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Meet our fictional protagonist, Kelly. She helps start a magazine, an Asian one. (She’s Chinese-American).
She plans its launch party, catering Korean fried chicken and Kung Fu Tea, the twin monopolies on Asian™ culture. Disclaimer: She had a paper to write — otherwise, she would’ve hand-folded dumplings as taught by her ancestors.
My stomach turned when I read yet another novel with the Chinese Cultural Revolution as its backdrop. When I watched Turning Red, the Disney movie with the strict-Chinese-mother versus rebellious-daughter trope. And when I wrote a story about intergenerational trauma based on my (Chinese-American) family.
Because I thought, “Uh-oh, another one.”
Hear me out. If we only tell certain narratives, those may be the only things people think define the Asian diaspora — for example, in the case of the Chinese-American community, parental expectations and hauntings of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, perhaps we should strive to tell stories like the film “Everything, Everywhere All at Once” which “takes apart” and “wackily reassembles” Asian stereotypes (and just earned 11 Oscar nominations).
After stewing over whether this revelation was self-loathing of my identity or next-level-woke, I decided it was both.
We make room for countless romances in Paris, so why can’t there be multiple stories about Chinese-parent trauma? Why can’t Michelle Yeoh – who just took home a Golden Globe for her performance in “Everything, Everywhere All at Once” — keep playing strong-wise women in her films, like Owen Wilson playing awkward-endearing men in his gazillion rom-coms? Telling a story that overlaps with another, shouldn’t make it any less valuable. It says, I am here, and this is my story: as one of this eclectic yet shared we.
Moreover, expecting marginalized storytellers to chart new frontiers may unjustly burden them – echoing how minorities in the public eye are often asked to speak for their “people.” For instance, Indian-American actress-producer-writer Mindy Kaling, across her works, has received criticism for leaning into South Asian stereotypes – from rom-com “Never Have I Ever” to Scooby-Doo prequel “Velma.” But as one of the few high-visibility South Asian women in Hollywood, Kaling has been, perhaps unfairly, a “lightning rod” for such criticism.
Ideally, we all can have our stories heard, simply because we want to tell them: without the duty to forge equity under our fingertips.
Kelly runs into her roommates on her way to the party. She mentions the magazine and the importance of diverse stories. One roommate says iLoveCrazyRichAsians. They nervous-giggle, and congratulate her on her Asian Achievement.
So, diverse stories can’t all be perfect. But it’s still a first step that “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first major film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, and that Asian-diasporic writers are getting book deals. Right?
Sure. But (surprise-surprise) that isn’t enough. As a kid, I was happy to encounter any characters who looked like me, from ditzy London Tipton on Disney’s “The Suite Life” to (the maybe-racistly named) Cho Chang in the “Harry Potter” series. But, I first realized I could truly be in a story when I met Frank Zhang of the “Heroes of Olympus” series: a relatably awkward kid whose Chinese lineage granted him extraordinary powers. And indeed, research indicates the need for authentic storytelling, since positive portrayals of characters with our identity correlate with increased feelings of belonging and self-esteem.
In addition to the lack of such storytelling, our current “diverse” narratives still aren’t diverse enough. For instance, Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” had a mostly east-Asian cast while muddling the individuality of Southeast-Asian countries into the fictional land of Kumandra. Popular series (‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”, “Never Have I Ever”) feature Asian-American gals with white guy love interests – implicitly limiting the potential range of Asian love stories, and alluding to the historical fetishization of Asian women by white men. And there’s heavy upper-caste presence within Indian representation on screen — not to mention how many articles discuss Asian achievements, referring to only those of east-Asian descent.
In short, we need visibility of Asian stories that encompass: in theme, genre, and the term Asian itself. But I don’t want to overlook current efforts to do so: from Kaya Press, an imprint unconstrained by stereotypically Asian topics, to Randall Park’s film “Shortcomings,” with Asian characters simply “going through life stuff.”
Still, the keyword is visibility (as exemplified by how I had to do some digging to find those examples). True progress requires traditional decision makers to prioritize the reach of diverse creators to wider audiences. A lofty prospect for media institutions, considering how all minority groups are underrepresented in screenwriting and directing in Hollywood, and how 85% of those at the Big Five publishing houses are white.
No matter how many nuanced narratives we create or seek, we only truly move the needle if the Gatekeepers do it with us. (Or better yet, if we become the Gatekeepers and rip the gate off its hinges.)
After the party, Kelly is tired. She wants to have a laugh watching “Never Have I Ever,” acknowledge its glorification of Indian cliches, and discover vastly more stories.
But, she doesn’t want everyone to think that all Chinese kids have a family temple, love bubble tea and boybands, and morph into animals like the Turning Red protagonist. Her, and Frank Zhang’s stomachs, might turn at that.
(Well, she does love taro milk-tea and had a K-pop phase, and Frank’s superpower is animal shape-shifting. But that’s besides the point. Since they can overlap and tell their unique stories with pride.)
Vanessa B. Hu ‘23-24 is a junior in Currier House studying Computer Science. Her column, “Hopes and Hypocrisies,” runs on alternate Mondays.
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