By: Virginia Duan
I was primed to love boy bands.
I am convinced I cannot remember new things because my brain cells are otherwise engaged with storing the birthdays of NKOTB members from my tween years. Though I opted out of Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC when I was in college because I denied my pop-leanings, I dove right back in when Justin Timberlake went solo.
But as much as I loved NKOTB, BSB, and *NSYNC (say what you will about my abysmal musical leanings), I was always vaguely uncomfortable with their whiteness. Though it was not a specific conspiracy, like all beauty standards in the West, these bands perpetuated the desirability of white men and contributed to the invisibility of Asian American men.
Truthfully, I didn’t realize how much of this emasculated Asian American male narrative was present in American culture until the latter part of my college years. Even then, I didn’t realize just how painful it was for my Asian American brethren until they told me about how horrible it was to constantly have their manhood questioned, to not be seen as attractive by women, and to be boxed into a career in finance, engineering, or science.
I also didn’t notice how it affected my narrative as an Asian American woman to not see Asian men represented in popular media except for within the limited confines they were allowed. I never stopped to consider how Asians were portrayed in media affected my identity.
I never stopped to consider how Asians were portrayed in media affected my identity.
Why weren’t my people valued for being fully embodied humans? Why wasn’t my culture highlighted except in ways to put down other races or for appropriation? When would our modern Asian cultures be aspirational? When would they considered the vanguard for arts, technology, and fashion instead of being the source of counterfeit goods? When would we be seen as American and no longer foreign?
But back to the very shallow and yet vitally important need to be seen as desirable mates. It wasn’t even until my late twenties that I consciously began to question and long for talented and hot men who looked like me.
Where were my hot Asian men?
I mean, it’s not as if these men weren’t present in my daily life. Most of my friends were Asian and I found plenty of my Asian American male friends attractive and desirable. So, why wasn’t my thirst satisfied with real life?
Obviously, attractive Asian and Asian American men existed. I just rarely saw them in US culture. They were such unicorns that I clung to even some semblance of Asian representation in the multi-racial Keanu Reeves and Dean Cain.
Though Asia had lots of celebrities, as a kid, I’m ashamed to say that I never found Canto/Mandopop or Chinese movies appealing. Yes, the lack of technology and ease of acquiring content likely also contributed to my reluctance. But truthfully, I never gave them a shot. I just assumed that the content would be derivative and lacking. Plus, my desire to be not fobby (the adjective for “Fresh Off the Boat”) made all things vaguely Asia immediately verboten.
And thus, I was not prepared.
I was not ready for the speed at which I got sucked wholesale into South Korean boy band extravaganza, BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan / 방탄소년단 / 防彈少年團). Incidentally, the rapidity of my obsession is a reason I don’t do drugs. I have zero doubt that I would go from one hit of marijuana to full blown snorting coke off the back of a prostitute the next day.
In truth, I was looking for Chinese pop songs for my kids to watch and fall in love with in the desperate hope of finding Chinese cultural touchstones to encourage their Mandarin abilities. Since my children already loved Chinese boy band, TF Boys, what better way to continue down that vein with the soft power of catchy tunes and tight dance moves from another group?
I was looking for Chinese pop songs for my kids to watch and fall in love with
Instead, I stumbled upon Kpop boy band EXO and the Mandarin version of their songs, followed the recommended MVs on the side, and before I knew it, I had consumed 5.5 years of BTS content in the matter of months, paid $600 to attend their concert in the US, and spent hundreds more on albums, movie tickets, and miscellaneous merchandise and premium content. I even turned all four of my children into rabid BTS fans.
Unless you’ve been stuck in a cave somewhere without internet access, you’ve likely heard of Kpop sensation, BTS. Since their debut 5.5 years ago, they have steadily taken over the world, broken records. They have even spoken at the UN as a UNICEF representative for their platform of “Love Yourself.”
I will admit I first found their looks incredibly off-putting and could not tell the seven members apart. I was not used to men wearing makeup, the flamboyance of their fashion concepts. Nor was I altogether comfortable with some of their earlier hip-hop videos because it smacked of cultural appropriation.
I was not used to…the flamboyance of their fashion concepts
But within a short few weeks, due to their unbelievably precise and amazing dance practice videos, I started to be able to differentiate between the individual members. I first identified front man, RM (Kim Namjoon) and then eldest member, Jin (Kim Seokjin), because he was so beautiful.
Then, after a conscious, unabashed full frontal plunge into the 5,000+ official and fan-subbed videos, I eventually identified the rest of them: Suga (Min Yoongi), J-Hope (Jung Hoseok), Jimin (Park Jimin), V (Kim Taehyung), and Jungkook (Jeon Jungkook).
As my eyes adjusted to a different standard of attractiveness, I started to find the members increasingly irresistible in every way. I began to appreciate the hair, the makeup, and tight black leather pants.
My eyes adjusted to a different standard of attractiveness
Along the way, I realized that BTS was a group who combined the best elements of Kpop in their singing, rap, dancing, and visuals. They wrote and produced nearly all their music, their lyrics were deeper and more socially conscious than most US lyrics. BTS’s music defied conventional US genres because like most Kpop, they mixed pop with trap beats, rock, R&B, rap, hip-hop, and EDM influences. Basically, if it was a good musical trend, BTS likely capitalized and improved upon it on a track.
Ok. Full disclosure. The abs helped. A lot.
While I fell in love with their personalities, professionalism, and talent, part of me was outright delighted in how millions of women all over the world swooned in collective desire for these seven South Korean men.
It bothers me that so many of the US fans complain about xenophobia. They lament how BTS and other groups have difficulty breaking into western markets. I could always tell that the fans who griped about xenophobia weren’t of Asian descent. If they were, they would call a spade a spade. Xenophobia was just a nice, dressed up version of the uglier, truer word: racism.
While it is possibly true that xenophobia played into lack of radio play, this tack erased and rendered invisible the struggle of the Asian diaspora – in particular, that of Asian men. I didn’t see these same fans care about the Asian Americans who already lived here. I didn’t see them rally against systemic racism. Nor did they comment on the emasculation of Asian American men and the hypersexualization of Asian American women.
It also irks me that hordes of fans now want to learn Korean so they can communicate with BTS members. I was mocked and “ching chang chonged” on the playground for being Chinese – let alone for daring to speak Chinese in public. But ultimately, I can only hope that because of their love for BTS, these fans will eventually care about and delve deeper into the root issues affecting people of color in the US and western world.
I was mocked and “ching chang chonged” on the playground for being Chinese
Oh, how I wish I had a BTS when I was a tween and teenager. And oh, how I wish there was a Chinese version of BTS for my own, selfish reasons.
Is it ridiculous to find validation and pride in how an Asian male band is taking over the world, both in achievement and physical hotness? Maybe.
But I am glad and grateful because sexual fitness is built into our genetics. Why should my people not benefit after hundreds of years of desexualization? Millions of women and men have now re-tuned their eyes to an Asian standard of beauty. I am cautiously optimistic that if people can find Asian men desirable, they can make the intellectual leap to seeing Asian American men as viable partners, too
Virginia Duan is an author/writer and incapable of writing in brief. She swears. A lot. She also finds it almost impossible to refrain from commenting online for the sole purpose of making people admit they are idiots. Fatal flaw is fatal. Read more at http://mandarinmama.com.