Mash Wednesday

I was tickled by this announcement I saw in a church Facebook group about a regular women’s meetup that is set for today:

Wed Women’s HG will meet to celebrate our relationships with our forever bae/valentine (Jesus) together on this Galentine’s Day. Special activities are planned ehheheheh […] I guess we’ll understand if you have plans with a side bae and can’t make hg this wk (or have other compelling reasons) but hope to see you all […]

Ha. Naming Jesus as a Christian woman’s “forever bae”, while the significant other is relegated to being the mere “side bae”, is a clever (if facepalm-worthy) take on the subversion of Valentine’s Day. This is also combined with a reference to Galentine’s Day (shoutout to Parks & Rec!), and as a whole, I am in favor of this multi-layered approach to minimizing the importance of such a shallow consumerist holiday.

It’s especially nice because American churches have often been the worst offenders when it comes to making single people feel less worthy than those who are married (#blessed) and have children (#befruitfulandmultiply). I mean, sure it’s nice to show appreciation to your significant other, but partnered people are reminded to do this pretty much all the time. Love your neighbor, love your enemy, love your children, love your spouse. Who has ever heard a sermon on loving the single people in our community?

I’ve never had a Valentine! And I don’t really mind. I pay less attention to this holiday than to the Olympics, and I’ve only watched about five minutes of this year’s Winter Olympics so far. What’s nice about this year, though, is that I have a very good reason to focus my attention elsewhere: today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

For many Christians, this day is meant to kick of a forty-day period of somber reflection. You often hear of people “giving up” something for Lent (meat is traditional; entire meals for the radical; social media for Millennials); the point of fasting is to rid oneself of distractions and, arguably, to “suffer” just enough to remember that our lives are quite temporary but that eternal life is always ours.

I personally did not plan to give up anything for Lent this year, but I am planning to observe a spiritual practice each morning for the next few weeks through Our Daily Rice. I am very excited about this devotional, because it was created grassroots-style by members of the Progressive Asian American Christians community (read more about it here!). There are precious few resources or creative outlets that exist for people with that curious intersection of identities. (In the words of a friend, we are “a rare breed”!)

The devotional will go through the Gospel of John, and it includes writings that give voice to the marginalized, music and performance art, and really cool queer and feminist takes on stories you may already know. It was created by us and for us, but I firmly believe that anyone with any identity may benefit from it. We could all use a little extra spirituality in our lives. And some of us are actually hiding from God in our religiosity. It’s always good to get a different perspective.

For example, the first entry in the devotional (Lent Day 1, John 1:1-28) is about the goodness and light within us. When I reflect on that, I begin to think of how so much value is placed on our relationships with other people (whether it is on Valentine’s Day or any other day), but relatively speaking, we tend to minimize the inherent value that an individual has, not contingent on anything they’ve achieved or anyone else they are connected to.

Today, and every day, I hope that you take some time to appreciate that you are fundamentally a worthwhile person. It does not matter if someone did not give you flowers and chocolate today. It does not matter if someone did. Regardless of what gifts and words of affection are being exchanged in a whirlwind around you, it does not change that you were beautifully and intentionally created. You are the greatest gift. And you will definitely outlast flowers and chocolate.

I hope that you enjoy Our Daily Rice, and look out for the entry written by yours truly!



Word of the Day: Quadragesima is the Latin name for Lent, and it means “Fortieth”. The etymology of Lent is a bit more interesting, actually. Originally, the season was called “Lenten”, but this may have been historically reanalyzed as “Lent” + “-en” (a suffix that denotes the adjectival form of a word, as in “earthen”, “wooden”, “golden”), leaving just “Lent” as the name. As for the original name, “Lenten” comes from the Old English word lencten, which as you can probably tell at first glance, is cognate with our modern word “lengthen”. In fact, lencten means “springtime” and refers to the lengthening of days as spring approaches. In many other languages, the name for Lent just means “forty days”, as in Latin (French: Le Carême, Spanish: Cuaresma, Korean: 사순절, Greek: Σαρακοστή), or something like the word “fast” (Swedish: Påskfastan, Romanian: Postul Mare, German: Fastenzeit, Hebrew: התענית). English is the odd one out in having appropriated ancient pagan traditions to name Christian holy days. (Easter is a better-known example.)

