What are you so angry about, Mr. Angry Asian Man?
Phil Yu laughs heartily.
"People ask me that question all the time," says Yu, a 27-year-old Korean American who has graced us with AngryAsianMan.com, a personal clearinghouse of everything Asian American. Its mock catchphrase of empowerment: "Keep it real with the rice fields." ("Can't you visualize the Chinamen?" Yu explains on the site. "Wearing those funny hats. Holding a stick or something. Squatting.")
The refrain "That's racist!" also appears regularly -- sometimes half-jokingly, oftentimes not, when Yu stumbles upon what he views as stereotypical depictions of Asian Americans. But no, he's not actually that angry. He's just like a lot of other bloggers in the URL-littered landscape, a man who has something to say that he thinks other people aren't saying. Latinos have a right to be angry, blacks have a right to be angry -- why can't Asians be angry, too?
"I wanted to play with this idea of being 'angry,' to take on this persona of an Angry Asian Man, because we as Asians are not usually seen as an angry, militant, conscious group," Yu, a graduate student in the University of Southern California's cinema and television school, says by phone from his home in west Los Angeles. "That's the stereotype that's been attributed to us -- you know, the model minority -- so much so that we start to believe it ourselves."
(Indeed, at first Yu declined to be interviewed, so as not to be seen as the personification of the Angry Asian Man: "I just like to do what I do and not draw attention to myself." But perhaps not talking could lead to another stereotype, the Unassuming Asian Man?)
A droll lack of pomposity draws visitors to the site, where an action figure of Quick Kick, the bare-chested character in the "G.I. Joe" TV show, welcomes visitors to Yu's online world. "Quick Kick is angry, too," says Yu. "Why does he have to be bare-chested all the time? Even on an episode of 'G.I. Joe' when he's fighting the enemy outside and it's snowing?"
AngryAsianMan.com has nothing to do with the Angry Little Asian Girl T-shirt and comic strip you might have seen somewhere, though Yu does sell "Nobody Loves an Angry Asian Man" T-shirts through his site. He's sold about 40 of them so far -- "40 more than I've expected to sell," he says, laughing.
The site doesn't boast big numbers -- about 60,000 hits a month, Yu says -- but since launching in February 2001, it's become a daily must-read for the media-savvy, socially conscious, pop-cultured Asian American. It's part Gawker ("Check out this Bud Light commercial. Just another Asian karate dude . . . getting his [butt] kicked . . . By an old lady . . . That's racist!"); part Drudge Report ("New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson acknowledges in his new autobiography that Wen Ho Lee was 'mistreated' "); part Ain't It Cool News ("The new TV drama, 'Inconceivable,' starring Ming Na, premiered last night on NBC . . . Hopefully, they'll give her more to do than they did on 'ER.' "). But it's also altogether original.
"He has his finger on the pulse of everything that's Asian American -- the good news, the bad news, the things we didn't know but should know. They're all there," says District resident Dennis Chong, a 32-year-old Korean American lawyer.
"What he encompasses is the Asian American Everyman. The site isn't really about him, it's about the community, about how the basic Asian American person would react to things," adds Todd Inoue, 39, a Japanese American and music editor at the alternative weekly San Jose Metro. "There's that key line, 'That's racist!' I think it's perfect. It's funny and silly and serious all at the same time. It's activism at DSL speed."
For example: In April 2004, Details magazine ran the headline "Asian or Gay?" over its "Anthropology" column. "Don't be duped by ghetto knockoffs," the column read, referring to a Louis Vuitton bag the male model is shown carrying. "Every queen deserves the real deal," it continues, taking a crack at stereotypically brand-obsessed Asians. Angry Asian Man solicited protests to the magazine's editor, writing: "To me, this piece is written . . . for a straight white male's racist, homophobic frat-boy sense of humor -- a major men's publication effectively categorizing Asian men (and gay men) as an objectified 'Other'. . . . That's racist!"
After Jun Choi, 34, won the Democratic primary in the Edison, N.J., mayoral race this past summer, a radio host said on-air: "I don't care if the Chinese population in Edison has quadrupled in the last year, Chinese should never dictate the outcome of an election, Americans should." (Never mind that Choi is Korean American.) Yu posted the radio station manager's e-mail, phone number and address on his site: "Do I need to say it?" he wrote. "That's racist!"
Daniel Dae Kim, a star on the Emmy-winning ABC show "Lost," recently gave a shout-out to AngryAsianMan.com, where he had read about the radio host's comment. "I really like that site," Kim told New York-based Asian Media Watchdog. "I like him because he not only takes people to task when they're offensive, but he praises those who make a positive impact as well."
Where Phil Yu begins and where Angry Asian Man ends isn't entirely clear, though Angry Asian Man definitely says things that his creator would never say out loud at parties and other social gatherings. Aside from "What are you so angry about?" the question he gets most, Yu says, is "Why did you start the site?"
"They want a defining moment. But I wasn't a victim of a horrible hate crime when some dude called me a chink and I went all crazy. It was a gradual understanding of the things I was seeing and experiencing," says Yu.
The eldest of three children, he grew up in Silicon Valley, where his second-generation Korean American family (Dad's in real estate, Mom's a nurse) fit right into the racially diverse town of Sunnyvale. It wasn't until he moved to Chicago -- he studied radio, television and film at Northwestern University -- that he started thinking deeply about his ethnic identity, undergoing a hypersensitive, almost comical phase, he says, when everything around him was offensive.
The portrayal of the Asian woman -- fetishized, eroticized -- in that magazine ad? Racist. The word "Chinese" on a random page of Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov"? Racist.
The yellow traffic light? You got it: racist!
Of course he's not that knee-jerk and splenetic now. Still, Yu says, a little anger does help with keeping it real.