Part 1 of 2 (14 min read time)
Personal Essay by Albert Joon-Ho Hur
[Edited by J]
“Jeff Yang used to talk about how Superman is an Asian American: He has black hair, he wears glasses, he has two different names — an American name, Clark Kent, and a foreign name, Kal-El, with a hyphen in it. His parents are non-English-speaking and sent him to America to have a better life.”
— Gene Luen Yang, author of New Super-Man
What does it mean to be a man?
There is an emerging scholastic field in the social sciences around something known as “masculinities studies” — the academic pursuit of what it means to be male in today’s world. It’s a fascinating arena, particularly for an Asian American man struggling with emasculation. In 2015, the New York Times published an article under their Learning Network section literally asking the question: “What does it mean to be a ‘Real Man’?”¹
Reading the answers is illuminating. The instructor begins by asking the following prompt: “Let’s say it was said at your funeral, ‘He was a good man’. What does that mean to you?”
What follows is largely normative, not biological. “Caring.” “Honest.” “Putting other’s needs before yours.”
He then asks, “Now, tell me what it means to be a REAL man?”
Again, normative. “Take charge.” “Authoritative.” “Take risks.” “It means suppressing any kind of weakness.” “Never cry.”
What’s interesting is that the traits offered up are all behavioral. That means, for all the students that were participating in this thought experiment, a “man” is not simply something that “is”, but also something that “does”. In other words, a man also ACTS. His behaviors are part of, and in fact, the essence of, what defines him as “manly”. Being a man is not simply an ontological description. It is more than anatomical differences. Testes, phallus, larger physical size, testosterone and other assorted hormones and chemicals, facial hair, consciousness, moral reason, and atoms are all relevant components, but insufficient. Being a man is normative: how should a man behave in order to be a man?
I HAVE NO ASIAN MALE ROLE MODELS
“In Confucianism, life is war.”
— Frank Chin
Test-taking. Hyper-competition with other Asians. Off-the-charts materialism and desire for luxury brands. Gold-digging. Prostitution. Plastic surgery to look white. Ultra-conservative attitudes towards sex and dating. Tiger parenting. Patriarchy. Shallow nationalism.
These traits are often essentialized as “Asian cultural upbringing”, or more hilariously, with “Confucianism” by Orientalist racists and traitorous war brides like Amy Chua². This explanation literally defies all modern history, facts, and actual definitions of Confucianism, which is why white supremacists and their Yellow lapdogs find it a convenient and profitable lie to peddle. In fact, all the characteristics described above are actually a direct result of white American values being forced down our throats at gunpoint by white supremacists and the World Bank/IMF (as are “English teachers” and white male English-speaking journalists known as “sexpats”³). Modern “Asian culture” is actually a white Anglo-Saxon export.
This is best illustrated by an article in Volume 2 of Language in Society written in 2013 called “Neoliberalism as Language Policy”⁴. It is an interesting case study of the modern-day Anglo-centric culture and values of South Korea, and how they emerged as a result of social and economic restructuring by the IMF. As Jinhyun Cho and Ingrid Piller show us in their article, and as I showed in my previous historiography of the 20th century, South Korean culture today is not a natural development of indigenous character, but rather an outgrowth of white American imperialism, their brutally repressive and authoritarian right-wing client regimes which were characterized by military chauvinism and male supremacy, and neo-colonization by the IMF in the wake of the global Asian financial crisis in 1997. Rather than being falsely labeled “Confucian” or “Asian culture”, therefore, it should more accurately be called “Western capitalist culture with South Korean characteristics.”
TOXIC MASCULINITY IS A WHITE AMERICAN EXPORT
“For more than 600 years Buddhists and Muslims lived side by side in Ladakh with no recorded instance of group conflict. They helped one another at harvest time, attended one another’s religious festivals, and sometimes intermarried. But over a period of about 15 years, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims escalated rapidly, and by 1989 they were bombing each other’s homes. One mild-mannered Buddhist grandmother, who a decade earlier had been drinking tea and laughing with her Muslim neighbor, told me, “We have to kill all the Muslims or they will finish us off.”
— Helena Norberg-Hodge, How Globalization Fuels Terrorism and Fundamentalism
The day the IMF agreement was signed, November 21, 1997, is known as guk-chil-il “National Humiliation Day” in South Korea. This is an intentional echo of the other “National Humiliation Day”, August 2, 1910, when Korea was colonized by Japan.
