Lee Doud, an actor-producer who is of mixed race, is used to hearing casual ethnic slurs about his Chinese heritage, even on dates. Of all the frustrating experiences he’s had, one bad first date still stands out.
For most of the night, Doud’s date seemed into him, complimenting the actor on his smile as the two exchanged banter. Then, something changed.
“He asked me if I was Latino. I told him I wasn’t and that I was actually half Caucasian and half Chinese,” Doud told HuffPost. “He suddenly became very distant and when I continued to flirt, he claimed that he was no longer ‘feeling it.’”
Point-blank, Doud asked if it had something to do with him being Asian-American.
“The guy vehemently ― and awkwardly ― denied it, saying he wasn’t sure about his level of interest from the get-go, backtracking on his earlier compliments.”
While Doud recognizes that everyone has a type, “it was glaringly obvious in his perception of my race that I was sexy and exotic as a Latino, but I suddenly became undesirable as an Asian-American.”
Experiences like Doud’s are par for the course for single Asian-American men. Emasculating stereotypes, perpetuated in films and on TV shows, can put Asian men at a disadvantage in dating. Look no further than Steve Harvey’s headline-making jab at Asian men last year to see how dismissive Americans can be of the group’s desirability.
Laughing hysterically, the TV host poked fun at the premise of a 2002 book titled How to Date a White Woman: A Practical Guide for Asian Men.
The book, he said, could only have one page: “‘Excuse me, do you like Asian men?’ ‘No.’ ‘Thank you,’” Harvey said. He then imagined what a black woman might say when asked if she liked Asian men: “I don’t even like Chinese food, boy. It don’t stay with you no time. I don’t eat what I can’t pronounce.”
One OkCupid study from 2014 concluded that Asian men are found less desirable than other men on the app. In a speed-dating study conducted at Columbia University, Asian men had the most difficulty getting a second date. And in 2018, it’s shockingly common to come across profiles that say “Sorry, no Asians.”
Nicole Hsiang, a San Francisco therapist who works with second- and third-generation Asian Americans, told HuffPost that her clients often wonder if they’re desirable or “good enough” while dating.
“Dating rejection can be traumatic because it affirms these deep-seated beliefs about their masculinity and sexual attractiveness,” she said. “Many Asian men who grew up in a mostly white environment have told me they think they are unattractive, comparing themselves to the white masculine ideal.”
When it comes to who is considered “hot,” our society tends to default to traditional Eurocentric and Western standards (narrow noses, large, non-almond-shaped eyes and pale skin) ― in part because of our lack of exposure to just how attractive Asian men can be.
Even male models can’t catch a break on dating apps. Model and fitness coach Kevin Kreider, a Korean-American adopted by Irish-German parents, was so perturbed by his experiences on Tinder, he stopped using the app.
“It started to hurt my self-esteem because I know I’m a good-looking guy but I wasn’t getting any responses, so then I lowered my standards and lowered them again, until I finally got some interest,” he told HuffPost. “I realized how screwed up this was, especially when other white guys had no problem lining up dates and the girls were good-looking and educated.”
As soon as Kreider stopped using apps and started looking for matches in real life, he began meeting women who were more his type and into him.
“I’ve learned that you have to embrace your identity [as] an Asian male. If you don’t embrace it and love it, how can you expect others to?” he said. “We attract what we are or want to become, so if you are negative and resentful, you’ll only attract it and then it will become your reality. Negativity and resentment just poisons you.”
Asian men’s experiences with dating are rooted in ugly cultural tropes. Today, Asian Americans are boxed in as “technologically proficient, naturally subordinate” nerds who could “never in a thousand millenniums be a threat to steal your girl,” as “Fresh Off the Boat” creator Eddie Huang put it in a New York Times piece last year.
As early as the 19th century, their ancestors were already being portrayed as sexless, feminine “others” by the white majority, said Chiung Hwang Chen, a professor of communication and media studies at Brigham Young University-Hawaii.
As xenophobic immigration laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 were being passed, Asian immigrants were seen as “human oddities in the minds of whites,” Chiung Hwang Chen wrote in a 1996 academic paper. This was in part because of their appearance (they wore foreign silk tunics on their relatively lanky builds) and partly due to the largely service-related jobs they took on after the gold rush (cooks, dishwashers, laundrymen).
Pop culture only perpetuated this idea. In films prior to the 1970s, Asian male characters were either characterized as the “threatening masculine ‘yellow peril’” relentlessly pursuing white women ― in 1932’s “The Mask of Fu Manchu,” the title character urges his Asian army to “kill the white man and take his women” ― or the “harmless, feminized ‘model minority,’” Chiung Hwang Chen wrote.
Twenty-two years after writing the paper, the professor told HuffPost she’s a little more optimistic about the perception of Asian men’s desirability. She pointed to the predominantly female fan base of Korean soap operas and K-pop boy bands as a good sign for Asian men hoping to be someone’s “type.”
“Millennials may have grown up on a steady diet of Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies, but those guys were always more focused on kicking ass and taking names than getting women’s numbers.”
“I think Korean pop culture might change things a bit,” she said. “I have an article in the review process that’s titled ‘Asian Masculinity in the Age of Global Media’ and it explores the correlation between K-drama consumption and women’s perceptions about Asian men.”
Representation in pop culture matters, especially when it comes to expanding the roster of Asian sex symbols beyond Bruce Lee. Millennials may have grown up on a steady diet of Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies, but those guys were always more focused on kicking ass and taking names than getting women’s numbers.
When working with clients in San Francisco, Hsiang recommends they actively seek out modern movies and TV shows out of Asia that feature leads who look like them. (If you’re looking for a suave Asian romantic lead who dresses like Don Draper, but with 10 times more swag, we recommend Tony Leung in 2001’s “In the Mood for Love.”)
“To build your dating self-confidence, my advice to Asian-American men would be to watch shows with Asian male characters and storylines while expanding your definitions of masculinity outside of the white ideal,” Hsiang said.
And simply talking about how we define masculinity helps, too, Doud says.
“There is an innate fear that exists that no matter how much one can combat the stereotypes, these images and ideas have been too deeply ingrained in our culture; so much so that speaking up or fighting can feel like a lost cause,” he said. “We need more awareness and education, though. Let’s continue to have these important discussions openly and without judgment so we don’t perpetuate our mistakes into the future.”