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  • Samantha Der

Asian Americans: Struggling, surviving and evolving into something new (Part 2 of 2)

America’s entertainment landscape continues to evolve. In the past, Asian/Asian American men typically could not get romantic lead roles in studio-produced Hollywood films. Malaysian-British actor, Henry Golding, changed that with the film "Crazy Rich Asians" (2018) co-starring Constance Wu. "Always Be My Maybe" (2019), starring Ali Wong and Russell Park was another Netflix romantic comedy hit where the leading couple are both Asian American.

Hollywood also rarely, if ever, cast an Asian male with a non-Asian female in a leading romantic role. We seem to have turned a corner with that as well. Henry Golding co-starred with Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick in the film "A Simple Favor" (2018). Henry Golding also co-starred with Emilia Clarke in the romantic comedy "Last Christmas" (2019). Chinese-American actor Jimmy O. Yang also co-starred with Nina Dobrev in the romantic comedy "Love Hard" (2021). Twenty-two years ago, in the movie "Romeo Must Die" (2000), which was based on the romantic "Romeo and Juliet" classic, Hong Kong actor Jet Li gives his co-star Aaliyah a hug in the final scene. Today, Asian actors, like Golding and Yang, actually get the girl in the end and kiss her.

Photo: Royal Anwar

Critics have also long complained that the “model minority” image is a myth perpetuated by the media. Not all Asians are wealthy and successful. This too is changing as we have begun to see stories of Asian Americans with more varied backgrounds. Actress Awkwafina aka Nora Lum, for example, defies blanket assumptions about Asians with her role in the HBO comedy series "Awkwafina is Nora from Queens" (2020–present). Her character, Nora, didn’t go to college, gets fired from her job, accidentally burns down a friend’s apartment, works at a cannabis dispensary, and lives in a modest, urban home with her dad and quirky grandmother. While a number of releases have been mentioned in this article, there have been many other successful movie, book, music and streaming TV projects that have featured Asians/Asian Americans artists in the past three years. Many more are currently in development and in production.

Opportunities have clearly opened up in recent years for Asians and Asian Americans in entertainment.  A few of the many recent “firsts” for Asians in entertainment must be mentioned. Actor Simu Liu is the first Asian Marvel superhero. He plays Shang-Chi in the movie "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" (2021). Bowen Yang is the first full Asian on-air cast member of "Saturday Night Live" hired in 2019. Awkwafina is the first woman of Asian descent (Korean and Chinese) to win a Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for her role in the film "The Farewell" (2019). Chinese-born filmmaker, Chloe Zhao, is the first Asian woman and second woman ever to have won an Academy Award for Best Director for her film "Nomadland" (2020). "Nomadland" also won for Best Picture. Actress Yu-Jung Youn is the first Korean actress to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in "Minari" (2020). The previous year, at the 92nd Academy Awards, the South Korean film, "Parasite" (2019), won four awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film. It was the first non-English language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

Speaking of non-English speaking entertainers, the Korean wave or hallyu, has made a significant impact on American pop culture as well. The Korean streaming TV series "Squid Game," released in 2021, is Netflix’s most-watched series, ranking number one for the most watched show in 94 countries, including the United States.

Other milestone “firsts” include those in music. The South Korean K-pop band, BTS, for example, is the first group since The Beatles to have six No. 1 songs on America’s Billboard Hot 100 in just over a year (Aug 2020–Sept 2021). Imagine turning on the radio in Oklahoma City and hearing Suga rap in Korean! BTS has turned the Empire State building in New York their signature purple in 2019; had a McDonald’s meal named after them—the BTS meal in 2021; are regular guests on late night talk shows; were on the cover of Time magazine in 2018 and were named Entertainer of the Year by Time magazine in 2020. They have won countless awards, including many from American cultural institutions—MTV, iHeart Radio, and the Billboard Music Awards. Most recently, they won Artist of the Year, Favorite Pop Group, and Favorite Pop Song at the American Music Awards in 2021. They are nominated for a Grammy in 2022.

The fact that BTS first became popular in the United States and worldwide by singing in Korean is another testament to changing times. CNET reporter Roger Cheng, in a July 12, 2021 article, references today’s “golden age” of representation for Asians. When one compares images of “Long Duk Dong” from the movie "Sixteen Candles" to the hysterical American fans screaming saranghae (I love you) to Asian K-Pop and K-Drama actors, it is striking to think how far we’ve come. While there is a lot of hate and self-hate that Asian Americans must deal with, there is also a whole lot of love for the people and culture.

