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Redefining Asian Masculinity

GUEST COMMENTARY

By Christopher Fung

I would like to respond to the editorial written by Allen Soong in your October 8 issue regarding the film The Joy Luck Club and Asian-American male identity. I first note that my use of the term "Asian" refers primarily to those of East Asian descent. I do not feel qualified to address these issues in the Southeast and South Asian communities, although I'm sure there would be some interesting parallels.

Poor Allen Soong: He went to see Joy Luck Club and was left feeling hurt at the negative view of Asian men. To his credit, Allen has placed his finger on a raw nerve in the Asian-American male psyche, but he doesn't seem to understand that the characters he objected to are not simply mainstream stereotypes of Asian men (especially given the involvement of Amy Tan and Wayne Wang with the entire production process). In fact, they are images that need to be viewed in the context of the very real sexism that Asian women have to put up with both within and outside the Asian communities.

While I agree with Allen that we as Asian men have to live with some rather vicious stereotypes, and that few models of heroic Asian men exist in the mainstream American media, I think that he is losing sight of an important point: in the process of confronting what the mainstream does to us (and to all of our brothers and sisters in the community of color), we should not forget that we also have a responsibility to Asian women to acknowledge, confront and overcome sexism within the Asian community. These two tasks cannot be prioritized, one over the other. We must deal with them both at once, or we will get nowhere fast.

As Asian men, we have to face the unpleasant fact that we are the direct beneficiaries of an abusive patriarchal system that has continued in one form or another for two and a half thousand years. Patriarchy in the Asian American communities comes to us through our own cultural heritages and it also comes to us through our experiences living in this country. The examples I am going to use are mostly Chinese simply because I am personally familiar with that material, but I'm sure that the same ideas could be illustrated using Japanese and Korean material.

As a specific example, the patriarchal system within Chinese society and the Chinese-American community has ended men, exactly like those depicted in The Joy Luck Club (I, too can invoke personal acquaintances, but unlike Soong, I see many men who fit those descriptions precisely). On a very simple-minded level, anyone who has been to a Chinese family gathering and observed who does all the cooking, serving and cleaning-up will know exactly what I mean.

Some people may feel that bringing this issue up in public is likely to invite more negative stereotypes from outside the Asian communities, but I have a feeling that the negative stereotypes already exist. Therefore, we can either spend our time and energy putting on a good public face for mainstream society, ignoring some unpleasant truths, or we can get down to the real business of achieving freedom. For all of us. We Asian men need to clean house. Admitting responsibility is the first step towards putting matters right, and both these things are Confucian virtues that do deserve merit in today's world.

Chinese and Chinese American literature (e.g. Dream of the Red Chamber, Family, The Woman Warrior) and film (Ju Dou, Eat a Bowl of Tea) are full of descriptions of situations exactly like those in The Joy Luck Club. These situations existed in history and they exist now. They are alive and well in China and they are found throughout the Chinese diaspora. I am sure that some men do not relish their positions in the hierarchy and some may have actually rebelled, but the vast majority of us stayed quiet and reaped the benefits.

Sylvia Yanagisako and other scholars have noted that the quasi-mythological status of our male ancestors who came to this country as laborers, gold-miners, merchants and laundry owners is built on the unacknowledged presence of the women in our families who worked long hours for nothing, cooked the food, scrubbed the clothes, carried and raised the children, and bore the blows, abuse and neglect not only from our grandfathers, but also from the larger white society which refused to see our grandfathers as real men and refused to treat any of us as real human beings.

The view of nineteenth-century white society that Asian men were asexual and that Asian women were submissive and exotic continues today and will doubtless haunt us for a long time. However, although we may not always have the power to choose how others represent us, we do have the power to define how we can live our lives.

Because Asian men have been placed outside the normal range of acceptable maleness, we are in a unique position to establish our own visions of masculinity which are more humane, more egalitarian and more viable in today's world. Most Asian men do not have to sit naked around campfires beating drums in order to understand ourselves as men, and our relations with our fathers.

Moreover, there are positive role models for Asian men. In traditional Chinese thinking, learning and negotiation were the preferred paths to true manhood. More modern roles can be found in characters like "My Grandfather" in Red Sorghum or Wittman Ah Sing in Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey and in the work of writers like David Mura, Gus Lee and David Wong Louie. They are not always the heroes we would like them to be, but they are appealing, active, sexual, powerful people.

These models provide a beginning. Learn from the experiences of others also. People like Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, and W.E.B. DuBois, whose works resonate for us as people of color. And most importantly, learn from what writers like Gish Jen, Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan show us of the ways in which our sisters view us (views which perhaps we might not always like seeing.).

We are not condemned to follow the sexist, racist and classist stands within our cultural traditions in order to be considered authentic yellow people. Indeed, the fact that we are creating our own identities is one of the things which is so liberating (and, at the same time, so profoundly frightening) about the Asian-American experience. The fact that we as Asian men are treated badly by mainstream society does not give us the right to prioritize our injurie over the injuries we inflict upon others. We cannot afford that kind of thinking in a world where we all hope to live together as equals.

Christopher Fung is a graduate student in anthropology.

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