Asian-Americans have been unfairly maligned by Hollywood over the years and the trend shows no sign of abating. Kulture monitors the entertainment media for offensive representations of Asian-Americans and documents stereotypes and denigration of Asians in movies and television. The site is easy to navigate, categorizing offenses by media outlet, by type of offense, such as “Reinforces Stereotypes,” and by media type, such as TV commercials. Visitors to the site can also submit their own witnessed offenses through the “Report an Offense” feature.
Kulture is the only website that maintains a database of media offenses against Asian-Americans. They pull the curtain back onHollywood’s subtle racism and feature write ups that explore the offensive themes and tropes that are used to belittle Asian men and sexualize Asian women. In addition to providing the information on the offense, Kulture also analyzes the situation and provides explanation as to why it is considered offensive. Popular shows featured on the site include: “2 Broke Girls,” “Royal Pains,” “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “The Mindy Project.”
The offenses range from “Depicting Asians as Perpetual Immigrants” to “Asians as a Subordinate.” Every media offense, once added to the ‘Kulture Offense Database,’ stays forever. It serves as a repository and reference for the Asian-American community to know which TV shows, which directors, and which companies stereotype and demean Asian cultures.
According to Kulture, the Asian-American community doesn’t yet have full awareness of how depictions in the entertainment media disadvantage them in real life. As an example, Hollywood representations of Asians as timid translate into real-world stereotypes whereby whites refuse to see Asians as leaders. Asians are often unable to fundamentally change attitudes towards them, which are stubbornly reinforced by Hollywood. In other cases, Asians have a general awareness, but there is no common understanding as to why exactly certain Hollywood depictions are offensive; this forms a shaky basis from which to advocate change. Kulture addresses this by unpacking TV and movie scenes in detail and explaining the offensive nature of them.
Asian-Americans account for approximately 5.6% of the United States population, roughly 18.2 million people. According to student surveys conducted by the University of Michigan, Asian-Americans, when asked, could not name more than a few Asian actors, and the ones they could name were often portrayed in negative terms. Women are often sexualized while men are cast as villains or uncultured characters.
“Many Asians know TV shows represent them in a bad light. But they may think they’re alone in that view,” says Kulture’s founder Tim Gupta. “Kulture spotlights how Hollywood mocks and excludes Asian men while fetishizing Asian women. Kulture helps Asians and those concerned about media racism stay abreast of how Asians are depicted, and we will eventually serve as a platform for them to take action against Hollywood offenders.”
To view the list of media offenses, visit www.kulturemedia.org.
In the past fifty years, Asian Americans have helped change the face of America and are now the fastest growing group in the United States. But as award-winning historian Erika Lee reminds us, Asian Americans also have deep roots in the country. The Making of Asian America tells the little-known history of Asian Americans and their role in American life, from the arrival of the first Asians in the Americas to the present-day.
An epic history of global journeys and new beginnings, this book shows how generations of Asian immigrants and their American-born descendants have made and remade Asian American life in the United States: sailors who came on the first trans-Pacific ships in the 1500s; indentured “coolies” who worked alongside African slaves in the Caribbean; and Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and South Asian immigrants who were recruited to work in the United States only to face massive racial discrimination, Asian exclusion laws, and for Japanese Americans, incarceration during World War II.
Over the past fifty years, a new Asian America has emerged out of community activism and the arrival of new immigrants and refugees. No longer a “despised minority,” Asian Americans are now held up as America’s “model minorities” in ways that reveal the complicated role that race still plays in the United States.
Published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the United States’ Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that has remade our “nation of immigrants,” this is a new and definitive history of Asian Americans. But more than that, it is a new way of understanding America itself, its complicated histories of race and immigration, and its place in the world today.
“Ophelia” was never a very good student.
The second generation Vietnamese American described herself as “not very intelligent,” someone who got straight Cs. She failed the exam to qualify for Advanced Placement classes at the end of Junior High.
But for reasons beyond her understanding, she was placed on the AP track when she got to high school. There, surrounded by ambitious peers and high expectations, “something clicked,” she told researcher Jennifer Lee.
