“I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.”
It’s a cringeworthy quote from David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play, M. Butterfly, the same that won that year’s Tony Award. The story follows a French soldier who is sent to China where he eventually falls in love with a man disguised as a woman. Certainly, a progressive story for the time period. The line above from the production still rings true, forty years later, at least for many Asian American men.
SEE ALSO: As an Asian American, I am invisible in this country
After all, throughout the past few decades, American culture has attempted to completely castrate Asian American men and their masculine identities. The dangerous stereotype and the tired tropes that identify Asian men as undesirable, unsexy, foreign, devoid of sensuality, has become detrimental to that community in the past near-century. So much so that a percentage of the 9 million men Asian American men say they have felt discrimination’s ugly repercussions, including depression, anxiety, issues with self-worth and suicide.
So it’s no wonder that Asian Americans, namely those from East Asian lineage, have turned to social media to air their grievances in the past months alone. From Hollywood’s rampant white wash of characters, to speaking up about the lack of Asian faces in TV and films, woke blogs like Angry Asian Man and Love Life of An Asian Guy seem to keep individuals and media enterprises in check.
The conversation heated up again when the comedian and daytime talkshow host, Steve Harvey, was dragged on Twitter last for a past episode that was uncovered by savvy viewers.
“‘Excuse me, do you like Asian men?'” he’s heard in the clip, casually asking his audience. In the video, now uploaded onto YouTube, he’s jabbing on about Asian masculinity. It’s flippant, though hateful. The context is in regards to the 2002 guide, How to Date a White Woman: A Practical Guide for Asian Men (an embarrassing book if there was ever). “‘No, thank you,'” he goes on to say in a feminine gesture, his hand on his hip, his head cocked to the side: “I don’t even like Chinese food, boy. I don’t stay with you no time. I don’t eat what I can’t pronounce.”
The joke was one in jest, one could argue. And one could also say it’s fair to say offensive statements sometimes, poking fun at different people – racial epithets included – because well, it’s his job. The tired, trite, troubling stereotypes are nothing new; spewing them out again and again is far from funny.
But it is painful.
For the 9 million Asian American men who live in this country, it was yet another day where mainstream culture attempted to mitigate our identities. It was throwing salt in the wounds of millions of Asian men like me, whose own self-worth has been shaken throughout the years, thanks to the decades upon decades of this country actively erasing our unique masculinities. After over one-hundred years of emasculation, why, in 2017, are we still having these conversations, many Asian Americans asked?
This humiliating narrative has haunted Asian American males for the past century beginning from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to Yellow Peril in the late 1800’s (that is, that Asians were a terror to white America). The latter, a form of mass hysteria that was created to prevent the Asian population from growing. Asian women were also banned from immigrating with men (though a few still came over), a direct affront from the U.S. government to control the Asian population. To protect its American citizens, the country warned women that men from East Asian descent were villains, out to get them.
From 1929’s supervillain Fu Manchu, who embodied a man sexuality can be likened to a paramecium, 1984’s Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, to modern day sitcoms like Two Broke Girls‘ Han, a thickly accented caricature of an Asian, whose petite frame and mannerisms were completely diminutive, are only a few examples of Hollywood perpetuating this message. (Mind you, this is only a short list of characters throughout the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s Mickey Rooney in yellow face is another …)
Each has been pigeonholed into being foreign, non-sexual caricatures. This is even the case for macho, elite athletes, who are far from the stereotype. In recent years, we’ve seen star NBA basketball players like Jeremy Lin, the handsome, powerful, 6’3″ athlete, find his share of masculine erasure with publications like a Fox Sports writer tweeting out “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.” This precedes last year’s baffling Oscars where Asians were made into punchlines, with comedians like Sacha Baron Cohen taking jabs Asian genitalia.
Of course, Cohen along with other comedians, feel it’s kosher to make jokes at the expense of the Asian community. It’s easy to attack a minority community when said community seems so insignificant. This, especially in Hollywood. In a statistic from USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication, only 1% of Hollywood films had any Asian Americans as leads (Asian Americans currently compose over 5% of the entire U.S. population).
Lack of portrayals onscreen of real Asian males in leading roles (or any that air on the side of authenticity) has had a real detrimental impact on Asian American male psyches. A recent article in Psychology Today found that mass media portrayals and its subsequent perpetuance of Asian emasculation, has led to many men experiencing intense stress, anxiety and overall lack of self-esteem.
