Words by Kelvin Mak
Recently, I watched the Jean-Luc Godard movie, Breathless (1960). Several years ago, I'd promised my best friend that I'd watch it and tell him what I thought of the French New Wave film he’d said was his favorite movie. And whenever this friend suggested a movie, I listened. After all, in the void of the postgrad grind, we thought we were the last two Chinese Americans in the San Gabriel Valley who even cared about things like the French New Wave, postmodernism, or the state of American literature.
Now that I’ve finally watched this movie, I have a lot to say—but now I have no one to say it to. My friend and I haven’t talked in the last few years. We’re no longer friends. But let me start with Breathless, before I get into postgrad angst, falling out, and how Asian American masculinity gnawed away at us from the inside out.
Breathless follows a small-time Parisian con man, Michel Poiccard, and his life of petty crime. As he steadily grows in bravado and commits crimes of greater severity, we understand that Michel isn’t just a thief roving the streets of Paris. The film slowly reveals that Michel’s trying to live the life of the movies starring his favorite Hollywood actor, Humphrey Bogart, star of classic film noirs like Casablanca (1942) and The Big Sleep (1946); that is, the life of femme fatales, moody determinism, and aestheticized violence.
The more I thought about Michel, the clearer I saw the parallel to my friend, and admittedly, myself. Because what Michel wants isn’t to be Humphrey Bogart per se. Throughout the film, Michel searches for an alternate identity he can inhabit because something about being a kid in postwar France isn't enough. He wants the mythicized life of Hollywood gangster films. He wants all the one-liners, all the passion, and all the sex and violence saturating his imagination to become real, lived experiences. Michel's not okay with just watching these stories onscreen—he wants to be the person the stories are about.
My best friend once told me that what made Breathless great was the compassion Godard had for the young, wild Michel and his naive devotion to his ideals, superficial or not. Sure, Michel’s idea of becoming a Hollywood gangster is ultimately a laughable idea. But instead of disparaging him, the film allows him the dignity to try to become who he wanted, even if we might disapprove.
After watching, I saw why my best friend was so enamored with this movie: he himself was looking for an identity that transcended the one-track mind of accruing wealth and owning a home prescribed by our Asian immigrant upbringing. He had ideals he wanted to live up to—namely, becoming a writer.
We met at UC Berkeley, despite having grown up neighbors in Rowland Heights. It made sense that we clicked so well; we were—are—both people deeply committed to culture, literature, film, the arts. We’d spent many nights drunkenly stumbling around campus with cheap wine sloshing in our water bottles, discussing favorite directors like Yasujirō Ozu, laughing over white dudes obsessed with Lolita, or lamenting the absence of any good contemporary literature by Asian Americans.
When we eventually disclosed to each other that we wanted to be writers, our friendship developed into something closer to brotherhood. It was the first time I’d felt seen, in that way where the world suddenly caves in on itself and surfaces anew, coming into razor sharp focus simply because you finally realize there are actually people like you.
Inevitably, our conversations began to revolve around Asian American media, which I can only describe as cringey. During the zeitgeist of POC representation in the mid-2010s, my friend and I seemed to be the only people embarrassed for Asian America when Crazy Rich Asians (2018) came out. It echoed the embarrassment we’d been feeling all our lives about Asian American media.
I knew the kind of writer my friend wanted to be: he loved Ezra Pound, was proud of finishing Boccaccio’s Decameron, and had gotten a tattoo of the horn symbol from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. He strived for objective greatness; after all, there’s a reason these works continue to stir conversation today. He wanted to write his way into literary greatness without relying on performative, surface level ideas of representation to get him past the gates; I felt the same. We wanted to be great without the muddy crutch of identity.
There’s a pivotal scene in Breathless that, for just a second, peels back the film’s smoldering ennui for a glimpse of Michel Poiccard’s humanity. In this scene, Michel sees a poster of Humphrey Bogart and begins to rub his lips: a little dive into film history will tell you that Michel was imitating Humphrey Bogart’s iconic gesture. It’s the most intimate glance we ever get at Michel; that brief moment divulges to the audience just how much the plucky, rebellious, and, frankly, insecure young man wants to be someone else.
Although we’ve never talked about it, I was sure my friend obsessed over this scene as much as I did. It was like looking in a mirror. But maybe that’s where our similarities ended with Michel. Because Michel, by virtue of being a white French man, oozes cool. With no hesitation, the world will throw its weight behind a handsome Frenchman trying to chase his dreams of becoming someone that matters. The problem is that my friend and I are, of course, Asian American men.
We wanted to be great without the muddy crutch of identity.
There’s always been something intrinsically embarrassing about Asian American manhood. Whether we’re framed as the socially incompetent nerd or the Asian himbo, we’re the comic relief of every narrative. We might make ridiculous sums of money in our high-power tech careers, yet be unable to hold a conversation. We command little to no respect among other men. Were it not for the recent fetishization of Korean men and culture in the past several years, we would continue to possess little sex appeal. To exist as an Asian man in America is to be perpetually powerless, it seems.
We both felt this powerlessness in the years immediately after graduation. See, our friendship was driven not only by the desire to become artists, but by ego. We were “cultured.” We were intelligent in a way we believed others weren’t. We wanted to make great art and wanted agency over the way Asian Americans were portrayed, control over how we Asian American men were perceived.
