I feel like I’ve been reading a lot recently about Asian Americans feeling apart from American culture. As a minority group, Asians are naturally excluded in any number of ways from mainstream American media, our cultures disrespected and plundered for tattoo and costume ideas, and subjected to harmful stereotypes. But in many ways, Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) have a different minority experience from our Black and Latino counterparts. Most interesting to me is the issue of coolness. Which is to say, we aren’t cool. There’s so few Asian role models in the mainstream that Jeremy Lin became a household name. There’s so few cool Asians that Asian parents introduced Linkin Park to their kids.
The Model Minority Trap
Weird shit comes up around Asians and race, because the group is viewed as the model minority. Many ethnicities under the umbrella have an image of being studious, hardworking, intelligent, family-oriented, obedient and respectful, and most of all, successful. The overwhelmingly popular image of the Asian American is a business person. This perception may be the key to how APAs are currently treated.
Model minority status heaps a bunch of positive attributes on Asians. It comes also with the assumption that Asians are well-off, or at least on-par with the average white person. We’re equals in the workplace, you always see us on TV in nice cars and houses. This is kind of nice, just cause Asians are less feared and reviled than other racial minorities, but it’s not like, actually nice. Because what happens when we step out of that? Stereotypes are never a positive thing, no matter how positive the depiction. There are also swaths of Asian peoples that are excluded from this stereotype. Darker South Asians in particular don’t fit the image, and aren’t considered part of the productive side. They’re relegated to running restaurants and nail salons, even more invisible than lighter-skinned Asians. The narrative for APAs is strict and narrow, not only limiting what actual Asian Americans feel we can do or be valued for, but limiting the larger culture’s view of Asians and our issues.
On top of this, the model minority stereotype places us in the same social stratum as whites. Of course, there’s plenty of ways in which it’s made clear to everyone that we aren’t equal, but what this non-equality means is that Asians face an attitude that it’s okay to make racist jokes and assumptions, because we’re “doing so much better” than other minorities. This perception has so solidified that APAs are believed by some to have “Asian privilege.”
What it all adds up to is this: Asian Americans are a homogenized, harmless, obedient group that nobody has to worry about. We pose no threat, and we have no problems. We don’t contribute to the culture, we aren’t used as a benchmark to measure societal progress. We don’t exist as individuals with drive. We help America be productive, and we do it reliably. But that’s it.
Asians and Attraction
Here’s Asian male sexuality as presented by American popular culture:
Sixteen Candles was released 30 years ago, but its character Long Duk Dong is still a good illustration for how the mainstream treats Asian men. We’re dopey, hopelessly attracted to white women, and when we aren’t crippled by shyness, we’re creepy fucks.
“When I was growing up, I was very much influenced by what I saw, and more importantly what I didn’t see, on television. Whenever I saw an Asian American man on television, he was inevitably a kung-fu master who could kick ass but he couldn’t speak English, or a computer geek who could figure out algorithms but couldn’t figure out how to get a date. And for myself, I really think I internalized a lot of these images.”
It wasn’t always this way. At one point, Asian men were sexy and seductive. So much so that we made white guys feel uncomfortable. Meet sexy motherfucker Sessue Hayakawa.
This fool is leading man material if ever I saw it. But in his time, all of his roles were either as the exotic lover who loses out to the white man, or the evil Chinaman who is defeated by the white man. Though he got to be the hot and sexual Asian man, he represented the Asian threat to white American male sexuality. He was a yellow bogeyman that stoked anxieties about Asian immigration and what it would mean for white supremacy. Later in his career, Hayakawa was desexualized, depicted either as the Asian nerd or the asexual kung-fu dude. Despite this defeat, the anxieties over Asian men persisted. To this day, depicting an Asian man with anyone besides an Asian woman is taboo (check out the internet’s reaction to Lorde’s Asian boyfriend).
There are certainly exceptions one could point to, but understand that they’re exceptions. Glenn in The Walking Dead gets down with a white woman, which is actually a pretty big thing! It’s worth noting, though, that she’s the aggressive one, leaving Glenn as the boy being seduced.
