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For this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, author Ellen Oh, comedian Margaret Cho, and The Nerds of Color began the Twitter hashtag movement #whitewashedOUT. The purpose of the hashtag was to explore how the lack of representation has affected Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a topic which has become much more visible with cases of whitewashing like the Ancient One in DOCTOR STRANGE, Allison Ng in ALOHA, and Major Kusanagi in GHOST IN THE SHELL. And the outpour of people using the hashtag and sharing their experiences was incredible.

But we don’t want the conversations on representation to stop just because AAPI month is over, so ComicsVerse has gathered three of its Asian American staffers — Kristine Don, Mirae Lee, and Alexander Wong — to talk about Asian representation in western media, including what they’re sick of seeing, how it could improve, and why representation is so important to them.

Note: Though we tried to be expansive with this roundtable, we don’t touch on western literature featuring Asian characters at all.

Alexander Wong: To start things off, I want to talk about MULAN. It’s hard to not gravitate toward the film when thinking about western entertainment featuring Asian characters, but it’s frustrating how often it’s used as a counterargument to the lack of representation in Hollywood. Why do we think people discount how Asians are ignored or mistreated by western media? And why do they think MULAN invalidates these issues?

Kristine Don: MULAN was the first big film from a major studio to feature an entirely Asian cast, and it came out really early in the game in 1998, way before representation in media was even part of the American vocabulary. I think for everyone it’s a really clear example of a movie all about Asians set entirely in Asia. To them it’s like, “What about MULAN? What do you mean you don’t see Asians in western media?” which is really silly when you think about it because it’s one film, one American film in the 150-plus years that Asians have been immigrating to the United States. I can’t even count the number of American films featuring entirely white casts, whereas I could probably count up to twenty, maybe thirty, American films featuring one Asian. As for good Asian American representation, maybe four up to a dozen? Ultimately, it’s a silly counterargument because this is a film set in China about Han Chinese people during the Tang dynasty. It has nothing to do with Asian American representation. 

Mirae Lee: That’s right. The narrative told in MULAN isn’t necessarily specific to the Asian American experience. It’s a story about family values, bravery, and filial piety which, while being Asian American values, are in this case depicted as being more specifically Asian. It’s an example of using an exotic location like ancient China to deliver a family story and to expose audience members to a foreign culture. MULAN does a really good job of this, but what it doesn’t do is expose people to a culture that is Chinese American. The story is still told as the narrative of an “other.” 

Kristine: I wouldn’t say that they set the film in China just to provide western audiences with a visually interesting experience. Here’s the truth: MULAN is a great film. It did a great job representing both an important time in Chinese history and fundamental Chinese values. The film even gets brownie points for actually employing Asian American voice actors. But MULAN is not an argument against Asian Americans feeling that we don’t have representation in western media because there is nothing Asian American about the film. I’m not saying that every American film featuring Asians or Asian Americans has to be about Asian Americans growing up in the U.S., but it would be nice to see Asians as part of the American landscape, part of the American imagination. Non-Asian Americans seem to forget that we exist. No one forgets that Chinese people exist in China, so having a film full of Han Chinese people set in China really doesn’t address the issue of Asian representation in western media. Of course China is full of Chinese people! That’s not the point! How about the Chinese people living here in the United States? My issue is that there are so few western films out there featuring Asian Americans as normal people—normal Americans—in modern stories. We are always presented as an outlier in American society.

FRESH OFF THE BOAT is a great example of this. Even though it’s a great show—and I know Eddie Huang had a lot of issues with the series because it wasn’t really faithful to his experiences growing up despite being based on his memoir—it’s still another example of white Hollywood capitalizing on the experiences of the other, a “here’s the other American family and how are their experiences different from ours?” story, which implies that the “quintessential American” story is white. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have these stories. We need these stories because they are so integral to the identity and experiences of so many Asian Americans and minority groups. What I am saying, however, is that this “growing up not white in America” story seems to be the only story Asian Americans are featured in, the only sort of story where an Asian American can be the protagonist and center of the narrative. We need more stories about Asian Americans just living in the U.S. as a normal part of the American community, without whitewashing the aspects of our identity which make us Asian American.

Alex: Absolutely. Another one of Eddie Huang’s criticisms of the series is that it makes it seem like Asian American families are just like every other American family.

Kristine: Right. It’s basically making Asians palatable to white people.

Forrest Wheeler as Emery Huang, Ian Chen as Evan Huang, Hudson Yang as Eddie Huang, Constance Wu as Jessica Huang, Randall Park as Louis Huang - Fresh Off the Boat
FRESH OFF THE BOAT stars Forrest Wheeler as Emery Huang, Ian Chen as Evan, Hudson Yang as Eddie, Constance Wu as Jessica, and Randall Park as Louis.

Alex: I feel like the same issues with the MULAN counterargument can also be seen in conversations advocating for more representation. When people think of Asia, a lot of the focus is on East Asia. And when people talk about Asian representation, they tend to be discussing East Asians, which is understandable. Of course people want to tackle the very prominent issue of western media taking from East Asian culture without giving East Asian people the chance to be seen or represented beyond a stereotype. But it’s not like underrepresentation or its damaging effects don’t apply to South Asians or Southeast Asians. Similarly Pacific Islanders, the other half of AAPI, are too often grouped with Asians and erased as a result.

Mirae: I think this ties into the reason why the model minority stereotype is so problematic. It reduces who Asian Americans are to just this one idea of an Asian person, most often East Asian, who is very successful. It creates a singular Asian American experience, ignoring the very real differences among Asians and the lives we lead. Part of what perpetuates this stereotype, of course, is the media, which is always painting us with the same flat brush and making us nothing more than our “successes.” Not to mention that this flat brush is typically an East Asian one. My mind is always turning to theater, so I can’t help but think about the fact that there is currently only one show on Broadway about South Asians: BOMBAY DREAMS. Then there are the few shows that are set in Southeast Asia, like MISS SAIGON (set in Vietnam) and THE KING AND I (set in Siam, modern day Thailand), in which the representations of Asian people are as Asians from Asia, not Asian Americans. There is no Thai American, Vietnamese American, or Indian American story on Broadway, and I wonder if that is because those stories are the “model minority” story in the consciousness of the media—not unique or “exotic” enough for Broadway.

Kristine: I think the problem is three-fold. First, there is the myth of the model minority, and I call it a myth because it is a myth. It’s true that a disproportionately higher number of East Asians hold more college and graduate degrees than the average American and typically have a higher socioeconomic status than other minority groups. As Mirae said, however, this only really applies to East Asians, and not all East Asians, but to the second wave of East Asian immigrants who immigrated to the U.S. during and after the 1980s, when China, Japan, and South Korea experienced exponential economic growth. Most of these second-wave East Asian immigrants are not refugees. They are not immigrating to the U.S. and other European countries to escape poverty or seek asylum. In fact, most of these second-wave East Asian immigrants are already well-educated and hold considerable wealth or at least come from well-educated families. So of course a higher number of these second-wave East Asian immigrants and their children hold more postsecondary degrees or have higher incomes than other minority groups that are not only socioeconomically disadvantaged to begin with, but also face systematic and institutionalized discrimination. White Americans use the model minority myth to discredit the problems minority groups face, saying things like, “look they can do it, so why can’t you guys just work hard and pull yourselves up by your bootstraps?”

