In wrapping up Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, The Asia Society held a discussion on Shattering the Stereotypes: The Asian American Male Identity featuring Yul Kwon (winner of Survivor Cook Islands), Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show), and Jeff Yang (SF Pop Culture Columnist and author among other things). It went better than I expected plus I ran into my friend Won Kim of Adiversity, Inc.
I posted about Yul and Survivor during that season’s run and had become a Yul fan when he said that he was trying to play the game with as much integrity as possible. I was like, can that be done? and can an Asian American actually win? I was definitely interested in how the Asians would be portrayed on the show. It was neat for me to hear his perspective of how things really went down apart from the edited version viewers were exposed to. The images of AsiAms portrayed in media are more often than not disappointing. Apart from your stereotypical kungfu mavens (bruce lee) and zen masters (mr miyagi), they’re either too weak, insecure, small, geeky, uncool, oversexualized, asexual, maniacal and in the end they never win, they never get the girl. We never see strong leadership. It hits a nerve because it’s the worst of what we seen in ourselves. It’s what we don’t want to be or be seen as by those different than us and by that most likely meaning white skinned and cool – the people we go to school with. But I’m glad to say with Yul we do see something different. He’s what we want to be in many ways. Actually, according to him if the producers had let it most of the AsiAm team would have shown viewers a very different side of Asian American women (becky), men(yul) and sexuality (brad). We just want to be able to say we’re not what you think we are even if that’s what we look like or who we may be when we wake up and look in the mirror every morning.
Asian American male identity is a very complex thing. The question last night was not so much what is Asian American manhood but simply questioning the notion of what should a man be? there’s been a rise of books in the last few years especially in Christian circles (wild at heart by john eldridge) trying to rediscover that but I find them mostly incomplete and unsatisfying. I’m now interested in this topic more than ever as I try to raise my son to be one.
It’s such a critical question. I think it’s possible that Asian American males can begin leading the way to shape and redefine our notions of manhood, especially the part that often gets left out – the responsibility of manhood. Ingrained in our ethos is hollywood portrayals of the strong, dominant, heroic and fearless male image and now the more sensitive and romantic types (think Matthew McConaughey) even the trying to still live like your in college funny guys (Adam Sandler). These guys with their pretty faces can kick ass and get the girl but we never get to see them handle their business. That leads us to another question, can we get the girl? More bluntly, can we get white girls? If getting just a girl is the goal, getting a white or non-asian girl is like bonus points as if this were some sort of game. There are indications that AsiAm men are becoming more appealing being seen as the types that can bring home the bacon and even care about homelife. At the turn of the millenium Newsweek published an article on “Why Asian Men are on a Roll” (was that a pun?) and how they may just be the next trophy boyfriends…(how about husbands?) Another remark, “They are the fashion accessory of the moment for white women.” An accessory? C’mon now. I had fun with this article and congratulated my wife-then-girlfriend on her trendiness. Getting a date issues aside I do think Asian American men have the ability to integrate both the best of the east and the west and options of Man that have not been explored here.
The discussion ended with the topic of mentoring. For many of us who are Gen-X/Y, there’s a real dearth of mentors especially in a culture of elders that have not historically sought to reach out, down, and pull up. There’s no old boys club that we can draw from. We’re it. What will be the future of the Asian American male identity? We’re making it happen now for the generations after us. It’s on.