“Work those calves!” she cheered. On a video of the moment he posted, Bach, 35, responded with a glowing, knowing smirk — not that he felt comfortable.
“It’s always been difficult for me to accept compliments because I don’t know if people are being sincere,” he said in an interview. “One of the worst things I hear is, ‘You’re good-looking for an Asian.’ I try not to take all the bad compliments as an insult, because sometimes people are still learning.”
Compliments that can be interpreted as slurs are indicative of a broad, blurry tension that has gripped Asian American men this year.
On the one hand, groundbreaking appreciation: Steven Yeun’s Oscar nomination and GQ cover; Simu Liu’s biceps and pecs heralding Marvel’s first Asian superhero; UCLA guard Johnny Juzang’s celebrated Final Four performance; K-pop boy bands’ U.S. dominance; Andrew Yang’s candidacy in New York’s mayoral race; and Kevin Kreider’s ubiquitous abs and buttocks in “Bling Empire.”
On the other hand: a national rash of brutal anti-Asian hate crimes. There have been beatings of elderly Asians, and mass shootings of Asian spa workers in Atlanta and of Sikh FedEx employees in Indianapolis. But there is also the everyday, more subtle violence that flies under the rest of society’s radar, which Brian Keum, a professor of social welfare at UCLA, called “the constant invalidation of being overlooked and ignored.” It happens professionally, for example, when Asian Americans have difficulty advancing to leadership positions, and politically, when they often aren’t even included in polls.
The recent visibility and violence have entwined as a knot in the psyches of many Asian American men, who are aware of “a stereotype of being emasculated, effeminate, less attractive, less manly, falling short of the White hegemonic masculinity ideal in the United States,” said Keum, who specializes in Asian American male body image and mental health.
Keum explained these stereotypes date to the mid-1800s, when Chinese immigrant men were forced into jobs as launderers, cooks and domestic servants in retaliation for their efficiency in mining and construction jobs (from which they became banned), but linger in the 21st century, through, for example, racist online dating practices in which Asian Americans are the least likely of men to be matched. In his research of Asian American men, Keum said, “every single one of them says, ‘I just cannot deal with the shame.’ ”
“You tend to see some Asian men who feel like they have to overcompensate both in their behavior and the way they look to be more masculine, more jacked, more physically perfect than the people around them, just to prove that Asian American men can be that,” said Jeff Yang, 53, co-author with Yu of “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” and the father of Hudson Yang, the central actor on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.”
“It’s particularly Asian American,” Yang said. “It’s a reaction to the complicated rejection and erasure — and caricature, in some ways — that Asian American men are subjected to.” He added: “It’s not about making you feel better for yourself. It ultimately ends up being about raising your self-esteem by raising your perception in the eyes of others.”
There is demographic impetus for a change in attitude. While the median age of all U.S.-born people was 36 in 2019, among U.S.-born Asians, it was 19. Yang said that points to a new generation of Asian Americans whose awakening of adult identity paralleled the pandemic, such as Hudson, who is 17. “He’s at the intersection of a lot of really big shifts that are, in many ways, empowering for Asian American men,” Yang said.
Complicating matters, the stereotype that Asian Americans are unathletic is reflected in statistics. For example, while the country’s 23 million Asian Americans make up roughly 6 percent of the U.S. population, they make up only 1.8 percent of NCAA athletes. And a 2015 study of physical activity across races in Los Angeles and New York, published in Annals of Epidemiology, found Asian Americans to be the least active.
But the visibility boom has given William Leung, 27, a banker in Salem, N.H., who immigrated from Hong Kong as a newborn, “a middle ground.” He cited Joe Taslim, an Indonesian actor cast as Sub-Zero in “Mortal Kombat.” “I was watching a video on him,” Leung said. “His body isn’t ripped, but he’s fit as hell. He can do any and every acrobatic exercise.”
