Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What About Us?

Well.....What About You?

It is somewhat amazing that in the two years or so since Wesley Yang wrote his piece for the New York magazine and I'm still deriving so much rich material from it to post about! Perhaps it is the general dearth of Asian men being given opportunities to voice strong opinions in mainstream outlets that may explain my continued revisiting of the one that stands out the most.

My original opinions on Yang's piece were critical, but I noticed an interesting phenomenon in some other responses to his piece - the fact that he had actually chosen to focus on Asian men seemed to be a source of criticism. Despite all the issues that I had with Yang's piece, the one positive that I took from his piece was that he had focused on Asian-American men. I don't think he should have been criticized for that - although I did not agree with much of what he wrote, the fact that he chose to focus specifically on Asian men is in and of itself not a good reason to criticize his piece. But some critiques seemed to find Yang's Asian-male-centric focus to be problematic.

A response piece written in Slate magazine by Nina Shen Rastogi at the time offered some valid criticisms of Yang's piece, and then threw in this somewhat leading remark in the second paragraph...
As the accompanying  Yang, recent college grad Jefferson Mao, restaurateur Eddie Huang, and "pickup artist" J.T. Tran make clear, this essay gazes up at that woody canopy from a decidedly male perspective. The 9,000-word piece profiles several young Asian-American men but there is only one woman — a marketer for IBM — who emerges as anything near a character, though she's far less vividly drawn than any of the males. What's more, male sexual inadequacy is a consistent theme in Yang's lament: Failing to master the nuances of American masculinity is portrayed as a key part of the Asian-American experience. (On the question of where that leaves us Asian-American women, Yang is silent.)
The fact that the above comment occurs in the second paragraph might suggest how important it was to Rastogi to point out that Asian women did not feature in Yang's piece. To me this is a bizarre and perhaps, petty, criticism; Yang's piece is about the Asian male experience, and that is worthy of focus and attention in and of itself without having to be all-inclusive. How mentioning Asian women in the piece might perhaps lend greater credibility is never explained by Rastogi.

The emboldened part of the criticism is especially perplexing. Asian men's masculinity issues - that is, America's cultural dehumanization of Asian men - is a key part of the Asian-American experience. Where that leaves Asian women is really up to Asian women to explain, and Rastogi would have done better to, perhaps, put forward her own ideas on this instead of offering pointless, insinuative criticisms that seem to be little more than discomfort that there exists an Asian male experience that need not require the presence of Asian women to give it validity. The fact is, Asian men have their own set of issues relating to race, or otherwise, that are deserving of their own space and opportunity for investigation and which is necessarily independent of Asian women's issues. Why this disturbs folks is beyond the scope of this piece to explain.

In another critique, which I found to be insightful overall, an Asian male blogger at a space called "Scattered Speculations" offers similar criticisms....
I ask this, following Vijay Prashad’s wonderful book The Karma of Brown Folk, because I think what Asian Americans (I hesitate to say “we” here) seem to constantly miss is how much discourses of “Asian American success” and “model minority” are used (not necessarily by us at first) for the reproduction of the American racial strata whose logic and raison d’etre is anti-Black, and largely sexist. (I need not remind you all the racist figures of “welfare queen” that began under Reagan and came to a boiling point in Bill Clinton. It is he who ended welfare after all.) And most importantly, how Asian American men benefit from this. More than anything, I’m troubled by Yang’s utter ignorance of this fact. There is no mention of African Americans or women. Hence, his piece is littered with stories about Asian American men’s inability to get what white men get—whether it be in the realm of college admissions, professional mobility, or white women. (It is on this last point that I find the non-mention of Asian American women, even just an aside, to be rather odd.)
The author of that blog - a dude named Sam Han - ups the ante in the above comment, calling Yang out for not mentioning African-Americans as well as women as, perhaps, being more harmed by the model minority stereotype and notions of Asian-American success. But, again, the implication is that Asian men's experiences don't have a legitimate claim for specific focus and that such issues are devalued without a wider context. This is like having your child repeatedly come home from school with a bloody nose, asking him or her to explain what happened and how he or she feels about it, but then criticizing the answer because they fail to mention how their bloody nose affects their classmates.

But even more problematic in the Han criticism is that it, ironically, fails to notice that many stereotypes bring benefits to varying degrees to those who are stereotyped based on one's position on the political spectrum. Asian women "benefit" from the stereotype of being passive and submissive (that is, "safe"), by being more readily accepted - at least as media figures - than Asian men, and perhaps even more so than black women. African-Americans benefit from America's suspicion of Asians by being more associated with being "American" - that is, black loyalties are rarely questioned.

