Tight sweatpants and a wife-beater with the slogan "Asian American Men Do It Better" may have helped Robin Sukhadia clinch the win at Hyphen magazine's inaugural Mr. Hyphen pageant in 2006. More likely, though, Sukhadia triumphed by dint of personality and rhetorical skills. In the last section of the competition he was asked to describe a moment when he "felt proud to be an Asian American." Sukhadia said it was the day when, at age 21, he took oath to become an American citizen. He then expounded on the importance of Asian Americans taking part in the immigration debate, which normally centers on Latinos. Though the son of Indian immigrant parents, he actually snuck across the border from his birthplace in Canada. Nonetheless, his biography has all the Dickensian drama of a traditional immigrant experience: Sukhadia's dad ran a motel in Ohio, where the family resided for six years; they were penurious and lived in fear of being deported. The audience was enthralled.
One can become Mr. Hyphen without a hard-knock coming-of-age story, provided he exhibits the other qualities that Sukhadia had in spades: stage presence, charisma, oratorical skills, and showmanship. Sukhadia also is a consummate tabla player; last year's winner, Luke Patterson, raps with the Los Angeles outfit the Aesthetics Crew. The idea, said Hyphen publisher Lisa Lee, is to highlight Asian-American men who defy pop-culture stereotypes.
"Asian American males get no love," said Lee in a recent phone interview. "They play two stagnant roles. One is the nerdy geeky guy that never gets any females and is not even 'the best friend' .... The other is the Asian-American gangster," à la crime boss Larry Wong from King of New York, or the Jet Li character in Lethal Weapon 4. She added that a couple years ago America's Next Top Model featured an Asian-American contestant named Gina who bespoke her ethnic pride when asked why she wanted to be on the show, and then promptly said she's not really into Asian-American men.
The concept for Mr. Hyphen had its genesis at a staff meeting about a year after the magazine's 2003 founding, though it didn't come together until 2006. Still, the idea kept popping up, said former publisher Khuê Ninh, who now teaches literature in the Asian American Studies department at UC Santa Barbara. "We consider ourselves to be stealth progressive," Ninh said, explaining that Hyphen likes to engage stereotypes — of, for example, the exoticized Asian-American female, who would more often be the subject of such beauty pageant-style events — by flipping the script. "We're a very politically informed magazine, but ... we want to make the politics appealing, draw the audience in, and get them to start asking these questions. The humor and the visual appeal of the magazine is very much part of how we try to forward political and social convictions." After two successful runs, the Mr. Hyphen pageant became one of the most important sources of funding for Hyphen, a tri-yearly indie publication with an all-volunteer staff, and a national circulation of roughly 6,000.
The Rubik's Cube-twiddling, Coke-bottle-glasses-wearing stereotype of the Asian-American nerd pretty much ends with Patterson, who is half Chinese American and half Irish. A longtime graffiti artist with an arrest record to prove it, he currently teaches at a music- and film-oriented high school in South Los Angeles, and spends his free time cutting hip-hop records. When asked, at last year's pageant, what Asian-American stereotype he most loathes, Patterson pointed to the alleged correlation between Asianness and mathematical aptitude. "Even though I am incredible at math — I don't want to say it's not true about me," he demurred. "That stereotype, even though it's not spoken, it kind of says that Asians are just good at school and not anything else, that Asian Americans are just schoolboy nerds and stuff. I've always been a scholar and a petty criminal for most of my life. And a lot of Asian people I know suck at math."
Sukhadia, in contrast, is more of a self-starter. During his tenure, Sukhadia conducted blog interviews with famed sitarist Anoushka Shankar, producer Karsh Kale, and Survivor reality-show champion Yul Kwon. He did a web infomercial for the 2007 competition, flashing his Hyphen bling belt and discussing his work with Project Ahimsa, a nonprofit that donates musical instruments to children in developing countries. And this year he was enlisted not only to judge the 2008 competition but to coach the six contestants in oratory and comportment. "Yes, it's campy, it's fun ... there's certainly fashion segments that definitely involve poise and their ability to command the stage," Sukhadia said. (Patterson confessed that, despite his exhibitionist persona, the catwalk was probably his least favorite component of Mr. Hyphen.) "But to win Mr. Hyphen you have to represent what you do for the community, the kind of activism you spearhead ... what it means to be Asian American."
The main criticism that Hyphen has received for its pageant comes from feminists who bemoan the lack of a "Ms. Hyphen" counterpart. "Why is it that a male pageant gets to be all political and focused on the work that the men are doing (even though they did have a sleepwear part, w00t!) and women's pageants, even within the Asian American community (such as Ms Chinatown) still focus on looks and *gendered* talents (singing, dancing, etc.)?" wrote Feministing.com blogger Samhita. "And I totally agree with working within one's community for change, but why is so much of that change led by men and why is it still centered around VERY gendered stereotypes of Asian men and women?"
"We get that question a lot," said Lee. "For a lot of people who are more socially conscious, the first thing they say is, 'What about Ms. Hyphen? Aren't you guys gonna have a Ms. Hyphen?' I am all for that and I'm sure that's something we could incorporate in the future." But founding editor (and former Express staff writer) Melissa Hung disagrees. "I doubt Ms. Hyphen would be the same," she said. "The whole point is to bring attention to Asian-American men who often don't get attention in mainstream portrayals. I don't think Ms. Hyphen would be quite as subversive."
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