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Wrestling Taught Me How (Not) To Be A Man

Joining the wrestling team in high school built my confidence, especially as an Asian-American man. But it also left me with questions about who I wanted to be.

When I was growing up, there were almost no Asian men anywhere in pop culture — not in music, not on television, so rarely in American film. It’s why I clung to daytime reruns of movies starring Jackie Chan, an action star who’d made a career out of constantly looking confused, getting punched in the face, and then looking confused about it. One film I remember distinctly was called Who Am I?, in which Chan has amnesia and bumbles around South Africa trying to figure out his identity.

I guess I could relate to some of that. As a freshman in high school, where did I belong when I didn’t have my nose in a Haruki Murakami novel? Who was I supposed to be, exactly? How does one wrestle with that identity when there isn’t a single role model who looks like you?

The answer was a little more literal than I could’ve imagined: I joined the wrestling team.

I walked onto my high school varsity wrestling squad because there was no one else who weighed as little as I did. I was, at the time, 5'3", 100 pounds, and very weak.

Skinny and deeply unathletic, I was nervous about joining the team. Coach Santo told me that when he was in high school three decades ago, he was terrified of wrestling Asians. He’d had almost no interaction with them, and he was convinced they possessed mystical strength. His xenophobia was weirdly encouraging.

It also helped that he taught me how to play dirty. This was Santo’s advice: Inflict as much pain on your opponent as you can when the referee isn’t looking. This meant jabbing thumbs into someone's ribs or joints, using your bony elbows or knees whenever possible, coming down hard on every bodily soft spot out of eyesight. Perhaps the most brutal iteration of this was wrestling a kid with braces and no mouth guard: You could press on their lips, cutting up the insides of their mouth on their braces. This happened to me a couple times, and it took a long time for the scars inside my mouth to heal.

At practice, we listened to a lot of Rage Against the Machine, the sort of music that is lost on high school boys in private school — save for the screaming and angst. We had no idea where the anger was coming from or what it meant. Just that it was there.

The heavyweight on our team — let’s call him Barry — was enormous and mean. His face was huge, but his features were diminutive and ratlike, resembling something like a prepubescent version of Officer Farva from Super Troopers. I remember his pre-match pump-up speeches, talking about how we were gonna "fuck these faggots up," and how we were gonna "fuck these faggots in the face," which was somehow both intensely homophobic and homoerotic at the same time.

Even though what Barry was saying was deeply unsettling, I could tell that it came from a place of bodily insecurity. Adolescence is defined by harboring and understanding those fears. Wrestling is an intimate sport. For almost every high school freshman, your first wrestling match is the closest you’ve ever been with another human being. Each match is six minutes — seemingly a lifetime — of contact with a stranger’s flesh and sweat, pressing and pulling on each other until one is worn down from exhaustion.

But even more daunting than the bodily fears of another is fear of yourself. When you are a teenage boy, you are incredibly self-conscious about your penis. (In fact, some people remain self-conscious about their penises into adulthood, which is why they go into finance and live in Murray Hill.) That preoccupation with one’s own dick is compounded when you’re an Asian man, constantly confronted with the stereotype that an Asian penis is smaller than average. Even though, rationally, I knew this made as much sense as the idea that Asians were particularly skilled in math or pedicures, what evidence did I have to go on?

The solution, it turns out, was to get proof.

Once I saw that my junk looked just like everyone else’s, it made me rethink all of the other things I’d been told about Asian masculinity.

I had never seen as many dicks as I did in the wrestling locker room. (And I haven’t since.) It was a strange gallery of people who had gone through puberty early, as evidenced by their pubic hair, and people who hadn't yet, as illustrated by their lack thereof. And that locker room was where I learned the secret about dicks: They are mostly the same. There is some variance in size and shape, but at the end of the day, all dicks are more similar than they are different.

The small penis stereotype comes out of a long tradition of believing that Asian men are weak and effeminate, docile and subservient — all the things that are antithetical to conventional masculinity. The link between penis size and masculinity is, of course, ridiculous and harmful. Like all racial stereotypes, it is a form of oppression.

But for my misguided teen self, I think it might have had the opposite effect. Once I saw that my junk looked just like everyone else’s, it made me rethink all of the other things I’d been told about Asian masculinity; maybe all of those were wrong, too. Maybe I had strength and confidence that had yet to be realized.

Eventually, I got better at wrestling. I thought Santo taught me to play dirty because I wasn’t very talented, but over time, it became clear that this is what all good wrestlers did. Still, that didn’t prevent me from gaining a reputation: On high school wrestling forums — a real thing that existed — I was criticized for using cheap moves. In particular, I used one egregious throw called the head-and-arm, usually considered a desperation move; I would hit this at the beginning of every match.

I’d like to think I was just testing the limits of the sport, that I was the James Harden among the 103-pound wrestlers in the New England Prep circuit, though I might be giving myself too much credit. I qualified for Nationals, which involved Coach Santo driving me eight hours to Lehigh, Pennsylvania, so I could be briskly eliminated from the tournament in 50 seconds.

My senior year, I was a captain on the varsity team and ranked third in my weight class across the league. But by the time letters of interest for wrestling scholarships came in, I had already decided that I was done. Wrestling had given me a certain kind of confidence, but burdened me with a different kind of insecurity. The sport had broken my ankle once, saddled me with strange and unhealthy dietary habits, and left me deeply unsatisfied with how I spent all of my time.

Wrestling had given me a certain kind of confidence, but burdened me with a different kind of insecurity.

When I think about Coach Santo’s original advice to me now, I realize that it was only partly about sticking my fingers between another teenager's ribs, and more about exploiting the pain that is invisible. In sport, we hurt each other so that we don't get hurt first. Wrestling had made me very good at that. And while I didn’t totally figure out who I was by the end of high school, at least I knew that that was not the kind of person I cared to be. I really just wanted to be that kid reading Norwegian Wood.

At the end of Who Am I?, the CIA promises to send Jackie Chan all the pertinent details of his life before the memory-erasing head injury. But what’s odd is that for all the times he asks “Who am I?” throughout the film (which is about a million times — most dramatically this one), we never actually learn the answer to that question. For all we know, he may never figure it out.

Who Am I? has stuck with me more for its value as a blunt metaphor than its quality as a film. But it’s a good reminder that the kind of insecurity I felt — and feel — about my own identity is one that never really goes away. It’s something to continually wrestle and confront. And maybe, if I keep asking the question, I’ll get closer to the answer.

Kevin Nguyen (@knguyen) is a book reviewer based in Brooklyn.

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