I’ve been assimilating all my life, and so I’ll do what’s traditional and start off with a personal anecdote.
A year ago, I was playing basketball with a friend of mine on the public court near an off-campus fraternity house. As four of its members were driving by, one of them yelled at me, “Jeremy Lin!” When that happened, I wasn’t offended that they forgot that Yao Ming had a way better record, or that I was actually Korean, and I wasn’t wondering why my friend, who was Polish, wasn’t called Marcin Gortat. To the contrary, I was much wiser than that.
I’ve heard these “jokes” and others like them over and over again throughout my whole life. So you will understand why I was so appalled when lauded comedian Chris Rock, after a wholly accurate and pointed inspection of racial inequality in our culture and media, without any provocation, made what I can only summarize as an “Asian math joke” at the Oscars two Sundays ago. Rock started off by saying that he would introduce the audience to the “most dedicated, accurate and hard-working representatives” sent by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that tabulates the Oscar results. They were introduced as “Ming Zhu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz.” The laughter began, of course, when three little Asian children appeared on to the stage.
Not only was this not a joke — since jokes get tiresome after being repeated for 50 years — it was rehearsed racism, sponsored by one of the most prestigious societies in global art culture. (People Magazine, on the other hand, called the joke one of the highlights of the night on their Snapchat story.) Rock then proceeded to claim that the phones that some will use to tweet their complaints about the joke were also made by those children.
I felt bad for myself, in that I had to deal with this nonsense, but I also felt bad for the kids who were unwittingly made into props for Rock’s prejudice. They obviously weren’t laughing with the audience. For them, it was simply a rude first chapter to the story of what would be their lives, or what would become a familiar scene of them being laughed at by a room full of non-Asian people (save one), before they even had the opportunity to open their mouths. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if any other race of children were brought out like that as props for a stereotypical statement? It was O.K. here because they were Asian. They were simply laughed at because of who they are. And since the audience probably thinks we’re all the same, they laughed at me, too.
The thing is, just because our struggles may not have been as horrific as that of the black community — their struggles are still immensely severe to this day — doesn’t mean that our issues aren’t issues. In other words, just because racism against black Americans is the most pressing kind, doesn’t mean that racism against other ethnic groups can’t be addressed. We can’t simply cherry-pick what racial transgressions are in vogue and go from there; any serious attempt to address racism should be willing to tackle all instances of prejudice, including the vast amounts of anti-Asian rhetoric, as well as violence that goes without condemnation.
I also can’t excuse Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Asian dick” joke either.
Were these the same artists that made the legendary Bring the Pain special and the masterpiece Borat? And they got paid to do this? The kids from my middle school did it for free. At least Hugh Dennis of Mock the Week put in some effort: “These Korean meatballs are the dog’s bollocks!” At least that’s clever.
Asians! That’s as far as these “jokes” went that night. Humor is absurdity. Our existence was absurd to them.
I was instantly reminded of the scene in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing where the Korean shop owner Sonny pleaded, “I black! You, me, same!” This isn’t what I’m trying to say, but you know what I mean. I felt betrayed.
Throughout my entire life, I’ve supported the black community, gay people and other minority groups more vigorously than most people I’ve met. I’ve always tried to convert both political and religious conservatives to see these people the way I did. But by the end of the Oscars, I was wondering why Asian-Americans weren’t supported in the same way.
What really irked me was that the jokes, as I’ve said, weren’t even funny. What did it add to the set? It didn’t really detract anything from Rock’s opening monologue, because it was both much needed and full of truisms, yet it really indicated to me how blasé racism against Asians still is for Americans. When the audience laughed at Cohen’s joke, it wasn’t only at the semi-clever turn to the Minions or the ante-setup about our media representation; the laughter started when he was remarking on our small stature, model-minority myth-informed work ethic, “yellow” skin and “tiny dongs.” Replace the race and the appropriate designations with any other, and it would’ve been unacceptable. Another comedian, Louis C.K. laughed at that part. Another legendary comedian I’ve lost respect for.
And it wasn’t just that night that Asians were seen as easy targets that can’t fight back. If we consider subtext, what is actually happening when blatant jokes about us are made is that content creators are basically saying: It doesn’t matter if it offends you. Your response won’t affect us. They don’t affect us because you are not a real person, and unless you have significant buying power, you won’t be able to change anything.
