Recently, I’ve been writing a number of essays on the subject of race. Sometimes, in these essays, I’ve started out with an investigation of the conflicts over race between whites and various minority groups before I move on to discuss my particular position and the position of Asian Americans. However, when I plug in “Asian American male” into the place where I’ve been plugging in Black or even Latinx or Native American, it is as if the ground falls out from under me; I feel like I’m writing—and standing—on quicksand. It’s as if I have no stable basis upon which to make the arguments and observations I’m making.

What I’ve noticed is that as I pass over into Asian American issues, and especially when I move into specific issues concerning Asian American males, the tone of the writing becomes not just more defensive but its very tenor changes—a tone of farce, irony, and the mode of pastiche starts to creep in as my mind floods with certain images and stereotypes: Mickey Rooney’s yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, Ken Jeong’s Leslie Chow in The Hangover, or even Steve Harvey’s “joke” that no one wants to date an Asian Man because it’s like eating Chinese food and thirty minutes later you’re hungry for real food. And so, while I may start the essay in a standard tone of intellectual inquiry, the closer it comes to my own particular concerns, the authority of that tone, its air of rational and disinterested inquiry, begins to leave me—or I begin to leave it. Instead, I enter into a tone and a prose which is more like some of the performance pieces I do, which rely more on humor and self-mockery, on parodies of existing social and literary conventions.

Some questions that arise for me now are these: Have I fallen victim to stereotype threat? Have I so inculcated the dominant white culture’s image of me and my racial situation? Have the voices of mockery embodied in the stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans become such a part of my psyche, that I cannot hear my own self think without automatically seeing that image, automatically hearing those voices? Or am I simply being overly paranoid, a state which of course is quite conducive to mockery and satire?

These questions are not mutually exclusive. When I consider them, I can see ways in which they can all be true. I’ve written about being an Asian American male and the issue of race and sexuality in the past, but I wonder if there are factors I have not considered, factors which might be helpful in conducting my inquiry here (even if, as I sometimes feel, the whole enterprise will be for naught).

So, this is the subject of my essay, which I can finally get to now after all this throat clearing—How is Asian American masculinity constituted? What does it mean to be an Asian American heterosexual male? How do I read my identity and how do others who are not Asian American males read it?

In considering these questions, I have come up with two general theses:

One, Asian American masculinity presents itself as a question and challenge to white American heteronormative masculinity; this is a challenge which white society—and indeed the rest of society—cannot entertain without completely undermining and taking apart the basic principles of sexual identity through which mainstream society functions.

Secondly, Asian American masculinity, like other forms of American masculinity, cannot be understood without considering gay masculinity and its challenge to heteronormative masculinity.

I will start with the second thesis.

* * *

Recently, I participated in a staged reading of “Prop 8,” a play based on the suit by a California lesbian couple and a gay couple contesting the constitutionality of the amendment making the ban against same-sex marriage part of California’s state constitution. The staged reading was for a benefit for Families United, the organization opposing the anti-gay-marriage amendment in Minnesota.

In the reading, I played Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam, a conservative Christian minister and head of the Traditional Family Coalition. Tam was one of the leading proponents of Prop 8 and organized Asian American Christian congregations against the amendment. Dr. Tam made a series of nonfactual arguments against gay marriage. For instance, he argued that gays and lesbians were interested in legalizing pedophilia, and he asserted that when gay marriage was legalized in the Netherlands, the Netherlands then legalized polygamy and incest.

In court, when Dr. Tam was asked where he got his information about the Netherlands, Tam replied, “It’s in the internet.” The lawyer defending Prop 8 had put forward a number of witnesses during the deposition, but only one of those witnesses showed up for trial. Dr. Tam was among the no-shows, which prompted plaintiff laywer David Boies to say “Dr. Tam went on the lam.” Boies goes on to suggest that one of the reasons for Dr. Tam’s reluctance to testify was that while he and other pro-Prop 8 witnesses felt comfortable spouting falsehoods and junk science in their ads or public appearances, the witness stand is “a lonely place to lie.”