That comforts Leung. “I’ve always been chubby, or always thought of myself as chunky or a little husky. But he shows you don’t need to look like a washboard abs model, an Abercrombie & Fitch model, to be fit and to be healthy. It’s a middle ground. It’s not abs but it’s a flat stomach. That’s good enough.”
Isaac Kimes, 37, a Seattle-born Korean American lawyer who lives in Nashville, also said he has become more comfortable as a fit person: “I don’t feel the shame of sharing that anymore. . . . On the tail end of corona, I’m like, look, I stayed in shape! And I’m going to talk about it more than I have in the past.” He added that previously he felt “an expectation of modesty as an Asian man.”
Surmounting shame over racial stereotypes, as Kimes and Leung are doing, is difficult, Keum said. “There’s no space — whether in their own community or outside — to talk about the shame of, let’s say, my friend saying something racist like I have a small penis because I’m Asian,” he said. “Imagine being an Asian boy growing up. How do you bring that up to your parents? It just doesn’t fit. And the amount of shame that comes with that, it’s a difficult thing to talk about.”
Without healthy outlets, Asian American men cope with shame on their own, sometimes through substance abuse, suicidal ideation, aggression or risky behavior, Keum said. But new, Asian-focused mental health support networks are emerging.
And some Asian men see themselves as ambassadors for Asian athleticism. “I am in someone’s home every day,” said Sam Yo, 42, a popular Peloton instructor. “I know that the first Asian face their child sees might be mine, and I’m exercising.” Yo said that one fan in California wrote, “ ‘I love to work out with Sam because I see myself in him.’ It’s insane because I’ve never met him but I’m influencing his well-being.” Sharing the results of athletic training doesn’t always turn out as expected, though: After Kumail Nanjiani, 43, a Pakistani American actor, got muscular for a role and posted a photo on Twitter, snarky detractors were rebuffed by empathetic defenders.
Brandon Briones, 27, a New Jersey-born Filipino boxing coach and personal trainer in Plano, Tex., knows there is local bigotry (sometimes he works out wearing ear buds that aren’t on so he can hear the derogatory remarks made by White gym peers). And, he said, it’s been internalized by some clients.
“I have Asian clients who say they want to be like the Black Panther,” he said. “It’s a hard position to be in as a trainer. I don’t have Asian clients who aspire to be an Asian dude, to be honest. It’s always an Avenger or a famous American actor, but never an Asian guy.” He said he tries this advice: “You’re you. He’s him. We can work on you.”
Kreider, 37, of “Bling Empire,” agreed. “We’re too busy trying to be other people that we don’t even really focus on just being ourselves,” he said. “We need a whole range of people, and a lot of different TV shows and movies that represent us, to make us seem like we’re people: regular people, not regular people, superheroes, jocks, romantic leads, we need all of it. We have too little to reference from.”
But representation isn’t enough, some argue. “If you put Asian people on TV or you put them in magazines, it won’t change the fact that 95 percent of [Americans] don’t identify as that group,” said Pat Leong, 35, an athletic software engineer in D.C., who is the Virginia-born son of Thai and ethnically Chinese Malaysian immigrants (he avoids his gym more now because, he said, he fears an Asian presence would be provocative or inflammatory). “That small proportion of people, for them to have any advocacy or representation either in media or fitness or Congress or whatever, it requires the help of allies.”
Kreider worries wellness progress might backslide this summer as the world slowly opens up. “People are going to stop paying attention to mental well-being again,” he said. “[Health] takes self-reflection, mental wellness and self-awareness and help. I work at it on a daily basis.” He added that Asian Americans have plenty of soul searching to do, as well: “With White people, we see them on a pedestal. So, we have to look at our own part here.”
But Bach, with his spectacular calves, sees this summer as an optimistic inflection point. “After everything that happened during the pandemic, I feel like a new chapter has begun for everyone,” he said. “My confidence is gaining a lot more every day now.”
Richard Morgan, a freelance writer in New York, is the author of “Born in Bedlam,” a memoir.