I’m waiting in a Manhattan diner to eat lunch with the most famous Asian “pick-up artist”—a man whose craft is seducing women, and teaching other men how to do the same—in the world, when a chunky, 5’5” 33-year-old gentlemen with a Fu Manchu mustache sits down next to me. “I’m JT Tran,” he says, extending his hand.
A short Asian guy, Tran does not exactly fit Western society’s archetype of a ladies man. “I’ll never be tall, dark and handsome,” he admits. “No one looks at me at first sight and thinks, ‘He’s the one.” What Tran does have though, is “game,” a concept as universally understandable yet undefinable as the Taoist “Dao.” Like the “Dao,” it can be mastered with time—at least that’s what Tran claims.
Tran’s Facebook is bedazzled with photos of him kissing and holding tall, beautiful women at high-end clubs around the world. He officially defines himself as a “dating coach,” and pens advice columns for LA Weekly, speaks at Ivy League universities, and runs “Asian Dating Bootcamps.” These three-day retreats allow virginal Asian males to study Tran’s secret methodology, “The ABCs of Attraction,” after which they are taken “into the field”, to clubs and malls, to practice techniques under his supervision.
Tran wasn’t always like this. He remembers being a shy middle child of a Vietnamese immigrant who could barely make eye contact with others. “Like most Asian American males, I was a late bloomer,” he says. “I didn’t kiss my first girl or go on my first date until I was 20. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or how to make friends, so I mostly stayed home and read books.”
After college, Tran landed a job as a rocket scientist, literally, at NASA. At age 26, he had everything: a Mercedes, a six-figure salary, a seaside apartment on Hermosa Beach—and yet absolutely no one to share it with. No matter what he did, Tran couldn’t find a girlfriend. He recalls going to a speed dating event and saying ‘yes’ to all 60 girls he met with. “Not a single one said ‘yes’ back,” he says. “At that point, I realized that something wasn’t wrong with the 60 girls who turned me down, something was wrong with me. Somewhere along the line, maybe because of my Asian upbringing, I wasn’t taught the same social skills as everyone else.”
Tran, determined to lift the curse of his stereotype, attended a pick-up “bootcamp” run by pick-up artist Mystery. He then spent the next five years mired in the shadow world of night clubs and bars, applying, as he describes it, his “systems engineering” mind to his game. He started writing a blog, the “Asian Playboy Blog,” about his experiences. One of his readers was a Chinese-Canadian mother whose son, at 16, was so traumatized by bullies that he refused to make friends and had never been on a date. Desperate, she rang up Tran. “I told her, ‘Ma’am, I’m going to be the big brother he never had this weekend,” he remembers. And so the first “Asian dating bootcamp” was spoke into existence.
As a biracial first-generation Taiwanese kid from the Midwest, I understand the struggle. An Asian guy in America, among all demographics, can expect to have the lowest total average of sexual partners, three, in his lifetime. At the age of 18, nearly 75 percent of Asian-American guys are virgins, compared to 43 percent of other boys.
The psychological effects of never having a mate, of never having anyone want you, can be devastating to any gender.
Any number of conspirators can be fingered for the emasculation of Asian men, but the media, which often portrays Asian men as weak, effeminate foreigners who rarely “get the girl,” plays a huge role. In the 1984 coming-of-age film Sixteen Candles, Asian student Long Duk Dong’s—whose every entrance is announced with a gong—romantic aspirations are seen as comic relief. Jet Li originally kissed Aaliyah at the end of Romeo Must Die—a 2000 action-film remake of “Romeo and Juliet”—but the scene tested so poorly with audiences that filmmakers were forced to remove it.
Racism comes from the outside, and after a while, from the inside. Growing up, I internalized stereotypes about who I was supposed to be: comic relief, academic co-conspirator, but never an American Romeo. By seventh grade, I was sitting in the back of my dad’s car, crying as I told him of my realization that “no girl will ever like me because I’m Asian.”
