One evening during my second year in college I was getting in a workout in the weightroom of my apartment complex. The only other person was a ruddy man in his early middle years.
As luck would have it, he was doing military presses with the barbell I wanted. It was the 80-pounder I was going to use for some warmup sets. It was obvious that I was waiting. Maybe for that reason, he strung his sets together and stopped every few reps to admire himself in the full-length mirror. I knew from past run-ins with guys like him that he had assumed -- on the evidence of my race -- that I would pose no threat. He was right, in a way. I wasn't looking for a drama. I just wanted to get in a workout and hurry back to study for midterms.
Finally, I asked how much longer he was going to use the barbell. He seemed taken aback by my tone which probably crossed the line he had drawn in his mind for someone of my race, height and age. He had several inches on my 5-9 frame and probably outweighed me by fifty pounds, mostly due to his height and the fat marbling his musculature. Knowing all this, of course, had made me more willing to cross that line. Disrespect honors disrespect.
Abruptly, he turned toward me and tossed the barbell. "Catch," he said. Of course he expected me either to jump back or maybe even get knocked down by the barbell. Instead, I caught it, smiled and made as if to toss it back toward him with the same smiling suggestion: "Catch!"
His eyes widened and he backpedaled, yelling, "Whoa, hold it..." I would have been within my rights to fling that barbell at him, but not being a malicious type, I just laughed maliciously and said, "You can dish it out but can't take it, huh?".
I didn't have to see his face to know that the mote had been cast from his eyes. He was now seeing me for who I was -- a well-built, confident young man who had utterly no respect for him. He became my bitch then -- not that I was in the market for one. I just wanted to finish up and hit the books. He imposed on me a few more minutes with unwanted compliments on my physique and, seeing I had no interest in what he had to say, called it a night.
Do I tell this story to gloat? Yes. And to show that we Asian men have egoes. That our politeness shouldn't be taken as intimidation by height and bulk. That we sometimes enjoy an opportunity to embarrass bigger guys who are silly enough to try physical intimidation after countless evenings guzzling beer and eating chips while watching bulky men shove each other around.
My other excuse for telling this story is to show that we Asian American men have much more riding on cultivating our physiques than other men. This was just one of maybe two dozen similar encounters I've had over the years. We suffer countless instances of subtle disrespect that don't provide such clearcut opportunities to embarrass the offender. That's why these encounters are almost welcome as a chance for some payback and instant gratification.
This may explain why proportionately more Asian American men sweat through workouts on any given day than any group of men on the face of the earth. We know that a segment of American society wants to give itself a cheap ego boost by pretending to be physically superior to us. It only makes sense that we take steps to make sure that boost doesn't come cheap.
Yes, for Asian males, getting physical is a political act that rejects and mocks the offensive role assigned by the American social order. It's no coincidence that our biggest heroes are physical men like Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Yao Ming.