“I wanted to work hard and prove I was a good student,” she said. “I think the competition kind of increases” the desire to “do better.”
Ophelia graduated with a 4.2 grade point average and an acceptance to a prestigious pharmacy program.
Lee, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine, is an author of the new book “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” which examines how stereotypes based on race can determine students’ chances for success. For their research, she and co-author Min Zhou surveyed hundreds of students like Ophelia — children of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants who felt they were treated differently because of their race.
“Teachers and guidance counselors and peers assumed that they were smart and disciplined and high achieving,” Lee told The Washington Post. “So they were more likely to be placed on advanced tracks, more likely to be directed toward selective colleges. Some admitted to getting grades they didn’t feel like they deserved.”
Paradoxically, though, this was one stereotype that served its targets well. Lee said students who were subject to irrationally high expectations usually rose to meet them. Surrounded by brainy classmates only happy with “As,” they adjusted their own notions of what it means to do well. Assumed to be a “smart Asian,” as Lee put it, they put extra effort into their coursework in order to live up to expectations of their ethnicity.
“What you have is a self-fulfilling prophesy where initially what is untrue becomes true,” Lee said. She calls it the “stereotype promise.”
Lee’s findings are the inverse of social science we’ve heard about before. For the past two decades, researchers have been investigating the “stereotype threat” — how negative assumptions about certain groups can undercut their performance. It’s been used to explain why high-achieving African American students sometimes struggle when they get to college, why talented women may underperform in STEM fields.
Social psychologist Claude Steele, who coined the term in 1995, explained how the stereotype threat affects members of groups that are seen as less able or intelligent.
“They know that they are especially likely to be seen as having limited ability,” he wrote in the Atlantic in 1999. “Groups not stereotyped in this way don’t experience this extra intimidation. And it is a serious intimidation, implying as it does that they may not belong in walks of life where the tested abilities are important — walks of life in which they are heavily invested. Like many pressures, it may not be experienced in a fully conscious way, but it may impair their best thinking.”
In the Los Angeles area, where Lee and her colleagues surveyed 4,800 first-generation Americans, the children of Mexican immigrants were most likely to be affected by the stereotype threat. These respondents told Lee that they were rarely taken seriously as students. They weren’t offered help preparing for the SAT and weren’t advised to apply for four-year colleges. If Mexican American students wanted to get into a selective school, they had to be their own tutors, their own guidance counselors.
“One of the questions it raises is how many students aren’t given the opportunity to meet their potential,” Lee said.
Lee’s finding challenges the assumption that gaps in achievement are purely cultural, that “tiger moms” and community regard for education entirely explain Asian American students’ success. The perception of a culture can be as influential as the culture itself.
That’s not to say that culture isn’t a factor — Lee has previously studied how raised expectations within the Asian American community drive high achievement. But when we adopt stereotypes about Asians and education, we’re crediting the wrong culture, she said. It’s not necessarily Chinese people who value education so highly (only 4 percent of China’s population has a college degree), it’s the highly educated Chinese immigrants who come to the United States, more than half of whom went to college.
“It’s not culture reduced to a certain ethnicity,” Lee said. “It’s about who immigrates to the U.S. and what sort of norms they’re bringing.”
Chinese and Korean immigrants are “hyper-selected,” as Lee put it. They are more likely to be highly skilled and more likely to hold an advanced degree than almost any other immigrant group. In fact, they are almost twice as likely to be college-educated than the general U.S. population — only 28 percent of Americans have graduated from college. Since parents’ level of educational attainment is one of the best predictors of their children’s achievement, it’s hardly surprising that academically successful Chinese immigrants will have academically successful kids.
Teachers’ assumptions about Asian culture — misplaced though they may be — affect how they perceive Asian American students. And Asian American students internalize those perceptions. They wind up achieving more than they normally would have based on a stereotype that isn’t even completely true.
“We think that grades and test scores and who gets into what colleges is objective, that it’s all about individual effort,” Lee said. “But our work reveals the hidden ways in which biases and stereotypes operate that make certain outcomes more possible for certain groups.”
Most of the students Lee spoke to said that the stereotype promise was a good thing. It helped them do well in school and get into good colleges.