For decades, South Korea had been ruled over by extremely right-wing, chauvinist, military dictators backed by the U.S. Modern South Korean culture — with trace elements of xenophobia, repressive and paternalistic attitudes, and overall conservative tenor — is largely a combination of U.S. meddling that killed all leftists in South Korea⁵, as well as the tenure of Park Chung Hee’s regime during the 70s. This also helped chaebols like Samsung and Hyundai, who paid the military dictator in bribes and loyalty⁶, create the eventual economic domination of the Korean people. State repression, purges, sex slavery, and an economy run on Korean hair were the result of American “salvation”, which led to desperation and impoverishment⁷. South Korea’s living standards, the result of a series of actions taken by the imperialist U.S. dating back to USMGIK, lagged behind that of North Korea until the fall of the Soviet Union in the 90s.⁸
By the time of National Humiliation Day in 1997, when the U.S. blocked South Korea from obtaining assistance and loans from Japan and forced the intervention of the IMF, neoliberalism had been in full flight for over a decade. Chaebols, massive Korean super-corporations, had monopolized all economic development under Chun Doo Hwan since 1980, leading to widening income inequality in collaboration with the Anglo-American Order and U.S. banks.⁹
While the IMF forced the chaebols to share the fruits of the newly burgeoning South Korean economy in the wake of the crisis with white multinationals, it also allowed them — in collaboration with national conservative politicians — to cut public spending per the usual neoliberal policy program. This led to greater economic precarity, as well as indentured servitude of the Korean people to the super-corporations, leading to widespread social upheaval and civil unrest. Mass layoffs at Daewoo Auto, made in order to break apart its labor union as part of its preparation for sale to General Motors, led to a large-scale protest and riot in 2001¹⁰, which was met with police terror. A full-fledged popular struggle by organized Korean labor to stop the privatization of public corporations began a year later. Had these protests not occurred, nearly all public corporations in South Korea would have been privatized.
Beyond skyrocketing suicide rates, the IMF’s intervention had another socio-economic-cultural side effect. Its actions during the Asian financial crisis were the catalyst for a set of social transformations spearheaded by their collaborators at Chojoongdong¹¹ — the dominant, ultra-conservative, pro-neoliberalism (“modernization”), pro-U.S. media troika that owns 75% of market share in South Korea — that led to academic restructuring and the imposition of “competitiveness” as a core value. This directly resulted in the grueling grind that is 24/7 “Asian” test-taking culture¹². This “competitiveness”, which was also championed by the government and universities looking to make a name for themselves in the Anglo-American ecosystem, led to the adoption of a host of testing, assessment, and ranking mechanisms, all of which explicitly privileged English.
The result of this neoliberalization, aka “Americanization”, of South Korea was rampant social suffering, stemming from an insanely heightened state of competition where livelihoods, security, development, and well-being are constantly at stake from birth. The unemployment rate tripled and the middle class fell by more than a third from 1996 to 1999. The income gap between the richest and poorest 10% of South Koreans became larger than in any other OECD country, and South Korea is now an even more economically polarized society than the U.S. itself. Killing oneself became a form of protest. As Naomi Klein sums up: “When 24 million people [in all the Asian crisis states combined] lose their jobs in a span of two years, a new desperation takes root that no culture can easily absorb.”¹³ South Korean culture was transformed into a grossly hyper-materialistic vortex swirling with consumerist obsession in the cities, famously parodied by K-pop singer Psy’s satirical Gangnam Style¹⁴. Hello, hyper-competition and hypergamy! Hello, Doenjang Woman¹⁵!
Meanwhile, as the looting and the burning of the countryside was taking place, a new wave of “yeongeo yeolpung” (English fever) was sweeping the nation. Thanks to the adoption of English-promoting criteria in its national university rankings by Chojoongdong (including ridiculous standards such as “internationalization”, meaning white students), English fever — the foundation of white worship — infected all educational levels of South Korean society. Parents began to enroll their children in English-only preschools. A huge shadow market for English emerged, catering to all levels of proficiency, which inevitably began to attract the seediest, most predatory Losers Back Home and Charisma Men from Five Eyes countries. Study abroad trips in Anglo majority countries became highly popular. The explosion of Anglo-philia as a result of the desire to be “competitive” in the White Man’s World cannot be understated. As of 2009, the private market for English language teaching accounted for 40% of the public education budget in South Korea.