But the hard truth had hit us: we had no direction, no employable skills, and we were both stuck living at home. Writing wasn’t going anywhere for either of us. We found ourselves caught in the same, postgrad job struggle that our ideals supposedly granted us immunity from. Our struggle didn’t look sexy like Michel Poiccard’s—instead, it looked pathetic, juvenile. He was an SAT tutor. I was helping rich Chinese kids apply to college. Neither of these things were writing.
It’s not that we were actually powerless, of course. We could have pitched our nonfiction writing to websites. We could have joined poetry and writing groups. But our faith in ourselves wavered. What the hell were two Chinese men doing in Rowland Heights, thinking they could become artists? What could two Asian American men possibly hope to achieve? The immigrant ethos of putting our heads down and finding good jobs competed constantly with visions of writing; existential paralysis kept us too afraid to make any moves.
As men are apt to do, we began to project our frustrations onto each other, and eventually, the resentment festered to a breaking point. One night, I received a text asking if we could talk. I met him at the stop sign at the end of the street.
“I think… I think I’m friend-breaking up with you,” he said, incredulously, his feet shifting as if he himself were unsure. He told me that our friendship was far past its expiration date. He told me I was a “no” person, that I no longer inspired him, that maybe it’d be good to stop talking for a while.
Although I felt I should be hurt, I was relieved. I’d grown tired of his boundless optimism and naivete, his refusal to take the practical demands of life into account. I had lost faith in him, and myself for that matter, in becoming a writer. He, like I, was just another deadbeat wasting away in his hometown. I let things end without resistance.
Almost three years later, the dust has largely settled. Sometimes I still feel angry about him, sometimes resentful. Sometimes, I am fondly nostalgic, reminiscing about drinking beers in his backyard, shenanigans in Koreatown, wandering together through Schabarum Park steeped in our own thoughts.
I learned later through mutual friends that he had driven across America. He’d found a temporary job on a farm in Georgia, converted to Catholicism after being kicked out of a Buddhist center, and had moved to Brooklyn to work for an online publication. And, of course, he was working on a novel.
To be honest, I admire his courage. He’d done what Michel Poiccard had done and lived out his values and idealism regardless of their naivete. He’d broken free of Rowland Heights and embarked on his journey to become someone great.
But this is not how this story ends. Three years later, something doesn’t sit right with me.
I wonder all the time about what my friend and I are motivated by, exactly. I’ve mentioned things like masculinity, achieving dreams, and objective greatness. But things like greatness and masculinity are contextual. Something must be not great in order for great things to exist. Someone must decide on these hierarchies. So who, exactly, gets to decide whether we’re great or not? By whose metrics are we measuring ourselves by?
When I express disgust for the way Crazy Rich Asians or Asian American media portrays me, who am I worried about perceiving me? When I see an awkward Asian American man with bedhead wearing a tech start-up shirt, why do I worry what “people” will think about me? Who is people?
In Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong writes that, “Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy.” Over time, it became increasingly clear that my friend and I were using white culture as our final judge for artistic merit. Doing so only filled us with unnecessary contempt for the people we grew up with—and ourselves. As we took turns insulting Asian American media, we were saying, “This isn’t good enough. This makes us look bad. We want to make art approved of by the white establishment because they are the most objective judges.” Peak internalized racism.
Although the Asian American media I grew up consuming still makes me cringe, the white establishment will never reward art that it doesn’t understand. White culture has no idea why the pressure to defy our parents has such high stakes or why we feel guilt for “wasting” the opportunity they gave us by immigrating. These are experiences that white culture cannot draw upon when acting as gatekeepers of “good” and “bad” art. White culture is prone to miscritique, given their inability to distinguish between authenticity and pandering.
Likewise, white culture has an incredibly narrow definition of masculinity, filled with concepts detrimental to happiness, self-esteem, and the capacity to love. Masculinity is a game designed to be lost not only by Asian men but by the majority of men. I will never be a man to white culture; so be it. I will be human then, because to use white culture as the arbiter of our desires, identities, and dreams will only drive us further away from ourselves.
The Crazy Rich Asians of our time, as loathe as I am to say it, genuinely make attempts to portray what is real for them, and by proxy, humanize us beyond tired stereotypes. I don’t want to be an apologist for what I think is bad art. But my personal preferences do not invalidate the reality of other people, and if this content helps them feel seen, that’s admittedly a win. To give bad art a free pass on the grounds of representation does a terrible disservice to Asian Americans. But to continue to judge ourselves from a white lens does a disservice to us more than anything else.
If there is a great Asian American novel waiting to be written, it won’t star characters like my friend and I, two Chinese Americans invested in literature and the arts. Instead, it will be a novel lending humanity to the people we’ve felt so at odds with: the socially awkward nerds, the himbos, the engineers, the doctors. Because maybe, ultimately, it was okay for Michel Poiccard to just be an average French guy in postwar Paris instead of a fake Humphrey Bogart. Maybe it’s okay that my friend and I are just two Chinese dudes from Rowland Heights. Maybe my friend and I can create art that doesn’t aim for accolades bestowed by the white establishment, and instead create art that is sensual, striking, immediate to our souls.
Maybe then, we will be enough without having to prove it to anybody.
Published on September 15, 2022
Words by Kelvin Mak
K.K. Mai is a writer and high school English teacher residing in California's Bay Area. When he's not furiously planning for the next day's lessons, he often finds himself stuck in Wikipedia rabbit holes, wandering around his neighborhood at night, and neurotically cycling through his memories before he sleeps. Sometimes he writes, too. Follow him on Substack or on Twitter at @radishgalaxy.