Finding & Understanding Asian Masculinity

There’s been a number of recent discussions and blog posts on Asian manliness and masculinity in the blogosphere. It’s a topic that’s been covered on 8Asians as well, and one of the main drivers of this discussion topic has been why certain women choose not to date Asian men (supposedly it’s an apparent lack of masculinity). So I thought I’d cover the topic of what it takes to become a masculine Asian male.

Some of you may be wondering how I could even tackle a subject like this one, as a gay Asian male (who are typically stereotyped as being even more effeminate than straight Asian males). I’ll grant you that when I graduated high school, I was a 98 pound weakling (both literally and figuratively) who was the last person anyone would have called masculine, complete with coke-bottle eyeglasses. But I’ve changed quite a bit in the last 25 years since high school, and I’m certainly not the thin frail boy I was going into college.

Before we get to me, first some background on where we get our masculinity from. Maybe we have something to learn here from 5 year olds, like my own daughter. Recently, Peggy Orenstein wrote a book called Cinderella Ate My Daughter, in which she relays why the Disney Princesses have been so popular with little girls and why they attach themselves so much to all things pink, dresses, and other trappings of femininity. Likewise, boys have the same general response to the color blue, trucks, cars, trains, etc. Orenstein’s explanation has to do with gender identity: at the age of 5, children don’t quite understand that gender identity comes from within, and instead, use external cues to explain their gender. It’s the pink dress that tells my daughter she’s a girl; she clings to trappings that identify her as a girl to confirm that to herself.

Boys do the same thing. It’s why generally when you ask a 5 year old what they want, they’ll generally insist on toys and clothes that are indicative of their gender. For males in general, when we’re kids, we make ourselves masculine based on what our society tells us is masculine but somewhere along the way, that message changes or somehow isn’t quite the same for Asian males as it is for other men. As Tim Wu says about some Taiwanese men, “many Taiwanese men consider it perfectly normal to fill their cars with stuffed animals. More broadly, male pop stars across East Asia have a disturbing tendency to look exactly like the teenage girls who are their biggest fans.” For Asian American males, the solution may be to find out what it means to be masculine in white American culture and figure out how we as Asian American males can emulate more of that masculinity.

And that leads us back to my story.

I grew up in the seventies and entered college at the height of the AIDS crisis in the eighties. At the time, I was sure I wasn’t long for the world and was relatively convinced I would die of AIDS as a young gay man. While the idea of having a career and raising a family sounded like nice thing, they weren’t anything I actually thought I’d have.

But being gay did have one advantage for me. I was able to observe gay culture up close. You see, many gay men are way more masculine than any straight man could possibly be. As Joe Jackson wrote in his song, “Real Men,” when referring to gay men, “All the guys are macho, See their leather shine,…But now and then we wonder who the real men are.”

Most of the gay men I hung around with were way more masculine than I ever was, and I learned quite a bit from them. There was one guy who worked as a carpenter, helping people with home remodeling and repairs. He convinced me when I purchased a home at the age of 25 to rip out a window and replace it with a glass sliding door–and not to hire the work out, but to do it myself. Looking back on it, I can only think about what a disaster that was, but he stuck around and helped me every step of the way. It was an incredible learning experience for me.

Somehow in the years after, I came to love home remodeling, learning each new trade necessary to practically build an entire home. I acquired new tool after new tool, and there really wasn’t anything I was afraid to tackle. Somehow all this do-it-yourself work also meant I put on weight, and to some extent muscles. Today, I tip the scales closer to 155 pounds rather than the sub-100 pounds I was in college. When I bought the house we live in now, I did most of the work before we moved in. Many of our neighbors told my husband that they thought I was the contractor, and were surprised to find out I was the other homeowner.

My daughter has an expression for me that she tells people when they ask her what her daddy does. She says “My daddy can do anything.” At this point in my life, I certainly feel like I can. In the end, I picked up masculinity by learning the very American hobby of being a do-it-yourself homeowner.

At this point you must think I must be kidding you with this article. You may be thinking that Asian American males don’t need to emulate white American masculinity, and that really Asian American men should find and create their own definition of masculinity. If you think that’s the case, then don’t complain that women are ignoring you because of the stereotype of the lack of masculinity in Asian males. Okay, maybe I am ribbing you a little, but there’s got be some truth in here as well. You live in America, so you’re going to have to live by white American ideals. If you want to be considered masculine, then you need to act masculine by the same standards, and maybe, just maybe there won’t be a stereotype that Asian men aren’t masculine. You might also be getting help from some of your gay Asian brethren like me who are helping to fight the stereotype. As Bobby over at Being Gay and Asian in America says, “Standing up against the stereotype [of effeminate Asian men] is the only way to break down the stereotype that still exists in our society.”

[Image Source: Restructure]

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Author: Tim

I'm a Chinese/Taiwanese-American, born in Taiwan, raised on Long Island, went to college in Philadelphia, tried Wall Street and then moved to the California Bay Area to work in high tech in 1990. I'm a recent dad and husband. Other adjectives that describe me include: son, brother, geek, DIYer, manager, teacher, tinkerer, amateur horologist, gay, and occasional couch potato. I write for about 5 different blogs including 8Asians. When not doing anything else, I like to challenge people's preconceived notions of who I should be.