Commentary

I was born in a small port town in Japan and moved to Eugene, Oregon, when I was 5 years old, where I lived until I graduated college. I’m half-Asian — my mom is Japanese, and my dad is white — but that was enough to be mostly treated as Asian growing up in a town that’s around 83% white and only around 4.5% Asian

In middle and high school, acquaintances often referred to me and my twin brother as “the Asians” instead of by our names. Friends casually called us racial slurs. I brushed most of these comments off as well-intentioned, if misguided, jokes. 

But out of all of the racist comments, the ones that stung the most were those that attacked my fragile sense of adolescent masculinity: “Asian guys aren’t hot.” “They’re awkward and bad with girls.” 

At the same time, in the TV shows and movies I was watching — stuff like “South Park” and “The Hangover” series — Asian men were often the butt of jokes and never serious love interests. As a straight, cis teen, it made me think I’d never get a girlfriend. 

From a young age, it was clear to me: America doesn’t find Asian men attractive. 

This notion was reinforced over and over as I got older and women, even those who were attracted to me, told me they aren’t normally attracted to Asian men, and as white people around me made jokes about how Asian men are sexually undesirable because they’re overly academic, unathletic and insecure. 

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In recent years, there’s been more representation and richer roles for men of Asian descent in mainstream American TV shows and movies, such as 2020’s “Minari,” for which Steven Yeun became the first Asian American to earn a best actor Oscar nomination; “Searching” with John Cho; “The Green Knight” starring Dev Patel; and Marvel’s upcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” starring Simu Liu. There’s been an explosion in popularity for K-pop bands like BTS. Even so, and even as the nation undergoes a racial reckoning, things don’t seem to have changed all that much for Asian men who are dating. And old stereotypes about Asian men persist.

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Grace Kao, a sociology professor at Yale University, has been tracking how Asian American men fare in the dating pool for years. Her research offers a look at how much discrimination Asian American men face when dating.

A 2015 study Kao co-authored found that only 65% of Asian men ages 25 to 32 were in romantic relationships, compared to over three-quarters of Black, Hispanic and white men. The data also showed that Asian women were half as likely to be unpartnered, compared with Asian men. She also found, in a 2018 paper she co-authored, that gay Asian men in America face the same discrimination in their love lives. 

Kao says the statistics show a clear hierarchy based on race that leaves Asian men on the bottom rung. If everybody had random preferences, things would even out and there’d be no strong bias for or against men of any race. “If that’s not racism, I don’t know what is.”

Roots of discrimination

Kao says the roots of this discrimination come from stereotypes used to degrade Chinese male immigrants in the late 1800s, who were viewed as a “yellow peril” that would take white men’s jobs and endanger American society. Back then, Chinese people were portrayed in ugly caricatures with buck teeth and slanted eyes. During World War II, the same caricatures were used by cartoonists in an effort to drum up enthusiasm for a war against Japan.

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During the yellow peril era, the notion that Asian men were feminine or asexual also took root, says Connie So, an American ethnic studies teaching professor at the University of Washington. So says the stereotype started because, along with building railroads, many of the first male Chinese immigrants to the U.S. worked jobs associated with women, like laundry and housecleaning. Later waves of male Asian immigrants from Japan and the Philippines also worked these types of jobs, and the stereotype grew into one of the strongest prevailing ideas about Asian men in America, So says.

In many popular American films and TV shows, Asian men have been portrayed as weak or unattractive caricatures that could never be the serious love interest of a white woman. Mickey Rooney’s yellowface portrayal of the character I.Y. Yunioshi in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is an especially glaring example, complete with buck teeth and squinted eyelids. For a more contemporary example, I see Leslie Chow, a gangster character played by Ken Jeong in the 2009-13 film series “The Hangover” who uses an over-the-top Chinese accent to yell and swear, as a continuation of Asian male characters used as comedic foils to white leads.

Yes, there was Bruce Lee, who played strong, fierce characters, but he was the exception to the rule, highlighting just how few Asian male characters were in films and TV shows at all, and how those few roles were mostly for weak or comical characters. And So points out that Lee was rarely seen in romantic or sexual situations.  

Bruce Lee in the documentary “I Am Bruce Lee.” (Bruce Lee Enterprises, LLC)

Because of these stereotypes perpetuated by the media, many of her Asian American male students have poor self-esteem, So says. “I don’t know the number of times I’ve had to talk to my [Asian] male students to tell them, ‘Why do you look down on yourself like that? You shouldn’t do that.’”

Overcoming internalized racism

I didn’t know these statistics and this history in middle school, but I knew (at least subconsciously) that being Asian was something that detracted from my attractiveness. I entered high school without having had my first kiss, shy and insecure, trying to subdue my Asianness as much as I could. 

One way I did that was by only trying to date white girls. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, all of the racist comments, movies and TV shows that told me white women would never want me made me desperately want to date white women. If I could date a white girl, I thought, I would be normal and accepted.   

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In my freshman year of high school, I had my first kiss (with a white girl, of course). And as I moved up the grades I casually dated white girls and eventually got my first serious girlfriend, who was white, near the beginning of my senior year. Some of the girls I flirted with told me, “You’re Asian but you’re hot.” Or, “Asian guys aren’t hot but you’re only half-Asian.” 

I had mixed feelings about that. Being told I was hot was an enormous relief after years of thinking I was unattractive. I started to believe that despite my Asianness, or maybe because I was only half-Asian, there were white girls out there who found me attractive. But at the same time, it still felt like being Asian was something I had to fight and overcome to get girls to like me. It still meant that I would have been regarded as better if I was white.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to realize that my wanting to date white girls was tied to a need for validation. Having grown up with so many movies and TV shows that presented white women as the pinnacle of beauty, of white society as the norm and the top of the racial hierarchy, I thought that dating white girls would mean that I was successful, that I had made it to the top of the hierarchy, too. 

