Asian American Man to Man

Everything that happened to you has happened to me. Your triumphs are mine and mine are yours. I feel your pain, you feel mine. I know I sound like a Walt Whitman wannabe or an Asian Bill Clinton. Call me what you will. If the wisdom I want to share lightens the load for even one Asian American fighting his way through the jungle of AA manhood, I will be happy.

Being an American man is no cakewalk these days. To be a successful and well-adjusted Asian American man you practically have to be a paragon of all manly virtues. I come from a family of successful, well adjusted Asian American men but none of us take our good fortune for granted. We all stumbled, fell on our faces and had to struggle back to our feet and continue. Along the way we learned some hard lessons and shared them with one another. Here are some lessons I want to share with you.

Here’s the foremost and most difficult lesson: You are not a representative of all Asian Americans, or all AA males or all Chinese, Japanese, Corean or Vietnamese Americans. You represent only yourself. Believe me, that’s more than enough responsibility.

Some will say that this flies in the face of my Whitmanesque declaration. Not at all. We AA males identify with one another because we know that at the end of each day we probably have been subjected to the same set of silly and offensive prejudices. Sharing such experiences is healthy. But it’s dumb to try to see yourself as the representative of an entire ethnic group. Only a chump equates ethnic pride with the duty to observe some impossible code of decorum in the name of racial honor.

How does an honorable representative of the Asian race put the moves on a hot babe? Drive a lucrative business bargain? Fight a bloody turf war at work? He rarely does. He’s too worried about doing something unseemly to take the kind of bold, chancy, morally ambiguous actions demanded of men leading interesting lives. I call it the Racial Honor Trap. The old RHT debilitated the greater part of the last two generations of Asian American men. Not wanting to complain, Asian men accepted the short end of too many bargains. Not wanting to confront, they sufferered in silence too many injustices. Not wanting to look foolish, they resigned lavish talents and passions to serving bland careers and lives.

Ethnic pride? By all means, let it influence your choice of vacations, eateries, living room bric-a-brac, friends and mates. March in Chinese, Corean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino parades. Raise your kids to speak the language. Share the stories. But for godssake don’t let ethnic pride inhibit your big passions and ambitions. When it comes to getting the girl, be foolish, even pathetic if necessary. When it comes to getting the deal, be flinty-eyed and hungry. In defending and expanding your turf, be a cold-blooded killer. Don’t give a damn to how it might make the race look. Truth is, honorable failures only contributes to behind-the-back snickering at our race. If you end up doing well, the race looks good. Honor, dignity and decency are good values but hopeless as agendas.

Another trap that has hurt Asian American men almost as much as the RHT is what I call the Badass Mutha Trap. I used to be a badass mutha myself well into adulthood. It’s an understandable reaction of young Asian males against the meek Asian male stereotype. Problem is, that strategy takes too big a toll on your personal relationships. More particularly, it hobbles you in the mating dance, not to mention the professional whirl.

Badass muthas may enjoy some favor among lowclass girls who lack a full range of options, but quality women want their men to be considerate, sensitive, expressive. Masculine, too. But a Taekwondo black belt, 20-inch biceps and the ability to bench press 300 pounds aren’t high on female wish lists. Too many Asian dudes swagger around, arms defying gravity, in a misguided effort at ghetto intimidation. Teen chicks sorting out their own identities may find badass muthas appealing as political statements but won’t stick around once their normal female instincts have tamed their political ones. And they usually do.

Am I saying you have to be a pussy, a nerd? Hardly. Self-assured men don’t resort to throwing up bristly shells to discourage physical or psychic faceoffs. No, we make eye contact, smile, present ourselves articulately and with poise, and, if the situation warants, resort to a more urbane form of intimidation. In most social settings steady eye contact, a firm handshake, a confident tone are more than enough to discourage offensive behavior. A badass mutha may rarely get lip or attitude but he also doesn’t get much in the way of interest either from prospective mates, employers, associates, clients, partners. Why waste the best years of your life hiding behind an ugly shell that impresses only those who are lower on the socio-economic food chain?

In all arenas of life the big rewards go not to the most callow, as some bad movies may suggest, but to those who are most sensitive to the needs of others. That kind of sensitivity happens to be a time-honored Asian trait. When you scorn it in a bid to distance yourself from some silly stereotype, you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face, throwing out the baby with the bathwater, killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Sensitivity rocks. You don’t have to wear it on your sleeves but stay in touch with the inner boy who feels with others. Your ability to do so will determine the quality of your most important relationships.

I fully recognize that we Asian men are more likely than, say, a white male, to face gratuitous shit. We’re minding our own business when suddenly we overhear a racial slur. Or some clown makes a joke at our expense. Or we’re into a movie when we slam into one of those nasty little stereotypes. These aren’t enviable situations. But remember the silver lining in every cloud? Each one of those bad situations comes with a silver lining — the opportunity to show your character and sense of personal style.

You’re thinking, I’d rather not have that opportunity! I’d rather just mind my own business! I’ve got news for you — you don’t have a choice. You’re an Asian male in America. Shit will happen. The only question is whether you let it get you down or whether you get down and turn it into a personal win.

When shit happens — and it will — the secret to coming out smelling like roses is to stay loose. Resist the natural impulse to blow up in a tirade or explode into a flurry of punches and kicks. That will cost you more than it can possibly gain you. Instead, take a deep breath and see the situation the way an actor does. That takes strong presence of mind, not to mention serious cojones. It also requires you have the drill down cold. It may sound silly, but you have to practice for those kinds of encounters, at least in your head. Practice makes perfect. Your goal is to make yourself look good while making the offender look like trailer trash — which he usually is.

A few points to remember. Before you swing into action make sure you really have been insulted. Some half-heard remark that you suspect could have been a slur doesn’t qualify. Neither does a question or remark by someone who wasn’t motivated by malice but only by ignorance. If the situation is ambiguous, forget it. You can only look like a paranoid fool by overreacting. In marginal cases an effective gambit is to say loudly but politely, “Excuse me?” or “What’s that?” That forces the suspected offender either to cross the Rubicon or back off. Most of the time it will be the latter, if in fact an insult had been intended at all.

Once it becomes clear you’ve been insulted (“Yeah, I called you a dog-eating gook.”), the smart response isn’t physical or verbal violence (“I’m going to kick your fat ass!”) but a show of superior composure and wit (“Oh, was that YOUR dog?” or maybe “Go back to the trailer and sober up,” or, if you just aren’t a witty guy, “Wow, you are ignorant (or fat or smelly or ugly)!”.

The key here is to maintain an innocent, even friendly, tone of voice. Since he’s the one who initiated the encounter, keep the onus on him to escalate it. If all goes well — and nine times out of ten it does — the encounter will end with him talking too loud, too fast and too redfacedly and you smilingly making personal observations (“Your face is very red.”). The subtext of the encounter will be clear to all: he’s a bigoted loser and you’re a classy guy with balls. It will also expose him for the coward that all such people are. Your chance of being physically assaulted and injured by one of those guys is about equal to your chances of getting rearended on your way home. Anyway what could be better than a fight started by the other guy in which you get to take out pent-up rage at all the racism you’ve been having to deal with since kindergarten.

Each successful encounter will boost your confidence until you no longer ascribe to others the ability to hurt you on the basis of your race. You will then be truly free to pursue the dream of every healthy man — to approach each situation as a confident, sensitive and loving human being. Then you will truly be an Asian American man!