‘Walking Dead’ star Steven Yeun on resisting Asian stereotypes

‘Walking Dead’ Star Steven Yeun on Resisting Asian Stereotypes


Within months of moving from Chicago to L.A. to pursue his acting dreams, Steven Yeun was running from brain-eating zombies on the AMC series “The Walking Dead.” But the newbie was understandably nervous when he started preparing for his first major television role.

When I moved to L.A. and I booked ‘Walking Dead,’ all I could think about was how not to screw it up,” he says. So during the initial wardrobe fitting prior to shooting the show’s first season, Yeun kept it to himself when his outfit reminded him of a certain Asian sidekick from another iconic action franchise.

They put me in these clothes that made me look like Short Round [from ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’],” he says, “and I didn’t say anything because I was just like, ‘Oh, don’t make a fuss, even though this is absurd and you look like Short Round.’ Nobody noticed until it aired, and then they all said, ‘Wait a minute, you look like Short Round.’ And I was like, ‘I know!’ But I was too afraid to say anything because I didn’t want to mess it up.” (His costumes have been tweaked since then.)

But years earlier, Yeun had turned down a theater gig because he thought he would be contributing to similar negative stereotypes if he took the role.

For my first audition ever, in Chicago, the producers of this little show asked me to do an ’80s monologue,” he recalls, “so I came in with Ferris Bueller’s opening monologue. They said, ‘That was good, but can you do an Asian accent?’

That’s when Yeun realized they just wanted to see his version of stereotypical “Sixteen Candles” scene stealer Long Duk Dong. “After that, they wanted to book me and I just refused,” Yeun says.

Not that he advises others to turn down jobs. Yeun says he understands why actors often end up in projects they’re not proud of.

All the power to anybody that takes work, because getting work in this business is hard as hell,” he says. “So you get work and you take it. There’s nothing wrong with that. But for me, I just couldn’t do it. I knew I couldn’t do a good job because I just didn’t believe in it.”

Like his onscreen alter ego, Yeun was born in Korea and moved to Michigan with his family at an early age. Yeun says he feels especially fortunate today to be playing a well-rounded character like Glenn—thankful not just for a prominent role in a hit show but also for the opportunity to portray an Asian-American character who is not defined by his race, ancestry, or accent.


Walking Dead: No More Asian-American Male Stereotypes


Walking Dead

Liberty Voice:


Walking Dead‘s Glenn Rhee, played by Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, is not the stereotypical Asian-American male in most Western mainstream media. He is just a former pizza delivery guy from Michigan who is pretty good at stabbing and stomping zombie brains. His love and devotion to his wife, Maggie, and his bonding with group in the prison are no different from most men of other cultures. Glenn does not use any mathematical genius to calculate the time it takes for the group to travel from one place to another, nor does he use any special kung fu kicks or ancient Chinese secrets to overcome ravenous zombies or sociopathic tyrants and bandits. For example, in Season 3, a simple headbutt was his response to Merle’s snide comments about his wife. No karate chop needed.

There has been much discussion about the lack of legitimate film and TV roles for Asian-American men in a predominantly “black and white” entertainment industry in the United States. Not only are Asian-American portrayed as shy and somewhat anti-social nerds, martial art masters, or bumbling immigrants who speak with a heavy accent, they are sometimes substituted by White actors to play Asian roles. Examples of this can be seen in the movies 21 and The Last Airbender and in the 1970s TV series Kung Fu, starring the late David Carradine.

The stereotypes among Asian-American males did not stop Yeun from flying to L.A. from Chicago to star in The Walking Dead. He was nervous about what is expected of him during the initial wardrobe fitting, and he tried not to think about who he looks like. “They put me in these clothes that made me look like Short Round,” Yeun said, referring to the sidekick who screamed, “You call him Doctor Jones!” in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He bit his lips and told himself to not to worry about his appearance or what others may think of him.

Yeun’s character fulfills roles that can be played by anyone. Of course, there are a few times when Glenn’s race and Korean heritage are mentioned, such as in Season 1 when Daryl referred Glenn as a “Chinaman,” in Season 2 when Maggie’s father, Herschel, asked where he’s from, and in Season 3 when Merle remarked to Daryl that he “damn near killed that Chinese kid,” in which Daryl corrected, “He’s Korean.” These are very minor details that can be changed or omitted according with the character.

Before the Walking Dead star became a familiar face on prime time television, Yeun had worked briefly in theater in Chicago and had turned down a gig. He thought that would be portraying the negative stereotypes among Asian-Americans. The producers of the gig asked him to do an eighties monologue, and Yeun opened one from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. After that, they asked him if he could do an Asian accent. Yeun turned skeptical. What the producers really wanted to see was Yeun playing the character Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. “After that, they wanted to book me and I just refused,” Yeun said.

