Episode 26: Jason Shen | The Asian American Man Study & Breaking Stereotypes
The reason why we have it so good now is because other people agitated and fought, whether it's in China, whether it's in America.
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 26, the fifth episode for Season 3 of Rock The Boat: Against All Odds, edited for clarity.
This season, we've been centering our conversations around the theme of overcoming barriers, where we’ll lean into the times when the waters get rocky, yet we come out, on the other side, stronger than before. This week, we speak with Jason Shen most notably known for conducting the Asian American Man Study which is an ongoing survey of the experiences and beliefs of American men of East, Southeast, and South Asian descent. Jason is currently a tech entrepreneur, cofounding a gaming tech startup called Midgame in the esports industry.
We talk to him about:
His origin story in gymnastics → team mindset
Making his way into the tech world as an entrepreneur
Starting the Asian American Man Study and its findings
The importance of organizing for future generations to come
I. Jason's Origin Story
Jason: So, my name is Jason Shen. I'm a tech entrepreneur, a writer, and a speaker. And I do some advocacy work on Asian American issues.
Lucia: Jason was born in Suzhou, just an hour outside of Shanghai. When he was 2, his dad got a scholarship to study at Boston University to get his PhD in Education. Jason’s mother brought him over to the U.S. when he was 3 and they settled in a town right outside of Boston, called Newton, where there was a pretty decent-sized Chinese and Asian American population. Despite that, Jason recounts a time when he was bullied in school.
Jason: My parents say that even in elementary school, I had some teasing with the eye pulling sort of teasing. And then we moved schools between my third and fourth grade and we moved still in Newton, but to a more sort of blue collar neighborhood, where being good at school was not considered cool.
I read a ton and I know all the answers. And so all of a sudden, that's when I think there was some bullying. And my dad says-- and I guess I don't know if I blocked this out of my memory or what, but at one point, I did get...two people held my arms and someone else punched me in the stomach, like that happened. And I vaguely remember that, but my dad's insistent that that definitely happened.
And my dad was also very--So it was very interesting. He would always be like it's okay to fight.
"If you need to fight them, go ahead and fight them, like I won't be mad if you get in trouble for fighting." And I was like, "I don't know how to fight, Dad."
Lynne: Jason’s dad sounds awesome. I like that he doesn’t want Jason to be picked on and there’s this lesson he wants Jason to learn which is that being a boy, you have to learn how to fight back and defend yourself.
Lucia: Yup, so Jason ends up taking a few karate classes and meanwhile, he does gymnastics as well. Ultimately Jason choses gymnastics over karate --which actually helps him build strength, confidence, and discipline. It’s worth noting that Jason’s mom was a gymnast before coming to America. Jason recounts the story to us.
II. Gymnastics → Team Mindset
Jason: So gymnastics is a sport that you can't really speed rush your way through. You have to start young because there’s just so much foundational stuff you need to learn. I think that you hear sometimes about people who like started running randomly in high school and then they're really good or like some sports where you do it for fun casually, then all of a sudden you get tall and you got strong and then suddenly you’re really good at basketball or soccer or something. With gymnastics, it's impossible to do that. It's very much a slow-paced, you have to start early, you have to put in the time and the effort because what you're doing is so unnatural, right?
I think participation in sports really shaped my personality and gave me a certain level of confidence both physically and socially.
I like to say that doing gymnastics taught me how to sort of interact with white people and also how to interact as a bro, in this sort of like masculine jocular way.
Lynne: It’s interesting that Jason attributes his current personality to him playing a team sport. We often hear of this from other guests on our podcast, how participating in a physical activity helped them become more confident or more social.
For Jason, he was able to break out of his shell, become more confident and take on leadership roles through gymnastics.
III. Asian American Man Study
Lucia: As he settled into New York with his job at Percolate, he started to make a home in the city. Eventually, he dove into the wild world of the New York dating scene and met his now-wife, Amanda. So a New York dating success story. But not everyone was as lucky as he was. He talked about an Asian friend from high school who was having a tough time in dating in New York.
Jason: People aren't swiping on me. He was relating it to the point of like he has a co-worker who’s white, who’s not particularly good-looking and he's like, he's getting way more swipe matches than I am.
