Asian Portrayals in Pop Culture

Han Nguyen

Coming to the United States in 2009, it was my first time encountering the Asian stereotypes. For the 12 years living in Asia, I never heard such stereotypes that defined an Asian person as being smart, quiet, good at martial arts, etc. I was surprised and shocked by these stereotypes that people were throwing at me in America. When people struggled in math, they came searching for me, assuming that I had the answers because of what my ethnicity. However, I tried to explain to people that the stereotype of being Asians being smart wasn’t true and it didn’t apply to me. It was through my prior education over in Vietnam that taught me how to solve for the answer. I do not blame people for labeling me under such stereotypes but I do have reasons to blame the media in pop culture for having bias stereotypes and misinformation about Asian people. I believe that the media looks at Asian people in just one dimension and based their assumption for the whole race. I will be analyzing different TV shows and trends to go more in depth about the issue of Asian portrayal in media, to argue against the false portrayals that the media gives and to show the more realistic sides of Asian that are rarely shown.

Yellow-face is a trend of theatrical make-up to transform White performers into looking “Asian”. This trend started in 1767 when Arthur Murphy’s The Orphan of China was presented in Philadelphia and still continues until today. Yellow-face has been used in numerous movies and shows such as Madame Butterfly, The Forbidden City, Balls of Fury, etc. The deep meaning behind Yellow-face isn’t about white people wearing make up to look Asian but it is about the bias against hiring real Asians to play Asian roles. It is shown by white producers, directors, and others who control the depiction of Asians in popular culture through casting decisions and the propagation of racist Asian stereotypes. It shows how hard it is to get into the media industry when your ethnicity is Asian. This identity limits chances for people to get the roles that are supposed to be for them.

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This Youtube video below is made by Buzzfeed on how Asians feels or reacts to Yellowface.

Another issue that we have with Yellow-face is how the make-up portrays Asian. The make-up always makes the actors have the alien-looking with all the weird and ugly features. It is s if white people think Asians are ugly and odd looking. As an Asian person, it feels dehumanizing when they give the incorrect portrayal of being Asian. The given depiction does not describe the looks of a normal Asian person. Asians do not always have crooked teeth, big nose, small eyes or bowl-cut hair.

In the movie, The Karate Kid, tells the story of a black kid named Dre Parker, played by Jaden Smith, who moves to China because of his mom’s new job. As he tries to get used to culture differences, he finds it challenging because he is of different race and culture. As he tries to fit in, he meets Mr. Han, a retired martial art teacher who is played by Jackie Chan. Dre gets in troubles with some Chinese kids that forces him to learn karate to win matches against them in a tournament. This movie shows a lot of stereotypes about Asians. For example, in the airplane scene, Dre tries to speak Chinese to an Asian guy to ask him where he is from, the guy answers, “Dude I’m from Detroit.” This question is most uncomfortable and the most asked question that every Asian person gets. It makes us feel unwelcome, even though America is home to a lot Asians who are born here. Another stereotype shown is that Asians are very well-disciplined. In the movie, it displays the young Asian children’s martial arts training. They follow every instruction from their teacher and are not allowed to talk back.


Another issue shown in the movie is that Asian people are dressed very conservatively and moderately, which is very different from American styles. The most common Asian stereotype is having strict parents. In the movie, Dre ends up liking a Chinese girl. However, the girl’s parents are very strict and they expect her to be the model role. They often expressed their expectation of her doing well in school and pressure her to become famous by being the best violinist. Overall, The Karate Kid shows the negative and unrealistic portrayals of Asians.

