Sitting on the motor coach heading back to New York City at the start of spring break, my ears perked up at the greeting a Williams student had given to one of her peers, “Oh, herro.” I looked up and, unsurprisingly, the girl was Caucasian. But that in and of itself wasn’t what bothered me: It was the fluidity, the naturalness and the pure disregard for the Asian American kid sitting right in front of her with which she offered her greetings. I sat and stared as she proceeded to greet not one, but two of her friends with the exact same phrase. There were no bad intentions, not even a tacky stereotypical Asian accent thrown in for good measure, but at the core, it just struck me as wrong.
We live in a society in which Asian Americans live and die by the model minority stereotype. The common perception is that we work hard, keep to ourselves and don’t cause very much trouble. At the same time, our people have no particular hardship constantly present in the mind’s eye of the American public. Chinese immigrants played an underappreciated role in building the railroads, sure, and the Japanese internment in the throes of World War II was clearly one of the greater injustices of modern American history, but these things aren’t of significant magnitude in the public conscience when compared to issues like black segregation and slavery. Other minorities tend to come first, as it were. Poking fun at Asians in a negative manner, and the question of whether we are truly giving Asian American issues proper attention don’t receive the same sort of gravity or ethical conscience in the public mind.
This is not to ask for pity or dwell in the sorrow of being unappreciated, but instead to shed light on an under-observed area worth considering; our American perception of Asians and Asian Americans, or specifically, the presence of Asian Americans in the media.
Think about the idea of Asians or Asian-related subjects in the media, and what pops into your head? People like Kim Jong Il, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, references like the variety of Asian jokes on Family Guy, South Park and Japanese anime TV shows. These are all well-known, popular or highly discussed items, but the point is that these things are neither representative nor the product of the actual cohort of Asians in America; they are either imported or fictional.
This situation is epitomized by the filming and production of the movie Better Luck Tomorrow, a movie directed by Justin Lin of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift fame and starring an ensemble cast of Asian Americans. When originally writing and producing the film, which involves a group of Asian Americans students who, bored with their lives, enter a lifestyle of petty crime and excess, Lin received offers from major studios with one condition: Drop the Asian American protagonists and opt for Latinos or African Americans instead, the implication being that an Asian American cast wouldn’t fill seats in theaters. Instead of taking the multi-million dollar offers, however, Lin stayed true to his heart and filmed the movie out of his own pocket, gracing us with one of the gems of Asian America in our time.
The indirect result of Better Luck Tomorrow’s success has been the start of something special in the Asian-American community. One could point to the rising stardom of John Cho, one of the members of the Better Luck Tomorrow cast, moving on to star in both Harold and Kumar and Star Trek. In the music industry, the ascension of Far East Movement, an Asian American rap group who featured on the soundtrack of Lin’s Tokyo Drift, has been the source of great excitement, with their Free Wired album topping Billboard this past fall. Even the controversial antics of Amy Chua in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother received a great deal of national attention not so very long ago. Across the board, Asian Americans are finally beginning to leave their mark.
It is with this rising tide in mind that I’m proud to write that a capsule of this wave is coming to Williams, as this April, Asian American Heritage Month, we’ve decided to focus on Asians in the media. With tons of programming focusing on the progress of Asian America in all sorts of mediums, it is our sincere hope on the AASiA board that we can give you a glimpse behind these eyes. It’s time we moved past the Alexandra Wallaces of the world, eliminated “Ching Chong Ling Long” and “herro prease” from our vocabulary and realized that there’s something very exciting and very real going on in the Asian American community.