It had never occurred to me that Asian-American heroes might exist
March 31, 2016 7:52 AM   Subscribe

The first time I saw her she wasn’t even skating. I was flipping through the handful of channels our TV could pick up with its rabbit-ear antenna when I glimpsed her waving from the tallest podium at the 1991 World Figure Skating Championships, dazzling in rhinestone-studded hot magenta, with her high hair-sprayed bangs and million-watt smile. She’s Asian, I thought. There’s an Asian girl on television, and everyone is cheering for her. - What I Learned From Kristi Yamaguchi by Nicole Chung
posted by nadawi (21 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Asian friends have also said they felt similarly thrilled seeing tennis player Michael Chang play back in the very late 80's/early 90's. Youngest player at the time to win a Grand Slam.
"Representation, when you finally get it, can be life-changing, allowing you to imagine possibilities you never entertained before. If you’re seen as irrelevant, on the other hand, or rarely seen at all — if your identity is reduced time and again to a slickly packaged product or the same tired jokes and stereotypes — it can be harder to believe in your own agency and intrinsic worth."
African-Americans went through something similar with baseball and football players last century. I wonder if there's a sociological term for the positive effect of seeing a fellow minority excel at something (in this case, sports) which has previously only been a venue for others. Seeing them overcome opposition or odds and turn into a representative for people just like them.

This was a great essay, thank you for posting it.
posted by zarq at 8:07 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]




Speaking of Asian figure skaters, don't forget all the "American beats Kwan!" bullshit.

Anyway this is why my entire family stuck with Margaret Cho's All-American Girl until the bitter end, even though in retrospect the show sucked. A family sitcom starring people who looked like us? Hell yes.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 8:11 AM on March 31, 2016 [12 favorites]


I was a bit too young for Yamaguchi mania, but Michelle Kwan was like a god to me as a kid skater. I walked past her on the street once and i was so overcome by emotion that I couldn't say or do anything. I'm certain seeing Kwan, Yamaguchi, Surya Bonaly, and the Williams sisters excel as strong, athletic champions had a huge impression on me as a little white girl.

now I gotta go watch the "Fields of Gold" video again
posted by sallybrown at 8:39 AM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]




It bothers me that "Nobody's Asian in the Movies" comes from a Joss Whedon project, of all things. I suppose he got better with Agents of SHIELD, though, although that might have been more Maurissa and Jed.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 9:03 AM on March 31, 2016 [1 favorite]


We should all have more heroes from whom to choose.

Yes. I don't feel like I did too badly with finding female heroes as a kid (as a white person), but I'm on a mission to make sure that my 14-month-old niece has as many options as I can find. Mainstream pop culture is better, but still has a long way to go -- but at least the internet makes finding interesting kids' books easier, and I can't wait to introduce her to Studio Ghibli.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:11 AM on March 31, 2016


This is great, thank you!

...my friend reminisced with me, and then added: “It is kind of sad that we all have the same youthful touchstones.” From Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan to Claudia Kishi and the Yellow Power Ranger...

Out of many good lines, this jumped out at me the most. I have never met Nicole Chung (or her Malaysian Chinese American friend who she quotes), share no ethnicities with either of them, and yet this is a list of my childhood heroes. When people question the classification "Asian American" because Koreans are different from Filipinos are different from Japanese, I want to point to stuff like this, explain why I relate so much more to Asian Americans of any ethnicity than I do to Japanese nationals.

