Stereotyping East Asians on TV

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Photo: Okay Yaramanoglu / flickr

The strikes have given me a lot of free time to binge-watch the American sitcom “Fresh off the Boat”. Just to give a quick preview: a Taiwanese family in the 90s tries to navigate the predominantly white suburbs of Orlando, Florida. I applaud the show as it is the first Asian-American family sitcom to broadcast on an American network in 20 years. However, I understand the controversy behind this show since it is often full of caricatured stereotypes.

As a Japanese-Filipina who has never lived in America but, nonetheless, has been “whitewashed” by attending international schools, I find myself laughing at some of the scenes when I heavily identify with the main characters. On the other hand, I also feel slightly uncomfortable when the show takes the Asian stereotypes a little too far; for instance, the mother, Jessica Huang, believes that her youngest son will be a doctor/president and has made vision boards to illustrate the expectations of her children’s futures. Regardless, I feel like this show still manages to illustrate the experiences of living in the western world as an East Asian and I wanted to share my perspectives.

Just a disclaimer before I go further. I will discuss some scenes from the first few episodes of the show and connect it to my personal experiences. I am fully aware that my experiences are not connected to racism or discrimination. However, I do believe that they stem from East Asian stereotypes, and I want to discuss them to share the receiving end’s perspectives.

Being complimented for speaking English (Season 1, Episode 1)

The Huang family moves into the suburbs and meets their neighbors. When asked where they are from, the eldest son explains, “My parents were born in Taiwan, but my brothers and I were born in D.C.” Upon hearing his reply, one of the neighbors is amused and replies, “Your English is very good!”.

I strongly identified with this scene because it reminded me of the numerous times when I was complimented on my English. I get that the person saying it usually means it as a compliment, but how do I reply when English is my first language? Instead of being a compliment, this comment serves as a reminder that unfortunately, people make assumptions based on my appearance. I know I am not just speaking for myself though. Out of 10 East Asians that I spoke to, nine of them experienced at least one incident where people assumed that they did not speak English. Even in St Andrews, student Sarah Koh encountered a taxi driver who was shocked to learn that she spoke English. On the other hand, when I asked 10 students from non-English European countries whether they were ever presumed to not speak English based on their appearance, none of them had the same or similar experience. Instead, they reported that they often get complimented on their English after they revealed to others that they are not native English speakers. Student Mathidé Roze shared her experience: “I have never been complimented on my English speaking abilities because people assume that English is my first language. Some people were surprised when they learned that I was not a native speaker.”

I understand why this is happening – most English speaking countries are predominantly white. So of course, in a predominantly white country like the UK, it would be safe to assume that anybody who is white could speak fluent English; whereas people of other ethnicities may not be as fluent. However, considering that the world is becoming more globalized and the number of international schools is quickly growing, it is extremely irksome when some people are shocked to find East Asians who can speak fluently in English. I understand the lack of initial expectations for East Asians to speak English; nonetheless, the shock and following compliment stems from ignorance.

Asian food considered “weird” (Season 1, Episode 2 & 3)

It is strange that what is considered as normal in the East Asian culture is labelled “weird” or “exotic” elsewhere. In the second episode, the eldest son, Eddie Huang, no longer wants to bring Chinese food for lunch after his noodles are teased by students who claim that it “smells nasty” and that “Ying Ding’s eating worms”. In the third episode, the mother joins a neighborhood gathering where everyone refuses to eat her dish, stinky tofu.

I understand that East Asian food comes off as strange because it’s very different from western food. I do find it annoying when I hear people talking about East Asian food in a derogatory manner; however, East Asians would perhaps share the similar hostility when they hear about black pudding, haggis, or casu marzu. Thus, it would be unfair to fault those who do not want to try food outside their norm.

However, when the East Asian food is linked to slightly racial or ignorant comments, a line must be drawn. You would think that since the show is set in the 90s and that main character is in middle school, comments like “Ying Ding’s eating worms” would not be made. Maybe you’re right — in 2018, being respectful of other cultures is an expectation. But unfortunately, there are still some ‘slip of the tongue’ instances that could come off as insensitive. When student Olivia as eating her lunch in front of her non East Asian friends, they asked her what it was and she excitedly explained that they were bamboo shoots because she wanted to share her culture. Regrettably, instead of an intrigued response, one of her friends commented that it was strange and that she would not try it because she is “not a panda”. The remark was probably a slip of the tongue; and although it is not a direct racist comment, it does come off as ignorant and close-minded. (Note: the small, brown rectangular things that are served on top of ramen are bamboo shoots.)

Being frugal, loving bargains (throughout Season 1)

Throughout the show, the mother is characterized as a frugal Tiger Mom. She always wants to save money (she refuses to turn on the A/C in the house), she loves bargains or anything free (she brings all the free food samples in the supermarket home), and she loves haggling for the lowest prices (she negotiates at a supermarket to try and buy ice cream for half the price). The way they depict these scenes are dramatized for the comedic effect but the underlying message is that she is frugal just as many other stereotypical East Asians.

This stereotype does not apply for everyone but I have to admit, I identify with it. My mom always told me to think about “cost-performance” so I definitely enjoy getting a nice dress or a jacket at a bargain price. However, I don’t think this stereotype only applies to East Asians. Just look at the storm of American shoppers on Black Friday. Change the language to Mandarin and you get a market in Taiwan as depicted on the show.

The show experienced a lot of controversy because of the many stereotypes that do not always illustrate East Asians in a positive light. But perhaps the audience should see these characters’ “stereotypical” actions or personalities not really as stereotypes but more as a social commentary on the East Asian culture and their mannerisms.

Even though they exaggerate some stereotypes, in a way, they are true. In the show, the mother keeps pushing her children to go to Chinese Learning School and expects straight A’s. It is a very stereotypical dynamic for East Asian families and I get that it does not put us in a positive light but honestly, I identify with these characters. When I saw this scene, I laughed because it reminded me how when I was in 3rd grade, my mother expected me to attend Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge (Yale was not good enough) and made me do 5th grade math.

I may identify with most of the depicted stereotypes; however, its exaggeration has unfortunately made the show unrealistic. Even chef and food personality Eddie Huang, the inspiration for this comedy, declared that despite originally supporting the pilot, he no longer watches it. He tweeted, “it got so far from the truth that I don’t recognize my own life”. There are many details in his life that the TV show did not include: his grandfather committed suicide, his grandmother had bound feet, and his father was abusive toward him and his siblings. Instead, the characters in this show are very static — his grandmother is mystical and strongly believes in Chinese superstitions and fortune-telling and his father is a good-natured restaurant owner who is constantly trying to connect with his children. The show constantly attempts to have a moral ending but it does not always work. I understand that all these attempts by the show are to create a successful comedy fit for the American screen; however, I do wish that they were more dynamic.

Just to reiterate, I do not think that the experiences I mentioned in this article (like being complimented on my English or the food I eat being considered weird) stem from racism or discrimination. Calling it discrimination would just demean the actual physical and verbal abuse East Asians (and other ethnicities) have encountered for many years. Rather, the experiences I spoke about are the everyday ‘slips of the tongue’ that do not hold any negative intentions yet are still annoying. I am sure other ethnicities are irked at the stereotypes that they experience themselves. Nonetheless, I do believe (or am optimistic) that as the world becomes more globalized, there will be more understanding between cultures, and barriers will be further lowered.

Photo: Okay Yaramanoglu / flickr

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