It’s hard not to be charmed, reading an account of an Asian-American man who is so anxiously in love with a girl that his dick won’t get hard. “I like you,” he’s forced to confess, as his date skeptically examines his softer side. “It don’t look like it,” she says as she points at his “sashimi.”
The writer and protagonist of the scene — crass, poignant, and strangely food-centric — is, unsurprisingly, Eddie Huang, the chef, television-personality, and self-described Human Panda who is probably best known for opening the restaurant Baohaus, and for writing a memoir that inspired the television show Fresh Off the Boat. His newest writing project is an animated essay from Amazon Publishing called Single Asiatic Male Seeks Ride or Die Chick, which picks up where Huang’s last memoir, Double Cup Love, left off — with Panda single and listless after a broken engagement, following a few hundred pages spent wrestling with what it means to be Chinese, what it means to be Asian-American, and what it means to to be both of those things, and in love, all at once.
In Single Asiatic Male, Huang’s writing is predictably off-color, captivating, and candid when it comes to describing the ups and downs (pun intended) of his new, captivating romance with a woman named Julie. The illustrator Geoff McFetridge contributes lively blue and green drawings to the text, and Huang’s inclusion of their presumably unedited Tinder tete-a-tete makes the work feel enticingly fresh and deeply intimate. But what’s ultimately surprising about Single Asiatic Male is how little it deals directly with the subject of Asian-American identity, given Huang’s fixation on the topic in his previous works and, well, the title of the project itself. In fact, if pressed to describe the story in a sentence, I wouldn’t feel compelled to tell you about single asiatic males or their experiences seeking ride or die chicks. Unlikely as it seems, Huang’s new project is primarily a meditation on vulnerability in its vast and complicated range, Asian identity not necessarily required.
Vulnerability, at the end of the day, doesn’t belong to any particular identity of person.
Huang loosely defines vulnerability as a willingness to risk revealing ones’ weakest, most tender parts to the people who matter. Every moment of his narrative is threaded through with this awareness: He attempts to gauge just how open Julie is on their first dates, and dismisses much of the closeness he’s felt to people over the course his life as disingenuous. He also wrestles with his ability to maintain his own vulnerability when faced with hardship. “It is nearly impossible,” he writes, “to be confident and vulnerable when it pertains to the existential meaning of your life. Especially when you don’t know what it looks like.” The quiet universality of Huang’s persistent fixation struck me deeply, as I read, the theme growing more resonant, until all at once, I felt the full paralyzing force of lying supine and nude in a hotel bed as my body disappointed the woman whom I secretly loved. It did not matter, I suppose, that I’m not a single Asiatic man, or Eddie Huang.
Vulnerability, at the end of the day, doesn’t belong to any particular identity of person. What is successful about Huang’s latest venture, apart from being the latest installment of an increasingly successful media empire, is how it envelopes a reader entirely in his individual feeling. And that’s especially huge given Huang’s controversial persona — you empathize with him even if you’re uncomfortable with his reliance on AAVE or the frequency with which he uses the word “ho.” For a pop culture figure who has, for nearly a decade, made the fact of his Chinese-American masculinity the anchor of everything from his restaurant to his underwear line to his writing, what is most striking about this new essay, is how little Asian identity seems to matter to the story.
The reality, of course, is that it matters a lot that Huang is an Asian man with enough of a platform to publish a personal essay about his love life. We live in a moment in which an otherwise fleeting single-serving site that photoshopped John Cho into the posters of blockbuster films, to make a point about the lack of Asian-American male leads cast in Hollywood, described itself as a “social movement.” Very recently, when trailers for the film Crazy Rich Asians, the first film to cast an all-Asian cast in 25 years, were released, many took to the Internet to complain about the film’s lack of Asian diversity, and inexplicably, for not casting a fully-Asian male lead. The questions and criticism surrounding what Asian-American representation is, and how we should go about fostering it, may be awkward and at times a little contradictory, but they throw into relief a painful truth: We need to be telling more Asian-American narratives in this country, and especially now that conversations surrounding race, identity, and diversity have entered the mainstream.
But thinking about Single Asiatic Male, I wondered what it might look like to move past overt attempts to do that work — the reliance on articulating the shared experiences of bringing stinky food to grade school, being asked relentlessly where one is really from, the suspicion we cast on those we perceive as white. Sure, it’s a crucial part of the experience for many, but so are the achingly specific ways in which we fall out of love, and fall back in. Perhaps we’re at a moment where turning to the more individual depths of ourselves and our stories is exactly what we need to muscle on in the greater work of achieving representation, the right, in all of its complexities, to be perceived as fully human. Huang’s latest project, Cash Only, announced this week gestures at this approach — the series seeks to explore multiculturalism in the State by telling the individual narratives of immigrant kitchens across the States.
I happened to catch Huang in a reflective mood, two weeks ago, when I DM’ed him on Twitter to tell him how much I enjoyed Single Asiatic Male. A few hours later, he’d written a thousand-something word response his usual prose style, alive and winding through the last few years of his life, recounting painful conflicts with his brothers, a past partner, himself. “When I lose my shit I think it’s actually a part of me,” he wrote to me. “It’s not an accident. Its real. I want to understand where all that fear and pain and anxiety comes from.”
There was small difference between the prose flying off the top of his head, jotted from his iPhone, and the writing in Single Asiatic Male. I felt that I was party to something like a private epilogue for the story. I’d asked him if he had any thoughts about the fact that we have so very few narratives about what love and partnership is, from a guy’s perspective, and even fewer from an Asian-American man, and it wasn’t until the last few paragraphs that he addressed the fact of his race and representation and what he thought it had to do with his story. “As it pertains to being Asian,” he wrote, “I will say that I’m always very aware of being Asian but I’ve realized that I’m such an outlier — not just amongst Asians — but as a person that all I have to do is be honest, do me, and I’ll inherently break stereotypes and expand the range of emotions people recognize in all of us.”