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The Token Asian Friend

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Dear Asian Youth,

I have never been a huge fan of Halloween. I love the concept of acknowledging the supernatural, receiving free candy, feeling the rush of adrenaline, and indulging in the youthful spirit of it, but dressing up has always been the most difficult part. Part of this is attributed to my indecisiveness; the other part is attributed to the struggle as a child to see myself in any character, due to the lack of Asian representation in western media. I have been a bumble bee, a cat, and a bunny for Halloween, for it was easier to dress up as an animal than try to find a character that looked like me.

The few Asians represented in shows or movies play the role of the 'token Asian character.' You probably know the one I am talking about. It’s played by the same handful of stars. This character is probably shy and cares only about academics or is the airhead to “defy stereotypes” or even has a heavy accent. Their main struggle tends to be that their parents want them to be a doctor. Rarely are Asians the protagonist, dealing with teen angst while waiting for their coming of age moment and seeking love.

One might argue that this iota of representation is better than having none at all. However, it does more harm than good. By reinforcing harmful stereotypes, the token Asian character continues to teach growing generations that Asians are limited to strict parents and playing the piano, while their white counterparts are portrayed as complex characters, heroes, with deep emotions who are allowed to have failures and enjoy the naivety of youth. Proper representation is extremely important to exhibit to BIPOC children that they can be anything they strive to-- that people that look like them have accomplished the goals they hold.

Additionally, the media people grow up on influences how they see others. Adding more diverse narratives introduces more cultures to the west, reducing the foreignity of Asian foods and clothes to ultimately help diminish xenophobia. Thus, proper representation reveals to white people that it is not abnormal to see BIPOC as the main character of their own stories, so the token Asian character does not reflect itself in real life as the token Asian friend of the group.

A common misconception is that Asians should take the stereotypes as a compliment. We are assumed to be naturally smart and quiet. Despite its seemingly positive connotations, it is more of a backhanded compliment. According to the National Center for Education, the national average dropout rate is 5.4%. For the Nepalese, the dropout rate is 19.6% and for the Burmelese, 27.5%. The stereotype extenuates the model minority myth (reference our podcast for further information) and ignores struggles that Asians face, such as intergenerational trauma and economic disadvantages, that negatively affect their academics.

If Asians want to be represented in movies and shows, then why do they not just make their own? Parasite, the academy award-winning best picture, best director, best original screenplay, and best foreign language film in 2019 is a South Korean film that is available for streaming on Hulu. When Hulu’s Twitter account marketed the movie, user @frentecivico called it a “[p]athetic movie” and user @davegardiner11 stated in defense to Hulu’s reply that “[i]t’s not in English, no one wants to watch a movie that they literally have to read to understand what’s going on.” Criticism for Parasite lies not in that it is in a foreign language but that it is in a non-white foreign language. Amour, a French film nominated for best picture in 2012 did not receive the same complaints from Americans. There are few Asian artists shown in the media. Recently KPOP has had a large increase in American popularity. Yet while artists, such as Harry Styles and Timothee Chalamet are applauded for breaking gender norms, KPOP idols have been doing it for years and are mocked in western media for their femininity. Therefore, even when Asians are properly represented in the media, they are subject to the blatant racism and xenophobia from the West. Furthermore, Asian storylines become whitewashed. For instance, Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese manga that was turned into a Hollywood movie. Who landed the starring role? Caucasian (I mean it does have Asian in it) Scarlett Johansson. Annihilation writes the protagonist as Asian descent, but the movie casts Natalie Portman. Thus, even when Asian storylines are created, they are whitewashed and diminished, reducing the already rare employment opportunities for Asian actors. If white people can play Asians, then why do Asians never fulfill white roles? Again, this goes back to racism.

Diversity has been increasing as time progresses. However, many of these accounts of Asian representation are watered down, featuring many non-full Asian actors or those that are white passing. For example, Crazy Rich Asians debuted in 2018, a romantic comedy that combines Chinese culture and stunning cinematography. Henry Golding plays the male lead and Sonoya Minuzo plays the supporting role: both are only half Asian, despite their characters being full. The first time I have ever seen myself in a teen romantic comedy was when To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before released on Netflix in 2018. While the starring actress, Lana Condor, is fully Vietnamese, her character is half-white. The lack of full Asian leads is a result of and contributes to Eurocentric beauty standards, destroying the self-confidence of the Asian youth watching. On a positive note, there is Southeast Asian representation with the 2020 Netflix show Never Have I Ever. The Half of It is a Netflix coming of age movie that not only features Asian representation but also LGBTQ+ representation. A common theme with these films and shows is that stereotypes are not the sole basis and were created by Asian writers. Thus, Asian writers and directors should be employed to properly create and represent our narratives.

Despite the surge of Asian representation, most movies and shows tend to feature the most commonly known Asian ethnicities for their characters, such as Chinese and Korean. However, Asia consists of diverse countries and cultures that also deserve to be displayed, creating relatability for their corresponding audience.

While Asian representation is limited, it does not mean that as Asians we have the right to infringe on other BIPOC representation. For example, a TikTok went viral of Vietnamese American Jessica Genadry explaining why she believes she should play Katara, an Inuit character, in the live action series of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Although people pointed out the ethnic difference, Jessica Genadry argued that it does not matter since the character is fictional. With most cartoons this argument proves valid, such as Halle Bailey, a Black woman, playing Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Even then, the casting received heavy criticism, as if changing the race of a mermaid affects the story. However, the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender were based upon certain cultures like the Inuit and ignoring it would erase a significant part of the story. Contrary to what she said, she even mentioned in her original video that she was Vietnamese, believing that would contribute to the validity of her “audition.” As Asians, we should use Jessica Genadry as an example: to not dismiss the representation of others in the name of representation for ourselves and holding ourselves accountable when called out.

At least this Halloween, thanks to Coronavirus, I will not have to decide who to dress up as, since I cannot relate to any characters. The selection is already limited for us Asians, choosing a fish from the pond instead of the ocean. I know that I am so much more than the “nerdy sidekick.” I have character depth: ranging from my love of expressing creativity to dreading my math class, from enjoying what nature has to offer to exploring my emotional complexities, and from spending time socializing to watching movies and TV shows that will hopefully one day feature a reflection of me.

- Tia Nguyen


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