Jeremy Lin, Star Trek, Top Chef, and The Walking Dead: Reflections On Asian Americans In The Media Today

By Elliott Wang

My buddy Terry burst into Pho So 1 (best pho in Van Nuys!), iPhone in hand, exclaiming incredulously, “Thirty eight points!” I looked at him blankly. He blurted, “JLIN! Versus the Lakers! Knicks won!”

The idea of it took me a moment to sink in. Being Taiwanese American myself, I’d obviously hoped for the best. Indeed, just being an American, I’d hoped for the best, swept up as many Americans have been in the double underdog (Lin + Knicks) story. But hope is so often dashed, and this wasn’t the pathetic Nets, the middling Jazz, or even the sorta-decent Wizards. This was none other than the Los Angeles Lakers… against whom Lin produced thirty-eight points and seven assists to lead his team in a stunning victory. I turned to Terry and said, “This is it.” This time, it was he who looked at me blankly. “This is the big break for Asian American men.”

I’d said much the same thing the night before to my fiancée, but with considerably less conviction. She, being an Asian American actor in Hollywood, is as keen an observer—if not more so—of AA trends in American mainstream culture as I. It’s no secret to those in our camp that, aside from such new-media YouTube sensations as KevJumba and FreddieW, prominently sexy AA men onscreen in traditional outlets are few and far between. Even guys like John Cho, in prominent roles like Star Trek’s Sulu, are rendered near asexual: sure, Sulu is a great role for an Asian American man, but despite his masculine competence as a martial artist, he holds no romantic interest for any women in the film and clearly lacks the swashbuckling swagger of studs like Chris Pine as Kirk or Karl Urban as Bones. The way I see it, guys like John Cho mostly make AA girls swoon: most non-AA girls might regard him well, would respect his skills and his talents, but then would probably place him squarely in the friend zone. It’s great progress, but it isn’t the uncompromised equality that we AA men ultimately seek. We want the next Captain Kirk to be AA, the next Joe Black to be AA, the next Rocky, the next Bourne, the next Bond to be AA. Anyway, that night, I posited to my fiancée that within two to three years, we will start seeing Asian American men in more-or-less unadulterated manly-men roles. I think, at that point, she remained somewhat skeptical, as she hadn’t fully caught Lin fever… yet.

Back to the restaurant: as excited as he was over Lin’s performance, Terry didn’t buy it either, but that was for another reason. “There are plenty of hot Asian males in American media!”

“Like whom?” I asked. “Bruce Lee? Jackie Chan? Jet Li? Rain? They’re all Asian Asians, not Asian Americans. There’s a key distinction.”

“I guess…” Terry reluctantly drawled.

I think most 8Asians readers easily recognize this distinction. For me, however, it wasn’t until tonight that I realized its true significance. It’s not just that those yellow-skinned imports don’t Linspire us AA men because we grew up in totally different worlds and share totally different backgrounds. It’s not how—even in their ass-kicking roles—they rarely get the girl, or any other facile thing as, say, their textbook FOB attempts at speaking English.

It’s that they’re Asian, and we aren’t. We’re Americans.

The Jay Chou’s, the Chow Yun Fat’s, and the Beat Takeshi’s aren’t excellent at being Americans; they’re excellent at being Asian. They’re excellent at being monks and Yakuza assassins, at kicking ass in a platonic way and then being all brooding and mysterious and exotic. On the other hand, if you judge them using a checklist of All-American criteria, they make for really crappy Americans. They can’t speak English, they don’t “get” our culture, they’re ignorant and sometimes borderline sociopathic in this American context.

In America, a yellow man can find easy acceptance and veneration as a sushi chef, or maybe some sort of “fusion” or “Asian”-inspired cook, but when was the last time you saw a Takayama helming a famous “Western” kitchen (I can think of exactly one… at Mélisse). Even on Top Chef, where Asian Americans have truly been outperforming, AA chefs often fall back on their “unique Asian perspective” to compete with their counterparts, which somehow makes the AA cooking seem less… full-bloodedly American. Yet in our day-to-day lives, most AA men (at least those of us who’ve gotten over our earlier life identity crises) aren’t trying to sell our Asian American-ness. We aren’t trying to garner the respect of our white, black, and brown friends by bringing more Asian-ness to the table. We want to kick ass, take names, and be respected for being unashamedly, unabashedly American. We want to sear steaks and flip burgers and drink beers with the best of them, to lift weights and ride Harleys and log trees, Paul Bunyan-style. We shouldn’t have to consistently fall back and rely on the Asian part of Asian American to stand out in America.

Which finally brings me back to Lin. He’s done it. Forget the rest of the season, the rest of his career; his name is already in the history books, for having bested Iverson and Shaq and Jordan by accumulating the most points in by any player in the history of the NBA in his first four career starts. He’s done it, and it has nothing to do with his yellow skin. It has nothing to do with his Taiwanese heritage, much as the folks on that faraway island are clamoring to share in his glory. It’s got nothing to do with any of that. Sure, his Asian-ness is a bonus, what with the Harvard and the humility and the hard work and such. But in any other context, we’d call him nothing more than an exemplification of the model minority. The only reason why we care about him, the only reason why we celebrate every detail of his life and his background, is because he’s beaten every other color of American at—literally—their own game. He isn’t a ping-pong player, or a golfer, or a tennis phenom. He is an amazing basketball player, a star point guard in the NBA, and that’s about as American as it gets. His truly inspiring underdog story is one for which all Americans can root, and his skills on the court are something to which seemingly all American men aspire. He is the first Asian American leading man.

The Walking Dead’s season 2.5 premiered this past Sunday. The moment I saw Glenn and Maggie, I was transported to a pre-Linsanity state of nostalgia, when Steven Yeun’s conquering of the White Woman had become a near-scandalous cause célèbre for Asian American men on the Internet, with indignant, racist (presumably) white American men on the opposing side. It was considered a groundbreaking effort—by Kirkman when it presented in the comics, then by the showrunners when it appeared on TV. Now… it just seems quaint.

Elliott Wang was born in NorCal, grew up in Taipei, went to college in Philly, and now resides in LA. He considers himself a generation 1.667 Asian American, though that number is subject to adjustment without notification. He often times has nothing better to do.

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