The model minority myth also works to alienate those who are not a part of the East Asian demographic that is stereotypically evoked by the term “Asian American.” The myth excludes both Southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, Cambodian, Filipino, etc.) and the first-wave of Asian immigrants who immigrated to escape poverty/seek asylum and arrived before the economic booms across East Asia. These groups of Asian Americans typically do not conform to the model minority myth. Most live below or around the poverty line and, as a group, hold around the same number of postsecondary degrees as other minority groups (Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, etc). The model minority myth erases Asian Americans who fall outside of the stereotype and prevents them from getting the attention they need. 

The third problem with the model minority myth is that, as Mirae said, it homogenizes Asians into one identity. Asians represent 60% of the global population. China and India alone account for a third of the global population. Yet when non-Asians usually think of Asians, they think of Han Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. Maybe some think of Indians, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Cambodian. Fewer still think of Filipino, Lao, Bhutanese, Nepalese, etc. Within countries there are even finer distinctions between ethnic groups. This homogenization of Asians perpetuates the idea of the mythical Orient in the western imagination, and it gives western audiences an excuse not to educate or familiarize themselves with the differences and similarities between hundreds of ethnic groups and racial identities. To western audiences, Asia is just one homogenized space where we eat buns, wear chopsticks in our hair, dress up in something resembling both a qipao and a kimono, and train in karate under a wizened shi-fu.

Alex: It’s also important to note that the model minority myth cultivates internalized racism and pits people of color against each other. A couple of months ago over 150 Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander organizations came out in support of affirmative action, which was really nice to see because of the way the media, according to Reappropriate, had given more coverage to the Asian Americans who were opposing affirmative action than the ethnically diverse organizations who supported it.

I don’t know if this was the direct result of the media’s selective coverage or not, but The Atlantic recently interviewed a 22 year old white Trump supporter about why he supports the man’s candidacy, and the supporter kind of co-opted the Asian community into his argument by saying he was frustrated that white and Asian students were losing out on opportunities “in the name of diversity.” It’s so weird to have your community used as part of someone else’s agenda, and to see the framing of the media as at least partly responsible for this.

Kristine: White students losing out on opportunities? Reverse racism is dumb and not a thing.

The thing people don’t understand about racism is that everyone is prejudiced. Everyone has deep-rooted culturally and socially derived racial prejudices. Heck, I personally know so many people back in China who harbor a strong hatred of Japanese people that is obviously rooted in hundreds of years of conflict. Everyone has said or thought or perpetuated problematic ideas and behaviors. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. Five, ten years ago was a very different time. We all said things, did things, we didn’t even realize were problematic. You apologize, and you learn from your mistakes. What’s important to understand about racism is that it implies both prejudice and power. For example, that Chinese laundry detergent ad where they put a black man in a washing machine and then he comes out as a squeaky “clean” (read: light-skinned) Chinese man is so, so bad, but I hesitate to call that racist in the same way we understand racism here in the United States. For Chinese people, it’s a combination of ignorance and culturally-ingrained prejudice that they have against black or darker-skinned people that is a combination of traditional standards of beauty (i.e. white is better because it’s a symbol of royalty, wealth, refinement, and means you don’t have to toil in the sun) and what western media, primarily American and British media, has taught them to think about black people. It doesn’t carry the same connotation that it does in the U.S. because China doesn’t have that same history of slavery and systemic discrimination and racism against black people. That ad is just straight up racial prejudice, but racism is power plus prejudice. That’s why reverse racism isn’t a thing. That’s why minority groups in the U.S. can’t be racist to white people. Minorities saying they hate white people is prejudiced, for sure, but it isn’t racist. Without power, you don’t have the tools or opportunities to oppress an entire race.

Alex: Yeah, it’s based on that institutional disadvantage.

Kristine: Right! That’s why I think it’s so important for people of color in western countries, especially the U.S., to work together to empower each other, because any cracks in our unified front would be detrimental to all of us.

Alex: That’s part of why better representation is so important, to see examples of Asian characters who subvert the model minority stereotype or who don’t embrace the prejudices against other people of color that previous generations might hold. Since we talked about MULAN already, did the film change either of your perceptions at all?

Kristine: Not really, to be honest, especially with regard to subverting stereotypes and/or prejudices. I see how people may argue it subverted some stereotypes about Asians (the effeminate man; the hypersexual, subservient, and demure woman; the cold and unloving family, etc.), but MULAN didn’t do a ton for me in terms of representation. At the same time, representation wasn’t really an issue for me growing up. I was really, really lucky growing up in a predominantly Asian American community (with Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Persians, and Indians), so I never really had to look to western media to see people like myself physically and culturally. The media that I was consuming when I was younger was anime, manga, Japanese video games, K-pop, Chinese cartoons, Cantonese game shows—pretty much entirely Asian media—so I always grew up with this very positive image of Asian culture and how much it was displayed. I always grew up being proud to be Asian, to be Asian American. I never had this problem with Asian American representation and my identity like so many other people because the media that I was consuming and the community that I grew up in wasn’t white. Before MULAN, I didn’t even realize that there weren’t any Asians or Asian Americans in western media. Then when I watched MULAN I was like “Cool! Awesome! We get a Chinese Disney princess and she’s kickass!” It wasn’t until years after watching MULAN that I realized that the film was, for the early half of the 2000s, the film that would represent Asians to a whole generation of American movie watchers. Plus the movie was made by a, at the time, predominately white company, so it mainly profited white pockets. 

Mirae: But if you just think about the fact that the only “Asian” movie we really have in the American movie canon is MULAN, it’s sad. It’s essentially a historical film. I mean, not every movie made by a white production team is about the Founding Fathers. And sure, maybe people in China watching American movies might think that every white person in America has had a HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL childhood, but at least you have representations of the millennial experience in America. The way that society handles the construct of race is constantly evolving, so when we have a media outlet that isn’t evolving in its representations of us, you have misrepresentation—the stories are not real. Honestly, this is why I love Asian American theater so much. It has waves. You have your first wave, Frank Chin and David Henry Hwang and the like, who wrote about their immigration experience and carving out a place in America for themselves as Asian Americans. You have your second wave, with Lauren Yee and Lloyd Suh who wrote about the intergenerational conflicts between the children of immigrants and their parents and the collision of traditionalist and assimilationist culture. Then you have your third wave writers, like Diana Son and Julia Cho, who write about being American with an Asian body, and how that extra layer of culture can add to, but not be the center of, the characters’ identity. Finally, you’ve got fourth wave writers, who are starting to write plays with Asian bodies, but will not necessarily address that racial element within the play itself—the character’s humanity and the plot come first. You don’t see these kinds of waves on TV. If it were a play, FRESH OFF THE BOAT would be right there with the first wave in the way it talks about the immigrant experience, and I think mainstream TV and film media just need the kind of time that Asian American theater had to grow and develop the waves of how it wants to represent Asian Americans. Part of that is time—airtime. The other part is just having Asian people in the creative leadership positions to have the opportunity to tell and develop their own stories.

Kristine: That’s so apt and makes me think of my own family history. On my mom’s side, I’m a 5th generation American, and on my dad’s side, I’m a 3rd generation American, so by some definitions I’m more “American” than some white people I know. Yet I’m never going to be the quintessential American to most people.