When I started taking classes at the University of Oregon, I majored in Japanese. After so many years ignoring or even actively suppressing my Asian identity, I felt guilty and wanted to reconnect with my Japanese roots and talk to my Japanese extended family members, none of whom speak English. Though UO is in Eugene, it has a slightly higher Asian population (6.4%) than the rest of the city, and many of the students in the Japanese major are Japanese American or Chinese international students. In that environment, I felt less abnormal for being Asian.

The summer after my freshman year, I studied Japanese at a university in Tokyo and got to know my relatives better. I didn’t feel fully accepted in Japan, being ethnically half-Japanese with American mannerisms, but I started feeling more proud of my Japanese background. 

Then, in the summer after my sophomore year, I interned at a newspaper in the East Bay Area, the most diverse place I’d ever lived. My first night there, I went out to a bar in downtown Berkeley, and while spilling my gin and tonic as I was jostled by the crowd, I felt a profound sense of relief: It was the first time I felt like I didn’t stand out because of my race. It made me realize the pain I’d experienced for not feeling like I belonged in Eugene. That’s when I started actively examining my racial experience and trying to overcome my feelings that I was lesser for being an Asian man.

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I came to realize how the racism I faced as a kid shaped my self-esteem, and how my belief that Asian men weren’t attractive was harming me. My internalized white supremacy was degrading an immutable part of who I am.

Since then, I’ve been telling myself, “I’m Asian, and I’m hot.” Now, at age 23, I believe it. And I don’t only try to date white women anymore. 

Are things changing for Asian American men?

Asian male representation in the media has come a long way from when I was a kid. People cite movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” and the K-pop explosion as signs that things are changing for men of Asian descent. 

Henry Golding and Constance Wu in “Crazy Rich Asians.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

But has that changed things for regular Asian American men who are dating? 

Not really — at least it seems that way anecdotally from the experiences of Asian men in the Seattle area who I talked to.

In fact, though Eugene is a whiter city than Seattle, which is around 15% Asian and 67% white, Asian men my age who’ve lived in Seattle far longer than me tell me they’ve felt a similar bias against them when dating, and felt some of the same things I did. 

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Clovis Wong, a 24-year-old elementary school teacher who’s lived in the Seattle area his whole life, says that when he was in middle school in Bellevue he believed, “If I date a white woman, I’ll become a real American.” Wong says since then, he realized his identity doesn’t hinge on who he’s in a relationship with.

Wong, whose ethnic background is Chinese, says he’s struggled with dating because of his race. He’s had Tinder, the popular online dating app, since 2017 and has only gotten two dates. Wong says it’s impossible to pin down exactly why he gets rejected, but it’s painful to wonder every time if it was because he was Asian.

“Knowing that there’s this kind of general bias against me … I think I’m just afraid to approach anyone now,” Wong says. He says dating is hard enough without having racial anxieties in the mix, though he says he doesn’t worry as much when he approaches Asian women.

And though there are definitely more Asian men portrayed in American media now, Asian American men are a diverse group with a wide range of physical appearances, and many I talked to say they don’t see themselves in actor Henry Golding from “Crazy Rich Asians” or the members of K-pop group BTS

Seven-member South Korean K-pop boy band BTS performs at The Rose Bowl on May 4, 2019, in Pasadena, California. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times / TNS)

Chris Masangcay, 22, a Filipino American who’s in the military in the Seattle area, says most of the Asian men Americans drool over have light skin and look nothing like him. And, he says, with so few Asian male celebrities in America, Asian men are held to a higher standard than white men (many of whom are famous in Hollywood, even if they don’t have chiseled physiques and jaw lines).

Kevin Nguyen, 32, who’s Vietnamese American but usually perceived as Indian (he recently found out one of his biological grandparents is Indian), says South, Southeast and East Asian men all face discrimination in dating, though he has seen more representation of East Asian men in U.S. media recently. Nguyen says he’d hardly get any matches when he used dating apps, and though it’s hard to tell if it’s because he’s Asian, “mediocre-looking white guys get matches all the time.”

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Kevin Nguyen says South, Southeast and East Asian men all face discrimination in dating, though he has seen more representation of East Asian men in U.S. media recently. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Some Asian American men even think the K-pop phenomenon, which is often heralded as a boon for Asian male representation, is causing a fetishization of certain types of Asian men that complicates their love lives. Wong says he recently matched with a girl on Tinder who wrote in her bio that she was “looking for her K-pop boyfriend.” He says her bio made him feel uncomfortable, and he didn’t meet up with her, since he wants to be seen for who he is, not as an embodiment of a stereotype.

Maybe it’s too early for recent notable developments for Asian Americans — the increased visibility in Hollywood, the nation’s racial reckoning, the “Stop Asian Hate” movement started in response to an increase in hate crimes against Asians in 2020 — to have a measurable effect on how Asian American men are treated in the U.S. 

But I’m hopeful things are changing. I’ve had countless conversations over the last year with young Asian American men who’ve consciously tried to feel and express pride for their cultures in the face of prejudice driven by racist ideas about the cause of the coronavirus. And though the rise in hate crimes against Asians was painful to see, it helped create a widespread acknowledgment of the discrimination Asians, including Asian men, still face in America. I think this acknowledgment is a good first step toward fighting this racism. 

If people acknowledge that discrimination against Asian men exists in the dating pool, they might question the reasons for their own sexual preferences and eventually overcome the racism that warps their choices in romantic partners. 

And if things in Hollywood keep progressing the way they have been, maybe there will be a future where Asian men who aren’t as beautiful as K-pop idols or as muscular as Henry Golding can get leading roles, and the average-looking Asian man will have as good of a shot as anybody at scoring a date.