“Feeling sexually undesirable has played a part in many Asian men going long stretches of time without dating anyone out of fear of rejection,” says Dr. Nicole Hsiang to Very Good Light, a psychotherapist in San Francisco who specializes in Asian American men and women. “The never-ending pursuit of proving their worth and trying to gain approval and acceptance from others breeds tremendous resentment and anger.”
Dr. Hsiang says that from her research, the media has had a direct impact on the lives of Asian Americans. “This is a direct result of racist media portrayals of Asian men as undesirable and hearing statements like, ‘I don’t date Asian men,'” she says. “The negative images become internalized and start to be believed in by AA men themselves.”
Indeed, there has been a strong correlation between emasculating Asian American men and how desirable they are. In a recent finding from 2015, a poll from both heterosexual women and homosexual males showed that Asian American men were “least desirable” when it came to online dating.
“Expedient shorthands like ‘no rice’ and ‘no curry’ are used to discourage Asians from communicating their interest,” said a Pacific Standard finding from the gay application, Grindr.
Whether straight or gay, Asian American men have certainly received blatant discrimination when it comes to dating, which has had a real affect on their self-esteems.
But times, they are changing.
In 2017, we as a community are fighting back sentiments and taking control of our own definite masculinities and stories. From sex symbols onscreen the like Daniel Henney, to leading men like Hayden Szeto (who we wrote about here), to the rise of Korean pop stars, there’s certainly a desire for more diversity in entertainment.
But how does this affect every day Asian American men who don’t shine on the silver screens? Very Good Light asked 13 real Asian American men ranging from teens, guys in their 20s to 30s, in different professions from all across the world, on what it’s been like to walk in their shoes. They are banding together in an attempt to stop the hate once and for all.
Enough is enough.
From painful stories of rejection, to finding empowerment, to embracing their own uniqueness, each story is raw, real and powerful.
Here they are in their own words …
1. Peter Park, Virginia, Model
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To witness Steve Harvey’s hurtful remarks towards Asian men was disappointing especially since I have the upmost respect for him and support him from purchasing his motivational books to watching his shows. Even my mom watches ‘Family Feud’ when she comes home from work.
Unfortunately, I strongly feel like Asian men are desexualized and emasculated in the media. The media portrays Asian men in another way and it changes perception for Asians, which really sucks.
It has affected me in numerous occasions, especially when I was in high school. I remember when I was warming up for my basketball game, a group of kids from another school I was playing at were yelling out racist remarks like “yo, shrimp fried rice.” Of course, I didn’t pay them any mind. Even though my team lost, I still dropped 22 points on them and showed them that Asian guys have skills. It’s not normal to see Asians playing real physical sports like basketball and football, so when people see that, it catches them off guard.
There are so many stereotypes that come with being Asian American. We’re great at math, we’re technologically proficient, our male anatomy is the size of an eraser and we could never in a thousand years be a threat to steal your girl. All false. I am proud of who I am and the skin that I am in. Attractiveness should never be based on one’s ethnicity. Love has no color. When it comes to my own love life, it hasn’t affected my dating at all. I don’t have any problems when it comes to that department.
I am proud of who I am and the skin that I am in.
When it comes to the future, I think we as a community, have to stand firm and be confident in our appearances. We have to accept who we are and where we come from. We need to know that we can carry ourselves as alphas, we can be loud in our actions and we can make sure we are heard. Most importantly, we can make sure we support each other.
2. Joshua Lance Glass, NYC, writer and editor
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I don’t really think anything has really changed for me in the past few years. I think Asian men, no matter what orientation or dating pool you’re speaking to, have a general disadvantage as we’re typically either fetishized in the gay world or evaded by most heterosexual women. I think that comes down to racial archetypes—stereotypically, Asian men are applauded for their brains, not their braun—and the inherit codes of masculinity.
I’m half-Asian, and physically look a bit more Latino, so I don’t think I’ve really felt triggered or affected by this, fortunately. I do think there is a bit of a trend for white men, both straight and gay, to sexually eroticize Asians and People of Color as a whole. This must speak to some subconscious idea of power or masculinity.
I’m half-Asian, and physically look a bit more Latino, so I don’t think I’ve really felt triggered or affected by this, fortunately.
At a time like today—when the racial discussion, in America at least, has so largely been focused on white versus black—it’s necessary to look and discuss and battle for the other groups of marginalized people. Asian Americans have the smallest presence out of all the racial groups in Hollywood. So much of our culture is reflected in what we see and who we’re told to like. And of course, that that influences our sense of attraction. Hopefully things will change.
