Growing up as an Asian American male in Milwaukee I struggled with my identity throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. I never quite seemed to fit in anywhere I was, no matter what group I was in. This caused me to learn to compartmentalize who I was and as a result, I was never my full self with any particular group or person, just parts of me with separate groups. Part of this was due to typical developmental identity development and other parts were due to internalizing Asian and male stereotypes.
Not Asian enough… Not White enough…
As early as 1st grade I could remember being different from my classmates. I was one of 3 Asian kids in my school until 7th grade and then I was probably 1 of 10 in High school. Growing up, the goal is to blend in with everyone as much as possible, because you do not want to be different from the other kids. You do not want to be the kid without the latest video games or the kid with the fake adidas shoes with 4 stripes. In my case, I didn’t want to be the kid who was not White. I spent most of my adolescence trying to blend in and be more White, but as you can guess, everyone still always knew I was Asian. My efforts to be more White, in turn, also caused me to not ever feel Asian enough with people at my Vietnamese church. I found myself trying to go from one compartment to the other to try to fit in, a goal that I could never fully reach.
I was running on a treadmill towards Whiteness…
This habit became a trend in my early adult hood as well. I internalized a lot of stereotypes that caused me to question my “masculinity”, at least how society defined it as. Society taught me that Asian men are small and weak. I did not hit my growth spurt until late in my Junior year or early Senior year in high school so I internalized that stereotype hard during those ages. I was also someone that was always more into their emotions, even when I was a kid, but as we all know society is not set up to support boys to be emotionally intelligent and that was something I worked to stop and sadly something I have only been able to reconnect with more deeply in the past few years of my life.
You cannot stop who you are
As I did with my racial identity, I tried to overcompensate for this feeling of inadequacy with hypermasculinity; I stopped allowing myself to feel or show my emotions. Knowing what I know now clinically, I definitely displayed many depressive symptoms. I was irritable, had difficulty doing things I thought I enjoyed, and had feelings of hopelessness and loneliness.
In addition, I was more aggressive in my relationships with family and partners. My internalization of feelings of “emasculation” caused me to internalize toxic masculinity and that deeply effected those around me. I forced my control/power into any relationship I could during this part of my life. I can remember being a bully of a cousin and brother and a terrible partner to many people in my life with my aggressive behaviors. Having a better understanding of my behaviors now does not excuse my actions from back then. I do apologize to anyone reading this that may have been affected by that Nghia in their life.
What I have learned in the past few years that I wish I knew back then is that the solution to not feeling White is not trying to be more White and the solution of “emasculation” is not “hypermasculinity”. Overcompensation is not the solution to feeling less than; instead, the solution is self-understanding, self-love, and self-appreciation.
Self-love is a skill
I have learned that I will never culturally feel fully Asian, fully White, fully feminine, fully masculine, or fully anything. The only thing that I can strive to feel is fully Nghia. I am happy to say in the last year I have felt more fully Nghia than I ever have. I am no longer compartmentalizing and almost 100% Nghia with everyone I meet. So to anyone that needs to hear this: Love yourself. It is a long and difficult process but the more you ask questions and understand yourself the easier it becomes. Understand, Love, and Appreciate You as You!
As a life coach, one of the skills I will pass on to those who are ready and willing is self-love. In my family I was not taught that skill. The focus was working hard, blending in, and not complaining about it. Self-love is preached a lot but it is not as simple as just starting to do it. It takes behavior and mindset changes. You spent over 20+ years without those behaviors and mindsets. It will take more than a few months to develop them. Learn more about my coaching here!
(I use the culturally and socially constructed definitions of race, masculinity and femininity, these are not necessarily mine.)