In preparation for my brief role, I looked up Dr. Tam’s deposition testimony on the Internet. Tam is a middle-aged Asian American man who wears his hair flat across his head from a part on his left side. He wears black wire-rim glasses, and he speaks with a Chinese accent. His manner on the stand is low key, quiet. Given his appearance, his accent, and his manner, he does not come across to an American audience as a strongly heteronormative masculine presence. My guess is that Dr. Tam is probably not aware of this reading of his person, or the history of stereotypes concerning Asian/Asian American men which make up the genealogy of such a reading. As an immigrant from Hong Kong, he likely grew up with images of Chinese masculinity. At the same time, he’s obviously imbibed conservative Christian views on homosexuality.

My intuitive response to Dr. Tam’s demeanor and appearance is that he reads as Asian and nerdy, a stereotypical connection. Growing up, I rebelled against this stereotype, despite doing well in school. In order to play Dr. Tam, I would have to comport myself with a body language which did not convey American aggressiveness or self-assertion. I would have to ungel and unruffle the more contemporary cut of my hair. I would don glasses, a generic and unfashionable tan sports coat and tie. I would speak with an accent. I would be stifling all the ways I’ve consciously learned to convey a heteronormative masculinity that goes against the effeminate, nerdy stereotype of Asian/Asian American males.

Of course, whether my efforts in this area have been successful is not clear. Recently, for instance, at a literary conference, a young literary agent said she immediately assumed I was gay when I said I was active in theater. “Asian? In the theater? Geez, I must be gay,” I told her. In reply she made a half-hearted effort to defend herself from the accusation of stereotyping.

When they did the Hollywood benefit staged reading of Prop 8, Brad Pitt played the judge, George Clooney played David Bois, Martin Sheen Ted Olson, and Kevin Bacon the attorney defending Prop 8. George Takei, of Sulu and Star Trek fame, played Dr. Tam. A Japanese American, Takei is one of several actors in recent years to have come out of the closet. In the reading, Takei did a fine job, but to my eyes, his presence seemed a bit too direct, a bit too assertive when compared with the real Dr. Tam.

When I was growing up, the most famous Asian American actor was the Japanese American James Shigeta. I was particularly struck by two of his films dealing with interracial romance. In Bridge to the Sun, he plays a Japanese diplomat who marries an American woman played by the glamorous Carroll Baker. In The Crimson Kimono, he plays a cop with an American accent who wins the white woman in a love triangle with his white best friend.

It was only years later that I found out Shigeta is also gay.

* * *

In a recent New Yorker article, “Love on the March: Reflections on the Gay Community’s Political Progress—And its Future,” Alex Ross remarks on role playing and drag as aspects of gay male identity and their relationship to “the role of women”:

Feminist critics have long detected misogynist mockery in drag acts
and in gay men’s howling response to melodramatic scenes that
were not intended to be funny, such as Joan Crawford’s verbal
annihilation of her aloof, ingrate daughter in “Mildred Pierce.”
[Gay theorist David] Halperin, like many before him, sees a
more complex identification at work. Crawford maintains a
flawlessly high pitch as she gyrates between “feminine glamour”
and “feminine abjection,” and the typical gay male viewer may feel
at home at both extremes: so many gay kids work at presenting a
perfected surface to the world, and so many are hounded by the
fear that some grotesque exposure will tear it down.
At the same time, the plunge into abjection can be liberating—
“the politics of emotion,” Halperin calls it, of “losing it,” of
“righteous, triumphant fury”…. Furthermore, as the feminist
theorist Judith Butler has argued, these extravagant diva turns,
and more particularly, the drag acts that perpetuate them, reveal
the artificiality of conventional gender roles, the “hyperbolic
status of the norm itself.” As Halperin puts it, “every identity
is a role or an act.” It’s just that straight male-performance
is granted instant authenticity. Super Bowl Sunday, seen from
a certain angle, is a pageant as intricate and contrived as the
annual invasion of the drag queens on Fire Island.

