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In the U.S., streetwear fashion has become integral to the Asian male identity

By Camay Abraham

Sep 26, 2019

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Fashion

Sep 26, 2019

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“If Asian American men are more image-conscious due to insecurity, is that why they’re so into fashion?” muses Mic Nguyen on his podcast Asian Not Asian. The New York-based podcast, hosted by comedians Nguyen and Fumi Abe, explores topics involving life as an Asian American and discusses what Asian masculinity truly is. While laughing and joking, the two men chat with guests who are notable writers, actors, and comedians, such as Kimmy Yam from HuffPost Asian Voices, Alexander Hodge aka ‘hot Asian bae’ from HBO’s Insecure, and Crazy Rich Asian’s Ronny Chieng.

To learn more about this fairly quiet phenomenon, I slid into Nguyen’s DMs to chat about the impact of fashion on Asian American male identity and the future of Asian men in America through clothes and clout.

Like the podcast’s slogan states, these are “American issues no American cares about”—and it’s spot on. Although there is a whole other subset of this conversation involving LGBTQ Asian American men, it’s the cisgender straight men and their new way of approaching masculinity that stood out the most. If you search online ‘Asian, masculinity, and fashion’ you won’t find much, except on Reddit, which will bombard you with threads titled “How to be confident”, “How to be masculine”, and even a thread asking how East Asians can dress like fuckboys to display alpha-ness.

These are some of the most searched topics, especially in the Reddit community, aptly named ‘Asian Masculinity’. According to Neilsen’s 2019 report, the Asian American population has grown to 7 million in the past decade, which is more than any other ethnic group in America and it’s predicted to be the largest immigrant group in the nation by 2055. As they are major influencers of consumption in America, brands and marketers should start looking into the psychological drive behind Asian American men’s attraction to streetwear, which is one of the highest-grossing markets in the fashion industry.

So why are Asian American men drawn to street fashion? Fashion has a way of changing people’s perceptions of you, and streetwear, more specifically, has been an ideal solution to combat stereotypes of emasculation. According to C. H. Chen, scholar and author of the Feminization of Asian (American) Men in the U.S Mass Media, Asian men have been historically emasculated in America through occupational pigeon-holing and unsavoury media representation. In the 19th-century, Asian men who immigrated to the U.S. to work on the railroads were eventually pushed towards cooking and cleaning jobs, or ‘women’s work’.

This associated them with being feminine and ‘weak’, which still affects how Asian American men are treated in the U.S. today. According to the co-founder of the brand The Hundreds, Bobby Kim, when he spoke to Hypebeast, “Streetwear has always been this weird, strangely male thing.” It’s always been associated with masculinity and been a pillar of Americana—two things that Asian American men aspire to be accepted into. “Asian Americans are always trying to communicate to White society that we belong here,” explains Nguyen.

The pursuit of a romantic partnership could be another reason why Asian American men are into street fashion. Historically, Asian American men have been seen as undesirable due to the same stereotype of being effeminate. Wearing the latest Hype hoodie or sneakers is a way to fight these stereotypes. “We know we’re being looked at. We’re being judged based off of certain things,” says Nguyen. “Asian American guys think about it, maybe at a subconscious level, to communicate that they’re desirable.” Nguyen also adds that, at first, he used fashion like a peacock strategy to get noticed: “You dress as loud as possible so people can’t peg you as a nerd and to combat media stereotypes.”

According to Jian Deleon in a panel discussion with Banana Magazine, the editorial director and trend forecaster for Highsnobiety and Complex conveyed that Asian American men are able to switch between being American and being Asian or some hybrid form of the two. Fashion is what enables that cultural interchange. Nguyen adds to that idea, saying that Asian American men may not necessarily be into fashion but are very aware of how fitting in certain groups navigates a power dynamic. “It’s a crazy mind fuck for an Asian American person,” says Nguyen.

People fight between dressing ‘beyond their race’, but at the same time, they go through the guilt that comes with it, because they feel like they’re hiding their race behind fashion. And still, sometimes it doesn’t even help, explains Nguyen, “I would wear capes or purple jeans, but people would still confuse me for another Asian guy at work. I was acutely aware of how limited the power of fashion could be when it came to trying to carve a certain identity.”

As Asian representation is slowly changing in the U.S., a cultural shift is emerging. Instead of men being Asian in America, they feel more like Asian American men. Yet, according to Nguyen, no one really knows how to be Asian American or what that even means. “I was trying to make an identity with my clothes. It wasn’t an Asian American identity because there isn’t really an Asian American identity, to begin with.” In America, Asians are either put in the ‘White’ or ‘Black’ box in regard to navigating what culture to follow in the American mindset.

But they weren’t welcome in either of those boxes. Safe spaces are slowly being built for Asian men to become more confident and validated in their existence. As Asian American men have just recently stepped into the mainstream spotlight with Asian Hollywood, this conversation on how to be a man and how to be an Asian American man is still a grey area. There are many resources discussing men, masculinity, and fashion, but adding a cultural layer brings new facets to the topic. As Nguyen wisely said, “the change has to come from within.” Clothes are a great conduit for change but they’re not the actual cure.