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Redefining Asian American Masculinity in Shawn Wong’s American Knees

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Even in a globalized community that consists of a blending of many different cultures and races, stereotypes still thrive in the modern day. Two persistent and contrasting stereotypes of Asian American men exist: the first is that they are sexually deficient and weak, physically and in their relationships, as well as being bound by their filial obligations, while the second paints them as hypermasculine savages. Author Shawn Wong strives to disprove these stereotypes and redefine the masculinity of the Asian American man in his novel, American Knees, through the actions, interactions, and personality of its protagonist, Raymond Ding.

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The novel begins by questioning Asian American male stereotypes as Raymond is in the process of divorcing his wife, Darleen. Darleen and her family represented the traditional and accepted way of life for a Chinese American: strong filial bonds and unity, a restaurant business the whole family was all involved in, and also an expected pattern of occurrences, described on page 6 with the early stages of Raymond and Darleen’s relationship, “He and Darleen would… fall in love, get married, and have children- preferably male children- who would be given fabulous red-egg parties on their one-month birthdays. Raymond moved to West Covina… to join the family and be Chinese” (Wong 6). This quote encapsulates the traditional operation of Asian families; once two Asian lovers who satisfied the right criteria got together, they would go on to marry and produce children, and therefore gain the acceptance and approval of their families. The end of this quote also demonstrates something interesting on Raymond’s end; even though he is of Chinese descent, he states that by joining the family he will “be Chinese,” implying that being Chinese is more than just having it in one’s blood, one must also adhere to the cultural expectations and customs as well.

As Raymond is first introduced, he seems to stay within the boundaries of Asian American male stereotypes; he marries a Chinese woman and becomes part of her family, he “was a good Chinese boy who never cut class, always had the proper letter from home, kept his gym clothes clean, returned his library books on time,… didn’t burn his draft card, [and] wrote thank you letters the day after Christmas and the day after his birthday” (Wong 10). However, upon further investigation it can be drawn that Raymond’s early semblance to the generalized “good boy” Chinese stereotype is a result of his mistreatment during the Vietnam War, when he was called a “gook” (K. Cheung 266-267). According to King-Kok Chueng, “the model minority is merely the flip side of a gook: the solution to being treated as enemy alien is to be a member of a docile and invisible minority. Both the laudatory and the derogatory epithets unman the Asian American male” (K. Cheung 267). In this situation, Raymond is faced with choosing the lesser of two evils; to either be a hated and unwanted deviant or a silent and unimportant conformist, being marginalized either way.

Shawn Wong expands upon this notion later on in the novel, during a conversation between Raymond and fellow Asian rights advocate, Jimmy Chan, over a novel, Chinese Girls in Bondage, they had read in which a white girl named Meghan gets lured into an underground Chinese opium den, and is rescued by an Irish cop, only to reveal she doesn’t want to leave (Wong 140). The story has perhaps some basis in the 1873 New York Times investigation of a Chinatown opium den, which led to the discovery of a nicely dressed young girl being held there (F. Cheung 299). The owner of the den reportedly “replied with a horrible leer, ‘Oh, hard time in New York. Young girl hungry. Plenty come here. Chinaman always have something to eat, and he like young white girl, He! He!'” (F. Cheung 299). This portrayal of Chinese Americans in the media no doubt played a hand in influencing American expectations and stereotypes of Asian American men.

Chinese Girls in Bondage, written by a white man, served as an example of what was unacceptable of Asian Americans, however Jimmy Chan prefers this depiction, asking Raymond, “Isn’t it better to be evil and Chinky than sexless and obsequious?” (Wong 140). Jimmy’s assertions make it clear that the emasculating of Asian American men by the general public is far more offensive than describing them, as the book does, as men who “sold their women into slavery and prostitution, bound their feet, laughed in their faces with yellow, opium-stained teeth, [and] probed their bodies with long, dirty fingernails. The Chinamen never bathed and had big liquid yellow eyes bulging out of pockmarked greasy faces… The oily Chinks ate rats and cats” (Wong 139). Jimmy Chan is saying that even though the novel describes Asian Americans in this disgusting and hideous manner, at least they have sexuality and manhood, something that gives them recognition and equal footing with white men. They are individuals and they act on their own impulses and desires. However, without it, they are ignored, repressed, and simply at the mercy of those around them. This could be a possible motivator for the actions of Raymond, who has grown tired of being a part of the “model minority” and chooses to break away from it, through his numerous sexual encounters and straying from cultural norms, in order to define himself as an individual.

This notion ties in with the concept of a “hegemonic bargain,” which is a strategy a man uses when he trades on the advantages conferred by his race, gender, sexuality, class, accent, and/or generational status to achieve “unblushing” manhood (Chen 600). Throughout the novel, Raymond continually breaks away from or defies traditional Asian American male stereotypes to elevate himself and leave parts of his culture behind. In essence, he is reclaiming the manhood that has been taken from him by distancing himself from the common beliefs about his background.