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I learned today that Cris Alvaro passed away this past week. They died by suicide. The news caught me completely by surprise. Cris and I were not close friends, but I admired their work in advocacy for trans issues and equality in STEM education, and I was always floored by the creativity they put into their drag costumes. I remember the first time I met them, at a wonderful dinner party hosted by a friend in the Oakland hills. I kept stealing glances across the outdoor patio because this person dressed in black with golden jewelry had a nice smile, and such impeccable style. That aesthetic sense definitely shone through in everything they did. In so many ways, really, Cris lived a life of beauty.

It seems incomprehensible that such a tragedy could happen to someone as gentle and loving. But that’s the reality: as important as mental health is, it is so extraordinarily easy to overlook. I knew, and most people in Cris’ circles knew, that they went through occasional rough patches. I reached out from time to time. We exchanged virtual hugs and encouraging notes, without ever going into the details.

I’m looking back right now at messages we exchanged over Facebook and Instagram. The latter is so sad because we commented on each other’s Instagram stories, but the stories themselves disappear soon after they’re posted. Last June, they posted something, and I wrote, “Oooh, awesome!”, and they wrote, “Thanks!”. In July, I wished them congratulations. I have no idea what I was congratulating them for; I can’t remember what was so awesome. Sometimes, the context gives a clue. We bonded over a shared love of Pokémon and long, extravagantly colored hair. A year ago, I posted a video of myself singing Demi Lovato’s “Stone Cold”, and they told me they loved that song and had lip synced to it for a drag performance, which made me so happy.

The last time I commented on their Instagram story was on January 19th, just two weeks ago. Recent enough that I remember what it was: a photo of a journaling exercise they’d done recently to challenge misconceptions about “interpersonal effectiveness”. I actually just went back to their Instagram and discovered that they’d posted the photo permanently on their account: a sheet of paper filled with neat writing in purple ink. I found the line that struck me when I had first seen it: “Myth: People are either victims or villains. Challenge: People are complicated. This false binary is neither true nor useful.”

Cris identified as trans and non-binary. They pushed hard in a field that was not yielding to change, going way above and beyond what most people expect from a PhD. They had a vision of doing more than just contributing to science, but improving the image and community of science itself, so that it would be more diverse and more welcoming to people like them. This is the kind of work that benefits everyone, whether they fall in the binary or not. Cris led a life that turned passion and creative energy into joy for all to see. The world has lost a brilliant light, and I want to remember how brightly and fabulously it sparkled.


I just loved that blue mermaid hair!


Word of the Day: In drag culture, to be “dusted” means to look perfect or flawless while in drag. The opposite is to be “busted”. I’d say Dr. Aequorea Victoria (Cris’ drag persona) qualifies as dusted, especially in the photo above. Slay that feather boa, gurl!

P.S. Please consider donating to Cris’ family’s memorial fund. The money raised will go toward the social issues that Cris was devoted to. It’s such a blessing that their family was supportive of their gender identity; many trans, non-binary, and queer people face huge hurdles in life because they have very little in the way of support networks.

P.P.S. If you or someone you know if suffering from depression, know that help is available and that it is never a sign of weakness to seek it. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255, available 24/7, and you can also visit

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Race in Linguistics (Who gets to study us? Part 1)

After any academic talk, such as a presentation given on one’s current research, there is time left for the audience to ask questions and offer feedback to the presenter. In our department’s regular colloquium series, for which big-name linguists come to speak, we have a new tradition of having a student ask the first audience question. It was recently implemented because there were some overeager faculty members who would always dominate the Q&A period, and some students felt like they weren’t getting a fair chance to express their views.

While I appreciate that a student always has the privilege of speaking first now, I have never used this privilege, because I rarely speak up at colloquia. Until recently, in fact, over three years of regularly attending these talks, I had never asked a single question of our guest speakers. Mostly it was because I couldn’t think of a “good” question to ask, one that would make the speaker actually think, or say, “Hey, that’s a good question!” and in so doing help me feel like I was valuable to this academic community. Sometimes, another student would ask something similar to what I was thinking.

But at a recent colloquium talk, I thought of something that was 1) directly relevant to the speaker’s ideas, 2) actually a pressing matter on my own mind, and 3) not likely also to be asked by many other students. So I asked my first colloquium question! It was addressed to Anne Charity Hudley, a linguist at UC Santa Barbara, whose talk was about race and linguistics.

