Crazy Male Asians: Stories Matter


With the release of Crazy Rich Asians, here’s my most popular post from last year: On the “Ugly Asian Male” stereotype, and why Asian-American males are considered the least attractive people and the least likely to be a lead.

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

I was surprised this post got any traction at all. Often when I talk about anything Asian, people glaze over and tune out. “You’re smart, you have it easy, you work hard, you people are privileged too,” I always hear, as if my only say in the matter is to be grateful and bow all the time. And I know that “diversity” is not an issue everybody wants to hear because it’s been used as a guilt-sledgehammer. So I rarely talk about it here.

But these things do matter to me. I learned quickly as a young Korean-American that my life was a second-class existence. I was a prop, the comic relief, the third acquaintance. I wish I had any sort of Hollywood hero to aspire to.

Asian males in American media are often emasculated hair-dyed plot devices, mute kung fu experts, evil villains, or the computer guy in a chair. It’s almost impossible to name the last time an Asian male was the romantic interest in any American movie. Even Mulan​ was the only animated Disney movie where the romantic leads didn’t kiss. I guess an Asian male having that sort of energy was too weird.

That’s all fine, I suppose, but the power of mainstream art has a way of drawing boxes around our perception of others, including the perception of self. I suffocated in this box for too long. And God forbid we have actual dreams, hopes, insecurities, and backstories like everyone else.

With recent shows like Kim’s Convenience​, Fresh off the Boat​, and Ugly Delicious​, it’s great to see we’re slowly chipping away at old conventions. I’m not sure that Asian-Americans are going to have the “one huge hit that will change everything.” If that happens, I’m all for it. I’m also all for working modestly towards the horizon, like we’ve always done. I hope you will hear us. Our stories are worth sharing. Here’s to breaking boxes.

— J.S.

Advertisements

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”