This dichotomy between the “good,” silent Asian American man and the repulsive Asian American barbarian is not a new or fictional concept; rather, Shawn Wong is drawing on a rich history rooted in the factual existence of these two polar views on Asian American masculinity. These competing stereotypes became mainstream in the nineteenth century with American journalists, cartoonists, novelists, and playwrights who represented Chinese American men as both “docile pets and nefarious invaders; potential citizens and unassimilable aliens; effeminate, queue-wearing eunuchs and threateningly masculine, minotaur-like lotharios” (F. Cheung 293). The reference to these men as pets is especially offensive. The term “pet” brings to mind loyalty, obedience and controllability; furthermore, it is a step below “human” and even “slave,” for it designates something that is less than human, and which would therefore be acceptable to be treated like less than one (F. Cheung 293).

It is strange that alongside the brutish Asian American stereotype is the effeminate Asian American stereotype. One factor that could be attributed to the development of these stereotypes could be the traditional relationship between East and West. In Jinqi Ling’s Identity Crisis and Gender Politics: Reappropriating Asian American Masculinity appears the quote:

The West thinks of itself as masculine – big guns, big industry, big money – so the East is feminine – weak, delicate, poor … but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom – the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated – because a woman can’t think for herself (Ling 315)

This excerpt indicates that the stereotypes involving the de-masculization of Asian Americans stems from the initial period of oppression and racism that the East as a whole endured by the West. While these stereotypes are not quite as overwhelming today as they were back then, Raymond must still overcome the remnants of these attitudes that are ingrained in American society, proving himself to be masculine and in control in his own individual way.

The beginning of the mainstream move to promote these stereotypes originated with the passing of legislation that restricted the immigration of Asian women, in addition to the 1917 Immigration Act, which prevented Asian men with wives from bringing them to the United States (Shek 380). Following this, politicians realized that Asian American men would respond by trying to take white wives due to the absence of Asian ones, and they took action to prevent this by introducing anti-miscegenation laws that revoked the citizenship of any white woman who married an Asian American man (Shek 380). In further efforts to protect their women, white men and white media depicted Asians as sexually deviant, asexual, or effeminate in order to reduce their potential appeal to white women (Shek 380). This is ironic, because, as Jinqi Ling writes, “Asian men are often viewed collectively in the West as lacking sexual rigor, [but] they are not infrequently seen… as having the potential to threaten white people sexually” (Ling 314). This shows the absurdity of the effeminate stereotype; white men claim that Asian American men have no sexuality, but still fear that they will take their women, effectively contradicting their own argument.

Asian Americans seem to be caught in a trap; no matter what they do, they are looked down upon by society. This is summed up perfectly by the statement, “When Asian American men are economically and politically subordinate, they are seen as feminine and incapable of living up to Western definitions of masculinity; when they struggle against odds to secure limited social space for themselves… they are immediately regarded as “bastardized” males whose criminal libido has to be controlled” (Ling 317). It becomes clear after studying historical facts that these stereotypes surrounding Asian American men emerge directly out of racist beliefs, and the two competing versions of the masculinity stereotype serve to confuse Asian American men to the point where their development of their own masculinities is in part a response to the images of Asian Americans depicted in the media.

Raymond’s character in American Knees seems to be, in some ways, a bridging-between of these two opposing stereotypes, while still rejecting their validity. While he conforms to some of the “model minority” Asian American stereotypes, he also couples this truth with his “barbaric” Asian American behaviors: chasing women and defying his traditional cultural values. This shows Asian American masculinity for what it really is, something that is not on either end of the dual extreme stereotypes, but in varying distances between. In fact, this is something that all men, regardless of ethnicity, share, they are all individualistic and unique, falling somewhere between chauvinistic brute and effeminate pansy.

With Raymond’s conformity to “good boy” Asian American stereotypes, and the overwhelming belief that Asian American men lack sexuality, it is surprising that Raymond negates this stereotype by being the most sought-after and sexually adept character in the book. While Raymond’s sex life with Darleen is never touched on, it becomes clear that he holds sexual power over others when he seduces and beds a wine rep in the beginning of the novel. By initiating this sexual encounter, not only does this undermine the notion of weak Asian American masculinity and sexuality, but it also disproves the idea of strict filial loyalty, as Raymond was married to Darleen at the time. This shows that the Asian American man can have sexual hunger and be willing to experiment with multiple partners, an idea widely unrecognized in American society.

