My current boyfriend is Filipino, but he is one of the very few Asian men I’ve dated.
Growing up, I lived in a predominantly white town, which was one reason that I didn’t date many Asian men—there just weren’t many around to begin with. But it was also partially about me. During my teens and early 20s, I was vehemently against dating Asian guys. When friends tried to pair me up with the one Chinese guy in elementary school, as if we were meant to be because I was the only Chinese girl, I quickly became annoyed. And in high school, I very clearly remember a bunch of guys trying to introduce me to their Asian friend while I was waiting for the bus after school one day. I scoffed and walked away, irritated at the unspoken expectation that I should to stick to my own race.
Now, I can see that I was surrounded by many, many problematic messages about the desirability of Asian men (or lack thereof), which in turn led me to believe that they were socially awkward, passive, unattractive—and therefore not dateable. But I also thought being paired with an Asian guy would make me seem more Asian, which I definitely did not want. Being with a white guy felt like stepping stone to being less different, or like it would make me more like the white girls I wanted to be like.
Asian men have a long history of being desexualized
As The Huffington Post notes, ugly cultural tropes around Asian men and attractiveness actually stem from racist legislation. In the 1800s, when the first Asian immigrants came to America, they were subjected to a series of xenophobic laws that stripped them of many rights that signify manhood, such as property ownership, job opportunities (most were forced into more “feminine” job, such as cooks, dishwashers and laundrymen) and the ability to marry freely (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made the possibility of Asian men finding Asian brides much harder, but anti-miscegenation laws also made it illegal for them to marry white women).
Then, of course, Hollywood and pop culture reinforced this idea. Before Crazy Rich Asians, Fresh Off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience, there wasn’t much Asian representation on-screen. And even after the success of these game-changing movies and television shows, there is still room for much more Asian representation in media. We’ve made some progress since Gedde Watanabe played Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, but East Asian men are still rare in movies or on TV, and they are still most often portrayed as soft-spoken nerds that women don’t find desirable (think Matthew Moy’s character Han in 2 Broke Girls). Even when they’re depicted as strong fighters or martial artists, they still don’t get the girl (remember Jet Li’s character Han Sing—yes, another Han—in Romeo Must Die?).
“Every Asian-American man knows what the dominant culture has to say about us,” celebrity restaurateur, television host and Fresh off the Boat author Eddie Huang wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. “We count good, we bow well, we are technologically proficient, we’re naturally subordinate, our male anatomy is the size of a thumb drive and we could never in a thousand millenniums be a threat to steal your girl… The structural emasculation of Asian men in all forms of media became a self-fulfilling prophecy that produced an actual abhorrence to Asian men in the real world.”
Huang’s not wrong. A 2014 OkCupid study concluded that women find Asian men less desirable than other men on the app. A speed-dating study conducted at Columbia University showed that Asian men had the most difficulty getting a second date. And “No Asians” is still a common line seen on dating apps, particularly in the gay community.
These stereotypes hurt Asian men—and Asian women
It’s even on daytime TV. Back in January, I saw a clip surface online of Canadian actor Simu Liu on CTV’s The Social. As the show’s hosts began to talk about sexual stereotypes, the Kim’s Convenience star jumped into offer his perspective as an Asian man. But as he did so, the studio audience began to laugh.
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I went on @TheSocialCTV today to promote our show and talk a wide range of current events and pop culture topics with the wonderful ladies there. At the beginning of the clip we were talking about ‘sexual stereotypes’ and I was cutting in to offer my opinion as an Asian man. Y’ALL, THE STUDIO AUDIENCE LAUGHED. THEY. LAUGHED. I was stunned; you can see my face as I process what the f**k just happened. I called them out. And the amazing ladies sitting next to me had my back. Because goddamnit people it’s 2019 and I’m tired of having to prove to the world that we’re not Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. Much love to everyone at #TheSocial for being amazing and allowing me the space to properly educate some people. I will be doubling my shirtless photo quota moving forward. I’m damn proud to be Asian. TAG YOUR SEXY-ASS ASIAN FRIEND. Thank you. *continues drinking boba*
He used the opportunity to (gently) call them out, saying, “Imagine being a kid growing up and having none of the girls want to date you [because of these types of stereotypes].”
But months later, Liu hadn’t forgotten how it felt to hear the audience laugh in that moment. “It honestly felt so surreal. I felt immediate shock that the audience felt like it was OK to laugh at what I said when all I wanted to do was acknowledge that sexual stereotypes are harmful and untrue,” he says.
Liu points to his own experience—when he was younger, he thought being Asian was literally the worst thing that ever happened to him. “I felt just totally and utterly castrated and undatable,” he says. “It took a very long time for me to learn to love myself and where I came from, but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t still affect me today.”
And the stereotypes aren’t just harmful for Asian men; they affect Asian women, too. Some Asian men have started harassing Asian women for marrying non-Asian men, because to them, “marrying out” perpetuates the stereotype that Asian men are undesirable. As author Celeste Ng writes in a piece for The Cut, “[These ‘Asian incels’] believe they’re fighting a constant battle against a culture that’s out to get them… In their messages, these harassers often claim Asian women don’t care about the issues facing Asian men, or even that they believe the stereotypes.”
And of course, my rejection of Asian men didn’t just harm them. It affected me, too.
I wasn’t attracted to Asian men because of my own insecurities
I refused to date Asian guys because of my own issues with my cultural background. Growing up, I was surrounded by white people—in school, on TV, in magazines and in advertisements. I felt like an outsider, so much that I didn’t want to be associated or paired with anyone who reminded me of my non-whiteness—not friends, and definitely not boyfriends. I did date an Asian guy for two years in university, but shortly after we broke up, I went right back to dating non-Asian men. No one in my friend group was Asian and that didn’t just influence my tastes, it also affected my identity.
When I entered my mid-20s, though, things started to change. As I spent more time with my elders and became more comfortable in my own skin, I became more and more proud of my Chinese roots. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, as I (gradually) began to embrace my ethnicity, I also began viewing Asian men as more attractive. Of course, the internet and social media helped, since I was exposed to Asian guys who weren’t at all like the stereotypes I saw on TV or in the movies. They were really attractive due to their fashion sense, their talents (ahem… I always had a soft spot for popular YouTube singers like Gabe Bondoc and Jeremy Passion and dancers like Marko Germar or Hokuto ‘Hok’ Konishi from So You Think You Can Dance), or yes, their six-packs—something I’d never seen on Asian men before.
But as I experienced more serious relationships with non-Asian men, particularly Caucasian men, I realized how difficult it was to relate to them on a cultural level. They didn’t understand my family values and were often weirded out by traditional Chinese cuisine. And I always felt like an outsider being the only Asian girl among a bunch of white people when visiting said boyfriends’ families.
But honestly? Asian men are hot
In hindsight, I regret all those years I spent rejecting Asian men. I know I missed out on a lot of great guys. But most of all, I feel ashamed that I resented my own race so much, that I internalized such problematic ideas about Asian men.
Thankfully, in realizing my own worth and importance as a Chinese-Canadian woman, I’ve been able to break down the barriers that once prevented me from viewing Asian men as attractive and dateable. I now feel a huge sense of pride when I see Asian men like Henry Golding, Manny Jacinto, Godfrey Gao and Liu regarded as sex symbols and cheer internally when I see not just Asian women, but women of all races fawn over them.
It’s not about being shallow. It’s that Asian men are so much more than the old stereotypes used to describe them—and it’s about damn time we all begin to realize this.