What is the consequence of all this white worship in media and language as the country is cracked open and devoured by the economic ecosystem backed by military imperialism that is the white supremacist Bretton Woods Agreement? The situation in India described by Helena Norberg-Hodge provides us with a stark example¹⁶:
“In part, the Ladakhis’ confidence and sense of having enough emanated from a deep sense of community: people knew they could depend on one another. But in 1975—the year Tsewang showed me his village—the Indian government decided to open up the region to the process of development, and life began to change rapidly. Within a few years the Ladakhis were exposed to television, Western movies, advertising, and a seasonal flood of foreign tourists. Subsidized food and consumer goods—from Michael Jackson CDs and plastic toys to Rambo videos and pornography—poured in on the new roads that development brought. Ladakh’s local economy was being swallowed up by the global economy, and its traditional culture displaced by the consumer monoculture.
The undermining of cultural self-worth is an implicit goal of many marketers, who promote their own brands by imparting a sense of shame about local products. An American advertising executive in Beijing admitted that the message being drummed into Third World populations today is “Imported equals good, local equals crap.”
But it is not just local products that are denigrated by advertising and media images; it is local people as well. In Ladakh and around the world, the one-dimensional media stereotypes are almost invariably based on an urban, blonde, blue-eyed Western consumer model. If you are a farmer or are dark-skinned, you are supposed to feel backward and inferior. Thus, advertisements in Thailand and South America urge people to “correct” their dark eye color with blue contact lenses: “Have the color of eyes you wish you were born with!”
For the same reason, many dark-skinned women throughout the world use dangerous chemicals to lighten their skin and hair, and some Asian women have operations to make their eyes look more Western. These are profound acts of capitulation to a global social and economic order that offers material and social rewards to those who come closest to the West’s commodified standards of beauty.”
My father told me recently that young South Koreans in this day and age struggle with an identity crisis. They do not know how to respond to the profoundly crushing impact of neo-colonization and “globalization” by the IMF and the Anglo-American Order, supported by their financial institutions and banking systems (and spies and armies). Girls in South Korea dye their hair blonde in record numbers, and young South Korean boys celebrate marriages to a white “foreigner” in the comments section of popular tabloids. My people have been broken. They are all Twinkies and Bananas¹⁷ — fruits and desserts for White Men.
If I can’t look up to the White Man that oppresses me, nor the Yellow Man in my home country, who is a caricature of the White Man, who can I look towards? In the absence of reality, I, like any real American, can only look towards comic books.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A BATMAN?
“I am vengeance.”
— Batman, The Animated Series
“Superman is an immigrant.”
— John Cho
In the annals of American popular culture, none loom so large as superheroes. The past decade has seen an influx of superhero films based on comic books. These are no small affairs; today’s highest-grossing films are primarily superhero movies. They are all major global blockbusters and summer tentpoles featuring some of the highest-paid actors in the world. Ironically, this fascination with superheroes in American mythology actually stems from economic depression.¹⁸
While there is much to be said for the cutting-edge special effects and jaw-dropping action that underpin these movies, their primary appeal to Americans is escapism from economic catastrophe. The modern rise of superhero films at the box office is a direct result of the financial crisis of 2008. While popular superhero movie franchises existed prior to the crash, such as Sony’s “Spider-Man” and Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Trilogy”, it wasn’t until people lost their jobs and homes that superhero films truly took flight.
It is easy to see the appeal, of course. In times of tragedy and darkness, people want to escape to a different world: one where the hero always triumphs, and justice, not a golden parachute, is served to evildoers. Blockbuster epics with tragic endings like “Braveheart” and “Gladiator” fell out of fashion, as nobody wanted to psychologically suffer in addition to their economic and physical suffering. As their mortgages plunged underwater like Aquaman, the American public lost themselves in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC equivalent, alongside a host of TV shows and Netflix series featuring dashing crime-fighters in spandex. American superheroes exist in pop culture to psychologically save the American public from privation in real life.
Interestingly enough, economic devastation was also the source of the two most towering figures in superhero canon who became dueling icons of ideal American masculinity: Batman and Superman. Both were created in post-Depression America in the 1930s¹⁹, and offered two distinct interpretations of American culture and the nature of crime in the wake of the Great Depression. Superman epitomized the immigrant minority experience and the idealism of justice and American democracy, while Batman focused on the realities of urban crime, inequality, and political corruption, along with their attendant social and mental illnesses.
Consider the classes of criminals each superhero ends up fighting. Although Metropolis and Gotham City have certain types of criminals in common, like gangsters, thugs, hoodlums, and organized crime, it is their differences that truly paint the insider/outsider dichotomy between Batman and Superman.
