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Monday, September 27, 2021

The fluidity and inarticulability of Asian American identity

We shouldn’t readily accept all forms of representation in media

Asian American identity is both fluid and inarticulable, characteristics that betray its self-determined creation. In 1968, UC Berkeley graduate students Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka  coined the term Asian American to describe different groups of Asian descent; Its creation was a “radical label […] that indicated a political agenda of equality, anti-racism and anti-imperialism.”

Yet, throughout history, the Asian American identity has been fluid to the historical context of its time; It is fluid to the laws on Asian exclusion, on immigration, citizenship and later in the exclusion of other racial groups through the persistence of the model minority myth (MMM). 

The MMM reconstructs the fluidity of Asian American identity as a success story: “the most prosperous, well-educated and successful ethnic group in America.” The myth is often used to underplay the role structural racism has on other minority groups, Black Americans in particular, despite the fact that this “success story” is very much a constructed convenience. The misplacement of “Black failure” and “Asian success” on an equalizing level in the MMM removes responsibility in redressing racism.

Asian American identity, according to the MMM, is constricted in a way that generalizes expectations and outcomes for all Asian Americans. In the model’s blatant attempt to downplay the enslavement, segregation and police brutality against Black Americans, it also subtly rewrites the struggles of specific Asian American groups out of the narrative. 

For example, Bhutanese-Americans have higher rates of poverty than other Asian populations. There is a significant achievement gap between South and East Asians; 13% of Hmong households hold a bachelor’s degree compared to 74% of Taiwanese households. Further, South Asians are routinely left out in the Asian American narrative. In politics, news outlets have referred to Andrew Yang as the “first Asian American candidate” presidential hopeful despite former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal having run in 2016. 

I appreciated the new wave of Asian American media such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “To All the Boys I Loved Before,” because it was all the representation I could get. Although these shows and movies do bring Asian American identity into mainstream media, it is essential to critically examine these forms of representation in how they take advantage of Asian American identity. Shows that push an unrealistic narrative only fall further complicit into the model minority stereotype and its many pitfalls. While we can appreciate the entourage of new Asian American faces on screen and feel a solidarity in the stories, we need to analyze the implications of their portrayals. 

“Boba liberalism,” a term coined by suspended Twitter user “@diaspora_is_red,” critiques a “dominant strain of Asian American politics,” centered in “buzzy cultural objects”, all while neglecting “true engagement” with Asian American politics. Boba has come to be the face for this critique as a form of iconography for Asian American identity. The ebbs and flows of the popularization of certain foods associated with Asian American identity further pushes ever-changing nature of identity. The issue with boba, according to “@diaspora_is_red,” is that it is inoffensive, sugary-sweet and popular, but with no substance.

 The use of food as a signifier of Asian American identity is exemplified in the romantic comedy, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, where the popular Korean yogurt drink Yakult is featured. In the film, Yakult acts as a bridge between the protagonist’s Asian heritage and the love interest’s declaration of driving to the other side of town to buy the “Korean yogurt smoothie.” The depiction of Yakult is striking against the following scene in the movie, where the protagonist and love interest are watching “Sixteen Candles” and a character named Long Dong Duk appears.

Long Dong Duk, an Asian foreign exchange student with a thick, bumbling accent, has been called “one of the most offensive Asian stereotypes Hollywood ever gave America.” The protagonist of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and her sister overlook this offensive caricature and instead focus on  the main character being cute, rather than using this as an opportunity to take a stand against the movie. In “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the choice to go with the Yakult moment is another inoffensive bridge into Asian American identity that creates sickeningly sweet love metaphors, but offers little substance in its construction of Asian American identity.

Another prominent example is “Fresh Off the Boat, an ABC sitcom set in the late 1990s, featuring a Taiwanese-American family’s move to Orlando, Florida. The sitcom is based on food personality Eddie Huang’s memoir, who has since criticized the sitcom for rendering his life story unrecognizable, stating that the characters were neutered and exoticized to make them more palatable for viewers who have never seen Asian Americans on screen. Huang has also criticized the show for stripping key narratives from his life to provide a baseline of relatability for audiences. The show, Huang says, “totally stripped the pain and struggle of being an immigrant in this country and being a minority,” using Asian characters to tell “white narratives.” Why does a show about Asian Americans have to appeal to anyone besides those it seeks to represent?

 As Huang puts it, it is easy to accept these forms of representations because that’s all that’s really offered. I read Huang’s memoir in middle school, and his experiences are very reminiscent of the experiences that Asian Americans I knew during that time went through, such as getting into fights with classmates who dole out slurs like “C*******” and “C****.” I especially resonated with the painful uncomfortableness with your Asian identity when it stands starkly against that of your peers—a feeling that “Fresh Off the Boat” tends to gloss over.

While the focus on Asian American representation in the media overshadows other important issues worthy of discussion, representation can also be an important nexus in bringing these issues into the mainstream, something the sitcom “Black-ish” does extremely well. “Black-ish” is unapologetic in its portrayal of Black issues in the mainstream, from discussions of colorism, intersectionality in feminism and stark, multi-layered discussions of police brutality. “Fresh off the Boat” misses an important opportunity that “Black-ish” took advantage of—the incorporation and discussion of crucial and even uncomfortable issues. The painful immigrant experience that Huang writes about in his memoir failed to materialize in the show’s adaptation.

“Fresh off the Boat” is the first network television sitcom in the U.S. to feature a family of Asian Americans as the main cast in over 20 years and I cannot underscore the importance of this and how essential it is for young Asian Americans to see themselves reflected on the screen. However, the creation of Asian American media like “Fresh off the Boat” and “Crazy Rich Asians” exposes two problems with Asian American representation: It takes advantage of the fluidity of Asian American identity to sell more “palatable” narratives and offers Asian American signifiers that are devoid of meaningful substance. 

And just because this is all we have for now, doesn’t mean we should readily accept it.

Written by: Renee Wang — reswang@ucdavis.edu Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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