I eventually had positive experiences with romance and sex, but because they came so much later than that of my other friends, I always felt like I was playing catch-up on love. Many of my Asian friends still feel downright doomed. Their options are few: to accept a life of involuntary celibacy, embrace it, or—for those with money and a willingness to work with the dark arts—swallow the red pill and jump down the rabbit hole of pick-up artistry.
At the end of our meal, Tran invited me to attend one of his “Asian Dating Bootcamps,” which normally costs a little over $1500 to attend. He was eager to brag of its effectiveness. “I’ve had guys have their first kisses, I’ve had guys lose their virginities on this bootcamp,” he says. “People’s lives change in one weekend.”
Let’s face it—there are worse things than not getting laid. But the psychological effects of never having a mate, of never having anyone want you, can be devastating to any gender. Every yin needs a yang—that’s the essence of “Dao,” which literally translates to “the right way.” But for now, there was Tran.
The art of pick-up has been practiced for centuries, maybe forever. Seduction is a puzzle shared between species. Birds sing melodies, gorillas beat their chests, hooded seals blow huge red air sacs from their nostrils. Robert Greene writes about Ninon de Lenclos, the most infamous French courtesan of the 17th century, who advised a young Marquis to approach a certain countess with an “air of nonchalance” as to create a “state of emotional confusion that is a ‘prerequisite for successful seduction’”.
The modern pick-up community for men can be traced to Ross Jeffries, who wrote a 1992 book titled How To Get the Women You Desire Into Bed. Jeffries observed that the Sexual Revolution had liberated—for the first time in modern Western history—a massive, unmarried population of heterosexual women. While men watched their local Schwarzenneger effortlessly sleep with whomever he liked, the “AFC” —average frustrated chump—was left clueless as to how to compete in this new dating market, where traditional markers like religion and money mattered less and less.
Jeffries pinpointed traits like confidence, mystery, and the ability to make one feel safe—not just being a “nice guy”—as attractive to women, and taught associated conversational trees and body language to convey that. Empirical evidence shows that pick-up training does, in fact, improve men’s dating skills, though the dominant, aggressive approach practiced by many modern pick-up artists has been proven to work better on women with conservative views.
The internet is a sweltering jungle for subcultures, filled with life and shade, often evolving them into something more gigantic and dangerous. Much of the pick-up artist community today is made up of scummy white men who, among other transgressions, prey specifically on Asian women’s documented preference for white men, referring to them as a “cheat code.” Pick-up artists like Julian Blanc have bragged that a white man can do “whatever he wants” to Asian women, and films himself in Asia convincing girls to cheat on their boyfriends with him.
This makes Tran, as an Asian man teaching other Asian men, a unicorn in his field. He’ll willingly critique his peers while offering himself as their moderate alternative. “Ethics, unfortunately, is not a hallmark of our industry,” he says. “But, I think you can build up your confidence without tearing anyone down.”
I arrived one Friday afternoon to the Manhattan studio in which Tran would be conducting his three-day seminar. Each student was immediately given a thick, 300-page textbook: “The ABCs of Attraction by JT Tran.” In the book were jokes, conversation-starters, body-language diagrams, sine graphs illustrating the optimal flow of conversation when meeting a girl at the club, and so on.
The seven students stood up to introduce themselves. Mostly Asian, they ranged from 30-something entrepreneurs, to 20-something graduate students, to late-teens cooks. One was Will, a Chinese immigrant from Canada who had spiky hair, an eager face, and square-rimmed glasses that often flooded with fluorescent light. “God gave me so much talent in academics, but paralyzed me in social life,” he said in a heavy accent. The room murmured in solidarity.
The table became a sight to behold—five awkward Asian males surrounded by a group of chattering, attractive women in a club.
For the next six hours, Tran went through the ABCs, starting with “A” for attraction, “B” for banter, going all the way to “F.” He taught the importance of posture, good eye contact, asking interesting questions, touch, and so forth. The students practiced introductions with the help of “Katie,” Tran’s 6-foot-tall assistant, and Jeff Khan, Tran’s Taiwanese apprentice.
