I would say I am, on a good day, medium attractive. I’m not fishing for compliments; I just know that I’m not a 10 and I’m not a 1. I am somewhere between Brad Pitt and a blobfish. I look OK enough to be on TV, but not the cover of Men’s Health. And that’s OK! I’m very happy with myself. But when I was on dating apps, I honestly think I could’ve done better if I’d changed my profile picture to a stray hyena with mange. I couldn’t get anyone to swipe right on me.
Dating as an Asian man in America is, to put it simply, not fun. While I’m happily in a relationship now, I’ll never forget how invisible I felt — and how I imagine many other people who look like me feel, too.
Asian men do the absolute worst on dating apps. That’s not me making a bold claim — it’s actual data that you can Google right now. Research published in 2014 by Christian Rudder, the co-founder of OkCupid, showed that Asian men are the least desirable racial group to women, according to TIME. (Rudder’s blog post summarizing his findings has since been deleted.) Other research has also confirmed the bias against Asian men on dating apps. But this isn’t endemic to the apps: It’s a reflection of real-life attitudes that both heterosexual women and gay men have about Asian men, rooted in generations of Asian men being desexualized in nearly every aspect of modern life. Think about this: Movies have been around for about a century, but before “Crazy Rich Asians,” how many other Asian male romantic leads can you think of, in a hundred years of American cinema? How much worse does that number get if you don’t count kung fu movies?
There were a lot of girls who just found that whole “grew up on a farm, sunburns easily” look irresistible. And it made me feel invisible every single day.
I went to college in the Midwest, where I would argue that whiteness is valued even more highly than it is in other parts of the country. There were a lot of girls who just found that whole “grew up on a farm, sunburns easily” look irresistible. And it made me feel invisible every single day. I could walk into a party dressed in a Gucci tuxedo, telling a witty story about my good friend the Dalai Lama; if I was standing next to a tall, bearded white guy in ripped cargo shorts, all the eyeballs in the room would drift toward him and away from me.
Now, look, not everyone is racist, and I had my fair share of dates. And yes, dating is fraught for everyone. But on a superficial level, it’s hard to feel like you’re not pretty, and to be reminded of that every day. When I think of invisibility, I think of the general American public viewing Asian men as undesirable, bound to be quiet accountants and nerdy IT techs, but never blustering cowboys or swashbuckling archaeologists, all of which bleeds back over into casting decisions that go into making more media that reinforces the same stereotypes, and the cycle repeats itself.
If I could go back and talk to my younger self, I’d tell him that dating is about quality, not quantity. I think that’s generally pretty good advice for everyone, even if that’s not exactly what you want to hear in college, when most people are in their sexual prime. I’d also tell him that things are getting better, slowly but surely. I’d tell him that boy bands make a comeback, and that the biggest boy band in the world right now is Korean. I’d tell him that in the year 2022 we’d get more than one Asian-led genre film, and even a Marvel superhero. I’d also tell him to invest in Marvel.
But most importantly, I’d tell him to let go of all that internalized racism. I spent so much of my younger years trying to avoid anything that made me look, sound, or feel more Asian. I probably lost out on some great friendships with other Asian people, just because I didn’t want to be seen with them. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that I’ll never be able to run away from how I look, and that it’s so much better to just embrace every aspect of who I am. I’m more fulfilled because I surround myself with people who look like me and understand me. And that inner glow you get from having that kind of self-confidence — that’s attractive.