But Lee warns that it can be a “double-edged sword.” Asian American students are also likely to feel a form of the intimidation Steele described in writing about the stereotype threat.
While black students may worry that their failures will reinforce negative assumptions about African American achievement, Asian American students who didn’t meet the high expectations set for them “didn’t feel Asian,” Lee said. One man told her that he was “the whitest Chinese guy she’ll ever meet,” because he didn’t fit the stereotype of a high-achieving Asian. The pressure can lead to mental health issues, like anxiety and depression.
And the positive stereotypes that serve Asian Americans well in school can act against them once they’re in the workforce. They have a harder time attaining leadership positions because they’re seen as diligent and thoughtful, rather than bold and creative, according to Lee. She noted that Asian Americans made up 6 percent of college students (slightly more than their proportion of the U.S. population) but 2 percent of college presidents. In Silicon Valley, Asian Americans are 27 percent of the workforce but just 14 percent of executives.
The stereotype promise may help Asian American students get a degree, Lee said, but the “bamboo ceiling” stops them from achieving as much as they could with it.
BBC- Magazine (by Dr. Christopher Harding):
National and racial stereotypes are often hard to dispel, but in the case of Japan, argues Dr Chris Harding of Edinburgh University, people in the West seem particularly determined to cling on to a set of long-established myths.
Landing in Japan for the first time 10 years ago, I couldn’t wait to get out of Narita Airport‘s dull beige arrivals area and into the real Japan.
Pretty soon, I felt sure, I would be lost in the intense verdant greens of paddy fields and forests, the steaming waters of natural hot springs. A sip of green tea would set me up for an afternoon of meditation in some old Buddhist temple tucked in among fragrant cedars. And then as night fell, a bullet train would zoom me into central Tokyo for a joyously baffled embrace of its Blade Runner futurism and crazy entertainments.
None of these fantasies survived a three-hour gridlocked bus ride into Tokyo, the motorway’s faceless concrete sidings occasionally dipping to allow views out across faceless concrete high-rises.
I drank sugary milk marketed as “ice coffee” with the Japanese acquaintance who’d come to meet me. We established that though his family was “technically Buddhist” he had no idea what that meant and he associated temples with school trips and dead people.
As we lapsed into silence, I considered asking Japan’s tourist board for my money back. I had been mis-sold Japan!
Later I realised they were just doing their job, generating tourist dollars with the material available to them – one extremely gullible young man, plus a century and a half of Western misrepresentations of Japan.
Here are three of the best misrepresentations – or worst, depending on your point of view.
1: Japan is inherently strange
“To find oneself suddenly in a world where everything is upon a smaller and daintier scale than with us – a world of lesser and seemingly kindlier beings, all smiling at you as if to wish you well – a world where all movement is slow and soft, and voices are hushed… this is surely the realisation, for imaginations nourished with English folklore, of the old dream of a World of Elves.”
That was the writer Lafcadio Hearn, 125 years ago. Across the century that followed, countless Westerners visited and worked in Japan. Japanese culture became readily available to us in literature and film. And yet despite all this, the keynote of the brilliant 1980s travelogue Clive James in Japan was a drily comic bewilderment at everything.
When he buys a snack on a bullet train, thinking that it might be a ham sandwich (while also noting that it looks like a pair of tights) it turns out to be a powerful-smelling dried squid – “dried and ironed” he speculates. Revolted, James stuffs the snack into the seat pocket and heads off for his next misadventure with the carriage’s on-board telephone.
Maybe I shouldn’t gripe. This was light entertainment, after all. But whereas most travel documentaries try to offer a portrait of a place, helping viewers or listeners get to know it, when it came to the Japanese the underlying message was: “It can’t be done! They’re completely inscrutable!”
Why? One reason may be that in a world where true strangeness and surprise have become rare and precious commodities, we have to find them somewhere. Financial Times journalist David Pilling quotes a friend who said Japan was the most alien place she’d been that had good plumbing.
At the same time, Japan offers us a mirror in which to look at ourselves. We say “Japan is…“, but we’re really asking a question: “Are we…?” The Japanese are dainty, kindly, soft – are we coarse and hard-hearted? Japan is hobbled by a group mentality that trumps individualism – how free are we…?
