Whatever Happened to Rufio?: The Non-Asian Ideal of Masculinity

by Guest Contributor CVT


Here’s one of my first Portland (Oregon) memories:

I’m at a bar with two white male friends.  Well, actually, I’m at a Chinese restaurant and bar . . . at a karaoke night. (*1)  With two white male friends.

Anyway.

My friends, in looking for a larger table for us, chat up these three cute(ish) white girls and get them to let us join them.  The inevitable stupid conversations and “the game” ensue.

While this is all going down, I remember thinking to myself – so vividly – “these girls could give a sh– about me here, the Chinese dude.  All the attention is on (name of one of my friends), and they have hardly looked at me.  This sucks.” (*2)  I don’t know if it was reality, or me having a few too many drinks, but I ended up falling deeper and deeper into this little self-pity fest, as the evening progressed.

The thing is,  I’m actually not a bad-looking guy. (*3)  The friends with me were not exactly blessed with movie-star looks.  So what was my problem?

Well, my problem was that I’m Asian.  And male.  An Asian male.  And let’s just say that Asian males don’t have a lot of noticeable role-models in the “known-for-their-looks” department anywhere outside of the Asian continent.

No – instead, for our entire lives, we are bombarded with images and messaging about the “ideal” man – and he sure as Hell has never had Asian features.  He’s probably white.  But he may be black.  Or even Latino or Arab.  But he isn’t Asian.

Why?  Because Asian men don’t satisfy the pre-requisites for male “hotness.”  Good-looking guys are supposed to be tall (even when they aren’t – i.e. Tom Cruise – they are portrayed that way).  They’re supposed to be ripped (and we all know that Asian guys can’t be cut).  They have to be tough (and Asian men are only fit for effeminate, nerdy roles).  Facially, we’ve got to be able to see those beautiful eyes – and those slanty Asian eyes don’t allow that to happen.  This isn’t mentioning the most well-known Asian male sexual stereotype . . .

So what did we (Asian men) learn about ourselves from the media around us?  That we sure were good with computers, but if we appeared on the scene with a couple beautiful ladies, that was instantly hilarious – because it was so beyond the realm of possibility.

And for those people who are about to cite some famous Asian leading men (from kung-fu action flicks) to try to tell me I’m wrong, let me put that to rest – Asian men from Bruce Lee (*4) to Jet Li have been kicking ass for decades on the big screen, and yet, somehow, nobody would ever think that those Asian men are put in those roles because of their heart-throb status.  Outside of an all-Asian cast, when was the last time you watched an Asian action star “get the girl”? (*5) Right.

So I somehow doubt that I was the only Asian guy that didn’t have a major inferiority complex when it came to his race and his attractiveness to women.  I felt like I could be the hottest guy in the world, and still be considered “nerdy” and “effeminate” by the majority of women.

And there is a reason I didn’t say “non-Asian” women in the sentence above.

Because now I live in Shanghai.  I’ve been here for a little bit now.  I’ve walked around a lot.  I’ve seen a lot.  I’ve gotten myself pretty immersed in the culture.  And here is what I see: a decent amount of foreigners; walking around in small numbers; within a sea of Chinese men and women.  Okay.

But then I see interracial couples – hey, good for them, right?  Except the only interracial couples I’ve seen (obvious romantic couples) have involved a foreign (usually white, but not always) man and a Chinese woman.  There have been no exceptions.  About 100 or more different mixed-race couples, and not a damn one involving a Chinese man. (*6)

In a country with hundreds of millions of single Chinese men and a couple million foreign women – what can it mean that those women just do not date Chinese guys?  Cultural explanations and justifications can only go so far when numbers are so ridiculously skewed.  I’m in freaking China, folks.  Even exposure and immersion isn’t powerful enough to overcome this media messaging about the unattractiveness of Asian men . . . It makes me sick inside.

And it gets worse.

Because, suddenly, out here – I’ve been getting all sorts of compliments for my looks.  I’ve been told I’m handsome (even “pretty”) numerous times.  So why’s that “worse”?

Well, when those kind folks complimenting me explain to me why I’m so very handsome (as they invariably do), what do they say?  It’s because I’m part-white.  Because my “nose is big” (like a “Westerner”).  Or because I look “100% foreign.”  Flat-out: because I don’t look “Chinese” to the people here, they think I’m good-looking (and all the ugly white guys that get pretty Chinese women out here only reinforces that explanation).

Even worse – the majority of people telling me this are the men.  Even some of the young boys I teach have told me this.  Why?  At first, I thought it may be a form of repressed homosexuality. (*7)  Further examination proved that not to be the case.  Instead, it is more direct – because my part-whiteness represents these Chinese males’ physical ideal.  I am that step closer to non-Chinese masculinity that these men – even within China, where there are tons of Chinese male role models and sex-objects – aspire to.

It kills my f-ing soul.

A long time ago, I posted a youtube video by this random Asian-American high school student.  In it, the kid rambles – as kids do – but it is mostly focused on the “pros and cons of being Asian.”  There are a lot of cons.  As he visibly becomes shaken and his head drops, describing how it hurts to get ignored by the girls all the time, and teased, and feeling low because of his race . . .

To say “I feel him” doesn’t do it justice.  And this is from the side of a half-Asian, half-white guy.  I haven’t gotten it half as bad as the full-blood guys out there (like this kid).  Never thought I’d say it, but at least I have Dean Cain . . .

So what do we do about it?  How do we change a system that is so powerful that it lends a sense of inferiority to men about their race within a country where they are the overwhelming majority?!!

Sadly, I have no real answer.  Dismantle the system from within – that’s my solution for everything.  But exactly what that would look like when it is so difficult for “us” to even get “within” . . ?

My, oh my, is the pressure mounting for John Cho.

It’s not the most hopeful outlook, but I’ll try to end it on a (slight) positive with a possible (albeit a bit tongue-in-cheek) solution that goes like this:

Heterosexual ladies and homosexual men, our fate is in your hands.  Spend your hard-earned money viewing the one film a year with an Asian man in a lead role and loudly proclaim the hotness of said Asian man, so that everyone in the audience can hear you.  Spend so much money on pop music performed by Asian men (think Rain and Jay Chou) that “they” can’t ignore the economics of the matter.  And finally – and most importantly – next time you are around a young Asian male, casually tell your friend how hot you think John Cho is, and make sure they loudly agree with you.

And, as much as that last paragraph seems like a joke . . . if you do nothing else, really do the last thing.  It could seriously lift up a young guy’s self-esteem.  Sad, but most definitely true.

(*1) The faux-”Asianness” of the setting makes it all even better . . .

(*2) This was many years ago, of course, and the ironies abound, in so many ways, that my thoughts actually went like that.

(*3) Something I still don’t fully believe all the time.

(*4) Bruce Lee is a possible exception, but the only one, and he died how many years ago?

(*5) I should mention that in “Romeo Must Die,” there was originally a scene at the end where Jet Li and Aaliyah’s characters kissed . . .  but it was cut before final production . . . and that was the exception to my claim.

(*6) This includes the various commercials and print-ads that have interracial couples in them.

(*7) And I mean that literally; because homosexuality is still not acceptable here, and thus a foreigner may represent the only chance at being able to express those kinds of feelings safely for a Chinese man.  I will post on homosexuality in China at a later date.

Edited to Add: Some of the comments are seriously missing the point of this post.  CVT is not asking for your advice. And this is not a space where we just ignore racism and soldier on – most of us do enough of that in real life.  On an individual level, dating is what you make it.  However, it is influenced by larger questions of stereotyping, media representations, and racism, which is what we explore in this space.  – LDP