After one particularly rough session in which Tran barked “Stop!” and proceeded to chew Will out on his total lack of a smile—“Don’t be creepy,” he admonished—he offered a story as encouragement to the group.
“I wasn’t always like this, guys,” Tran recalled. “Once, I was at the club, and I approached these four Asian girls and a blonde white girl. I thought that because she was with Asian girls, she would have liked Asian people, but as soon as I approached, she put her hand up. ‘Stop! We don’t like Asian guys,’ she said. So I walked away, whatever. Then I hit it off with this Latina girl. I brought her over to my friends, and my white friend puts his arm around me, looks at her and says: ‘What are you doing with this Asian guy! You know they have the smallest dicks in the world right!’ And, of course, it was all over from that.”
Tran paused. He wiped his forehead. “And you know what I did that night, guys? I went home and I cried. I cried and felt sorry for myself. But—and this is the important thing—I got up the next morning and I tried again.”
We met outside the club later that night and formed a huddle. Tran gave us last-minute advice: “Remember, we’re not here to get anyone drunk. You want to be sober, and you want them to sober. And don’t form a sausage zone. Okay, go!” He yelled. As the group shuffled in, he remarked to me “When they clump together like that, I call it the Great Wall of Chinamen.”
At the club—a thumping, multicolored rooftop affair—I took a seat and watched Will approach a few women. The first girl forcefully rebuffed him. “Excuse me, can you give us some space,” she hissed, and turned back around. Will scratched his head and moved on. He walked up to another girl. “Hey, I’m Will. It’s really nice to meet you,” he spat out breathlessly, before she rolled her eyes and walked away.
Meanwhile, Tran was swaggering around in a fiery beige-and-scarlet suit. He walked up to a group of women walking in. “Hey, our table’s having a birthday today, why don’t you come and celebrate it with us?” He said. He lifted one of their hands, kissed it, and led them to our table.
The table became a sight to behold—five awkward Asian males surrounded by a group of chattering, attractive women in a club. Will put his arm around one of them, and she kissed him on the cheek. Another student was sloppily making out.
Tran came up to me. “Fobby power!” He declared, shaking his fist. “We’ve had bootcamps where there’ve been 10 Asian guys and 10 white girls at the table,” he said. “And literally, a circle of white guys will form and stare at us looking pissed off. Asian guys aren’t supposed to do this.”
It can be tempting to think of this as a story of revenge: Asian women have a 36 percent rate of out-marriage, the second-highest rate in the United States, mostly to white men. Asian men dating white women might satisfy a lust for evening the score, but it doesn’t end the karmically damned cycle of internalized racism. “I make it a point to tell my students to be open to women of color,” Tran tells me, and over the course of the night, he also brings Asian, Latina and black women to the table. “We Asian men hate being discriminated against because of our race, and we should not impose that on women ourselves.”
At the end of the night, we reconvened at a late-night Manhattan diner. The students swapped stories of first kisses, slow dances and trading digits—like high school boys after the bowling alley, fist-bumping for just getting a number.
“This is just the beginning,” Tran told me. The next day, the group would cover “Future”, the surprisingly placid “F” in ABCs of Attraction. Tran would talk about becoming a person that’s easy to fall in love with—having a fulfilling career, picking up interesting hobbies, continuing self-education. In short, becoming self-actualized. “You’re here to be in love,” he instructed. “To love a lot, or to love one.”
After the bootcamp, there is the option to go all the way down the rabbit hole—to continue paying Tran and become his apprentice, traveling the world with him, seducing women on an international level. “That takes, frankly and realistically,” he says, “a massive amount of discipline, persistence, and the ability to just push yourself physically and emotionally, day after day, night after night.”
But, Tran admits, “Most of my students grow into what would be considered ‘a decently successful white guy who has a few girlfriends in his life before he gets married.’ They’re no longer Asian guys who feel totally emasculated and like they’re going to die alone. They’re getting to the point, where they can say, ‘Hey, I’m just as cool, attractive and successful as my peers now. I no longer have this unfulfilling love and sex life. I’m finally in the norm of American society.’”