Brian, an early-thirtysomething Chinese-American from Lincolnshire, IL, is like an everyday superhero, literally. No, he’s not necessarily scaling walls and bringing purse snatchers to justice, but he probably has the skills to do so, if he wanted to.
An unmatched beauty, when you finally get over his striking features and long hair, you’ll see that not only can he defy gravity through fearless martial arts tricking, but he has a limitless arsenal of adorable stories about his step-daughter. And if that isn’t enough, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with his ability to make everyday life lessons seem fantastical, yet simple, inspiring you to capture the magic in every day and moment, like he does.
Brian will probably never admit it, but he’s quite special. He’s outright and honest about his journey to manhood. And that he’s learning more and more about the man he is becoming every day. Whether it’s sharing his struggle to embrace dance, his own personal rage to master, or touching stories about his own family’s rich history as Chinese immigrants, Brian teaches us that masculinity, in and of itself, is a journey.
A journey that requires us to understand that it is well within our power to detoxify certain elements of masculinity, allowing it to be the invisible hand that guides us to the best versions of ourselves. A journey that proves the power of culture to introduce us to progressive masculinities not hellbent on restricting, but expanding our horizons and ability to meaningfully connect with ourselves and each other.
Like I said, Brian, to me, is very much a superhero. And I’d like to think–next to his wife–I’m his number one fan. And you’ll likely become one, too. Because we need more men like him who are fearless enough to be, and talk about the power of doing so.
05:04 – Masculinity: My Father. Cantonese Instant Noodles. Jackie Chan. The Invisible Hand. And the Rage to Master.
I’m going to take a short detour to talk about my stepdaughter and “why.” She recently graduated from the “why” phase and would say something like, “Look at that truck over there.” And I’d say, “Yes, that is a very big truck.” And she would say, “Why?” And then I would just say, “Because it is.” (laughs). I started just saying yes.
Anyway, that’s totally unrelated. But my conceptions of masculinity as a child–well, I think around high school–it wasn’t something I was consciously aware of but there was like some gestalt of it in my consciousness. It was something that I couldn’t see in the room but I knew I had to move around. I’m failing at finding an appropriate metaphor for it.
Before that, my concept of masculinity was pretty much solely defined by my father. My dad would work night shifts and he would come home, and, we weren’t supposed to be awake, and if by chance we were awake–which was a lot because we knew dad was coming home–he would make himself a midnight snack, and if we were awake, he would make more for us.
It was always gung dzai mein (instant noodles). So, I had even less a concept of masculinity back then than when I was in high school. But I got the idea that dads, men, worked very hard.I didn’t know what work was really, I just knew it was somehow a part of the lifestyle. And they cooked great instant food.
One time, somebody asked my older brother–I have three siblings: older brother, older sister, me, and youngest sister. Somebody asked my older brother who’s cooking he liked: my dad’s or my mom’s. Actually, I think the question was do you like your mom’s cooking. My brother said, “I like papa’s cooking.” And my mother looks over and says, “All he does is open cans!”.
One of the really heartbreaking things was when my dad was laid off in 2008/9. He had been working at the same place for 30 years–so my entire life and more. I remember going to pick him up from the train station, and the train slid in just like it normally did. And my dad came out.
What was weird is that he was holding a plastic bag, a trash bag. It had all of his stuff from work. And it was like he didn’t know what had happened himself. He just said, “I got laid off.” So, that was work. And over time this blue-collar lifestyle had been a part of his life since he was probably 19. He started working in a hospital.
Our family wasn’t well off when we got to America. The Burmese government took everything from us before we left. When we arrived, my grandfather was educated, but like many immigrants, they couldn’t find work. So, my grandmother worked in a textile factory and my grandfather was technically very adept. He could fix radios and was basically a self-trained electrical engineer. But it was hard. All my uncles and my dad had to find work since they were like 10 or 13.
As I progressed into high school, I became more socially aware of what was acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. And that’s when my ideas of masculinity as defined by social norms became a thing. I knew I was supposed to–in dating at least–I knew I was supposed to be the one pursuing, which has never ever come natural to me.
It’s so hard because it’s so amorphous, especially back then. I wouldn’t have noted it mentally if I was like, “Oh, men aren’t supposed to do this.” I was just like, “Not doing that!” You know? It’s hard to remember exactly.
But I do remember growing up as an Asian male, my only role models really were Kung-Fu movies. So, I grew up watching Jackie Chan movies–as many as I could pirate–Bruce Lee, Jet Li. Well, not so much Bruce Lee just because it was too old. And that’s when I started to get into martial arts tricking.
Photography: Peter Carnonine (http://carnonine.com/)
I didn’t know it was called that until four years later in college. And that came out of the idea that I see these Asian men on film doing these things that get them on film. And are amazing. They were my only role models, really. So, I felt like I should be able to do that, too. That’s how I got into tricking, which in my case, took the form of me going into my backyard and trying to do flips without any training or crash pads for safety.
But that was part of it, too. Part of being an Asian male, part of being a man, was taking those crazy risks and being able to walk away from it and be like, “Yeah, whatever.” But I would get hurt and not be able to try again for weeks.
I came across an interesting concept a couple of years ago called The Rage to Master. And it’s this idea that some children have this innate, burning desire to master something. And I connected with that personally because I remember it wasn’t positive emotions that got me to continue tricking, flips, and martial arts.
It was hating my own weakness. It was like, “I should be able to do this, I can’t. So, I’m going to try again, even if it kills me.” This rage to master–I don’t know if it was so much about the flips as the fact that I saw myself as weak and I hated the weakness.
As a side note, it made me remember that some weird ideas about weakness and strength that were probably wrapped up in masculinity were: showing your emotions…not good…showing weakness…like being cold or hot or complaining about your situation [not good.] Even now, when I say complaining, I don’t mean complaining. I mean telling people. But the way I cast it as complaining, puts it into a negative light.
It’s not complaining if I say that my [feet] hurt. But there’s a point to that, though in that people can help you and move out of that situation. But the manly man doesn’t need help.
So, yeah, high school was characterized by “rage to master” and that included towards the end when my cousin showed me a dance video, even though back then I would have said, “It’s popping, it’s not dance.” It was a Korean dance called Nam Hyun-joon, and he was doing arm waves and stuff like that. I was like, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, I’m going to learn how to do that.” That’s how I started dancing.
It wasn’t until college, when I was in the thick of things, that just at some point, found myself diverging from those ideas of masculinity not being dancing.
If you’re raising a child, you definitely think about these things. It changes your perspective of time because kids suck at everything for so long. A lot of times, you just have to sit there and wait for them. And then you realize…with my stepdaughter at least, in her world, I want the world to give back to her a more peaceful, artistic, sensitive version of masculinity. To a certain extent, that is shaped by what you expect and what you gravitate towards.