My Story: Being an Asian American Man
I grew up as a pretty emotional kid. The type that would cry over a lost argument, loud yelling, or play fights.
A lot of my baby pictures are of me crying; whether its Christmas and I was too scared to sit on Santa's lap or during the Easter egg hunt after spotting the Easter Bunny. And Halloween because I was too scared to go up and knock on stranger's doors (ended up hating candy).
I just had a lot of fear (and tears). It's true, I wish I can say otherwise.
My parents sent me to Tae Kwon Do and other martial arts classes (along with the usual weekend of piano lessons and tutoring) in an effort to "toughen" me up.
A part of me feels grateful and relieved that I don't cry at almost every holiday/event now (except at weddings because you know…I'm still a feeler).
Yet I wondered what would have happened if I had communicated how I had genuinely felt to my parents, without having the feeling of embarrassment or shame.
A couple of months ago, I turned 30. Now a year wiser (while looking like I'm still 25), self reflections have become more of a common practice. More than anything, a new chapter has got me wondering what it means to be a man.
Men, especially from traditional Asian American backgrounds, have a habit of either suppressing or minimizing their emotions.
We think being "sensitive" is a sign of weakness, we shy away from bringing these feelings to light. I think this is dangerous because our emotions are meant to be an indicator of the strength of our emotional and mental state.
In my personal experience, I've noticed that many Asian American men avoid conversations around race, gender, diversity or privilege. They don't talk about it, they don't write about it, and they (often) don't think about it.
I'd like to share my stories that have been pivotal moments growing up as an AsAm (Asian American) man.
I've Worked Really Hard to be Likable
To be honest, even while writing this blog post, a part of me really wants to be portrayed as a likable person. I think it's only natural that everyone wants to feel appreciated and belonged to their familiar circle of friends. However, I'm aware that I'm not here to please everyone and have come to terms with that.
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have lived in neighborhoods with a large Asian population. Whether you think this is good or bad, I always had a group of Asian friends mixed in with other non-Asian friends and never felt singled out as the "Asian" kid.
Up until middle school, I grew up in Los Angeles and had access to everything Asian i.e. H-Marts, boba shops, pc bangs, etc. To the point where I could have avoided speaking English for weeks if I chose the right spots. When I moved to New Jersey, I was surprised to see even more Asians (my high school was almost 1/4 Korean). Needless to say, I grew up very much in an Asian bubble.
A Very Common LA Koreatown Plaza
In college, I surrounded myself with a circle of mostly Asian friends and pretty much lived with them for all 4 years. I was very active in my cultural organization (i.e. KCCC) and was very happy to know that I was able to relate with "my" people that I had so much in common with.
It wasn't after I started working professionally that I actually noticed how different I was compared to my non-Asian counterparts and felt like for the first time I was the "minority".
During my first year as an intern, one of the managers came up to me after my presentation and said that my "accent" was really good. On Halloween, a co-worker suggested that I dress up as Jackie Chan because they thought I would really "crush" the look. Both times, I uncomfortably nodded, smiled, and brushed it off. I still regret not saying something (really anything) at the time. I remember laughing at comments like these, but sometimes it really got under my skin and irritated me. Another question that I got asked countless times was "Are you from North or South Korea?".
A cool chart I found from an AsAm survey (I was too excited not to share)
After those experiences, I focused on becoming more likable and tried to fit in. Whether it was at the work setting, grad school, or with new acquaintances, my main objective was to be less different from everyone else. And I think that's what makes AsAm at times more likable because we are quick to assimilate to our surrounding culture.
I worked on becoming more "westernized" by being up to date with current happenings in the media or the latest gossip or talking about the most recent football game (which I still can't seem to get into). It was strange because I thought I would get closer with my colleagues, but I always felt that I wasn't able to fully embrace who I was. I'm sure others can relate to this.
I was hiding my outside interests from my peers i.e. Korean reality shows and my weekend karaoke nights with my friends. I always had a presumption that others would find my interests strange or uninteresting.