2. The Japanese are dangerous
Atrocities committed during World War Two gave the Japanese military a powerful reputation for cruelty. But a notion has long bubbled away in the West that the Japanese as a people are inherently unpredictable and dangerous – the famous gentility masking something menacing. This goes back at least as far as the 1850s, when British travellers and diplomats saw Japanese tolerance of their presence in the country morph into sporadic attacks against Westerners and their Japanese assistants. They linked the violence to the particular outlook of the samurai class, and the association stuck.
Some of these early ideas about the samurai were in part Japanese creations – fantasies concocted for a Western readership willing to pay good money for exotic tales of violence and sex. World War Two gave the legend another twist: the chivalrous, highly ethical elements of this samurai fantasy were lost, and what remained was the unthinking loyalty, the refusal to surrender, the indifference towards death – and others’ lives.
You can hear the results of all this in Alan Whicker’s nervous postwar musings on karate.
3. Japanese women are submissive
Japan has been seen as the land that feminism forgot. Both Japanese and Western commentators have tended to see the geisha girl as the ideal of Japanese womanhood – attractive and subtle, subservient to men, but clever enough to be good company. Then there was the influential American anthropologist of the 1940s, Ruth Benedict, who heard that Japanese girls were given just enough education so they could put their husbands’ books back the right way up once they’d finished dusting them. By the 1960s, for Western men unsure what to make of the rise of women’s liberation movements, all of this appeared deeply attractive.
Japanese women even received the ultimate British seal of approval in 1967, as Mie Hama became Bond-girl “Kissy Suzuki” in You Only Live Twice. Given the low-down on domestic arrangements in Japan by his male host – women are inferior to men, they’re happy with that, and they live to serve – Bond gives his blessing: “I think I’ll retire here…”
And if you think that nothing of this sort could possibly go on in the early 21st Century, then you haven’t been paying attention to Japanese pop culture, and the success of Japanese pop behemoth AKB-48.
Yes, 48 young girls (in the original line-up, though the group has since expanded), forbidden from having boyfriends and content instead to smile and dance around in bikinis or mock military uniforms or really whatever a paying public of – critics would argue – socially inadequate young and middle-aged men want to see.
All in all, this particular myth about Japan is simply worth too much to too many people – Western men mourning the passing of the patriarchy, Western feminists looking for sisters to save in Asia, corporate Japan chasing the under-deodorised male dollar (or Yen) – for it to be revised any time soon. It’s the perfect example of how diverse interests come together over time to create misrepresentations with a surprisingly long shelf life.
AsAm News/NBC News:
How can one person challenge racial and gender stereotypes with one quick spray of paint? Through her participation in graffiti street art, Nisha Sembi, a Sikh American, can not only counter stereotypes, but also build bridges among communities as disparate as first-generation immigrants and hip-hop aficionados, according to NBC.
This past weekend, Netflix premiered Tina Fey’s new series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. While Fey doesn’t star in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt like she does in 30 Rock, the show is unmistakably hers with its sense of outlandish, wacky humor. Another commonality Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has with 30 Rock is toeing the line with racial humor, whether it’s the use of ironic blackface in 30 Rock or Jane Krakowski’s backstory in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
When Korean American actor Ki Hong Lee (from The Maze Runner and People’s “Sexiest Men Alive” 2014 list) shows up as an immigrant Vietnamese character named Dong in Kimmy’s ESL class, it’s hard not to see parallels with Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. As soon as Dong is introduced, he laughs at Kimmy’s name because “it means ‘penis’ in Vietnamese.”
There are numerous “dong” puns afterwards, but Kimmy quickly tells a character to get over the snickering since Dong is a common Vietnamese name.
The rest of the series both plays into and subverts Asian stereotypes with Ki Hong Lee’s character. On one hand, Dong is working as a Chinese food delivery boy, good at math (though this is mostly just used as an excuse to have Kimmy and Dong spend time with each other) and worried about being deported. On the other hand, Dong is the rarest of the Asian American male characters — a viable love interest.
