Author: Gene Cajayon is a filmmaker based in Long Beach, California. His credits include The Debut, the groundbreaking Filipino American feature film starring Danté Basco.
These are heady, uncharted times for the Asian Pacific American community. The global phenomenon that is Jeremy Lin has been truly unprecedented, and has the entire world debating myriad complex questions about race and identity. As a filmmaker who is interested in issues of masculine identity, especially with regards to minority communities, the past month has indeed been exhilarating and, at times, frustrating. And as a die-hard basketball and Lakers fan, the last few weeks have been something out of a Disney movie, except that if a couple months ago you pitched Jeremy Lin’s story to any Hollywood studio executive you’d have been laughed out of the room.
While the issues that Linsanity brings to fore are nothing new, the amount of attention said issues are receiving is. However, it was less than a year ago when the APA community had its last pop culture moment, with the publication of Amy Chua’s controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Wesley Yang’s New York magazine piece Paper Tigers. The spotlight didn’t shine as bright, but the related issues are no less important.
You may recall the furor that Chua’s book created, driven in no small part by good old-fashioned American xenophobia. Overnight, the term “Tiger Mom” became part of the national vocabulary as we debated the merits of academic achievement versus self-esteem, negative versus positive reinforcement. Underneath it all was a provocative thesis: that strict Asian style parenting could be superior to Western style parenting.
Fair or not, Yang’s Paper Tigers came to be viewed as the Asian male response to the Tiger Mom phenomenon. While not quite the lightning rod for controversy that Chua’s book was, it nonetheless rankled quite a few APA intellectuals and hipsters with its rather in-your-face assertion that the hard-working but non-threatening adult that Tiger parenting creates is often at a disadvantage in Western society. Sure, your Tiger Mom may push you to get into Harvard and graduate at the top of your class (or encourage your hoop dreams), but your Asian features and meek mannerisms, if left unchecked, can doom you to a life of middle-management and sexual frustration.
It is a thesis I largely agree with. And if the visceral reaction to Jeremy Lin is any indication, most Asian Americans are clamoring for role models that subvert the stereotype of the passive Asian. For me, as a generation 1.5 immigrant father of 13 and 11 year old boys, the issue of the invisible Asian banging his head against the Bamboo Ceiling and never getting the girl cuts deep and close to home. It is the reason why themes of minority masculine identity and empowerment run prominently through all my movies.
It was a few days after I read Yang’s article that I met JT Tran, the pickup artist (PUA, or dating coach if you’re feeling more PC) profiled in Paper Tigers. In the article he was held up as one of the more controversial examples of what APA men are doing to challenge the status quo and take control of their lives. I had heard of JT several years prior while researching a screenplay for an interracial romantic comedy about an Asian American pickup artist, but had never met him in person. As part of my research (and for personal curiosity and self-improvement, of course!) I had met, interviewed, and audited classes with many of JT’s contemporaries, but he was the last high profile Asian American PUA I had yet to meet. We sat down for dinner and next thing I knew, I was attending one of his PUA bootcamps that was also being taped for a story on Nightline.
For the uninitiated, PUA’s are part of the unfortunately named pickup community - a worldwide, semi-underground subculture of men who, through the internet and live training events, improve their dating skills with women. For most men who want to learn pickup, the first step beyond reading about the community is to take a PUA bootcamp, which usually takes place over a long 3-day weekend. During the day, your PUA/dating coach teaches the basic concepts of how romantic relationships work, from approaching a woman, to building attraction, all the way through to sex and relationship management. At night, your coach takes you out into the “field” (bars, clubs) to put the teachings into practice.
For me the bootcamps were an eye-opening experience, to put it mildly, and introduced me to a world that repeatedly subverted my expectations. Over the course of 2 years of research I met a motley but fascinating group of coaches with colorful nicknames like Vercetti, Tenmagnet, Braddock, and Bonsai (JT keeps it simple - “Asian Playboy”), and dozens more students who were anything but the type of guy most people might think would be at an event like this. Sure, there were some socially awkward misfits who could be Steve Carell’s sidekick in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but they were far outnumbered by perfectly well-adjusted men who simply wanted to elevate their skill with women so they could date who they wanted to on their terms.