3. Brian, NYC, analyst in structured finance
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I didn’t think Steve Harvey’s jokes were funny. I didn’t really understand the humor – none of my white or black female friends view dating an Asian American guy as undesirable. I was actually wondering why the audience was so receptive. I’m not upset personally as the jokes just made me SMH, but I see how the jokes are offensive. I think we’re still talking about this because we expect better. It’s like, really?
I don’t think my dating life has been negatively impacted because I’m an Asian American man. It’s the same with my professional life. I don’t consider myself undesirable because of my ethnic background and I’m secure in my sense of manhood.
I don’t consider myself undesirable because of my ethnic background and I’m secure in my sense of manhood.
Having said that, I think I’m treated differently than other Asian American men because I’m of mixed race and don’t necessarily “look Asian,” and also because my name doesn’t “sound Asian.” In this way, I think I’ve been spared some of the dangerous sentiments that come with being Asian. Alternatively, I tend to feel like a bit of a visitor in non-mixed Asian American groups and communities. Maybe because I’m not Asian enough? Whatever that means.
4. Jake Choi, Los Angeles, actor
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Growing up and up until a couple of years ago, I felt pretty insecure about my skin color, shape of my eyes, my heritage, just being an Asian American. I was confused as hell with my identity and accepting myself as an Asian American. I think the movie I starred in recently, Front Cover really helped me to start accepting myself, actually. Working on that film and learning about the director Ray’s struggles that mirrored mine a lot, really set something off in my mind.
I’ve had women say some dumbass shit to me like, “I don’t usually like Asian guys, but you’re cute” or “You’re super hot for an Asian guy.” Usually it’s white or white-passing Latinas say this. Or I’ll be out with a girl and she’ll say something like “so I heard Asian guys are small down there, are you?” And I’m sitting there like am I really gonna have to explain myself or the stupidity of the myth to her? But she and other girls that ask this seem to be sincere. They really believe this myth to be true. It’s preposterous. So I’ll tell them that’s not true, I’ve seen some hung Asian men in the locker rooms in gyms. I’m pretty well endowed myself.
I’m pretty well endowed myself.
I think as a person of color, my dating life will usually be affected by the stereotypes people, especially white people, have of you. It’s bound to come up. And we have to be vigilant in shutting those down and checking people when they say problematic shit. Like how we and the Internet are doing to Steve Harvey. It’s sad because there’s already a divide between the Asian and black community. We need to build that bridge and unify, not separate further. It only will serve to advance white supremacy.
And with what Harvey said, it’s not helping any group. Him perpetuating Asian male emasculation and undesirability, actually perpetuates the extreme opposite stereotype of the hyper-sexualized black man. It harms both groups. And his half apology was bullshit. Someone fire his publicist.
5. Benzamin Yi, NYC, freelancer
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I think people are still talking about this because while this movement of civil liberties progresses, Asians are left behind constantly. Look at the Oscars last year when Chris Rock was all serious about non-white representation and then shits on Asians. What, dude?
I hope that the Asian American community will feel and know their rights to speak out against this. Our culture keeps us quiet and humble, as we persevere through the bullshit, but as Americans, we should feel empowered to speak up about it when it matters. I think those of us who want our community to start voicing their concerns and doing something about it are making sure that we are heard. We want to be heard. No, it’s not cool to say shit like that.
We want to be heard. No, it’s not cool to say shit like that.
I have an amazing, beautiful girlfriend, so what Steve has to say about my desirability means nothing. My girlfriend thinks I’m dead sexy. I’ve been blatantly hit on, got numbers at bars, went on dates with non-Asians; yes, even white people, and while I have come across people who did not find me desirable, this was nothing new. A lot of people don’t find me desirable, and that’s fine because I’m not exactly a model or body builder and I’m not trying to be desirable to everyone. The women living in Steve Harvey’s mind aren’t on my list of women to impress). But if I’m found undesirable because of my race, well, that’s just fucked up.
6. Joe Seo, Los Angeles, Actor
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People often associate masculinity on film as someone who is hyper-violent or someone with a lot of power. I have not had the chance to play many of these roles yet. During the few delinquent roles I had, I was able to flex such “masculine” muscles. However, I think true masculinity, as cliche as it sounds, is just being ok with yourself. You don’t have to over do it and you don’t have to under do it.
