What Asian representation means to me

By SARAH Y. KIM | September 13, 2018

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it. (18)

When I learned that there was a movie called Crazy Rich Asians hitting theaters, I decided that I was going to love it.

I didn’t really know or care what it was about. All I knew was that it was an American movie with a predominantly Asian cast, and that was all it took to get me on board. 

When I finally saw it a couple of weeks ago, I had mostly two thoughts: one, Henry Golding is fine as hell, and two, how much I would have benefitted from this movie — and the many like it that will hopefully follow — growing up. 

The movie does not encapsulate the full spectrum of the Asian/Asian-American experience. I didn’t expect it to. To do so would’ve been unfair and unrealistic. What mattered to me was what it means for us going forward. 

No longer will we take it for granted that we’ll be stereotyped, silenced and ignored. No longer will we resign to the absurd notion that America can’t find Asian men attractive, that Asian actors or stories don’t sell. No longer will we accept that as Americans we’re an afterthought, that so-called “real” (aka white) Americans have more important stories to tell than we do. 

I was born in the U.S., but unlike your average Korean-American, I grew up in Korea. Still, I wasn’t safe from the microaggressions that people like me experience here. 

In kindergarten, my white American teacher told me that I couldn’t be American because I didn’t have blue eyes. I went to a U.S. college preparatory school with white teachers who thought they could tell us what to make of our history (e.g. Japanese colonialism of Korea wasn’t so bad because otherwise we’d be a backward society). Occasionally, they’d make backhanded comments about our unwillingness to speak up in class, our obsession with academic success, and our inability to think and act for ourselves.

You’d think that growing up in a country with people who looked like me, I would’ve still had a sense of belonging. But my poor Korean and lack of citizenship meant that I often felt out of place. 

Books and films in English became a sort of sanctuary, a way of forgetting my own ignorance about my culture and heritage. But they were also a constant reminder that in the U.S., I still wouldn’t belong. The fiction I consumed was populated by white characters, a Cho Chang and an appalling buck-toothed Mickey Rooney. Growing up, most of my role models were fictional heroines, most of whom were white. 

When I was eight and began writing stories, my protagonists were never Asian. At the time I didn’t see an alternative. I could count off the number of Asian authors I knew with one hand. Who could I really imitate? What place did characters with names like Kim Yesl have in English books anyway? 

It was some comfort while living in Korea to always see Asians on screen. But they weren’t Americans. They did not have to face the daunting prospect of being cast as perpetual foreigners. They had roots, a sense of belonging. I felt that I did not and never would. 

I’ve never been ashamed of being Korean, but I admit that there were times when I wished I’d been born white. If I were white, I thought, I would belong somewhere. If I were white, my occasional shyness would be attributed to my personality, rather than my ethnicity. If I were white, I’d have seen myself everywhere in American media and known that in the “land of the free,” people who looked like me mattered. That there was less of a limit to what I could imagine, do or be. 

Shortly after watching Crazy Rich Asians I watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. It’s a familiar rom-com, except that the protagonist of that movie just happens to be half-Korean. It’s a little sad that in 2018, I find that revolutionary. 

Some may think that the movie — based on the novel by Korean-American author Jenny Han — is not Asian enough. But that’s an all too familiar and frustrating critique I hear from white people. 

Can’t your poem be more Korean? Can’t this be more Asian? Where are the exotic foods and dresses, the broken English? Where is the quintessential Asian-American experience? 

They fail to consider that even if we look the same to them, our backgrounds and experiences as Asian-Americans are varied. Many of us had upbringings like theirs. We’re Americans, after all. By giving themselves the authority to determine what’s really “Asian,” they’re limiting the stories that we can tell. Sometimes all that representation needs is a face, and the more, the better. 

I don’t think my parents would have showed me Crazy Rich Asians or To All the Boys as a child. But if I’d known these movies existed, I’d have felt that I too could have stories worth telling. That women who looked like me could be relatable, strong heroines. That we could be loved without being fetishes. That maybe — just maybe — I could belong. 

Sarah Y. Kim is a junior double-majoring in Writing Seminars and International Studies from Walnut Creek, Calif. She is the Opinions Editor.

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