I can objectively say, we're like a similarly good-looking. And so then it's like well, what is the difference—we’re both doctors, you know, what else is there?
Lucia: What started out as, what Jason called complaining, turned into his friend finally convincing him to write about dating as an Asian man, culminating into the Asian American Man Study.
Jason: So after he’d given his call to me and I was like, well first I'm going to do some research. I'd like to collect some data. That's what made it like a product. I don’t want to be foreign to what I'm writing about. Part of it, I’m scared, right? I just don't want to go out there and say something that everyone will be like haha that happens to you? Then laugh at me, like you're the only one who has this problem. So that was the fear. So I wrote up a couple questions in a Google Doc and I just like, let me just put this out there as a poll. 20 people, 30 people take it, and then I’m like, “Okay, you know it's not just me.” And then I put it out there and a ton of people took the first one. 350 in the first year.
We basically started with dating questions and then we were like we don't want this to look like it's just about dating, so then we added in these other categories. But really, beyond that, dating--that is the thing that unites all Asian men. But everyone who's Asian has that broad umbrella of like, so, where are you really from? That question every Asian person of any type of Asian can relate to you know. And for Asian men, I think it's like the number one first thing you want to talk about is like, okay, what's pertinent to me as an Asian man? Beyond this where are you from? Because it's, I mean, so connected to what it means to be a man, right? As part of, you know, earning and being providers.
Part of it is like do you receive the attention and desire of the people that you're interested in, whether that's men or women? What happened?
And so we wrote a bunch of questions around that. One question that we wrote was, "How many times have you heard someone say in your presence, 'I don't date Asian guys'?" That's a question that Asian guys, a lot of them will hear. And 46% of Asian guys said that they had heard someone say that. Like maybe not to them, maybe not like, “Oh, sorry, I don't date Asian men," which does happen. But it might be like, “You know—well why don’t you date Henry?” It's like, “I don't really date Asian guys.” Even in that context, the fact that so many, you know, half of all men effectively have heard that and some of them heard it many times, it's just...that's demoralizing. It’s like you have this feeling and you feel that it is okay to say it, while I'm here, in my presence, or even to me.
IV. Asian American Advocacy Work
Jason: I used to not participate in a lot of like Asian-American groups, but now I'm realizing I've changed careers and changed things so many times. I was in marketing. I was a product manager. I'm an entrepreneur now. Who knows in 10 years if I'm still doing startups, but my identity as an ethnic Asian American is never going to change. I stopped going to the HR meetups that I used to go to when I was doing the hiring company. I stopped going to the product manager meetups. That's what I'm no longer product managing, so you lose these relationships.
But being Asian doesn’t change so I'm leaning into that idea more.
Lucia: And just as he is organizing a community of Asian Americans, his father was organizing for the community back home in their small town of Newton.
Jason: My dad ran for school committee, which is the group of people that helps vote on the issues related to the funding for our school for our town. It's a $200 million education budget because that's where all the tax money goes. And he beat this Jewish white woman, who has a doctorate from Harvard. And I was like, “I did not think you were going to win, Dad.” But he banged on doors and just rallied. And she's been a friend and I called her and she was like, “It is weird. I don't think we have as many Asian people on the school committee board and in local politics, given the number of Asian people who are in our town.” And so it takes effort to go and do that.
Lucia: When we asked Jason what rocking the boat meant to him
Jason: Yeah, so I think a lot of people owe their opportunity to live here because of the protesters and students who were fighting for democracy in China. And that really puts a spin on a lot of things, because when you think about organizing and advocacy work and activism work, I think a lot of Asian Americans sort of shy away from that because they just want to secure their own life and they don't want to take the risk.
The reason why we have it so good now is because other people agitated and fought, whether it's in China, whether it's in America, you know Supreme Court rulings, all these things, like marching protest, that's what allowed us to get here. To say, “Oh, well, it's good enough and I don't want to do anymore because they did it for me. Now it's good enough." I don't think it's fair and responsible to the people who did all that work to get us where we are.
It’s our job is to pay for it and to do it for the next Generation.
Jason Shen has been collecting data for the Asian American Man Study since 2015. You can find out more at their website, where they have results for questions discussed in this episode and others like who they admire as Asian American men like Bruce Lee and Aziz Ansari.
Follow Jason Shen on Twitter.