Tag Archives: Asians in fiction

Shoes

My favorite part of Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe might just be a tiny beat that happens part way through the movie. It’s hardly a big moment, just a bit of table setting that, for someone like me, holds all the more import.

There’s a party, and a couple kids are chasing each other. They run up the steps to the house and, without pausing to think, slip off their shoes before entering. The camera follows them as they run through the house and to the back door where they put their shoes back on and continue their chase outside. It’s a really small beat, and the whole shoes thing isn’t highlighted — there’s no cutaway to the kids’ feet or anything; the long shot just serves to establish the party in the suburbs.

Maybe you don’t quite get what I’m getting at.

I moved to the US when I was fourteen. There was a lot of little culture shocks, from tax not being included in the sticker price to the fact that I had to drive to get anywhere in the suburbs. A big one was that Americans wore their shoes inside the house. As someone who grew up in Singapore, I was very used to removing my shoes before going into a house. Why would I want to track the outside world into someone’s home? That’d be barbaric.

I got over it, and these days usually ask when I visit someone if it’s shoes on or off (my apartment is firmly shoes off, if you were wondering). Wikipedia has an interesting rundown on the practice of removing shoes inside, surveying the custom in several countries. It’s not common in the US but, as the article notes, “…removing of shoes is common among certain immigrant communities.” Which, I suppose, explains me and mine. But I’ve digressed.

There’s a beat in Always Be My Maybe where a pair of kids, unprompted and without a word, pause their playing to take their shoes off when entering a house, and put them back on when they exit. It’s such a small detail, but one that is absolutely rife with verisimilitude and meaning. It’s something you’d expect to see in an Easy Asian household like the one depicted in the film. Given that the film’s three writers are all of Easy Asian descent and the director herself a child of Iranian immigrants, it’s not surprising that the detail made it in.

And it’s treated as normal to boot. I know this seems like such a small beat to obsess over, but it’s a really big deal for. In all the American media of consumed over the years, nowhere have I seen this tiny but important facet of my life portrayed on screen. And certainly not as casually and matter-of-factly as here. In that moment I felt seen, I felt like this part of me and my life was important and valid. That the habit of taking my shoes off inside wasn’t unusual.

I yearn for stories by different people, I yearn to hear about other experiences and takes on life. I also want to see my own experiences presented in media; I want to see myself represented. Always Be My Maybe may not be the best movie in Netflix’s stable of romcom revivals (that title belongs entirely to Set It Up and if you disagree you are wrong) but it gets a special little place in my heart for how it portrays its Asian American protagonists without making the whole movie about the ‘Asian American experience.’ Sasha and Marcus are presented as fairly normal people, they aren’t ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic,’ they’re just them.

In a few ways, Always Be My Maybe seems not unlike To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before in that both films feature leads who are people of color without the plot being about how they’re minorities. At the end of the day, I want to see little parts of my life portrayed as being, well, normal and not some bizarre thing done by the Other. Movies like Always Be My Maybe and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before do that. And now I want more.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Dearth of Asians

I was talking with a friend at work the other day about Silk. The superhero, not the fabric. I’ve mentioned her on the blog before, and I do really like her, and am bummed her book ended. My friend quipped that I should be, she’s, like, the only Asian hero in Marvel. I protested, there was also Shang-Chi, and Amadeus Cho, and, and, well.

That’s about it.

We decided to include Kamala Khan, after all, Pakistan is in Asia and we have a bad tendency to think of ‘Asian’ as meaning only East-Asian. There’s also Jubilee of the X-Men, and that’s about where we ran out of steam, concluding that, dang, there really is a dearth of Asians in Marvel comics.

I did some googling while preparing for this post, and found a couple lists of Asian Marvel characters. There’s a small number of minor characters like Wendy Kawasaki who serve as support for the major heroes. There are definitely a good helping of Asian villains, with The Mandarin, Ezekiel Stane (he’s half-Asian!), and Silver Samurai being the most obvious. Then one list I found cited Mantis as an example which is weird because, well, she’s green and has antennas. But apparently she’s half-Vietnamese (and played by a half-Korean actress), so, I guess she kinda counts?

But the point stands; it’s really, really disappointing when you can count the major Asian heroes in Marvel Comics on your fingers. It’s not like I don’t have a horse in this race, what, my whole being half-Asian and all; but c’mon, it’s 2018. Surely there should’ve been an Asian Iron Fist by now or some such. In all of Marvel’s alternate realities, why don’t we get an Asian Tony Stark (you would literally have to change nothing about his story), why not have Shang-Chi a founding member of the Avenger on another Earth?

