A-Z-N on the Big Screen

I identify as an Asian American, but specifically, I am a Cambodian American. Being an Asian American in the popular culture, I have experienced a lot stereotype towards me. In school environment, people view Asian American as the smart ones, bookworms, or even nerds. Growing up, some of the popular culture artifacts were Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Lee, and other Chinese Kung-Fu Masters (they are the best), which ironically aren’t even Cambodian influences. This shows that when people think of Asia, they think of China or Japan and more recently Korea, which do not include other Asian countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Therefore, when people hear that I am Asian, they assume that I know Chinese and that I’m a part of the Chinese culture, or other mainstream Asian cultures. Even in the contemporary media, it is mainly Chinese characters that take place in TV shows and movies such as 21 and Over, the television show Fresh off the Boat, and Asian F, an episode from Glee.

‘Asian F’ was episode from Glee, during season three, and aired in 2011. Although the title hints that it will be about an Asian-American character on the show (there are only two characters), the show only highlights Mike Chang’s storyline for a few minutes at a time, focusing more on Mercedes’ ‘breakout’ from the Glee club. Mike Chang received an A minus on his chemistry test and his father was disappointed, and wanted to have Mike tested for drugs. He believed that Mike’s girlfriend and dancing was the cause for his grade decline. Mike has to choose between auditioning for a role in the school play, or attending a Chemistry tutoring session. In the end, his mother tells him that she just wants him to be happy. She came to America to give him the best opportunities, but to also make sure that he is happy with his life.

It’s interesting, because it reveals the culture of Asian-American families, even though it is exaggerated that his father did not like the fact that he had an A minus. In a real life family, the Asian parents would be disappointed if their child goes a B instead of an A. They place such high values on grades, and there are reasons why. In Asian culture, passing exams, and being educated is the key to becoming successful. If their child is successful, then they don’t have to worry about their kids making it in the world. The Asian-American kids don’t want to get good grades to make themselves feel good, or out of fear. They want to get good grades, because it will make their parents proud. Education is highly valued, and it is believed that if we praise someone too much, they will stop trying and become complacent. The reason why our parents are so hard on us, and rarely tell us that they are proud of us, is because they want their children to constantly strive for better.

It is intense to know that there are student out there, who resorts to drugs in order to perform better. 21 & Over is a movie is about Jeff Chang turning 21, and celebrating it with his friends. At the beginning of the movie he used drugs in order to keep up with his academic life. As a result, he ended up overdosing and almost killed himself in the process. The strange part is that he does not like to do any of it. He’s only doing it, so he can please his dad. Jeff had to live through huge expectations his father set for him. Even though Jeff wants to do something else, his father’s expectations for him held him back from doing what he love to do, which is music.

This shows how pressured Asian-American students can feel during their years in education. It can become extreme to a point where they will take drugs, but rarely will it go that far.

Fresh off the Boat is a television show based off of Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh off the Boat. It is centered on his family back in the 1990s, transitioning from a dominant Chinese area in D.C, to a white-dominant neighborhood in Florida. His family is essentially starting off ‘fresh’, and he does not encounter a lot of students of his own race. Throughout the show, his parents are also learning how to adapt to this ‘foreign’ place, and still be successful, while maintaining their own Chinese identity and culture.

In order to fit into other culture, he decided to ignore his own. One of the first things that administrators at his school did was that they were overly cautious of his identity – meaning that they did not want to offend him, but they were also unsure with how to approach it. For example, when a new student arrived, the student was clearly Chinese (although he was adopted by White, Jewish parents), and Eddie was assigned to take the student around. When Eddie asked why he was being forced to do this, the principal responded that he felt like Eddie could understand the student’s “…current situation”, and Eddie responded bluntly, “It’s because I’m Chinese, isn’t it?” The principal would stammer and deny the assumption.