Just be yourself.
So I’ll just keep knocking until they open that door.
I don’t really think of “my” masculinity per se, when playing a character. That’s because it’s not me, it’s that character. I just try to convey what the script shows the character to be like. Asian American or not, I’ve also never thought of myself as being sexy and I do think it has to do with our culture. But what can I do? I just got to change people and Hollywood’s perceptions by portraying characters who are honestly. So I’ll just keep knocking until they open that door.
7. Jake Chang, New Jersey, high school senior
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The fact of the matter is that Asian men are desirable. I’m very lucky to be living in an environment where the vast majority of people are accepting and I have experienced the best of being Asian. But I do have friends from other walks of the world who have felt this and I empathize fully with. They have told me that they feel worthless and feel like they have no chance with any girls.
The fact of the matter is that Asian men are desirable.Even I sometimes feel if I were a white male it would be a much easier time for me to meet new people and date. Personally, I don’t let it affect me too much and I take life as it is. In regards to my sense of manhood, I actually feel that I have further embraced it with the way I dress and taking advantage of my skin color for color matching.There definitely have been times where I have experienced something negative because I am an Asian male. For example, many of the girls I have met have said that they won’t date Asian guys because they just aren’t attracted to them. I try not to let it affect me; I still have confidence in my “Asianness.”
8. Marshall Bang, Seoul, Musician
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I’m still in the process of undoing years of damage in how I view myself and Asian men around me. Living abroad in Seoul really helped in gaining perspective as to what a strong Asian man could look like. It was in Seoul that I first noticed, “Damn, the men here are so tall, I guess they’re all here in the motherland!”
Seoul was the first place where I didn’t feel like an outsider or “other” or at least felt like I wasn’t perceived as one (though I was different as a Korean American). Since a young age, I developed an innate desperation to prove that I was as much a “true” American as all the other white people around me.Then add the experience of growing up as a closeted gay dude in a very religious household and you have a recipe for several layers of fuckery to deal with. On one end I had to deal with the pressures of acting like a “real man.” Then I had the pressures of being told that I was gay and that I had to just come out and accept it.
Constantly being called a “fag” or “chink” didn’t help.I’m sure straight Asian men around me were also trying to figure out how they fit in but for me, there was absolutely no safe space to process it all out – constantly being called a “fag” or “chink” didn’t help. I’m sure everyone remembers puberty; It’s a rough time for us as it is without having to think about why the majority of your school or characters on TV shows or musicians and singers and actors don’t look like you.
9. John Kim, NYC, architect and model
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While today, I am confident in who I am and know better not to allow outside voices define my self-worth, I can remember being Asian as an issue growing up. There were times as a kid where I felt uncomfortable being Asian because of the way the media portrayed and ridiculed our cultures.
It bothered me but instead of succumbing to the perpetual noise, I let it fuel me. In a generation where I was told I wouldn’t be athletic or desirable, I motivated myself to rise above the stereotypes and one day become a role model for Asian Americans.I’m a model as well as an architect.
I can remember being Asian as an issue growing up.
While the industry is still dominated by the image of the white male, there have been a few movements calling for diversity. In that sense, being an Asian male model has some perks of being “edgy” and “unique”. Most importantly for me, I am proud to represent the Asian American community as a model.
There is a growing curiosity about the new age of Asian Americans, and I think it is a challenging yet opportunistic time for Asian Americans to make their mark in the industry. In the same way people like Jeremy Lin and Lucy Liu have disrupted their respective industries, an underlying motive for why I continue to do what I do today—whether its in architecture, marathons, or modeling— is to expand the notion of who we are as Asian Americans.
10. Thomas Jeon, NYC, software engineer
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I’ve become pretty jaded when people stereotype Asians since I am constantly reminded of my apparent “asexuality.” The discrimination comes in very different forms. Side comments like, “he’s cute, but I can’t imagine having sex with him” that seem innocuous just mean that no matter how good looking you are, Asians cannot be sexualized.
“He’s cute, but I can’t imagine having sex with him.”
Dating life is a whole different ballgame, though. It really fucks you up when during dates you constantly have thoughts like “does he only date Asians?” or “does he even date Asians?”. There’s then the ever present: “am I being too Asian?” Then enter Apps. The worst of them all. You end up seeing through all the subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at your own self confidence.
