Monday, July 17, 2006

Masculinity and the Asian American Dad

[Last month, Rice Daddies reader Ponch alerted us to a column by an Asian American journalist about that perennial favorite topic-to-gripe-about, media representation of Asian American men and the pop-cultural construction of Asian American masculinity. According to writer Tom Huang, the stoners of "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle" point the way to a diversification of the image of the Asian American man, in both fictional works and non-fiction journalism (his primary concern). Well, I don't know about that—the problematics of trading one set of stereotypes for another is somebody else's dissertation waiting to happen—but here at Rice Daddies, we've decided to take the opportunity to riff on this topic. We'll be posting our own individual takes on this complex issue for a few days, and we hope you'll find something to think about, agree with, disagree with, whatever [just write a comment either way!]... And without furthur ado, here's the first... --d.i.s.l.]

Thomas T. Huang from the Dallas Morning News wrote a column for Poynter Online called Visions of Harold and Kumar, A Plea for Better Coverage of the Asian Man. He praises the movie for its portryal of Asian men as goofballs, and decries the media bias in portraying Asian male stereotypes, versus a short list of examples culled from his movie memories.

I would add The Lover and Better Luck Tomorrow to Thomas's Netflix list, they might help him feel less disenfranchised.

Tonight I'm sitting in a hotel room in Shanghai, finishing this piece which I started last week, and was going to finish before this trip. This is my first ever visit to the homeland, and after a total of four hours on the ground, the the thing that strikes me is its immediate familiarity. It feels like I just drove over to a different part of town, instead of just having flown halfway around the world.

One other thing catches my attention about masculinity in Shanghai. But first, this is what I was going to say, about masculinity:

Mascuilinity. I see it growing in my son, the Rabbit Dragon, as his limbs lengthen and fill out, turning him from the cuddly toddler of years ago into a tree-trunk-strong burst of first-grader energy. I hear it in his war cries as he plays karate or superhero or soldier. I feel it in his not liking to lose in checkers, or running up the score as we play baseball, or learning to swim to the bottom of the pool, or getting up off the training wheels (but, Dad, let's not take them off yet).

It is the last night of our family vacation, and the two of us are talking in bed, in my parents' house, in the room where I grew up:

"Dad, how did you meet everyone in college?"

"Well, remember your first day of kindergarten, when you didnt know anyone? And you had to meet everyone for the first time? Well, it was kind of like that. I guess I just had to go talk to them." Rabbit Dragon is a shy kid, painfully so at times. Meeting new kids can be hard for him.

"Did you wear a name tag? Did you have to get up in front of everyone and give a speech, like," he gets up off the bed and stands up, as if addressing a crowd, "Hi my name is _____, and I'm six years old... um, I'm from California.... In chinese I'm a rabbit, and in english I'm a dragon, so my parents call me a rabbit dragon.'" He comes back and lies down.

"Wow, have you done that speech before?" I give him a hug. That was quite a big speech for a shy Rabbit.

"Yeah, in the playground, when nobody was around." "Dad, do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus? Antonio believes in Jesus, but Jakob doesn't. He says his family believes in a diffrent Jesus. Harimi is a fourth grader and he told me that there was a war between the good Russians and the bad Russians, and that the bad Russians killed Jesus."

"Oh. I think your fourth grader friend may have gotten his story mixed up. Do you the story about the blind men and the elephants?" He doesn't, so I tell him. "God is like that elephant. People have all different kinds of stories about God, but we're like the blind men, we dont really know what god is."

Suddenly, Rabbit Dragon is very sleepy. He curls up, and his thumb goes into his mouth. "Hey, you tired?" I ask. He nods, and is soon asleep.

Even asleep his form bulges with muscles and knotty joints. His butt looks manly. He is comfortable still bringing stuffed animals on vacation, but is already good at scrunching his eyebrows and saying, "Dad, you don't know ANYthing."

I think of his masculinity as solidly American, as channeled through suburban California. If he is a product of Spiderman comics, Arthur on PBS, and Pixar, he is also influenced by the melting pots of his public school kindergarten, our neighborhood, and us, his 2nd generation chinese-american parents.

As a family, our Chinese-ness, is something we deliberately casual about. It's just part of what we know and who we are. I dont want Rabbit Dragon to think that being Chinese allows you to filter the world in some special way -into things which belong and don't belong in your world, just because you're Chinese.

So that's what I was going to say. But now, I'm sitting here in Shanghai, feeling a strange familiarity with the scent of the city, with the body lanuguage of the local folks around me at dinner, the strangeness -but not really- of most everyone within sight being Chinese. The one thing I see which tweaks my perception of masculinity just a little are the busboys: young chinese men, just being who they are. Not movie stars, but just regular teen boys. Our kids get to see a lot of Asian-American parent types, but somehow our little slice of the world is missing those teen role models. Maybe it's time to buy a Rain album.


la dra said...

Wow. Thanks for sharing such an intimate conversation. I didn't know that religion and politics made for playground chit-chat these days. They sure are starting young. I like the elephant and blind men story too. Have you read Life of Pi?

Robyn said...

love the precocious children.

gender is something i think about a lot too. i think i find it hard to even define masculinity--like how much of your son's growing body is masculine vs. just growing older?

it makes me sad to see little boys--probably around your son's age or even younger--already having this concept of like boys' things and girls' things. i guess some kind of encourage it, like my sister-in-law (otherwise a great parent) threatening to put her son in a dress if he doens't stop screaming. but it also seems to just happen. i try to remember what i learned in psych--that kids at that age tend to think in binaries, but think in more complex ways as they get older.

thisislarry said...

la dra: I havent read life of Pi, but someday....

I was smilarly amazed that religion came up as early as pre-school: your children will hear it from the most-religious family's kids. Not that their prostheletizing, but they'll just start repeatig that they're learning in sunday school.