There’s pushback on these so-called ‘legacy’ characters: “Why make Iron Man or Jessica Drew Asian when you could just create A Whole New Character?” The problem with making A Whole New Character is that it takes a lot of work for them to become as wedged into the public consciousness as, say, Spider-Man. Sometimes, it works — take Kamala Khan who took up the Ms. Marvel mantle but has very little in common with the original Ms. Marvel — but then Silk remains woefully under-appreciated and even Amadeus Cho flew under the radar until he became a Hulk. Giving new characters — particularly minorities — the keys to a flagship means they get a huge PR boost: Look at Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel! I say this a lot, but oftentimes representation means giving up your seat at the table. It means in this universe Tony Stark is Chinese and ‘Stark’ is a lousy transliteration of a Chinese name. Or maybe when someone gives up the mantle they give it up for good (I’m looking at you, Thor).

I’d be remised if I neglected to account for the improvements that have been made. Kamala Khan and Silk are both relatively recent additions, and the former is wildly popular. Shang-Chi and Amadeus used to be, well, less than ideal. Shang-Chi’s power was Being Really Good At Kung-Fu and Amadeus’ was Being Really Smart, two abilities which, well, for a Chinese and Korean-American character, are really kinda stereotypical. But! Recently that’s changed! Shang-Chi is still Really Good At Kung Fu, but Jonathan Hickman saw him join the Avengers and shine as a badass. More recently, Gail Simone has had Domino training with him who in turn sees him as a) aspirational, and 2) really hot. Meanwhile, Amadeus became the Hulk and has joined the Champions and goes on adventures where he’s not just known for his smarts. We may still have precious few Asian superheroes, but, hey, the ones that we have are getting better.

Folks, I talk a lot about diversity and representation on this blog — to the point where I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record. And while I do celebrate Marvel and all the forward motion they’ve made, I do still want, well, more. Silk will always have a special place in my heart, not only because she gets to do the Spider-Man thing, but because her comic had a distinctly Asian-American bent to it. Big Hero Six is a movie that makes me smile when I think of it, not just because of how heartwarming it is, but because Hiro is someone like me. Stories are personal, and I want to get to be a superhero.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Letting Different People Be Different

One of the many (many, many) things I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that the hunky guy Rebecca is pining for is an Asian guy (named Josh, but that parts not important right now). It’s incredibly refreshing — when was the last time you saw an Asian male as a romantic lead, let alone an object of sexual desire by a white woman in fiction? But that leads me to another one of the things I love about the show: it’s not a big deal. No one cares that Josh’s Asian. Even when Rebecca has Thanksgiving with him and his Filipino family, there’s none of that usual other-ing that happens when you see character entering into a space that’s foreign to them. That’s also great.

But part-and-parcel of Josh’s Asian-ness being a non-issue is that he gets to take on a character archetype Asians never get to have — he’s a bro! He’s an idiot. A lovable idiot, yes, but an idiot still. Why’s this matter? ‘cuz when you have an Asian guy in fiction, chances on he’s going to be the smart guy or the dork or, y’know, both. There’s a very specific space in fiction that Asian characters are allowed to inhabit, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend throws that to the wind. It goes on: a middle-aged man is bisexual, the professional psychiatrist is a black woman, the underachieving stoner next door is a brown girl.

I saw The Magnificent Seven this week (#AsianCowboy) and though it’s a flawed movie, it’s still terrifically entertaining and, on another level, absolutely wonderful. The latter of which I’m blaming on how it handles its diverse cast. Race is hardly touched on in the film, which, y’know it doesn’t have to. But instead every member of the titular seven gets to be a rough-and-tumble jackass of a cowboy. Billy Rocks the #AsianCowboy goes toe-to-toe with the Mexican and Chris Pratt, while Red Harvest the Native American makes fun of their food. Every character gets to give as good as they get. There’s no token minority put on a pedestal, everyone has an edge.

Which applies to the action bits too; everyone gets to have their cool bits, with Billy Rocks winning a shootout and throwing knives while saving Ethan Hawke. He’s not the Asian journeyman on a mission, he’s a cowboy (with a knife speciality). Again, this is an Asian character in a role usually off-limits to people that look like him (or, well, me) getting to do things associated with the role that usually doesn’t happen. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with, say, Shanghai Noon, where Jackie Chan plays an Imperial Guard on a mission in the old west who’s more martial artist than cowboy. The problem comes when every single narrative about an Asian in that time period is that narrative. So getting to see an Asian character be the quintessential American cowboy — dude, that’s dope.

When Alan Yang won an Emmy for an episode of Master of None, he gave a great speech pointing out how despite there being the same number of Italian- and Asia-Americans in the US. the former group has some of the most celebrated stories in fiction, while Asians have, well, Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles. The narrative of Asian-ness is shockingly limited, despite how long they/we’ve been a part of Western culture. In other words: the roles Asians are allowed in fiction is usually one of a handful of archetypes. Diversity and inclusion means changing that, means letting Asians be the dumb bro or the badass cowboy, means letting the lead of a tv show about being in your 30’s be an Indian guy, it means letting you ragtag band of space rebels have Asian actors, it means making your superhero a first-generation Pakistani immigrant or a half-Asian kid. Let different people be a part of different narratives.

Of course, this is a selfish want — I wanna see more people who look like me in fiction doing everything. But then, don’t you wanna see more people who look like yourself in fiction?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized