Beyond the Fortune Cookie: Asians in America

In light of recent articles on Asian Americans in Silicon Valley, the evolution of the model minority myth, and diversity issues in the workplace, I thought it would be pertinent to provide a glimmer of historical context on how Asians and Asian Americans have been perceived throughout US history.

For many Asian Americans, the experiences of being shown what to do, how to do it, and how to act are all too familiar. In the past 150 years, the media has been one of the most powerful influences in shaping the American attitudes and perceptions of Asian Americans. Although the virulent images of Chinese laborers who worked the railroads in the late 19th century somehow transformed into the model minority theory in the mid-20th century, the perception many Americans have of an Asian American person still does not go past the fortune cookie. As a result, the perception has created a bamboo ceiling of societal expectations of how Asian Americans should or should not be like. These perceptions, whether positive or negative in nature, have had a significant impact on the individual identities of all Americans with Asian ancestry.

Throughout the entire history of Asian immigration in the United States, the lack of Asian representation in the media has taken a toll on all Americans with Asian ancestry. Despite the media’s recent efforts to project diversity, the distorted portrayals of Asian Americans have created a narrow set of roles that Asian actors can take. For instance, very few A-list Hollywood movie stars with Asian ancestry come to mind. In television, Asian roles are scarce, and the recurring roles that are available to Asian actors usually center around medical dramas, such as ER or Grey’s Anatomy, where one or two Asian doctors or nurses is on the medical team. The limited roles are primarily an extension of the American perception of Asians in America — that Asians are not viewed as an oppressed minority, but are more like foreigners. As a result, Asian American viewers have absorbed demeaning — and not-so demeaning — stereotypes generated by the media with embarrassment and shame. These portrayals were reminders of the ridicule they encountered from childhood, and of the closed minds of people who saw Asians in narrow, proscribed ways. For Asian Americans, the way the media perceived them was equally as important as they were increasingly identified with the pervasive and blatantly racist stereotypes.

Racially Asian and American by birthright, Asian Americans have constantly been excluded from what is considered to be American because for most people, being American is equated with being white. The media has not been kind to this perception either. Often seen as a homogenous group, Chinese and Asian Americans — regardless of ethnicity — are commonly grouped together on the basis that the two groups both share similar physical characteristics. Thus, creating the stereotype that all Asians in America are Chinese, and all ethnically-Chinese people are “foreigners”. For instance, when a Chinese American is asked “Where do you come from?” by a white American, the Chinese American is expected to answer a foreign country outside of the U.S. Even though Chinese Americans may be American by nationality, they are perceived as the perpetual foreigner because of their distinctive physical differences from white Americans.

Contemporary American attitudes towards Asian Americans are heavily influenced by stereotypical character traits associated with being “Chinese”; since, of course, China is the largest country in Asia, and therefore, all Asians in America come from China. The stereotypes vary between Asian men and women, and come in varying degrees of negative connotations that can be historically traced to racially discriminative portrayals of Chinese immigrants in the mid-19th century known who were known as the Yellow Peril. Heavy labor protests against cheap Chinese labor during the building of the Pacific Railroad in 1868 brewed heavy anti-Chinese sentiment.

In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed The Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the only law ever implemented in US history that prevented a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the country.

Illustrations of dirty, dilapidated, and crowded Chinatowns consumed newspapers and literary journals. Chinese people were drawn with exaggerated caricature features, including slanted eyes and eyebrows, with accompanying captions labeling the Asian as subhuman, unsanitary, and a threat to white Americans. These images virtually reinforced the worst features of the Chinese stereotype that consciously or subconsciously, poisoned the American view of Asians for decades.

Many of these negative portrayals of the Chinese persisted well into the 20th century, and even into contemporary culture. Americans derived their knowledge of Asian Americans from various images generated — and perpetuated — by the media that reinforced the foreign, mysteriousness, sinister, and exotic stereotypes of Chinese people. From such circumstances arose a number of negative stereotypes in several novels, television shows, and movies. For example, Charlie Chan, a series of detective novels centered on a Chinese American detective, was created by Earl Derr Biggers to offer a contrast to Yellow Peril. However, the image that Chan had an innate knowledge of Oriental divination to solve crimes, spat out random pseudo-Confucian quips, and was asexual only further fueled the negative stereotypes of Chinese men — although audiences today could argue that this was because Chan was a homosexual. In the television series, Chan was played by a Caucasian actor wearing heavy costume make-up who adopted an unusual Chinese accent for the role. Television producers argued that the people at home were not interested in watching an Asian actor in the role because it would not be as entertaining.