Mirae: Part of the reason why the “eternal alien” stereotype is held towards Asian Americans—that is, of never being American enough, no matter how many generations your family has been here, or how much you have assimilated into “American” (read: “white American”) culture—is because we don’t have any of our real stories told on mainstream media. If we exist on television or in movies, we are used as objects, not characters. We are fascinating Oriental side-characters or crony gang members used for set ornamentation. All of the representations are flat. We’re not given true airtime for our narratives because we are perceived as being unrelatable non-American aliens, but we are only seen as unrelatable because our American stories are not told. It’s a vicious cycle.

Kristine: In the American imagination, there are only white people and black people. It’s truly a “black and white” country. If you fall outside that white and black binary, you’re not American. You could be here for a dozen generations, but you’re always going to be the other. We’re “accepted but not assimilated.” Like, “you’re here and it’s fine and we don’t really have a problem with you, but you’re not American.” I’m never going to be a white American and I would never want to be. I’m super proud to be Asian American, but it’s interesting to think about how a 1st, 2nd, or even 3rd generation Asian American growing up in a predominately white or black community would have a hugely different experience with their identity compared to me. This makes me think about how people don’t approach minority stories as individual stories but as collective narratives. Having to embody the collective narratives of an entire community is a huge responsibility to place on minority creators.

Mirae: Getting to the point where real narratives can be told takes time. Right now, Asian American representation is so sparse that every moment of airtime we have at our disposal must be used carefully. Every show has to embody as much of the Asian American experience as possible, because we have so few opportunities through which to do so. Every new show starring Asian actors that comes out has to be good, because it will most likely be the only show of its kind currently on air. I think this is why FRESH OFF THE BOAT made a smart move in being a “first wave” kind of show—its particular angle on the recent immigrant Asian American family dynamic allows it to tackle a wealth of experiences and get the issues out there. It’s definitely not a perfect show, but it has done an amazing job at developing rounded, complex Asian characters. Characters who are not set decoration, but are at the center of their own narratives. That’s where I think we are right now with Asian representation in the media. We are prioritizing our airspace and proving to the people running the channel board meetings that we deserve that airspace and are willing to fight for it. It won’t be until we are truly represented that we can afford to make bad media, a luxury that white media has always been afforded. If a white sitcom fails, it is not because it was white. It’s because it was a bad sitcom. With Asian American media, though, that is not the case. When Margaret Cho’s sitcom, ALL-AMERICAN GIRL, flopped after one short season, it took 20 years for channel television to finally muster up the courage to green-light another Asian American show (FRESH OFF THE BOAT).

Kristine: Yes! It’s the excuse white Hollywood tells us! The “oh, I’m not sure we can air a show like that because of that one Asian show a few years ago that didn’t do well…a show with Asian Americans is just not marketable, you know?”

Alex: Going off Mirae’s point about Asian American characters having to reflect as much of the Asian American experience as possible, Constance Wu tweeted that a good way to avoid having a token Asian character is to have more than one. This means an entire race doesn’t have to see all aspects of their identity in the one character who looks like them. Obviously, if every Asian character is a stereotype this rule doesn’t necessarily work, and it’s a problem when all Asians are lumped together into a faceless, identity-less monolith.

Kristine: Yeah, just write us like, you know, people!

Mirae: It only adds insult to injury that productions continue to refuse to write us as people, even when they have glaringly obvious opportunities to do so. Take Joss Whedon’s FIREFLY, for example. It’s supposed to be set in a futuristic cowboy universe where the only surviving political superpower is an alliance of the United States and China. But for a show in which Chinese people make up half of the population, there is a distinct lack of Chinese leading characters. Ridiculous situations like this are only possible because we as a society have deemed this kind of explicitly alienating lack of representation as okay.

Kristine: Yes! I love FIREFLY, but that is so true. I also love the second season of DAREDEVIL, but recognize how problematic it is with regard to Asian representation, especially with the treatment of Elektra and the Hand. The Hand is represented as this monoracial, fanatical cult of silent killer zombie ninjas that are obsessed with reincarnation and worship mythical beings. I mean, really? Also, I really wasn’t having it with the obvious juxtaposition of Elektra (played by half Cambodian Élodie Yung), the morally dubious and “exotic” assassin/femme fatale so typically ascribed to Asian women, and Karen Page’s Madonna/Saint characterization. I mean, I love Karen, but she was definitely represented as the Saint, the beacon of truth and justice, in comparison to the morally ambiguous Elektra who “corrupts” and “lures” Matt away from Karen.

Elodie Yung as Elektra Natchios, Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock - Daredevil
Elodie Yung as Elektra Natchios and Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock in DAREDEVIL.

Alex: I haven’t gotten around to DAREDEVIL: Season 2 yet, but of the issues I’ve read about, the most striking aspect of the show’s Asian representation is that the ninja organization the Hand—comprised entirely of Asian people—never expresses remorse for their evil actions, but the one evil character who’s like “oh, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” is white. How could they not anticipate the kind of message that would send?

Kristine: There wasn’t even one Asian person who was “good.” And it gets worse. All of the members of the Hand are zombies, the reanimated dead! At one point, Claire examines a member of the Hand that she killed earlier on and he has the autopsy Y on his chest! It just perpetuates the stereotype that Asians are robotic warriors and it’s okay to kill us off in droves.

Acknowledging these issues, I think Marvel and all the creative minds behind these adaptations are doing the best they can with the source material. We all love Marvel, but we have to admit that Marvel has some pretty problematic lore. All the stories were created in a completely different era where this Orientalized, homogenized, fetishized vision of the East was the accepted norm.

Alex: Yeah, and the whole Yellow Peril epithet.

Kristine: Creators back then were like, “what do we know about the east?” Kung-fu, dragons, shi-fu masters, karate, the dangerous, evil yellow-man, the seductress, or the wizened master who was going to help the white protagonist discover his true identity. Adapting these stories in the 21st century is working against a lot because it’s hard to strike the right balance between staying faithful to the comics and avoiding all of that trash. Which is the problem with Iron Fist, right?

Mirae: What’s Iron Fist?

Alex: Iron Fist is a white guy who travels to the mystical Asian city of K’un L’un. There, he gets better than all the Asian people at martial arts, and becomes the Iron Fist after plunging his hands into the molten heart of a dragon.

Kristine: Basically, Danny Rand goes to train under the Ancient One…

Alex: That’s DOCTOR STRANGE!

Kristine: Oh right! I got them mixed up! I can’t keep my problematic Orientalist Marvel stories straight anymore.

Mirae: We’re seeing the exact same story repeated: white men who are trained by a “shifu” master, who succeed in x art more than any person of color before him who has trained their entire life, and who ultimately uses said x ability to save the world as a “chosen one.”

Kristine: Honestly, in that situation I don’t know if I would rather them cast an Asian American actor or a white actor. Which perpetuate these stereotypes worse? I don’t know!

Alex: I do like the fact that there are at least a few narratives nowadays that give Asian people the responsibility of subverting Asian stereotypes. Based on an interview The Hollywood Reporter did with Lea Salonga and Phillipa Soo, Salonga’s character starts off as very “compliant” in ALLEGIANCE, but then is given more agency later in the musical. There’s also INTO THE BADLANDS, which stars Daniel Wu as a pretty front and center “martial arts” character on a “martial arts” show, but he’s able to show that there’s a lot more to Asian culture and Asian characters. INTO THE BADLANDS makes all the hemming and hawing about an Asian Iron Fist perpetuating the “Asian equals martial arts” stereotype seem kind of silly.

