ARTS

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June 8, 2004

Do not attempt to adjust your television set: There are no Asians here

Feeling Friends withdrawal? Yes, what is the world to do now that the Central Perk sextet has left the building, and possibly to other, not-so lucrative acting gigs? In the case of most of America, they'll mourn, they'll buy the season seven DVD, and they'll continue watching it endlessly in reruns. However, since I never really liked the show to begin with, I am now free to bitch about the show and my main gripe: If it was set in New York, where was the diversity? Hell, I'll cut to the chase—where were all the Asian people? I've been to NYC to see my Filipino relatives; that's about 900,000 Asian-Americans right there. But somehow the Friends crew interacted in this parallel universe of New York populated only by white people, one love interest (Lauren Tom), and maybe the occasional black guest star.

The NAACP can complain there isn't enough representation of African-Americans on broadcast TV. Hey, at least there's some representation for the black community. ER, supposedly set in a Chicago hospital, has only one Asian doctor, when much of the staff of doctors and nurses in a real Chicago hospital are Asians. CSI is even whiter, ignoring the number of Asian forensics specialists and detectives out there. And The O.C.? Don't get me started about a series that's supposed to be set in California, where Asians are the fastest growing major demographic group in that state, but all the main characters are a bunch of whiny, spoiled white kids—and Ryan.

My point? Representation of Asian-Americans in the media is almost nonexistent, and when we are represented, we're usually relegated to stereotypes. The latest such example, Mean Girls, besides featuring Lindsay Lohan's ample cleavage, has only two groups for Asians to belong to—"the cool Asians" and "the smart Asians"—and much more derogatory stuff about us. Kill Bill has all its Asian characters as villains (Lucy Liu, I'll get back to her later) or minions about to be killed. Lost in Translation featured alienating Japanese characters that circled and annoyed Bill Murray. And ridiculously, The Last Samurai had egocentric Tom Cruise as the American saving the last of the dying breed of samurai, whose culture the hands of Westernization have so threatened. (Have you also noticed that all of these movies are set in Japan? Did Hollywood forget all other Asian cultures, like Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino?)

Two other movies I want to talk about, The Joy Luck Club and Better Luck Tomorrow, specifically focus on the Asian-American experience. I actually haven't seen the latter, but I at least commend it for trying to be a useful insight into the culture of Asian-Americans. The reason I didn't see it, though, was from what I heard about the movie, it was a distorted view of Asian-Americans that still adhered to flat stereotypes about us. The main characters are a bunch of bored, over-achieving Asian high-school students. If I wanted to see a portrayal of angst-ridden overachievers experimenting with sex and drugs, I'd flip through my high school yearbook. The Joy Luck Club was a better movie, as it did portray the distinct Chinese-American experience and also showed the daughters as regular, functioning Americans trying to incorporate the best of both of their worlds.

As I've demonstrated, Asians in Hollywood are either categorized as geniuses, samurai/martial arts warriors or FOBs (that's Fresh Of the Boat for you laymen) with no comprehension of the Western world, or with no characterization at all. And while some of those stereotypes can be flattering—being smart isn't all that bad—typecasting Asians shortchanges one of the fastest-growing and integral populations in the United States today.

The growing number of Asian-American kids need to see themselves in pop culture to better form good self-esteem, because otherwise they might have the stigma of being ignored. Recalling my own experiences growing up as an Asian-American in the Midwest, I remember watching TV and movies and wondering, "How come none of them look like me?" There weren't any Asian role models given much publicity when I was eight years old, save my parents. Today, who's an Asian-American eight-year-olds can look up to? If you say William Hung, I'll slap you.

This is why Asian-Americans need more representation on TV, on movies, and in the rest of the mainstream U.S. media. Sure, that might mean more token Asian actors, like Lucy Liu's character in Charlie's Angels. But at least she broke out of the mold and transcended her role. The first thing people thought seeing her on-screen was, "Wow, look at her kick butt," not "Wow, she's Asian." Hollywood needs to set a standard when it comes to Asian representation, because so far it reflects us as an invisible people, which, sadly, might make audiences think the same. After all, we're very much a part of this country, and not to accept your fellow Americans is downright unpatriotic. As soon as Hollywood stops seeing us as Asians but as regular people, from many distinct histories, then maybe it can reflect how diverse a nation this is. As for me, I'm going to go study the ancient Shaolin martial arts, eat rice, and study biochemistry.