Like their superhero, the threats to the citizens of Metropolis come from somewhere else, foreign to either the city or the planet. The criminals that Superman fights are outsiders who threaten the peace and social order in Metropolis. He often encounters anti-Americans that threaten democracy and the “American way”. Superman, an outsider and alien himself, exists to protect America from threats like himself (although he will also occasionally deliver justice to domestic threats like the KKK²⁰). Yet in his day-to-day life, he pretends to be meek, wears glasses, and adopts an inoffensive demeanor in order not to startle the xenophobic and racist natives of his adopted country. Sound familiar?²¹
In contrast, Batman is an insider — a privileged, wealthy, and white playboy scion of Gotham City. He is the epitome of Wall Street masculinity: slicked out and dressed to the nines, he whips around his city in a Lamborghini Murciélago by day, attending fancy cocktail parties and fundraisers at night with beautiful models draped over his arm. It’s no mistake that the cinematic version in Christopher Nolan’s series was played by the same actor who highlighted Wall Street sadism and excess best in “American Psycho”.
Batman’s primary opponents are the products of urban corruption and decay. Many of his recurring foes are corrupt politicians and members of the same wealthy community he belongs to in Gotham that want to “control the world” — all domestic, insider threats. Others are “freaks” like the Joker who have risen up from the bowels of the city itself, products of a harsh and uncaring, amoral, and materialistic society that abandoned or mistreated them — the threat of domestic revolt by the disenfranchised underclass.
While I have always enjoyed Batman stories and comic books, I must confess I have never been able to relate to him. But I do relate to his thirst and quest for vengeance. In fact, vengeance is the foundation of cooperation²². American political scientist and Council on Foreign Relations member Robert Axelrod, who is most famous for his interdisciplinary work on the evolution of cooperation, has demonstrated this in his research. In a society full of both honest people and cheaters, if cheating is not punished, then cheaters will slowly overtake the honest people until cooperation collapses and that society falls apart. This appears to be common sense.
What’s interesting is that professor Axelrod’s research also reveals that even if people are vengeful in punishing cheaters, cooperation still collapses. Why? Vengefulness does a great job of diminishing boldness in cheaters. However, it is costly. Once boldness drops, people stop punishing cheaters because they don’t want to take on the burden of enforcement, and vengefulness also drops. But once vengefulness has fallen, cheaters become emboldened once more, and the rate at which they cheat outstrips the vengeance of the honest people, as it is harder to get an individual to punish someone else due to the cost of enforcement. This causes cooperation to collapse yet again, and this collapse is stable.
There is one way to enforce a norm: punish those who do not uphold it. In other words, be vengeful, not only against cheaters, but also against those who refuse to punish the cheaters. Punish complicity. In essence, you establish a “meta-norm” where one must punish those who fail to punish deviation from the norm. Ostracization, exile, injury — or in the case of the Roman Army, death for both deserters and witnesses of desertion that did not blow the whistle — leads to the system becoming self-policing, and cooperation in society then becomes stable. But this can only work in cases where the starting population had sufficiently high levels of vengeance. Which means we must all be like Batman in our own way if we do not want society to collapse from those that would undermine it: the corrupt, the racists, and the cheaters.
At the same time, as an outsider in America, a Yellow Man, it is impossible for me to ever truly identify with White Man, the ultimate insider. In his 1974 article, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”²³, philosopher Thomas Nagel beautifully outlines the problem. No matter how much I might imagine or envision myself as a bat, no matter how many analogies I draw between the physical experiences of the Bat and my own, at the end of the day, I’m only a human and I can never know what it is like for THE BAT to be the Bat. I can only speculate what it might be like for ME to be a Bat, wear a Bat-cape, drive a Batmobile, and live in a Bat-mansion. But that’s just me wearing a costume. The Bat’s subjective, psychological consciousness will forever remain an impenetrable foreign fortress²⁴ to me, no matter how many of his objective characteristics I share. In the case of a well-paid, well-connected, and well-laid rich white boy, a Yellow Man in America has little to imagine in common.
On the other hand, identification with Superman, an alien who grew up in the Midwest like me, is automatic. He is the ultimate power fantasy to the emasculated outsider — the icon of rugged American masculinity — and he’s not from here. His ideals represent the Platonic Ideal of what it means to be a Man in America, as underwritten by the millions upon millions of his fans in this country who view him and the Hope he represents as cultural icons. And what are those ideals? It is embodied in his own catchphrase: “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
What is Truth? What is Justice? What is the “American Way”? If being a man is something normative, how should we, as Asian American men, behave in a way to achieve these norms which the black-haired apex of American masculinity himself is meant to embody?
How can we be Superman?
- Herder, Philosophical Writings, Cambridge University Press, 2002