Reader Mail: Angry Alpha Asian

Q: I just finished your book (loved it by the way-- even if you gave a minor dig to dogs, my Chinese zodiac animal) and just had a few questions/comments that I felt like sharing:
  • I totally get how Asian Americans need to let go of a lot of the guilt/shame that we put on ourselves, but how do you balance that with wanting to be a good role model/representative of our race? For example, I've always been curious about how it feels to be shit-faced drunk, but have always thought "Oh no, I wouldn't wanna be that person-- the drunken Asian dude who can't hold his liquor and is stumbling around with no control over himself". I mean, I get that in this one example, the problem is internal and I can just get over it-- but in general, I know that non-Asians will see me as some Asian dude and will stereotype our race based on my behaviors, and I'm curious what you think.
  • Secondly, I agree that it's not good to be an Angry Asian Man (I think I'm still somewhere between an Angry Asian Man and the Asian American who accepts himself), BUT I feel that racism has become subtler in recent times and I wanted to know "when do you think is the right time to get angry over things?" For example, I'm a Taiwanese American currently living in Singapore and I recently started receiving copies of Men's Health Singapore and I notice that pretty much none of the cover models are Asian (i.e. they're all white)-- which I find immensely annoying, given that I'm in Asia. Do you think I have the right to be angry?
  • And finally, I know that you're writing from a lot of your own experiences and the experiences of those around you, but I wanted to see if all groups can fit into your definition of Alpha Asians, specifically, gays and South Asians. For example, would you consider B.D. Wong and Adhir Kalyan (respectively from "Law and Order: SVU" and "Rules of Engagement") to be Alpha Asians?
Just curious about your thoughts.

Cheers, sir.

My Answer: Well Ray, I'm glad you liked the book.  I think the term Alpha Asian is inclusive of anybody who is of Asian decent who actively pursues what he wants AND who defends the Asian American community against bigotry.

If you're an actor, then the nature of the work requires you to go out and audition for roles.  In order to survive, you have to be tenacious and outgoing.  I'm not familiar with Adhir Kalyan, but  yes, I would consider B.D. Wong an Alpha Asian.  He's a successful actor, and he cares about the Asian American community.

There are a lot of successful Asian Americans, but a lot of them just don't speak up against discrimination against Asians.  You can't be an Alpha Asian and be passive when you witness racist hate.

There's a time and place to be angry.  Being an Alpha Asian doesn't mean sticking your head in the sand and  pretend there aren't people who will actively try to hurt or degrade you or your family because they don't like Asians.  Ignoring a danger to you is worse than overreacting to it.

But you got to be angry at the right time and in the right amount.  You can't be angry all the time, because then you're just stuck in a mental feedback loop of negativity.

I'll give you an example: my friend Mr. Bohemian and I went to watch Better Luck Tomorrow when it first premiered in the theaters.  We meet up at the theater, and Bohemian introduces me to his buddy, who we'll call Angry Asian Man or "Aam" for short.

Anyway, we're sitting in the theater, and the more I'm talking to Aam, the more I realize, "This dude is ANGRY."  Like 'DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!' angry.  This dude was so angry and vocal about being shit on as Asian guy that it was making me and the people around us uncomfortable.  I was thinking to myself, "Bohemian, why'd you bring this psychotic with us into a crowded theater?!  God I hope this movie starts soon so that ultra Angry Asian Man shuts up."

Anyway after the movie, the three of us head out of the theater.  This is in San Francisco, so there are ton's of crazy bums on the street.  One panhandler asks Bohemian, "Can I get some change?" as we walk past.  Bohemian says "No" and the bum actually follows us and keeps asking for change in an aggressive manner.  Bohemian just keeps saying "no" but doesn't look at him.  Aam is walking but doesn't look at the bum either or say anything.

I could tell this panhandler was just being a douche, so I started walking towards him to get him to back off, which he did as soon as he saw me coming.  I didn't say anything, but I gave him a menacing look.  Afterwards, Aam was mouthing off saying, "Yeah if that guy kept at it, I would have told him to 'fuck off.'"

I thought to myself, "Yeah right."

See this guy was angry all the time, but never at the right time.

Being an Alpha Asian doesn't mean ignoring racism.  There are times when you should be angry.  But if you're angry about something, then you need to channel that energy into a solution to the problem.   Keep in mind that you will always find something to be angry about, so you have to be selective as to what you're going to react to.  In other words, you have to triage what you're going to spend your emotional and mental energy on:

Q: I was wondering what your take is on masculinity and how it differs from culture to culture?


My Answer: Men are men no matter what culture.  But does biology manifest itself differently among cultures?  Why are Asian men stereotyped as more passive compared to other men?

Fact is there are extroverts and introverts in every culture, but cultures tend to promote one type over the other.  Wesley Yang characterized Asian culture as one of consensus and characterized Western culture of "dissensus" or dissent.

I think this is true to some extent, but every culture has dissenters and conformists.  Asian history is really military history, chock full of dissent, where dynasties were being overthrown.  Western civilization has numerous instances where the consensus of the majority led to the persecution and extermination of minorities.

But Western and Asian cultures handle consensus and dissent in different ways.  In Western culture, when you have a forum of people, everybody is expected to chime in.  If you disagree with others, then you're supposed to speak up.  But if you agree with others, then you're supposed to speak up as well.

Western culture expects everyone to be vocal.  The forum is a way for the group to hammer out dissent and come to consensus.  So if you're in the boardroom then you should always give your opinion, even if it's the same stupid opinion everybody else has.

In Asian culture, there's quiet consensus.  If you agree with everybody else, then there's really nothing to be said, because somebody else already brought up what everybody else is thinking.  Why be a human parrot and repeat what everybody said?

The problem is when there are dissenting opinions, because Asians don't really back up the dissenter, even if they agree with him.  There have been plenty of times when I voiced an unpopular opinion, but none of my Asian buddies spoke up in my defense.  They'd come up to me afterwards and say, "Hey yeah, we totally agreed with what you said," and I'd think to myself, "Why the fuck didn't you back me up?"  Only when my non-Asian friends backed me up would my Asian friends publicly come to my defense.

So one of the differences between Asian masculinity and Western masculinity is emotional expressiveness.  In Western culture, men are expected to be leaders, and leaders are expected to be charismatic, overtly expressive and demonstrative.  In Asian cultures, however, it's about quiet professionalism.  Actions speak louder than words.  You actively work towards achieving goals, but you don't brag about stuff.

Another difference that I've noticed is that men in Western culture tend to rib each other a lot more harshly.  You need some arrogance in order survive the brutal onslaught of insults you will get not just from your enemies, but from your own friends, who will poke fun at you or play a practical joke on you every chance they can get.  Sometimes it goes too far and turns into hazing, harassment or a hate crime, but for the most part, it's meant for boys and men to toughen each other up.

Asian guys do the same thing, but to a lesser degree, because you don't want your friend to lose face.  You don't want to embarrass somebody unless they truly deserve it.

I'm sure there are a lot of other differences between Asian and Western masculinity, but I think they're pretty superficial.  Psychologist JR Mahalik (Psychology of Men and Masculinity. 2003;4:3–25) proposed the following American norms of masculinity:

  • Will to Win
  • Emotional Control
  • Self-Reliance
  • Dominance
  • Risk-Taking
  • Violence
  • Playboy
  • Primacy of Work
  • Power Over Women
  • Disdain for Homosexuals
  • Pursuit of Status

Of all these traits, the 2 most important for happiness are the Will to Win and Self-Reliance.  Being dominant all the time just stresses you out and gives you a coronary.  Risk takers are not necessarily more successful because they are risk takers.

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