’s just acknowledge it and move on.” It’s always good to see when there’s a celebration of diversity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.