Saving Ryan’s Privates: On white boys, healing and other abstract causes

CORRECTION:  A version of this article that ran online and in the June 26 edition of the Daily Trojan erroneously omitted information that changed the intended meaning of the author’s words. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.

Jessie Chang | Daily Trojan

The man sitting across from me said to call him whatever I wanted. I tested the waters: “How about Dr. M?” He allowed it.

Dr. M’s voice, with its British twang and middle-age growl that I would have found sexy in most other contexts (“What do you need to do to change, Ryan?”), confused me. Its oppressive timbre — that tendency to inflect the end of each sentence upwards, ringing a bell on all statements so as to make them questions, an orgy of interrogation — I summed up to others as “therapy-speak.” I’d complain to others after every session. Each week I’d go anyway.

“You probably know why I’m here,” I told Dr. M at our first appointment, head down. I could sense his line of vision on my forehead.

“I don’t think I do. Why don’t you tell me?” Why didn’t I just tell him?

I inspected the ceiling fan, then my shoes. I addressed my feet. “I’m starting to notice that, like, for a long time, I’ve only wanted to sleep with men who don’t look like me.” By which I meant: white men.

“And how does that make you feel?”

I wanted to flip over the coffee table between us. I wanted to sit on top of his bulging chest, tear off his shirt that was a little too clean, too tight, already puckering at the buttonholes. Let’s go back to your place, Dr. M, and I’ll show you how I feel. I wanted to scream.

Instead, I rambled, “I know it’s an awful thing. I don’t want to live like this anymore. But, I guess, I don’t know…”

“Finish your sentence, say what you mean. What’s the problem, Ryan?”

This problem could be described as an abstraction: my “happenstance” attraction to white men, my own pent-up self-hate. Yet this is a problem in which, as Joan Didion put it, “my mind veers inflexibly toward the particular.” Here are my particulars.

As a child, long before I came out as gay or was even cognizant of my own sexuality, I found myself befriending girls almost exclusively. If anything, I gravitated toward them. This phenomenon — heteronormativity — is a banality, an experience shared by many gay men I know, and for me it has extended past the time I began coming out to friends, at age 18, until now.

After coming out toward the end of high school, I often gathered at the beach or in a friend’s living room and gabbed with my girlfriends about boys. This was our favorite pastime. “[X] has the cutest butt” or “I wanna climb [Y] like a tree,” such conversations would go. 

For sophistication, we chatted about our individual “types,” the kinds of boys we each preferred. We listed off traits like “funny” or “smart” or “kind,” as though these preferences were of any rarity or import. We reached agreements on the hottest kinds of boys. 

“No offense,” my girlfriends would preempt before rattling off their checklists, “but I’m not into Asian guys.” They’d nod in agreement, always looking at me.

Reflexively, I’d reply, “Oh, I don’t care. I’m not into Asian guys either.” I’d chuckle it off. I’d say it and mean it.

These hangouts were the mere beginnings of a litany of experiences in which I was an onlooker to others as they bashed on Asian men. Sometimes it was my girlfriends; at other times it was my gay friends. Many times, I did the bashing myself—which is to say I bashed on myself.

I learned to make a mental note of all the deficiencies that others told me Asian men possessed. Then I abridged that list, compartmentalized it, stowed it away in a lockbox in my mind: Asian men are “short”; are “cute, but not hot”; “have small dicks.” White men must be the alternative, I thought. Not only the alternative, but the ideal.

Of course, I know this cannot, or ought not, be true. White boys are not the ideal nor aspiration. Acknowledging this truth, however, does not negate the reality.

The reality has taken on a number of forms in my life. It is my Instagram Explore page, saturated with white: Santorini, L.A. models, globetrotting gay couples. Sometimes the reality is automatically swiping right on every white boy on Tinder. Once, the reality was a feeling I got while standing in the Louvre, a dumb bull in pasture, awestruck by the beautiful busts of ancient men—their grecianed noses, their upturned eyes. How real this love, this fantasia, can feel at times, even though I know, as Margaret Talbot aptly noted, “The idealization of white marble is an aesthetic born of a mistake.”

“Whenever we are talking about privilege, we are inherently talking about whiteness,” I once heard Anita Hill say. This much is true, and still, despite my attempts at praxis — my efforts to undo the thinking that the earlier parts of my life instilled in me, to recognize that beauty, in fact, is not sine qua non of whiteness — despite all this, most times, I abandon ship. Most times, I have fallen for the white boy.

