A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I gave up the ghost for ever seeing a positive Asian-American male role model in the media.
It happened after many disappointments and the profound realization that, even if every single Asian Male representation turned positive overnight, it wouldn’t actually change anything. After an angst ridden high school and college career, I simply stopped caring what occurred on TV and in the movies.
An awesome role model to be sure, with his philosophical synthesis of the martial arts and media prowess, but the man has been dead for, like, 30 years. That’s just sad (and no, neither Jackie Chan nor Jet Li count).
I think being a role model to thousands of Asian (and other) guys around the world already has forced me find other sources of role-modeling, from my own mother to the spiritual teachings of the Buddha. But looking back on my own formative years, it would have been of great help to see me, my own reflection, and my values in others as they would see in themselves.
And that’s where TV and the general media comes in. Although I still contend that changing the media won’t have that big of an effect on Asian males as many seem to believe (and desperately hope for), it’s still nice and has turned what was simply a guilty pleasure to a one of my favorite TV shows: namely Glee.
Yes, I know some of the readers (especially the male readers) will chortle at this idea, but I’m going to seriously break down 5 attributes that I see in the character that make him a good role model for Asian males.
So let’s talk about Harry Shum, Jr.’s character, Mike Chang, on Glee.
What can all the awkward Asian male teenagers learn from Mike Chang that will help them navigate the treacherous waters of their future?
One thing I see in a lot of my students is that they tend to be hyper-specialized. Whether it’s due to culture or circumstance, many of them become either super book-smart and end up hitting the Bamboo Ceiling or super street-smart and considered ghetto. I think what would behoove many teens to do is be a well-rounded individual, not leaning to one extreme or the other. A Renaissance Man if you will.
So let’s take our fictional Mike Chang who plays football, sings in the glee club, dances extremely well, works out, has an Asian girlfriend, has Asian values and still has time to hang out with white, black, and gay friends. He is, in essence, the multicultural Asian stud and hopefully creating a revolution in the way people view what it means to be an Asian Male.
The Alpha Asian Male Role is:
Do many of the Asian men who come to me embody this plethora of attributes? Alas, no. But I can’t really blame them as I know family, culture, and, in particular, parents are to blame and it’s not entirely their fault as society has failed to provide them Asian male role models to pattern themselves after.
So let’s break these traits down that I think make Harry Shum Jr’s character a good Asian male role model.
#1 THE ASIAN MALE ROLE MODEL IS ATHLETIC
No homo here, but let’s take a gander at those rock-hard, yellow abs. Mike Chang is the definition of the younger generation’s “SituAsian”.
Even though he chose the Glee club over football, he’s still very much a jock and plays for the football’s varsity team. I really like this because he’s breaking stereotypes that the common American has, even though there are a number of Asians and Asian-Americans on sports teams and school clubs.
I knew an Asian-American guy that played football for his high school. He was number 69 (which is basically awesome) and always had a fan club composed of bubbly, blonde little girls following him around. My only problem with him?
He refused to acknowledge he was Asian. This young man had it all – looks, physique, charisma and grades, but he did all this to spite his heritage. He never thought he could be an athlete AND an Asian-American at the same time and that never sat well with me.
It literally was because of Mike Chang and his persona that caused him to see differently and revolutionize how he thought of himself as an Asian Male. Here was an Asian that was supposed to be the jock, something that actually resonated with my friend. He finally realized that, even if he never viewed himself as “just Asian” he was, in fact, Asian. But he was also this jock, this well-liked guy, this smart student. So he threw this self-hate aside and actually took interest in his native country. He now plans on relearning Korean and eventually visiting South Korea, all thanks to an enlightenment sparked by Mike Chang.
As for myself, played football and tennis in college. I can’t say that I played them well, but I the point is I tried to challenge myself physically as well as mentally. I also took to working out in college, putting on upwards of 40 pounds to go from skinny to average.
But so many other male Asians don’t even bother to take up sports other than golf or tennis. Being athletic and competitive is a prime requisite for the Alpha Asian Male.
#2 THE ASIAN MALE ROLE MODEL IS CREATIVE
Other than some of the classic musical instruments, a lot of pressure and stigma is associated with the more casual creative pursuits. I remember one student of mine who was literally forced by his family to become an engineer. His unhappiness with life was absolutely palpable, as well as how sheltered he was, being forced to study everyday and barely knowing how to properly dress himself.
His passion was in the arts, but he was threatened with being disowned if he didn’t get a “proper” degree. It was only until he took my program that he finally had the courage to actually stand up to his parents and tell them what HE wanted. Happily, they reached a compromise whereby he could double major in a “solid education” while getting a minor in fine arts. Having a solid education and a solid job is still empty when you don’t have any nourishment for the soul.
Like in my playing sports in high school, I also tried my hand at music. I played a musical instrument, although I was terrible, but still to this day, I love singing karaoke… even though I’m tone deaf. It’s what I enjoy and I’m not afraid to do it, even though a typical “tiger mom” may disapprove.
Go out and play an instrument. Learn how to sing. Pick up a pen and write or a paint brush and paint. Rhyme, sing, dance, or invent, but get out there and be creative. Don’t conform to the norm, whether that’s the norm of the American mainstream or the norm of overachieving “paper tigers” and their “tiger moms.”
