Asian-American characters: they’re rare, but they’re there. The summer of 2018 saw a sudden rise of Asian representation in mainstream Hollywood media, with the release of both Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in the same month. While several prior attempts at representation of the Asian-American experience on television had been made, including Margaret Cho in All American Girl in 1995, which was cancelled after one season, Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat in 2015, and Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience in 2016, none received as much traction. Instead, the Asian characters I grew up seeing on screen were generally a step below the sidekick; they were comical pop-ups and stereotypical high-achieving mathletes. But in 2018, the world was finally ready.
While Asian-Americans are still unlikely to be seen with lead roles on mainstream television, at least they’re now beginning to emerge. Three years ago I wouldn’t have been able to write this essay because there was no one to write about. But now, as an ode to all the television I’ve been watching in quarantine, here’s an unpacking of what some of the most beloved Asian-Americans of Netflix mean to me and perhaps my fellow Asians everywhere.
Lara Jean Song Covey in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Lara Jean will always hold a special place in my heart. I first read Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before when I was 14, and I was immediately obsessed. A girl who looked like me had stolen the heart of Caucasian heartthrob Peter Kavinsky. A girl who looked like me was finally the protagonist of a classic high school chick-flick.
So, in 2018, when the film adaption of TATBILB was released, I was obviously excited. But I wasn’t as convinced as before. As with most films based on YA novels, TATBILB struck me as unrealistic and immature. Lara Jean is a scrapbook-loving, slightly annoying, demure girl raised by her single white father. She’s nothing like me. Instead, she perpetuates a classic on-screen female stereotype of being overly obsessed with boys, and being the quirky, shy girl. If the world was finally seeing an Asian-American girl on screen, why did she have to have the personality of Lara Jean?
Nevertheless, we can’t afford to be picky. Shortly after TATBILB was released, a cute Caucasian boy asked me, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Lara Jean?” I took this as a ground-breaking compliment. It was as if he was saying, “You’re somebody I would like to treat the way Peter Kavinsky treats Lara Jean.” Lara Jean was a step away from the yellow fever fetish and Miss Saigon, the white man’s plaything, and a step toward Asian girls being seen as mainstream datable. As with every Netflix high school romance, TATBILB wasn’t meant to be realistic. It was meant to be enjoyable, which it definitely was…except this time, with a much-needed Asian-American lead.
Ben Chang in Community
Ken Jeong has patented this character of a small Asian man who is sassy, odd and hilarious, on a background of Asian stereotypes. We saw him in The DUFF as the quirky yearbook teacher. We saw him in Crazy Rich Asians as Awkwafina’s sassy father. And of course, we can never forget that iconic scene from The Hangover in which Mr. Chow flashes his small penis, emasculating Asian men everywhere. To me, Ken Jeong was an Asian actor performing for the laughs of a white audience. His characters always felt somewhat demeaning. But in Community, a sitcom in which every character is odd and competing to see who can be the funniest, Spanish teacher Senor Chang thrives.
Plus, in Ken Jeong’s Netflix comedy special You Complete Me, Ho, he jokes about his past as a “good Asian doctor” and how filming The Hangover changed his life. Growing up Asian, there’s this massive pressure to pursue a “respectable career path” such as medicine or law, stemming from the hopes and dreams of our hard-working immigrant parents who are the reason we have these opportunities in the first place. The fact that Ken Jeong quit his day job and now has huge comedy roles is proof to Asians everywhere that it’s okay to pursue something different.
Paxton Hall-Yoshida in Never Have I Ever
Never Have I Ever is racially relevant for many reasons past Devi Vishwakumar’s first-generation migrant story. The show has a myriad of multicultural characters, with the best-looking being Paxton Hall-Yoshida, the half-Japanese heartthrob. Upon his introductory scene, climbing out of the pool shirtless with abs dripping wet, I was screaming. A half-Asian boy as a thirst trap was no news for me, but the fact that the whole world was finally appreciating my exact type felt like a freeing “I told you so.”
