Growing up, I was always told walking away was better than putting up a fight. When I encountered Asian stereotyping — sometimes bordering on racism — I would ignore it, trying to be a model for “words will never hurt me.”
But last week, a movie I stumbled upon while on a long transatlantic flight made me realize the fatal flaw of my aloof attitude.
I started watching “21 and Over,” thinking that it would be another trashy comedy that I would get some decent laughs out of; I was wrong. The movie focuses on two friends, Casey and Miller, who are taking their old buddy from high school, Jeff, out for his 21st birthday, which happens to be the day before Jeff’s important medical school interview. As you can already guess, Jeff has to be Asian — duh.
I ended up staring blankly at the screen while the movie played. Instead of laughing, I was horrified by what ended up being such a one-dimensional depiction of an Asian-American in 2013.
You’d think that we would have come a long way since the infamous Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles” of 1984. But in some ways, Jeff from “21 and Over” is just a modernized version of Long Duk Dong who speaks good English.
Coming from a few generations of doctors, Jeff is a pre-med student (of course). He is shown as a weak-willed student who only does what his parents want him to do — study science diligently and go to medical school — and who struggles to “enjoy” life. As viewers, we aren’t laughing with Jeff. Instead, we’re laughing at him as he struggles to handle his alcohol (that’s so Asian, right?), passes out and is thrown from the third story of a building as his friends try to get him home.
Of course, Hollywood creates a stereotypical version of Jeff’s dad to vilify — here, the soul-crushing, stern Asian father who keeps his son on track to be a doctor with intimidation.
When Jeff reveals to his friends towards the end that he doesn’t want to be pre-med anymore, they help him gather the courage to tell his father, who eventually retreats like a defeated villain only after Jeff’s friend Miller punches him for rejecting his son’s lack of interest in medicine. The movie pits “Asian culture” against “American culture,” with American values ultimately emerging “victorious.”
Of course, some claim the movie was just trying to be funny — and maybe I do just need to learn to enjoy life like Jeff — but is it fair to allow a movie to subtly ingrain racist stereotypes into its viewers?
This July, the band Day Above Ground released a song, “Asian Girlz.” While the band would later say “We are not racist,” dismissing the song as a joke, a good chunk of the lyrics are a laundry list of stereotypically Asian things. How many times can society get away with labeling racism as comedy?
Clearly, our views of Asian-Americans are still archaic and undeveloped. If other minorities can have developed characters — think Kurt from “Glee” or Sophia from “Orange is the New Black” — why can’t Asian-Americans?
If you look at Penn’s Asian student body, we may embody some of the stereotypes, but we also show how wrong they can be. We really don’t look alike, we aren’t all just biology or BBB majors, some of us dance and sing and some of us even write for the school newspaper.
So what can we do to address pervasive stereotyping? According to Jerry Liu, a 2013 Penn graduate and currently a web producer at a Philadelphia TV station, preventing more entertainment like “21 and Over” requires a two-fold approach.
Standing up against stereotypical portrayals of Asian-Americans alone isn’t enough. “We also need [to] support Asian-Americans who want to take the dive into … non-stereotypical Asian activities,” he told me.
My epiphany on my flight made me realize the danger of my apathy towards Asian stereotyping in everyday life. Relying on stereotypes for a punch line isn’t funny, it’s lazy. And so is failing to speak out.
Robert Hsu, a College and Wharton junior from Novi, Mich. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @mrroberthsu. “The Casual Observer” appears every other Friday.
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