by Guest Contributor Bao Phi, originally published at the Star-Tribune’s Your Voices
Let me tell you, I have an almost supernatural (some would say neurotic) capacity for remembering the most embarrassing moments in my life. Walking into a women’s bathroom by mistake when I was about 7 years old and lost at the mall, crying for mommy. Bursting into tears of hunger at Taste of Minnesota when I was 10. In 4th grade I sat next to one of the few other Asians I saw at a class assembly because I thought she was so friendly, cool, and cute – then being told I couldn’t sit there because it was for student council members only. I can’t remember my own parents’ birthdays, or which days to put out the recycling. But that time I walked face-first into a brick pillar in broad daylight on a busy shopping day? Yep.
My extreme discomfort towards public embarrassment is why I avoid reality television like the plague. I don’t get any pleasure or joy from watching humiliating public spectacle, even when it doesn’t involve me. Shame is something I have in spades, but is not something I enjoy.
Shows like American Idol are horrifying to me. Because if someone embarrasses themselves or does poorly, I feel terrible for them. However, I’ve been watching the pop phenomenon in recent years because my partner, who doesn’t enjoy reality television either, happens to enjoy watching American Idol: not to laugh at people, but because there’s always a chance that someone unique, and with genuine talent (hello Adam Lambert) will make it on the show. I’ve been trying to watch it with her. It’s only fair. If I ask her to watch trash like Ninja Assassin and Iron Man, I can suffer through some bad singers and mangled songs with her.
Someone I always think about when I watch American Idol is William Hung. A Berkeley student, Hung auditioned in 2004 with a pretty terrible rendition of Ricky Martin’s She Bangs. Even though I wasn’t watching much television at all during that time, I couldn’t escape the notoriety of this pop culture disaster.
Most likely, you couldn’t either. In the internet age, public spectacle has even more venues for participation than ever. You know what happened: William became something of a famous figure despite his mangled performance. Much of this was credited to Hung’s unabashedly positive attitude: after being laughed at and humiliated by judges Randy, Simon, and Paula, William famously stated, “I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all.”
Despite his admirable pluck, many of us Asian Americans, especially Asian American men, shuddered whenever we got sent that link of William warbling his way through Ricky Martin, or someone mentioned it at work or at school. It was a collective cringe weighed down by a ton of racial and gendered baggage. I’m going to say this: America loves humiliating Asian men. Whether it be racist assumptions about the, shall we say, relative size of certain parts of our anatomy believed to be true, to the mockery of stereotypical accents, to the continued belief that we are short, backwards, nerdy, and unattractive, Asian American men have a very specific history and experience in regards to gendered race dynamics here in the States. And what makes it worse, is that there seems like there is very little discussion, criticism, or challenge when these racist stereotypes of Asian men rear their ugly heads. I’m not saying we have it worse than others. But I know I’m not alone when I say as an Asian man, it sometimes feels like we receive the brunt of racist hatred while having few avenues to defend ourselves and having even fewer allies and defenders willing to have our backs. Hurt our feelings, ridicule us, insist that all the stereotypes are justified because they’re at least partly true – sometimes as an Asian American man, you sometimes get the sinking feeling that you’re alone out here with a target on your forehead.
Added to that, there are few opportunities for Asian women and men to speak out about any gendered racial stereotypes, whether they target women or men. We have little access to pop and mass media outlets to discuss such things. For those of you who, at this point, think I am a hypocrite because I have this blog on the Twin Cities’ largest paper to talk about these things, my reply would be: why do you think I said “yes” when they asked me to blog for the Strib, even though I knew full well that the vast majority of commentators would lash out at me for doing so? Because there are so few opportunities for Asian Americans to publicly challenge racism – often we take those opportunities even when we know people will hate us for it.
Those of us who face challenges of representation in this country (people of color, women, and LGBTT’s) know very well the burden of stereotype-laden imagery: marginalized people have very little say or control about our image, and representations of us are so few that one image is applied to all of us whether it resembles us or not. And no, it’s not the same for everyone. I don’t go around thinking all straight white men are like Fred Durst. No white dudes are expected to apologize for his existence. But when, for example, William Hung rose to fame, many of us Asian men couldn’t help wondering who would shout his name out of their window at us. How many people would see us and start shaking their bodies and belting out their accented impersonation of William singing She Bangs. How many people would see us and unconsciously and wordlessly shape us into his image.
And unfortunately, instead of speaking out and challenging this racism, we often turn on the ones closest to us: ourselves. Instead of having an informed discussion and exploration of William Hung and exactly why America is so comfortable embracing and selling such a (perceived) cartoonish caricature of an Asian man, many Asians dissed William Hung. Joined in on the mockery. Forwarded the links, perfected their own impersonation of him, laughed loudest at him. Because in dissing him, we hoped to distance ourselves from him. As if to say, I’m not that clueless Fresh Off the Boat Asian like William Hung, man – I’m American. Clowning William Hung was a familiar survival tool for Asians.