And I get this message anytime I turn on the television or consume any kind of entertainment made by anyone. I really liked and still like Lonely Island ft. Akon’s “I Just Had Sex.” Great song. However, I didn’t like it when, in the music video, they cut to an Asian family, the joke being Asians are asexual. Ha. And I really loved X-Men: Days of Future Past. Except for that one scene where a Vietnamese military officer was incapacitated by Mystique for his cardinal sin of being an Asian male who dared to have carnal thoughts. And I thought Star Wars: Force Awakens was pretty entertaining as well. What I didn’t find all that believable was the fact that in that galaxy, far, far away, the only people that can’t speak English are Asians and aliens. They even digitally altered the Asian bounty hunters’ voices. Always the ‘perpetual foreigner,’ eh? And who could forget the Coen Brothers’ classic, Fargo? One thing I would like to forget is the part where we find out that Asian guy — always with the Asian men — is a crazy weirdo who can’t get laid. Some of these scenes, crafted by masters in their field, had a reason to be in the film — to further their plot. What hurts is that their Asian-ness was superfluous to that goal, and was added because they’re just fuckin’ weird! Ha ha. (Maybe it’s a good thing I’ve never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sixteen Candles or Pitch Perfect.)
And yes, I know I shouldn’t be upset because, look, there’s Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None and The Walking Dead! While that’s true, my response to setbacks and progress is the same: I don’t take either for granted. I’d just rather be considered as a real human being than a fictional one on T.V. And I’m not even asking for more or demographically accurate representation in the media. I’m asking for, at the very least, human decency when we are represented.
The audience at the Oscars and these content creators are all cut from the same cloth — the wider American culture. And even at Cornell, my non-Asian friends directly, in my presence, asked or said to me things like, “Why do you even have eyelashes,” “What are those little Asians going to do anyways,” “You do know that no girl is attracted to Asian guys, right?” And that was just freshman year. When I first downloaded Yik Yak, the place where honesty can truly shine, I saw the same joke multiple times about how some Asian student was able to run at superhuman speeds to get to math class on time. You’re probably laughing at this as you read it.
What is most troubling is that my friends were in on the joke too. Some of it, they probably didn’t think it would even offend me. Maybe it’s because they don’t think I have the capacity to feel because I am not fully human. And that’s the problem. Americans don’t believe in such a thing as racism against Asians. They don’t think it’s possible.
Returning to the issue at hand, do you know what the most messed up thing is? The worst thing is that like last year, this year’s Oscars were sponsored by Samsung, the South Korean electronics manufacturing company. What the Oscars have done to the Korean corporation is tell them, ‘Thanks for the money. It was used to pay for jokes that insulted your entire race and cemented the belief that you can’t do jack about it except make cellphones.’
I’m personally saddened that Samsung didn’t comment on what occurred. Does their leadership have the cultural knowledge to discern insults when they see one? Can I petition them to drop the Oscars? But the sad truth is, if there was a movie made called Samsung v. Park: Dawn of Racial Justice, there probably wouldn’t be any Asian actors in it. I’d probably be replaced by a more “relatable” actor, like how Korean-American character Mindy Park from the novel The Martian was played by a person named Mackenzie Davis in Ridley Scott’s adaptation.
And an apology from these people that laughed and created this incident isn’t what I’m asking for. In the world of entertainment and P.R., apologies mean nothing, because when smart people do stupid things, it’s on purpose. Did I buy the Wall Street Journal’s immediate twitter apology after calling the President of China a “chink in his armor”? In 2015? Hell no.
The 2016 Oscars ceremony was the biggest public setback to my race in my lifetime.
Really, the only solution to what happened is for Samsung to drop their partnership with the Oscars. They can laugh at us — while relying on the fact we don’t have a sense of unity, an Asian Entertainment Television or a strong, focused national organization to advocate for our fair representation — but they can’t laugh at money. But that’ll never happen, unfortunately. Because money always wins the race.
In response to this indecent incident — I will call it an incident — Jeremy Lin himself tweeted, “[…] smh […].”
Brian J. Park is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears Tuesdays this semester.