Looking in the Asian Student Mirror

Asian Students in Media
By Nhuy Hoang

Films, T.V., and other forms of popular media often portray Asian students as awkward, bright, school-oriented scholars with “tiger parents” that not only encourage, but pressure, their children to be the very best. I would say that this stereotype holds true for me based on my personal experience, but I wouldn’t go on to say that it is true for all Asian students. This stereotype does not seem all too bad (what’s wrong with being smart?), but it also depicts Asians in a negative light: as quiet, cold, and unnatural. The purpose of this essay is to get a better understanding of how Asian students are portrayed in media, and why. Also, how realistic are these stereotypes that popular culture has made so universal, and why has the general public accepted these stereotypes as a good representation of such a diverse culture? In order to answer these questions, I will be analyzing three different T.V. shows and films that include an Asian student, whether in a positive or negative light.

The film, “Pitch Perfect”, is an example of a form of popular media that depicts Asian students as an oddity. The film focuses on Beca Mitchell, a young, American student that joins the Barden Bellas, an acapella group at Barden University. One of her fellow club members and classmates, Lilly Onakurama (played by Hana Mae Lee), is an outspoken, awkward Asian student that can barely be heard during auditions and performances. Lilly dresses conservatively compared to the other girls, and she has a haircut that is referred to as the “China doll bangs”. Nisha H., a recent college graduate, says that “it’s not clear how Lilly got the stamp of approval to join the Barden Bellas, [considering that] her defining characteristic is that she cannot speak or sing above a whisper.” Nisha mentions that this characteristic causes her character to continuously be ignored throughout the film, demonstrating how unimportant and unrelatable her identity truly is. This portrayal of Lilly would have been tolerable had the only other Asian in the film been portrayed as a normal person. However, Beca’s roommate, Kimmy Jin (played by Jinhee Joung), was unrelentlessly detached and rude.

When Beca first meets Kimmy, Kimmy is unresponsive and evilly glares at Beca. Beca goes on to question whether she can speak English, and Kimmy, still unresponsive, just keeps on glaring. Most of Kimmy’s screen time is spent giving evil stares, saying blunt and offensive remarks, or doing school work to drone out Beca. She is only smiling and happy when she is surrounded by her Korean friends, which suggests that she only gets along with her race. My first time watching this movie, I didn’t like either Lilly or Kimmy’s characters. It seems like the writers specifically made them the odd characters because they are Asian. Asians are often generalized as introverts, people that survive independently and in solitude. According to the popular online dictionary, Urban Dictionary, introverts are often mistaken to be rude, unfriendly, or even stuck up simply because they tend to keep to themselves. I would agree that this is the vibe I received from both of these students my first time watching the movie. Why, though? I most certainly don’t consider myself to be like Kimmy and Lilly; some days, I like to be alone, but for the most part, I am outgoing, loud and engaging. Lilly is given many odd lines, such as “I set fires to feel joy”, and “I was born with gills like fish”. In one scene, she is seen laying in a pile of puke making a snow angel.

Toward the end of the movie, Beca and her crush are watching a movie when Kimmy returns home with two of her Asian friends. Kimmy says to her friends, “The white girl is back,” right in front of Beca, and then glares at Beca’s friend until he gets up and leaves. This scene alone demonstrates that Kimmy had a specific issue with Beca because she was white. Perhaps it was because of Beca’s initial assumption that Kimmy’s unresponsiveness was due to her not being able to speak English. Lilly and Kimmy are both minor characters in Pitch Perfect, since their actions do not largely affect the outcome of the movie. However, their strikingly odd actions and words don’t go by unnoticed. They are special because they carry with them something that the other students don’t: the Asian culture. They appear to be the only two Asians on the whole Barden University campus. This film makes both of these girls seem like an anomaly, but the truth is, they are perfect examples of how Asian students are portrayed in everyday media: socially awkward, but smart in school.

