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    Learning to Cry

    A student reflects on a childhood immersed in toxic masculinity.

    The only time I cried in the past four years was on July 7, 2021, the day my dog died.

    For months I puzzled over why. Why couldn’t I cry? It’s not like I hadn’t gone through anything worth crying over. I had had tearless breakdowns ahead of exams. Close friends had shared accounts of their most horrifying and personal traumas with me. I had watched sad films. I had lost friends. I had made terrible decisions. But none of these experiences brought me remotely close to tears.

    It’s not like I didn’t want to cry either. I just couldn’t. Last year, after Chris Kaba, a boy my age, was fatally shot by British police, my friends and classmates poured their emotions out on social media. Still, my eyes were dry.

    It’s true that men rarely cry. Society insists men shouldn’t be “weak”; it’s ingrained in us our whole lives. But in my case, I trace my inability to shed tears, not just to gender, but also race.

    Between the ages of 6 and 13, I went to a private day school in southwestern London. When I started, I was one of three people of color in the entire school. Marco used to sell the other children “passes” which allowed them to say racial slurs. As the only black kid in school, Leo was treated like filth. Once, he brought his little brother into school; one of our classmates punched the four-year-old in the face. He transferred within the first term, but the school continued to use his face on flyers and posters for years in a desperate attempt to prove they weren’t racist.

    I was also not treated well. In retrospect, the other children were not horrible human beings. Their racism probably wasn’t a conscious choice. Most likely, they didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong. But I can remember them asking in curious, naïve voices, whether I “saw differently” on account of the shape of my eyes; how they made casual jokes about the size of my penis; and the time they wondered, through giggles and condescending smiles, when I last ate dog.

    And I remember the day when my closest friends beat the shit out of me. I can’t recall why or how it happened. My best guess is that they just did it for fun.

    At the time, I did not believe I possessed a single special quality. I wasn’t popular, nor funny, nor charismatic, nor sporty, nor theatrical, nor musical, nor smart, nor creative. But in that moment, as I hid underneath the ping-pong table, I tried to exert what little power I could, seizing on the one thing I felt I had control over: my tears.

    I remember telling myself: “I will never cry. I will not let a single one of these people ever see me cry.”

    I wanted to be better and stronger than the kids who had hurt me. But in this imbecilic attempt at grasping for what I thought strength was, I emotionally dulled myself into an abyss. It was better to not feel anything at all than risk being vulnerable again. And so, for three years, I let myself become an emotionally empty husk. I was “strong.” So strong that I couldn’t, even for one moment, let myself be weak. My eyes kept my promise to myself. There was no time for tears.

    The concept of hegemonic masculinity originates from Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony. In essence, it is the idealization of the male personality, a way of legitimizing men’s dominant position in society. It defines masculinity as strength; to conform, men should be socially and monetarily high status, be better than other people, be brutal and violent. And you shouldn’t cry. Crying is something women and children do. It has no place in a man’s world.

    Hegemonic masculinity is instilled in little boys from birth. It was, quite literally, beaten into me. But its link to race is sometimes overlooked, especially in diaspora communities that face routine racism.

    In my experience, those who are most susceptible to hegemonic masculinity are those who have been hurt; those who feel lost. When people are in positions of weakness, they try and find solutions to their problems. And for men, the solution they are given — one that is overwhelmingly endorsed by Western society — is to embrace the strength promised by masculinity. What makes it worse for people of color is the simple fact we tend to get hurt more than others.

    East Asian men are perhaps even more susceptible to machismo than others, as they feel they need to compensate for their emasculation in popular culture. As a half-Chinese teenager living in the U.K., I see every day how Western society fetishizes and oversexualizes Asian women while desexualizing and emasculating Asian men. Racial stereotypes and awful racist “jokes” are a staple of my life.

    This is a significant part of the reason I was driven to embrace a toxic ideal of masculinity. And I’m not alone: Too many Chinese and Japanese friends of mine are emotionally closed off, angry, and even bigoted due to resentment and feelings of being mistreated. The danger posed by these beliefs can be seen in extreme cases such as the mass murderer Elliot Rodger, but it’s also reflected in the number of men who use heartbreak as motivation to go to the gym and attain the “ideal” masculine body. Toxicity is everywhere.

    But it’s not inescapable. One day, after school, my parents told me our dog, Mammoth, had had a seizure. The name was ironic, as she was a miniature dachshund. We’d adopted her when she was eight weeks old; she used to fit in the palm of my father’s hand.

    Over the course of 11 years, she’d become a part of our family, but she spent her final two days sitting in her bean bag, vomiting and shivering. I skipped school to stay with her and clean up after her. Finally, on July 7, my sister and I gave her our last hugs, and our parents took her to the vet. When they came back an hour later, Mammoth was limp and cold, wrapped in the blanket she had always slept in.

    We buried her in our garden, underneath her favorite tree. When we went back in the house, my mom started crying, and I hugged her. I remember closing my eyes. When I opened them, I noticed that my vision was blurry.

    This moment of pain softened my heart. Tears were falling from my face.

    I am still incessantly jealous and possessive. My first reaction to being hurt is still to lash out in anger, not to calm down and think things through logically and empathetically. I still don’t know how to let myself be vulnerable, or to tell people I love them. I still struggle to express emotions.

    Growth is an agonizingly slow process. It takes hard work. It requires patience. You have to constantly educate yourself on the truth, over and over and over again. It’s okay to be a man, and it’s okay to be masculine. There are plenty of wonderful traits associated with traditional masculinity. However, it is not okay to hurt others.

    That said, it’s okay to be hurt. And it’s okay to cry.

    Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image and icons: Siarhei Kalesnikau and Rudall30/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)