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Asian-Americans Film Hollywood Solidarity Stereotypes

An Open Letter to Asian-Americans

Dear Asian-Americans:

You already know the drill.

We live in a country where every time we turn on the TV, hardly anyone looks like us. No one in the movies has looked like us since we were kids. Onscreen, the ones who do look like us are either math nerds, asexual corporate drones, or prostitutes. We were stoked in the mid-90s that finally, finally we were going to get a TV family that physically resembled ours. Of course, that show was abruptly cancelled, and we’ve had to wait another 21 years for a comparable Asian TV family.

Twenty. One. Fucking. Years. Welcome to our reality.

In a world that is becoming more interconnected by the day, where movie blockbusters and hit TV sitcoms export American soft power to the world, where diplomacy is carried out—not just within embassies, but vis-à-vis pop cultural icons and entertainers—Asian-Americans are invisible.

This phenomenon is especially disturbing when you look at the statistics: Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. Our households outspend the average American family by 19% annually, and are more likely than the average American to spend more money on name brands—by a whopping 29%. We’re avid internet shoppers, spending almost double of what the average U.S. population spends annually.

In short, we’re the perfect consumers. You’d think it’d make sense for TV networks and media companies to devote more time to Asian perspectives—but no. Year after year, we faithfully flock to opening nights of movies that reflect someone else’s narrative. Not ours. Not even close. Which brings me to my next point. You might have heard about the Emma Stone kerfuffle a few weeks ago.

…we’re the perfect consumers. You’d think it’d make sense for TV networks and media companies to devote more time to Asian perspectives—but no.

You know, Emma Stone? Blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin, freckles. She’s playing the lead role in Aloha, a Cameron Crowe movie. As a half-Asian woman. Named Allison Ng. Who lives in Hawaii. A state which, despite being 60% ethnically Asian/Pacific Islander, has somehow been personified in an all-white cast. The fact that my mom’s maiden name is Ng is just icing on this giant ironic shitcake.

(To recap: Emma Stone, half-Asian woman, movie “all about Hawaiian cultural heritage,” all-white cast.)

So who’s to blame for this? Our first instinct is point fingers at Hollywood, and sure, the outrage is entirely warranted. Hollywood bears the brunt of culpability, because their entrenched myopia and inability to embrace our narratives—as rich and diverse as they are—has directly resulted in our pathetic representation in the media. To be fair, Asian-American groups have raised a huge stink about Aloha. And box offices around the country are hearing it, loud and clear. Two months after its release, Aloha has raked in a paltry $23 million—Crowe’s worst movie to date. On the other hand, Rotten Tomatoes currently ranks Aloha at an abysmal 19%, so there is a good chance that this movie has managed to royally suck all by itself.

But is that the full story? Is Big Bad Hollywood solely responsible for this void? Does that really explain why we aren’t better represented in the media?

My Asian brothers and sisters—you diverse, multi-colored, heterogeneous, polyglot group of sexy bitches—I need you to listen up. Part of this shit is our fault.

I’m talking to you, Asian parents. I see you with your flash cards, violin lessons, piano recitals, math drills, Kumon-everything. Quite frankly, it makes me want to scream. Not because I don’t believe in a rigorous education, or in setting high academic standards for kids. But because I’ve seen this dog-and-pony show with my own eyes, way too many times. I know where it all leads. So many of you pay lip service to “encouraging creativity,” and sure, you’re proud of the odd watercolor painting here and there. And you’d probably come around if your child wanted to become a professional musician. But it’d better one of the traditionally prestigious orchestral positions (read: a cellist, and not, say a drummer in a punk band). You and I both know that within our communities, if little Kimmie wanted to study sculpture at a small Midwestern liberal arts college, 3/4 of you would freak the fuck out. We may not talk about this in public, but behind closed doors, away from “the other” Americans, many of us have acknowledged that this is an old, old record that we’ve heard in various iterations.

My Asian brothers and sisters—you diverse, multi-colored, heterogeneous, polyglot group of sexy bitches—I need you to listen up. Part of this shit is our fault.

I’m looking at you, too, Asian kids. I’m stoked that you’re flocking to pre-med, engineering, and computer science programs. If this is truly what excites you, go for the gold. (And expect a call from me later—I hate dealing with the Apple Genius Bar). But for the rest of you who are secret artists, actors, writers, creatives. The weird ones. The black sheep of your families. The freaks who have always marched to the beat of their own drum. We need you. We need you now, more than ever. We need your names in lights, your stories on bookshelves, your art on display for all to see. Believe me, I know what kind of pressure you’re under. Most of us are from immigrant families. Some of us have known crushing poverty in our home countries. And if we haven’t, there is always that Asian perspective which holds that the needs of the group collective outweigh the desires of any one individual. We buy into the notion that the only acceptable route to the American Dream is via one of five career options. It’s a lie. And if you don’t reach back to yank out that apparatus that connects you to the Asian-American Matrix, you’ll live in crushing spiritual imprisonment, even as you peer out from your gilded cage.

Do it. Share your art. Do your thang, even if your parents tell you that entertainers have no future in the States, that the safer option is to become a CPA. Do it even if you think you’ll fail spectacularly, because you don’t have the right look, the right build, the right whatfuckingever for audiences. Do it especially if it makes your soul sing, because you do the world no favors by hiding your light. It took me decades to realize this. And none too soon, because as we speak, even the publishing world is studiously whitewashing minority narratives.

And if you’re not an artist? You sure as fuck are still a consumer, my Asian friend, and a discerning, Grade A one at that. We don’t have to continue settling for movies and sitcoms with people who look nothing like us, whose experiences and voices are not our own. We can’t just politely ask and wait—we have to demand a seat at the table—call out networks and studios when they deploy another Tired Asian Caricature, and reward the progressive ones with our support, financial or otherwise. Support homegrown artists. It’s time for male Asian characters reclaim their swagger, lest we’re subject to another Hangover sequel with Ken Jeong’s naked ass and his inability to get laid; time for Asian women to be something other than modern day Suzie Wongs, auxiliary to whichever white heroes they’re simpering over at present. Time for us to be an integral part of the zeitgeist.

Is this too much to ask? Don’t we have bigger fish to fry? Fuck that. All we have in the end are stories, stories that are ours, stories that deserve to be told in our own unique voices.

It’s what our forefathers would have wanted for us.

Originally published at Back That Sass Up.

By Beverly Murray

Beverly Murray is a writer with a raging bunion issue. She was born in Singapore, moved to Orange County, California, at age 16, and now lives in Miami—a city where hot pink thongs and parrots are acceptable accoutrements for outdoor activities. Join her as she chronicles everything from the serious, to the absolutely farcical at BackThatSassUp.com.