“East Asian – North American” Representation

We only very briefly touched on this in class, but here are some quotations from articles that I thought offered insight on “East Asian – North American” representation in media, for lack of a less bulky term.  These are not from “intellectuals” but from people working in the industries, including two actors from Fresh Off the Boat.

I have often seen authors spiral into a tizzy about writing races or cultures different from theirs. “But what if I get something wrong?” they cry. “People will criticize!”

I don’t know whether to laugh or weep at that, because these people have clearly never seen one of us “critics” try to write about elements over which our blood supposedly gives us authority.

I was—and am—about 9875235 times more nervous about writing a story based in my own cultural heritage than I ever have been about writing anything, ever. I spent more time in research for this story than I have for any novel. I read every translation of the original tale, every piece of related literary criticism in English I could find. I watched Chinese adaptations of the legend on YouTube. I sought out additional Chinese betas. At times I felt almost reduced to tears because I can only read English and what if I was writing about something I didn’t truly understand?

Doubts plagued me:

How do I write for primarily non-Chinese readers without flattening all of Chinese culture into a shallow, singular narrative?

What if I write something that only reinforces stereotypes, despite my best efforts?

Because I’m mixed, because I’m diaspora, do I even have the right?

I’ve talked to other POC who completely understand this. We feel an additional weight of being a representative, that if we don’t “get it right” we’ve let down our own people.

Like many of my short stories, Fighting Demons is, at its heart, a tale about something deeply personal to me. In this case, it’s about my relationship with my father.

This was a story I had to write eventually, in one form or another.

Much of my life has been spent chasing the roots my father gave up when he so forcibly assimilated himself. Even more of my life has been spent trying to arrive at some equilibrium in my fraught relationship with him, and a large part of that has been untangling how our cultural contexts snarl into this—his versus mine.

Layers upon layers. Many brain cycles, language classes, plane flights, and revelations. A lot of pain. A lot of tears. A lot of clinging with my fingernails to pieces of myself I’d never fully understood, and may never understand.

Like me, Xiao Hong has been raised by an immigrant parent continents away from where that parent was born. Like my father, her mother has assimilated on the surface, but underneath is still a hard knotted bundle of every strand of her history, a core she wouldn’t want to burn out of herself even if she could.

And in Meng Jiao is my journey to understanding and accepting my straddled lineage and how it impacts me. In Meng Jiao is my desire to respect where my parents come from, while still being able to say to them, “This is who I am” with no pretense, utterly vulnerable.

I’m not there yet. Like Meng Jiao, it will be the hardest thing I’ll ever do—if I ever find the courage.

There’s a conversation I’ve had happen multiple times, particularly in college. I’m talking to a new friend who’s of East Asian or Indian descent. The topic turns toward childhood, and one of the participants starts struggling to express part of their upbringing. Then this happens:

The other person, sympathetically: “Asian parents?”

The first person, with a weighted nod: “Asian parents.”

This is not about Tiger Moms or straight-A’s or playing the violin as a child, or whatever stereotypes it might conjure. No. It’s about a peculiar mixture of love and obligation and pride and resentment and gratitude and guilt, one that always feels just similar enough to vibrate in one’s heart like a harmonic.

I don’t know that I did all this justice in Fighting Demons. I think I may have captured only a single facet of it—I may have to write about it again, and again. But I hope I have not done it injustice.

Both Meng Jiao’s and Xiao Hong’s filial narratives are optimistic, in the end, and unrepresentative of anyone but them. Whatever they’re searching for with their parents, whatever cultural weight complicates those relationships, they ultimately have to navigate their journeys as individuals.

Maybe they won’t ever figure it all out. Maybe the familial bonds they yearn for will never come to be.

But maybe they will.

I can believe in it for them, even when I doubt it for myself.

S.L. Huang, on Inspirations & Influences

I empathize with people who were afraid that [the accent] was stereotyping, because for those people — who are pretty much all Asian-Americans — the only time that they saw an Asian character on television in a comedy was when that Asian person was a humor tool and not a person whose accent was merely one facet of their [character]. It’s a beautiful part of the story of immigration, so I wanted to make sure that I didn’t water it down to quell the fears — the fears that are based on the shitheads who used an accent as a humor tool. I’m not going to use those shitheads’ metric to determine the worthiness of my voice. If somebody has an accent, that often means they know more than one language, and I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of. I actually think that’s pretty fucking cool. Hopefully, we’re writing our own history, instead of trying to be accepted by the white American framework history. Because by trying to be accepted by that framework, we’re already putting them at a higher level than us — and they’re not. They’re not at a lower level than us, it’s just a different story. So let’s start telling our stories.