Asian America will undoubtedly continue to evolve in new and surprising ways. As mentioned, social media has certainly helped to increase awareness and access to Asian and Asian American artists, musicians, creators, and entertainers. The intimate and personal nature of platforms such as YouTube have also helped to legitimize and humanize minorities who were previously unseen.

Changing demographics in the U.S. have also created an environment more receptive to Asian faces on screen and on stage. Darnell Hunt, dean of UCLA’s social sciences division said in an Associated Press article dated October 26, 2021: “People basically want to see the TV shows that look like America, that have characters they can relate to and have experiences that resonate with them.” How Americans look and racially identify will also continue to impact how Asians and Asian Americans are perceived and accepted online, on-screen, and in real life. Interestingly, the fastest growing demographic in the country is multiracial people. According to U.S. census data, in ten years, there was a 276% increase in multiracial people—from 9 million in 2010 to 33.8 million people in 2020. That equates to roughly 1 in 10 Americans now identifying as being of two or more races. A Washington Post article dated October 8, 2021, quotes Richard Alba, demographer and professor of sociology at the City University of New York: “The mixing of all sorts [of races] is really a new force in 21st-century America…. We’re talking about a big, powerful phenomenon.”

Photo: Anastasia Shuraeva

U.S. Census data showed that from 2010 to 2020, the population of specifically multiracial Asians grew faster (55% increase) than the Asian alone population (35.5% increase). In 2020, there were close to 5 million Americans who identified as Asian American or Pacific Islander in combination with another race group. When 1 out of every 5 AAPIs is mixed race, that will certainly affect social/cultural perceptions and behaviors within and outside the AAPI psyche.

The influence of these demographic changes can be seen on social media. Some of the biggest and most popular, most watched YouTubers are of mixed race—Alex Burriss (Filipino and white) with 11.5 million subscribers; Liza Koshy (South Asian and German) with 17.5 million subscribers; and Lauren Riihimaki (Japanese and Finnish/Ukrainian) with 8.6 million subscribers. Recently trending are also the highly watched channels of members of a new creator house in New York City called “urmom’s house.” The roommates include Korean American Elliot Choy and three American biracial Asians—Kelly Wakasa (Japanese and German), Ann Marie Chase (Korean and Finnish/German), and Ashley Alexander (Korean and British/French). Their videos also include people in their circles—an ex, siblings, and friends of the group—who are also multiracial Asian. The talk is that these fun-loving roommates are “the modern day ‘Friends.’”

In their videos, the creators are high energy, entertaining, and funny. There’s even a possible Rachel-Ross love dynamic developing.They comment how well they relate to each other, how they’re like a family and feel at home with each other. Multiracial Asian Americans have their own distinct experiences and common identities and may not fit traditional Asian stereotypes. The rapid expansion of this particular Asian American demographic has spawned terms on social media, such as “Blasian” (Black and Asian) and “Waysian” (white and Asian). It has also led to the creation of online community groups like r/hapas on Reddit, tags on social media, and the growth of multiracial student clubs on college campuses. The growing trend of multiracial Asians dating other multiracial Asians as seen in media and offline is also an emerging social dynamic. Rather than trying to blend in to either race, multiracial people are taking pride and ownership of their own unique communities.

Life for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders hasn’t been easy, but the experiences and identities of the group have continued to develop in unique and positive ways. Today, it is more plausible than ever to become all that you can be—in any field. Courageous Asian Americans have been reaching new milestones; they are achieving many “firsts” and inspiring others to reach for the stars. Cathy Park Hong writes in her book, "Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning": “I like to think that the self-hating Asian is on its way out.” Hopefully the kind of extreme self-hate and subsequent Asian repulsion for other Asians, as Hong describes, will be diminished given the increasing prevalence and popularity of relatable, well-rounded Asians/Asian Americans in film, TV, music, books, and social media. Of course, the world is not without challenges; but each day is a new opportunity to move past all the haters, go after your dreams—in a way that’s authentic and on your own terms—and make them a reality. America is waiting.


Cover photo: Joseph Gonzalez; @prettysleep1; HiveBoxx


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