Raymond continues to show sexual strength and attractiveness in his relationship with Aurora Crane, a pretty Japanese-Irish woman who is twelve years younger than him. In his actions and appearance as handsome, witty, articulate, and sexy, Raymond disproves the typical conception of the Asian American man as a “wimpy nerd” (K. Cheung 267). Indeed, even Raymond’s appearance during his first encounter with Aurora exuded his attitude toward the breaking away from stereotypes. From Aurora’s perspective, she “searched for the most typically Chinese feature about him, but couldn’t find the usual landmarks: cheap haircut with greasy bangs falling across the eyebrows, squarish gold-rimmed glasses, askew because there’s no bridge to hold them up, baggy-butt polyester pants” (Wong 36). Aurora’s expectations about Raymond’s appearance tie in perfectly with the generalized American view of the Asian-American man: unsexy, unappealing, and out of touch with current fashion trends, also reflecting the power of society and these stereotypes to influence how people perceive other people.

Another dimension of Raymond’s sexual appeal is his creative approach to lovemaking, which involves storytelling, patience, and tenderness. While the effeminate stereotypes might lead to the assumption of the Asian American male as sensitive and tender, it would certainly not indicate the existence of someone as sexually proficient and woman-pleasing as Raymond. Aurora reflects on how Raymond compares to previous lovers when “She thought about how some men kissed like they had learned to kiss by watching James Bond movies and fishing shows on television, coming at her with their mouths open… Raymond preferred to take turns kissing… His hands applied no pressure on her bare skin” (Wong 82). This quote is interesting because it rejects the notion of stereotype by reversing racial roles, and also proves the subjectivity of the concept of masculinity. While Americans generally see Asian American men as either hypermasculine or effeminate with no masculinity, in this situation, the white men that Aurora has dealt with are barbaric and repulsive, while Raymond’s sensitivity is attractive and sexual, which actually bolsters his masculinity.

However, even in this sensitivity that occupies one end of the masculinity spectrum, there lie elements from the other side as well. While being a patient and meticulous storyteller, Raymond at the same time becomes condescending in his talks, or perhaps lectures, with Aurora describing her ethnic background and its implications, which becomes a burden on her. This is noted in the text when Aurora comments that “She hated his instructive tone” (Wong 58). This instructiveness interferes with their relationship, evidenced by Aurora saying to him, “Not everyone can be a professional affirmative action officer like you. I’m your lover, not a case history” (Wong 57). This conflict between the two lovers eventually leads to the collapse of their initial relationship, revealing that Asian American masculinity is not simplistic and cut and dried like the stereotypes suggest; it is complex and hard to understand and deal with.

Another element of the effeminate Asian American male stereotype is his incapacity to handle sports. In mainstream American society, sports are held in high regard in terms of masculinity, for it is the modern-day equivalent of proving oneself as a warrior. Therefore, it is surprising that Raymond breaks away from the effeminate stereotype once more, although in regards to sports it is only mentioned briefly, on page 157, when, in response to Betty, Raymond’s date, about a possible event taking place the next week, Raymond replies, “I play basketball on Tuesday nights” (Wong 157). Basketball, widely regarded as a strongly masculine activity, is something that would Asian Americans would not be expected to participate in, indicated by the lack of Asian basketball players at the collegiate and professional levels. Rather, Asian Americans are seen as “nerds” who spend all of their time focusing on academics and work, therefore making them less desirable. This is found in the text early on, as Darleen’s roommate “convinced Darleen that the Asian guys in the public administration program were less nerdy than the ones in the business school” (Wong 13). This shows that Asian American men, like Raymond, who distance themselves from the negative stereotypes of their demographic are more successful with women, thus enhancing their masculinity.

Asian American men have the misfortune of being constrained by two opposing and offensive stereotypes: that of the effeminate and subservient wimp, and that of the abhorrent and pugnacious ruffian. Raymond, from Shawn Wong’s American Knees, sets out to shatter these myths, and while sometimes showing characteristics from either side of the spectrum, throughout the course of the novel Raymond shows himself to be a strong-minded and individualistic, proving that Asian American men are just as multi-faceted as anyone else, and possessing masculinity in their own right.

Works Cited

Chen, Anthony S. “Lives at the Center of the Periphery, Lives at the Periphery of the Center: Chinese American Masculinities and Bargaining with Hegemony.” Gender and Society. 13.5 (1999): 584-607. Print.

Cheung, Floyd. “Anxious and Ambivalent Representations: Nineteenth-Century Images of Chinese American Men.” Journal of American Culture 30.3 (2007): 293-309. Web. 27 Apr 2010.

Cheung, King-Kok. “Art, Spirituality, and the Ethic of Care: Alternative Masculinities in Chinese American Literature.” Masculinity Studies & Feminist Theory 2002: 265-271. Print.

Ling, Jinqi. “Identity Crisis and Gender Politics: Reappropriating Asian American Masculinity.” An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature 1997: 312-336. Web. 27 Apr 2010.

Shek, Yen Ling. “Asian American Masculinity: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Men’s Studies 14.3 (2006): 379-392. Web. 26 Apr 2010.

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Wong, Shawn. American Knees. United States of America: University of Washington Press, 2005. Print.

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