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.