A few days back, I found an LA Times article online: “To fight K-pop’s influence in China, a club teaches young boys to be alpha males.”
Intrigued, I read it. The author explains that a masculinity crisis has developed in China, thanks to the kinds of celebrities that were on Chinese media. After all, if you ever saw male K-pop stars, you would know how feminine their makeup is, how pretty their dyed hair is, how un-manly their style of dress is! Surely they are the opposite of what a real man is!
The author interviewed several people for the article: a screenwriter who deplored other screenwriters for portraying men as “wimps,” academics who explained the belief that weak men would lead to a weak Chinese nation and of course the founder of the club, who wanted “to get boys to face tough physical challenges ‘in a manly way’” by doing things like playing football and running outdoors shirtless.
All these voices were familiar to me, for I have heard them all my life.
Just last summer, my dad brought me to his Beijing gym and showed me his workout routine. I followed along, since it seemed like a good routine for busy people. But there was tension in the air; this was his latest attempt to make me a nan zi han – a “real man.” It certainly wasn’t the first nor last time my parents would encourage me to go to the gym, take up sports or just go out. They really want me to not be a zhainan — a homebody — or an “indoor chicken.”
This semester, I made it a goal to work out at the Rec Center twice a week —or as much as possible for a busy Hopkins student — following my dad’s routine. Indeed, working out, whether you’re improving your health or appearance, is generally a good thing.
But was I just going to the gym to be a “real man?” What exactly is a “real man?” Is playing sports or exercising a requirement? What about not showing emotion and other such stereotypically masculine traits?
In some ways, my junior year was all about figuring what a real man is, from going to the gym to searching for love. And in a sense, I even joined a club to figure out how to be a nan zi han.
Last fall, I made the fateful decision of joining the Eclectics Dance Group. Now dance — that’s been interesting. It was never something my parents encouraged me to do, unlike, say, tennis or swimming. (Spoiler alert: I’m not good at sports, and I don’t particularly like tennis.) In contrast, my mom got my sister to take dance classes, something she still does to this day.
Stepping into Eclectics practice, you can see the scars of toxic masculinity, as girls outnumber boys by a wide margin while doing an ostensibly gender-neutral activity. It can get worse; in my sister’s final showcases, only one out of around two dozen pieces would feature any male dancers. Between doing something society would not usually expect me to do and trying out something new in general, I felt nervous.
But the months went by. I learned new moves and made new friends. It felt good. I was happy. It’s not a total rejection of traditional notions of masculinity. It’s not like society totally bans men from dancing, and my dad would certainly be happy at how much physical activity I’m getting. But it’s still different. It’s artsy. It’s creative. It’s emotional. It makes us look fabulous.
That might be the secret to becoming a real man, to find your niche in society, to figure out what brings meaning to your life. If you want to play sports and do stereotypically alpha-male things, then go for it. But if you want to dance or do some other decidedly non-alpha-male thing, then also go for it.
This Saturday, Eclectics will join forces with Korean Pop Motion to hold our annual Spring Showcase, “A Dancer’s Guide to the Galaxy.” And like the K-pop stars that Chinese conservatives love to freak out about, we will be dancing on stage, showing the audience how we move our bodies to the beat. Many people will be in the audience; one of them will be my mom, who will see her son dance for the first time.
One showcase will not challenge traditional notions of masculinity. Cultural norms are powerful, and it will take the collective voice of millions to change them. But we don’t need alpha male clubs to teach men how to be “real men.” Men just need two things: themselves and the opportunity to try something different.