Part of what made Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong offensive and racist is that he is made to seem like a buffoon. Long Duk Dong is not a human character, he is simply an amalgamation of Asian stereotypes to be laughed at. His romantic interest in Molly Ringwald’s character is never taken seriously by either the other characters or the audience. And therein lies the key difference between Long Duk Dong and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s character, Dong.
While Dong’s character is not without stereotypes, he is never ripped of his humanity. His romantic interest in Kimmy is never played for laughs; they are both outsiders in New York, they share a childlike innocence and glee in the silliest things, and they actually like each other. It’s rare to see an Asian male character as a viable part of a love triangle and even rarer to see the Asian guy “win.” In Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy chooses Dong and their romance is shown as something real.
By the end of season one, Dong is stuck in a situation where he can either continue to show up in the second season or be easily written out (Ki Hong Lee is currently a guest star on the show). Yes, Dong is character that could be tagged as #YourFaveIsProblematic on Tumblr, but if Ki Hong Lee isn’t too busy running in more mazes, we would definitely like to see where his romance with Kimmy goes.
Constance Wu is living the dream of every up and coming actor—landing the lead on a hit sitcom on a major network with a rapt audience. But Wu’s role as Jessica Huang, Taiwanese mom of three boys on Fresh Off the Boat, is more than just a sweet gig—it’s historical, as FOTB is only the second Asian American-centric sitcom in 20 years after Margaret Cho‘s All-American Girl in 1994. Add to the pot the outspoken opinions of the show’s creator Chef Eddie Huang, who went from bashing the show to supporting it in a matter of days, Wu’s first big break is breaking color lines and studio systems. But the 26-year-old is taking all of it in stride because haters gonna hate, you know?
For your first sitcom, your comedic timing is great without trying too hard. How do you strike that balance with Randall Park, who plays your husband Louis Huang, and the three boys Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen?
This is only the second comedy I’ve ever done and it didn’t work until I stopped trying to be funny. That’s the trap. Whenever you’re trying to be funny, it becomes cloying and manipulative. My goal with my performance is to be as true as possible.
People think that Jessica’s accent is funny but no one writes jokes about her accent. The humor comes from the writers giving me very funny situations and lines. What makes her so refreshing is that she has an accent and doesn’t know perfect English but she doesn’t think that’s a reason for her not to have a voice and a very loud one at that. That’s what’s interesting and fun about her and playing against Randall and the boys because we’re all just trying to have a good time and tell a specific story.
Speaking of the accent, some felt it was very controversial for you to portray Mrs. Huang with her Taiwanese accent. Why do you think accents in general are so divisive when it reflects actual humans?
Asians have been so rarely represented in mainstream media and historically, especially in the early stages, the accent was used as a humor tool with jokes written about it. But now I would challenge people who say that Jessica’s accent is stereotypical and ask what does that mean? An accent is not a stereotype, it’s just a set of linguistic phonetic changes that happen when your mother tongue has a different set of phonetic constraints than the newer language that you are now speaking. Stereotype enters when that accent is used for the purpose of humor. Of course there are people who are laughing at my character’s accent for very coarse reasons, but we aren’t writing jokes about the accent. It’s an important shift to make.
Recently, a lot of Asians actors want to neutralize their roles on television and say ‘This person is playing a character who happens to be Asian and that has nothing to do with their identity.’
That is a trend that is flying across all minorities, it seems…
My grandfather was an illiterate bamboo farmer and my dad really had to work himself up academically to get a full ride scholarship and a Ph.D in biology in America. He didn’t have a leg up anywhere, he had to work to get that. To even say that that type of journey has nothing to do with my place and opportunities now is dishonorable.
I don’t think that identity is purely determined by race and if a story wants to focus on other things that are important to the narrative, that’s great. But it’s not harmful to say that ethnicity plays an important part in identity and that that part of the story matters. It’s not fodder for humor, it’s just another unique and beautiful element of humanity. Hopefully, we celebrate that. And we’re also a comedy! We want that comedy to be great and warm in our show, which Randall and I both found important.
