“Creepy can be fixed,” Tran explains to the standing-room-only crowd. “Many guys just don’t realize how to project themselves.” These are the people whom Tran spends his days with, a new batch in a new city every week: nice guys, intelligent guys, motivated guys, who never figured out how to be successful with women. Their mothers had kept them at home to study rather than let them date or socialize. Now Tran’s company, ABCs of Attraction, offers a remedial education that consists of three four-hour seminars, followed by a supervised night out “in the field,” in which J. T., his assistant Gareth Jones, and a tall blonde wing-girl named Sarah force them to approach women. Tuition costs $1,450.
“One of the big things I see with Asian students is what I call the Asian poker face—the lack of range when it comes to facial expressions,” Tran says. “How many times has this happened to you?” he asks the crowd. “You’ll be out at a party with your white friends, and they will be like—‘Dude, are you angry?’ ” Laughter fills the room. Part of it is psychological, he explains. He recalls one Korean-American student he was teaching. The student was a very dedicated schoolteacher who cared a lot about his students. But none of this was visible. “Sarah was trying to help him, and she was like, ‘C’mon, smile, smile,’ and he was like …” And here Tran mimes the unbearable tension of a face trying to contort itself into a simulacrum of mirth. “He was so completely unpracticed at smiling that he literally could not do it.” Eventually, though, the student fought through it, “and when he finally got to smiling he was, like, really cool.”
Tran continues to lay out a story of Asian-American male distress that must be relevant to the lives of at least some of those who have packed Master Krauss’s living room. The story he tells is one of Asian-American disadvantage in the sexual marketplace, a disadvantage that he has devoted his life to overturning. Yes, it is about picking up women. Yes, it is about picking up white women. Yes, it is about attracting those women whose hair is the color of the midday sun and eyes are the color of the ocean, and it is about having sex with them. He is not going to apologize for the images of blonde women plastered all over his website. This is what he prefers, what he stands for, and what he is selling: the courage to pursue anyone you want, and the skills to make the person you desire desire you back. White guys do what they want; he is going to do the same.
But it is about much more than this, too. It is about altering the perceptions of Asian men—perceptions that are rooted in the way they behave, which are in turn rooted in the way they were raised—through a course of behavior modification intended to teach them how to be the socially dominant figures that they are not perceived to be. It is a program of, as he puts it to me later, “social change through pickup.”
Tran offers his own story as an exemplary Asian underdog. Short, not good-looking, socially inept, sexually null. “If I got a B, I would be whipped,” he remembers of his childhood. After college, he worked as an aerospace engineer at Boeing and Raytheon, but internal politics disfavored him. Five years into his career, his entire white cohort had been promoted above him. “I knew I needed to learn about social dynamics, because just working hard wasn’t cutting it.”
His efforts at dating were likewise “a miserable failure.” It was then that he turned to “the seduction community,” a group of men on Internet message boards like alt.seduction.fast. It began as a “support group for losers” and later turned into a program of self-improvement. Was charisma something you could teach? Could confidence be reduced to a formula? Was it merely something that you either possessed or did not possess, as a function of the experiences you had been through in life, or did it emerge from specific forms of behavior? The members of the group turned their computer-science and engineering brains to the question. They wrote long accounts of their dates and subjected them to collective scrutiny. They searched for patterns in the raw material and filtered these experiences through social-psychological research. They eventually built a model.
This past Valentine’s Day, during a weekend boot camp in New York City sponsored by ABCs of Attraction, the model is being played out. Tran and Jones are teaching their students how an alpha male stands (shoulders thrown back, neck fully extended, legs planted slightly wider than the shoulders). “This is going to feel very strange to you if you’re used to slouching, but this is actually right,” Jones says. They explain how an alpha male walks (no shuffling; pick your feet up entirely off the ground; a slight sway in the shoulders). They identify the proper distance to stand from “targets” (a slightly bent arm’s length). They explain the importance of “kino escalation.” (You must touch her. You must not be afraid to do this.) They are teaching the importance of sub-communication: what you convey about yourself before a single word has been spoken. They explain the importance of intonation. They explain what intonation is. “Your voice moves up and down in pitch to convey a variety of different emotions.”