Glee is an American comedy-drama T.V. show that focuses on the fictitious McKinley High School Glee club, a club where musical students join together and learn to work as a team to win choir competitions. Mike Chang, a Chinese character played by Harry Shum Jr., is one of the first Asians to join the club, along with his Asian girlfriend, Tina Cohen-Chang, played by Jenna Ushkowitz.

In the 47th episode of the show, Mike receives an A- on a chemistry test, and his dad, enraged yet worried that his son will not be able to attend Harvard, pushes his son to give up the glee club, and his girlfriend, to focus on his studies. Mike promises to change his habits, but eventually decides to follow his dreams and try out for the main role in the school performance of West Side Story. When confronted, Mike admits to his mother that his real passion is being a dancer, not a doctor. Surprisingly, she reveals she also gave up dreams of becoming a dancer, and that she does not want the same fate for her son. Much like Lilly and Kimmy, Mike and Tina are both minor Asian characters, placed in a school setting where white people are the majority. Mike is portrayed as your typical, smart Asian student, whose parents shun him for receiving a grade that, I think, any hard-working student would be satisfied with. The fact that the episode was titled, “Asian F” goes to show that according to popular culture, only Asians have these kinds of standards for their children. This episode also sheds light on one of the few things that push most Asian students to do and be their very best in school: their parents. Both of Mike’s parents want him to become a doctor – a very demanding, but lucrative, career. His father scolded and lectured him for choosing the arts over chemistry, and his mother openly supported his father in the beginning. You can only imagine how stressful it is for a student like Mike, who’s already managing clubs, sports, and a girlfriend, to handle his parent’s demands to be perfect – especially when those demands are not even in sync with his desires. According to Urbandictionary, a tiger parent is one that is “overly strict with [their] child in order to foster an academically competitive spirit”. Usually, this form of parenting is used with the intention of pushing a child toward financially successful careers, but can often result in the child “feeling emotionally unfulfilled and/or socially inept” (Urbandictionary). Mike is not close to his dad, and this stems from his father’s “tough love” style of parenting. His mother, on the other hand, is kind and forgiving, and this enables Mike to open up to her at the end of the episode about his dreams. The most interesting part of this episode was not the way that Mike Chang was depicted as your stereotypical Asian, but rather the fact that his mother was encouraging and open to him choosing his own destiny, straying from how society says she’s supposed to be. It’s interesting to see how Mike is your typical Asian student, but his mom is not your typical Asian “tiger” parent.

Unlike Lilly and Kimmy from “Pitch Perfect”, and Mike and Tina from “Glee”, London Tipton from the sitcom, “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”, does not follow the stereotypical Asian guidelines. London, played by Brenda Song, is portrayed as ditzy and often times, careless. London is outgoing and full of energy, unlike our Asian characters from Glee and Pitch Perfect. London comes from an unstable family history: her father has remarried dozens of times and lacks an emotional presence in her life, while the only thing that London knows about her mother is her Thai origin. London, although extremely privileged and heir to the Tipton corporate empire, is unhappy because she has never had an adult role model in her life. She reveals to her best friend, Maddie Fitzpatrick, that she copes with the emptiness by buying and wearing designer clothing. Just like Mike’s mom, London’s parents are extremely lenient, and allow London to do whatever she wants. Since London does not have the typical Asian “tiger” parents, or any other sort of pressure pushing her to excel in school (because she is already so rich), she doesn’t take her education seriously. London enrolls at Maddie’s Catholic school, and is eventually expelled for not attending her classes. She attends Cheevers High School, and then, at her father’s discretion, is moved to Seven Seas High, a high school program on a ship, in order to prevent her escaping to another place. Despite all of these efforts toward a good education, London gets by in school by having Maddie do all her work for her. She does terrible in school, she is overall considered to be “stupid”, and she is overly privileged, leading to her lack of concern for her education. This goes against the common stereotype that Asians are smart and tend to do well in school. Contrastingly, Maddie is a middle-class, blonde-hair, American girl, played by Ashley Tisdale. Maddie is extremely logical and smart, and is often seen puzzled by London’s idiocy. The most common “blonde” stereotype is that blondes are stupid. However, in this popular T.V. series, the Asian is stupid and the blonde is smart. This causes me to believe that the writers did this on purpose with the intention of erasing the invisible lines of race separation, because it defies not only Asian stereotypes, but blonde stereotypes as well. It is important to understand that anyone of any race or color could face what London faces, and in this show, her being Asian has no impact on the outcomes of her decisions. Since the show aired in 2005, London Tipton has appeared on every single episode. The fact that London is a major character alone differentiates her from the usual depiction of Asian students in popular media. Although the main setting of this show is in a hotel rather than a school, the same stereotypical theme is present: Asians tend to be weird, quiet and smart, and they have tiger parents that push them to do well in school. London is loud and normal, but stupid, and this is mainly attributable to the lack of discipline she’s received from her parents.

