Kieu Chinh, Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita, Tsai Chin, France Nuyen, Lauren Tom, Lisa Lu, and Rosalind Chao in The Joy Luck Club, 1993.
Buena Vista Pictures/Everett Collection
Ideas
January 21, 2020 7:00 AM EST
Yu’s new novel INTERIOR CHINATOWN is published on January 28. The author of three previous books, including the novel "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe" (a New York Times Notable Book and a Time magazine best book of the year), Yu received the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 Award and was nominated for two Writers Guild of America Awards for his work on the HBO series, Westworld.

a personal essay reflecting on being yellow in America in 2020

raising kids who are “Asian” but have not yet been to Asia

why Asian-American men have never been and will never be real Americans (and why that’s relevant to the immigration questions of today)

and

what it’s like to never ever ever see yourself on TV

 

I watched a lot of TV as a kid. Growing Pains. Who’s The Boss. Family Ties. Silver Spoons. Mr. Belvedere. From the hours of 3 to 9 from the ages of 8 to 18, I watched attractive white people living in huge houses, having problems and solving problems and eating a lot of pancakes.

There were a few black people. Arnold and Willis. Theo and Rudy. No Latinos. No LGBTQ. For the most part, diversity meant someone less than affluent, or slightly nerdy. America, at least according to my television—and what other or better window did a 10-year-old me have into the larger world out there—was a country largely made up of, by and for white people, in which black people were acknowledged with a time slot Tuesdays at 8:30 or from time to time, i.e., once-a-season, in a very special episode about racism.

Suffice it to say, there were no Asians on my screen. The Incredible Hulk was green, which was as close as we were going to get to yellow. Closer than David Carradine was, anyway.

Whenever I did see an Asian on the screen (which wasn’t often), it would immediately take me out of whatever the story was. I would point at the screen and go, “Hey!”

And then the rest of my family would look and we would be excited for about ten seconds. Which was how long it took to realize the Asian was either:

  • Doing kung fu (or some imitation thereof)
  • Delivering food
  • In the background
  • Portrayed in a way that was kinda offensive
  • Preceded or followed by a gong sound, or
  • All of the above

*

It’s sometimes argued that Asian-Americans, generally speaking, enjoy a certain privilege not available to other people of color in the U.S. – this is linked to the idea of the “model minority.” (This idea, as has been well-documented, is deeply flawed. At a minimum, it oversimplifies a large and heterogenous group (“Asian-Americans” comprise a group of 22 million people from two dozen countries, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs (not to mention Taoists, Jains, Zoroastrians, and others), arriving anywhere from 200 years ago to last week. At worst, the idea of a “model minority” obfuscates a complex reality in services of a false but comprehensible narrative that goes, roughly: hey, look, some Asians are doctors/lawyers/rich, so the American dream is alive and well and why don’t you do like they did.) I’m not trying to re-litigate this issue at length; my point is that whatever dubious benefits those privileges and status may afford to Asian-Americans, those benefits do not include real cultural power.

*

Now my wife and I are raising our own kids. And they’re watching TV. Sort of. Not the TV I had, with an antenna on top that you had to move around and position, and a dial that went from 2 to 13, with four real channels that you had to get up and turn. They’ve got half a dozen streaming services, 500 channels, YouTube, Vimeo, Musical.ly and whatever the hell TikTok is.

It’s not quite as much of a novelty to see an Asian on screen as it was for me thirty years ago. But it’s still notable. It still happens in our house, once in a while. If it’s a real show, on a real network, and a decent to good role, and all of a sudden, there’s an Asian on screen, my kids will sit up and take notice. And that’s something I notice.

My children are middle-schoolers now, so it’s been a few years since they became conscious of their race. That happened around kindergarten, maybe first grade. Happened to both of them, basically the same way. Some kid in the yard says something to them. Maybe mean, maybe harmless—regardless of intent, the effect is the same: ding. Racial awareness. One moment they were kids, the next moment they were “Asians.”

