By Guest Contributor Bao Phi, originally published at the Star Tribune’s Your Voices Blog
(Thanks to Katie Leo, Darren Lee, Jasmine Tang, Charlotte Karem Albrecht, and Phil Yu, who proof-read and offered edits, thoughts and arguments for this entry, and a big shout out to Tatiana, Thuyet, Sajin, Lisa, Juliana, Jasmine, Darren, and the rest of our beloved people of color Lost Twin Cities viewing crew)
For much of my adult life, I didn’t watch television. Except for the Simpsons and X-Files, I had not been a big fan of television since my early addictions to Robotech, Reading Rainbow, and Transformers. I missed out on shows that a lot of my peers seemed to be into, like Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince. Mostly because I didn’t have time to dedicate myself to a weekly viewing schedule, and I hated the idea of missing an episode if I did happen to fall in love with a series. Added to this my growing unease with the lack of, or problematic depictions of, Asian and Asian Americans in media, and television became a pop culture blind spot I was more than willing to have.
With the invention of the DVD and being able to rent series from the video store, I began to rent shows and see what I had been missing. One show that was getting considerable buzz in the Asian American community was Lost. Until I started hearing murmurs from my peers about the show, I had dismissed it as that show about being stranded on an island starring that hobbit from Lord of the Rings. But some very impassioned community members kept arguing about how great the writing was, the fantastic premise, and above all, the nuanced characters played by Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim. Despite all the positive buzz, I couldn’t quite believe it.
Asian Americans have good reason to be skeptical, when it comes to representation in film and television. You either get racially displaced (see this great post on Racialicious regading whites cast as Asian: and that’s just the tip of the iceberg) or, if Asians are portrayed at all, it’s usually as a male martial arts villain/punching dummy for a Caucasian hero, or a female victim in need of love and being saved from her war-torn homeland/her oppressive patriarchal culture by a white knight. Pun intended. Even in shows like E.R., where you’d think since it was based in Chicago hospitals that there’d be lots of Asians, there were just a token one or two. You know those online quizzes where you answer a series of questions and it tells you what character you’d be on a television show or movie? I don’t take those quizzes, because usually “Asian delivery boy #2” is not one of the outcomes.
What’s especially perplexing is the failure of American media, mainstream and alternative, to mention issues of race and representation when it comes to Asians. As a person who reads pop culture reviews from Roger Ebert to the Onion’s AV Club to local papers such as the Star Tribune or City Pages, seldom have I found any American reviewer or commentator, regardless of race or gender, mention issues of representation when it comes to Asians and Asian Americans. From movies like The Painted Veil where Asians are relegated to mere backdrop, to films like Rambo and The Last Samurai where a white hero is inserted to save/slaughter Asians, to pop culture blockbuster shows like Battlestar Gallactica with its loaded and problematic Asian female character, to films like 21 and Avatar: the Last Airbender, where Asians are outright replaced by whites, one cannot find many instances where reviewers and commentators think race regarding Asians and Asian Americans is worth mentioning or discussing.
To be honest, the first few episodes of Lost didn’t help the cause. Here was a patriarchal, abusive and domineering Korean husband and his docile Korean wife, two characters seemingly tailor-made for that type of condescending, patronizing and self-congratulatory first-world liberation story that seems so popular in Hollywood. There was also the problematic depiction of the Iraqi character Sayid, played by Naveen Andrews, and though he is a thoroughly amazing actor and his presence brings the number of primary Asian cast members in the show to an unprecedented three (!), there was that nagging feeling that maybe the role should have gone to an Iraqi or at least Arab actor, and the fact that the dude was a torturer didn’t exactly break any stereotypes.
But at the behest of my peers, I stuck with the series and dutifully plowed through season 1, DVD after DVD even though many of the early episodes honestly made me cringe, and still make me cringe: Jin slapping Sun’s hand, Sun strutting in a bathing suit as if it was the most liberating act in the world (considering how men and women dress in Seoul, which is where Jin and Sun are supposedly from, one wonders if a bathing suit is really a big deal). And then there was the show’s embarrassing (though thankfully brief) depiction of the antagonism between Jin and one of the few Black male characters in the show, Michael (played by Harold Perrineau). In an episode, the show hints at a chemistry between Sun and Michael, a sub-plot that would continue through several episodes. In that same episode, Jin violently attacks Michael, and later Michael violently retaliates against Jin. At one point Michael tells his son Walt that, where he comes from, Koreans do not like Black people. Of course the Asians get no say in this matter. These superficial and sensationalized depictions of race and gender conflict struck me as irresponsible and tired. To tell you the truth, it all seemed quite dreadful, and I hurried through season one waiting for the drastic turnaround that my community members promised me would be there if I was just patient.