If you believe most of the online marketing materials from the many PUA/dating coaches out there, you might think that by taking a bootcamp, you’ll learn super-secret incantations that will magically make any woman you want throw themselves at you. As I suspected, this is merely a bait-and-switch sales pitch.
The calculus is that once they get you in the door and teach you some basic common sense techniques, you’ll buy into the fact that learning how to improve your love life is actually a long-term project. Yes, it is possible for a socially awkward nerd to transform himself into a Casanova, but it takes a complete lifestyle change and a major readjustment of one’s worldview. The level of commitment is significant. For someone who is truly socially inept, the lifestyle change is equivalent to a morbidly obese person committing to a rigorous diet and exercise plan to get down to a healthy weight. Not an overnight endeavor.
Perhaps the greatest surprise for me was how the pickup community is ostensibly a self-help movement. Think Tony Robbins but with a focus on learning how to improve one’s love life. The image of the pickup community being a sleazy group of dudes who teach each other how to manipulate women into no-strings-attached sex is largely inaccurate. The most successful pick up companies, like JT’s ABCs of Attraction, Nick Savoy’s Lovesystems, and Lance Mason’s PickUp 101, espouse a holistic approach where improving your skills with women comes part and parcel with a host of other lifestyle changes to make you a better man. As Neil Strauss wrote in his book on the pickup community, The Game, the best way to pick up girls is to have something better to do than pick up girls.
During my interviews of the community’s top Asian PUA’s, I discovered commonalities that both reinforced and subverted the stereotypes of Asian men. All of them were very high achievers in school and work prior to their induction into pickup. One had his own successful website design business by the time he was 16. Another was on the fast track to a career at Goldman Sachs. JT was literally a rocket scientist. But after following the path their hardworking immigrant Tiger parents paved for them, all became disillusioned with their unbalanced lives. What good is all the money and professional achievement if you have no one to share it with?
In JT’s case, the Bamboo Ceiling kept him from moving up at Boeing, and he came to a difficult realization: the Asian values of working hard, keeping your head down and not rocking the boat don’t always work. Lack of social skills was not only hampering his career, it was keeping him from living the life he wanted. So like his Asian PUA brethren, he chucked his old life, dove headlong into the world of pickup, and applied his Asian work ethic and analytical skills to self-improvement. Eventually he became one of the most sought-after (and highly paid) instructors in the pickup community.
What’s unique about JT and his company ABCs of Attraction is, even though he teaches men of all races, he tailors his pickup philosophy to the specific cultural perspective of Asian and Asian American men. Anecdotally, men of Asian descent make up a disproportionate amount of the pickup community (by some estimates up to a third, even though the Asian population of the US is only 5%). Perhaps it’s out of a fear of limiting their potential customer base, but none of the other pickup companies or instructors have specifically targeted this niche.
So I was interested to see what JT teaches in his culturally-sensitive approach. Turns out his ABCDEF System is quite similar to the Approach-Attraction-Qualification-Comfort-Seduction system pioneered by Mystery, the PUA featured in VH-1’s reality show The Pick-Up Artist. The “Mystery Method” is the foundation for the teachings of nearly all of the pickup courses in the community. It breaks down the seemingly inexplicable dating process into steps one can learn and master, just like any other skill set. For a student who feels overwhelmed by the task of learning how to improve with women, this methodical approach to dating does wonders for assuaging fear and anxiety.