During my second year of "acculturation", I had a conversation with my director that really changed my perspective on being an Asian American man in the workplace.
2. "Stop Being so Asian and Speak Up"
These were the words I vividly remember hearing from my director in my annual performance review. He was clearly frustrated with my apparent tameness and inability to speak up. He followed up by saying, "I know you have a lot of great ideas, but no one knows because you don't speak up." I was offended in the beginning, only because that was the first time someone had given me such direct feedback. Additionally, I was confused and annoyed because I felt like there was a level of assumption that my director put on me without having seen me working.
What was ironic was that I actually thought I had been quite vocal (based on my own standards) and thought I was at times too aggressive.
After some reflection and time of clarity, I realized that my level of being vocal and brash was relatively lower compared to what my white male colleagues were demonstrating. Additionally, my Eastern virtues of filial piety and collectivism have been difficult to turn off at work. For example, if I had talked back growing up and "voiced my opinions", I was asking for a beating (more so literally than figuratively).
Just to clarify, I'm not playing the victim card here and actually found my director's feedback helpful toward my professional career growth. It definitely was not PC or appropriate by any HR standard, but the underlying core of his message stuck with me. Just for the record, he actually got me a promotion to another role outside of his team (which both he and I were very happy about).
Since then, I've been encouraged by the shift in current leaders who are more gentle, compassionate and good listeners.
In my last year working at Unilever, I decided to host an Asian American panel with all of the AsAm leaders from the company. It was a great time to hear the leader's stories growing up, ranging from the common ignorant racist remarks to hiding their Asian dishes during lunch time.
Voices: 'Lunch Box Moment' | NBC Asian America
We played the lunch box moment video and the room was filled with laughter followed by tears. It was both a meaningful and reflective moment for all of us in the room.
3. Attractiveness as an Asian American Man
This post would not be personal if I didn't talk about the perceived attractiveness of Asian American men in our Western society.
First, the most common thing I run into about being Asian American is how young I look to non-Asian women. I was joking earlier about how I look 25 , but when I was actually 25, I had just started grad school and countless times others thought I was there as an undergrad student. Especially at happy hours after work or grad school events, I found myself less outgoing because I was overly self-conscious of my perceived young looks.
This often times hindered me from talking to non-Asian women because they automatically assumed I was much younger (and not considered as a potential partner).
I also noticed that the common stereotypes for AsAm men are being quiet, shy, unexpressive, and socially awkward.
Here's an interesting chart breaking (out) stereotypes of East Asian Men
I've approached both white and Asian woman in the past and I've been told (verbally and non-verbally) that they were simply not interested in Asian men.
FYI - I can hear the *gasps* from some of you and see others *cringe*
Since some of you may not believe me, I will share with you another AsAm chart (last one I promise)
62% of AsAm men have heard
"I don't date Asian men"
With that being said, I think the bowl has finally been lifted off of Asian American men in areas of entertainment, politics, and business.
A lot of AsAm men are challenging the way society views us and our pre-labeled stereotypes and traits.
Simu Liu (actor on Kim's Convenience) did a really great talk on the TV show Social calling out the audience laughing about harmful sexual stereotypes:
Being a Korean American male can have its similarities - the stories, languages, foods, traditions, struggles, histories, and victories - with other Asian Americans.
And my goal is to view it as a humbling opportunity to speak and bring my cultural experiences to communities beyond my motherland.
And to end, I came across a tweet that recently ignited my desire to share my AsAm story.
It read something like this:
"I’ve heard some Asian Americans say that they don’t want to talk about their stories or experiences because there’s plenty of people out there doing that already. DON’T FALL FOR THAT. There’s ALWAYS room for more perspectives. We need your voices out there. If you’re an AsAm that wants to share your story, DO IT."
I know my story will resonate with some of you, and be completely irrelevant for others.
And that's great. That just means there's still room for your story to be told.
Share your story, tell your narrative.