I mean, that subject matter alone is fascinating. But take a look at the talk abstract:

Race has been integral to how languages have been defined over time and to how linguistics has developed as a discipline. Furthermore, both the humanistic and scientific studies of language have served to racialize individuals and communities. In order to work towards greater racial justice within linguistics, the challenge remains for linguists to develop a cohesive theory of race that is influenced by researchers of different methodological approaches and racial backgrounds.

Through examples from her work on language and culture in U.S. schools, Charity Hudley presents ways that raciolinguistic ideologies are reproduced and contested in linguistic research on African-Americans. She provides insights on ways that linguistic research can empower African-Americans’ own self-concepts of their language. Her model suggests methodologies for addressing persistent issues of internalized racism in students and educators. […]

Wow, right? This kind of linguistics you don’t come across every day. In theoretical linguistics, most of the talks go something like this: “I have a hypothesis about a certain phenomenon that happens in one or several languages. Here’s some data that supports or rejects that hypothesis. Here’s my conclusion, and here’s what we should study next.”

Anne did not only show us charts and graphs and hypotheses and results. It wasn’t a talk that focused on theoretical issues in linguistics. It wasn’t even a talk that focused on issues in applied linguistics (which is where language science intersects with education, speech pathology, translation, etc.). Her talk was actually about linguistics itself — the field of study as an object of study — and how it has been used as a tool to serve the goals of certain socially constructed ideologies (i.e., race). To put it plainly, it was a meta analysis of the entire world I work in, and it blew my mind.

It was like when I started to study Christianity from a theoretical and historical perspective and discovered that many truths I had taken for granted or believed to be incontestably true were actually decided upon by ancient councils of scholars or even recent developments in Protestantism that didn’t necessarily have a basis in the religion’s holy scriptures.

So it’s not like I was literally unaware that linguistic ideas have been used to motivate racially prejudiced policies (for a local example, see the Oakland Ebonics Resolution). My epiphanic moment was more along the lines of, “Wow, how come more people don’t do this kind of research?” And I was also happy to see that Anne Charity Hudley doesn’t just write books on race and linguistics, but also holds linguistic workshops for racial minorities and advocates for educational reform both in standard public education and within the rarefied halls of the ivory tower. The message: we need more racial diversity and better racial education in Linguistics.

So, back to the question that I asked. It went something like this: “As a Black woman who studies African American speech, do you ever feel pigeonholed by your field of research, in the sense that, as a linguist who is also an ethnic minority, you feel either a sense of obligation to study your own ethnicity or a slight dismissiveness from other academics because you’ve specialized in this particular area? What I’m getting at is the subtle but pervasive idea that seems to exist in academia, that White scholars, especially White men, are free to study anyone and anything they like, and it’s just chalked up to their personal interests, but if I, as an Asian American, study Asian American communities, or if there’s a woman who studies female speech patterns, then the response is usually, ‘Oh, but of course.’ Know what I mean?”

It was a long-winded question.

But Anne knew what I meant. I didn’t even have to explain that my own research projects are on Asian American speech patterns and LGBTQ individuals forging their identities, and that I sometimes feel like when I explain that I study these things because I’m interested in them, I also need to provide some sort of postscript: “Oh yeah, and also I’m Asian and queer so it ‘makes sense’ for me to study this.” I’m not allowed to have mere interest in my subject of interest, because it’s socially marked, and I am, too.

But the assumptions run in the other direction, as well. Right now, my focus has been on Korean Americans, and so most people who hear about this before getting to know me well jump to the conclusion that I must be Korean American myself. Or when I talk to my dad about my research and he asks me, “So, when are you going to also study Taiwanese Americans?” You know, the community that I actually have an ethnic connection to?

So it’s either: obviously, I study X because I am X; or, why don’t you study Y, Andrew, since you’re Y? This is why I feel pigeonholed from time to time. I imagine that it must be the same for a lot of social scientists who study a minoritized population to which they have some personal connection. (Furthermore, it can be especially aggravating if the field is already dominated by old White men who claim to have the “privilege” of a “neutral positionality” as scholars with no personal ties.)

One thing I could do is try to broaden my research interests and make them more abstract. So instead of, for example, studying the speech patterns of transgender women and seeing how an individual can change over time, I could take that data and funnel it into a more theoretical exploration of phonetic drift, or exemplar models of speech, or something else that has nothing to do with transgender identity or any social issues at all. This is the direction my dissertation committee is likely to advise me to take, so that my work can have the broadest possible audience. (But that makes me wonder: who is my intended audience, and why?)