There are the white boys who love telling me that their grandfathers fought in Vietnam (many of them are out there). There is the white boy, from my time spent in France last summer, who traced my thigh with his tongue and moaned, “I love how Asian guys taste.” Sophomore year of college, there was the white boy from Grindr who, during our customary exchange of pleasantries—that always-uneasy transition from “Hey, what’s up?” to “Got any lube?”—seemed excited to ask, “What kind of Asian are you?” He tagged on a grinning emoji to his question, all cheery.

What kind of Asian am I? How about “bitchy”? Or maybe “manic”?

“Vietnamese,” I obliged. I wondered in that moment if there was a particular answer he was fishing for, if, as his question implied, he believed there to be a wrong type of Asian (me?). In any case, I wanted to pass his test.

That I entertained his demand for my self-identification — an interrogation that when answered by me, could only produce the responses of his approval (fetishization?), disapproval (explicit racism), or seeming ambivalence (which hearkens back to the lie of “I don’t see race”) — reflects the ways in which I have and have not dealt with myself, my own self-resentment, with the self that I continue to grade on the apocryphal rubric of “Am I the desirable kind of Asian?”

But my Grindr boy was blonde, green-eyed and “we don’t get to choose what or whom we love,” Maggie Nelson writes. “We don’t just get to choose.”

Perhaps so, but I’d like to think that we can try.

I want desperately to love myself, but eventually we things give up. 

I, as much as the next person, am turned off by the rhetoric, the whole industry, ⁠of self-love, its tricksy fable that loving oneself is a matter of loving one’s reflection. Certainly, this is easier said than done. I’ve smiled in the mirror before.

The mythos of the desexualized, undateable Asian man is a psychic crisis which, until addressed, I fear I will continue to spend much of my life trying to resist and reinforce. Both.

Still, I’m trying. In his poem “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” the eponymous author writes, “The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed. & remember, / loneliness is still time / spent with the world.” I don’t know where my body is headed, hence what the most beautiful parts of my body are, but I do know that loneliness is not the same as aloneness. I feel lonely depending on the hour. Depending on the hour I am with or without others, with myself and the world, always. Lonely, but never alone.

As I write this now, I am lonely but not alone. I admit this not out of exhibitionism but simply to say that it is possible to be lonely in Hong Kong, where I am, a 426-square-mile territory that is home, temporary or not, to approximately 7.4 million people — the world’s fourth-most densely populated region. Each week I sit in an office on the 30th floor of an average skyscraper in the city, listen to myself spew out my most clichéd and curated woes. I listen to Dr. M elucidate my various defense mechanisms: my “intellectualization,” “reaction-formations,” “projections” and so on. We talk together about the “problem” and the “plan.”

At our most recent session, Dr. M told me, “I’m not going to spare your feelings or dumb things down for you anymore.” (Thanks.) “What you’re exhibiting is ‘learned helplessness.’ You like this state you’re in, or at least you don’t want to do anything about it.”

But what was Dr. M referring to? How recently, after a suffocating bout of anxiety but prior to being administered Elavil, I tried to cut off the boy who has given me some of the greatest pleasure and anguish I know? How lately I feel sorry for myself, and then him, in turns? How one night, folded over the countertop in the communal restroom near his apartment — with my ear tucked beneath the faucet and his hands pinning mine to my back, the whole of him shoved inside of me — how I loved him then as I always do? How I love him still, in spite or because of whiteness?

As I proverbially tucked my hair behind my ear, I thought to myself: “The doctors learned of learned helplessness / By shocking dogs,” as Solmaz Sharif recalls in her poem “Desired Appreciation.” 

I straightened in my chair. “I mean, I think things are getting better. I am happy here in Hong Kong, given things.” Was this my reaction-formation?

Dr. M saw through my bullshit. “But how do you want to move forward, Ryan? Let’s address the problem.”

Before Dr. M, I had many problems beside the “problem.” I still do. Nevertheless, my attraction to him, my temporary therapist, a man who seems to take particular pleasure in reiterating the fact that he is a “Brit in Hong Kong” (that raises its own suspicions), does not help. My attraction to Dr. M is entirely the “problem.”

One of the few things keeping me from calling it quits with Dr. M is a passage, from June Jordan’s poem “On a New Year’s Eve,” that for some time I’ve had as my phone screensaver, as a reminder:

“let the world blot
obliterate remove so-
almighty/fathomless and everlasting
(whatever that may be)

it is this time
that matters.”

Beyond “addressing the problem” or finding a partner or even loving myself, I want most of all to remember: When shit hits the fan and all hell breaks loose, what will I do? When the Muzak stops playing, will I still dance? I want, still, to dance. It is this time that matters. 

Ryan Nhu is a junior majoring in English and law, history and culture.