As most faithful Asian American television viewers will proudly tell you, 2015 was the landmark year for Asian Americans who finally got the opportunity to take center stage in several primetime and internet TV series, such as the much heralded Fresh Off the Boat, comedian Ken Jeong’s Dr. Ken, Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Show, John Cho’s Selfie, and Aziz Ansari’s Netflix TV series Master of None, along with several other shows that featured Asian American men and women in lead or key supporting actor roles (my personal favorite would be Steve Yuen in The Walking Dead). Although some were more successful than others, Asian Americans gave a collective sigh of relief after finding that the shows (to varying degrees) did not merely repeat the typical themes of Orientalism, model minority stereotypes, and racialized foreignness that have defined Asian American TV personas in the past and in some cases, attempted to take a stab at taboo topics such as racism and intergenerational conflict without letting it define them.
Of course, not all Asian Americans were happy with everything they saw and as with any TV sitcom that ventures unchartered racial territory while trying to appeal to the sensationalist, one-dimensional tastes of a diverse audience, there is always the tendency to slip back into cheap jokes and old stereotypes. However, many of the themes they touched on still resonated deeply with children of Asian immigrant families. I unfortunately haven’t been able to keep up with most of the shows with the exception of Fresh off the Boat, one of the more successful TV shows that generated an enthusiastic following among both Asian and non-Asian audiences alike. Based on the memoirs of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, the comedy series follows the struggles of 12-year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang) when his Taiwanese immigrant parents (Randall Park and Constance Wu) move from Chinatown in Washington D.C. to a white suburb in Orlando. There has been a lot of commotion and discussion about Fresh off the Boat on the Asian American blog circuits (see Angry Asian Men, Kollaboration, Reappropriate, You Offend Me You Offend My Family). What impressed me most was the simple fact that it did not celebrate “the Asian family” as paragons of familial stability and order or demonize the immigrant parents as “cold,” “oppressive,” and “out-of-touch”, but rather, humanized Asian immigrant parents and their children by highlighting their cultural quirks, emotional anxieties, and racial struggles, while simultaneously making their values and experiences relatable to others (and not just “white others”). This to me is a major accomplishment given that unlike great works of art and literature, comedy is intended to keep the message simple and make audiences laugh. The fact that the show could touch on familiar sensitive themes related to assimilation, dual identity conflict, model minority, and cultural values, while complicating and questioning immigrant, second generation Asian American, and most importantly, American society’s treatment of these themes was an important stepping stone not only for the Asian American community but for the larger entertainment world.
For Asian Americans, TV shows, movies, and internet media are important mediums because they can reach a wider mass audience, but the arts, literature and the humanities provide a more sophisticated and creative space through which to build a sense of belonging and express the emotional complexities and hardships of immigrant family and minority life. Although I myself have not done much since I was a child that would be considered creative or artistic beyond reading the occasional novel (and writing this blog), the most interesting observation I picked up about immigrant families from my interviews with Korean and Chinese Americans is the way creative and artistic hobbies and professions provided a crucial emotional outlet for those who are not lucky to find that at home or within their immediate network of friends and kin. Breaking the model minority stereotype, some of my interviewees embraced their creative talents by choosing professions in literature, acting, film production, art, graphic design, and fashion, but even those who chose careers in law, business, and STEM professions told me how important it was for them to read books about Asian Americans or dabble in other hobbies to help them reconcile their conflicts with and sense of isolation from their families, ethnic communities, and/ or their American peers.
Where does this driving need come from? Part of this has to do with cultural differences–the fact that immigrant parents and their American-born children generally have difficulties communicating with one another so that they seek other modes of expression and belonging. However, in comparing the experiences of Korean and Chinese Americans with those of second generation white Americans, I also found that Asian Americans were particularly plagued by this profound feeling of “un-belonging”, because of the glaring absence of role models and mentors, inadequate multicultural education at home, school and mainstream media, and disconnect from American peers or ethnic communities/ institutions that could provide some of that support. In addition, I found that caught in a post-civil rights era where race and racism is largely viewed and articulated as a black and white thing, Asian Americans lack the proper vocabulary to articulate their struggles as an “in-between” racial minority–a situation that makes their artistic and humanistic endeavors an even more meaningful venue for personal and political expression. In this light, it is particularly troubling that the increasing presence of Asian Americans in the arts and humanities has coincided with decreased funding for these disciplines/ professions.