Worst of all, Han's criticism implies that Asians are somehow required to answer for stereotypes that they had no role in creating. I don't think that we are required to answer for stereotypes that others create about us, especially when - as I pointed out here - it is questionable the actual degree to which the model minority stereotype actually informs government social policies, and it is mostly Asians themselves who seem to be the one's most likely to talk about it these days. More importantly, the model minority myth hurts Asians more than anyone else - a fact that gets lost in our drive to perform damage control the effects on other groups of a stereotypes that we did not create. No, it is ridiculous to insist that a discussion on the specific issues that affect Asian men should have an "all-inclusive" element. The subject is worthy of attention in and of itself, without the need to apologize for its existence.

Although it may not be the intention of the two critics above, the result of such criticisms is that it insists that Asian men's issues (and, strangely, by extension all Asian issues) are more credible or even valid only if they don't somehow only focus on Asian men. This is tantamount to saying that the Asian male voice cannot speak on its own behalf specifically, but must highlight related issues along the way. If we were to follow this policy, it would mean that Asians can have no credible autonomous voice, and that Asian men's issues are only valid relative to the issues of other oppressed groups. That is a dangerous way of thinking. Albeit unintentional, this way of thinking is actually a classic Red Herring type approach that is usually used by those opposed to any minority voice.

Occasionally, the apparent drive to tamper with and temper the Asian male experience manifests in snide ways. In an article from earlier in the year, Slate writer, Anne Ishii, offers a somewhat eye-rollingly derisive review of a biography called "Fresh Off The Boat" by Asian-American provocateur (of sorts), Eddie Huang. Ishii's review seems to go a step further and instead of insisting that there be no focus on Asian men, she seems to haughtily find the whole process of Asian men blindly sorting their way through pervasive racist stereotypes to be distasteful - who do Asian men they think they are, indeed?! In fact, it is almost as though Ishii is embarrassed that Huang has a racialized masculinity - as though it is his fault - and she is somehow losing face because of it.

In short, Asian men's stories - just like any other demographic - are significant in their own right without having to be vehicles for other oppressed groups. Yes, there is a time and place for that kind of crossover work, but given the dearth of Asian men's points of view in the mainstream, it seems petty (and repressive) for people to insist that what little time we are afforded to present a specific Asian male perspective must be shared with others who may, in fact, already possess greater opportunities and avenues to recount their experiences than Asian men could even hope for.

For all of the criticisms that have been levelled at Wesley Yang's piece, the most unexpected (and pointless) is that he was somehow at fault because he focused on issues specifically from the perspective of Asian men. Criticizing this further marginalizes Asian men, and represses their opportunities to have an autonomous voice within American culture.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A-Town Boyz Movie

Asian-American Gangsters Of Atlanta.

I just read about this on the AngryAsianMan blog. A woman named Grace Jung is part of a production team that is making a documentary about Asian-American gangsters in Atlanta. The documentary was made under the direction of award-winning director Eugene Lau, and began production with the help of a grant from Spike Lee. Writing on a website called "Thought Catalog", Grace explains why this particular subject matter...
Why Asian American Men?.......Nobody ever asks for their point of view; Asian-American males are a neglected group in our society. The subjects of our documentary are all male, Asian American and either from or currently based in Atlanta. Our subjects have a diverse background but share some similarities: raised by immigrant parents who worked long hours (parental neglect at home) and lacked the knowledge to navigate the educational systems due to the language barrier (extra pressure on the children to figure things out alone at a very young age), and struggled with racism in their schools where Asian Americans were taunted for their looks, language, culture, etc.
Hey, someone is listening! Then Jung goes on to explain further some of the factors for the alienation of these young Asian-American men...
The main point we’re addressing with subjects like these is that they felt unheard and misunderstood by everyone. The lack of proper role models at home, school and in the media (a general lack of real Asian faces that are not embarrassing all of Asian Americans by perpetuating undesirable stereotypes that are easy to poke fun at or laugh at), these young men felt let down and alienated.
I don't think I could have put it better myself. This idea of alienation - bizarrely, a word I hardly ever see being used to describe the Asian-American experience - is a recurring theme in my writing. Although this documentary focuses on a specific demographic (Asian youth joining gangs), I would add that many Asian men from all demographics experience a similar sense of alienation from society for the same reasons that these young men do; a culture that normalizes derogatory ways of thinking of and behaving towards Asians (particularly Asian men) and that neither offers few images of a healthy, dignified, culturally appropriate Asian masculinity, nor fosters an inclusive cultural identity for young Asian-American men.

Anyways, I am looking forward to the movie, here's the trailer......

And here is the documentary's website...

Support this movie when it comes out.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Lifting The Veil

The Impact Of  Stereotypes...

I came across an interesting and funny article written by a Caucasian woman named Sarah Shaw in which she writes about Asian stereotypes that she had been exposed to in the US, and which she bought into. Similar to the experiences of another American woman whom I wrote about, here, when this woman actually got to be around Asian men in an environment where the culture did  not bombard her with denigrating images and beliefs about them, she was suddenly able see that Asian men could be viable partners, and that she could be and was sexually attracted to them. Prior to moving to Seoul, she was convinced that she just wasn't attracted to Asian men and would definitely not be dating them.

