As Asian representation expands in the United States, from the decorated class commentary of Parasite, to the rising popularity of Asian-American music label 88rising, I want to take a critical look at what popular portrayals reveal about Asian-American-ness today. Modern depictions of Asian people in the media mostly aim to dismantle the “yellow peril” and “model minority” stereotypes that have defined Asian characters for so long – but how well do they succeed?
Historically, the “yellow peril” framework paints Asians as unassimilable foreigners whose presence in America spells doom for the whole country. We’ve seen yellow peril make something of a comeback in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic — as actor John Cho so eloquently stated, “Coronavirus reminds Asians-Americans … that our belonging is conditional.”
On the flip side, Asian people that assimilate too well are deemed model minorities. White people use them as ammunition to blame other minorities for their race-centric problems, as if to say “if they can do it, why can’t you?”
In 1922, a Japanese man named Takao Ozawa, who was ineligible for U.S. citizenship by naturalization, tried to convince the Supreme Court that he should be classified as a “free white person” on account of his American upbringing, language, religion and cultural practices. The courts decided that Japanese people could not be classified as Caucasians because duh, and they denied Ozawa citizenship. I can only imagine what that court case looked like:
“Your Honor, there’s one last piece of evidence I’d like to turn your attention to…” A grin creeps onto Ozawa’s face as he slams his foot atop the courtroom desk to reveal the famed dual-strapped, chocolate-brown sandal: Birkenstocks. “Caucasian!” the judge bellows as he excitedly slams his gavel. “He’s Caucasian!”
So it seems that Asian-Americans just can’t win. Assimilate too well, and you risk associating with the ever-loathed model minority myth. Embrace your roots, and you’re a perpetual outsider whose place in America is always in question. For a way out of this trap, we turn to media representation and storytelling.
One of the most well-known examples of Asian representation in Hollywood is the acclaimed 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians. Now, as someone whose imagined romantic scenarios rarely consist of chiseled half-Asian men, I realize that I fall squarely outside of the target demographic for this movie. I won’t complain about the typical rom-com-isms of it all, because that would be an exhaustive list. The wedding scene did have me choked up, though.
What I want to focus on instead is the Crazy Rich Asians’s glamourization of Asian-ness. The movie glorifies extravagant wealth without a lick of satire or commentary on the characters’ excess beyond passing jokes. This glorification is specifically of Asian people – the movie functions as an idealized power fantasy for Asian-Americans to view their Asian heritages through the lens of obscene wealth and luxury. What the film lacks, however, is anything of real substance to say about Asian-ness in America.
This isn’t a problem inherent to the story itself, because it doesn’t seem to have been written with the Asian-American experience in mind. Protagonist Rachel Chu’s alienation as a Chinese-American among Chinese people is mentioned throughout but never elaborated on further than the usual “you selfish Americans” typisms.
More revealing is how Asian-Americans have flocked to portrayals of Asians like those found in Crazy Rich Asians, when such stories bear only a passing resemblance to their own experiences — and never mind films like the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy, where Asian-ness is used merely as an excuse to dress the main character up in a pretty hanbok and play Blackpink songs.
While Crazy Rich Asians’s portrayal of Asian people wasn’t exactly my cup of chá, my indoctrination into the Marvel-Disney entertainment imperium points me to another popular Asian-led movie: last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a landmark for Asian representation as a superhero film. Similarly to Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi relishes in its Asian-ness; a good portion of the dialogue consists of English-subtitled Chinese, much of the costuming and set design is inspired by Chinese history and it employs the central theme of dynastic familial loyalty, which is about as Asian as it gets.
Again, though, these kinds of portrayals risk further alienating Asian-Americans. While it would be nice to suggest that we should consume authentic Asian cultures however we please without any regard for outside perceptions, we simply cannot remain that naïve given America’s history with Asian minstrelsy.
Simu Liu, who plays the titular Shang-Chi, also worries that the film’s portrayal of Asian culture will “perpetuate [the narrative] that [Asian people] can only lead martial arts movies.”
In Asian-American Hollywood’s defense, I appreciate simply seeing more Asian faces on the big screen — narrative portrayals aside, the kinds of actors we see in movies should reflect the diversity that America is so blessed to have. But I also want to recognize that this inherent connection to Asian faces is fueled by the same tribalism that can unfortunately give rise to racial divisions.
We want to be known for more than kung-fu and qipao dresses, but also revel in those same authentic cultural minutiae that are becoming less and less reflective of Asian-Americans’ actual upbringings. We don’t all need to be like Ozawa, but Asian-Americans should demand portrayals that address the nuances of not just being Asian, but also American.
Films like Minari and the underrated Always Be My Maybe, which stars the incomparable Randall Park (please watch — it’s on Netflix), will hopefully signal a shift toward stories that depict our unique histories and experiences, rather than escapism into tokenized Asian exoticisms. As much as I enjoy watching Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi, I won’t pretend that they are faithful depictions of my Asian identity — that is, unless I have an obscenely wealthy family in Singapore or ancient Chinese warlord father that I somehow don’t know about. Until then, I’ll continue to look for stories that are willing to be as American as they are Asian.
Noah Do is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected].Noah’s Arc runs every other Monday this semester.