I'm a singer in a band -- but I'm also a nerdy Asian guy

My image contains contradictions. I'm afraid women won't understand me.


Cary Tennis
March 1, 2007 4:26PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm writing to you with an unusual problem. I have defined myself, for better or worse, as a nerd. Don't get me wrong, I don't shy from it. I'm 33, an Asian guy with thick glasses, and I still enjoy comic books, watching "Star Wars" and discussing it at length with other "Star Wars" fans, and work in a museum. I'm only 5-foot-8, and until three years ago, I was definitely on the chubby side. Needless to say, these attributes do not translate into a competition for Pitt and Clooney. I've had three official "girlfriends" my entire life, and the longest one of those relationships lasted nine months. I'm a little shy, but I'm also a singer in a band so I know how to be social. But I never was able to get a girl to go with me to a single high school dance, and spent my senior prom playing video games with a couple of my fellow nerd buddies.

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But three years ago, when I turned 30, I had a transformation. Turning 30 seemed to be a great relief for me, because shortly afterward I made both physical and mental changes. I had dropped 40 pounds (going from 199 to 160 in just four months), and I rediscovered a passion for life. It encouraged me to quit my office job and try to become a full-time musician.

After turning 30, I also learned how to dress better and style my hair so that it didn't look like I slept on the couch. I also learned how to pick eyeglass frames that made me look cool, and not like a pharmacist. So for an Asian guy, I like to think I have a pretty hip look. But the problem I have had with women lately is that I seem to have become a walking conundrum.

Because I seem to rebel against a very strongly ingrained stereotype in this country (the submissive, nerdy Asian male), my new appearance seems to put women at a loss. Non-Asian women who might think I'm interesting because I'm a musician assume that I'm just a quiet, uninteresting, hardworking Asian drone. And most Asian women in this country don't seem to understand any Asian guys who aren't interested in moving to the suburbs for a boring, traditional life. Even worse, a few women have presumed, because of my new svelte, hip look, that I must have been a lifelong ladies man, the thought of which makes me laugh in an achy, ironic kind of way.

So I try to be myself, but it would seem that most women are unable to get past their own stereotypes of what I should be. Sometimes I think I would be better off not trying to be someone interesting and instead be something that people can understand. But I could never live my life as some kind of phony, trying to be something I don't want to be and something I'm not.

So am I doomed to live that great line from John Hughes' "Some Kind of Wonderful": "I'd rather be alone for the right reasons than end up with someone for the wrong reasons." I still believe in that line, but I'd like to believe that I had more than just two options.

Singer in a Band

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Dear Singer in a Band,

In the last line of your letter (a line that I removed), you said, "(Please withhold my name and just list me as 'Yellow Peril')."

But, Dude, can't do that! I can't refer to you as "Yellow Peril"!

I understand the idea -- that when groups adopt the slurs used against them, it can be empowering, like the claiming of a taboo. But in my view, at the same time it creates a new privilege against outsiders, a new taboo, a challenge, and thus a divide. Besides, I sense in your request one more painful symptom of this war going on in your heart between your heritage and your individuality.

So I will call you "Singer in a Band" instead, and you can call me "Writer on the Web." In that way, we adopt postures of equality toward each other.

You will note that in calling you Singer in a Band, I refer to what you do, not where you come from or where your ancestors come from. I place your individuality above your heritage. This is at the heart of the matter.

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I think that you are an individualist by nature, but perhaps you do not have a strong philosophical foundation to support your individualism. That's understandable. I doubt that your father ever sat you down and said, "Son, what's important in life is not to follow what society wants, or to care about your status and how you are perceived, or to do your duty as a son and a provider, but to go to any lengths to find your inner truth and follow it wherever it may lead you. What is important is to be an individual, even if society -- or even we, your own family! -- do not approve."

He probably never said that. So you now find yourself with powerfully individualistic ideas, but you are still trying to figure out how to make yourself recognizable to the group as a certain type.

But it is not to define ourselves as certain types that we sing in rock bands or write on the Web. That has got it backward. It is because of who we are already that we do these things.

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Now: We are standing right on the edge of a vast sea of complicated ideas. I just want to touch the water with my toe. In this vast sea of ideas are some very simple ones. I like the simple ones, principles that can be understood and employed by anyone.

One such simple idea is that each individual is unique, and the meaning in life is found by undertaking those activities that most fully express one's individual nature. Now, one might counter by saying that this very idea of individuality is a Western white man's idea. If, simply because you are Asian, you cannot understand this idea, then perhaps those who say that the idea of individualism is not universal but simply one more crazy white man's notion are correct. Maybe all our ideas do emanate from our inescapable membership in this or that culture and race. But I assume you can understand this idea perfectly well, that it's a very simple idea. If so, maybe people who say that we are inescapably race-bound are just being foolish and pig-headed. Maybe they even have funny little pig snouts.

This idea of uniqueness implies that it is the individual nature that is sacred, not the individual's place in a matrix of family and culture. If that is true, then we need not trouble ourselves trying to make ourselves appear to fit into one or another categories posited by others. Instead, we leave it to them to try and perceive our essential nature. And we make the assumption, by extension, that all others around us are equally unique, and that their attempts to make themselves understandable to us as a certain type are actually having the opposite effect, of obscuring their nature; that by adopting certain styles so they can be recognized as a type, they are actually obscuring who they really are.

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So, armed with this understanding, we go out and, by our individual expression, we try to awaken the sacred individual in others, and speak directly to that individual, or that soul, bypassing the trappings of race, culture, class and type.

So this is a sacred thing, what you do. What you do is the expression of this unique nature.

You are Asian and I am white. What unites us is our shared knowledge of the mystery and power of our individual natures. Your true nature is unknowable to me except as I perceive it in your actions and your gestures.

That is what binds us. We are thus citizens of an idea.

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We are not members of a tribe. We are not linked by blood or soil. We are citizens of an idea. We constitute, together, a proposition: that as humans we have value and rights, and that to be happy we must have the freedom to manifest who we are.

So. Dude! You are doing OK. You are doing fine.

You've done enough work on your image. You got the glasses. You lost the weight.

So just be cool. Let them figure you out. Be a singer in a band and let others try to figure out where to fit you in. It's not your problem. Do what you do and let them come to you. Don't follow them. Follow the inner voice. Keep true to the things you love, the comix, the music. They'll come around.

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