Mirae: I’m thinking about Constance Wu again, because why would I not be? I was listening to this interview where she gave her stance on playing accents on television, particularly in her role on FRESH OFF THE BOAT. A lot of people then were criticizing her choice to play that role with an accent because they believed that doing so would only perpetuate the “eternal alien” stereotype of someone who cannot assimilate. But her response, which I really agree with, is that this is a realistic immigrant experience she was trying to depict, and there is nothing inherently problematic with acting people with accents. White people do it all the time with British, Irish, and French accents. They even train to be able to pull them off. The problem with Asian accents historically is that they have always been connected with other stereotypes. Accented shifu masters have always been just shifu masters. They never have their own depth. Asian characters with Asian actors are flat, are comic relief, are unrelatable. What Constance Wu wanted to do with her character in FRESH OFF THE BOAT was to provide an example of an accented character who was complex and forced the audience to reconsider the connections we might have between accents and stereotypes. To top it all off, she’s just a boss.

Kristine: It’s hard to create characters or stories that perfectly address and confront every stereotype people hold about a group of people, but the only way to improve is to have more Asian creators creating stories about their experiences.

Alex: Even though we’re talking about the importance of representation, a lot of the cornerstones of western Asian representation like MULAN weren’t really important to me growing up. I consumed a lot of western media as a kid, but I never felt like it was alienating me. When I got older, I attributed that to a lot of things: the fact that I was born in the U.S., my lack of a Chinese accent (I’m only fluent in English), and the fact that I’m biracial (half white and half Chinese), so living in a multicultural place like Hong Kong for fifteen years, I was able to see at least part of myself somewhere at all times. But I also think timing factored into why I wasn’t necessarily looking to films and TV shows to determine my cultural identity.

I asked my older sister if it was okay to share a bit of her experience, as she was treated very differently at our primary school before I started going there. Peak School, an international school in Hong Kong, was mostly made up of expats when she started attending, and because she didn’t live on the Peak (a more affluent part of Hong Kong), she’s American, and she isn’t fully Chinese or white meant she was constantly treated differently than the people around her. It made her wish that she was just Chinese or just white, so she wouldn’t look so out of place, which at the time translated to her feeling like she was ugly. By the time I came around, attitudes had seemingly changed, and though naturally the fully Chinese Mulan didn’t help her reconcile her biracial identity (she now thinks of herself as a swan, don’t worry), it’s weird to think that I could have had a very different relationship with films from my childhood.

Kristine: Like I said before, even after MULAN I wasn’t that woke. It was only in high school that I really started to have issues with the lack of Asian representation in western media. I remember one of the worst was PITCH PERFECT.

Mirae: All of the Asian representation in PITCH PERFECT is just awful. Asian characters in the film are either creepy comic relief, eating their twin fetuses in the womb, or really exclusive shitty roommates who only hang with the “Asian crowd.”

Alex: Wait, what was the fetus thing?

Kristine: The main Asian girl was a quiet homicidal weirdo who straight up said she ate her twin in the womb!

Alex: Oh yeah!

Kristine: There’s also THE INTERNSHIP with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, which I love, but the one Asian intern who plucked out all of his eyebrow hair due to stress? Yeah, okay, we’re under a lot of stress, but we aren’t plucking out our eyebrow hair!

And then there’s CLOUD ATLAS. Where do I even begin with CLOUD ATLAS? I remember watching the movie in theaters when it first came out and sitting in the theater seething and seeing my friends who were all Asian sitting there nonchalant about the entire thing. When I asked them about it, they were so desensitized to being portrayed in such a way that their response was “well, it’s probably just that the white actors were better? And they have to be reincarnated, so it’s a necessary part of the story?” I honestly can’t remember what I said in response. Something along the lines of, “there are other ways to show reincarnation.” But I distinctly remember saying, “if you’re going to do yellow face, at least do it well? Like is that what we look like to you? Holy moly!”

Mirae: I had a really interesting experience with CLOUD ATLAS. I remember that when I saw it, I was in high school, and at the time, I didn’t really have an Asian community. My high school was primarily Hispanic. So when I went to go watch it with my mom, I wasn’t thinking about yellow face, I was building off of the excitement that my mother was expressing about the movie starring a major Korean actress, Bae Doona, in one of the leading roles. At the time, it was just so exciting for me to see a person who was Korean like me be on the silver screen, rather than just on the small TV at home when my mom and grandmother decided to watch Korean dramas. I think there is something to be said about the magic of seeing a face like yours in mainstream representation, especially if you don’t see it often. You find yourself rooting for that person because that’s you. As for Jim Sturgess being in yellowface, I know on an intellectual level why that was wrong, but I also remember seeing it and just thinking “well, that was really uncomfortable.” It was discomforting at an almost primal level.

Kristine: I’m not saying we’re a gorgeous race, but at least we look human! Hugo Weaving’s character had a huge forehead with two bumps and oh my god, Halle Berry’s character was the pits!

Bae Doona as Sonmi and Halle Berry as Ovid - Cloud Atlas
Bae Doona as Sonmi-451 and Halle Berry as Ovid in CLOUD ATLAS.

Alex: Related to what you were talking about, Mirae, with the waves of representation or the place we’re at with Asian American stories: the film ADVANTAGEOUS takes place in the future and centers on a Korean American woman, Gwen (played by the wonderful Jacqueline Kim), who offers herself as a body transfer test subject in order to get her job back. Basically, she lost her job because her time of being “marketable” is over, and the company she worked for wants a younger, more mixed-looking person to act as their public face, which they get with the new Gwen (played by Freya Adams). In an interview The Mary Sue did with Jennifer Phang, the director of the film, she said she wanted the new Gwen to be someone who looked biracial or multiracial, because at that point in the future, wouldn’t that be much more common?

I also wanted to bring up the film because the upcoming series ALTERED CARBON, another project set in the future, recently cast Joel Kinnaman as the biracial Asian Takeshi Kovacs. This is a character who could have been any ethnicity since in the book personalities can be taken and downloaded into other bodies, and though Clara Mae pointed out for The Nerds of Color that him being white is technically canon, she also mentioned that if the series follows the book at all, Takeshi is going to be a very culturally Japanese character, so getting a white actor to play him could end up being pretty appropriative. The circumstances are obviously different for the two projects, but it’s interesting to see what considerations come into play when Asian American voices are being heard.

READ: STAR TREK is another piece of media that poses a more inclusive vision of the future. Check out our thoughts on why the series endures.

Kristine: What you said reminds me of the music video for Dumbfounded’s “Safe,” where he replaces the Asian father with a white guy!

Mirae: Not to mention that he’s the only one who gets replaced. It’s a powerful message. Dumbfounded points out both the complex intersectional issue that is Asian masculinity in the media and the hypersexualization of Asian women who are all too often depicted as the “prize” for a man, often a white man.

Kristine: Yeah, I didn’t know Asian women were such a hot commodity till I got to college and I had to be like “whoa, guys, chill!”