Ross is arguing that the traditional definitions and roles of “female” and “male” can be viewed as performative, rather than being constituted by some internal and never changing essence. In his book Gaga Feminism, gay theorist J. Jack Halberstam suggests that Lady Gaga was exposing the artificiality of gender roles when she took on her persona as “Jo Calderone,” at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, where Jo was presented as Lady Gaga’s boyfriend.

Seen in this light, the definition of gender becomes a hall of mirrors. A person of either sex can look and perform the “traditional notions,” that is, the aspects of behavior and appearance used to designate male or female, as well as straight or gay. But here appearance can be deceiving; it may or may not indicate whether the person is straight or gay.

As Ross observes, many gay kids “work at presenting a perfected surface to the world”—that is, a heterosexual surface; they perform heterosexuality. At the same time, they live in fear that their “act” will be exposed. It’s not a leap to surmise that gay Asian American actors like George Takei or James Shigeta learned early on how to perform heterosexuality and would be skilled at doing so.

But there is a difference between a gay man portraying a heterosexual man, and a gay man playing a woman. In the former, the gay male attempts to erase any behaviors that “signal” gayness and performs behaviors that “signal” heterosexuality. But the gay male performer in both cases is biologically a male. When a gay male takes up drag and attempts to portray a woman, he can never—unless he surgically chooses to do so—remove the biological characteristics which make him a male. This, it seems to me, is part of the reason why drag carries with it, in our culture at least, the note of parody. The performance of drag cannot ever be “granted instant authenticity” because the performer’s difference cannot ever be completely erased.

So how does all this relate to the straight Asian American male? When the straight Asian American male performs say, the rite of Super Bowl Sunday, in what ways is he like and unlike every straight white male who performs that rite? That is, if the straight white male who performs that rite is “granted instant authenticity,” how is the Asian American straight male to be regarded? He is straight and male, and in that way he is like the straight white male. But is he “granted instant authenticity” in performing this straight white male rite? I would argue no, and the reason for this is because of the straight Asian male’s race. He can never erase this “biological” difference.

Imagine, if you will, a beer commercial about Super Bowl Sunday. You can imagine a group of straight white males watching the Super Bowl. There may even be other token minorities amongst them. But if the commercial were only made up of Asian American males—such a commercial would never be made of course—it would take on an air of parody, of pastiche. It would certainly not be “granted instant authenticity.”

In the eyes of straight white American culture, the Asian/Asian American male is considered effeminate and nerdy, as lacking both biologically and culturally those signs which would grant the straight Asian American male “instant authenticity” as a straight American male. For this reason, when straight Asian American males attempt to perform the signs or “signals” of the straight white American male, there is always, in the eyes of white mainstream culture, an aspect of parody. The situation is in certain ways more like a gay man doing drag, than a gay man performing heterosexuality. The impossibility of the portrayal is more up front in the former, while in the latter the impossibility of the portrayal is more hidden. In the former the imitation advertises itself.

Of course for the straight Asian American male, the fact that the imitation advertises itself as an imitation is not something he chooses. In that way, the straight Asian American male is not like a drag queen; he is not consciously choosing to be seen as imitating the “real thing.” But that doesn’t change the fact that the “audience” will never regard him as the “real thing,” will never grant him “instant authenticity,” no matter how well he portrays or plays that role.

* * *

When I was growing up, I know I sensed the sexual parameters of my position in this culture. Of course, like many straight Asian American males I took up all the signs and trappings of the straight white American male. At five years old, like so many straight white American males of my generation, I had my picture taken over and over wearing a belted holster with six guns around my waist, imitating the cowboy image that was so in vogue during the fifties. But when I look back at those photos, there seems to me something ridiculous about this get up on me with my Asian face. Even when I was five, I understood at some level that I could never actually be a cowboy, the seeming epitome of the straight white American male.