I had the good fortune of choosing my own research projects. I’m not just following in my adviser’s footsteps. I’m doing what I want to do. So why is it that sometimes I feel inadequate for doing so? Am I just insecure about my work because it isn’t as grounded in theory as others’? Am I insecure because sociolinguistics already gets a bad rap for being among the handwaviest of linguistic subfields? Or because literally all of my undergraduate linguistics professors, and all but two of my teachers and mentors at Cal, were and are White people who do not just study White people’s language, and I feel the need to emulate that? Am I just overthinking this? Maybe it’s not such a big deal if somebody jumps to the conclusion that I study Koreans because I’m Korean. It probably comes as no surprise that I’ve spent a lot of my intended research time brooding over the “meta” stuff.


Interpretation is up to you. Salt Lake City, Utah.

While I was thinking all of this, though, Anne Charity Hudley actually did answer my question, and her response was perfect. She said that up until graduate school, she had never felt insecure or pigeonholed as a minority, because she had the great fortune of attending a high school and college where the scholars who were her mentors and role models all looked like her, and also studied anything and everything they desired. It was at their encouragement that she began studying the linguistic patterns of the Black community, and because of that, she was inured against the insecurities that could have arisen once she went to graduate school and realized that she had become a token minority.

She said: “Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior for studying whatever you study.” More importantly, we have to work within the system and change what the field looks like, so that in the near future, a woman who specializes in women is normalized and their work is not dismissed as “supplemental” to core theoretical issues. A queer person can work on LGBTQ issues without anyone thinking they just settled for it or that they got a free pass into the ivory tower because of their identity.

At the same time, there’s a lot to be said about the “appropriateness” of outsiders studying a marked community. As I mentioned before, thousands of White men study Asian cultures in all of the social sciences and humanities. I don’t think we can look at this and say it is objectively good or bad, but I think we can all agree that Western institutions should also raise up Asian scholars to study Asia, and that to do so, some qualified non-Asian candidates must be passed over for jobs. And I’m thinking about this for myself, too, because I hold an intersection of identities. I may be queer, but I’m not a woman, so what’s the protocol for when I embark on a research project that focuses on queer women? I’ve got a follow-up post in the pipeline that will address this problem.

For now, though, I want to end with some gratitude, as always, for all the opportunities I’ve been given to fulfill my personal dreams of studying such a fascinating subject in such an awesome department. Academia is a messy world, but I am making a home here. I owe this to my teachers and mentors both past and present. And obviously, I don’t hold anything against them collectively for all being White, but what I realize now more than ever is that when I look to the future, I want it to look a little different. I want my role in academia to be someone who does great research and who can connect it to his personal experiences and identity and feel neither any uneasiness for centering it nor the obligation to do so at all. And as I do this, I’ll want to create that encouraging environment for other minorities in academia who follow me, so that they’ll be able to do their best work and worry less about the meta stuff.


Word of the Day: a dogsbody is a person who is given boring, menial tasks to do. This is British slang that came from the Navy, as it was originally used to refer to a type of pease pudding, but then came to be associated with the low-level officers who had to make it.

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I resolve to do this, I resolve to do that… The plans we make at the beginning of a year are usually in response to areas in our lives that we feel are lacking. They may even be the consequence of a personal problem in need of a strong, determined solution. Hence, the resolution.

The funny thing is that we do this over and over again, year after year. Some of the goals I have set for myself have remained the same since I was in high school (be a better son, stop going to bed so late, etc.). I promised myself I’d change in 2017, and I didn’t really, so here we go again. Hence, the re-solution.