Mirae: It just comes from such a long history of fetishizing Asian culture, all the way back to the Orientalism described by Edward Said, that depicts Asia as this feminine country where the women are submissive sex kittens and the men are emasculated.

Alex: Colonial language tends to justify the act of colonizing that way. Like, “Britain is just so masculine and India and its people are just so effeminate.” They simply had to colonize them.

Kristine: That mentality is still pervasive to this day, even though most people have never seen plays like MADAME BUTTERFLY and MISS SAIGON that fostered these stereotypes of Asian men and women.

Mirae: Yeah, these perceptions of Asian men and women are so pervasive. If you are living in a part of America that does not have a substantial Asian American population, you’re going to think that the only kind of Asian men that exist are the ones you see on television or in the movies, i.e. emasculated Asian men who are not at the center of their own narrative. If the movie you’re watching even has Asian men, that is. And when they are there, they’re the goofy sidekick, like John Cho’s character in HAROLD & KUMAR. There’s a whole hashtag (#starringJohnCho) dedicated to pointing out that John Cho is a talented actor who could play that action flick superstar or that romantic lead, as he did on SELFIE.

Kristine: Asian men don’t even get to be the leads in their own movies. Like 21! Jim Sturgess! What is up with that guy being cast as Asian guys! 

It’s so weird that that mentality still exists, because not too long ago I was standing in a boba shop waiting for my drink wearing sweats and just not trying to talk to no one, when this white guy taps me on the shoulder and asks me, verbatim, “are you into white guys?” Seriously, dude? Who are you? I could sort of understand this behavior when that type of media was still popular, but now?

Alex: So many things to talk about, as usual, but the article Nicole Chung and Noah Cho wrote called “‘You Left Your Culture at the Door’: Relationships, Misogyny, and Asian American Inside Baseball,” which I know you know about, Mirae, speaks to this a little bit.

Mirae: That article said so much to me. As an Asian woman who is herself in an interracial relationship with a white man, and as a person who grew up partially raised by an Asian father married to a white woman, I think a lot about that line between happenstance and being living proof of a stereotype. Because there is that stereotype of an Asian woman-white man relationship being founded on fetishism and gold-digging, and I recognize that it exists. Even if I don’t believe that that is what my relationship is based on, I am forced to think about it because it is what other people might see, since race is so dependent upon the visual. Do I perpetuate stereotypes by simply existing in this relationship? What place do my and my significant other’s bodies play in the dialogue with the larger Asian American media?

Alex: Like the writers of the article did, it’s important to say that fetishization doesn’t mean love isn’t possible or isn’t there.

Speaking to the whole thing about Asian masculinity, though, MTV released a video that talked about why Asian women are so fetishized and why Asian men aren’t typically thought of as masculine. They pointed out that there were laws that prevented men from owning property and working in heavy industry, so they turned to jobs like cooking and laundry—traditionally feminine occupations. These perceptions didn’t come from just anywhere. We were set up by institutional practices to be seen as less than white men.

Kristine: Regarding stereotypes, my step-dad is white and thus half my family is white, so my parents also perpetuate that stereotype! Growing up, I never even realized it was a stereotype until early high school when I started consuming more western media. Up until that point, it was just normal to me, it was just love! Once I realized that the white man-Asian woman stereotype was a real thing, I understood that my parents were unwittingly perpetuating that. It’s the tricky question of whether you can you have a type without fetishization or racial prejudice. Media is so integral in informing people what they should find attractive that I can’t imagine there isn’t an element of racial fetishism in any person’s “type.”

Alex: I think with things like that people just have to be aware that they’re problematic. It’s why it’s so important that we get more representation, so we can have these conversations through art in a nuanced way without people feeling like they’re being targeted.

Mirae: In terms of how we might want to think about Asian representation in the future, I think one of the things we will definitely have to take more seriously is the casting of mixed-race actors. There is a staggering lack of roles written as mixed-race, and that’s going to have to change soon to match our shifting demographics. Right now, the lack of roles for mixed-race actors means that they are forced to find roles for races that they can feasibly “pass” as. In this kind of terrain, the same “racially ambiguous” actor could play a Filipino, black, Mexican, or Chinese character—the chances of being able to tell their own racial narrative are very slim. And yet, once we do start really writing roles for mixed race actors, it is nearly impossible to have all possible breakdowns of race represented evenly in the media. How does one achieve “perfect” representation?

Kristine: The thing we have to remember is that nothing is ever going to be perfect. It sounds like a cop out excuse, I know, but we just have to keep striving to improve.

Mirae: I think that one of the most important things we can do to increase the number of Asian American narratives and the diversity of the Asian American narratives out there is to put more Asian American people in creative leadership positions. We have a huge lack of diversity in Asian representation because the people who are currently the writers, directors, and producers are almost exclusively white and male. There is no way we can progress from this level of representation until we get people of color in a position where they can tell their own stories.

Kristine: Exactly! Today it’s cast any minority actors, tomorrow it’ll be have more minority creators, and beyond that: cast actors whose ethnicities align with the characters they’re playing in the (hopefully) plentiful projects featuring people of color. At this point in time, it’s hard to cast actors who are actually the ethnicity of the character they’re playing because there is such a disproportionately small demand for them that minority actors basically have to try for any passing role in order to make a living. By encouraging more Asian creators to create stories with Asian characters, more Asian actors will be recruited to Hollywood and we won’t have to recycle the same ten Asian actors over and over again.

Alex: To your point, Mirae, about supporting Asian people in all creative fields: beyond promoting movements like #whitewashedOUT, people in our community who can help Asian creators should do so. Constance Wu turned down a role in a Bruce Willis film to help two Asian American writers in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, Aziz Ansari said that he wants to find more actors of color and writers of color for MASTER OF NONE: Season 2, and Daniel Dae Kim started the production company 3AD to help give voice to underrepresented communities. It’s already happening, but it needs to happen more.

Kristine: Yo, this is our time. I’m super happy that I can be part of this discussion now because I feel like this is when Asian American representation is going to boom.

Daniel Dae Kim, Aziz Ansari, Constance Wu, BD Wong
Daniel Dae Kim, Aziz Ansari, Constance Wu, and BD Wong for The New York Times.

Mirae: One platform that we haven’t discussed yet in terms of Asian American representation is YouTube. It’s a medium that has a lot of promise for increasing representation in the media. Already, Asian representation on YouTube is disproportionately high—not to mention successful, popular, and diverse—and I think the reason for this goes back to the point about the importance of being in a creative leadership position. On YouTube, you don’t have some interlocutor company telling you what bodies will best tell your story. It’s a grassroots production process, where people who want to create just do it themselves without needing to rely on network backing. The only person with any control over your narrative is yourself, which opens the door to more nuance and diversity in the stories being told.   