They come home with questions: what are we? Apparently until the age of four, my son thought we were English (“Why did you think that?” “Because we speak English.”).

“What can you speak?” A little of this, not much.

“What do a-mah and a-kong speak?” They speak multiple languages. “Why can’t you?”

Because I’m a bad Asian. And son. And father. “Why did Braden call me that word?”

Because he heard it somewhere. “Is that a bad word?”

Yes. It is called a slur. “What is a slur?”

Some people don’t like other people because of their race. “So they make up slurs?”

Yes. “Why?”

How about we watch Netflix and eat a popsicle?

*

So why does it matter? Who cares?

Because TV shows (and movies) are both cause and effect.

Like it or not, they’re the stories we consume. The stories we tell ourselves and listen to about ourselves. The inputs, the fuel, the background cultural and mental landscape. What we consume and then produce and then consume, where we go to see what we believe about ourselves, and believe what we see.

It’s a feedback loop, and TV (more than film, I’d argue) is the great amplifier.

So it matters because when you grow up not seeing yourself in TV America, you don’t feel like you’re part of real America.

And it matters because when other people—all the other people, white and black and brown—grow up not seeing you in TV America, then maybe they don’t feel like you’re part of real America either.

And when generations grow up and they make the new shows and films, they make them with that picture in their minds. White, with a sprinkling of black. Maybe a dash of brown. No yellow.

It matters because the only way to stop a feedback loop is… Wait, is there a way to stop a feedback loop?

*

Our shows, our stories, when they’re good, we are immersed. On some level, to some degree, we put ourselves inside the characters. The characters gain subjectivity.

When another person gains subjectivity, you recognize them as humans. As having a valid perspective. You acknowledge the reality of their experience. Asian-American males have long been and currently remain among the least represented demographics on American television. This is true today, and has been true since TV has been around, and will probably remain true for decades to come. Or maybe always. Is it any wonder that it’s still jarring (or at least surprising) to see an Asian guy on screen? Why would we be surprised that Asians are still largely seen as unassimilable? Questioning whether we are “real” Americans. Not just by others, but by some of us ourselves. Not just by me, but soon my kids, too.

The marginalization is, in fact, implied by the very idea of a “model minority” – built into the term itself. “Minority” implying the invisible but default majority, foregrounding the special case for examination and certification. “Model” implying a set of standards, “model” as evaluated by whom and according to whose criteria?

Asian-Americans in having that label affixed (and to the extent it becomes internalized by us), are being conscripted into a story about minorities, and how they are supposed to become Americans, and in that very transaction comes the price of being an exemplar.

Being held up justifies being held apart.

Held up for “praise.” Held apart from the mainstream.

Being a model minority allows for perpetual marginalization. Marginalization allows the continued denial of subjectivity.

Denial of subjectivity leaves Asian-Americans on the other side of the us/them divide.

Keeps us Other. As long as we are Other, we aren’t American. We’re brochure Americans, the kind of Americans you see in the posters hanging in the admissions office. Or in the video montage at the cultural center. We are Americans of the aspirational, civics textbook, look-at-our-rich-and-varied-tapestry variety. But close your eyes and picture an American. Did you picture a yellow face? Probably not. We’re not those kind of Americans yet. We’re not “real” Americans. And I would argue that is both cause and effect for why we’re not the kind of Americans you see on TV.

*

Awkwafina accepts the award for best performance by an actress in a motion picture - musical or comedy for "The Farewell" onstage during the 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards.
Paul Drinkwater—NBCUniversal/Getty Images.

But haven’t things gotten better?

In 2018, Crazy Rich Asians was a cultural and box office phenomenon. Much was made of the fact that it had been 25 years since a major Hollywood film had a principally Asian or Asian-American cast. Twenty-five years since The Joy Luck Club. A whole generation had grown up, from puberty to middle-age, rarely seeing Asian-Americans on screen, and now here was a movie packed full of ‘em! And then 2020 starts off with Awkwafina winning a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Watching that with my daughter, seeing her face as she saw a version of her own face up there on stage, was something I will not forget.

