Asian-Americans Are Cultural Orphans (aka I hope Crazy Rich Asians isn’t a flop)
I just found out that there’s a movie coming out this summer with an all-Asian cast called Crazy Rich Asians and it’s making me very nervous. Is this supposed to be our Black Panther moment for stereotype-shattering Asian-American representation in mainstream media? Ok, that’s probably an exaggeration. I’m happy we are even represented in the first place. But what if no one watches it? Does it prove once and for all that Asian-Americans are not bankable stars? What about the fact that studios have largely given up on romantic comedies because they don’t sell as well as superhero movies. Would anyone care for our excuse? What about this male lead from Malaysia, Henry Golding. He’s not technically Asian-American and I don’t want to put it all on him, but he might be the only Asian-looking romantic male lead we will ever get. If he’s not a big enough thirst trap, can Asian-Americans men ever be found physically attractive by American standards? I’m asking, uh, for my friends…
How I became Asian-American
The media has given more attention to the lack of Asian-American representation in recent years thanks to movements like #HollywoodSoWhite and leaders like Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang and Constance Wu speaking out about the issue. However, I can’t help but feel like not much is going to change because “Asian-American” as an identity is not really a meaningful one.
I really wanted to be Asian-American growing up. I immigrated to the United States when I was eleven from Taiwan. Since I didn’t speak English, I wanted to befriend the Korean-American kids in my school because they looked liked me. Kids being kids, they wasted no time to make fun of the new kid by pointing out that I was nothing like them — I was a FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) Asian, not Asian-American. At that age, being ostracized like that by what you thought was your people pretty much amounted to devastation. I stopped trying to talk for two years until I developed enough fluency to sound just like any ordinary Asian-American kid from Los Angeles. Eventually I joined the Asian-American kids in teasing the new FOB Asians in our school and feeling like I’ve succeeded in becoming one of them.
When I got older, I started to understand the complexities of being Asian in this country. I moved here at a young enough age that I had an easier time passing as Asian-American, but those who immigrated later often didn’t have a choice because it’s much harder to get rid of your foreign accent after a certain age. Not that identifying as Asian-American should be that important, but it does give you a shared identity to relate to other Asian-Americans as opposed to feeling like an alien all the time. For many of the older immigrants that can’t or don’t want to identify as Asian-American, they’re simply immigrants or “Overseas Asians.”
The Overseas Asians usually refer to themselves as “Chinese” or “Indian” living abroad. They have lived their formative years in their native Asian country, so they are culturally much more Asian than they are American. I’d speak to my Overseas Chinese friends in Mandarin because it’s preferred, and we’d talk about the latest Chinese shows and celebrity gossip. Where I live in the Bay Area, there are authentic Chinese restaurants that cater specifically to the Overseas Chinese. It’s a big enough market that there are even dating apps (2 Red Beans) and shopping services (YamiBuy) designed specifically for this population.
Sometimes I’m envious of the closeness of the Overseas Asian community. It feels like being “Asian-American” is simply what you end up with when you are not an Overseas Asian or a FOB Asian like myself who could swing both ways. In fact, it’s way more meaningful for an Asian-American person to identify as Vietnamese-American, Pakistani-American, Filipino-American, etc. since those labels point to much richer cultures. Asian-Americans do not have much of a shared history in the United States to unite us, which can be good because that history is mostly a history of struggle, but it does deprive us of the urgency to be authors of our own cultural narrative.
We don’t know what it means to be Asian-American, and so far we haven’t shown much interest in figuring it out. On top of that, our parents would remind us that Chinese and Koreans detest the Japanese. Indian and Pakistani people don’t get along. Generally the light-skinned Asians look down on the “jungle Asians” of South East Asia. Historically, we’re just not that interested in being lumped into the same group. However, the younger generation of Asian-American like me do not have this historical baggage. We’re simply interested in finding our identity, but when we look out to the world, all we can find is the lazy portrayal of the uni-dimensional, kung-fu fighting, smart, obedient, emasculated man or hyper-sexualized woman. The Model Minority. That sucks.
What being a cultural orphan feels like
Linsanity was the biggest media event of my Asian-American life. I remember my friends and I would leave work early to watch the Knicks play, not wanting to miss any precious second because deep down we knew this moment wouldn’t last, and we would never experience this powerful feeling again.
Jeremy Lin showed us that Asian-Americans are strong, masculine, and competitive at the highest level of our favorite sport. Of course, we’ve always wanted to believe that about ourselves, but few of us actually did because we’ve never seen that image reinforced in the media until we saw Jeremy Lin. Maybe cultural symbols and narratives were never that important to you to begin with, but for many of us, they are important because the media is like a mirror — we look to it to reflect the ideal image we want to believe about ourselves. If you’re Asian-American, you’re always left wanting more.