It is clear that popular culture depicts Asian American students and their culture in a variety of ways. I grew up with the mentality that I had to be the best at everything I did, especially in school. I would say that this was due to the amount of pressure that my parents placed on me at a young age, and that this pressure has only grown as I got older. However, although I fit in with the stereotypes outlined in this essay, I don’t condone their excessive use to mock the Asian community. Usually, when these stereotypes are subtly incorporated into storylines and plots, they’re meant to be comical. The way that Asians are mocked in media is supposed to be satirical, and is expected to be something that everyone laughs at, and then brushes off. For example, when Peter Griffin, the main character of “Family Guy”, pulls out an Asian student instead of a calculator for his SATs, most people laughed for a minute, and then carried on with their lives.

Does this scene necessarily put down the Asian race? I wouldn’t say so. Many would argue that this is a compliment, and should be taken as such (there’s nothing wrong with being considered smart!). But what about all the Asian students out there who don’t think they have brains like calculators? What about all the Asian students that love dancing, like Mike Chang, or even shopping, like London Tipton? Should they be okay with a stereotype that basically says they must be smart to fit in? How about a stereotype that says Asian students must be quiet and strange to be considered normal? I don’t think so, and I believe that popular media needs to take more steps toward a less bias and discriminating storyline for its Asian characters. Regardless of whether or not these stereotypes pertain to them, or whether or not they find these stereotypes offensive, Asian students must stop accepting these as the norm in order to promote a change in the direction of popular culture.

Works Cited:

H, Nisha. “Pitch Perfect and its Far-From-Perfect Portrayal of Asian American Women.”Racialicious the Intersection of Race and Pop Culture. N.p., 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.

Murphy, Ryan, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan. “Asian F.” Glee. Fox. 19 Mar. 2009. Television.

Pitch Perfect. Dir. Jason Moore. Perf. Anna Kendrick. 2012. Film.

Kallis, Danny, and Jim Geoghan. Suite Life of Zack and Cody. ABC Kids. 18 Mar. 2005. Television.

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2 thoughts on “Looking in the Asian Student Mirror

  1. hnhuy,
    I really like this essay you have written. I have have certainly witnessed social media portraying asian students, many times, as the smartest ones in the class. As if there is some magic at hand that is holding the non-asian students back from getting the same, assumed, grades. Or even worse, the asian student may get horrible grades and regardless, everyone figures they aced the test and therefore undoubtably adds pressure to the student which can create confidence issues for the future. You have done a great job of expressing your feelings through your personal experiences and I am even more aware of this issue than ever before. What a great thing to write about just for the simple fact that we as humans should never judge someone until we have gotten to know them. Sincerely, “the dumb white guy who eats potatoes all day and gets bad grades”…………………:-) Great job!

  2. tadinportland,

    Thank you! I have definitely experienced getting bad grades and having everyone respond with optimism, believing that I would still do well in the future. It definitely ads pressure. I agree that humans should not judge each other until we get to know each other. Everyone has their own story. If you use any sort of social media, you should know who Humans of New York (HONY) is. If you don’t, I recommend going to your search engine and searching it up right now. HONY really gives you perspective about what it’s like to be, well, human. I appreciate all your kind words. 🙂

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