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.”

Main Character Hero-Savior Syndrome: The Real Reason Why We Think Everyone Is a Terrorist

When someone tells me I’m race-baiting, that signals something worse than racism.

There’s something that runs even deeper than our racist attitudes and feeds those very views, an underlying coiled root that unless exposed and extracted, will continually provoke such overreactions that arrest innocent children suspected of terrorism. It’s not as simple as blaming Texas or “white folk” or buzzwords like micro-aggression and oppression. It is more subtle and sinister than outright violence and just as dangerous as the fanaticism that we claim to be afraid of.

A certain thread of socialized narrative has been bombarding us for a long time:

– That we are each the Main Character of our own particular story,

– with each person around us as plot-resolving props to support our catharsis,

– and that both The Enemy is plotting against us and The Endangered are in need of rescue.

Every act of the Main Character is considered an honorable sacrifice, while The Enemy remains a faceless, disembodied, unpredictable element that only thinks of “my” destruction.

This arc of the Hero-Savior story has silently fueled our approach to politics, religion, gender, race relations, charity, and just about every Hollywood blockbuster – and it perpetuates both a self-idolization and an other-demonization. It is both a megalomania and xenophobia. It’s why we say things like “race-baiting,” because we make someone else’s racial pain about “me.”

The most difficult part is that it acts as genuine benevolence, even believing in its own good motives, but continues to operate on a subconscious superiority of “doing the right thing.” It’s not as obvious as armed warfare but kills us over a lifetime of dehumanizing anyone outside the familiar. No one wants to think they’re the bad guy, and will find every rationalization to uphold their behavior. This runs under racially motivated crime, through power-plays or sexual conquest or the pressure for success. It’s largely our sociological need to be identified with the “victor,” the winning side, and for the “loser” to be morally wrong and the source of our ills, who must be subjugated under our feet and obliterated.

Everyone wants to be the Hero at the expense of making the “other” a Villain. This is the crux of the problem. A Hero must destroy an Enemy and “save” the Endangered. The Main Character falls into a romanticized, fetishized fantasy of being celebrated for their upstanding courage, which not only forfeits the necessary cooperation for real acts of heroism, but also trivializes the very real complexity of criminals and victims and justice, all which require a nuance far greater than our simplistic shorthand impulse.

The language of “the enemy” and “stranger” is not entirely our fault. Our brains have a shorthand schema to recognize patterns, so that we can make quick associations and fill the gaps of perception. It’s often a reflex to jump to conclusions or force-fit a memory or an explanation. This is why a movie will portray a crime-ridden city with “wet streets” and boarded doors and loud rap music, as a point of reference which works as a cheat-sheet for the viewer. Foley artists add sound effects in movies which we’re conditioned to hear, though so often they’re not the sound the thing makes, like rain and bowling balls. A clock can look suspiciously like a bomb because of Cartoon Time Bombs, but would be completely impractical since a modern bomb won’t call attention to itself with giant numbers. It only takes a moment to think through it: but our brains have gone Pavlov. We lock things into a habitual grid that relays consistent information, even when there’s contrary evidence to the schema at work.

These symbols and images and visual cues are more powerful and prevalent than we think. We’re taught that certain clothing, like a du-rag or sweater vest or hijab, conveys the entirety of that person, with moral implications and the “importance” to the plot. An Asian with glasses wearing a tie in a computer lab portrays a very specific range of information, as they’re only good for unlocking an encrypted file or discovering the missing clue in a forensics report. Or they’re used as a “foreigner punchline.” A Middle Eastern man bringing a briefcase on a bus is supposed to be a tense moment of paranoia, instantly engaging the viewer in questions we’ve been trained to ask – but not stopping to ask why we even ask these questions.

Continue reading “Main Character Hero-Savior Syndrome: The Real Reason Why We Think Everyone Is a Terrorist”

The Death of Racism: Hope For A Better World

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When I was nine, I knew I was different because someone grabbed their own eyes, pulled them wide, and yelled, “Ching chong.” Someone told me my dad had killed his dad in the Vee-ut-nam War. And no one on TV looked like me.

That summer, someone had spraypainted a swastika on my dad’s business. 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.

Someone told me that racism is dead today. But I look at these racist tweets, I encounter cashiers who slow down their speech, I get called Bruce in the mall, I still get “ching chong” from five year old boys with their mothers who don’t correct them — and I think of that swastika that wouldn’t go away. I think of my dad, who wanted to protect me from the ugly hearts of men. He wanted to give me a better world than this.

Continue reading “The Death of Racism: Hope For A Better World”

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”

Cancelling Colbert, Chopped Suey, and Winning At Racism

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As a Korean Asian-American who’s always felt the bull’s eye on my back for easy punchlines and Bruce Lee catcalls, I’ve been a huge fan of Stephen Colbert since forever.  Through the whole misunderstanding about that satire/racist tweet he never actually sent, I never for a second thought Colbert is a racist.  And I don’t think Suey Park, who began the whole #cancelcolbert thing, had illegitimate feelings about it either.  However exaggerated those feelings were, she has a right to be an “Angry Asian Woman,” and she chose to pick a fight that has eluded victory for Asians since we were slaves in the 1800s (which no one cares about, ever).