The term “Asian-American” wasn’t a thing until fifty years ago. Before that, we were simply Indian-American, Korean-American, Hmong-American, each group considered different from one another. In order to gain political power, activists at UC Berkeley took a page from the Afro-American playbook to create the Asian American Political Alliance, uniting Asian-Americans under one umbrella. This movement put pressure on the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to promote “Asian-American” from the “Other” category, with significant impact on how political resources are allocated — something we still benefit from today. But culturally, we never made much progress.
The Black Power political movement in the 60s had the associated Black is Beautiful cultural movement that rejected the racist perception of the country and helped define a more empowering narrative of what it means to be a black person. Even many of us non-blacks can recite speeches, poems, songs and identify influential black cultural figures. What about Asian-Americans? Our Model Minority status is sinister because it hides the significant cultural vacuum that we operate in. We have no aspirational images. No role models. Asian-Americans are cultural orphans.
Being a cultural orphan in America means that other groups of people don’t know how to interact with us. We are asked questions that you’d ask a foreign tourist from a culture you know little about. “Where are you from?” and “Do you know kung-fu?” Despite the fact that we grew up here in the United States. Our fellow Americans do not mean to belittle or relegate us to the stereotype, they’re simply under-exposed. Asian-Americans are still only 5.6% of the American population, so most people will be under-exposed to the Asian-American narrative. We need to leverage the media to help us scale that exposure.
Fortunately over the last decade, I believe we’re witnessing the beginning of the rise of Asian America. Every time Jeremy Lin attacks the rim and rocks a new hairstyle, he inflicts major damage on the stereotype. On Fresh Off the Boat, Constance Wu and Randall Park are showing off the eccentric Asian-American family and making it something endearing that we can all be proud of. Eddie Huang and David Chang are the irreverent chefs with untouchable swagger. Ali Wong, Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Ken Jeong, Mindy Kaling are the funny Asian-Americans that you wished you were friends with. Steve Yeun, John Cho and Harry Shum Jr. are sexy men ready to be your next male romantic lead (#StarringJohnCho). We even have an Asian-American running for president in Andrew Yang(!).
The biggest factor contributing to this rise is likely the maturation of second-generation Asian-Americans. The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 resulted in an unprecedented number of Asian immigrants coming to this country. Their now adult children are beginning to understand that culturally, they are not like their immigrant parents, but they have yet to define what it means to be Asian-American.
The Internet is also playing a big part in the rise of Asian America. For example, YouTube allowed Asian-Americans to sidestep Hollywood completely until they became too big to ignore. Pioneers like Ryan Higa, Wong Fu and Timothy DeLaGhetto paved the way for the ascendence of Michelle Phan, Fung Bros, Awkwafina and Eugene Lee.
The Internet also enabled a more global youth culture that is much more receptive to elements from outside of the United States. Asian-Americans like Maggie Q, Daniel Wu, Jay Park who moved to Asia to better build their careers abroad are now making their way back home because the American taste is becoming more multicultural. BTS, an Asian K-Pop import, just topped the American Billboard charts, and their songs are all in Korean. Music label 88Rising is seeing this opportunity and aggressively marketing Asian artists with American and Internet-friendly sounds like Rich Brian, Keith Ape, Joji and the Higher Brothers to the American audience. These Asian imports will also be part of the Asian-American narrative going forward.
Bruce Lee wanted to be so much more
I heard a great Bruce Lee interview recently on the NPR 1A podcast that made me think that if Bruce Lee was still alive, he would’ve already already pushed the Asian-American narrative significantly forward. In an interview from 1971, the man primarily responsible for the kung fu fighting stereotype talked about the importance of Asian-Americans like himself to be embraced more fully by our society.
Interviewer: are you going to stay in Hong Kong and be famous or are you going to go to the United States and be famous?
Bruce Lee: I’m gonna do both because you see I have already made up my mind that in the United States I think something about the Oriental…I mean the true oriental should be shown
Interviewer: Hollywood sure as heck hasn’t
Bruce Lee: you better believe it man it’s always that pigtail and bouncing around chop chop you know with the eyes slanted and all that and I think that’s very very out of date.
Perhaps my trepidation about Crazy Rich Asians isn’t actually warranted. Bruce Lee had all the confidence in the world that he was going to demonstrate all the different ways someone could be Asian-American. Fifty years after his tragic death, we are finally seeing the emergence of a new class of Asian-American role models who are doing exactly that. Crazy Rich Asians is simply the latest culminating event in the rise of Asian America, and the best is yet to come.
Thanks to David Tran, Sidney Le, Jennifer 8. Lee, Nancy Hua, Cory Bray and Ian Burgess for reading a draft of this essay.