In contrast, the TV show Fresh Off the Boat is the first American comedy series starring an Asian American family as protagonists after Margaret Cho’s All American Girl. It’s about a Taiwanese family moving from Chinatown in Washington D.C to Orlando, Florida. The mother Jessica Huang, played by Constance Wu, struggles with culture differences because Orlando doesn’t have a big Asian community or population like where she used to live in D.C. The father Louis Huang, played by Randall park, works toward their American Dream by opening a western-themed restaurant named Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse. The show’s protagonist, Eddie Huang, played by Hudson Yang, tries to assimilate into the new school. Eddie is a big hip-hop and basketball fan. Unlike how Asian is portrayed as smart, dressing weirdly, socially awkward, Eddie is loud and outgoing. He’s just an average student who struggles in school. He gets along well with his friends and good at being social. Instead of wanting to be a doctor or an engineering, the set occupations for Asians, Eddie’s dream is beyond that and very different. He wants to be different and follows his passion in hip hop music. The family is also very different from the stereotypes given about Asians. People tend to think that Asian men are very demanding and head of the family and everyone has to listen to them. But in the show, the wife Jessica is always the one that complains and yells, while Louis is very patient and good at listening to his wife. He doesn’t demand her to do this or that. Another detail about this show that goes against Asian stereotypes is they speak perfect English. In a lot of movies, white people mock Asians by faking accents and using broken English. Not all Asians speak broken English and it is an insult to Asian Americans when white people use accent to make fun of them.


Another TV show that shows a different side of being Asian is The Suit Life of Zach and Cody. There is an Asian character in this show named London Tipton, played by Brenda Song. She is the daughter of the hotel owner where the show is staged at. She is a spoiled child that only has self-interest due to her family background. Unlike the stereotype of being obedient and well-disciplined, London always did what she liked because she grew up without guidance and discipline. Her dad was always away and she often gets lonely. Her dad is opposite from what Asian parents are portrayed in media. London’s dad is easy and lets London do whatever she wants, which is why she is ignorant at times, but she is still very nice those around her. London is not school oriented; she is known for skipping classes and getting bad grades which is the total opposite of Asian’s portrayal in media. She is more rebellious and realistic.

In conclusion, Asians are very dimensional like any other races. We can be smart, shy, nerdy, awkward, outgoing, loud, talkative, or dumb. They created a false portrait of what and who Asian people are. Although it is sad that people believe in such stereotypes and assumptions about Asian people, they fail to understand what makes each individual unique and special. It hard for Asians to express their real character without getting judged and getting labeled by the stereotype. One way to accurately portray Asians is getting the media change the way they portray Asians as well as giving Asians more opportunities to shine in the industry.


Work Cited

Lam, Chris. “East Asians Watched Yellowface And It Will Make You Cringe.” BuzzFeed. Buzzfeed, 30 July 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. <;.

“London Tipton.” The Suite Life Wiki. Wikia. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. <;.

Moon, Krystyn R. Yellowface Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2005. Print.

“Watch Fresh Off the Boat TV Show –” ABC. ABC. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. <;.

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About haneybear

I'm a street photographer, majoring in Finance. I was born and raised in Vietnam for 12 years before moving to the States. I love to learn about different people and their cultures. I love traveling to explore more about the world that I'm living in.

3 thoughts on “Asian Portrayals in Pop Culture

  1. Han:

    Great essay! Wow, I have never heard of yellow face before so thank you so much for sharing. I think it’s strange how they made white performers look Asian when they can just get an Asian person involved instead. Wouldn’t it be more realistic and entertaining for the audience?? I love all of the artifacts you shared! Karate Kid movie is definitely a great example of how Asians are portrayed. When I first watched the movie, I didn’t even notice the stereotypes or felt offended in anyway. I was more focused on how Asian people were going to be on screen. Fresh Off the Boat is another great example! I’m so glad that they’re finally giving Asians more roles in movies and television shows. These opportunities are proving to America that not all Asians are the same and these stereotypical portrayals are false! Good job, Han!!! If you’re interested, feel free to read my post. I talked about Asians in the media! 🙂


  2. Hello Han,
    I very enjoyed reading your article. It is a truly well written paper of the false images of depicting Asian people on American media. Often the times, when I heard Americans talking about the stereotypes they have on Asians that are related to martial arts. strict discipline, and being very smart, I think about how they got the ideas from Asian movies that are made by Americans. I am not saying that those information are all false, but the truth is that the labels have been around for a while. It is also true that popular culture influence our value on different race of people coming from different background, and I do think that producers have responsibilities to balance what is appropriate and what is not. Anyways, nice work!!

  3. As an Asian living in America I can relate to your blog post. I am constantly being stereotyped by both friends and strangers. I know my friends mean absolutely no harm, and would only say such things as a joke because they feel comfortable around me. However; it’s not a good feeling to be stereotyped by a stranger who is only making the assumption either to look “cooler” or ignorance. On the plus side though, it’s definitely not a bad thing when your stereotype is to be smart!

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