This is what she writes.....
While growing up in a homogeneous white town, it was a standard perception that Asian men just weren’t attractive. I’m embarrassed to admit that I once mentioned to an friend, “Asian girls are so attractive, but I don’t find Asian guys attractive at all.” I can’t even believe I would make such a blanket statement about about an entire race of men, but now, I am fully aware that the American media vastly influenced my perception.
This is interesting for a number of reasons. Growing up in a homogeneous white town, the most likely source of her aversion to Asian men would certainly not have been based upon personal acquaintance. Shaw acknowledges that it is most likely media influences that shaped her ideas about Asian men. Sometimes Asian men (and women) are chided for seeming to place an unreasonable significance on how the popular media portrays us, yet  the fact that individuals can form belief systems that they may consider an accurate representation of reality based entirely on what the media says, illustrates its potential to shape attitudes for both positive and negative outcomes. Shaw continues....
In Western pop culture and Hollywood movies, Asian men are often de-sexualized, usually fitting into one of three roles: The asexual math geek or computer nerd; the funny ugly guy with a thick foreign accent that everyone laughs at; the badass ninja, samurai or any other type of martial artist in traditional Asian garb clutching a sword.
There you have it; popular cultural notions can and do act as a surrogate for real-world experience and foster the formation of beliefs in much the same way that real-world experience might. When you factor in conditions like one-sided depictions combined with limited personal exposure to Asians, the effects can evidently be dramatic and people can formulate a worldview and a set of beliefs about a group of people without even coming into contact with them much, if at all.

Having moved to Seoul and apparently freed from the prejudices of American popular culture, Shaw began to find plenty of dating material amongst the men of Korea, but found herself beset by confused disbelief  of friends back home at her decision to date Asian men. Citing a steady stream of stereotypes gleaned from knowledge gained via popular cultural depictions, Shaws friends express incredulity that she could date Asian men.Sadly (but perhaps not surprisingly), Shaw also encountered several Asian-American women who also expressed prejudiced attitudes towards Asian men. Noting the unique affection of Asian gender dynamics, she says.....
I’ve also met several Asian-American women who stereotype Asian men. “Someone’s gotta love the Asian men! I only date white guys,” one of my friends said last year, after I told her about the guy I was dating.
Nice. Shaw finishes with this...
No, I don’t have yellow fever (okay, maybe a little) and I don’t necessarily have a “thing” for Asian men. I’m not attracted to the Korean guys that wear BB cream and carry designer purses, but I do like smooth skin and silky black hair.
I emboldened that last sentence because it highlights something that Asian-American guys never seem to tell themselves - they possess physical qualities, like silky black hair and smooth skin, that many women find attractive. The reason may be that, unlike in Asia, Asian-American guys grow up smothered by societal messages propagated via the media, that tell them they are clownish weaklings and ugly. We talk often about how brainwashed Asian women are by the media, but I think we have to acknowledge that Asian men are brainwashed as well - many of us believe what the media says about us (even though we would deny it). Many Asian men believe that they are disadvantaged because they have either internalized prevailing stereotypes about themselves, or they feel that the sheer weight of culturally normalized prejudice is too massive a hurdle to overcome as an individual.

This latter point is understandable, because profoundly ingrained racial stereotypes are held in place by peer pressure - once an idea sticks, it's "veracity" is upheld by social habit and custom. Forget everything you have heard about the western character being one of individuals not swayed by social conditioning, and too individualistic to be pressured into conformity. That's nonsense. White people do conform, but they just often don't know it, or simply won't admit it. The Shaw article and others like it are a testament to this - once people leave the confining circumstances of their own cultural prejudices, and are away from the peer-pressure of it, they suddenly feel free to actually exercise their individualism and go against the grain of their culture's beliefs.

In another article that illustrates how cultural conditioning holds Asian men back, a Dutch blogger describes how her visit to the Phillipines was something of a shock...
[In the Phillipnes there was] Head-turning when walking by, men extending a friendly hand to me while my male partner was ignored and Filipino’s calling me miss sexy despite the fact that my male partner was right beside me. The weirdest incident happened when a child I would guess to be about 7 years old walked by me and said: hey sexy (by the way, what do you reckon, nature or nurture?)
Nowhere in American culture have I ever seen any Asian men being shown to be so brazenly flirtatious, or brazenly sexual. Even Filipinos in the US don't have that reputation - as far as I know. My take is that this aspect of Filipino culture - and I would guess, the sexuality of men from other Asian cultures - gets lost in translation during the migration process. Of course, being bombarded with denigrating images via the media probably contributes significantly to this process.

So whilst it is true that stereotypes probably do shape many people's attitudes towards Asian men, it is equally probable that Asian men don't help their own situation because they too might down talk themselves. My sense is that it need not take an entire cultural revolution for Asian men to seem more attractive - I think that individuals can make an impact also, probably just by starting to think differently about themselves.