Written for Daily Hive by Nikki Celis
When it comes to Asian representation on television and movies—being as non-cynical as I can be—I can truthfully say that television and movies have come a “long” way. In a sense. Lucky for us that things seem to be more in our favour due to the current—and contested—progressive consciousness within the Canadian and American social climate.
In this broad, contemporary life, as an Asian Canadian part of an ever diverse cultural mosaic, no longer do we have to deal with longstanding Hollywood stereotypes: one being the idiotic goofballs such as the late yellow-faced Mickey Rooney’s I.Y. Yunioshi (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) or Gedde Watanabe’s perverse Long Duk Dong (Sixteen Candles). Oh wait, we still have 2 Broke Girls’ Han Lee (Matthew Moy).
We can also ignore the continued emasculation of Asian men and the ignorant perception that, among all people of colour, Asians are the safest demographic to be the butt of the joke.
Why? Because in 2015 had the bamboo ceiling raised with markedly successful television shows such as Aziz Ansari’s affable Master of None, Eddie Huang’s arguably safe sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, and Ken Jeong’s laughably bad Dr Ken.
Canada too has recently provided audiences with a ground-breaking “we’ve never cast so many Asians” television sitcom, Kim’s Convenience. The show, based on Ins Choi’s award-winning play, follows a multi-generational Korean family as they go about their lives in Toronto. With it, much of the interaction takes place at the family’s convenience store and above, where they live.
And while the show’s portrayal of the immigrant experience and the disconnect shared between differing generational social experiences is excellent, and I would without a doubt recommend this to my peers, I—unfortunately—find myself to be part of a minority that doesn’t strongly identify with what’s presented by Kim’s Convenience and its upcoming second season.
That isn’t to say that the show isn’t funny. Nor am I discrediting the merit of what the show brings to the Canadian audience (and to those who identify with it). Simply put, I find myself in a similar boat as Eddie Huang, who remarked about his show on Twitter in 2015:
— Eddie Huang (@MrEddieHuang) April 8, 2015
Try as I might, any reflection that I’m apparently supposed to identify with is muddled and distorted.
The reasons why are hard to put down. Perhaps it has something to do with Kevin White (Corner Gas) sharing writing credits, possibly watering down what’s presented on screen? Or maybe it’s the fact that I grew up around a lot of white people? It could be that, as with most Asians’ cast in television and movies, they’re mostly of a East-Asian background. (Other shows and films also employ South, or sometimes West-Asians, but yet for some reason or another intercardinal groups are sparingly presented on screen).
It’s likely that many non Asians will have a hard time understanding this particular sentiment, but as a South-east Asian, specifically as a Filipino, I simply don’t feel properly represented. Sure, we were pirates in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou but, really, other than caricatures, there’s nothing much when it comes to actual representation. And it’s something that I’m used to.
Most of what you see on TV isn’t us, and while the value of having shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None, and Kim’s Convenience are integral to having such tolerance to be intrinsically embedded into the Western consciousness, it still doesn’t cut it.
Put simply, and rather obviously: a Chinese person, or family, aside from a portion of one’s genetics, has literally nothing in common with someone of an Indonesian background. Just like the Japanese are different from Laotians. Not only does it ignore the history and the differing struggles that each group faces, it also throws away each group’s wholly separate, unique identity.
While yes, themes of diaspora, community, and belongingness are universal ideas that are often explored—celebrating the simplification and overgeneralization of the Asian identity through entertainment and media actually does a disservice to those who do seek proper representation.
What does it mean to come from poverty, a family of seven, all alone in the world with much of his or her income from their full-time job in the service industry going to their family back home?
What does it feel like to grow up in a minority-majority community where classism categorized by racial identity among Asians themselves is prevalent? Then again, these are heavy-handed topics that might not go well within a sitcom, where simpler, more general issues are easier to digest by a wide audience.
So with what we have now, if you tell me that it shouldn’t be too difficult to find common ground, I can tell you that with whatever empathy that I may have, much of it feels forced. Like many things, it’s like I just have to settle with the supposed interchangeability, as is the current norm. It’s as if I should compel myself to identify with something that isn’t representative of my identity, and be okay with it.
And, while it does sound like I’m just rubbing more salt in my own wound, I do in fact remain hopeful that these shows will further pave way for more representation. However, the fact that it’s considered ground-breaking to have shows like these in 2017 is simply unacceptable when it should’ve happened so long ago. What exists now are just steps, not solutions.