It was a long time later, in the penultimate episode of season 1, where at last the character arcs of Jin, Sun, and Sayid finally allowed them to be thoroughly complicated, and sympathetic characters. But what a punishing ordeal the makers of Lost made us endure for, finally, an earned moment of beauty and a kiss between two Asian characters on prime time American television. If at this point you would accuse me of being nauseatingly hetero, let me ask you to put this in context: in your viewing of American television and film, how often have you seen two Asian characters kiss? Now compare that number to everyone else. See?
Maybe that’s why since then I’ve become, and have remained, a loyal but critical Lost fan. Things have gotten better regarding representation. Sayid has emerged as one of the most compelling characters in television, and is by far the most sympathetic Iraqi character in American pop culture. Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim have garnered critical acclaim for bringing their nuanced and well-loved characters to life. The addition of the great Ken Leung bumps the number of primary Asian cast members up to four. Four! For those of you who are laughing, imagine how rough it must be for Asian American viewers, let alone Asian American actors, if an American show with four Asian and Asian American major cast members is a lot. It is, in fact, a ton. Add to that number the supporting character Pierre Chang (played by Francois Chau) and you have one of the largest Asian casts in popular American television history. One of my fellow Lost viewers reminded me of a wonderful scene in Season 5 with Jin, Miles, Pierre, and Hurley – perhaps one of the few scenes in pop American culture featuring four men of color that was at once well-written, funny, and effortless.
“Lost is significant in that it proved that it was not only possible to conceive a show with a large, diverse, well-rounded cast of characters, but you could also make it intelligent and challenging – and people would watch it,” remarks Phil Yu, creator of the insightful pop culture website Angry Asian Man (angryasianman.com) and Lost fan. “Yes, America will watch Asians on TV! Both subtitled and English-speaking Asians alike.”
It is telling that, at a moment in time where we are told that race doesn’t matter anymore, Lost has a substantial following amongst Asian Americans. Sure, it may not be the only reason many of us watch Lost, but it also cannot be denied that the large number of complex, sympathetic Asian characters on the show has something to do with our loyalty.
At the same time, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. There is still a shortage of other characters of color in the show, and while I applaud the relatively large number of Asian actors, I’d be great if they were joined by actors from other communities of color. The newer actors introduced in recent years, such as Michelle Rodriguez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Said Taghmaoui, and the ill-fated Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro, have for some reason or other have had bad “luck”, shall we say, with the show and its fans.
And aspects of the Asian characters as well as other characters of color sometime toe the line towards stereotype. Season 3’s episode Stranger in A Strange Land, guest starring Bai Ling, manages to portray every ugly stereotype of a Southeast Asian country as seen through a white male tourist – and not in a way that was remotely critical or even interesting.
Some aspects of the character Sayid remain troubling. “Sayid’s career as a torturer reinforces the idea that violence comes naturally to him, and thus much of his character is to redeem himself as a ‘good Arab’ – one that works for the good of all people,” observes University of Minnesota grad student and Lost fan Charlotte Karem Albrecht. “Clearly, the show tries to complicate this stereotype, but because Sayid’s violent past still keeps popping up in ways that signal he has to control violent impulses, it seems to be linked to the notion of an inherently violent culture or an inherently violent essence, which because he is Muslim and Arab are presented as one in the same.”
And it doesn’t escape me that bad-boy white heartthrob to middle America, Sawyer, reserves his racial quips for the Asians (sure, he makes fun of everybody, but he doesn’t make fun of everybody racially).
But my loyalty and hope for Lost, as well as greater change, can be compared to one of my favorite scenes in the entire series, the last episode of season 1. By that episode, Losties had seen 24 hour-long episodes of back-story, drama, and lots and lots of characters with daddy issues. There was a smoke monster that liked to munch on tourists, a mysterious band of enemies known enigmatically as the others, the deaths of several castaways, and a long and well-earned reunifying kiss (yay!). But then, seemingly out of nowhere, there is a simple montage scene set to music, of all the characters getting onto the plane before it takes off and flies them their fate. There’s Charlie trying to stuff his guitar into a closet, there’s Hurley with a Spanish-language comic book, there’s Sayid trying to stay cool as a white dude looks at him wordlessly and assumes he’s a terrorist. This simple, effective scene seems to urge us to pause and examine a moment, getting onto a plane, that many of us take for granted, that could change our lives forever. It’s a bittersweet moment illuminating that many of our lives are connected in ways we don’t even understand, that our lives can be connected in ways both beautiful and tragic. So even if a blog about a show like Lost at this moment seems trivial, superficial, and unnecessary, it’s my hope that it has its own place in this mundane moment and may one day lead to something quite fantastic.
Or at least, a bunker full of Dharma ranch dip and some Apollo bars.