I moved to South Carolina the summer I turned fifteen, after growing up in Singapore and spending four years on a ship. Unknowingly, I stepped into a paradigm where my half-Singaporean Chinese self was now firmly classified as Asian, a title that brought with it very specific expectations.
I quickly learned that the best way to survive was to try and fit the mold prescribed to me. I was a kid trying to navigate white spaces, and whether it was school, church, or ordering fast food, it was easiest to just play the role. It means being more Long Duck Dong than Hikaru Sulu; playing the weird foreign sidekick who mocks his own race rather than someone who’d ruffle white feathers and challenge any preconceived ideas about where someone like me fits. It’s constricting and, looking back on it, it’s embarrassingly degrading, but it was easy; I could be party to white spaces, all I had to do was put aside my Asian-ness unless it was for a joke.
Of course, that was represented in pop culture in the ’00s. All the movies and tv I watched were mostly about white people, all the music I listened to was mostly by white people, all the books I read were mostly about and by white people. Stuff like anime, Japanese-made video games, or Chinese movies was shunted to the side as being niche and silly things, not as serious and culturally important as all those stories about white people. As a kid who wanted to tell stories himself, the subtext was clear: You wanna tell stories? You gotta tell stories about white people. There’s a reason the everyman is a white dude.
This comes with it a lot of baggage about identity. The message is that stories about and by people like you aren’t as important. After all, my language was funny, my food was gross, and my culture weirdly exotic; to be relevant all of that had to be put away. To be Chinese, to be Asian, is burdensome; it’s easier to try and get rid of it.
It’s taken me a lot of time to get past this ingrained cultural bias. To see my Chinese-ness as a good thing and not a burden. Surprise surprise, it took a lot of seeing myself in the pop culture I loved to get here. Turns out, representation matters.
I saw Run River North (née Monsters Calling Home) open for Anberlin way back in 2012. It was odd at first, seeing a sextet of Korean Americans being indie rockers on a stage, but their music was great and I became a big fan. It was special, seeing musicians that looked like me, musicians whose music wasn’t stereotypically ‘Asian’ but still rang true. Maybe there was space for a band like this in my music library. Years later, when I saw them in Brooklyn, lead singer Alex Hwang talked about being a self-hating Asian, about resenting the moniker of an Asian-version of whatever and struggling with the expectation. He talked about working to stop resenting that label and to break free of a mold. Turns out I was far from the only one with the same questions and internal conflicts.
Reading Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie got me weepy on a subway platform. The short story’s about a kid with a Chinese mother and white father, who grows up caught between the two worlds, rejecting the Chinese baggage to blend in with the Americans before finally embracing the magic of his mother’s heritage. It’s a beautiful short story, one written with all the beauty and care as those short stories I read in fiction classes, but this time one with experiences and cultural touchstones I recognized. Turns out there’s space in literature for stories by people like me and about people like me.
It’s been fifteen years since I first moved to the US, and Thursday night I got to see a Marvel movie about a Chinese superhero kicking ass. A movie where a solid chunk of the movie is in Mandarin Chinese. A movie that sprinkles in so many specific details to growing up Chinese. A movie that features the main character struggling to get his friend to pronounce his name correctly. Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings is a movie that’s proud of its Chinese-ness, that staunchly stands astride its Asian and American identities. It’s a movie free of Asian self-hatred.
There’s a specificity to it that’s so precise, that zeroes in strongly on cultural touchstones big and small, that shows the love and care it was crafted with. There are references to things that will be familiar to folks growing up Chinese, from idioms to an offhand ABC reference, that show a movie doing more than playing simple lip service. This is a movie that draws on Hong Kong action movies as it tells a Marvel story, with action sequences that wouldn’t feel out of place from a Jackie Chan or wuxia movie. I watch Shang-Chi and I see familiar tropes and visual callouts that remind me of sitting on my ahma’s couch during Chinese New Year as a kid and watching whatever Chinese drama was on and barely following the un-subtitled Chinese. This is a movie that takes the things about myself I was told to hate and puts it front and center of a superhero movie. It’s a proud declaration that our stories are stories worth telling.
Shang-Chi is the latest in genre films that have had Asian characters in big roles, following Big Hero 6, The Magnificent Seven, Rogue One, and Raya and The Last Dragon, to name a few. These are all stories I wish I’d had fifteen years ago, stories I wish that nerdy teenager could have dived into and seen himself reflected. These stories matter; these bands and these authors matter, because somewhere out there’s a fifteen-year-old kid like me who, rather than being told he has to hide these parts of himself to be accepted, hears that they are things that make him who he is, and that he should be proud.