Reading List for Asian American Men

Feb, 14 2021
6 Minutes

Over the years, I haven't found many books and articles that speak honestly about the Asian American experience, especially for men. Although that is changing in recent years.

What follows is a small (but growing) list of articles/books/media that I have found somewhat therapeutic. They're books that make me feel seen. Reach out to me if you have a suggestion that should go on this list.

Articles

  • The Many Lives of Steven Yuen by Jay Caspian Kang (Feb 3, 2021) - As much a portrait on "The Walking Dead" actor Yuen, as it is an examination of Yuen and the author's shared experience. The comment section is gold.

Excerpts

On the Asian American experience:

“Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you,” Yeun said.

On Asians who grow up in white America:

Our talks, I admit, were therapeutic, at least for me. Yeun and I are both immigrants, born in Seoul and then raised in mostly white neighborhoods.
“I’ve looked at this photo so many times,” Yeun said. “If you look at photos of me in Korea, I’m like joyful, man. So happy, like flipping my yellow bucket hat upside down.” Or hanging out with a friend, he added. “And then you see this photo, and I look so terrified.”
In Detroit at the time, there were just enough Koreans to fill a few church congregations and run a handful of Asian grocery stores. But it wasn’t like Los Angeles or Queens, where the enclave can contain your entire life — where you grow up around your kind, you go to school with your kind, you play youth sports with your kind, you end up dating and marrying your kind. “I remember when I first went to L.A. and saw these totally free Korean dudes,” Yeun said. “They weren’t weighted down with all that same self-consciousness. They even walked differently.”

On Asian men and dating:

An Asian man dating a white woman on the most popular show on TV was seen as not only a marker of progress but also a permission slip for white women to maybe start dating more of us. Yeun understood the excitement but wasn’t sure what to make of the fuss. Should he be proud? Or did he even want that sort of attention at all? “I went through the same journey that I’m sure most Asian-American men go through,” Yeun said, referring to the typical rejections and emasculations that befall so many of us. “It’s just so paper-thin — you’re asking Asian men to be validated by whiteness, and you’re basically saying that I can only feel like a man if I’m with a white woman, which is just a terrible thing to think.”

On how to act when awareness of race can leave you feeling paralyzed:

“It’s painful to feel that aware,” he said. But he also said he thought there were ways in which that hypersensitivity could become its own prison. “You can lock yourself into those patterns, and then all of a sudden you can’t even see outside of it,” he said. “You don’t see how you might be able to break through the system.” Then he added: “If I see a door is cracked open, I just want to see what’s behind that thing. And I just go through it. And I get burned a lot, too, but whatever.”

On awareness, and the next generation

But maybe his kids might be able to grow up without this debilitating awareness?

“I don’t want to eliminate all of that questioning for them,” Yeun said. “But I hope they’ll be more unlocked than me and less traumatized. But for me, the [expletive] nature of that statement is that it implies a lack of agency about it, like our brains are just hard-wired to consider others.
  • The rise of Asian Enclaves by Lucas Ou-Yang (Oct 11, 2018) - For Asians who grew up in predominantly white environments, it's important to gain perspective on what it's like to be in a predominantly Asian community. The Asians I've met from LA, Hawaii, Queens all have a different vibe to them, and once you visit, it's clear why
The most striking thing about the Southern Californian Asian communities isn’t the percentage or volume of Asian people living in them, but the boldness and shamelessness of the Asian culture that thrives there.
  • Paper Tigers by Wesley Yang (May 6, 2011) - This is a profile on what it means to have an Asian face, even if you don't feel Asian at all. While I don't agree with Wesley's stance on race (although maybe I would have in 2011), I found this article refreshing to read
Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.

Books

  • Interior Chinatown - it's a great book that portrays what it feels like to grow up in Chinatown. It's written as a "meta" screenplay where the protagonist is "Generic Asian Man". I found the sections on the protagonists' parents particularly striking. Will write more about this book at some point
  • Minor Feelings - I wrote much more about the book here, but I think it's brilliant
  • The China Mirage - It's important to learn history, and when it comes to China and Asia, many Asian Americans (myself included) know too little. This book is a story of miscommunication, greed, and The White Man's burden.
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X - It might be somewhat surprising to see this book on a list about the Asian American experience, but when you start reading it, you'll realize that Malcolm isn't just talking about the black experience in America, he's waking you up to the pernicious power of racism in America - including America's ability to trick you into hating yourself. If you haven't thoroughly examined yourself for vestiges of "self-hate", this book will wake you up

Sort of on this list - The Joy Luck Club:  it's a great book that speaks to the difficulties in communication between immigrant parent and American child, but it's a miserable read for Asian men. There might be four Asian men in the book, and most are misogynists or background props. There are a lot of people who hate the book (and the movie and Amy Tan because she wrote it), but I thought it was beautiful and helped me understand my parents a little better. However, I felt worse about myself after reading it. Thus, it's on this list, but with a huge asterisk.

Tweets

Sometimes, the best way to learn about something is to read an eye opening Tweet thread. I will collect some of them here:

Media

  • Be Water - An excellent documentary on Bruce Lee.
  • Journey to the West podcast and YouTube - while no longer active, the podcast hosts are brilliant and hyper aware. I've learned so much from them and they've augmented my world view tremendously
  • Asian Boss YouTube channel - a lot of us Asian Americans have extremely weak ties to our heritage and ancestral homes. Watching Asian Boss interviews aids cultural understanding, and fills a hole
  • China Mac's YouTube channel - I found China Mac in an interview on VladTV. I thought I was listening to a rapper talk about doing time, but I quickly realized that China Mac is full of wisdom on what it means to be Asian in America. I'm a fan of his music, but it's more accurate to say I'm a fan of everything Mac is about
  • Asian Americans - at first I was hesitant to watch this PBS series, concerned that this would be a watered down version of the Asian American experience. And sometimes it does feel a bit reserved, but overall, I was impressed with how honest it was