Well, I wanted to keep it very simple this year. I’m not a passion planner kind of person; I make lists and forget about them; I have astoundingly little discipline. I think that if I focus on just a few things, I’m more likely to follow through. So here’s my “GPS” for 2018, a handy acronym to guide me throughout the year:

  1. Gain. This is a direct response to having injured my back at the very end of last December, possibly from weightlifting. I’ve been to physical therapy and the primary suggestion was rest and stretching. So, I have not been to the gym in a few weeks, and I’ve somehow lost even more weight. Last year, my goal was to increase my weight — in muscle — by fifteen pounds. Instead, I lost five. This year, I’m trying again for them gainZ: getting back the weight I lost and then some; rehabilitating my back with weekly yoga; and doing it in time for a Spartan Race that I’m planning to run in June.
  2. Publish. This is for my academic career. I’ve been sitting on completed or nearly-completed work for months or even years, and I’ve never felt confident enough about it to send it to a journal for consideration. Well, this is the year that changes. I have to go on the job market for the first time this fall, and the one thing I’m sorely lacking is a published academic article. In fact, my goal is to get two under review by December. I’ve gotta start somewhere, so check back with me in February and see if I’ve sent one out yet.
  3. Serve. This was inspired by a sermon I heard at my brother’s church, where the pastor talked from Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” I want to help other people more, just for the sake of helping. I’d like my motto for this year to be, “How can I help?” Not for the sake of asking, either. It’s not about appearances or the need to be useful. Later on in the letter, it encourages Christians to “do everything without grumbling or arguing”; if I say I’m going to help out and I’m given a task, I’d better follow through with it cheerfully or respectfully, the way Jesus would have done. This is all meant to lead to a greater sense of humility, which I will be the first to admit is very difficult for me. I have crazy overweening pride. But… baby steps, right?

Thanks for reading! You have now been tasked with keeping me accountable for these resolutions. If you share yours, I’d be happy to check in with you occasionally, as well!


Word of the Day: nociception, from the Latin nocere ‘to hurt’, is the nervous system’s response to harmful or potentially harmful stimuli. In most cases, when the nerve cells are stimulated in this way, it leads to the sensation of pain. Thus, the feeling of pain can be differentiated from its root cause. Of course, feeling pain doesn’t always mean that there’s immediate danger. These days, when I stretch my back in the mornings, I feel soreness and some pain, but it’s more because of the past injury than because the stretch itself is causing harm. My nociceptors are just sensitive! I’ve gotta be kinder to my body; gonna keep that in mind even as I focus on the more aggressive parts of resolution #1.

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(Cheng, 2017)

Hooray, I’ve been published!

… But not in an academic journal. I wrote a short personal essay for the Graduate Division website about my trip to Finland this past summer to attend the International Circle of Korean Linguistics conference. (You may have read about it previously here.)

The style is exactly the same as something I would write on this blog, so I thought I’d share it here. Read about my experiences in Helsinki — again — here!

On the subject of Finland, I recently watched the biopic Tom of Finland, about the world-famous erotic artist who endured persecution in his home country but found fortune on the sunny shores of California. After watching it, I messaged my Finnish friends and talked about it. One of them told me a lot of scenes had been filmed in Helsinki, but I didn’t recognize them. Anyway, I do recommend the film: stellar acting (as far as I could tell; half of it is in Finnish), an attractive cast, a compelling period story that doesn’t overly glorify its protagonist, and a sobering reminder of what the LGBTQ community has experienced in the past (and continues to experience, in many places, today).

By the way, the title of this blog post is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the way my name might be cited in a legitimate academic publication. That’ll have to wait until next year. I’m supposed to clean up my latest qualifying paper and submit it to a journal, though that project is sort of on hold as I write my dissertation prospectus, to be turned in by the end of December.


Word of the Day: sisu is a Finnish term that encapsulates grit, courage, doggedness, passion, and perseverance in the face of continued failure. The people of Finland say that sisu best describes their national character. I guess I should try to channel their sisu over the next few weeks as I struggle to complete the last milestone of my graduate career before filing the dissertation itself!

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Here is a small gem from class that I want to remember. This exchange took place during an introductory phonetics class in which I am a graduate TA.

Professor X: Now, if you know the length of a person’s vocal tract, you can easily calculate the frequencies of the formants of the vowels they produce using this formula…
Student: Professor, how do you measure a person’s, um, vocal tract length?
Professor X: Well, first you die, and then we take it out of you.
[Entire class laughs]
Other TA: This is why we love Professor X.

Okay, now reading this in retrospect, it sounds awfully morbid. I promise that it was very funny in the moment, though.

This semester, I am teaching an introductory phonetics course as a graduate TA, which means that I don’t give the lectures, but I do lead three smaller discussion sections, with a total of about fifty students. I really enjoy this part of being a graduate student, and as I tell everyone who asks me what my future plans are, it’s because I believe teaching is one of my talents and something I definitely want to keep at the forefront of my career as a linguist. Which means that one day I would like to be like Professor X… maybe with a slightly different sense of humor, though! I crack jokes all the time during discussion sections, and I really do wonder whether my students think I’m funny or just incredibly awkward.