But who really won here? Suey Park was practically disemboweled online by misogynistic death threats, which only exposes the ugliness of the same tweeters who bashed an 11 year old Mexican for singing the national anthem. Colbert’s original target, Dan Snyder’s “Redskins Foundation,” remains completely untouched by the appropriate outrage, to which Colbert rightly says, “I haven’t seen sh_t about that.”

I keep seeing the same headlines and sound bites.  “Colbert’s Brilliant Response.” “Colbert Wins.”  “He would’ve never said that to blacks, gays, or Jews.”  “Five Things Colbert Got Right.”  “Suey Park Fail In Huffpost Interview.” “White liberal privilege.” And so on.

All the unthoughtful, un-nuanced, tactless, ungracious responses were worse than the supposed debacle that started it all.

Here’s where I grieve the most. There’s a moment in Colbert’s response from his own show (at the 2:30 mark) where Colbert repeats the joke about Asians.  It’s right there that I cringed pretty bad, not at the joke itself, but the way the audience laughed so hard.  Like a reflex.  Because saying “ching chong” with such inflection is easy to laugh at.  It’s satire, yes, but you can pretty much hear the racist undertones in the laughter.  I’m reminded of why Dave Chappelle walked away from a $50 million contract: because while taping a sketch about pixies in blackface, a white person on set laughed just a bit too hard.  It made Chappelle question what he was really doing: and it should probably drive us to the same questions too.

One time a pastor called me at three in the morning because he was really pissed off about something I did.  He proceeded to yell at me for forty-five minutes and used the f-bomb no less than six times.  I stayed silent.  And honestly, I kept thinking, “If I was a black guy or a gay guy or disabled, this wouldn’t be happening right now.”

It’s such a typical reverse-racist sentiment, yet I’ve seen it play out everyday.  I’m more likely to get yelled at during rush hour traffic because I’m the bad Asian driver who won’t say anything back.  At mostly white social functions, I’m usually relegated to the side and I get everything explained to me really slowly, as if I’m missing some kind of awareness about life.  It sucks to see Asians used casually as props in movies.  I’m not sure if anyone could understand watching my dad listen to racist prank messages on his answering machine, rewinding them over and over, trying to understand what they were saying.  It grieves me to see an internationally known pastor like Rick Warren brush off his casual racism by yelling “Pharisees” at people who supposedly don’t get a joke.  I could keep going.

Despite Stephen Colbert’s strangely smug response and his barely restrained ridicule, I’ll keep watching him.  He handled the overblown situation about as well as he could (maybe too well).  But I do think the pain that Asians feel over racism is NOT merely projection or oversensitivity or political correctness.  Certainly not all of it.

It’s possible to over-use the race card, but it’s terrible to ignore the centuries that we’ve endured such dehumanizing dismissal.  Unless you’ve been there, I can’t adequately explain just how much it hurts to be abused and neglected simply because I look different than you.  Think of how crazy that is.  So I just can’t laugh at “ching chong” no matter how it’s used.  There’s still so much work to be done for healing all our racial divides, and this small skirmish only proves it.  No one really won here.  If only we could truly get to the bottom of this pain together, and listen, will we ever build bridges toward each other instead of to oblivion.

— J


Question: My Reputation At School Is Dead, Now What?

Anonymous asked:

Hey… I have this emotional problem happening to me right now. I would really like you to pray for me. I’m having some friendship problems at school right now. Apparently, my reputation at school is kinda bad … last year I had cheated on a quiz. People at my school judge me so much, I can’t even breathe. People make up stories like “She purposely talks with an accent so she could be asian” … Now [my friends are] so embarrassed about me and are saying that they don’t want to be friends with me … they completely ditched me. … I cried about 5 times at school today. I really hate my school. I can’t even breathe for fear of being made fun of … I have no idea what to do.

(Edited for length, and I made you anonymous just in case)

Of course I’ll pray for you.  I’ll share just a few things.

1) School is not the last place on earth.

I know it feels like it is: trust me.  I experienced the most aggressive Southern breed of racism and favoritism in a prep school (Shorecrest Preparatory in Florida, seriously a bunch of redneck racists), and in public school it got even worse.

I went to Prom alone, sat by myself at lunch most of high school, and even the “nicest” girls in the school called me ugly yellowbelly to my face.  Now I can laugh about it, but during it all, it hurt.  And I did absolutely nothing to incur such mockery except simply be a different race.

You know about Phoebe Prince, and Columbine, and self-cutting, and all the horrible stories of bullying, and high school graduates who can’t let go of high school so they become mindless partying bums in college and beyond.  I can guarantee they didn’t look to their futures.  They were convinced that school was the last stop on this mortal coil.

Popularity is more like a stocking than a bridge.  At any moment it can tear right open. 

Please hear me: Do not get wrapped up in your pre-adult school years as a basis for your whole life. It’s not.

Continue reading “Question: My Reputation At School Is Dead, Now What?”