In one of my poems, “The Colors of Desire,” there’s this section of me riding with my father in a car. I’m playing at being Paladin, the gunslinger from the fifties cowboy show, Have Gun Will Travel.

When a Japanese Canadian friend of mine, Rick Shiomi, read the poem, he asked, “Do you remember what happens at the beginning?” I said, “Yeah, Paladin comes walking down these stairs, wearing his six guns, looking cool, all dressed in black.” Rick said, “No, that’s a bit later. At the start of the show, a pig-tailed Chinese messenger runs into the hotel lobby shouting, ‘Teragram. Teragram for Meesta Paradin.’”

But even after Rick said this, I didn’t remember the Chinese messenger. So what was going on in my five or six year old brain, when I saw this television show, that caused me to repress this memory of the Chinese messenger? Like other straight American males during that time, I wanted to be the gunslinger. The hero. The white guy. But perhaps I knew even then that people would more readily associate me with the pigtailed Chinese messenger, that society viewed me in the role of “the Chink” (named “Hey Boy” in the TV series). I would never be seen as the gunslinger or the hero. My race would forever keep me from occupying that social space.

And as I grew older, I sensed more and more that this would be the case. I might wish to be regarded like Paladin or John Wayne, the great straight white American male. But that would never happen. No matter how meticulously I tried to “perform” that role, my performance would never be “granted instant authenticity.” I would always be regarded as a fake, a faux imitation. And there was part me that felt, Why even try?

Here is Ross again, on gay taste or sensibility:

How can someone be gay without having seen “Mildred
Pierce” or “The Wizard of Oz”? To answer that, you
first have to know what such movies have to do with
being gay. Halperin observes, as others have before
him, that gay boys often display stereotypical tastes
long before sex enters the picture. As he points out,
sexuality is the area where gay men differ least from
straight men: the male in heat is a uniform animal.
Gay taste is something more singular, probably linked
to incipient feelings of dissimilarity from one’s peers.
This alienation can happen in class, or in the locker
room, or at a friend’s house when straight porn is unveiled.
However these experiences unfold, they have a lasting
impact, equivalent to a trauma with no visible cause.
One common response is preemptive withdrawal. The boy
buries himself in some obscure aesthetic pursuit. One
self-help book calls it “velvet rage.” My ignorance of
“The Wizard of Oz” didn’t save me from becoming a typical
case: at the age of ten, I developed a predilection for
Austro-German symphonies.

Growing up, I don’t think I ever had a taste that would be labeled “stereotypical” of gays, nor did I develop a predilection for something like Austro-German symphonies. My tastes were pretty plebian and reflected the tastes of many other straight American males of my generation. And yet the awareness of my difference, my sense of racial otherness, did seem to come with a vengeance at adolescence.

Two events marked my passage into a conscious awareness of my difference, and both stemmed from sexuality. The first was the discovery of a Playboy in my father’s closet, which I wrote about in my first memoir, Turning Japanese:

My father never slept with a white woman, never,
I think, slept with anyone but my mother. Still,
I know he must have thought of crossing that line,
must have been aware it was there to cross.

One fall afternoon in eighth grade, I am home from
school with a slight fever. My mother is out shopping.
For some reason, I start rummaging in their closet,
pushing back the pumps and flats, all lined in a row
on the rack, unzipping the garment bags. (What am I
looking for? Years later, my therapist will tell me
that news travels quickly and silently in families;
no one has to speak of it.) From beneath a stack of
folded sweaters, I pull a Playboy magazine.
I start moving through the pages, the ads for albums
and liquor, cartoons, the interview with Albert
Schweitzer, with photos of the great man in pith helmet
and bow tie, his famous walrus mustache. And then the
foldout undoes itself, flowing before me with its glossy
shine. I have seen a Playboy someone brought
into the locker room at school. But now I am alone, in
my parents’ bedroom. I worry about when my mother is
coming back, I forget she is gone. I am entranced by
the woman’s breasts, the aureoles seem large as my fists.
She is blonde, eighteen, a UCLA coed. She leans against
a screen, half her body exposed to the camera.

