Asian-American Students in Popular Culture

The number of Asian-American students in the United States has been growing throughout the past years, with China holding 31.5%, Vietnam holding 2.1% and Taiwan holding 2.0% of total international student enrollment as of Fall 2015.* Even with these numbers, T.V shows, films, and other forms of popular media often display Asian-American students differently. Popular portrayals of Asian-American students in the media includes: having exceptional grades, having a “tiger mother” parent, and being awkwardly shy with not much to say. Although some of these stereotypes might be true, they are portrayed in an exaggerated way, which masks the reality of being an Asian student. These exaggerated stereotypes are not fair to those that do not fall into any of these stereotypical categories. These stereotypes can paint them into a negative light, where outsiders can have a negative perception of Asian-American students. The different stereotypes of Asian-American students will be shown through analyzing three sources: the movie 21 & Over, the popular TV show Glee, and the popular movie Pitch Perfect. Asian-Americans are unjustly represented in entertainment and in reality, since we aren’t just book nerds and piano-players.

M 189 Franois Chau stars in Relativity Media’s “21 & Over”. © 2011 Twenty One and Over Productions, Inc. Photo Credit : John Johnson

The movie, 21 & Over is a movie that was produced by Relativity Media, Skyland Entertainment and Virgin Produced. The film is rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, some graphic nudity, drugs and drinking. The movie was originally published in Japan, and was released in March 2013 in the USA. The movie focuses on Jeff Chang. The main description of the movie was that “the night before his big medical school interview, a promising student celebrates his 21st birthday with his two best friends.” The one thing that stood out to me was that this movie plays on the stereotype of a strict Asian dad. When Jeff Chang’s Caucasian friends were over, they greeted his dad with the title of doctor, whom they were expecting to not be home. When Jeff Chang’s dad came out, his two friends were both scared and got quiet. The dad stated an intimidating rule telling his Jeff that he has an interview to get into medical school the next morning. The dad ended his line with, “don’t embarrass me,” which shows how strict an Asian parent can be.

After watching that scene, the stereotype that was portrayed was the Asian student having exceptional grades (in this case, Jeff got a medical school interview) and the Asian parents as the super strict “tiger mom.” Tiger mom can be defined as referring to “a strict or demanding mother who pushes her children to be successful academically by attaining high levels of scholastic and academic achievement, using methods regarded as typical of childbearing in East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia to the detriment of the child’s social, physical, psychological and emotional well-being.” This term came from Yale law professor, Amy Chua, in her memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

The second piece of entertainment that stood out as I dig deeper into this research is the popular TV show, Glee. Glee is a TV series that aired from 2009-2015. It is classified as comedy, drama, and music. The series was created by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk, and Ryan Murphy. It had the description of “a group of ambitious misfits try to escape the harsh realities of high school by joining a glee club, where they find strength, acceptance and, ultimately, their voice, while working to pursue dreams of their own.” Similarly to the movie 21 & Over, Glee had a scene where they showcased a “tiger mom” along with the high expectations Asian parents have on their kids. The scene that confirmed this stereotype was when an Asian male student was telling a girlfriend how he got an “A-“ on a Chemistry test, and how that is equivalent to an “Asian F,” as they called it. Later on, they showed a scene where that same male student and his dad were in a conference room with the principal of the school. The dad was telling the principal how he suspected that his son was on drugs even though the principal told the dad that his son was one of the best students in the school. The reason behind the suspicion was that he received the “A-” on the chemistry test, again repeating how that means it’s an “Asian F.” Reflecting on the first example, both really showed how the popular media portrays the life of an Asian-American student with the strict parent, along with the exceptional grades they should earn.

With the stereotype of “all Asian-American students know what they want to do”, and the stereotype that we want to get into medical school, a survey at Golden West College showed differently. The paper titled, Vietnamese Choice of Majors at Golden West College, written by Nancy Boyer, surveyed Vietnamese college students that are enrolled in two English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. They then wrote a paper on their ideal job, along with completing questionnaires. The survey shows that “a large number of students has not chosen a major yet, 27% were studying pre-health, 21% business and etc.”

Planning to go into Harvard or having an interview at a medical school is a great dream and accomplishment. It just might not be so great and fitting when it comes to stereotyping Asian-American students with it. The research survey at Golden West College on Vietnamese students defeats the stereotypes that were shown in the movie, 21 & Over, along with the tv show Glee.

Lastly, a movie that stood out to me with how they portrayed Asian-American students, is the movie Pitch Perfect. Pitch Perfect is a comedy written by Kay Cannon and Mickey Rapkin, directed by Jason Moore. The movie was released in 2012 with the description, “Becca, a freshman at Barden University, is cajoled into joining The Bellas, her school’s all-girls singing group. Injecting some much-needed energy into their repertoire, The Bellas take on their male rivals in a campus competition.” The actress I will be focusing on is Hana Mae Lee, who plays the character of Lilly.

