Society's Stereotyping of Asian-American Men Can Lead to Self-Loathing

The opening lines of San Diego’s latest revival of David Henry Hwang’s play “”FOB”” begin with a man’s mean-spirited lecture on all that he hates about FOBs, referring to people who are “”Fresh Off the Boat,”” calling them “”clumsy, stupid, greasy and horny.”” As the lights brighten, the identity of the speaker becomes apparent. The speaker is an Asian male.

In truth, this self-loathing among Asian-American males is common enough for me to write a commentary on it. Granted, not all Asian-American males hate themselves, but I would venture to say that most have at one point in their lives. More accurately though, they probably have hated society’s image of them, or the prevailing stereotypes that have plagued Asian-American males for years.

Let’s face it: minorities usually get shortchanged by society as far as how they’re represented. Stereotypes and misconceptions thrive in our collective conscience. Asian-American males have been no exception. Most recently, they have been deemed effeminate, nerdy and unattractive.

The popular flash-animation “”comic”” character of Mr. Wong remains as one of the saddest examples of how stereotypes of Asian men prevail in our society, with his “”slant-eyed yellow face”” and “”buckteeth”” still persisting even in the 21st century.

Not all forms of racism are as obvious. Most are much more subtle, like the media’s constant misrepresentation of Asian-Americans.

Growing up Asian-American has not been easy. Along with all the self-doubt and questions of identity that characterize any adolescence, there was the added element of being an Asian-American male in a society that appeared to ignore us.

It’s something that most Asian-American males understand but never talk about: a feeling of invisibility. In short, we don’t fit any of the typical definitions of masculinity or maleness. Physically smaller and less threatening than most other males, it was easy to feel less than a man. I, and any of my Asian-American peers no matter how good looking we are to ourselves, know we can never look like the non-Asian romantic leads of your typical Hollywood flick or weekday sitcom.

So where did this leave me? Where does it leave most Asian-American males who never see themselves on television or in the movies as anything more than a fleeting extra or the nerd who knows the answer to some ridiculously complex physics problem? It leaves us wondering how society really looks at us and why no one seems to understand why we feel alienated.

Over the past 30 years, it has become more socially acceptable for an Asian woman to marry a white male, but the opposite has not been the case. Historically, the role of wives to their husbands has been a submissive one. In other words, it didn’t matter if a white man and a minority woman married, because she would already be deemed subordinate. As long as he was white, he fulfilled the role of the dominant male husband.

This also seems to be the same logic behind most television news formats. It is rare to see a minority male, especially an Asian male, opposite a white female anchor. The reason is that our society has always sent the message that Asian males are not the masculine ideal. Obviously, the issue is not black and white or as simple as I present it. I exaggerate. But, ask almost anyone, Asian or not, and they’ll probably know what I’m talking about.

Now, before I get some people too riled up, allow me to clarify my point. I’m not trying to call upon some sort of revolution in how people choose their mates, nor am I saying that interracial dating should be the goal of every male and female. To marry or choose a mate based on specific criteria like race would be a terrible mistake. The goal ultimately should be to remain as open as possible and follow what your heart tells you. Trite words, I know, but true just the same.

The current trend of interracial marriage simply seems to be an interesting indication of how far our society has come in terms of its perceptions of Asian-American males as a whole.

All right, so it’s true that Asian males are featured in countless martial arts films, and yes, they are portrayed as being the strong, Superman type. But how often do you see Bruce Lee getting the girl at the end of the movie?

A friend of mine has an interesting view on the situation. According to him, feeling undesirable to white girls was not the only case, but he felt undesirable to all girls of all races in general. In essence, he believes that “”Asian guys are the crap left over,”” at least in the opinion of most girls. In a recent “”Newsweek”” article, a Filipino from San Francisco, Marlon Villa, whose wife happens to be white, elaborated on this common sentiment.

“”Black guys are studs, white guys have all the power and Asian guys are the nerdy little wimps that women wouldn’t glance at,”” Villa said.

As odd as this may sound, I feel there is truth in these statements. One need not go any further than the local Abercrombie & Fitch to see society’s popular ideal of masculinity — a white male model, complete with chiseled jaw and raging pects, staring you straight in the face. Big surprise, there isn’t a single Asian male among them. It’s as if society keeps reminding us that we, as Asian-American males, do not fit the masculine ideal — so stop trying.

