Be a man
At a very young age, mother taught me that patience makes a man. As a kid I was always praised by family friends and strangers because I was mature beyond my age. I developed into a patient person. I waited patiently in lines. I didn’t honk when the driver in front of me was 2 seconds at a green light. I let people go first whenever I could. But eventually I learned that some people interpret it as weakness and tried to take advantage.
My father is a talented thinker and always taught me that brains were more important in life than muscles. Growing up, I believed that being a man meant outsmarting those around me. Sports like football, I would tell people, are barbaric. We’re an evolved species; we should focus on our intelligence. But eventually I found people who were smarter both smarter and more athletic than me.
Television in the early 2000s taught me that being a rebel made me a man. Bad is good, and following all the rules was for losers. I didn’t quite emulate what I saw on TV, but I learned a lot about rejecting norms. Was it popular? I hated it. But then I saw that this attitude pushed away my friends and family, and I didn’t like that.
As I graduated high school, we all had to start growing up. My family and relatives taught me that being a real man meant I should get married and become a good husband and father. I learned to be careful about who to date and pursue, and to make sure I could marry her before taking the relationships seriously. Of course, she must be someone my family liked if we were to all get along. But then I realized I lacked passion as a result, and it wasn’t fair for her or me to proceed.
In my last year of college I tried to fit into typical college life. I learned that women were what made a man. Those who were popular with girls were the ones seen as alpha males. I wanted to be an alpha male. I worked out more and learned to talk to girls at bars. But then I learned that I started drifting away from my parents’ vision.
Needless to say, it’s been a confusing journey.
Whenever I join a forum or discussion regarding Asian American identity, masculinity is almost always one of the main topics. I don’t blame the people who write about it; I find it a fascinating subject as well. After all, America overwhelmingly associates “Asian” with femininity, never with manliness. It becomes even more interesting when we learn that the definition of masculinity differs from one culture to another.
Asian dramas tend to show the “man” in the show as someone who fulfilled the traits what my parents taught me: patience, responsibility, care. When we take the same archetype and transplant it in the American media, such a character would be comically docile and likely the butt of more than a few jokes. They’d be dull and take things too seriously. Not manly. When we look at Western (not even just American) media’s definition of a man, we get characters like James Bond. He doesn’t let anyone control him. He’s kind of rebellious and scrappy. He gets any woman he wants, but he doesn’t value them. Millions of women find him very sexy regardless. Take this man and put him in an Asian drama, and he’s a sleazeball, not a hero.
This is in line with what I experienced growing up. As an Asian American I notice that many of my peers struggle with this. It’s a difficult place to be in, trying to satisfy everyone’s interpretation of what it means to be a man. It might not even be possible to do so. What is a man anyway? A trait that’s gentleman-like in one culture/family/social circle could literally be a sign of weakness in another. Do we really need to betray our families to impress our peers? Do we need to be complete societal outcasts to make our family happy?
When American society assumes all Asian men to fulfill Asian standards of manliness, it’s easy to promote the view is that Asian men aren’t as manly (or attractive) by our standards. Plenty of us grow up only exposed to American culture, so the assumption is of course far from the truth. This is a problem that will take time to resolve. I find that a lot of people want to overcompensate, sometimes to disturbing degrees. I’ve read people who genuinely believe that the only way to fight racism is through violence. Some people think the only way to restore mainstream respect for Asian masculinity is to get with as many non-Asian women as possible. From my own experience, going too far in the opposite direction can actually end up creating more problems.
As I’ve grown I’ve learned that, for me at least, being a man is really a matter of balance. No one knows exactly how to be “a man” in every situation, but everyone can learn from experience. Learn from role models, and take into consideration what others tell you, but make sure that these definitions of masculinity are really right for you. Don’t force it.