And so, like many other American boys, I discover my sexuality in the presence of a picture. And, like many other American boys, I do not think of the color of the woman’s skin. Of course, if she were black or brown or yellow…but she is white, her beauty self-evident. I sense somehow that she must be more beautiful than Asian women, more prestigious. But the forbidden quality of sex overpowers any thought of race. I do not wonder why my father looks at these pictures, these women who are not my mother. The sensations of pleasure, of momentary possession and shame, flood over me quickly, easily, sliding through my body.

A few minutes later, I pick up the magazine, slip it back in the garment bag beneath the sweaters.

The second incident was at my first boy-girl party, which I wrote about in my memoir Where the Body Meets Memory:

I dressed for the party on Saturday night carefully,
with the proper Levi’s and paisley shirt and brown
penny loafers, the style of dress that the kids from
Skokie called “collegiate.” Its opposite was “greaser”
and if you were in neither of these categories, you
were simply unworthy of mention. I spent several
minutes before the mirror, patiently grooming my
pompadour. I walked the three blocks to Marla Friedman’s
house, still warmed by the memory of my last second
basket, immune to the brisk November wind that buffeted
about me. I recalled how Laura Bennett seemed startled
at how good I was, better than Allan Rosenbloom or Rick
Gordon or any of the other guys from Skokie, the ones
she’d gone to grade school with. Laura Bennett, the
prettiest girl in the class, whom I had a secret crush
on and who, through the luck of the draw, was my science
partner. I’d feel this soft caving inside me whenever I
was near her, whenever I thought of her, and I kept
envisioning some time when she would see I was not like
the other guys, that what I felt for her was deeper, purer.
Week after week I’d been helping her with her write-ups,
wishing there was some way we could talk about something
else. Here was my chance.

But when I got to the party, no one talked about the game.

At first, everybody talked about what records to play.
There were arguments about the Beatles versus the Rolling
Stones; everyone wanted to hear the new Beach Boy album
Marla had just bought. We were in the basement rec room,
and from time to time, Marla’s mother would call down.
It seemed clear she wasn’t going to interrupt us. I kept
waiting for someone to mention the game, but somehow the
center of things always seemed to be whatever Rick Gordon
or Jeff Lappins were talking about, even though Lappins
hadn’t even played in the game. Gordon was a year older
than the rest of us, wore a leather jacket, and regaled
everyone with tales of the fights he’d been in on with
his older brothers. He pulled out his switchblade,
flicked it open and showed it to everyone. Laura
laughed and pretended to shy away from him, as if she
were frightened. Lappins had hair just like the Beatles,
and it was rumored several girls in the room had crushes
on him. He talked about how fast the girls were from
Crandall, a junior high just across town in Evanston.

“You can’t believe what they’re like. They even give hand
jobs.”

“That’s disgusting,” said Marla. Lappins laughed. It
was just the response he was looking for. The other
girls giggled.

Watching all this, I wanted to jump into the
conversation, but there never seemed a spot to slide
in. I made a show of looking at Marla’s records, reading
the album covers. I tried to talk to Fine about the game,
but he didn’t seem interested. And then, Marla came out
of her utility room carrying an empty Coke bottle, and
several girls started giggling. Riki Leavitt took the
bottle and shouted, “It’s time for Spin the Bottle.”

What was that? I didn’t know, but of course wasn’t
going to ask. Fortunately, Riki explained, then ordered
everyone into a circle. Rick Gordon grabbed the bottle
to spin first, and it landed on Riki. Everyone oohed.
There was a rumor they had a crush on each other. I
began to feel this flush of excitement. When was it
going to land on me? I wanted it to happen and I didn’t.
What would I do? I’d never kissed a girl before. How was
I supposed to do that?

