September 27, 2019

WANG | Andrew Yang, Taikonaut

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While Hollywood has in recent years swooned over space blockbusters like Interstellar and Ad Astra, it has reminded us of the dangers that befall those bold enough to make the first step into the unknown. The whole beauty of these movies is the uncomfortable vagueness to them. What made sense down here on earth is tossed out for something far more foreign — think Titanesque waves, space pirates and power surges that shake the foundation of our solar system. Watching these films is less a suspension of belief than an improvisation of law. The rules, as the characters learn, are made up for them as they go along.

The themes in these films cross my mind as I follow Andrew Yang, his very chill presidential campaign and the expensive crusade to give away as much money as possible. He’s polling anywhere from fourth to sixth for the Democratic ticket, and for the first time in a very long time, there’s a relevant Asian American candidate in our national conscience this late into the cycle.

In a race that began with enough wealthy white men to fill a VC firm, Yang’s background — a son of Taiwanese immigrants, entrepreneur and modestly wealthy in comparison to others — was an early separator. His warm explanations on his signature universal basic income stand starkly with his ominous warnings about the dangers of automation and general likeability. It’s not hard to see why he’s surged past other early contenders.

But this distinction of getting this far into the race — an achievement, really — isn’t a gift that unconditionally gives. Everything that relates to the Asian American community in a very public manner suddenly becomes a referendum on the entire population. Any incident could blaze into a phenomena. It’s what happens when a demographic, so shunted out of the national spotlight, latches onto anything, or anyone, that might speak to them. And so, we return to Andrew Yang.

Yang has charted into unmarked territory with his successful campaign, and he finds himself unprepared, just like the astronauts on our movie screens, as he faces and then reconciles with a host of issues on Asian American discourse that have never been given the chance to breathe. In responding to these issues, he has been a little uneven to say the least.

He first made some questionable comments at the most recent Democratic National Debate, joking “Now I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors” in response to a healthcare inquiry. The Asian doctor trope, which is entirely played out (thanks, Ken Jeong), plays into the image of Asian students being studious grade churners who make up a lack of personality for scores. It’s a flat portrayal of Asian Americans in general, ignoring the diversity of the group and feeding into a self-perpetuating model minority myth that manages to clump the community into high achievers while disparaging other communities for not following their example.

It also really doesn’t help counter the stereotypes that Yang, in response to Trump’s general oafishness, has started selling hats with “I love math” and proclaiming “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian who likes math.” He hasn’t committed any grievous misstep, but the general clumsiness of the whole scheme speaks to a shaky compass. He’s riffing on the spot, going with what he sees fit — jokes he grew up with and probably laughed at.

But griping about these prolonged quips should not be entirely directed at Yang. The cultural and social consciousness of the Asian American community has always been tempered. Political activism and defining yourself through a wider culture of the country have never been tenants of the community. The community’s motto is to keep your head down and hope for the best. And when the community has arisen — think Peter Liang, the NYPD cop who shot an unarmed black man and was jailed for his crime in 2016 — the response from them has been uncomfortable, with mass protests citing MLK quotes in defense of a cop who killed an unarmed man. There’s a lack of experience in this matter, and grappling with our social identity and relationships has produced some half-baked results, with little etiquette spared.

It also doesn’t help that the broader term “Asian American” is confusing at best, and discriminatory at worst. No one has quite defined what it means to be Asian American. Factually, Asian Americans are a minority in this country. In reality, quite literally no one considers them to be actually that. In college admissions, Asian Americans are beset with a higher bar, but they face hurdles as well outside of that — assimilation, language, alienation from others who don’t quite understand our culture. It leaves us in a precarious spot, with no foothold or niche.

Jay Caspian Kang said it best: “Asian American” is a largely pointless term. It includes Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Filipino Americans, Singaporean Americans, Thai Americans, Bhutanese American and so on, with a variety of economic backgrounds and upbringings. It’s an umbrella identity that somehow has loaded implications, but lacks any coherent meaning. Somehow, someway, I’ve been almost implicitly expected to be able to relate to someone who grew up in a Japanese American or Pakistani American household, when I have a better shot connecting to someone from German American or Brazilian American household. It’s a mess — ripped out shreds of cultural fibers, spewed onto the floor with little to no logical arrangements. It’s up to us to rearrange it into something sensible.

Yang — entrepreneur, presidential nominee, social astronaut — probably isn’t going to win this election. But his arrival is a mediation between watershed moments of our community, from culturally risk-averse to something a little more daring. A few months ago, Yang warned about the recent tensions between Asia and America, and then the general insecurity of the country to the general Asian community might lead to “shooting up a bunch of Asians.” Growing up, I would have laughed if anyone said that. Instead, when I read what he said, an uneasy thought that been lurking in my head snapped into place.

“Do no harm,” my mother told me once, “and everyone will treat you well.” The rules are being rewritten, unfortunately. It’s 2019: Andrew Yang is a serious presidential candidate, I no longer recognize who I am and the astronauts of our dreams are the people who we wake up to.

William Wang is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com. Willpower runs every other Friday this semester.