My Struggles as an Emotional Man (and Asian American)
What Does It Mean To Be a Man?
Ohh boy, that’s the question, isn’t it? I even hesitate asking it, because maybe part of being a man is not questioning or overanalyzing your manhood, right?
You just be tough; it’s not that hard.
Well, to be honest, it was for me.
There’s increasing evidence showing that the root of many of our social issues today are because men (and some women) haven’t been taught how to access our emotional intelligence. (Especially me!)
I didn’t know it was called “emotional intelligence” at the time, but reflecting back, I was incredibly unintelligent when it came to dealing with emotions. I had no self-awareness, self-love, empathy, or social skills. I suffered from anger, annoyance, frustration, rejection, loneliness, embarrassment, and insecurity—all of which I was not allowed to express. Others said it was not “manly”—that I was being “too sensitive.”
In the past, I had no avenues to express what I was feeling, bottling up, getting all tangled with each other, and now it’s extremely difficult to sort it all out.
Emotions and Intelligence Don’t Go Together
Every man around me was always tough and never cried.
I’ve been taught that intelligent people don’t let their emotions get in the way of what is “real” or what’s in front of them. Intelligent people don’t show weakness and vulnerability. Intelligent people ignore the negative emotions, because having them means you’re unstable.
This was something that was both purposefully and subconsciously taught to me. I know the men around me were well-intentioned, but they were one of the driving forces for stunting my emotions. Maybe it was a cultural thing, or a generational thing, but I saw the same thing happening with my friends, their dads, and granddads, and in mainstream media.
I Wanted To Be One of the Boys
I knew I was a boy, I identified as a boy, and I wanted to be one of the boys. So I kept my feelings to myself, because that’s what all the other boys were doing.
But for some reason, I was still unable to connect with anyone. I went to predominantly white schools, so I don’t think anyone was used to seeing an Asian kid. The rare ones they did see were on TV and they were either quiet, unromantic martial artists, or effeminate, awkward math nerds. I was already playing the game with extra weights on my ankles.
My Experience with Masculinity
“I was an emotive boy confused in a culture where I was told not to feel.”
Ooh man, even sitting by myself and writing this out is weird to me. I never talked about this as a kid.
Growing up, I would always lock up around anyone who showed too much emotion–positive or negative. Even saying the word “feelings” still makes me feel weird or exposed. And any time I was able to express my own emotions, it would seemingly be at the wrong times.
Others Didn’t Know how to Communicate with Me
I laugh or smile when in serious or uncomfortable situations, which comes off as insensitive or awkward. I cry when there’s even just a tiny bit of sentiment, which comes off as being a “crybaby.”
My brother even recently said that when we were kids he would get confused every time I expressed a strangely-timed emotion. It was all because I was (and am) very emotive, but didn’t really see that in other boys who were displaying tough, nonchalant, neutral expressions.
Lack of Emotional Intelligence, Lack of Confidence
Seeing all of that around me and on screen influenced how I thought everyone else was perceiving Asian men. And because of that, I struggled with my masculinity. I would overthink what others judged about me, which led me to doubt myself, to feel low worth, unattractive, and not “cool.”
I crushed on so many girls—none of whom would give me the time of day. And when someone did like me, I was either oblivious, emotionally out-of-tune, or didn’t believe that they were genuinely interested. I was shy and awkward, especially around girls and anyone I deemed to be one of the “cool kids,” which was basically everyone. I thought they were all better than me in every way.
I let it get in my head that women probably think Asian men are terrible romantic partners because it’s what everyone sees in the media.
That lower self-talk consumed my whole being. I would never cold approach anyone if there was no natural reason to. This wasn’t because I thought I would be awkward, or weird, or not know what to say, but because I projected onto them that I was never good enough. I thought they would never find me attractive because I’m Asian (even to other Asian girls!).
The Consequences of (Not) Talking About Emotions
It’s Unfamiliar to Most Men
Being emotional is probably one of the last things you would associate with “being a man.” The older Asian men around me didn’t go deep with their emotions, with me or anyone else. You’d have to get them wasted before you’d see any signs of vulnerability.
I understand that, especially with family, you want to show strength and solidarity—to show no weakness—so that everyone can take solace in and trust you.
However, what this taught me was that I was a lesser man if I did show any sign of vulnerability.
Talking About “Soft Stuff” with Parents
Talking about the “softer stuff,” like what we were feeling, and our emotional and mental health, never happened. My dad would sit us down, quite often actually, and tell his life stories, and, don’t get me wrong, there was definitely a lot of emotion in there, but I felt like I couldn’t find a way to connect to his heart. Nor did I feel like he wanted to connect with mine.
Sure, maybe I was too young to understand. Or maybe it was too selfish of me to expect anyone to know what I was feeling. But back then, I would have never even thought about expressing anything that could make me look “bad.” I didn’t have the trust to expose myself without judgment.
I love both my parents to death and what they have done for my brothers and me, especially for all that they’ve sacrificed to come to America to give us a good life. I am so deeply, enormously, and profoundly grateful for them. Being a parent is definitely the most difficult job, and because of that, I do feel so “extra” or “privileged” to write about something as “silly” as our feelings. I should be studying, working, planning, supporting my family—none of this expressing myself!
Saying I love you? Oh, no way, not gonna happen—too weird.
Again, this is not me complaining or holding a grudge against anyone. Everyone did the best they knew how to and my parents have instilled so many other great values in my brothers and me. It’s kinda why we’re all, like, suuuuuper cool and like, really fun to be around…
However, I realized that I’d been missing out on my own growth from not being able to talk through these deep feelings with people. Feelings such as, what it feels like to trust, to have human connection, a better sense of self, confidence, clarity with expression and communication, and meaningful relationships.
Hiding my emotions was isolating.
This piece was originally written in 2018 and since then, I’ve created a safe space in partnership with the Badass Asian Dudes, for self-identifying Asian men to practice their emotional communication and authentic confidence.
Save the date for the free men’s circle meetup every first Thursday of every month.
About Victor Ung
After burning out from the tech industry and going through a quarter-life “remodel” of my career and relationships, I realized how much I was lacking one thing in my life: emotional intelligence (aka EQ). As an Asian American, I absorbed the myth of the “model minority” and what it meant to be a man, which was to never show emotions or vulnerability. This limited my ability to be confident, assertive, creative, and communicative. After finally allowing myself to receive help from others for my personal development and seeing so much more fulfillment in my life, it became my calling to help others find their own version of it. Now I specialize in using EQ to help people uplevel themselves as human beings and adapt to the fast-paced advancement of technology. I founded the Emotion DOJO, a gym membership for the heart and soul of growth-minded Asian men to exercise creativity, stress management, emotional resiliency and communication, decision-making, and risk-taking.
In my journey, I’ve shared my story on a stage in front 1000+ people, my written work is published on The Good Men Project, ThriveGlobal, P.S. I Love You, Publishous, and more. I’ve released 75+ episodes of my podcast, "Human Up," and co-host the "Badass Asian Dudes" podcast in a Facebook group of over 1,300 members. I shared my self-love journey with cannabis at Crushing the Myth and have been featured on Asian Americans for Cannabis Education and Asian Mental Health Collective. As an Asian American man, I’m fully aware of the lack of representation in the Western world, in media, in leadership, and especially in the wellness industry, and I aim to fill that gap by breaking the stigma that emotions need to be kept behind closed doors.