Kristine: Yeah, there isn’t some producer telling you to be more Asian, less Asian, that you’re not marketable. YouTube is the true free market where creators can share their content with the mentality of: “this is my content, the people will let me know if they like it or not,” without any middleman telling them otherwise. I remember old school YouTube featured a ton of Asian entertainers: TheWineKone, nigahiga, David So, the Fung Brothers… What I love about these and other Asian YouTubers is that they’re not trying to tell this immigrant story; these creators are just showing their daily lives, showing people that they’re just normal people. That Asian people can be creative, funny, dramatic, serious, foodies, dancers, b-ballers, etc. Plus, the access to their lives is so intimate that viewers can see how other communities have influenced them and the way they approach life. The Fung Brothers, for example, love basketball and are pretty good at rapping and beat boxing. I know this is something Eddie Huang touched upon in his memoir FRESH OFF THE BOAT when he describes the impact rap and hip-hop had on him as a kid. In my case, my parents grew up in LA’s Chinatown and South Central LA, both of which are very close to being predominantly black neighborhoods, and I can see how that influence has rubbed off on my parents and, by extension, me, in our sense of humor, the way we talk and dress, etc. On the flip side, I know plenty of preppy/sporty Asian kids who grew up near Newport or Laguna Hills in California.

Alex: Let’s talk about some positive examples of Asian representation when there is a middleman. Mirae, I touched on ALLEGIANCE earlier, but you mentioned before the roundtable that you wanted to get into that and HAMILTON, particularly the fact that Phillipa Soo, a biracial actress and singer, plays Eliza Hamilton in the show.

Mirae: Okay, full disclosure: I haven’t seen ALLEGIANCE. If I could have flown to New York during its run, I would have, but alas, I’m located in California, quite far from Broadway. What I have done, though, is engage with the dialogue surrounding the show. This is the first musical on Broadway to feature an Asian American production team and cast, and the first to tell an Asian American story, unlike every other Broadway musical with Asians, which have been about Asians from and in Asia, and whose primary focus was to Orientalize and romanticize Asian bodies. This musical is about the Japanese internment during WWII; it is about a time in American history where certain Americans were forced to endure pain and suffering at the hands of their own country. Unfortunately, this promising musical closed rather quickly, after 113 performances on Broadway. It was a respectable run, but considering the fact that some of the more popular shows on Broadway can go for anywhere between 300-700 performances, it raises a big question: why was this less popular than the other shows that shared the same Broadway season, such as the also-concerned-with-American-history HAMILTON?

Of course, HAMILTON is a fascinating phenomenon in its own right, particularly in the show’s approach to the oft-debated issue of casting. HAMILTON employs an interesting mix of color-blind and color-conscious casting. Color-blind casting is when actors are cast “regardless of race.” Its ethos is to cast without considering race at all, to be blind of color. Of course, whether or not this is even possible is dubious. Color-conscious casting, on the other hand, is the policy of casting actors with their race in mind, taking into consideration the kind of racial synergies that are created when you have actors of certain races play certain roles. In this kind of casting, keeping in mind preexisting institutions of power and racial hierarchies are particularly important, because actors and audience take those hierarchies into the theater whether they are conscious of it or not. HAMILTON finds itself in a middle ground between color-blind and color-conscious casting. They did send out a casting call that specified only people of color for certain roles—that white people need not audition for those roles. Obviously, this caused a huge uproar on the internet over how HAMILTON was being somehow “racist” for sending out this casting call, because they assumed that HAMILTON was taking a completely color-blind approach. What HAMILTON really was doing, however, was being color-conscious to the point of knowing that they wanted people of color in the leading roles, but being color-blind from that point on as to what race is “allowed” to play the typically-white Founding Fathers. This policy was necessary to the musical because it allowed them to tell the immigrant narrative they were aiming to tell and to do so through a musical tradition rooted in the cultures of communities of color. Not only that, but you give actors of diverse and mixed backgrounds the opportunity to act in a leading role in a Broadway musical. For example, Phillipa Soo, who is of Chinese and white descent, was given the opportunity to play the role of Eliza Hamilton despite not aligning with her ethnicity, and without having to pass as any race in particular. In that sense, this kind of casting policy has the potential to be valuable in a multiracial society. HAMILTON gave people of color the opportunity to play historical characters that they never would have thought possible to play, and that opportunity comes with a significant economic element. Being cast in a major Broadway show like HAMILTON gives actors visibility, experience on their resumes, and publicity, which will increase their chances of getting work in the future. Shows like HAMILTON break the vicious cycle of, “We can’t cast you in this show because you have no experience,” and, “You don’t have experience because you are a person of color and don’t have the opportunity to be casted for shows.”  

Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda as , Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Anthony Ramos as John Laurens in Hamilton
Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, and Anthony Ramos as John Laurens in HAMILTON.

Alex: Color-blind casting implies that the default is white, and I think people aware of Hollywood’s issue with underrepresentation are starting to err on the side of color-conscious casting. Or in the case of HAMILTON, color-blind casting…with a color-conscious bent…to make a point? On top of pushing for diversity, there just has to be some intentionality and understanding of the messages your choices will send. 

Kristine: I think color-blind casting is a silly idea because bodies are attached to specific cultural and racial identities born from the communities that those bodies interacted with. Identities like race, gender, sexuality, and culture inform who a character is and how they will interact with the world around them. Color-blind casting ignores the identity of the character.

Mirae: Pure color-blind casting is also impossible because doing so would require a complete erasure of the subconscious preferences of the casting director and anyone else who holds creative leadership positions. Because when you make these arguments that a white actor may be the best for a role because they are the “best” actor, you are ignoring the chance that your evaluation for what is “best” may be colored by your perception of race. For instance, are they the “best” because they better fit the casting director’s idea for what a male romantic lead should look like? Is this sense of “better” created by the fact that they had only ever seen one kind of person play x role?

Kristine: Straight fire, Mirae! It’s kind of like how people try to equate color-conscious casting to affirmative action (as though it’s a bad thing?). Somehow people assume that being more conscious of internalized racism and biases means giving opportunities to undeserving people based solely on their minority status which, to be honest, is really just offensive. It’s not as though directors are handing out “congrats, you’re a person of color” acceptance letters to every actor of color who comes in for an audition. It’s ridiculous to me that people think white people can embody minority bodies better than minorities.

At this point in time for the film and television industry, it’s like, cast any person of color in any minority role. I just want people of color to get work. I’m going off topic here, I know, but this is the problem with gentrification where white people borrow/utilize aspects of minority culture and profit from them without lifting up the very community they’re appropriating from.

Having people of color as the main players in historical events like HAMILTON did makes me think about how sad it is that, as a kid, I knew more about European history than I knew about Chinese history. The only things history classes taught me about China were that we invented paper and gunpowder, built the Great Wall, that there were the Opium Wars way back when, and then communism became the country’s prevailing ideology. Five thousand years of Chinese history condensed into a paragraph in my high school history textbook.

Alex: Gaining a better understanding of Asian history is so important. Not a lot of people know about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, whereas everyone acknowledges that slavery happened, so we’re very aware of racism as something that applies to black people. But when you talk about the lack of Asian representation, what that means, how long it’s been going on for, and what the damaging effects are, the severity of the issue isn’t always clear (even to Asian people).

Kristine: Asian Americans have to discover our cultural and political history on their own. Going back to HAMILTON, of course we have to insert POC into white stories because the only historical stories we have are the stories of white people!

Mirae: If you’re trying to tell an Asian American historical story, then your fate is the fate of ALLEGIANCE. Because that’s what ALLEGIANCE was—an Asian American history musical. But it fell flat. Because people don’t see these kinds of stories as legitimate American history or history that they recognize from their childhood history books.

Kristine: That is so true.

Alex: It’s so weird how stories that feature white actors are considered universal, but as soon as you have “too many” people of color, then it becomes an ethnic story.