Later, after coming across an interview with actor Darren Barnet in Teen Vogue, I learned that Paxton’s half-Japanese heritage was an accident. After overhearing Barnet talking on the phone in Japanese, Mindy Kaling and showrunner Lang Fisher altered his character to match his ethnicity. To me, this only solidified the accuracy of Never Have I Ever’s representation of multicultural America. The actor they had unbiasedly chosen as the hottest person in the room, regardless of race, just happened to be half-Asian.
Ellie Chu in The Half of It
In Netflix’s newest coming-of-age film, Ellie Chu is an overthinking, no-nonsense, bold yet shy queer Asian teenager who’s discovering what love means. I describe Ellie as bold because I’ve never seen an Asian girl attempt to discover her sexuality on screen, let alone a queer Asian girl. In many Asian households, sex is a taboo subject, with this underlying assumption that we should refrain from thinking about sex altogether. A repercussion that I’ve noticed amongst myself and my Asian girlfriends is that as teenagers, the topic of our sexuality is shrouded in shame and guilt. That’s why watching Ellie study a woman’s sleeve come off her shoulder on the television screen—and watching her unabashedly ask Paul what it was like to kiss Aster, and then later boldly kiss Aster herself—was an incredibly freeing experience. Just because we didn’t talk about sex growing up doesn’t mean we didn’t have sexual feelings, and Ellie Chu is a step in the right direction toward acknowledging that.
Tina Cohen-Chang in Glee
Let’s throw it all the way back to this iconic show. Glee had this way of poking fun at every touchy identity stereotype under the sun as a way of addressing them. In the case of Tina Cohen-Chang and her Asian-ness, Glee had her dating the only other Asian character, Mike Chang (seriously, they couldn’t even think of a different last name), who she fell in love with at “Asian summer camp”; and she was often referred to as “the Asian” or “the other Asian.” While there are countless articles on the internet critiquing Glee for “Asian-shaming,” I personally found these plotlines refreshing and comedic. Glee was presenting a taboo truth about the way Asians were perceived and treated, allowing the audience to acknowledge and react accordingly.
Plus, Tina’s character extended far beyond her Asian-ness. Her weirdness infinitely surpassed her race: faking a stutter for years, claiming that her father was a vampire, and having an obsessive crush on her gay best friend. She was a multi-dimensional Asian character in a hit series. And despite displaying her many racially stereotypical and incredibly strange traits, Tina still received the undying support of her friends, with the sign held up at her graduation reading “Queen Tina 4Eva,” rounding off with Glee’s fundamental message: it’s okay to be yourself.
Ali Wong in Baby Cobra, Hard Knock Wife, and Always Be My Maybe
And finally, Ali Wong is the liberated, blatantly honest Asian-American woman I want to be. She’s a comedian who hates answering the question “What’s it like being an Asian-American woman in Hollywood?” because her identity and humour extend far beyond her race. This is obvious in both of her Netflix comedy specials, in which she says whatever the hell she’s thinking. She jokes about shitting, sleeping with homeless people, and her dreams of becoming a housewife. And if jokes about her Asian-American heritage come into the mix, they’re there because they’re her experiences, not because they’re her niche.
In an interview with Elle Magazine, Ali Wong gave advice to Asian-American women who want to make it anywhere, saying “Let go of seeing yourself as nothing more than an Asian-American woman… Expose yourself to how other people in America live, and you’ll discover the universal struggles that connect us.” At the core of craving cultural representation on screen is the need to identify with a character, whether it be through appearances or shared experiences. Ultimately, we want Asian-Americans on screen to be seen as more than their race. We want to be shown as multifaceted human beings with emotions and journeys to which any human, from any background, can relate. While there’s still a long way to go, if these Asian-American characters are a testament to anything, it’s that Hollywood is finally taking small steps to make this happen.
By Meghan Chiew