That Newsweek article she quotes is really jaw-dropping. I know it is from 1992 but I can't get over the fact that it was written in my lifetime.
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:31 AM on March 31, 2016 [22 favorites]


kristi yamaguchi tweeted: "Humbled beyond words @nicole_soojung . It's now come full circle with you inspiring others. Thank you."

how utterly delightful.
posted by nadawi at 10:53 AM on March 31, 2016 [31 favorites]


Throughout my childhood, well-meaning adults told me that my race and my heritage weren’t supposed to matter. Yet claims of “colorblindness” and melting-pot platitudes did not stop people from complimenting my English or asking where my parents had gotten me

Please for the love of god, do NOT compliment someone on their English, or ask where they learned English if they don't volunteer that information. That shit stings.
posted by cynical pinnacle at 11:52 AM on March 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


I was a 7-year old Japanese-American girl from California at Kristi Yamaguchi's height, and it definitely left an impression. There was SO MUCH excitement within my family at her success, and it was impossible to not get caught up in it. But at the same time, I remember feeling really anxious when my parents started talking about enrolling me in skating classes, since I was (and remain) hopelessly uncoordinated and non-athletic.

Today, it makes me a little sad to realize that I too share the list singled out in sunset in snow country's comment above. It also makes me sad to realize that almost all the high-profile Asian-American women and girls I grew up with were celebrated because of their athleticism or martial arts prowess, with as much or more attention given to their looks as to their accomplishments.
posted by Diagonalize at 3:02 PM on March 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


I suppose I was fortunate enough to be influenced by Asia-specific entertainment during my formative years in Vietnam and the first few years in America. I grew up aspiring to be heroic like Andy Lau, Felix Wong, and Tony Leung. When I grew out of Hong Kong serials, it was then I started noticing the lack of Asian American heroes I could identify with. I was pretty excited when the new Black Ranger was Asian, but disappointed that there was a definite quota, so there was still the only one. Even though I eventually got used to the lack of Asian representation in American media, or the poor portrayal of existing ones, it still irks me when I think about it.

As such, one of the reasons I love Into The Badlands is because it stars an Asian guy and he has a non-Asian girlfriend. I really can't think of another show or film that features this just so matter-of-factly, without it being a plot point. Also, I will never get over the fact that Jet Li never got to kiss Aaliyah.
posted by numaner at 4:07 PM on March 31, 2016


The Superman exists, and he is Asian-American.

Just Superman, actually. The writer made the point that Chinese has no articles.
posted by qcubed at 4:11 PM on March 31, 2016


When people question the classification "Asian American" because Koreans are different from Filipinos are different from Japanese, I want to point to stuff like this, explain why I relate so much more to Asian Americans of any ethnicity than I do to Japanese nationals.

This subject comes up a lot when talking with many of my Asian-American friends, and I agree with you. I really think there is a specifically Asian-American culture that is distinct from various Asian immigrant subcultures, and in fact one of its hallmarks is a kind of alienation from both popular American culture and from the culture of one's preceding generations.
posted by Errant at 4:17 PM on March 31, 2016 [7 favorites]


I was pretty excited when the new Black Ranger was Asian, but disappointed that there was a definite quota, so there was still the only one.

FTR, Naomi Scott, who's playing the Pink Ranger, is Indian on her mom's side. Of course South Asia isn't interchangeable with East Asia, but... there are multiple Asians!

That said, did you follow all the controversy over casting Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa? Even a lot of people normally opposed to whitewashing were handwaving this, saying that it was okay because the studio made the Rangers more diverse than the original, so what was wrong with a little reverse whitewashing? What, would it have killed white people to be left out of something for once? (If the furor over the Hamilton casting call is any indication, yes.) And they weren't even left out entirely! But I suppose TPTB couldn't have three unrelated Asian characters in a movie. And I use "unrelated" pointedly because I remember all of the early speculation that Melinda May and Skye had to be related on Agents of SHIELD; people couldn't fathom two Asian leads on a show if they weren't related to each other.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 4:31 PM on March 31, 2016 [4 favorites]


Thinking about it, I did completely miss a lot of these touchstones; almost my heroes growing up were dead white guys or not quite human. The one exception, who never really cracked the top 10, was Sulu--and in my cloistered raising, neither mom nor I knew how ironic her choice of the Star Trek actor biographies would be. Really, the only 'living' character with golden skin I admired during those years was Data (also ironic because my admiration of him wasn't too different from the kid's worship of him in the S05E11 episode Hero Worship). Funny enough, during the DS9 years it was Kira Nerys, with her surname/given name in the same pattern as East Asian names, with the history of Bajor and Cardassia entwined and seemingly taken directly from Korea and Japan. The waste of Ensign Kim (Southern US-born Korean-American (but portrayed by a Chinese-American)) was a bitter pill.