Mirae: That’s exactly why we see the “Founding Father” story of HAMILTON as being able to get this treatment of being played by people of color, because we see “white” as the default, and so we feel comfortable when that element of representation is tampered with, and see it instead as a way to make the white (the default) narrative more comfortable and relatable to people of color.

Kristine: It’s so ingrained in Asian Americans to accept the default as white and to see ourselves as the other.

Mirae: When you frame the Founding Fathers story as the story of immigrants, people find it relatable. But when you take that same concept, of telling the story of Asian Americans, it is immediately un-relatable because Asian is not the norm.

Kristine: Yeah, to most people—myself included—American history equals white history.

Mirae: There is something so problematic about the way that we teach American history and how we connect it to our global history curriculum. We are drawing a very seamless connection between American history and European history, but American history in reality encompasses the stories of so many other groups of people, and so many other ethnicities. But for any of these ethnicities, there is nowhere near the same amount of seamless historical flow that white Americans get in our history books. That is, white Americans can claim generations of history prior to immigration into America that have been legitimized by the history books. We don’t know what Africa was like before its people were brought over by the slave trade. We don’t even learn about the people who were here before the Europeans—the Native Americans—anywhere near the extent that we are taught about the French Revolution. You don’t get that seamless flow, that pre- and post- immigration history that white Americans get. That’s why the history of America in our books is so staggeringly monoracial. All we see is the flow of white Europeans into white America.

Kristine: American history is so ego-centric. The only time the histories of other people are introduced is when there is a direct connection or correlation to some event in European/American history. In 1776, we know the American Revolution happened, but what was happening around the rest of the world at that time? No idea.

Mirae: The only time we really talk about China in American elementary schools is when the standard syllabus hits the Orientalist Silk Road and the sketchy Opium Trade—all from the perspective of European history, of course. And that’s why those are the stereotypes that influence the way we see Chinese people.

It ultimately comes down to that idea of “airtime.” Who is deemed valuable enough to get this airtime in our history books? Right now the message is very clear that people don’t think Asian Americans deserve airtime.

Kristine: We’re not important because we’re not American. Not American enough to count, at least. No one would go up to a black person and ask them what country in Africa they’re from. But for Asian Americans, the automatic default is, “where are you from?” i.e. you are Asian so you must be an immigrant, you must be new. Which also brings up the problem with Americans thinking that to be an immigrant is inherently non-American (and we all know that’s total BS).

Alex: I think the last time I saw that kind of being tackled was in the KARATE KID remake. Jaden Smith’s character is trying to speak Mandarin to a Chinese man on a plane and the guy says, “Dude, I’m from Detroit.” Using it as a punchline isn’t as effective as addressing it as a real issue. It mitigates how these attitudes contribute to white people thinking that Asian people aren’t American.

Kristine: It’s like when people ask me where I’m from and I go “LA,” and then they ask where my parents are from and I say “South Central,” and then they try to tactfully ask where my grandparents were from and I go “Hawaii! Keep going!”

Alex: [Laughs.] I thought examples of positive representation was going to be the meat of our discussion, but we obviously got sidetracked in some pretty great ways. Do either of you have any examples of movies or TV shows that showed you what representation could be? For me, the movie SAVING FACE (which I actually only watched this year) connected with my experiences in a way that was a little too real.

Kristine: I literally thought about this for a whole day and couldn’t come up with a single example of a western-made film with good Asian representation. Any example I could think of was made in Asia.

Alex: It’s a good thing we had so many other things to talk about! But yeah, SAVING FACE was directed by Alice Wu, and beyond acting as a refreshing example of diversity (all of the leads are women, the cast is almost entirely Asian, and the film centers on a lesbian relationship), the presentation of the extended family and their engagements, a character in Vivian trying to do something not stereotypically Asian, and the way Chinese is the norm in a western setting where those who don’t speak Chinese are the odd ones out, fell in the center of the Venn diagram for me. Though no one in my extended family tried to ostracize me because I couldn’t speak Chinese, I definitely felt weird trying to talk to them when I was younger, even after I started learning Mandarin. So I really related to Vivian’s struggle to say everything in Mandarin. I guess it was nice to see that not knowing the language doesn’t make you less of a Chinese person, because I’ve definitely gotten that a couple of times over the years. 

On the professional side of things, I felt the same pressure as Vivian to do something practical or respectable, like medicine or law, and it took me a long time to come to terms with what I actually wanted to do: write. Luckily, my parents were really supportive of my decision to add Creative Writing as a major pretty late in the game, and they remain supportive despite me leaving any chance of a career in the sciences behind. Then there’s the fact that the film is set in New York and I’m here trying to “figure my life out.” I’m not saying SAVING FACE is the only film to have ever done any of these things, that it completely changed my life, or that Vivian represented all of my experiences, but it was hard to not wish that more western media treated Asian characters like SAVING FACE treated any one of theirs.

Lynn Chen as Vivian Shing and Michelle Krusiec as Wilhelmina Pang - Saving Face
Lynn Chen as Vivian Shing and Michelle Krusiec as Wilhelmina Pang in SAVING FACE.

Mirae: I think the closest I can think of, and even this is a bit of a stretch, is THE JOY LUCK CLUB. It’s quite old. Everyone’s rocking the perms and flared pants. It’s really melodramatic, exaggerated, and tragic. The film follows a group of mothers who have all immigrated from China to America around the same time, and who aren’t able to connect with their American-born daughters because of the cultural conflict that arises from their immigration generation gap. Honestly, I only had a very shallow connection with this film, seeing a mother and a daughter who looked like me with a relationship that was also colored by East Asian values. Beyond that, I found the film to be very over the top. It felt like Hollywood was attempting to romanticize these tales of tragic women for the sake of shock value. Their lives in China were oppressed, so that was tragic; their relationships with men were all poisonous, so that was tragic; they ultimately felt disconnected from the closest family to them, their daughters, so that was tragic. It was all just very tragic. It’s unfortunate that this melodrama from the 90s is the closest thing I can think of when asked for a movie that reflected my racial identity.

Kristine: I never found that one film that resonated with me on an ethnic/cultural/racial level, because I think there were too many atypical elements of my life that no one film or show stood a chance of representing them all. Growing up in a predominantly Asian American community in the U.S., in a multi-racial household with an extended family that had more interracial couples and hapa relatives than I could count, everything about my identity was so different from the nuclear family narrative most Asian American media is unfortunately pigeon-holed into telling. Instead, I think I found parts of myself in a lot of different shows or films that I merged together in my head. Thus, I never felt erased or ignored by American media either. I think I was just incredibly lucky to grow up where I did with parents who loved and supported me unconditionally in whatever strange adventures I got myself into. I never felt stereotypically Asian or stereotypically American, and somehow in my mind I came to the conclusion that I was a perfectly normal Asian American.

Mirae: Identity is also just so multifaceted that it’s possible to feel connections on so many different levels. Like when I first read FUN HOME I found myself reflected in those discoveries of sexual identity. When I watch STEVEN UNIVERSE, I see there my relationship with my father; that while I have an untraditional family, I still feel so much love in it.