In this fucked up state, all logic goes out the window. You start reading into everything and linking them to your Asian ethnicity. I could go into all my neuroses but that would be a whole different essay. I know it doesn’t necessarily work that way, but it creeps into your mind and takes over. You start comparing how many matches your white friend gets to yours.
Many of my gay Asian friends have mentioned that they wish they were white so dating would be easier. In my opinion, that mindset is very dangerous. Sure, there is a lot of privilege from just being white, but I’d rather be different. I have come to own and love my Asianness, just like how I did with my own femininity and homosexuality. It comes with a barrage of racism but it also makes me how I am. That being said, I love who I am and wouldn’t change it for anything.
11. Sung Wi, NYC, financial sales
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I know Asian women who won’t date Asian guys because they’re too passive aggressive and not direct enough. So, comments from a celebrity or influencer like Steve Harvey continue to push that stereotype of Asians being less than desirable. This obviously sets us back. Maybe it’s especially hurtful because society proves to many Asian Americans that what he said is true. What if what he said isn’t just a stereotype? What if, for a lot of Asian men and young kids, life experience has proven to them that it’s true?
I fear that Asian kids growing up today will hear comments like these, believe it is true and then have society confirm it.
It’s no secret that even though we’re called the “model minority,” Hollywood and the vast media hasn’t had many examples of leading Asian men that we can look up to. I fear that Asian kids growing up today will hear comments like these, believe it is true and then have society confirm it. And that’s the danger of what he said. We as Asian men also need to step up and be better examples to the younger or even current generation. Having said that, I’ll end my thought with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
12. Minkyu Kim, NYC, English teacher
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I’ve been thinking about this a lot, in light of the Steve Harvey video, which I obviously watched in horror. I think there are some non-offensive things that are blown out of proportion. But this was a direct hit.To start, I am angry at Steve Harvey and everyone in the audience. including viewers, who laughed at his bit. It is a tired bit. But I’m also annoyed that there is a vacuum when it comes to advocacy on Asian issues. We have less weight, if that makes sense. I’m not sure an Asian host gets away with just an apology if he does an entire bit about how black men are not dateable. But Steve Harvey had no such fear.I actually believe Steve Harvey when he says he has no malice in his heart, though I think, if pressed, he’d admit that he views Asian men as less “masculine” than he is, based on what I know of his regressive ideas on gender norms. But Steve Harvey did not conjure these ideas on his own. These ideas are part of our collective thinking on race in this country. And gender, too. I care that people feel belittled by his comments. But there is a larger issue here.
As for me, I’m certainly not naive enough to think that my race has never been a factor in my dating life.By perpetuating Asian stereotypes, Steve Harvey is not just cutting down Asian men. He is reinforcing a system of oppression by normalizing reductive thinking, and passing off racial divides and injustice as the natural state of things, instead of seeing them for the ever-shifting changeable social constructs that they are. Which is the worst part of all this. Steve Harvey is a black man, of an age that would have made him, presumably, a victim of real life racism in this country before his fame and celebrity – and maybe even still. To turn around and subject another population to prejudice is disappointing, and self-defeating, if he seeks racial equality.As for me, I’m certainly not naive enough to think that my race has never been a factor in my dating life. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard, “I’m not normally into Asian guys,” which is meant to be a compliment, but it’s also in a way troubling. The jokes get to me sometimes. But if my Asianness is a factor in someone’s decision to not date me, a real person, I probably don’t want to date that person anyway.
13. Justin Min, NYC, stylist
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I know these stereotypes have, at times, caused a lot of un-happiness in myself that resonates in a relationship. At times, it makes me very detached and unsure of someones motives when they are interested. I also feel like at times when there is a lack of modeling in the media, asian men tend to be less represented which I feel is reflected when I look at how asian men groom and take care of themselves. I distinctly remember GQ doing a best haircut roundup and not having any minorities. I can’t imagine after years of that that a minority would grow up thinking or not knowing how best accentuate and appreciate their natural features.
I distinctly remember GQ doing a best haircut roundup and not having any minorities.
I am a bit taller with a bigger build so I feel I do get less stigma applied to Asian men when it comes to effeminate or delicate. I did go on a date once and the other person told me they did not find my height at 6’1″ to be attractive for an Asian and that under 5’4″ was preferable. He then went on to criticize me for paying, as he did not like to have anyone pay for meals as it was his way of feeling in control. It did not go anywhere after that date and later opened my eyes to the idea of being expected to be submissive whether you were an Asian man or a woman, a trope that is troubling.