The Walking Dead is not the only show that portrays more variety among Asian-American male actors who are playing roles that are not dictated by stereotype, race, nationality, or accent. These actors including John Cho from Harold and Kumar, Daniel Dae Kim from Hawaii 5-O, and C.S. Lee from Dexter. However, the pioneer to resisting Asian-American male stereotypes should be accredited to George Takei, the famous helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise on the original Star Trek series who proved that Asians can drive.


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Walking Dead: No More Asian-American Male Stereotypes


New book explores representations of mixed race Asian Americans in popular culture


In this first book-length study of media images of multiracial Asian Americans, Leilani Nishime traces the codes that alternatively enable and prevent audiences from recognizing the multiracial status of Asian Americans.

Nishime’s perceptive readings of popular media–movies, television shows, magazine articles, and artwork–indicate how and why the viewing public often fails to identify multiracial Asian Americans. Using actor Keanu Reeves, golfer Tiger Woods, and the television show Battlestar Galactica as examples, Nishime suggests that this failure is tied to gender, sexuality, and post-racial politics. In contrast to these representations, Nishime provides a set of alternative moments when audiences can view multiracial Asians as multiracial. Through a consideration of the Matrix trilogy, reality TV star Kimora Lee Simmons, and the artwork of Kip Fulbeck, these examples highlight both the perils and benefits of racial visibility, uncovering our society’s ways of constructing racial categories. Throughout this incisive study, Nishime offers nuanced interpretations that open the door to a new and productive understanding of race in America.

Nishime’s persuasive, well-grounded analysis yields genuinely brilliant insights regarding the pitfalls and possibilities of multiracial visibility in contemporary media culture. Lucidly written with appealing attention to popular texts, this is the sort of book that moves multiracial and Asian American studies in interesting and engaging new directions.”–Glen Mimura, author of Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video

Leilani Nishime is an assistant professor of communications at the University of Washington and the coeditor of East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture.

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New book explores representations of mixed race Asian Americans in popular culture


Artist Profile: Jennifer Poon


Jennifer Poon’s concentrated, visceral lines convey the fragile nature of and the sensitive balance between our physical and spiritual selves. Poon merges themes of race, sexuality, and personal identity with real life experience to create a unique perspective on our reaction to social pressures from the world around us.

The artist states, “In my work there is a dialogue that explores universal emotions, which are accessed through my own personal experiences. I’m striving to make sense of the world between our mortal bodies and the subconscious, and this has been the main focus of my studio practice. I use the body as an anchor for discussion of human emotion, death, and decay. These are basic to being human, and I want to bring these feelings up to the surface to create a connection between the work and the viewer, ultimately bringing the viewer back to a point of introspection.”

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Artist Profile: Jennifer Poon

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21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

1. “Let me guess: Are you Chinese?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

If I say, “Yes,” you’re going to say you could totally tell.
If I say, “No, I’m ____,” you’re going to say that that was your second guess.

2. “What ARE you?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

Are you asking me where I’m from?
“Yeah, where are you from?”
“Nooo, like, where are you really from?”
“Noooooo, like, where are your PARENTS from?”

3. “But what kind of Asian are you?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

A very jovial kind.

4. “Can you tell the difference between the different types of Asian?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

Science says cheekbone height determines the spectrum of Asian.

5. “I heard they eat dogs. Do they really eat dogs over there?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

Why does it feel like I’m personally being judged for a cultural vice practiced by a tiny piece of the population.

6. “…have you ever eaten dog?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

Literally all the time. My mom’s dish you tried last night?


7. “Are you related to [anyone with the last name Lee, Kim, Chen, Nguyen]?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

Yup, the 1.2 million Kims in South Korea comprise one big family.

8. This:

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

Believe it or not, some of us have both academic and social skills. Groundbreaking, I know.

9. “Are your parents strict?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

Only about racially ignorant presumptions of other households.

10. “Like, do you have to marry someone from your own culture?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

Only if Confucius says so.

11. “Do you get in trouble if you don’t get straight A’s?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

I’m only reprimanded if I ask dumb questions.

12. Specifically to females: “Are you attracted to Asian guys?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

I’m attracted to anyone who’s…attractive?

13. *Anything ever said on OKCupid to Asian females*

*Anything ever said on OKCupid to Asian females*

14. “What’s your REAL Asian name?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

I will tell you only if you promise not to attempt to pronounce it.

15. “Omg you speak fluently? How do you say ______ in Korean/Chinese/Japanese/etc.?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering


16. “Why are your eyes like that?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

17. “Are you really good at karaoke?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

Wow, what a completely stereotypical assumption to make.

But yes, I am.

18. “Are you really good at Ping-Pong?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

19. “How are you guys all so skinny?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

‘Cause calories shoot right to our brains, WHICH IS HOW WE’RE SO SMART.

20. “Has anyone ever told you you look exactly like [one of the few Asian actors in Hollywood]?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering

“Harold” from Harold & Kumar? Brenda Song? Bruce Lee? Gong Li? Sandra Oh? What else you got?

21. “Wait — can you understand the other Asian languages?”

21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering


Because they are literally other languages.

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21 Questions Asian People Are Sick Of Answering