21 Jan 2021

On Asian American Identity

*A guest essay by Sherwin Wu

Every year my high school had a “Career Day” for the senior class, where alumni of years past would come in and talk about their careers. My senior year, I went to the session held by a University of Michigan engineering professor – a Dr. Chen – where he talked about a life in academia. It wasn’t hard for me to see myself in him. He had walked the same halls as me, he had taken the same classes as me, and he looked like me. I had always built my own identity around my love of math and science, but seeing someone so close to me helped affirm my half-baked high school self-image. He gave me a story – his story – to use to shape my own identity.

[Jia Tolentino] puts it more eloquently, describing “identity [as] not something that we innately possess and reveal, but something we understand through narratives provided to us by others.” Identities aren’t these immutable, incorruptible objects waiting to be discovered – but are actually something malleable and something to be interpreted, with external stories guiding our process of doing so. And there are no shortage of external narratives for our identity: parents, religion, and peers all provide their own views on which way our identity can be pulled. 

But I contend that the most powerful narratives of all are not the ones right next to us, but rather the ones that are told to the masses – the movies & TV shows, the sports storylines, the news headlines. These histories engrain themself into our social fabric, being retold over and over again. They permeate our conversations, our mindshare, and our screens. They become topics of conversation at work, at school, and online. As a result, they end up playing one of the most significant voices in shaping our identities. 

Identities are important because they make it easier or harder for us to carve paths for ourselves. We like to believe that we have full control over what decisions we make – what career paths we take or what roles we step into. But our internal identities [tilt the floor] so that going against our identity takes significantly more effort. It’s not impossible for someone who has built their identity around strong STEM abilities to go into Hollywood as a screenplay writer, but it’s pretty damn hard. Conversely, it’s not impossible for someone who has built an identity as an NFL lineman to become a mathematician, but it’s near impossible (and [news-worthy] when it does happen!). The end result is an entire demographic that moves – in aggregate – to the identities assigned to them by popular narratives.

With this in mind, it’s informative to look at what kind of narratives have been shaping the identities of Asian Americans. What kind of narratives do Asian Americans have to use in shaping and guiding their own identities? What did I have in guiding my own identity growing up?

It’s not hard to see where Asian Americans fit into the popular landscape. They were the perpetual side character, where their ethnicity served as the butt of a joke (as in [The Big Short], [Pineapple Express,] [The Hangover]) or as a stereotypical “[Mathlete]” or a [quirky backstory-filler]. Outside of cinema, there were almost no Asian professional athlete superstars in the 2000s (save for [one] or [two]). Looking at politics or the broader news cycle showed an even more barren landscape. And all the previous examples were limited to Asian American men. The comedic, quirky, non-masculine persona displayed in American media assigned a very specific narrative to Asian American men – told over and over again and ingrained into the Asian American male identity. But there was a narrative for Asian American women too – they were [literal geishas] or [hypersexual lawyers]. Always eschewed from the limelight and assigned a narrow narrative, Asian American men and women had a shocking lack of direct narratives to draw from in both the real world and fiction.

As a result, Asian Americans (and other minorities) can only relate with general narratives in an incredibly asymmetric way. I could see myself in a Ted Mosby or Jim Halpert, piecing together parts of their stories into my identity, but the Teds and Jims of the world would certainly be hard pressed to ever see themselves in me. I had to be selective in how I could relate to them, because they weren’t like me, it was just that parts of them resonated with me. To find narratives without this asymmetry, I had to look to the side characters who were quietly carving out a life outside of the limelight.

With a dearth of Asians in the traditional American social fabric, it shouldn’t be surprising then to observe other forms of media and entertainment fill the void. The Korean Wave (with k-pop & k-dramas), Japanese culture (with anime), and esports (with League of Legends and Dota) are but three forms that have taken advantage of the internet to reach a population of narrative-starved Asian Americans. They provide the stories that Asian Americans can fully embrace where traditional American media failed them. They provided examples of people who look just like them being [romantic leads], [superstars], [villains], [MVPs], and even [superheroes]. These forms of media allowed Asian Americans to explore a much more holistic set of narratives – ones in which they were the main characters (who were actually cool!) and through which they could develop an identity of their own.

Posted on January 21, in Life

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