The Newspaper of Irvington High School

The Irvington Voice

The Newspaper of Irvington High School

The Irvington Voice

The Newspaper of Irvington High School

The Irvington Voice

Will There be Chopsticks?

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With a new Asian American family sitcom, Hollywood still has room for progress when portraying Asian Americans

By Enya Kuo | Editor-in-Chief

I don’t eat “white people lunch.” I bring rice and soybean paste in a thermos bowl, oolong tea in a mug, and persimmon slices without skins in a Ziploc bag. My family and I order hot water at restaurants, reminisce about Taiwan’s chaotic outdoor markets, and make fun of America’s love of lawsuits. Could I BE any more Asian?

I affirm some Asian American stereotypes, yes, though these stereotypes obviously can’t show my whole journalism-obsessed, burger-inhaling, Matt Damon-fangirling self.

While mainstream media has made progress in cultural diversity, Asian Americans so far have only been defined by stereotypes and their ethnic minority status, which only creates a rift between different ethnocultural groups that undermines the societal benefits of onscreen diversity.

ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” premiering this February, will be the first sitcom since 1994 to feature an Asian American family as its main premise. Based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir, the show chronicles 10-year-old Eddie’s experiences with culture clash when his Taiwanese American family moves from DC’s Chinatown to predominantly white Orlando. In the clips released so far, Eddie (Hudson Yang) laments that his classmates call his packed chow mein worms and pleads to his mom (Constance Wu), “I need white people lunch.” When a supermarket saleslady offers tortilla chip samples, his mom asks, “This is free?” and takes the whole plate. When Eddie gets in trouble, his parents threaten to sue everybody in the school, his dad (Randall Park) adding, “It’s the American way, right?”

I did laugh, and it’s true that Eddie’s escapades with food and unassimilated parents echo some of my own culture shock when my family immigrated. I applaud the effort to give Asian Americans more visibility and realistic portrayals in television, but I have concerns that Hollywood is trying to singlehandedly paint the picture of the complex and nebulous thing that is the Asian American experience.

There’s more to being Asian American than being Asian American. It’s rather condescending to suggest that all I struggle with every day is my dual cultural identity, as though I have a little rice farmer and miniature cowboy on either shoulder constantly bickering over how I should act and speak. My daily turmoil is determining when I should start my homework.

Not every Asian American’s life revolves around the fact that they’re Asian American, and people can define themselves by much more than the ethnicity they’re born as. I get that “Fresh Off the Boat” is highlighting the cultural conflict that is certainly a major aspect of life for many Asian Americans, but we also need Asian American shows that showcase culture yet have more than the plot being that a family is Asian American. It seems that shows featuring minorities, like “Black-ish” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” have to remind us every five seconds that they’re proud to be shows with non-white leads, but minorities should be noticed in Hollywood not because of race alone but because they’re great artists in their own right.

The Social Identity Theory in psychology essentially says that our sense of self comes from our membership in a group and that people tend to exaggerate the similarities within and differences between individual groups. Shows focused on featuring a particular ethnicity have to make sure they’re not just reinforcing that “us and them” mentality: an Asian American family versus a white neighborhood, a black company vice president versus his white coworkers in “Black-ish.”

Two weeks ago at a press conference with the “Fresh Off the Boat” cast and producers, a reporter said, “I love the Asian culture. Will I get to see chopsticks?” This is the kind of ignorance that Asian Americans in Hollywood have to face today. Without including the nuance of subgroups like Korean Americans and Indian Americans under the umbrella term “Asian American,” non-Asian viewers might mistakenly take a show like “Fresh Off the Boat” at face value, thinking that’s all there is to Asian Americans when each Asian American subgroup has its own unique history and culture. Especially along racial lines, these kinds of dividing and generalizing can be dangerous, leading to the racial profiling already so prevalent in America today.

A great example of a show that appreciates diversity and cultural differences without being clichéd or in-your-face about it is CW’s new critically acclaimed “Jane the Virgin,” about a young Latina protagonist who is accidentally artificially inseminated. Jane watches Spanish telenovas with her family, loves grilled cheese sandwiches, and calls her Spanish-speaking grandmother abuela while easily replying in English. Her Latino heritage contributes to her identity but doesn’t overwhelm it, so that viewers can focus on the actual plot.

Authentic depictions of normal, everyday Asian Americans in mainstream media would be refreshing, welcome, and long overdue. An Asian American family sitcom is an important step in the right direction, but we have to be careful not to get off on the wrong foot.

 

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