Classic standbys like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan were unknown to me, though my non-Asian friends were very familiar; their movies weren't 'educational' enough--not that Star Trek was, it was just easier to sneak by.

For me it was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that sorta woke everything up. For once, heroes that looked like me, that had the full range of characterization, in a fantastical world that wasn't European-inspired... and one that everyone, not just other Asians, liked and appreciated.

Yeah, representation matters. I can't imagine what my later realizations would have been like without Sulu/Takei; or the examples in CTHD that showed that we're just as human, capable of staggering feats and enormous vulnerabilities. If the next few generations can see more people, famous or fictional while real, with eyes like theirs? Maybe their growth and identities will be that much easier.
posted by qcubed at 4:59 PM on March 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


Although I never really lacked for role models who looked like me, I do remember feeling a little frisson of excitement when a character or person in popular culture was Jewish and was not the focus of a story about the Holocaust or a broad ethnic joke.

My best friend in my first couple of years of school was Vietnamese, and I had just started picking up on the fact that being Jewish was a thing that was different. We were OBSESSED with Ghostwriter, and would consistently play that on the bus on the way to and from school. It only strikes me now as kind of revolutionary that we were both able to pretend to be main characters who were interesting, had traits beyond their race, and happened to look like us and share our ethnicities.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:22 PM on March 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


".....our attachment to the same smattering of representatives we all treasured as children feels akin to what some Asian-Americans experienced a few years ago at the height of Linsanity, the outpouring for the basketball player Jeremy Lin."

Loved basketball growing up. Like most kids, I daydreamed about being a basketball star, but my dreams involved me being either black or white instead of being Filipino. Linsanity happened in my early 20s, and it wasn't until then that I started daydreaming about being a Filipino American basketball star.
posted by Become A Silhouette at 6:54 PM on March 31, 2016 [5 favorites]


FTR, Naomi Scott, who's playing the Pink Ranger, is Indian on her mom's side. Of course South Asia isn't interchangeable with East Asia, but... there are multiple Asians!

That said, did you follow all the controversy over casting Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa?


Oh I should clarify, I was talking about Johnny Yong Bosch (who I just realized is only half Korean). He was possibly the first Asian male I saw on TV growing up in America. I did recently tuned into a random episode of the current generation of Power Rangers on one of the kids channel, and I did notice the group is really diverse; There was one noticeably white, two who are mixed race, one black, and one Asian. It was kind of refreshing.

I only remembered the news about that casting, and I was excited because I adore Elizabeth Banks. I didn't hear the controversy about the white washing, but I'm not surprised, and I wish Banks was a woman of color, but if it has to be a white actress, at least she'll bring the great aplomb the role needs. (Now, should we address how they're going to pass a Mexican actress off as a Chinese girl?)
posted by numaner at 2:22 PM on April 1, 2016


Loved basketball growing up. Like most kids, I daydreamed about being a basketball star, but my dreams involved me being either black or white instead of being Filipino. Linsanity happened in my early 20s, and it wasn't until then that I started daydreaming about being a Filipino American basketball star.

I loved playing basketball growing up too! Before Lin came around the only one I knew off was Yao Ming, and he was freakishly tall (for any race, not just Asians). If Linsanity happened while I was still in middle and high school, I might have been motivated to keep up with the sport more.
posted by numaner at 2:26 PM on April 1, 2016


i remember feeling that way seeing jackie chan in cannonball run! (and then later toshiro mifune in yojimbo/sanjuro and then of course chow yun-fat in hardboiled ;)

but i guess those were just asian males... for asian female role models besides the yellow ranger there's michelle yeoh! (and ching shih ;)
posted by kliuless at 8:20 AM on April 9, 2016


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