Ugly Asian Male: On Being the Least Attractive Guy in the Room

Statistically, I’m the least attractive person in the dating scene. Alongside black women, the Asian-American male is considered the most ugly and undesirable person in the room.

Take it from Steve Harvey, who won’t eat what he can’t pronounce:

“‘Excuse me, do you like Asian men?’ No thank you. I don’t even like Chinese food. It don’t stay with you no time. I don’t eat what I can’t pronounce.’”

Eddie Huang, creator of the groundbreaking Asian-American sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, responded to Steve Harvey in The New York Times:

“[Every] Asian-American man knows what the dominant culture has to say about us. We count good, we bow well, we are technologically proficient, we’re naturally subordinate, our male anatomy is the size of a thumb drive and we could never in a thousand millenniums be a threat to steal your girl.”

Asian-American men, like me, know the score. That is, we don’t count at all.

Hollywood won’t bank on me. Think: When was the last time you saw an Asian male kiss a non-Asian female in a movie or TV show? Or when was the last time an Asian-American male was the desired person in a romantic comedy? And more specifically, when where they not Kung Fu practitioners or computer geniuses? I can only think of two examples: Steven Yeun as Glenn from The Walking Dead and John Cho as Harold from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. So it takes either a zombie apocalypse or the munchies to see a fully breathing Asian male lead, or a Photoshop campaign #StarringJohnCho for an Asian protagonist with actual thoughts in his head.

It’s so rare to see a three-dimensional Asian male character, with actual hopes and dreams, that Steven Yeun remarks in GQ Magazine:

GQ Magazine: When you look back on your long tenure on The Walking Dead, what makes you proudest?

Steven Yeun: Honestly, the privilege that I had to play an Asian-American character that didn’t have to apologize at all for being Asian, or even acknowledge that he was Asian. Obviously, you’re going to address it. It’s real. It’s a thing. I am Asian, and Glenn is Asian. But I was very honored to be able to play somebody that showed multiple sides, and showed depth, and showed a way to relate to everyone. It was quite an honor, in that regard. This didn’t exist when I was a kid. I didn’t get to see Glenn. I didn’t get to see a fully formed Asian-American person on my television, where you could say, “That dude just belongs here.” Kids, growing up now, can see this show and see a face that they recognize. And go, “Oh my god. That’s my face too.”

Growing up, I never had that, either. I can’t help but think of this scene from the biopic, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, in which Bruce Lee watches the controversial Asian stereotype played by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to a theater filled with derisive laughter. This moment with Bruce Lee is most likely fictional, but the weight of it is not lost on us:

This was a powerful moment for me as a kid, because I grew up with the same sort of mocking laughter, whether it was watching Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with my white neighbors, or being assailed by the Bruce Lee wail in the local grocery store. I knew they were laughing at me, and not with.

Continue reading “Ugly Asian Male: On Being the Least Attractive Guy in the Room”

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I Held a Swastika.

Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

The nurse told me that the patient, Willard, had taken a bite out of another nurse. He had swung at one of the doctors and thrown urine at a surgeon. Willard had multiple organ failure and he couldn’t walk; he kept demanding to go home. “Get me a wheelchair, I’ll flop in and ride over you people.” The staff kept trying to get him to stay, to get treated, despite his violent non-compliance: because nurses and doctors have the guts to look past that stuff.

They called for a chaplain to ask about Willard’s family members, to see if anyone could pick him up when he was discharged. I was the lucky chaplain who took the order.

When I walked in, I immediately noticed the patient had a tattoo of a heart on his hand, near the inner-fold of his thumb, with a swastika in the middle of the heart. The cognitive dissonance was startling. Not “I love mom” or his wife’s name, I thought, with a bit of snark. But hate in your heart. Very subtle.

“He’s one of those, you know, angry old fogeys,” the nurse had whispered right before I walked in. The nurse was a Middle Eastern man, about my age, and I couldn’t imagine the awful things he had to go through with this patient the last few days.

My eyes locked on the swastika first. The symbol held a terrible place in my memory: when I was a kid, someone had spraypainted a red swastika next to the front door of my dad’s business. Though my dad had tried to paint over it, I could still see it on hot summer days, a scar on the wall and a scar in my head, a mad throbbing declaration of all the world’s ugliness dripping in crimson. I still dream about it sometimes, and in the dream I’ll peer down at my wrists, which are engraved with the same red marks down to the veins.

The patient, Willard, saw me and said, “Thank God, a chaplain, finally someone who can hear me.”

But I don’t want to hear you, I thought. And a sick part of me also thought, You deserve this. I hope you never leave. Then you can’t hurt anyone out there.

He said, “Look, I see your face, I’m not trying to hurt anybody. You get it? I just want to go home. Fetch me a f__ing wheelchair, would you?.”

Willard got louder. He clenched his fists and waved them around. It was rather sad to see someone so animated and aggressive while pinned down to a bed, like the blanket had eaten his lower half and he was trying to crawl out. “Come on, I told you people that I wouldn’t hurt nobody. I got a dozen things wrong with me, I’m not a danger to you, I want to go home and to die in peace. You hear me? I’m ready to go home and die.”

Continue reading “I Held a Swastika.”

“The Gospel in Real Life” – Messages for Students from Yale


Hello wonderful friends! This is a series of three messages that I gave to students of Yale University, about the relevance and reason of Christianity.


The first is called: How Christianity Breaks Us Open and Painfully Puts Us Back Together.

