Hollywood, stop harping on the Asian American immigrant trope

October 15, 2020 — by Anouk Yeh

I still remember the first book I’ve ever read that was centered around a Chinese American protagonist. I was in the first grade, and one of my best friends had given me an American Girl Doll set. The set came with a blonde hair, blue-eyed, 1950s Julie Albright doll and a thin paperback novel centered around the story of Julie’s Chinese American bestfriend, Ivy Ling. 

The novel, aptly titled “Good Luck, Ivy,” was written by Lisa Yee and chronicles the story of a second-generation Chinese American girl struggling between honoring her personal American values and her family’s cultural expectations. 

Although I was only 9 when I first read the book, I was hooked by Yee’s decision to focus on Asian American culture clash and assimilation. Prior to reading “Good Luck, Ivy,” my second grade literary diet had never been exposed to books that discussed race as the main narrative plot point.

But with the increase of Asian American representation in the media nowadays, it feels like their portrayal is frozen in time. When Chinese American characters are given the spotlight in mainstream entertainment, they seem to be always portrayed struggling through some tragic, all-consuming identity crisis.

Although I appreciate the efforts of writers filmmakers to capture the  Asian American identity crisis, the constant focus on it freezes us in our struggle, perpetuating the idea that this quintessential, perfectly tragic — and almost trope-ish — identity crisis is the sole crux of Asian American identity. 

For instance, the plotline of almost every TV show starring an Asian American cast that’s been broadcast in the past few years has been centered around the question of cultural assimilation. 

In “Crazy Rich Asians,” the main plotline of the hit is derived from the protagonist’s inability to fit in with traditional Chinese culture. Additionally, Netflix’s recent “Never Have I Ever,” chronicling the life of an Indian-American girl, is also driven by the protagonist’s internal conflict with traditional Indian culture and beliefs. Although “Fresh Off the Boat” is a little more forgivable since it’s based on a memoir, it too relies on a Chinese American family’s struggle for assimilation as its plot driver. 

A July 2019 TIME Magazine article pointed out this dichotomy, stating “Asian actors were still pigeonholed into narrow and reductive parts: Randall Park, for example, played doctors over and over again early in his career, including on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and ‘The Bold and the Beautiful.’”

These days, it’s imperative for Asian Americans to y evolve from being simply satisfied with having a seat table to being critical of what seats they’ve been allowed — or not allowed — to fill. 

Whenever I think of fair representation, I always think back to this review of the movie “The Half of It.” The review ended with something along the lines of “Good and accurate representation is when the writer takes a character’s identity as a given and not a destination.” 

A good example of this perfect, holistic representation in media is the white male. Essentially, the white male can simply exist in the storyline without having to justify his existence in the plot through bringing in some type of exotic cultural component or offering some tragic backstory. He is there because he is the status quo. 

At this point, culturally, most storylines that star Asian Americans and solely explore the race and culture clash have been wrung dry. 

Instead, I want to watch a movie that stars an Asian  American girl, where her racial identity isn’t the driving factor of the movie plot. I want to watch a movie where an Asian American protagonist can simply exist in the storyline without needing to bring in an exotic cultural component or offer some tragic backstory. I want to watch a movie where none of the people of color characters are metaphors for immigration, assimilation or culture. 

I am tired of watching movies that only cast Asian Americans when the plot of the movie mandates it. In order for Asian Americans to finally jump the otherization hurdle, we need to be accepted as the status quo in mainstream media.

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