MyTake on Identity: Defining My Asian Masculinity

Chiyoung Kim, Contributor
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Chiyoung Kim’s (MBA ’23) summary of an RC’s work-in-progress journey so far in defining his masculinity

Chiyoung Kim, Contributor

I was born in Seoul, Korea on April 21, 1995. I grew up raised by my parents and my maternal grandparents. In this early few 4-5 years of my life, all I knew was that I wanted to grow up to be like my father. In my eyes, he was the paragon of masculinity—especially Korean masculinity.

But Korean masculinity, especially in the ’90s, had a darker undertone to it. Much of its definition came from the military, and as a result had extremely nationalist roots. Men were seen as the breadwinners and heads of house, and were often narrow-minded, traditional, and stubborn. Nationalism is expressed in the love and loyalty to the country, and to this day my paternal grandfather always reminds me to “know [my] roots and never forget that [I am] Korean.”

This was the understanding I had of masculinity and what I was expected to become when my mother and I came to the United States in 2000. My father had paved the way and found a place for us to live in this new country. For a few years, I had a very happy childhood. My parents took me to all the amusement parks—I practically lived in Disneyland and Universal Studios. I learned English and found myself making new friends.

And then the woes of puberty hit me like a freight train. In middle school, I began processing how people perceived Asians. Asians were exotic, ate weird food (which was often weirdly stinky or slimy), and knew kung fu. I asked my mother to stop packing me sumptuous lunch boxes with rice, kimchi, and the amazing banchan of the day just because one person made fun of my food. I began to do everything I could to fit in with American culture and distance myself from my Asianness so I could just fit in.

Part of fitting in was internalizing the American ideal of masculinity. While fundamentally similar to Korean men, American men were supposed to be competitive, assertive, independent, often violent, and quite unfeeling—some of which we identify today with toxic masculinity. Beyond this, at the end of the day in American culture, Asian men were very emasculated and stereotyped. I had come to the US with an idea of what a man was and what I could become in the future. But in this environment I was told Asian men were limited to a ceiling of stereotypes, and there was a massive gulf between that limit and what a true American man was.

The cognitive dissonance only became worse as I progressed through middle and high school. In this era beginning in the late 2000s, there was a hierarchy of men in which Asian men were dead last. Asians were the butt of jokes—chinky eyes, unattractive comedic accents, nerdy but unsociable, and really, really scrawny. Girls would be made fun of if the weird, quiet Asian guy liked them. Exacerbating this was another masculine hierarchy of jock culture—jocks were cool and hot, and nerds really weren’t. I was hit with a double whammy of insecurities only made worse by nicknames such as “anchovy” which still affect me to this day. 

One day something just snapped. I decided that if I could never get physically fit or look cool, I would bet it all on my Asian nerdiness and prove them all wrong.

In high school my identity crisis turned into a perpetual battle to find myself. I always tried to look happy but I was never truly happy—something was missing. My resolution to be the smartest and win with my perceived weakness of Asian nerdiness forced me down a single unwavering path which was: study hard, then win science competitions, then go to college (hopefully Harvard) and then we will see.

I had probably the lowest sense of self-esteem I have ever had. I was never happy with who I was and always tried to add a spin and add something new. I literally wore different hats. I wore a horse mask. I tried to do things with my hair. I tried to learn new hobbies like cooking and sewing—which my mother barred me from because according to Asian traditional roles, “[my] balls would fall off.” There were times when I wondered if anybody would care if I disappeared off the face of the earth.

I somehow pressed on and made my way down the unwavering path. I studied hard, won science competitions, and got into Harvard. Now what?

Dating was…rough. I often heard things like “I don’t date Asians” or “You’re cute for an Asian.” I didn’t think I wasn’t good enough for dating as an Asian man, and thought I could only date Asian girls. To make myself feel more attractive, I tried to look as white (i.e. WASP-y) as possible. I covered what I could about my Asianness—actively shunned some aspects—and ended up chasing superficial things. I bottled up all my feelings. I combed my hair over. I wore boat shoes. I started wearing button downs. I started chasing after what others defined as “manly” and went after vanity and status. I started looking and feeling like a cookie-cutter consultant.

This let me fit really well into my first job. Consulting. I was very unhappy and very exhausted from covering myself, and I spent a year or so fitting myself into a mold of the perfect consultant. After this first year, however, something else snapped in me. I was at my limit of unhappiness and at this point I had truly lost the sense of who I was. Something had to give, and at this point I could not give any more. My realization was that I was at a small firm of ~20 people with too much work to be done, and they could not fire me for simply being myself. I decided that I would make my own definition of masculinity—I had a vision of who I wanted to be and it just didn’t match with what the world expected of me. And it was 2017, so I was lucky that the ideas of masculinity were beginning to change. Korean drama, K-pop, and other phenomena began to introduce new ideas of masculinity, and I was beginning to feel more comfortable being myself as Asians began to be better portrayed in the media.

Thus began my process of embracing who I was and recapturing the passions I had lost. I learned how to cook and sew, and my balls didn’t drop off. I’ve since embraced my Asianness a lot more. I’ve shared the tradition of making kimchi. I’ve grown out my hair. I’ve learned how to do my own makeup and cosplayed at conventions. I’ve found that I love getting manicures. I still dress WASP-y but I choose my outfits because I enjoy wearing them and not because it’s what people perceive as the sexy thing to do (But I’m at HBS so jury may be out on that). And by being myself, I found a partner who truly loves me because I am being myself. And I’m very happy and thankful for that.

As my journey figuring out who I am as an Asian man has unfolded, so has the representation of Asians and the conversation around masculinity itself. It’s come a long way and it’s so good to see this diversity represented but we’re not done yet. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Going forward I want to do what I can to help others fully express themselves more and be more comfortable being who they want to be.

To me, inclusivity and having conversations about these things like masculinity help people who are “others” be treated less like outsiders and just like human beings. And I’d like to encourage you, as “leaders who make a difference in the world,” to start and continue such conversations which can make a difference in others’ worlds.

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Chiyoung Kim (MBA ’23) was born in South Korea, grew up in Los Angeles, and spent the past 8 years in Boston. He worked at Cue Ball Capital for two and a half years before HBS, where he invested and worked across the entire portfolio. He spends a significant part of his leisure time playing video games and eating.