It’s about how the Gospel uniquely differs from every other kind of motivation and completely restructures us.

Some things I talk about are: A meta-deconstruction of the Sunday church service, how to bomb a TEDTalk, the last two things I hear from dying patients in the hospital, the haunting of l’esprit de l’escalier, de-romanticizing adoption, the list of my flaws I gave to my wife before we started dating, and how a nine-year-old showed me the heart of Christianity.
You can also download it here.


The second is called: The Eternal Itchy Longing Within Us: Jesus Is Complete Fulfillment.

It’s about how the Gospel solves for two universal human problems and the greatest human need.

Some things I talk about are: How to tell an alien about the human race, conclusions about humanity after a survey with 700 replies, the instant anxiety when you walk into a crowded room, the itchy self-conscious moment when someone is slightly more talented at “my thing,” that loopy moment at night with your best friend when you start confessing everything, two universal human problems and our greatest human need, and the absolutely most important linchpin verse in the Bible.
You can also download it here.


The third is called: Where We Come From and Where We’re Going: Red Sea to Redeemed & Free.

It’s about how the Gospel compels us into action, neither by guilt nor religion, but deliverance.

Some things I talk about are: How long it actually should’ve taken the Israelites to get to Canaan from Egypt (not forty years), the moment right after the wedding, how the grace of my first pastor completely tenderized and galvanized me, the Christian life beyond “overcoming-sin,” and seeing God in the Philippines and a homeless shelter.
You can also download it here.



More messages on iTunes here or my podcast page here.

Be immensely blessed, dear friends! — J.S.

Photo by Alex, CC BY 2.0

Not Quite Asian, Not Quite American; Fully Human

My mom and dad came to this country separately over thirty years ago and met in New York City, where they were married; my dad came to the U.S. with sixty dollars in his single pair of pants, and my mom couldn’t speak a word of English.  My dad was a Vietnam War Veteran, 2nd Lieutenant in the R.O.K. Army on the side of the U.S., and the only escaped prisoner of war from the Tet Offensive in 1969.  He’s also a licensed veterinarian and a Grand Master of Tae Kwon Do, a ninth degree black belt, the 54th 9th degree in the world.

Before my parents divorced when I was fourteen, my mom owned a laundromat and a grocery store next door to each other and would run back and forth between them to serve customers; sometimes she took old clothes that people left behind because we were too poor to afford any. My dad owned a martial arts dojo and mopped the entire floor every morning, then taught four classes in the evenings almost all in Korean.  Between the two of them, they worked almost 200 hours per week and slept maybe three hours per night.

One summer, someone spraypainted a swastika on the front wall of the dojo. My dad painted over it, but on those hot humid days, we could still see that Nazi symbol like an angry pulsing scar.

We got a message on our answering machine — maybe the same Nazi artists — who spent a good ten minutes making fun of my dad’s accent. I remember seeing my dad listen to it several times, staring quietly out a window. When he noticed me, he turned it off and said, “Just boys playing a joke.” The voices were from grown men.

When we visited with friends, we felt the invisible walls of cliques and class between us.  We were aliens from another world, just a foreign prop in the hero-story of the Westerner.  I was the token Asian.  When I visit churches, I still am.  Christians feel proud to know me because I meet their diversity quota; my other friends are proud to know me because they can make Asian jokes and explain, “Don’t worry, I have an Asian friend.”

In elementary school, when I first made friends and came over, I would immediately take off my shoes and bow to their parents.  I remember freaking out the first time I saw a fork.  I asked for two sticks to eat my food, and they said, “No, you can stab your food now.”  I still slightly bow to people as a reflex, and I still don’t get forks.

When I meet native Koreans from my own country, they call me kyopo, which is a slang term for misplaced native.  They make fun of my heavy American accent when I try to speak Korean.  They’re surprised I’m taller than them and say, “It must be hormones in the McDonald’s.”  They think I’m arrogant because I watch American TV shows and I have a blog written entirely in English.

I live in two worlds. I do not fully embody either, yet belong to both.

Continue reading “Not Quite Asian, Not Quite American; Fully Human”

On Racism, Bruce Lee, and X-Ray Vision


I am Korean, and I’ve been a victim of racism my whole life.  I hate to use the word “victim,” but really, your race is nothing you ask for, and in a melting pot like America I’m still painfully aware that I am not like most people.

More than my faith, my socioeconomic status, my intellect, my demeanor — this has been the one dividing wall between me and my white friends that is just as tangible as the seat I’m on.  I am an alien.  I have different traditions.  I also own a dog.  I keep explaining myself to people because they think I’m going to eat him.

I grew up in the States but I’m still the token Asian guy.  When I visit an American church, they are proud to have an Asian person in their midst. They try to make me talk to the other Koreans. I am a victory for their diversity.

Since I’m this hybrid-Asian, it’s apparently okay to make jokes about chopsticks, Bruce Lee, martial arts, and eating octopus.  The thing is: I love chopsticks, Bruce Lee, martial arts, and eating octopus.  So do a lot of people.  I just don’t feel like making this a point every time I introduce myself.  I want to be a human being, not a flyer for AsiaFest or a punchline on South Park.  I don’t want to cater to anyone’s relaxed stance on ethnicity, as if “I’m cool enough to make racist Asian jokes because I’m friends with this one Asian guy.”

Continue reading “On Racism, Bruce Lee, and X-Ray Vision”