Then, as the Searchers sang “Needles and Pins” on the
stereo, Andi Levine spun the bottle, and it slowed to a
halt, pointing at me. I scrambled across the center of
the circle. She sat up, leaning forward slightly. I think
she expected just a simple peck on the lips, like everyone
else was giving. I don’t know what I expected, but when I
pressed my lips to hers, something seemed to pull me towards
her, pressing my lips tighter, and I kept them there, thinking
I should let go now, feeling I didn’t want to let go, I
couldn’t. And then I heard people around us cheer, and this
spurred me on, until she finally pulled herself away, as if
trying to grab her breath. The calls erupted louder then,
and my face reddened with the attention. Suddenly people
were talking about me. So I did the same thing on the next
spin. And the next.

Finally, the bottle I’d spun pointed to Laura Bennett.
I turned to look at her dark face, her long dark hair, her
almost Italian looking eyes, her full mouth, all vaguely
reminiscent of Sophia Loren, of someone several years older.
But what I saw in her eyes was a mixture of mock horror and
a real, though slight, repulsion, as she made a show of backing
up and putting her hands up before her face, fluttering them
there as if waving away a stream of gnats. She ran to the other
side of the room and refused to kiss me. Everyone laughed.

The next Monday at school I was labeled “Loverlips.” I tried
to wear this moniker as a mark of distinction, though I
sensed that wasn’t quite the case. All I knew was, the rules
had changed.

In both of these incidents, my incipient sexual awareness and an awareness of my racial “otherness” are powerfully linked. That is, both incidents do not confirm, or bring me into, a sense of a shared response or feeling identification with the other males around me. Of course, in neither incident is my sense of difference as great as what a gay adolescent feels in such situations. And yet, when I read Alex Ross’s description of that moment when a gay adolescent senses his irrevocable difference, I find something similar to my experience, something familiar: “This alienation can happen in class, or in the locker room, or at a friend’s house when straight porn is unveiled. However these experiences unfold, they have a lasting impact, equivalent to a trauma with no visible cause.”

A trauma with no visible cause: As a book like Halperin’s How to Be Gay makes clear, gays do not grow up generally raised by gay parents; they are not taught a language to express their sense of difference as part of their upbringing. At first, in instances like those Ross references, the trauma cannot be expressed because the gay adolescent does not yet possess a language to express his sense of difference or to link his experience of his difference with other gays. The cause remains beyond articulation, until that gay adolescent eventually comes into contact with other gays and gay culture—and thus a language to express and explore his sense of his difference and at the same time, to link his experiences with others in his group.

In what ways is the gay experience of this trauma then similar to my own? My racial difference was not something my parents talked about. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, I believe that in part because of their trauma due to their internment during World War II, they came to feel that their race and ethnicity were a source of shame, were what marked them as criminals, and thus they worked as hard as possible to assimilate into a white middle-class world and to forget, ignore, remain silent upon, and shun the ways they were marked as different as Japanese Americans.

On a more general level, while many Asian American parents may talk to their children about their cultural roots due to their ethnicity, most of these parents do not possess a language to talk about their or their children’s difference due to race. Nothing in Vietnamese culture or Chinese culture or Hmong culture speaks to the way Asians are “raced” in America, to the cultural and historical and social effects of the ways Asians have been and are treated in America because of their race. This is quite different from the experience of African Americans (and to some extent Latinos), since African Americans have a centuries old tradition of speaking about race; as a result, young African Americans, as they become aware of their racial difference, as they learn how they are treated in society because of their race, possess a language to talk about their experiences of their difference. They may experience trauma in regards to race, but they can speak at least to some extent as to the cause of that trauma. This is not the case for most Asian American adolescents when they first encounter and become aware of their own racial difference. They lack a language to speak of that difference and thus, cannot quite name the cause of their racial trauma. This is, I believe, what I experienced as an adolescent: I was traumatized by my difference, but I could not quite voice or could not quite see its cause. I simply felt it, my difference, my trauma.

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