I’m grateful for the privilege of having the time and resources every week to influence, even in small ways, a group of very smart and talented young people. I know that I’m not just teaching them linguistics, but that other things I say or do in class, even offhand or subconsciously, is being picked up and encoded somewhere in their minds. That’s why I try hard to make my classroom completely accessible, fair, friendly, and tolerant. There are simple things an instructor can do to help all of their students achieve. For example, I can give the class problems to work out in small groups, then walk around and help the individual who is struggling get to the answer, and finally call on that student to explain their findings in front of the whole class, which boosts their confidence.

Unfortunately, there are also simple things an instructor can do that can unintentionally set a student on the course to failure, such as a microaggression or a flippant remark about a mistake they made. I have a tendency to ramble when I give my own lectures, and I do worry that I’ll say something stupid that will have an adverse reaction with a student and cause them to lose their trust in me. It’s tough, but I think it’s important to learn how to maximize the opportunities for student achievement and minimize the risk of alienation. On top of figuring out the actual course material, this is one of the more interesting aspects of teaching. (Plus, it’s one of the aspects of teaching, given the human element and the need for improvisation and mindfulness, that a robot cannot replicate, at least not yet…)

I will, of course, joke about my students from time to time, but don’t get me wrong: I care deeply about all of them. I care about their educational attainment, I care about their mental health, and I care about their physical safety. That’s why the other TA in the class and I decided to allow all students an excused absence last week during the height of the “Free Speech Week” debacle during which anti-fascist protests overtook parts of campus and the predicted presence of a huge contingent of the alt-right, plus a minor bomb scare, understandably made some students fearful of coming to school. We feel that our role as instructors in a public university carries with it a tad more authority than just that of experts in the subject matter. I want to demonstrate that we can be role models, too. And with our authority comes responsibility. It was the responsible thing for us to send a message to our students telling them to be safe, and telling them that they were all valued regardless of their religion, ethnicity, legal status, sexual orientation, or gender.

Every day I understand more and more, usually from firsthand experience, what it takes to be an excellent teacher. As long as I am “in school”, or part of an academic institution, I would very much like to continue learning. In fact, I don’t want to stop learning new things until the day that I die. And then you can take my vocal tract out and measure its length.


Word of the Day: keen — in this case, the noun/verb keen that is derived from the Irish caoine, not the adjective — is a wailing lament for the dead, or the act of mourning. My heart goes out to the families of the victims of the Las Vegas massacre. END GUN VIOLENCE THROUGH STRICTER GUN REGULATION NOW. Call your Congressional representatives and shame them if they do not support legislation that brings the United States one step closer to all those other Western countries that don’t experience massacres like this one on a regular basis. My lament starts with words and ends in action.

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The Word of Your Body

Who gets to be body positive? Asking for a friend.

Actually, no, I’m asking for myself. A word of warning: this post is going to sound very self-centered, because I am going to talk about my own body for a couple thousand words. (That’s worth a picture or two, but I’m not posting any here!)

A few months ago, at my college reunion, I ran into a friend whom I hadn’t talked to in five years. Of course, we’d been following each others’ lives through Facebook during that time period, so it wasn’t as if I’d completely lost touch.

“Heyyy! How’s grad school? What year are you in again? And what program are you in again? And what school? Oh, yeah, that’s totally awesome.”

Social media does weird things to friendships. But that’s a topic for another time.

What really intrigued me about our encounter, which occurred while we were both fairly drunk, was this: at one point he put his arm around me and said, very earnestly, “Andrew, listen, I’ve seen your photos on Instagram and DAMN you been working out! You look so good!” Before I could even say thanks, he went on, “I’m really inspired by your body positivity, man. Look, us Asian males are so emasculated by society, today, know what I mean? We don’t get to be hot. But you, putting yourself out there with no shame, it’s a good thing. I really mean it. Keep it up, bro.”

This was at first amusing, and then embarrassing, and then thought-provoking. Amusing because I thought he was just drunk rambling. Embarrassing because attention was being drawn to my habit of sharing photos of myself that I like in a quasi-public arena. Thought-provoking because he associated it with the concept of body positivity.