Students in Eddie’s class would tell him that his Chinese food smelled weird, leading Eddie to beg his mother to take him to a ‘white’ supermarket, and she would ask why he wants to be so ‘American.’ At one point, a white kid called Eddie a ‘chink’, which he took offensively and responded physically. Eddie was taken to the principal’s office, while the white kid was not, and his parents questioned why the other child was not there, when that kid was the one that called Eddie a derogatory term. I have also been called ‘chink’ or ‘gook’ before. What was ridiculous was that ‘gook’ was a derogatory term for Chinese and Vietnamese people, and I’m Cambodian. They did not even bother to insult me correctly. They just assumed that I was Chinese. I didn’t respond to it the same way Eddie did, but I did walk away.

This show is incredibly relatable to my life, because when I came over with my family from Cambodia to the States, we also had to adapt to the dominant culture, while maintaining our Cambodian culture. In fact, Eddie was a chubby Asian kid who wore baggy clothes, and listened to hip-hop music, and I was the exact same way. My parents hated that I listened to hip-hop and kids would always look at me weird when I ate Cambodian food at school. Fresh off the Boat shows an Asian-American childhood that is closer to reality, than any other show could do. It touches on more than just academics, but all aspects of Asian-American life, from having cultural pride, to trying to explain to our parents that ‘this is what all the white kids are doing.’

In my secondary sources, Eddie wrote an article responding to how the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) approached his memoir in a television format. He talked about how many people praised him for ‘putting Asians on TV.” There was a strong desire to have a full-Asian cast, and it would be the first time since Margaret Cho’s ‘All-American Girl’ television show. Eddie was extremely frustrated though, because the characters became ambiguous, and rather than having a scene where Eddie had to kneel in the driveway with a bucket of rice on top of his head, they were placing the show on a ‘Trojan’s horse,’ to make the show relatable and accessible to the American public. He felt like ABC was destroying his memoir, and turning it into a ‘pasteurized’ version of his work. However, after watching the first couple of episodes, he realized the profound mark that he made. The show had to be placed in a format that the public could understand, in order for the show to even make it on air, and it was all worth it, because the moment the white kid called Eddie a chink, it brought a lot more to the table in those three minutes, then not having the show on air at all. It was the small moments that were making an impact on American television.

While it is nice to see portrayals of Asian-Americans in shows such as Glee or a popular cult film like 21 and Over, the portrayal of Asians are shallow and they only focus on one aspect of Asian-American life: academics. People strongly believe that education is the number one important thing in an Asian-American life, and while this is very true, it is also not the whole truth. Asian-American families are more than just education. It’s about culture, family and being in a community. A special characteristic of the Cambodian/Asian language is that it does not contain the word “I” or “you.” Before a Cambodian person can talk to someone, we have to establish our relationship with them. We call them mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandparent, older or younger brother or sister, niece or nephew. This means that we see ourselves not as “I,” but as niece, nephew, grandchild, older or younger brother or sister, daughter, son, uncle, or aunt. No one is a stranger; everyone we meet is addressed as a family member. Every person is a part of the larger community, and the community exists in us. What all of these portrayals have in common is a sense of family. While Asian F and 21 and Over has superficial portrayals, it still speaks to deep sense of family that we have as Asian-Americans. We absolutely, one hundred percent care about our family, especially our parents, who have done so much for us, by just coming to this country. Our strong respect for them is the root of all the stereotypes that emerged. We work to make our parents proud.

Work Cited

Fresh Off the Boat [Motion picture on DVD]. (2015). United States: 20th Television.

Glee “Asian F” Episode: Truth or Stereotype? (2011, October 5). Retrieved June 2, 2015, from http://www.8asians.com/2011/10/05/glee-asian-f-episode-truth-or-stereotype/

Glee [Motion picture on DVD]. (2011). United States: 20th Television.

Huang, E. (2015, February 4). Network TV Ate My Life: Eddie Huang on Watching His Memoir Become a Sitcom. Retrieved June 2, 2015, from http://www.vulture.com/2015/01/eddie-huang-fresh-off-the-boat-abc.html

21 & Over [Motion picture on DVD]. (2013). United State: Relativity Media.

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About ovanndy

I am Vanndy. I am a pre-med student and I'm a part of Cambodian Student Association. I like long walks in the park blocks and I like to breakdance, eat and take pictures of buildings.