Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Come On Down
COMMENTARY: Come on Down: A Chinese American's Words of Warning for South Asians by Christine Wong Yap
LEDE: Bollywood is taking America by storm. From Bhangra beats in hip hop, to American-born Indian actress Tanveer Atwall in Matrix Revolutions, South Asian Americans may be primed to stage a cultural coup in movies and TV. But, Commentator Christine Wong Yap, says the higher visibility for minorities can be disappointingly superficial. And she has some words of warning for South Asians
As a Chinese American artist, I?m fed up with the tired stereotypes and one-dimensionality forced upon Asian Americans in art and media. Though I identify as Asian American, my range of life experiences is much greater that. So to all the South Asian Americans looking forward to the next Bollywood USA flick, don't get your hopes up. Here are a few lessons I'd like to share.
Lesson 1: A little visibility only goes a little way. Minority representation in Hollywood is fraught with the paradox of cultural appropriation: one part acceptance and one part intolerant "always-outsider" status. For example, not too long ago, Asian actors were only seen playing crooks and coolies. Then Bruce Lee brought a cool Asian face to American pop culture with kung fu. But Lee's popularity ensured that non-Asian people knew one thing--- and sometimes one thing only --about Asian culture. Growing up in a rural, mostly-white town, I was constantly asked if I knew kung fu by my classmates. So while Bruce lives on in the popular imagination, his dream of racial understanding is still a long ways off.
Lesson 2: Stereotypes play a role in casting. Pat Morita has acted with an accent for decades. But Morita, best known for playing Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid movies, was born in the US and doesn't have an accent ? nor does he answer questions with obtuse, sage-like answers, for that matter. While Morita's ability is admirable, pigeonholing only reinforces racist assumptions.
When not playing stereotypes, some Asian American actors are catching flack for playing three-dimensional characters. When the independent Asian American film Better Luck Tomorrow screened at Sundance 2002, a critic alleged that minorities have a responsibility to portray their races in a better light. But as Roger Ebert said, "Asian Americans can play whoever the hell they want." Who knew that exploring the human condition-- and not just our conditions as Asian Americans--- would make people so uncomfortable?
Lesson 3: Ladies GET in Free. On one hand, Lucy Liu is a successful actress who's broken free of the roles that Asian Americans have been limited to in the past. But that's because she's playing a sexpot. Tons of pretty girls-- including exoticized non-whites-- have had little effect beyond movie house ogling. BUT guys need NOT apply. If beautiful South Asian women gain Hollywood's attention, it doesn't NECESSARILY mean South Asian actors are gaining respect.
Despite Newsweek's notorius declaration that (East) Asian men were the trophy boyfriends of 2000, Asian men are still a rare sight in TV and movies. There are exceptions: Pat Morita, Yao Ming, Keanu Reeves, Hank Azaria (Oops! He's not Asian, though he plays one on TV!) and various Hong Kong action stars who were already hugely popular before making stateside landfill like Bulletproof Monk and Shanghai Knights. I remember last year, when my husband yelled, "Hey! There's an Asian guy on TV!" The WB's Off Centre ? a sitcom about three sex-craved roommates ? starred John Cho as Chow. Perhaps the only recent Asian American male leading role on primetime TV, Chow had a penchant for being a happy-go-lucky goofball. In other words, he was comic relief. Hollywood producers better make room for South Asian males beyond Apu.
Lesson 4: Vulnerability accompanies visibility. Yao Ming's sudden popularity exemplifies two things: Asian Americans' desire to see themselves reflected in mass culture, and Asian "outsider" status reinforced by other minorities. Shaq's controversial Chinglish gibberish aimed at Ming last year reflects the inter-racial tension seen in hip hop.
I'm saddened that Black rappers can't seem to get enough of "Ching Chong Chinaman" jokes. Sadly, the Black experience of racism in Asian-owned stores in the hood is often grounded in reality. Still, Chinaman Chinglish is dumb, racist and belies false assumptions (such as all Asians are Chinese, or all Asians are recent immigrants).
So to all the South Asian Americans looking forward to seeing a face like yours at a theater near you -- don't get your hopes up. If it?s anything like the Hollywood I know, South Asian American culture and roles are going to be appropriated, and weird uncomfortable silences are headed your way.
Hope for the best, but expect the worse. Personally, I don?t think Apu?s going to pack up the Kwik-E Mart any time soon.
BACK ANNOUNCE: Christine Wong Yap is an editor with YO! Youth Outlook.Back