JT takes the basics of Mystery’s system and then addresses problems that are specific to Asian men. For example, the Asian poker face, as JT calls it. It’s an age-old stereotype – the inscrutable Asian. But like many stereotypes, it’s unfortunately based in reality. Many Asian men simply don’t smile enough. So JT has his students practice smiling as they approach a woman for the first time, until it becomes second nature. Or the Asian flush – where an Asian dude’s skin will turn red after one drink. JT’s solution: take a Pepcid AC before you hit the bar. Asian flush gone!
But perhaps the most stereotypically Asian thing about JT’s system is his demeanor as a teacher. Imagine your authoritarian Asian dad. Now imagine he knows how to pick up girls. And he’s pushing you to not only get straight A’s, but also to get off your ass and find a girlfriend. That’s JT. The Tiger Dad of pickup.
For men who are serious about learning pickup, one of the most difficult things is to find an instructor whose philosophy and teaching style mesh well with your personality type. JT’s strict father style is not for everyone, but for those who work well in a no excuses, tough love atmosphere, he can be very effective.
What I admire most about JT is his dedication to empowering his students. He is unabashedly proud of what he does and fervently believes in his cause: empowering Asian men. “Social change through pickup” is what he calls it, even in the face of withering criticism from the media.
The same media that has often treated JT and the pickup community so derisively is also a favorite whipping boy of those who blame it for the passive, invisible image of Asian men in Western society. To hear them tell it, if only there were more Bruce Lees and Jeremy Lins, and fewer Long Duk Dongs, Asian men wouldn’t have such a bad rep in the dating market. As someone who works in entertainment for the express purpose of presenting an empowered, diverse image of America, this argument feels like a cop out. JT agrees the media’s portrayal of Asian men certainly doesn’t help, but he also insists that even if every portrayal of Asian men in Western media was of a positive and sexually potent role model, it still wouldn’t absolve Asian men of the challenge of having to work hard to learn this skill set.
That said, JT also insists there is no inherent bias against Asian men in the dating world. He teaches his students that most women aren’t prejudiced against Asian men, they’re merely neutral to the idea. It’s your responsibility to show her you’re worth her time.
It’s a nice theory, and it probably has helped JT close a few skeptical customers for his services, but the facts just don’t back it up. Study after study has shown amongst the four major ethnic groups, Asian men consistently rank as the least desirable males by a wide margin. For every Asian male-white female marriage in America, there are 3 Asian female-white male marriages. But perhaps the most telling statistic is from a Boston College study of over 20,000 online daters which found that after controlling for all other variables, to achieve the same level of success with a white woman, a Latino male suitor must make $77,000 more per year than a white male suitor. An African American must make $154,000 more per year. The Asian male? He needs to make $247,000 more income per year to equal the attractiveness of a white male in a white woman’s eyes.
(The only other ethnic group that experiences anywhere near this level of prejudice in the dating market is African American women. It was this disparity that piqued my interest in the world of pickup as the basis for a romantic comedy screenplay – and also the reason why the script’s romantic leads are an Asian American male and an African American female.)
For his bootcamp, JT granted Nightline unfettered access, which I thought was a highly risky move. The only other time I observed a pickup event being covered this thoroughly was Lovesystems’ annual Superconference in Las Vegas. The year I attended that much larger event, it was also being profiled by Nightline, and unfortunately the segment’s producer took the easy angle one might expect from a mainstream news source: Look at these jerks! They’re learning how to manipulate women! Tsk tsk.
Call it the Jeremy Lin effect, but host and segment producer Juju Chang took a refreshingly sympathetic view in her piece. Which left me with quite a bit of hope for the future. Thankfully, the level of racial animosity between ethnic groups seems to be decreasing with each passing generation. And my sons now have a plethora of role models, from Jeremy Lin to John Cho to Manny Pacquiao. Could we actually be at the beginning of a new era of racial acceptance, tolerance and equality? Time will tell, but I look forward to the day when a guy like JT Tran doesn’t have to quit his job as a rocket scientist to learn how to pick up girls. Or a filmmaker like myself doesn’t feel the obligation to represent the diversity of his country in his work. That will be indeed be a great day.
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