#3 THE ASIAN MALE ROLE MODEL IS SEXUAL
I think the best part about the show isn’t that there’s an Asian male role model (although that is absolutely fabulous) but that he is dating an Asian female. Not revolutionary, no, but here’s an Asian man who obviously can date either an Asian girl or white girl, and he CHOOSES (he isn’t FORCED by circumstances, the media, stereotypes or limiting beliefs to date ONLY inside his race).
For some reason, Asian women in the media are constantly getting paired up with White guys and the Asian male goes home alone. It’s bad enough to see the Asian guy get nothing, but when his own women are constantly out of his grasp, running into the hands of other men? It’s like pouring salt on the wound.
So to see this pair come full circle is almost unbelievable. The best part? When Tina Cohen-Chang (played by Jenna Ushkowitz) addresses that all-too condescending topic about Asian men and their “small” body part…you know what I mean.
“I want to talk about the rumor about Asian men: Not true.” – Tina Cohen-Chang
How awesome was that? How’s that for an Asian FEMALE being a good role model for our Asian boys and teenagers? She even goes on to address the self-hate and self-racism that Asians must have if they wear blue contact lenses.
For all those Glee fans out there, looking at Mike Chang abs (that he does show off), watching him dance, seeing in general the tension between the two of them and then dispelling that rumor, it emphasizes one important thing – Asian men are sexy and desirable by the adoring masses of women everywhere.
#4 THE ASIAN MALE ROLE MODEL IS CHARISMATIC
If there’s one problem I have with the show, it’s that Mike Chang is not a regular cast member. We have yet to hear him sing (even though we know he can, or at last the actor Harry Shum Jr can) and he’s usually just in the background. Although he has gone from a simple background character to a soon to be main cast character.
That hasn’t stopped him, however, from having a plethora of fangirls squabbling over how much they’d love to have his babies. So how is it that an occasional cast member can establish so much of a following? The answer, I believe, lies in his charm.
He has a million-dollar smile and facial expressions to make the ladies swoon. He is confident and outspoken but only when the situation arises. He knows what to say, when to say it, and when he needs to be withdrawn. Overall, though, he has this presence that you can’t help but notice. Any time he is on air, you’re drawn to him, even if he’s not speaking. He just has that personality that commands attention.
It’s no easy thing to learn how be charismatic or persuasive. But it can be done. I’m 5 foot 5 inches and not good looking by any measure, but I learned that I had to put myself out there and make people come to me by being charming and loquacious. It is because of my active work on my personality that I became as noticed as I am. I may not have been born tall, dark, and handsome, but I can settle for being short, stunning, and smoth.
Even if Harry Shum Jr. didn’t have to work on it like I did, he has that same effect – people are just naturally drawn to him. That charisma is just as important, if not moreso, than good looks.
#5 THE ASIAN MALE ROLE MODEL IS MULTICULTURAL
One of the first things everyone notices about Mike Chang is that he is an Asian man. Big shocker, right?
Naturally, the assumption that he must know another culture follows through. Chinese, Japanese, Korean… whatever his heritage is, he must know more about it than your average bear. While this is true, the man behind Mike Chang is even more cultured than one might think.
Born in Costa Rica, Harry Shum Jr is Chinese-American and actually knows Spanish better than Chinese. This well-rounded man grew up in a totally foreign world but knows the background behind three different cultures. This diversity can only add to his tolerance, understanding, and, of course, personality.
As an Asian man, I love seeing this background and context. I look around at my male peers sometimes and feel this absence that they may have – they most likely have parents that were born here and they’ve managed to fit into a racial majority culture. There is a spot for them everywhere they go – the movie stars, the businessman, the blue collar worker, the doctor… they are a blank, generic template.
The Asian man, on the other hand, is seen as culturally restrictive here. We’re the investment bankers, the dentist, the delivery boy, the kung-fu expert, the dorks, the computer techs, the ethnic restaurant workers.
But of course, we’re more than just that. I feel, though, that we’re largely overlooked when we don’t conform to these stereotypes. That’s why Mike Chang is more than just the “other Asian,” as he is everything that a typical Asian male stereotype is not, he is both an evolution beyond that and revolution against the media status quo. I believe his multiculturalism only adds to that.
In conclusion, one day I hope that I can ask the next generation of Asian-American males what positive role models there are for them and get a different response than a martial artist. Hopefully there will be a plethora of possible replies that I could get.
While Bruce Lee did put Asian men in the spotlight for his time, a new era of Asian men have- and still need to- come about: One that needs to cast off the martial artist stereotype, the too educated archetype, and too stiff template that we have so easily fallen into.
Just like my friend that found the Asian self within him, I hope other Asian-American men can take pride in their heritage; I hope they can see that they are Asian as well as American, and that they are entitled to the same rights as other men, including a fair portrayal in the media.
I say, no more of these Long Duc Dongs and other nerdy Asians in the media. We’re ready for more Mike Changs, more sexy abs, and more confident, charismatic Asian men and Asian male role models!