Lilly dresses and acts distinctly different from the other characters in the show. In the beginning, The Bellas had a singing audition where Lilly tried out. Lilly stood on stage with long straight black hair and straight across bangs as she auditioned for a spot in the group. As she started to talk, no sound came out of her mouth. She talked so quietly no one could hear what she was saying. The part where you can barely hear Lilly talk came up often throughout the movie. It is still unclear how Lilly got chosen to be in The Bellas, but the two girls that auditioned Lilly seemed to like her. Even when Lilly does talk, she would say a lot of strange things like “I ate my twin in the womb” or “I set fire to feel joy,” along with “hello my name is Lilly Onakuramara, I was born with gills like a fish.” In relation to all the weird things she said, the writer also made her do a lot of strange things. There was a part where Lilly tried jumping in to break up an argument, but she ultimately got pushed off and fell into a big pile of puke. She then enjoyed her visit on the ground by make a “puke angel.” This portrays the negative stereotype of Asians tending to be a little bit weirder, that they are awkward and very soft-spoken.

During my research about Lilly Onakuramara, I found different interviews that had been done in regards of Lilly. I found that she is actually really cool person with bleached blonde hair, along with a funny and outgoing personality. How they portrayed Lilly in the movie was the complete opposite of how she is in real life.

To conclude, popular culture really has a one-sided view on how Asian-American students are portrayed. Even though the “tiger mom” way of parenting might be true reflecting some family, it is not only Asian-American parents that does this to their children. It is not entirely a put down how popular culture displays how smart and over achieving Asian-American students are. This could be seen as a big compliment. But there is a thin line that lays between the comedy and mocking part of Asian-American students. Sure, stereotypes can be humorous when it is put in the right context. But it is surely not fair to stereotype on the “tiger mom” and good grades, and the quiet and awkward kid. There is fun Asian parents out there that do not fall under the “tiger mom” classification, and there are students who do not want to attend medical schools.  There is also definitely a lot of outgoing Asian-American students that do not have straight black hair with China bangs.

Learning Moments

Doing long and extensive research on who I reflect to be on popular culture was an eye opener as well as a great learning experience. This class forced me to look from different perspectives and analyze different medias. I have always been seeing what the writer wanted me to see, and to not question about what they are showing me. I never would have question about why the casting director would cast someone so outgoing and talkative in real life, and turned her into the character Lilly in Pitch Perfect. There are few ways that popular culture views Asian American students which presents the viewers the small range of knowledge on Asian American cultures. When watching movies, I mostly just watch along and enjoy the storyline of what the movie has to say. 

Week 4, Analyzing Primary Sources gave amazing tips on how to analyze any material. “AIMS” taught me to “acknowledge and suspend bad habits,” “identify purpose and form,” “look closely at details”, and ask further questions overall. These steps were applied to the research of this paper. After this class, I learned to analyze different materials. Is the material legitimate? Or is it just click bates that I always fall for?


21 & Over. Dir. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. Perf. Miles Teller, Justin Chon and Skylar Astin. Relativity Media, 2013. Film.

Glee. Dir. Murphy Ryan, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. Perf. Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, and Darren Criss. 20th Television, 2011. Television.

Pitch Perfect. Dir. Jason Moore. Perf. Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, and Brittany Snow. Universal Studios, Rouge, 2012. Film.

*“International Students in the United States.” Project Atlas, United States. Fall 2015,

Boyer, Nancy. Vietnamese Choice of Majors at Golden West College.” 1993.

Glee – Mike Tells Tina He Got an Asian F. YouTube. YouTube, 03 Nov. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

Glee – Mike and his dad have a meeting with Principal Figgins. Youtube, 06 Oct. 2016. 14 Mar. 2017.



2 thoughts on “Asian-American Students in Popular Culture

  1. Hi Linh,

    Your blog post on Asian-American students in popular culture is very interesting and clear. Those stereotypes which you mentioned are extremely common in the media. Asians are always portrayed as smart nerds who always get good grades and have strict parents. Asians are always expected to go to the medical field in college. You have good resources to support your blog post. It’s quite sad which Asians never receive prominent roles in movies or TV shows. They are portrayed heavily based on stereotypes. As a result, when people see Asians, they automatically think about those stereotypes they see on TV. As an Asian myself, those stereotypes do not completely apply to me. I don’t know how to play the piano, I don’t to go a medical career, and my parents are not even strict. It would definitely be better if Hollywood minimizes Asian stereotypes and starts giving Asian actors more opportunities to play better characters.

  2. Hi Linh,
    This is such an important topic and I’m glad you wrote about it. First of all, I love the statistic you started with it was very interesting and relevant. As for your overall argument/discoveries, this is something I notice so much! Asian-Americans are continuously portrayed unrealistically and negatively, and it gets passed off as funny. I like how you narrowed your topic down though to Asian-american students. In almost every TV show or movie with an Asian-American student, they have been viewed as extremely smart and with extremely strict parents. I agree with your statement, in that there is a thin-line between compliments and mocking culture. Overall wonderful job thank you for posting!

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