Constance Wu Talks Asian Beauty, Diversity On TV & Her Emmy Snub

This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won’t take that gamble right now. You can’t flash an ad during THE GAME with some chubby Chinese kid running across the screen talking shit about spaceships and Uncle Chans in 2014 because America has no reference. The only way they could even mention some of the stories in the book was by building a Trojan horse and feeding the pathogenic stereotypes that still define us to a lot of American cyclope. Randall was neutered, Constance was exoticized, and Young Eddie was urbanized so that the viewers got their mise-en-place. People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network’s approach to pacifying them is to say we’re all the same. Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up intolerant of their own lactose, and hit ‘em with the soy. Baking soya, I got baking soya!

The network tried to turn my memoir into a cornstarch sitcom and me into a mascot for America. I hated that.

Eddie Huang, Bamboo-Ceiling TV

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“East Asian – North American” Representation

ANTM

Sometimes you just binge watch eight episodes of America’s Next Top Model and afterwards you sit there wondering what, if anything, of value that show offers.

Questionable highlights of the show:

  • One of the contestants tells us of the time her parents divorced – she lived with her dad, not her mom, she explains, so she didn’t eat properly for months, lost a lot of weight, and apparently gained a ton of self-confidence.
  • Tyra gives a roomful of pretty conventionally attractive people a speech on how she wants to celebrate all kinds of beauty by getting rid of the height and sex requirements.
  • One of the guys is downright creepy, screaming after a girl who turned him down something about how he’s slept with over 50 girls.

Questionable reasoning behind watching:

  • My best friend has watched all the cycles of ANTM so far (22 of them), and I watched this one so I could talk with her about it.
  • One of the contestants is deaf and raised in the deaf community.  I think the show has been pretty decent about giving him screentime and letting him speak for himself, and it’s been nice watching him compete – I hope he wins!  His twitter also says he’s fluid, but they haven’t mentioned that on the show.
  • One of the contestants is East Asian.  I’ve only ever watched two or three cycles but I think that’s pretty rare, so I appreciate that too.  Plus, despite all the drama the show pushes, seeing an interracial couple on TV is always nice.

It definitely doesn’t feel like any sort of “feminist” show, certainly, even though it is aimed towards a female audience (and had, for a while, all female contestants).  The industry it supports is arguably toxic in itself, so it feels hard to argue positively for the show.  It ticks off diversity boxes, often feeling like it’s purely for the sake of doing so, but at least it’s done.  It’s hard to say at all that it feels like any sort of comforting dull everyday show, or even that I actually enjoy watching it – I just like talking to my friend about it.  Is some small sense of friendship worth 40 minutes a week of awful TV?  I guess it is.  Does it make it “better” at all that I can be mildly critical of what I’m watching?  It doesn’t particularly feel like it.

ANTM

hello, world.

I finished reading As You Like It a few days ago for my Shakespeare class, a play in which many of the characters end up in the Forest of Arden.  Arden is a place that can be called magical or wild, where the characters are freed from constraints of society and opened to playing with their identities – young ladies become young men, young men become mothers, old men become newborn fawns.  Gender, age, sexuality, names all change.

Social media is our Arden.  With every account on each different website, we become multiplicities, creating new spaces where everything about us can be played with.  We can choose new names – not only new usernames (of which many of us probably have too many left over from embarrassing middle school years), but new given names, names given to ourselves to replace or exist with the names we were given at birth by others.  We can find safe places to explore identities, whether they are questions of sexual orientation or gender or anything else.  We can engage in communities and in parts of ourselves that are not visible or are not welcome in the “real world”.  There are problems with this, of course, and potential for harm in cases like catfishing or identity theft, but I remain excited and hopeful to exist in a realm like this one.

I think video games can also be our Arden.  There are games who force the players to play as a certain character, much like how books don’t allow a choice in main characters, where playing with identity is perhaps limited or at least more difficult (I am not very confident in saying this).  However, there are also the games that allow extensive character customization, or that allow more than one character to exist at once, or that can greatly change in plot depending on choices made by the player.  Many games allow at least a choice in gender and in name.  Goals or a sense of purpose can also vary greatly, even in games with relatively straightforward plots or no choice in character selection (100%?  Speedrun?  Nuzlocke?  Three Hearts?).  In more open-world games, the character’s (and so the player’s) priorities can span wide ranges.  When games move to virtual reality, the potential for play will likely be even greater.

I feel like there is a sense of worry that we focus too much on our online selves when they don’t matter as much as our “real life” identity.  On the other hand, I would love to see more people spread themselves into the media and the technology around us and perhaps learn to see themselves as changing systems rather than immutable individuals.

This blog is obviously a very temporary one, so perhaps its/my identity with it will also be quite temporary, but I do hope that at the very least it/I will decide on some sense of purpose beyond obligation.

hello, world.