“Perpetual Foreigners”: Asian American & Pacific Islander Representation in Popular Media

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Illustration by Echo Dieu

Ethan Yu

Contributing Writer

The year is 2010: I am 10 years old, and I am watching the second episode of “The Walking Dead” when Glenn Rhee — a Korean pizza-delivery-boy-turned-badass zombie killer played by Steven Yeun — saves the protagonist of the show, Rick Grimes, from a swarm of walkers in Atlanta. This was my first memorable experience where I felt seen and shown in mainstream culture, despite the fact that I’m Chinese, not South Korean.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of American culture. Today, Asian Americans from a variety of backgrounds are breaking the stereotype that being Asian American is a monolith.

In stand-up comedy, we see the likes of Hasan Minahj, Ronny Chieng, and Aziz Ansari, all of whom have Netflix shows and specials, assert their “bro-ness” with streetwear sneakers, alongside sarcastic wit, to analyze current events and issues relevant to the modern millennial.

For female comic representation, Margerto Cho and Ali Wong are both writers of the hilarious, culturally-groundbreaking show, “Fresh off the Boat.” These remarkable women, alongside Awkwafina, make their voices heard by addressing struggles Asian American women everywhere deal with, by telling raunchy sex jokes and revealing their human vulnerabilities.

Other Asian American comedy shows like “Kim’s Convenience” and “Nora from Queens” all subvert our understandings of the Asian as a humorless, emasculated, and nerdy male or a subservient, shy, and obedient woman. Through comedy, one can scrutinize stigmas that are present in the Asian American experience and learn to laugh at them.

We also see a growing presence of films casting Asian Americans as the main stars of more serious, albeit still humorous, stories like “The Farewell” and “The Big Sick.” In these films, Asian Americans are shown as vulnerable human beings who can love and suffer as much as white actors and actresses and demonstrate that there are audiences willing to watch these stories.

Of course, no review of the decade in Asian American culture could neglect the global phenomenon that was “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018. The latest film to have come out with an all-Asian cast and an Asian female lead in over 25 years since “The Joy Luck Club” came out in 1993, “Crazy Rich Asians” was a massive step for Asian representation in Hollywood for the 2010s.

However, it was also 2010 when M. Night Shyamalan’s infamous adaptation of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” came out, unashamedly whitewashing all the characters, including Aang, except for the “evil” Fire Nation which was played by mostly Middle Eastern and Indian actors.

This, along with the release of “Dragonball Evolution”’ in 2009, would only be a continuation of a horrible practice of whitewashing roles (e.g. Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange”) for a more mainstream audience. Whitewashing even persisted within adaptations of the entire Japanese anime (“Ghost in the Shell,” the cringeworthy “Death Note“). 

While we will have to wait for America to address its cultural issues when it comes to portraying art and stories from members of underrepresented and marginalized communities, we are starting to see cultures from the other side of the Pacific deeply shake Asian stereotypes in America.

The 2010s have been the decade of K-drama and K-pop. From “My Love from the Stars” (2013) to “Itaewon Class (2020), K-drama played a significant role in developing our relationship towards streaming platforms such as Netflix and (the now-shutdown) DramaFever who were the only ones willing to host its content.

The tidal waves K-pop made on the face of the global music industry completely astonished the world. Boy bands like BTS and girl bands such as Blackpink and TWICE consistently hit Billboard and Spotify charts, and their posters are easily found in the rooms of teenage girls and boys everywhere. Even EXO, a popular boy band, welcomed President Trump during a visit to South Korea in 2019.

Finally, we even see in politics the voices of Asian Americans growing in both conservative and progressive spaces. Although it is argued that the Asian Americans were again “model-minoritized” in the debate against affirmative action by white Republicans, other grassroots movements on the right show that Asians will not play a passive role in this nation.

Andrew Yang, on the other hand, will be an unforgettable moment in American politics, being the first Asian American presidential candidate to have stayed in the race so far on a progressive platform.

It was only a year ago when I attended one of Yang’s rallies that I felt I too could become president one day, and that maybe America was starting to change its view of me as the model minority, the awkward nerd, the relegated third sex that could never be the man I was supposed to be.

A particularly ugly video I remember watching in the middle of the 2010s was a Fox News clip of Jesse Watters going into New York’s Chinatown, interviewing people who didn’t speak English about the 2016 election while splicing racist clips from old movies to make fun of their ignorance and apparent stupidity. Moments like these remind me of how most Americans still see me.

With COVID-19 escalating relations between the U.S. and China, and racism and xenophobia towards anyone that looks or sounds somewhat Asian, I am disheartened that despite all the progress made for Asian Americans of all ethnicities and backgrounds in TV, film, music (hip-hop and pop), art, and politics, the Asian American movement for authentic visibility has been set back by what I can only imagine to be decades.

If anything, this world-changing event only shows that Asian Americans have been and will be considered “perpetual foreigners” by our country for a long time to come. I hope that the 2020s will be a time where Asian Americans everywhere will continue to speak up and make their truths heard loud and clear, crying, “We stand united!”

2 COMMENTS

    • Why thank you very much, my editors as well as the illustrator, Echo Dieu, deserve all the praise for their hard work and dedication in this paper. I really tried hard on this article in particular because it hits home with me.

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