One of my fondest memories of my father was his brief obsession with Russell Peters, the Canadian comedian famous for his observations on Asian stereotypes. After he had my brothers and I watch a clip of one of his most famous bits, he would look at us and offer his best impression of Peters’ own exaggerated Chinese accent: “Be a man! Do the right thing!” It became a meme inside our home – but mostly a meme for him, to be wielded for the most trivial of infractions. Peters’ bit resonated with us because it captures that strange bridge in immigrant interactions – a lack of shared cultural identity leaves can leave us grasping for another shared identity, leading to comedic serendipity.
My father was my role model for masculinity. Yet the identity of an Asian-American man is immediately associated with negative stereotypes, many of them contradicting the expectations of hegemonic masculinity. He compensated by throwing himself into his role identity – his work. I find myself doing the same, trading my Asian identity for an engineer identity. In fact, it is not unusual for model minority men to climb the masculinity hierarchy by reinforcing positive work ethic stereotypes and putting less effort into relationships and working out. But it should be no surprise that internalizing stereotypes is not a path for positive self-identity.
Why be a man? It is undeniable that the patriarchy operates via oppression, even if “not all men” are oppressors. Yet in brief moments of not-very-masculine empathy, I find certain beliefs and behaviors of masculinity worthwhile. The ancient ideal of “virility” perhaps embodies masculinity most positively. As Joshua Rothman states in the New Yorker, “the defining quality of virilitas was self control.” Virility is not manliness. It requires discipline. A similar spectrum exists today, between “gentleman” and “bro”. In this sense, being a man is about strength in character rather than strength in ability.
Yet strength in ability is not only easier, it affords men the benefit of the patriarchy. But those benefits come at the cost of a shorter lifespan, so it is almost imperative that men make more money to make up for the life expectancy gap. It is masculinity that lets men lose their friendships as they get older, while influencing them to successfully commit suicide three times more often than women. In a way, men trade life for success – my father passed away because of a heart attack at the age of 52, after many years in finance. But in the face of the bamboo ceiling – will success ever arrive in one lifetime? Perhaps I have arrived at a fundamental human question: how do we balance success with happiness? It is a struggle many millennials face, as both women and men burn out of promising careers – how do we avoid burying ourselves in our work?
One idea is to expand the narrow expectations of modern masculinity – to make men vulnerable. It’s important because for men, “romantic partners are their primary sources of intimacy,” and marriage leads to a longer lifespan for men. It is unfortunate that intimacy between men can be so hard to decipher and subordinate to other priorities, like work and family. On the other hand, the men’s rights movement hides this newfound vulnerability behind defensive cynicism, which lacks character.
A broader definition of masculinity easily leads to a discussion of trans and non-binary genders. If we can teach femininity, can we teach masculinity? Or must it be earned in silence, expressing confidence without boasting? Or should one opt out of the system, with new terminology and more inclusivity? But masculinity at its worst defines itself by what it is not: not-femininity, not-non-binary. It is unfortunate that the “queer-straight male” (or “queer masculinity”) label also suffers from this problem as an umbrella term for non-heteronormative masculinity. Perhaps I reluctantly live in the shadow of masculinity, neither directly reinforcing hegemonic masculinity, but also not disrupting it. This seems to be the purgatory of minority masculinity.
I will do the right thing: I am not sure if I am a man.