And as a counterpoint, take Jet Li in Romeo Must Die. In this action movie retelling of the classic star-crossed love story, Jet Li and Aaliyah belong to the feuding families of Asians and Black people. The whole movie is about how the world they live in is too prejudiced to let them be together, and, for some reason, the film never commits to its message of tolerance and lets them bone. No boning in this movie. In fact, the two of them never even kiss. In a genre where any woman who smiles at the hero eventually has sex with him, this exclusion seems a lot more significant than the inclusion of Glenn’s fling in TWD. Asian men are depicted as either too serious and alien to want to have sex, or we’re too goofy and lame to actually get any.
Sexually, the image of Asian women hasn’t moved too far past the “exotic.” The subject of Asian women and their fetishization is a much wider field of study, since it’s much, much worse than what Asian men get. This is a topic we’ve covered several times here, but we’ll go over it once again.
Asian women are stereotyped as respectful, submissive, “traditional (subjugated),” devoted, basically “everything a man could want.” They’re cherished by misogynists who are fed up with white American women, and are seen as part of a society that knows where women belong. This is a common fantasy to project onto women of color. The male desire to control women finds much solace in the idea that somewhere out there, there are still countries where the women will jump at the chance to marry a domineering control freak.
Just as Asian men are controlled by an emasculated image of them perpetuated by the mainstream, Asian women are prescribed the image of the shy whore. They’re meek and polite, but will compulsively do anything to please you. This, too, is a common stereotype labeling non-white women. This notion of an animalistic sexuality not only results in fucked up social interactions, but in rape and murder. With this image hanging over them, Asian women and girls are pleasure objects and ornaments, less than human.
It may seem single-minded to only examine the stereotyped sexualities of Asian Americans, but think about where popularity and coolness come from. Sex appeal, individuality, vision, creative accomplishment. These are things we are denied, both through our positive tech/business workhorse image, and our dictated sexual image. Our negative stereotypes make us feel unattractive, undesirable. Our positive stereotypes and reputation let outsiders ignore our problems and humanity.
APAs are in a position where our problems and issues are disregarded, because we’ve assimilated into white society enough that we’re paid no mind. Our violence is waved away, the same as whites. Our crimes aren’t symptomatic of our race, some of us just break the law. A lot of discrimination faced by Black and Latino people, we don’t have to deal with. But this position came, partially, from being defeated. Asian men are neutered. Asian women are submissive. We’re harmless and controllable.
As the model minority, we’re the success story. We have it good. But I’ve known Asian families that lived in basement apartments, kids who couldn’t handle the school environment and dropped out. And those of us that did live comfortably still struggle with the way we’re treated in the media. The depiction of the Asian male eunuch isn’t just a mean joke; we should all know by now that media creates reality. Representation affects not only how you feel, but how you think of yourself. Asian men face a strong media assertion that we are not sexy, not cool enough to get laid or have people look up to us. We’re too quiet, or too bashful in this big American world, or too Asian to relate to white Americans and be hip. And there’s a real effect.
“I am certainly not the first heterosexual Asian male to arrive at this realization, and I do not doubt I will be the last. I know where my insecurities originated. I know that a lifetime of being a pop-culture nerd has placed me at the center of a media universe that has repeatedly sent me the message that a male that looks like me is incapable of dating anyone that doesn’t.”
Asian women are presented as desirable, but within a framework soaked in colonial domination and rape. They’re reduced to Geishas, dolls, and island girls. They face harassment and violence not only for being women, but for resembling a racist caricature designed to cause that.
While our image is that we’ve integrated into American society, the fact is that we haven’t been accepted. We just disappeared, oftentimes by choice. We were made to understand our culture as something shameful, something that kept us separate from the mainstream. We knew that being Asian meant not being cool. A friend of mine, half Asian like me, wrote a piece on his relationship to his race. He describes, in his adolescence, the strong drive to become white. Being white in a white country is the best thing you can do for yourself, and Asians are just light enough, just removed enough, that it feels possible.
“When high school rolled around, I drifted away from my crowd of Asian friends to a crowd of almost entirely white friends. I dated white girls. I had friends call me white, in earnest, without batting an eye. (And without batting an eye myself in response.)”
His experience mirrors mine. I put forth less effort to become white, but I thought of myself that way all the same. And although I held onto the fun parts of my Chinese culture, I turned my back on that identity. Spending time in this position, we both came to realize that we weren’t white. Nobody we really wanted to see us as white, did. We were Asian, and we had nobody, no universal figure the country gathered around, to make us see that was a good thing.