After years of watching white faces fill his favourite television shows, Aaron Yap finally got to see his own culture represented on the small screen.
Sometimes I feel like a bad Asian. The fact that I require English subtitles to watch anything in my native Chinese tongue bothers me if I think about it too much. Sure, it’s a native tongue of multiple dialects, further complicated by other factors such as region, upbringing and so forth. Nevertheless, there’s a strange disconnect – imagine a fish that has never learnt to breathe underwater – that has stayed with me well into my adult years. As far as language comprehension goes, watching a Chinese movie for me is the same as watching a French, Italian or Spanish movie: I’ll pick up the occasional word or phrase, but the rest of it is unintelligible without any English translation.
It’s also odd to think that, until very recently, my TV diet has predominantly consisted of shows of Western origin, about Western interests and ideas. Let’s not mince words: TV, whether it’s watching Knight Rider when I was a kid or Banshee for the past few weeks, has always been super-white. It’s not that I’ve consciously avoided Asian product; I mean, the opposite is true for movies, I’ll watch cinema from anywhere in the world. And of course, Asians do make TV (I know this, ‘cos my mum zips through Singaporean and Korean shows on Youtube). But the concept of sitting down to watch a TV series of entirely Asian origin is still novel and alien to me.
It definitely seemed that way when I caught up with the first season of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat earlier this year. This sitcom, based on cheffing personality Eddie Huang’s memoirs, follows a Taiwanese-American family adjusting to the whiter hoods of Orlando, Florida after moving from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. I can safely say this is the first all-Asian-cast, live action TV show I’ve seen.
The jokes don’t consistently land. Some have chastised the showrunners for dumbing down the source material. Huang has even gone on record to call it “artificial”. But the show does something uncommon: it locked me in a rare state of amusement rooted in cultural identification. The comedy is purposefully goofy and exaggerated, but it still feels true to the minority immigrant experience (the heavy dose of ‘90s nostalgia doesn’t hurt either).
There’s a great episode where young Eddie (Hudson Yang) is humiliated for bringing noodles to school for lunch. A kid in the cafeteria yells, “Ying ming’s eating worms. Dude that smells nasty!” It’s a small moment in the scheme of things, but it also elicits a pang of recognition so painfully real and intensely personal very few instances in movies and TV are for me. I’ve never asked my parents for more “white people food” like Eddie does, but I can surely attest to wanting to be more like the sandwich-eating status quo. This, out of some misguided embarrassment for my “weird” packed lunches, and to avoid explaining to other kids who did not have the breadth of context to appreciate Asian food.
Maybe this must be what watching The Wire is like for someone from Baltimore?
That I felt empowered by a moment like the noodle scene – the feeling that you’re not alone in a largely vanilla entertainment eco-system – is timely, considering the current groundswell of impassioned solidarity amongst Asian-American actors like George Takei and Constance Wu in their advocacy for greater, fairer representation.
They’ve voiced concerns at the still-prevalent practice of whitewashing in Hollywood (see: Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Emma Stone in Aloha, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange). This normalisation of casting Western actors in Asian roles perpetuates a vicious cycle. Whitewashing diminishes opportunities for actual Asian-American actors, thus lessening Asian audiences ever seeing themselves represented on-screen, which in turn provides little inspiration or encouragement for those who want to act.
Justifying the discrimination as a byproduct of harsh business realities is disingenuous and narrow-sighted. One only need to refer to the effective simplicity of the #StarringJohnCho (Star Trek) and #StarringConstanceWu (Fresh Off the Boat) campaigns to see that casting an Asian lead in a Hollywood movie isn’t a crazy nor an unthinkable idea. And we all know the unstoppable box office power that the Fast and Furious franchise, with its globally reaching multi-racial cast, wields.
Then there are the troubling double standards of the diversity call-to-arms, #OscarsSoWhite. Here’s a movement that’s meant to raise awareness of the lack of African-American nominations on Hollywood’s biggest night. Yet during the ceremony, presenters Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen saw fit to crack deeply offensive Asian-targeted jokes about child slave labour and penis sizes.
Just to illustrate the extent of this problem: there was only one Asian contestant (half-Asian/half-Scottish to be precise) on the new season of The Bachelorette. This guy had one brief chance to make a positive first impression, on a show watched by millions, and the only thing he could offer was “I’m half-Scottish below the waist”, and an ill-advised kilt. To no one’s surprise, JoJo sent him packing.
Closer to home, Sonia Gray’s piece, “Where are the Asian faces on our TV screens?” asked similarly pertinent, valuable questions about Asian representation in New Zealand media. We haven’t had a major Fresh Off the Boat-like mainstream breakthrough as yet, but the web series work of Flat3 productions is a step in the right direction. And if you’ll allow me to include an across-the-Tasman example, I’d regard SBS’s The Family Law to be the sort of accessible Asian TV programming that could be made down here.
Like Fresh Off the Boat, which it’ll be invariably compared to, this snappy, bittersweet series is based on the memoirs of writer Benjamin Law, recounting one balmy summer in Queensland as his Chinese-Australian family is gripped by an impending divorce. If anything, The Family Law, being less Americanised, is a more immediate, ripped-from reality reflection of the Chinese immigrant familial dynamics I’ve experienced. Across its six episodes, the show covers plenty of relatable ground: the gossiping aunties, the awkward tip-toeing around dating a “gweilo”, the significance of gifting reduced-to-clear flowers, the hard-toiling parents worn down by the sacrifices made to keep a family of five children afloat in a different country.
But the narrative isn’t burdened by its cultural specificity. The Laws are portrayed with flaws and quirks that’ll ring true for anyone who’s ever been in a dysfunctional family. As diva-like 14-year-old aspiring actor Ben (Trystan Go) reminisces in the first episode, “For a long time I thought mum didn’t fit in because she was Chinese. Then I realised, it’s just mum.” Fiona Choi is often thunderously funny as the latter, her character’s loud, lewd inappropriateness injecting an acerbic frankness into the show that prevents things from getting too cloying. “Australian boys are only interested in S-E-X,” she tells her eldest daughter Candy (Shuang Hu), “Asian vaginas are smaller. Pain for you, fun for them”.
Some ancillary characters could use more screen time but, given the modest scale of the production, a few constraints are inevitable. Ultimately Law and director Jonathan Brough (there’s your Kiwi connection) strike a winsome, affectionate tone for the material, wedged somewhere between satire, slapstick and pathos. They succeed in making me feel like I’ve lived these lives. If you’ve never had the privilege of having your culture represented in such a way on TV – that is to say, as three-dimensional humans, in a lily-white media landscape – I can tell you: it’s kind of a big deal.
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