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Boyish ideas of what it takes to be a man

Cropped shot of male freelancer working on his project while writing his ideas on notebook in comfortable workspace


Boston Globe

April 7, 2016

STEREOTYPED AS WEAK and effeminate, Asian-American men often struggle in a society that has “boyish ideas of what it takes to be a man,” according to Alex Tizon, a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and the author of “Big Little Man.”

Those boyish ideas, based largely on obsessions with physical strength, height, and sexual conquest, shaped Tizon into thinking he needed to be taller, stronger — more white. Growing up as a Filipino-American immigrant, he struggled in a society that still sometimes brands Asian men as unattractive.

A 2006 study at Columbia University found that Asian men generally were ranked as least attractive among all female racial groups in a speed dating experiment. Likewise, 2009-2014 data collected by OkCupid, an online dating service, showed that Asian and black men “get short shrift” from heterosexual women.

Actor Sacha Baron Cohen stirred controversy when he referred to Asian men as “little yellow people with tiny dongs” at the Oscars this year, calling them “minions.” Baron Cohen played up a common stereotype discussed in Tizon’s book — the myth of the small Asian penis — which largely affects Asian males’ public image in the dating circuit.

With romance as one of its center themes, Tizon’s memoir traces the roots of negative stereotypes affecting Asian-American men — an “adolescent quest,” as he calls it, but one that projects a better future for those to come.

Ideas spoke to Tizon at his home in Seattle by phone.

Below is an edited excerpt:

IDEAS: Why do you say that the status of Asian-American men is on the rise?

TIZON: We’re really talking about public perceptions. We all know that there is no actual hierarchy of manhood, right? That’s a social construct. But more Asian-Americans are reaching a higher profile position in society. That’s bound to happen. It is inevitable, it’s happening now. We’re headed up.

If I had been born 30 years later or if I was 30 years younger, the next few decades of my lifetime would be different than the decades I’ve lived through. I’ve seen so much change, and the changes are happening fast. I have nephews who are just world-beaters. They read my book, and, yeah, they can relate to some of it. But a sense of inferiority? No. That’s just not there.

IDEAS: “Big Little Man” places a lot of importance on the strength of Asian male athletes, which is arguably a very one-dimensional sense of manhood. Should society broaden its scope of masculinity?

TIZON: As a young man, I strove for a superficial ideal. Looking back on it now, as an older, middle-aged man, I see that I was just a boy. American pop culture is perpetually in adolescent mode. The notions of what it takes to be a man, as depicted in pop culture, are very superficial, one-dimensional, and adolescent. Perhaps the most important aspects of manhood and personhood have nothing to do with the physical aspects of the body. Our society is increasingly obsessed with bodies, and I think we have to acknowledge that.

IDEAS: You also talk about how sexual conquest is a way that masculinity is often measured. But is sexualizing Asian men in the media really the answer?

TIZON: When depicting Asian people in movies, books, and television or as historical figures, it’s more important to humanize them and give them all of the dimensions of humanity, and that includes sexuality. Ascribe the human the full range of human qualities.

Asian men are depicted in very narrow ways, like with Genghis Khan. When I grew up, Genghis Khan was primarily a bloodthirsty barbarian. He was known for being animalistic and murderous, whereas European conquerors were conquerors — noble and spreading enlightenment wherever they went. In the same spirit that Western historians approach Western heroes, there are populations of Asian people who think of Genghis Khan as a hero.

IDEAS: What is “wen wu” manhood?

TIZON: It’s a masculinity that exalts power but allows for multiple definitions of softness. One of the things I love about wen wu is its encouragement of developing the spiritual and intellectual aspects of the self that are actually more important than the development of the body and the capacity to commit violence — which is how much of Western pop culture defines a man. I bring up the example of a philosopher-warrior: someone who has studied and memorized the Confucian intellect but at the same time, knows how to use a sword.

IDEAS: Is wen wu manhood reaching the United States?

TIZON: Even though the wen wu man or the image of a softer masculinity may have its origins in the East, it has found its way to the West. It’s a very complicated landscape we live in now. There are all kinds of ideals. In certain circles, the softer man is actually considered more worthy of being longed for, which is a great surprise.

IDEAS: You talk about feeling unattractive growing up, but there are small pockets of society that seem to fetishize Asian men. Did you experience that?

TIZON: I do remember instances where girls would just fawn over me because they liked that I was different — exotic — to them. And they didn’t use the word Asian at the time. All of the aspects that make me Asian, they liked.

IDEAS: Is that a bad thing?

TIZON: The adolescent in me — and we all have that adolescent lurking inside of us — doesn’t mind it at all. Digs it, even. But, you know, I see it for what it is. It’s very superficial, and it feeds into an idea of Asianness that is as untrue as the negative stereotypes of Asian men. It feeds into fantasy, and fantasies are always disconnected from reality.

Kelly Kasulis is a senior majoring in journalism at Northeastern University.


Kelly Kasulis