How’s Fresh Off the Boat been as your first TV experience, between participating in the first Asian American sitcom in 20 years and the tumultuous process creator Eddie Huang had making it?
Eddie and I are new to network television. Before this show I’d done one guest star on Law & Order when I was in college. The network system is established, so being a newbie in this already established constrained situation, we struggled to find our footing. There can be the danger of gratitude becoming complacency which Eddie wasn’t willing to let happen. I think he had to realize which battles he needed to lose in order to win the greater war of representation. Even for myself as an actor, there were certain parts that I was uncomfortable with in terms of lines I was given.
As someone new to television, I wasn’t sure how openly I was allowed to express my opinion. I certainly didn’t want to tread on the toes of people who have more experience than I but I didn’t want to let that inexperience be why my voice and opinion were not valid. Straddling that line was nerve-racking. I didn’t protest too much, instead I found a way within my character work to make it work.
Then last week I emailed our show runner Nahnatchka Khan about a live reading I gave in episode nine or ten. In the first takes, I was trying hard to be clever and improved these funny lines and then on the last take—the scene was with Hudson (Eddie’s character)—for the first time, I actually heard what Hudson said to me, which was ‘You did good mom,’ and I had a genuine response to it. So I emailed Nahnatchka and wrote ‘When I’m doing that series of takes and I’m trying really hard to be clever and funny, and I know that it came off, but if you don’t mind, could we use the last take because I have plenty of times during the series where I’m clever and funny. The last one was the only take in which I actually heard what Hudson was saying to me.’ She emailed me back like, ‘We did use one of your clever takes and we just re-watched it and you’re right. The last take you did was good and it was lovely for a different reason and if that really means something to you, we’ll change it.’
I was stunned because I thought, ‘She’s been doing this forever but this means something to me. So I’m gonna say it with as much respect as possible and if she says ‘No’ at least I tried.’ But she said yes and added ‘Don’t be afraid to ask things like that, I really want to run this with an open door.’ Because Eddie has been so vocal from the beginning—and in the beginning, maybe they didn’t listen to him as much—I think it’s making the system change a bit. People were quick to stigmatize the conflict that Eddie was expressing but that’s just people trying to do better and figuring out how. And of course he’s gonna be sensitive about the show, it’s about his family.
You spoke earlier of stereotypes and a bit of the Tiger Mom trope arises in your portrayal of Jessica Huang when she begins tutoring her three boys after school. Was that something you had to negotiate?
We have real source material in Jessica Huang. I don’t think I should play against a stereotype just to fight the war against stereotypes. Because I’m playing a role that carries the show and a character that has an arc, occasionally elements of Jessica’s personality do fall into a Tiger Mom stereotype. But I’m playing them because they are true to her, not because I am exploiting a stereotype. I’m never doing that. You have to serve the truth of the character and Jessica Huang does what she digs, whether or not it falls into a stereotype.
Chris Rock said that if Tom Hanks does a project, he’s free to fail, but if Denzel Washington does something, he’s representing the entire black race. How are you handling the pressure of being the first Asian American family on network television in 20 years?
I feel that pressure but it’s not something that’s manifesting itself in my work. Sure, there is a burden of representation but the burden shouldn’t be to represent every Asian ever. The burden is to represent an Asian story with as much truth as possible that it touches something in other people and strikes up a curiosity for an experience that is different than your own. Then that gets the ball rolling for others to make individual stories based in truth, intelligence and compassion. My job is not to give you a watered down McDonald’s version of an Asian family so that your next door neighbor thinks, ‘Oh they’re just like me.’ I’m not like freaking out, haters gonna hate, lovers gonna love. People like authenticity and courage, that’s why people like Eddie. Haters will always hate, they’ll see a beautiful flower and be like ‘Ugh, look at that flower!’
Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8/7 Central on ABC.
Last month, BuzzFeed Video took to Facebook and wrote, “Please reply in the comments with questions you have for Asians-Americans.”
Needless to say, you wouldn’t believe the amount of racism, stupidity and ignorance that went into some of the questions asked. We expected to end up rolling our eyes a bit, but seemed as if people were being extra creative with their racism and ignorance.
