So, I have a lot of feelings regarding the depiction and representation of Asians in both media & literature. If you’re interested in gaining more insight into this topic (and you should), I came across this really great article on vice.com by Filipina journalist Bettina Makalintal through her twitter: Hollywood Doesn’t Fully Represent Asian Americans Yet.
She echoes many of the thoughts that I have, one of which is that while movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe are a step in the right direction to ensure that more Asian representation is present American popular culture, there are still various Asian groups being left out which essentially includes anyone who isn’t Far East Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) and mixed-race Asians.
I did not watch Crazy Rich Asians, but I did listen to the audiobook. The narrator was excellent and I valued the story’s depiction of nuances in some Asian cultures, such as those relating to racism and classism. The story was fun but I felt it dragged. But I was very disheartened with how Kwan depicted Filipinos throughout. They are only mentioned a few times, but I distinctly recall a moment when a character said that Filipinos make the best babysitters because they’re so good with children…
Clearly the lowly depiction of Filipinos remained in the film adaptation:
Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is an endearing series of novels featuring a half-Korean, half-white female protagonist. While the writing is unimpressive, I found myself unexpectedly connecting with Lara Jean in ways more as a teenage girl than as an Asian teenage girl. But that’s okay! Just because the main character is Asian doesn’t mean that the entire story has to focus on their Asian-ness.
But here’s a fun fact: Did you know that Lana Condor is not Korean?
She was born in Vietnam and adopted by white American parents. Don’t get me wrong, friends. I love Lana Condor. She is beautiful and talented, but when are we going to stop interchanging Asians? It’s like Memoirs of a Geisha all over again–gorgeous film, but why are all the Japanese characters played by Chinese performers?
*Note: I am not oblivious to the fact that casting choices for films tend to focus more on “who is popular” at the time and which celebrities will draw in viewers. There was controversy over the film-adaptation of The Hate U Give because Amandla Stenberg is not as dark-skinned as Starr is described in the book. But Stenberg was already a rising star and would undoubtedly appeal to viewers who may have enjoyed her performance in The Hunger Games.
I think Lana Condor may relate to Lara Jean’s not having that “fully Asian identity.” Both Lana and LJ have been American their entire lives without a fully Asian influence over them (Lana is adopted by white Americans and LJ’s Korean mother passed away). But I still wonder if a Korean or half-Korean actress could have been cast as LJ.
This discussion could go on forever, but I just wanted to share some key points that I hope everyone will consider when reading, watching, or criticizing literature and media with Asian representation:
1) Far East Asians aren’t the only Asians that exist! Check out this article, The Five Regions of Asia.
2) Multi-racial Asians–white Asians, Black Asians…Asian-Asians!–and Asian Americans are still ASIAN.
3) Asians, both in general and of the same ethnicity, are extremely diverse in appearance. For example, not all Filipino people look the same. I can’t tell you the number of times my mom, who is lighter-skinned than I am, has been mistaken for being white by other Filipinos. I have also lost count of how many times all peoples have wrongly guessed my ethnicity and then told me what I actually look like.
4) A story which features an Asian character does not only have to focus on their being Asian. Asians, particularly Asian Americans, deserve to see themselves represented as any assumed white character. Asian identity is very personal and varies from Asian to Asian.
I have a co-worker who is also Filipino. She is significantly shorter than I am, has pink hair, and wears glasses…but people still talk to me and call me by her name.
Here is an interesting article about an Asian female journalist who is constantly mistaken for another Asian female journalist and how this has impacted her sense of identity: She’s Asian and female. But she’s not me.
5) Asians are NOT interchangeable. Full stop.
While I’m definitely excited about the fact that there are more books and films and television shows with Asian characters, I hope we all realize that the journey to inclusivity and diversity is never-ending. No single piece of literature or award-winning film is the end-all for any representation.