Alex: I think a lot of Asian people have a need to validate their cultural identity because they feel othered and isolated on such a consistent basis. Kind of like you, Kristine, I was completely unaware of the lack of Asian representation when I was a kid. I was just looking to entertainment to figure out how to be a decent person, let alone determine what being biracial meant to me. Of course, I was able to take refuge in the abundance of western media in Hong Kong, and I didn’t look too different from the next guy on the street.

READ: Learn more about the importance of representation with our look at Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s MONSTRESS.

Kristine: It’s interesting that, despite us never feeling isolated or excluded by American media, we’re still incredibly invested in Asian American representation. What makes you guys so passionate about Asian American representation?

Mirae: I think the reason I am so passionate about issues of representation in the media is because of the implications that the media has on societal assumptions. The way people are treated in the media bleeds into the way people are treated in the real world, and that treatment could make the difference between whether or not someone gets hired, gets harassed, or gets targeted by a hate crime. That’s what gets me riled up. That’s what gets me to the point of, “Leggo. Let’s get our voices out there.”

Alex: Poor representation obviously does result in awful hate crimes and racial slurs, but even a certain “level” of representation can be incredibly transformative. Nicole Chung wrote a piece for the New York Times called “What I Learned from Kristi Yamaguchi,” and there’s a point in the article where she talks about how this Newsweek writer described the skater. Ms. Chung wrote that she didn’t know at the time that she should have taken issue with the writer’s objectification. She was actually glad he went on about Ms. Yamaguchi’s appearance, because it encouraged her to think of Asian American women as beautiful.

Later on in the essay, she writes about how the characters she used to create were usually blond and had blue eyes, and how after her she watched Kristi Yamaguchi win Olympic gold, she created her first Asian American protagonist. That’s the power of representation.

Kristine: That’s amazing. Hearing you guys talk about this crystallized just why I’m so invested in the issue. It doesn’t come from a personal experience of wanting to feel represented, to feel special or beautiful or all those things because, as you guys already know, I have a huge ego anyway. I’m so passionate about representation and fighting for the Asian American community because I want Asian Americans to be proud of who they are. I want them to be proud to be Asian American, to think of themselves as awesome and cool and to be like “yo, white people should strive to be like me,” you know what I’m saying? I don’t want Asian Americans to want to be white. There’s nothing wrong with being white. But you’re Asian, you’re American, you’re Asian American, so own it, embrace it.

Mirae: I’m just thinking about my dad right now. He would tell me these stories about his moving to California as a toddler and growing up in the Bay Area, and feeling this pressure to be an all-American white man because that was the idealized image he was always presented. He is very assimilated. He lifts weights, he’s a conservationist for the federal government, he loves barbecuing and watching THE GODFATHER, and sometimes it feels like the urge to be all these things comes from this constant suspicion that he’s not white enough. And it is this kind of poisonous media atmosphere that does it, that instills a racial self-hatred and makes you want to be white, because then at least you’re the norm.

Kristine: So would you say that your guys’ families have lost some their cultural identity along the way? That they’ve been whitewashed in some way?

Alex: My dad told my mom that when me and my sister were growing up he treated us a certain way because it was more in line with his expectations of himself as an Asian man. Either in the way he behaved toward us or in the way we behaved toward him, he thought we were getting away from our Asian heritage, so more often than not, we had to make sure to treat him like the patriarch of the family. No talking back, you know?

Mirae: I think my father actually took the opposite direction with his Asian heritage. I live with my mother primarily, and have largely been raised in the culture that she chose to raise me in, which is a Korean culture with which I feel very much in tune. But every time I went over to my father’s house for weekends or holidays I experienced a stark cultural shift. I got the sense that I was walking into another culture, another household. It’s the trendy IKEA furniture and the hotdogs for dinner and the two Labrador mixes in the backyard. Sometimes I feel like the only times my father ever acts Asian is to support me in my efforts to bring Asianness into the family. It’s my responsibility to teach my now four year old little brother Korean. We cook “Korean” food when I come over. It’s times like these where I see the internalized whitewashing that can seep into a person through the media.

Kristine: I always grew up with this idea that my family was very whitewashed, but thinking about it now, I guess my parents held onto their cultural identity pretty tightly. On the surface, they appear very whitewashed—their clothes, our house, the cars, Easter Sundays, all those things—but both my parents still speak Cantonese and Mandarin fluently, I can still speak Mandarin, and we still observe traditional Chinese holidays and customs. Part of the soundtrack of my childhood was Cantonese game shows in the background.

Mirae: When my dad moved into the Bay Area as a young’un, there was comparably a very small Korean community that his parents could reach out to, which is why I think they didn’t have the opportunity to consume as much Asian media, particularly youthful Asian media, that my father could have gotten into. All my father was exposed to was western media. It’s what he romanticizes, and it is the object of his nostalgia.

Kristine: I think what’s really important to point out is that even in this roundtable discussion with just the three of us, we’ve discovered how different our experiences as Asian Americans are from each other, which just goes to validate how multi-faceted the Asian American identity and experience is. There is no singular Asian American narrative.

Alex: Too right. I want to end our discussion on that note, but before we finish our roundtable, are there any final thoughts you want to leave the readers with?

Mirae: I’m thinking about that music video for Dumbfoundead’s “Safe” again. There are so many important themes there about the way that Asian anger is delegitimized and ignored. That our anger at these recurring injustices in the media is being nudged to the side. “You ain’t never seen a yellow boy wild’n yellow boy shinin.” And the refrain: “You took me as safe. That was your first mistake. Who said I was safe?” It all rings so true to me, and makes me glad that we’re doing this roundtable because this is one of the ways we can prove that we are angry and we won’t be silent and we won’t be safe. It’s because of discussions like this, and because of hashtags like #whitewashedOUT and #starringJoshCho/ConstanceWu, that we’re able to show the world just how angry we are.

Kristine: That’s so true. People think Asian Americans are quiet and submissive and non-confrontational. They think we haven’t been talking about these issues. But guess what? We have been talking about them. It’s just that now people are choosing to listen. Our anger, our rage, our discontent, and our passion comes from a hundred years of erasure and mistreatment. Finally, don’t try to pit people of color against each other because we’re always going to support one another since we’re working against the same system that has been discriminating against us for so long.

Alex: I’ll say that, while I understand that the outcry for more Asian representation, and representation in general, might seem to be a little “much” from the outside, to sit back and say nothing would be to accept a white default for characters who aren’t reduced to stereotypes, characters who get to be the leads, and in some cases characters who are canonically Asian. As with most things, George Takei said it best when he said that it’s not about political correctness, it’s about correcting systemic exclusion.

Kristine: To everyone saying that Asian Americans are piggybacking off of #BlackLivesMatter and the Black struggle, I say to them no, we’re all working together to lift everybody up. If we just let it be a single voice, it’s too easy for white media to discredit them as being the exception, as simply an angry subgroup dissatisfied because they haven’t made it yet. Together, they can’t cast us off. Together, we’re saying no, this system of systemic and institutionalized racism, discrimination, and exclusion is present in every aspect of our lives. It’s time to revisit and reshape the American imagination because people are no longer satisfied with the white status quo. We’re tired of not being part of our own history.

Alex: As a final, final note (sorry), it would be nice to do another roundtable in a couple of years and be able to think of more examples of positive Asian representation that really resonated with us. Maybe in a superhero movie? Make it so, Hollywood.

This roundtable has been edited and condensed.

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