But as much as I enjoyed both Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, those were movies set in Asia, populated with Asian characters. In the case of the former, the word “Asians” is still in the title. In 2018, we are still performing our race. Can you imagine a movie coming out now with an analogous title for any other race? What would that even be? This is exciting, but is it progress?

And in Lulu Wang’s excellent film, the story is largely a journey about a young woman going back to the old country, her family roots in China. Which is to say, in neither of these films do we see much (if any) of Asian-Americans actually in America. People, who happen to be yellow, living in and passing for “normal” Americans.

So yes, we’ve come a long way from the Chinese Exclusion Act. From the Japanese-American internment camps. And yet despite these breakthrough films (and in shows like ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat), it’s not hard to imagine another piece like this, a decade from now, noting the uptick of “Asian” projects in the late 2010s, wondering why the uptick couldn’t be sustained. Without the aforementioned cultural power, which would require a permanent seat at the table—or at least in the room Asian-Americans might remain stuck in a kind of Groundhog Day, living out a predictable sequence of brief excitement, hope for change, followed by long bouts of collective amnesia and oblivion.

*

As of a few years ago. I embarked on a new career as a TV scribe (to support my habit of writing fiction). I’m now in the weird and extremely unexpected position, as a writer and producer of television (initially for other people but now developing projects of my own) of being able to actually do something about this. To have the chance to tell a story that reaches thousands or even millions of people is both a responsibility and an opportunity. Not to mention, as a dad of two tweens, it’ll make my job easier. Parents, you know what I’m talking about. Even when I’m feeling especially funny (or dad-funny, anyway) or insightful, my kids have a natural allergic reaction to anything that triggers their sense of Dad-Knowledge, or a lecture, or some kind of parental lesson. It would be much more effective to turn on Netflix or Hulu and point to a story that I made and say—look, this is what I think. This is what it’s like. This is what you’ll experience.

And what will those experiences be? For much of my life, I’ve been the Asian Guy. Not the Tall Guy. Not the Cool Guy. I’m not the New Guy, or the Guy with Black Hair. Or the Guy in the Striped Shirt or even the Guy Who Is Talking Right Now. I’ve actually been all of those things at one time or another, and still, I’m not those things. I’m the Asian Guy.

Why?

I’m often the only Asian in the room. This has been true in many of my environments over the years: at school, to some extent. But much more often once I’ve gotten out of school. In a white-shoe Wall Street law firm. In a technology company management meeting. In a TV writers room. At work, on the street, at the store.

It’s the easiest way to identify me. There’s no mistaking it, no ambiguity. Asian. That is my defining characteristic.

This is true both out in the world, and in my own head. Am I imagining some of it? Inflating the sense in which people actually see that, and mostly that trait about me? Maybe. Perhaps there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing here, my internalization of the label now being fed back into the feedback loop, causing the problem to intensify and get messy and hard to extricate in terms of how to assign the relative contributions of the root source of this perception.

My parents, my wife and me, our children–three generations, and yet, still stuck in this feedback loop. A cyclical existence. Waves of assimilation and “de-assimilation.” My parents came in the 1960s, as soon as the U.S. opened its gates, have lived here half a century (longer than they ever lived at “home”). And now, in 2019 (especially post-November 2016), some of them feel less like Americans than ever before. My parents, who were immigrants in the 60’s and 70’s, have lived in Mississippi, Alabama, Ohio, Oregon and Los Angeles. They’ve had jobs including: dishwasher, waitress hanging bedpans, running Keno numbers at a casino, clerical jobs, managerial jobs. They’ve raised children and grandchildren, put down roots, lost their roots, and now, reflecting on a half-century here, wonder if they were ever truly Americans.

Who is a real American? What does an American look like? Not us, apparently. Will we ever?

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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