Why Asian Guys Are On A Roll

After getting divorced from an "All-American guy" she'd been with for 10 years, 31-year-old publicist Lisa Rosevear was ready for something new. She came up with a list of what she wanted in a man: smart, genuine, respectful. Adding it up, it occurred to her that guys who fit the bill were ... Asian, a group she'd never considered romantically before. So when Wayne Chang, a Korean-American Internet journalist, stopped her on the street, the timing was just right. "Cool hair!" he said. "You look just like Astro Girl." Rosevear, a big fan of the Japanese anime character, replied, "I love Astro Girl!" They've been together ever since.

On the surface, this little love story isn't so remarkable. America is full of mixed-race couples, and getting fuller all the time. But 10 years ago, an Asian man dating a white, Hispanic or black woman would have been a rare event. Over the past 30 years, the Asian-American community has gotten used to the idea of Asian women intermarrying. But not Asian men. The 1980 census found nearly three times as many marriages between Asian women and white men than between Asian men and white women. Experts are divided over the causes for the imbalance. One reason may be that many Asian men born in America face strong family pressure to be dutiful sons by marrying appropriate (read: same race, good family) women. Assimilation was often considered a bad thing. Chang says his family told him, "Go forth and multiply--but only with a nice Korean girl." At the same time the message Asian men were getting from society was: you are not the masculine ideal.

But this gender gap has been closing. Asian-American men are marrying outside their ethnic group at a far faster rate than before, according to new research by demographer Larry Hajine Shinagawa. In his forthcoming book, "Asian Americans: Intermarriage and the Social Construction of Love," from Beacon Press, Shinagawa examines marriage-license data in California, and concludes that Asian-American men born in the United States are far more likely to marry women who are white (18.9%), of other Asian ethnicity (22.7%), or another racial minority (6%) than more recent immigrants. Shinegawa expects the trend to continue, and researchers are eagerly awaiting this year's census to confirm what they suspect is an even greater speed-up.

At the same time, the media are redefining their image of Asian-American men, a group previously labeled as weak, sexless and unable to offer the status and security that white men could. Marlon Villa, a Filipino from San Francisco whose wife is white, says the old idea was, "Black guys are studs, white guys have all the power and Asian guys are the nerdy little wimps that women wouldn't glance at."

Charlie Chan was one early stereotype, formal and inscrutable. There were servants, and sneaky villains, and Bruce Lee--who, superman that he was, never got the girl on screen. Then came Jackie Chan, heir to Lee's tradition. "He's a funny martial artist, but are you going to sleep with him?" asks sociology professor Rebecca Chiyoko King of the University of San Francisco. Now, however, a new wave of Asian actors and action heroes--Chow Yun Fat, Rick Yune and Jet Li--are showing that Asian stars can be objects of lust as well as the next guy. (Witness the handsome leading men in "Anna and the King," starring Chow and Jodie Foster, and Yune's recent "Snow Falling on Cedars.") "Jet Li got a deal with Warner Bros. because women in test audiences loved him in 'Lethal Weapon 4'," says Chris Lee, an L.A. film producer who predicts more crossover to come. "You'll definitely be seeing more of the Asian male as romantic hero, instead of just gun-toting villain or sexless geek," he says. Images of Asian fashion models, once confined to the willowy, androgynous "Madame Butterfly" look, are changing, too: designers and advertisers now seem infatuated with a new Asian machismo.

Part of this is undoubtedly about money. It's no coincidence that sexy new images of Asian-American men are popping up on billboards and movie screens, just as the economic and social profile of Asians in America continues to rise. As an ethnic group, Asian-Pacific Islanders have the highest proportion of college graduates (42 percent) and highest median household income ($45,249) in America. Stanford history professor Gordon Chang says the image of Asian-American men has progressed from "son of a laborer or laundryman" to "future Internet millionaire." In the age of Yahoo's cofounder Jerry Yang, traditionally negative stereotypes of Asian males as smart, studious and hardworking become positives. They're practically turn-of-the-century American heroes. All of this has implications in the marriage market, sociologists say. "When you think about marriage patterns," Gordon Chang says, "social position plays a big part in how we evaluate partners."

Wayne Chang is on the front lines of the new vibe. In New York's hyperhip East Village, the ubiquitous presence of Asian males has almost become its own cliche. Chang says Asian men are the next "trophy boyfriends." Rosevear agrees. "It's almost like Asian boyfriends are the fashion accessory of the moment," she jokes.

But not everyone sees interracial dating as a good thing. Asian-Americans in interracial relationships risk being labeled "white-washed" or "race traitors" by members of their own community. Some people oppose interracial dating for fear of losing partners to other groups.

And, warns Shinagawa, all intermarriage still is not equal. He claims the typical Asian man will not gain an equal level of acceptance from marrying white as his Asian female counterpart would. "Does it bring a greater social approval from white America [for the man]?" he asks. "No. Does it bring greater approval from the Asian family? No. It brings no greater regard from any side." Because of that, Shinagawa says, divorce rates for interracially married Asian men are much higher than those for Asian women.

Whatever one's views about intermarriage, most academics see the new dating patterns as a positive development. "Before, we were invisible in America," says Ronald Takaki, a professor of Asian-American history at the University of California, Berkeley. "Now we're immensely visible. We're redefining what it means to be American." And Asian men are redefining themselves.