Three young asian men are sitting near the edge of the ocean. One is taking a photo of the other.

Dreaming of the Hudson: Asian Americans and the All-American Landscape

Words by Arthur Tam

Photographs by Andrew Kung

STYLING BY Kathleen Namgung

It is integral that we start viewing Asian American men as part of this country’s cultural and natural landscape, writes Arthur Tam. After all, this is home now. 

Our first introduction to the ideas of masculinity usually comes from our fathers. 


Mine is a Hongkonger, who grew up in an upper middle-class family. He was often left to his own devices to explore his identity—kicking it with friends at a pool hall, smoking by the pier, and playing soccer at the park— until my grandfather’s untimely death stripped him of that freedom. It was right then, at the tender age of 18, that my dad switched modes from carefree young adult to dutiful son who immigrated to the U.S., became a lawyer, and earned enough money to send back home all the while providing for his wife and three kids. This was how I understood masculinity—or how I initially saw the primary function of men, especially Asian men: as responsible providers.


But as a first gen Asian American, I soon came to understand that this wasn’t enough. In the U.S., we are also routinely subjected to displays of masculinity in some combination of a lumberjack, quarterback, and cowboy who simultaneously don’t give a shit, but also care deeply about maintaining rigid ideas of manliness. It’s part of our culture. My dad was able to dodge these confines by inhabiting immigrant enclaves and having a solid sense of self from an early age—I could not. As an Asian American queer kid I was made starkly aware that I did not fit into this type of mold. And as I became an adult I realized that the design of the American male archetype was meant to other me and my community; to keep us from being seen as part of the American landscape.

An Asian-American male sits on a rocky shoreline
A young Asian American man stands next to a railroad track. The ocean is in the distance.
The landscape of a cliff with the ocean in the distance.

Asian American men have had a frustrating evolution of identity. 


Besides not being well credited for our literal contributions to the land—development of agriculture and infrastructure (the transcontinental railroad) as early as the mid-19th century—the narrative flipped in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps during which time we were demonized for being a job-stealing, gene pool adulterating, yellow menace. Post WWII with the passing of the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, a new wave of skilled Asian immigrant men came to bolster the economy only to be turned into a desexualized, robotic model minority. Great for commercial production and office jobs, but terrible for pleasure and self-actualization. We went from threatening migrant laborers to comically non-threatening geeks all over TV and film. This, in turn, gave birth to an internalized shame within our community based on envy of Eurocentric masculinity, physicality, and heteronormativity. Of course, we were never the problem. Rather, society’s perception of us kept shifting to diminish us in accordance with the trends of the time. 

Young Asian American man sitting on the shoreline
A young Asian American man lies down on a bridge while looking at the camera

I remember in 2015 I was in Hong Kong writing a story about the Asian male sex symbol. The antidote to geeky desexualized Asians seemed to be fit, sexualized Asian men—ogling at K-pop stars or the late Godfrey Gao, Louis Vuitton’s first Asian male model. On the surface, this seemed like a welcome change. The emasculation of Asian men had gone on far too long and the media was finally going to highlight the discrimination and attempt amends. But the more I wrote, the more I read, and the more I watched, I felt increasingly frustrated by the persisting undercurrent of racism. Asian men have always been attractive. Trying to prove we are, is only supporting the systems of oppression that routinely position us as a problem.

The design of the American male archetype was meant to other me and my community; to keep us from being seen as part of the American landscape.

Proving our worth felt desperate, like the whole controversy of Students for Fair Admissions versus Harvard, a lawsuit where right-wing groups convinced Asian Americans that affirmative action was the enemy keeping them from prestigious, higher education. While the university did use discriminatory and arbitrary measures like personality traits to refuse admission of Asians and Asian Americans, affirmative action is not to blame. What is to blame is Harvard’s history of unfairly prioritizing the children of the rich, white, and powerful in this country instead of using a transparent and just admissions system. But instead of outrage, I felt even more embarrassed that the Asian community would be manipulated as tools to further a system of oppression—ridding social practices like affirmative action, which help minorities including our own community. In instances like these, we so want to be recognized and admitted into the inner circle of American society that we forget we’ve been coerced into an unhealthy capitalist corporate construct formed by colonization. As if Harvard could repair our generational trauma or provide the meaning of life.

Two young Asian American men sit on a shoreline during sunset
Three young Asian American men look toward the ocean during sunset.

I understand the struggle of being an Asian American man. But I also understand that I shouldn’t be projecting my insecurities onto others. When trans activist and actor Chella Man was announced to play Jericho in DC Universe’s Titan, parts of the Asian community were up in arms. Straight Asian men overlooking their homophobia and transphobia felt aggrieved that they weren’t represented by a “real man” and they thought this was Hollywood’s attempt to further emasculate them. Hollywood has had an insidious history of racism, but this was not one of them and the Asian community should have collectively been excited that the less privileged in our community are given a chance to thrive. What we need is to lean into the strength, diversity and cultural richness that already exists in our communities. What we don’t need more of are Asian men cosplaying as white men and reinforcing the structures, which have kept us down.


It’s time for a more mature and less fragile outlook when it comes to the Asian American male identity. Against the backdrop of ever-increasing anti-Asian hate, it seems like working hard, buffing up, and more positive media representation has its limitations. We have to stop thinking that we need to earn a place here because we’ve already done that. What I want to see now are Asian American men who move past preconceived expectations, rebel against the status quo, and discover their notion of self-fulfillment. We are starting to see that with more diverse stories being told like Minari, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Beef where we see a deep recognition of Asian male loneliness while expanding on the possibilities of what an Asian American man can be as part of an American cultural landscape.

Three young Asian-American men convene next to a railroad track as a train passes by. One sits in a tree, one leans against the tree, and the other sits on a nearby rock.
Three young Asian-American men hang out in a forest. One smokes, one dances, and the other sits on the ground while pouring from a canteen.
A dirt path divides a forest.

Equally important is seeing more Asian American men as part of the natural landscape—as characters rooted here. I look at my dad now and I wonder what would have happened if he weren’t thrust into his career; if he had more time to grow before a wave of responsibilities came crashing down. Would he have had an opportunity to explore what he really wanted; to see America for what it was outside of its cities? If Asian American men were given the opportunity to see how vast our space actually is, perhaps we would understand what is truly important to conserve and protect—the land, people, and beings that inhabit it. Because there is no going back to where we came from. This is home now. 


We’ve evolved into so many different archetypes in such a short period that often I think about my identity as a point of exhaustion. How wonderful instead would it be to take a break and indulge in this land we’ve worked so hard in cultivating? To be seen simply for existing. 

A young Asian-American man sits on a rock overlooking the ocean.
A young Asian-American man stands in the middle of a forest holding a large stick.
A train speeds past on a railroad surrounded by trees.

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