The Words of Asian American Men

by guest contributor Jennifer Fang, originally published at Reappropriate

A little less than a month ago, a panel discussion was put together by The Asian Society focusing on Asian American male identity. The panel, consisting of three prominent Asian American men in pop culture today: The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, the single best Asian American writer of contemporary pop culture, Jeff Yang, and the ever so swoon-worthy Yul Kwon of Survivor: Cook Islands (whom this blog dubbed the real Super Asian Man back when his show was on the air). These three men chatted for a night on issues affecting Asian American men, and The Asia Society graciously put an edited “clip show” of the event on YouTube for us to view.

One of the central thrusts of the discussion was the emasculation stereotype. I agree with all three panelists in their emphasis of Hollywood as being the primary source of the asexualization of Asian males, and how this perception has a deleterious effect on developing young Asian American boys. Kwon said,

When I was growing up, I was very much influenced by what I saw, and more importantly what I didn’t see, on television. Whenever I saw an Asian American man on television, he was inevitably a kung-fu master who could kick ass but he couldn’t speak English, or a computer geek who could figure out algorithms but couldn’t figure out how to get a date. And for myself, I really think I internalized a lot of these images.

All three panelists emphasized the need to change Hollywood’s depictions of Asian Americans, viewing mainstream media as the primary source of the stereotype. After all, the true insidiousness of APIA male asexualization is its effect on the self-image of young boys, which is communicated to them beginning at childhood. In this way, the asexualization stereotype is no different than anti-feminist socialization that promotes gender roles for young girls; in both cases, the images are designed to control those who are principally “The Other” in American society.

Exposed to image after image of Asian Americans as nothing more than the Perpetual Foreigner and the Geek diminishes the self-esteem of boys and introduces an internalized racial self-hatred where one associates one’s racial identity with limited personal and social success. Particularly damaging, however, is how this diminished self-esteem actually discourages radical activism to change the root source of the problem; race and masculinity become linked. This internalized relationship is problematic because Asian American men rarely challenge the association between race and masculine self-worth. They advocate changing the stereotypes of Asian American men (a solution destined to failure as it still promotes dehumanization and objectification), rather than to advocate an elimination of race-based sexual stereotypes altogether.

As a community, we should not prioritize advocating for a hypersexualization of the Asian American male body, but for a humanization. To define us based on race is still to limit our evolution as people to pre-defined narratives externally applied to us based on our race. Stereotypes limit us because it stifles our own self-growth and opportunities, regardless of whether those stereotypes are “positive” or “negative”. As Jeff Yang said in the panel discussion,

…[C]oming from my own perspective, every time I hear people say Asian American men shouldn’t be portrayed as geeky-looking and having glasses and being nerdy and all this, and I’m like, “you guys are all protesting in front of my mirror”. It’s kind of unfair to hold us all to these standards, as incredible as it is to see people like yourself and Daniel Dae Kim and Aasif transcend the historical representation of what Asian American men are, there’s also a sense in which it leaves some of us behind. And I think the notion of manhood is changing.

Kwon commented on his own experiences winning Survivor: Cook Islands,

In terms of trying to change stereotypes and getting people to think of Asian Americans as being people as opposed to someone defined by their ethnicity, I think it helps that people think of me as a known quantity. That I’m a human being.

I further loved the discussion’s insightful analysis of the Perpetual Foreigner debate. I have long been angry that the only prominent Asian American male characters in pop culture have been Daniel Dae Kim of Lost and Masi Oka of Heroes. Although I personally like both characters, again we see American society’s need to debase and control images of Asian American masculinity by underscoring not only the castration of these characters (Lost’s Jin is disadvantaged by the fact that he is the only character who cannot communicate with the rest of the cast and relies upon his wife, Sun, to translate for him while Hiro Nakamura of Heroes is an affable buffoon just a few steps from William Hung) but by Other-izing them through their nationality and origin stories. Asian men, according to these portrayals, are not Americans or worthy of the respect reserved for those we deem familiar, but are bizarre and amusingly different.

All three panelists also discussed how to change the emasculation stereotype, as three big names in pop culture and media. Mandvi talked about the difficulties of finding roles in Hollywood that don’t cater to stereotypes of people of colour, which is why I have always advocated the development of independent media by Asian American artists and writers in addition to petitioning Hollywood. Jeff Yang, for example, writes the powerful “Asian Pop” column for SFGate.com, and has been involved in a new project to bring Asian American voices to the genre of comic books. Several new Asian American-oriented TV networks have recently been started, and the Asian American music scene is booming. Hollywood, as Mandvi says, “just wants the stereotype” — we can demonstrate through the success of our independent media the demand for positive, humanizing portrayals of Asian Americans. Even blogging, as narcisstic a medium as it can be, is another avenue for Asian Americans to publicize our voices and our struggles, outside of Hollywood’s adherence to portrayals of our experience as a series of cardboard cut-out stereotypes.

Kwon says,

I think if we fundamentally want to change stereotypes of Asian American and redefine Asian American men as being men, you have to… show there are Asian American men that meet that Westernized definition and also change that definition, itself.

And finally, Kwon argues that stereotypes only have as much weight as we let them have. On the emasculation stereotype, he discussed how he began to reject the internalization of asexuality promoted by the media, and realized that changing of the stereotype would come from within, not from without. He said,

It wasn’t until I got to high school that I really took a hard look at myself and realized that I didn’t want to be – or have to be – that quintessential Asian geek. And more importantly I realized that if I kept running away from girls, I’d never get married and I’d stay a virgin for the rest of my life.

And thank God for that epiphany, huh? I mean, had Kwon continued to live his life dictated by the stereotypes that threatened to oppress him, would we have ever had an opportunity to have this image beamed into our living rooms?

But, personally, what I think is most valuable about Yul Kwon, Jeff Yang, and Aasif Mandvi is their advocacy. They are smart, rational, out-spoken Asian American men who are trying to rally our community towards better treatment and social equity. Like other prominent Asian American men of today, like Kal Penn, Daniel Dae Kim, Parry Shen, Gene Yang, and Justin Lin, they are human and they are flawed, but they are also charismatic, political, ambitious, passionate advocates, seeking to unite — not divide — our community. These Asian American men seek to energize our community, not expel or blame Asian American women for the plight of the Asian American man.

To me, that makes them all the perfect depictions of the Asian American man.