Let’s go deeper into this. Lots of people post photos of themselves on Facebook and Instagram. If their outfit looks good, if their hair is cooperating, if their makeup is on point: “Wait, let me take a selfie!” The shot gets posted, the likes start flowing, and the content creator gets a small boost of self-esteem. Some would call it vanity. Honestly, these are just two points on the long and complex spectrum of personal dignity. But I digress.

Fewer people, though still a good number of them, post photos of themselves that highlight their bodies, rather than (or maybe in addition to) other parts of themselves such as clothes or makeup. Maybe they just finished a workout and want to pose in the gym mirror to create a record of their progress. Maybe they like the way their legs look at a certain angle, in a certain light that they just happened to notice. Maybe it’s a hella hot day, so they’re wearing a crop top or no shirt at all, and their friend took a picture, and why not post it? It’s summer, they’re having fun.

Well, I’m one of those people. I post photos of myself that allow others to see my body. A quick look at my own social media pages reveals: fifteen percent (six out of forty) of the photos I’ve tagged myself in since January of this year are photos of myself without a shirt on. My Instagram account is a worse offender: nearly one third of my “me” photos are unsubtle shots of my abs. And while I may jokingly deny any ulterior motive if you bring this up with me in person (“Come on, it’s just a photo of me at the beach!”), I’ll be perfectly honest here: of course it’s about the attention. Of course it’s about getting comments. Like, yes, I want to show people where I’ve been, what I’m doing, I want to my friends to know that I’m alive and well, blah bah blah. But, also, I’ve been working out for years, and you know what? I have something to show for it, and I would like that to be acknowledged, especially by those who knew me when I was a skinny little kid who couldn’t do a single pull-up.

This helps me put into perspective what my friend told me back at the reunion party. He may have been drunk, but he was completely serious: Asian men who grow up in American or Western cultures have to live with the stereotypes of being weak and unmasculine (along with perpetual foreignness and emotional unsophistication). The manliest of men are, according to all mainstream advertising and entertainment media, tall, white, blue-eyed, and broad-shouldered. They have chiseled jaws and abs; they look like Greek statues (which used to be painted in vibrant colors but are now, well, all white). Men of Asian descent are unlikely to have blue eyes; our limbs and torsos are differently proportioned; we are not White. We will never be White. We will never escape emasculation, but what we can work on is our musculature.

I was a skinny kid and I was never interested in sports. But I am competitive, and I also hold fast to ideals. So I set goals for myself. I want to run races. I want to squat three hundred pounds. I want to gain muscles. And I want to look good.

There’s a very good question I know some of you are asking yourselves: Andrew, why on earth are you ascribing to white American standards of male beauty, anyway? Screw them and their definition of what it means to “look good”; dismantle the system that continues to give more power and influence to people who all arbitrarily look a certain way. What’s wrong with the abs-less version of yourself, anyway?

I fully acknowledge that line of reasoning. I don’t want to give any more power to embodied racist ideologies. But it’s also true that my performance-based goals and my physique-based goals are very closely intertwined. I know, of course, that they don’t have to be. Perfectly healthy and very fit people come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve just noticed that there’s a close relationship between how many shoulder presses I can do and how well my shoulders themselves fill out the t-shirts I wear. My current goal is to get to 5*5@110, or five sets of five repetitions at 110 pounds, and also to increase the roundness of my deltoids. I mean, one of these goals is specific and measurable in the way that most goals should be, and the other sounds pretty vague and vain, but the point is that both motivate me equally.

Now here’s the tricky part. I talk about my workout routines pretty often, my friends and colleagues all think I basically live at the gym, and yes, I am shameless about the photos I post that demonstrate progress toward my goals. Is this body positivity? I’m actually unsure. When that phrase gets thrown around these days, it’s mostly in the context of self-esteem education, like, “It doesn’t matter what your body looks like, you should love yourself and take care of yourself. You are beautiful.” I get that a lot of this messaging (and marketing) is aimed toward people, especially women, who are on the larger end of the spectrum of human body sizes. This is obviously because American culture currently prizes a certain type of thinness for women, and a different type of skinniness (also paired with a specific musculature) for men. So, those who fall outside of the narrow window, which for a majority of Americans means being rounder and heavier than the ideal, are regularly subjected to shame and disapproval from every direction, especially in the form of microaggressions.

