Princeton may have the most beautiful architecture of any school campus. It may have an endowment larger than many countries’ GDPs — and more Olympic gold medals, too. But those facts didn’t shock me as much as what I witnessed when I first set foot on campus, as a prospective student at Preview. I filed into Richardson Auditorium for “This Side of Princeton,” a yearly show that features a capella groups, dance companies, stand-up comedy, and more.
I was most struck by the dance acts — I’d only ever seen Asian men depicted as bumbling, effeminate calculators devoid of charisma, but the performers on stage rejected that image with every step. Confident, talented, and explosive, they not only defied the stereotypes, but also seemed wholly unaffected by them. It was a jarring — and very welcome — experience.
I grew up in a rural Midwestern town with two, maybe three, identical Asian “brothers.” I was the guy who was good at school, because it was in my genes. I was the guy who couldn’t outgrow the stereotype, no matter how hard I tried. Many of my peers and teachers back home hold an unshakeable, often unconscious view of Asian men and an equally problematic perspective of Asian women as exotic trophies. It’s an issue not just in my town, but across America.
Currently, Hollywood productions tend to both marginalize and flatten Asian characters. By developing deeper and more accurate depictions of its minority characters and resolving its current underrepresentation of Asians, the film industry can begin to address the problematic stereotypes that pervade America today.
Hollywood’s problem is twofold. Historically, Asians have been tremendously underrepresented, making any individual appearance all the more significant. Unfortunately, when there are Asian roles, they are often reduced to lazy, offensive caricatures that influence the beliefs of millions of viewers. In the ’80s, an entire generation grew up with Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong, a fobby, pathetically comedic character always accompanied by the sound of an off-screen gong.
Although movies today largely avoid such blatant mischaracterizations, Asians still often fulfill quiet stereotypes as the submissive model minority. Though recent and upcoming films such as Crazy Rich Asians and Marvel’s Shang-Chi are a breath of fresh air, both still rely upon well-worn Asian conceptions of tiger mothers or martial arts.
And this conversation occurs only after the unlikely event that Asians show up in the first place: a USC study found that only 1 percent of leading roles go to Asians, despite 6 percent of Americans being Asian. TV shows set in cities with significantly higher Asian populations such as San Francisco, where a third of the city is Asian, rarely feature Asian cast members.
At a decade and a half old, the stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle pales in comparison to rich Singaporeans and superhero headliners. John Cho stars as Harold alongside Kal Penn, who plays his man-child roommate Kumar. At best, the movie is irreverent — at worst, it’s inane.
But as I watched it for the first time, seventeen years old and having never seen someone like me take up so much screen time, I was completely taken aback. In one of the final scenes, Harold confronts his bullying coworkers and became an assertive, powerful person, who I had never seen before. A person I’d been told that as an Asian, I almost couldn’t be.
My experience at Richardson that night over a year ago jarred me, because I did not know it could exist. Part of me couldn’t believe that Asians could be not just physically competent, but also so charismatic and assured in their movements. What was happening right in front of me was taking a wrecking ball to my own unconscious ideas, and building stronger ones in their place. Hollywood may seem frivolous, but it packages and sells ideas to millions, if not billions, of people.
I’d been told my whole life I was supposed to be one way. What happens when that assumption is completely repudiated? What happens when you grow up knowing you have power, instead of ceaselessly trying to prove it?
Richard Ma is a sophomore from Kirksville, Missouri. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.