All this talk of prevailing stereotypes that surround Asian guys reminds me of a particularly eye-opening experience that happened to me not long ago. At this point, I’ve told it to friends so many times that it’s already become cliche, yet it still never fails to leave my listener speechless, not knowing whether to laugh hysterically or to frown in disgust. Suffice to say, I’ll call this story my “”date from hell.”” For the sake of embarrassment, I prefer to use fake names of people instead of real ones. And yes, this really happened.

About a year ago, I frequented a popular eatery in San Diego. Every now and then, I would chat with the servers and waiters. Someone who always seemed to make an effort to talk with me was a server by the name of “”Lisa.”” A friendly girl of 19, Lisa was not terribly bright but sweet just the same.

She was blond and aggressive and towered nearly a foot taller than me. Lisa was a force to reckoned with, one that I never in my wildest nightmares thought I would have to encounter.

As I was waiting in line one day to buy my food, she asked me for my number. I, being a little more naive back then, was happy to oblige. I thought that all that would come of this casual exchange of personal information was a new friendship.

Little did I know, she wanted me. Alas, I was not attracted to her and did not want her. After our “”first date,”” my indifference toward her made the quantum leap to fear and disgust.

When she asked to hang out one Friday night, I was under the assumption that it would be a casual affair, one in which at most I would gain a new platonic friend. From the minute I got into her car, however, I knew better.

Imagine my horror when I opened the door of her car, only to be knocked out by the stench of cheap perfume and the glaring eyes of her flirtatious face. The moment was truly a poignant one as I could see she was making a real effort to win me over with her overly made-up face and revealing clothes that seemed to show off more of her unsightly flesh than I could ever possibly want to see in one sitting.

I felt like I was kidnapped, with no place to go. From that moment on, I knew she considered this a date. To hell with the fact that I was underdressed in shorts, a T-shirt and flip flops; she was determined to give me a “”first date”” I would never forget. That’s when she dropped the bomb and confessed her true feelings for me.

“”Man, I’ve seen you every time you’ve walked by to get food and I just think you’re so hot,”” she said with the giddiness of a schoolgirl about her first crush.

So far, no problem, I thought. No big problem at least. Sure, I didn’t like her back, but I would soon clarify that. And then she dropped the bomb. I took offense immediately.

“”You see,”” she explained. “”All my white girlfriends tell me all the time, ‘Oh, don’t dig those Asian guys, they’re small, slant-eyed and smelly.’ But not me, that’s exactly why I like you so much. I so dig the fact that you’re hairless and foreign. You see, I’m American and you’re foreign and you can teach me all about your country.””

Words do little justice to how sick I felt. Her ignorance was truly frightening and after a long and painful night, I was free from her wrath. But the damage was done, at least to my self-esteem.

Is that what people really think when they see my Asian face? I wondered. It’s a question that I think most Asian-Americans ask many times during their lives.

The rise of the marriage rate of Asian men to white women, however, can be seen as a sign of how society is changing its views of Asian males.

According to demographer Larry Hajime Shinagawa’s book on marriage license data in California, “”Asian Americans: Intermarriage and the Social Construction of Love,”” Asian-American men born in the United States are far more likely to marry women who are white (18.9 percent), of other Asian ethnicity (22.7 percent) or another racial minority (6 percent) than more recent immigrants. Shinagawa expects the trend to continue and sees an even greater speedup in the near future.

While many may see interracial marriage as a positive thing, as a clear indication that Asian males are finally being accepted and embraced by the mainstream, others are not as enthusiastic. As my own experience illustrates, Asian males continue to run the risk of becoming the focus of a new form of fetishism with which Asian women have become all too familiar.

Nevertheless, things are changing for the better. Slowly but surely, the media is redefining its image of Asian-American men from geeky, unattractive and sexless, to strong, romantic and masculine. A new wave of Asian actors like Chow Yun Fat, Rick Yune and Jet Li are helping to reshape old perceptions and create new ones.

The battle is still an uphill one, yet I remain optimistic. I have come to the conclusion, just as many of my peers have, that being an Asian-American male is a very exciting thing. Because we do not fit popular definitions of masculinity, we can forge ahead and create new ones that show Asian-American males as what they truly are: unique and dynamic individuals who like to shake things up a little, in hopes of making a difference.