Body positivity is, as I understand it, a movement to counter this by reminding all people that they should not feel like they have to look a certain way to be happy, that not all healthy people are thin (and not all thin people are healthy), that the body you’ve been given is amazing just the way it is.

But because it’s essentially only the larger folks before whom body positivity is paraded as the key to happiness, won’t we inevitably see a semantic shift toward polite euphemism? What I mean is, “body positive” will soon only be associated with large people since they are at the physical and referential center of its use in society. “He’s body positive” will be interpreted as, “He’s fat, but (at least) feels good about it.”

Can skinny people be body positive, too? (I can imagine the argument that people who have experience with certain eating disorders or self-harm may also want to reclaim ownership of their bodies, and in so doing adopt a spirit of body positivity despite also being very thin.) How about people whose bodies are really quite average, in the statistical sense? Not fatter than average or skinnier than average, not a super sculpted physique, either. What does embracing body positivity look like for them?

And lastly, is it possible to be body positive if you have trained your body for years to look like Wonder Woman or Black Panther, if you’re incredibly ripped or toned or swole or whatever, and you post photos of yourself flexing in gym mirrors, and you caption them #fitfam #gainz #nevergiveup #beachbody #selflove and also #bodypositive… Hey fit fam, how do we feel about this? Is their appreciation of their bodies somehow different, because contextually their bodies are glorified by the majority of society and not just themselves? My gut says yes, but I am not, well, positive…

So I’m asking again: who gets to be body positive? Who gets to claim ownership of a part of this movement? If only those who fall short of the cultural ideals do, then will they ensconce themselves in a bubble of affirmation? If those who physically embody those ideals do, does it smack of insincerity? Do we have to take into context the reality that people’s bodies are capable of change, and that many, if not most, of us genuinely desire for our bodies to conform to an ideal that looks different from their current state?

I like that when I search the #bodypositive hashtag on Instagram, I am returned images of a large variety of people: black and white, curvy and thin, chubby and muscled and both (#transformationtuesday), mostly women but no shortage of men, either. What this tells me is that, at least in the here and now, anyone can feel free to use this as their personal mantra and incorporate it into their version of showing off online.

And I maintain that there’s nothing inherently wrong with showing off online. Oops, did I go there? Yes, yes, I know. “All is vanity”, Solomon declared; everything that is of this world, including our bodies, is ultimately meaningless and will waste away. Our lives are so short, why bother trying to look good? Why put in so much effort to gain others’ approval or arouse their jealousy? I am almost ready to chastise myself for taking my focus off of the spiritual and eternal in even writing this post.

On the other hand, while the looming impermanence of our lives can be instantly sobering, it’s also true that from our own perspective as humans, life can be long, and it can be fulfilling in the physical realm. Our bodies are temples; we are meant to take care of them through exercise and healthy living. We are even meant to enjoy them. We were created to delight in one another. I see no reason why a person’s physique, or a creative outfit they’ve conjured up, or even their smile, should be restricted from being a source of joy to those around us (unless it comes at the heels of abuse or narcissism).

In the end, well, I’m not sure what kinds of concluding remarks I can make. Let’s see. I was mystified at being commended for my body positivity, because I thought that the phrase could only be used by those who have been shamed for their bodies. But as an Asian male, the archetype of my body has rarely been praised, even though as a skinny person, I’ve never had to experience fatphobia, either. I wondered if body positivity could be fairly used by people whose bodies are always regarded positively, and then I explored the slight tension between appreciating the things of the physical world and keeping one’s focus on the metaphysical one.

For me, at the moment, I think that embracing and advocating for body positivity should mean that you take care of your own body and love it every step of the way toward any goal that you have in life. I also think that you should actively unlearn the warped ideals of American beauty that you have probably unconsciously adopted just by virtue of having grown up here (if you grew up here), and embrace the beauty in all other people regardless of body type (or skin color, or height, or hairline, or whatever). But I might still hesitate before using the hashtag on my own selfies when I post them, unless I offer an appropriate context (e.g., claiming #bodypositive ownership of my Asian appearance in defiance of White norms).

So that’s where I’m at now, and I would be so intrigued to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the matter. Leave a comment below!


Word of the Day: panniculus, from the Latin pannus meaning cloth, refers to a layer of tissue, usually subcutaneous fatty tissue around the abdomen. In other words, belly fat. Everyone has belly fat. It’s totally normal to have belly fat. Don’t worry about it.

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