As a result, the advent of the Charlie Chan character originated the idea that Asian men were, more or less, asexual and effeminate foreigners, whose only entertainment value in the media was comic relief.

In later films, Asian men have been portrayed in terms of the classic image of the nerd, such as that from the movie The Revenge of the Nerds. In Sixteen Candles, Gedde Watanabe played a foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong, a character that visually poked fun at the physical features of Asian people. The character had a bowl haircut, unnatural slanted eyes and eyebrows, long front teeth, and an unnatural Asian accent. In other words, the character looked like a human being who had lost a few chromosomes. Long Duk Dong was constantly ridiculed by students at the high school, and was nicknamed “The Donger”. Although Long Duk Dong picks up a girlfriend later in the movie, the scene was obviously created for comedic effect, and the idea that a nerdy Asian boy could actually have a girlfriend was not a part of any social norms of American high school teenagers. These roles, created mostly for comic relief, became prevalent in movies throughout the latter half of the 20th century, and were the one of the types of a limited list of roles that were offered to male Asian actors.

In contrast to their male counterparts, Asian women were often portrayed as exotic, hypersexual sperm receptacles for white men. Suzy Wong, a Chinese American actress who starred in several films from 1920–1960, simulated the image of the subservient and obedient Asian woman to the American audience. Later on, the Korean and Vietnam wars perpetuated these stereotypes and concurrently created new ones. One of the most popular and well-known examples of this stereotype of Asian women comes from the movie Full Metal Jacket. In one scene, a Vietnamese prostitute propositions two American GIs sitting at a café in Da Nang, and declares , “Me so horny! Me love you long time! …each you fifteen dollars!” The two soldiers barter with her, and finally get her to agree to ten dollars for “everything [they] want”. These sexual scenarios between Caucasian men and Asian females have been common in many films and theater works surrounding Western-Eastern conflict, including Puccini’s opera, Madama Butterfly, the Broadway musical, Miss Saigon, and movies such as Good Morning Vietnam and Air America.

Although the representation of Asian female characters in the media have increased, these character roles largely portray negative images and have not been encouraging for Asian American females, who often become victims of sexually-charged, racist jokes.

By the late 1950s, the image of Chinese Americans had evolved from the feral, inassimilable, and exotic Chinese to the dominant model minority image. In the wake of nationwide urban riots and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the model minority theory claimed that Chinese Americans had successfully achieved the American Dream. Initially, Chinese Americans enjoyed the bolstering of their image. They were extolled as a model minority who had overcome racism and had successfully integrated themselves into American society by their perseverance, hard work, and quiet accommodation. By focusing on success stories, however, the model minority theory did not consider the large number of Chinese American families who did not fit the theory. Second generation Chinese American parents, for example, who were most likely well-educated, English proficient, and wealthy professionals, had different experiences than poorly-educated, non-English-speaking, newly-immigrated Chinese parents. The social and psychological backlashes of the model minority myth theory also created unattainable expectations that proved to be very hurtful for Chinese American students who were constantly pressured to excel in school by their parents. As a result, many Chinese Americans became withdrawn and reserved, fearing it would jeopardize their studies and cause their parents to lose face.

While many American sociologists would agree the portrayal of Asian people in the media continue to reinforce age-old stereotypes, there is some truth to them. There are many Asian Americans who fit the stereotypes perfectly, who have small eyes and slanted eyebrows, only date white Americans, are intelligent and well educated, and live in affluent neighborhoods. There are also many Asian Americans who do not fit the stereotypes at all, who have big round eyes and full eyebrows, failed a math test or two, marry Blacks, and don’t know the difference between a paralegal and a paraplegic. All of these traits only represent a fragment of Asian American identity, and cannot accurately determine the Asian experience in America as experiences occur individually rather than collectively. Until Asian Americans are no longer marginalized from the media and mainstream culture, Asian Americans will continue to put forth double the effort to stake out their own territory to claim their space in the larger American cultural identity arena.