This goes far beyond William Hung. Before him, there were already plenty of Asians who were apologists for racism. It’s all in your head, they say. There were numerous times when I would try to create a discussion around this topic, and Asian men and women would counter with such statements like, “well, Asian men should just stop whining and work out, get some nice clothes, learn how to dance.” Or, “Asian women really are gold diggers who only date guys with money.” As if gendered, racial stereotypes were all our fault, instead of a reinforced history of colonized hatred. As if lifting weights and learning some dance steps would eradicate institutional racism towards our people (for the record, I’ve done both – racism still exists).
Why should Asians be so quick to concede to internalized racism and diss Asians like William Hung? Sure, he benefited from riding that wave of racist demeaning stereotypes that continue to haunt Asians. But is he the person to blame? Should we focus our resentment towards a dude who just wanted to sing and dance?
This is especially perplexing given how willing the general American public is to forgive celebrities for their mistakes. Take Mark Wahlberg, for example. The former leader of The Funky Bunch and Oscar-nominated actor, in his youth, attacked two Vietnamese men in racist hate crimes – shouting racial epithets at them, hitting one over the head with a wooden stick, and attacking one of them so viciously that he put the man’s eye out. After he was arrested, he made many comments about “gooks” and “slant-eyes.” I know plenty of men and women, of all races, who love Mark Wahlberg despite these horrors.
Sure, I shouldn’t be too righteous – I really do believe most of us, at some point in our lives, will need to ask for forgiveness for something, including some atrocious things. But who we forgive, and for what, says a lot about who we are. I’m not saying, don’t forgive or forget. I have no right, nor power, to decide who you forgive and for what. What I’m saying is, let’s hope we all can be forgiven, whether or not we have flawless pecs and a six-pack. Can we all show just a little bit of empathy for William Hung? At least put who he is, and what he tried to do, into context?
As much as I am arguing we shouldn’t demonize William Hung for racism, I also think we need to see how certain recurring racial images are constantly brought back to the front of America’s pop culture consciousness. I am absolutely sure that many people who are fascinated with William Hung, really did admire his positivity, his courage, and his pursuit of a dream. Just as I am absolutely sure that many relished in the ability to make fun of William because he represented the image of the nerdy, FOB-by, non-threatening Asian man that goes back to Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles and beyond.
Adding to the perplexity of it all, I was disappointed when some journalists and commentators discussed race in American Idol without mentioning William Hung or, in the case of contestants like Jasmine Trias, lumping Asians in with whites as if they had the same advantages and privileges that white contestants did. And I was disappointed when little was said about the open, scathing hatred heaped upon Sanjaya Malakar during his stint on American Idol. Sure, he wasn’t the best singer, and his choice of hairstyles was, to put it kindly, perplexing. But does the world really need to see the brother get attacked by a hive of bees? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google it – long story). I know I wasn’t alone in wondering how such hate heaped upon a man of color could go without criticism.
Then came the rumor that William Hung was dead, started as an internet joke. Ladies and gentlemen, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and political opinion, I think we can all agree that this was thoroughly distasteful. Nothing William Hung did should ever make him feel as ashamed as whoever started the rumor that he killed himself.
I will tell you, as much as I was filled with dread when I thought of the racist baggage that would be heaped upon Asians during William Hung’s dubious ascension, I also admired – and envied – William’s courage and guts. Let’s not be overly romantic – as a lover of music and dance, I would never buy any of his albums, even to support a fellow brother. I can barely sit through one of his songs. Just can’t go there. But I will say I was fortunate enough at the time, maybe because of my own capacity to neurotically remember and punish myself for every embarrassing thing I’ve done in my life, to really envy the dude’s bravery. He wasn’t frozen into inaction by fears of what other people thought of him. He didn’t let the opinion of the ‘expert’ judges sway him from his dream. Dude got up there, shook it, and sang. To hell with popular opinion.
Good for him. His rise to infamy made me check my own internalized hatred, and question the power of humiliation that the mass media in this country can wield, and how many of us consume it with vitriolic glee.
I know it’s not all a sob story, and I’m not suggesting he’s simply a victim. He probably was able to get farther in his dream because of all this hubbub. There are plenty of more talented people, of all races, who don’t have a record deal. And his short cameo appearance on Arrested Development as Judge Reinhold’s courtroom backing band The Hung Jury? Awesome.
The story of his strange ascension is a dizzying collision of media hype, gendered racism, hatred – and honest-to-goodness optimism. He doesn’t exist in a vacuum – we marginalized people understand that we don’t even have a choice in the matter.
When it comes down to it, I just really hated how mean people were to the dude. It was like America had become one collective bully pointing a finger and laughing at a dude who was not in on the joke. Well, for William Hung, I hope he sings most beautifully when he’s by himself, with no one else having the ears to listen. I hope he understands that the beauty of it is, those who mock him the most would envy him, if they had enough of a heart to do so. And I could see that he would make a great partner to someone, and a really great father. I could see him lifting up his little baby boy or little baby girl and telling that child, you can do anything. And no matter what he sounded like, no matter if he was right, that child would believe him.