This is why we are especially glad that Jenny Yang is confronting these questions head on and responding with wit and humor. So far, there are two “Ask An Asian” videos up. The first, titled simply “Ask An Asian,” tackles 11 questions out of over 7000 submitted. It’s the “Ask An Asian About Food” video where things start to get hilariously bizarre with questions about chopsticks and whether or not Asians can eat peanut butter.
We hope with the popularity of Buzzfeed and YouTube, everyone out there will learn a thing or two. Judging by most of the 7000 questions that were asked, some people certainly need to. We’re definitely glad it’s Jenny Yang who is dropping the knowledge.
Check out the two videos below:
ABC’s new sitcom Fresh Off the Boat — the first Asian-American family sitcom in 20 years — is a loose adaptation of the memoir by restaurateur Eddie Huang, who’s profiled in the new issue of TIME. But while the TV show may draw from Huang’s life story, its real star is actress Constance Wu, who plays Huang’s mother, Jessica — and nearly steals the show with her deft comic delivery, according to TIME television critic James Poniewozik.
TIME spoke to Wu about accents, avoiding stereotypes and the importance of Asian-American visibility on television.
TIME: Given how historic the show is, how do you make sure that Jessica is portrayed responsibly and doesn’t become a stereotype?
Constance Wu: Stereotypes are only dangerous when they are used as the butt of the joke, and our writers have taken great care to never write a single joke that is based upon a stereotype. The fact that this is the first show in 20 years that has Asian leads— carrying a story instead of supporting a white person’s story — takes away that burden of stereotypes. What makes a stereotype harmful is when it’s a one-dimensional person.
I think the reason people have been quick to throw the stereotype criticism on us is because there will always be people who are laughing at the wrong thing. Some people are like, “Oh, stereotypical accent!” An accent is an accent. If there were jokes written about the accent, then that would certainly be harmful. But there aren’t jokes written about it. It’s not even talked about. It’s just a fact of life: immigrants have accents. Making the choice to have that is a way of not watering down the character and making it politically correct. It’s choosing authenticity over safety, and I think that’s bold. The people who are going to laugh at the alleged stereotypes are the same people who are going to laugh at their Chinese waiter in the restaurant next door for very coarse, uneducated reasons.
We’re not writing the show to placate the idiots. So to anybody who accuses us of utilizing stereotypes, I would challenge them to point them out when they’re used as humor tools, because they aren’t. And I would challenge people to see if those alleged “stereotypes” are really there, or if they’re just the truth of the actual Jessica Huang, who is a real living and breathing woman in Orlando.
Did you not want to do an accent originally?
No, that was Randall [Park, who plays Huang’s father]. Randall actually wrote an article in which he was like, “If it were up to me, I’d never have to do an accent.” Not only am I okay with doing an accent, I actually think, as an actor, character work is one of the most fun parts. It’s my privilege to be able to play somebody not myself. I’m an actor who creates characters based in voice, movement, emotional quality, speech.
And you worked with accent coaches, right? I know Eddie has taken issue with the accents and the ways they don’t resemble those of his parents.
We had two different dialect coaches. I break my accent work down like a drama student does, in a phonetic and rhythmic way. It’s very apparent that Randall and I are attempting to do the same accent, but we’re doing it differently — like if I tried to do a New York accent and you tried to do a New York accent. There’s no such thing as like carbon-copy accents. And I hear that, that he doesn’t hear his mother’s accent the way I heard it. Nothing’s perfect on its first try. I can see why that’s annoying to him, but it was the network’s effort to at least try to make it as authentic as possible. Maybe he doesn’t think it helped, or maybe he thinks it hurt, but the awareness and the concern to get it right was there.
One of my favorite scenes is when Jessica’s neighbors try and explain the rules of the Daytona 500 to her. The joke isn’t that she doesn’t understand because she’s an immigrant — it’s that the the familiar things we take for granted aren’t any “stranger” than the things that strike us as foreign.
Totally. I don’t think her foreignness is ever the butt of the joke. She’s aware of her difference, yet she doesn’t think that’s any reason for her to not have a voice. It doesn’t elicit shame in her. She doesn’t become a shrinking violet. And instead of that being something that Asians should be embarrassed of, I think that’s something that we should be proud of — the types of characters who know they don’t speak perfect English, who know they have different customs, who don’t think that that’s any reason for them to not have a voice.
That’s what makes Eddie special: he’s not a placater. He doesn’t always say things that are smooth and easygoing. In fact, he rarely does. But he’s not afraid to say them, and he’s actually acutely aware of the fact that that is what makes him special. I think he gets a lot of that from his mom. She’s not afraid to have her voice. She even said to me at dinner, “My sons always told me that I’m too loud and I need to not be so loud. I told them they just have to get used to it because that’s who I am!” That’s something to be admired.
How much time did you spend with her?
I spent a weekend with her and the whole family, including the other kids, in Orlando. Both [of Eddie’s parents] were nice enough to videotape themselves speaking all of our lines. I phonetically studied it ad nauseum, little mannerisms she had. There was one line in the script that she did not like. She kind of made this stinky face after she said it, and you could tell her opinion of that line. The little mannerisms like that were real gems for me to help build my character. And that line actually did not end up making it into the cut. It was a line about the next door neighbor and her very tight pants, so it wasn’t like an Asian line. It was just commentary on fashion, but she didn’t like it.
What would you tell someone who doesn’t understand why the kind of visibility Fresh Off the Boat offers matters?
I wouldn’t say that just visibility is important. I would say visibility as the stars of a show is important. That says that our stories matter. We’re not here to do the taxes of the white person, or to be the chipper best friend to the white person. It’s important to see Asians in those leading roles because it changes what I’m calling the anglo-heteronormative status of TV. [Imagine] that a producer says, “Guy and girl meet-cute at an ice skating rink. They fall in love, but then she has to move away.” If you say that to anyone, including an Asian person, you picture a white person because that’s what’s become normative to us. If it’s “Asian-American meet in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown,” that’s the only time you picture it. We need to have a picture of Asian Americans. We have a unique experience that has myriad opportunities for storytelling, if other people are willing to tell those stories.
Could you talk about the show’s balance of relatability and specificity?
I think you honor the universality of it by honoring the specificity. There are going to be people who are like, “Wait a second, my family doesn’t do that.” Or, “My Asian supermarket doesn’t do that.” Great! That means we’re actually not doing stereotypes because you’re saying to us that your family doesn’t do that. You can’t please everybody, and you don’t want to, because that’s when things becomes watered-down.
Eddie’s definitely trying to push the show to be more specific. I do think, because it’s network TV and they want to appeal to a broad audience and get their corporate sponsors and all that, they’re seeking a more universal, everybody-is-pleased type of stance. That’s the genesis of the conflict, I think, between Eddie and the network process. I really want to make sure that people understand that I do not stigmatize conflict. I think a lot of people read his [New Yorkmagazine] article and were like, “Ooh, drama on the set!” That should not be seen as bad, or as an indicator of anything remiss. I think it’s actually an indicator of strength and of commitment to excellence.
We shouldn’t be a voice for all Asians. We are such a varied group that there’s no one show that can be like, “This is what Asian America looks like!” But we’re given that burden because we’re so rarely represented. If you see Tina Fey on television, you’re not like, “All white women are like Tina Fey.” Yet people are like, “Oh, Jessica Huang’s not like my mother, but this show is supposed to be about Asians, so shouldn’t she be like my mother?”
I understand the burden, because the history of our representation on TV is very sparse. But we’d be doing a disservice to the people who are worried about that by watering it down instead of trying to be specific. Specificity is what makes good storytelling, and good storytelling is what makes money, and making money is then what encourages new producers to invest in different stories about Asians.
In the more immediate, “How is my next-door neighbor going to see me after this show?” I get the anxiety. But we’re trying to be a little more far-sighted in this mission. We were featured at the SAG Awards in a little diversity clip, which is great, but the fact that in order to feature Asian leads in a montage about diversity, they have to show a clip from a show that hadn’t even aired yet? That just goes to show we don’t have Asian leads! We just don’t. Hopefully this will get the ball rolling in terms of other people telling other stories that are completely different and totally unique.