Joseph An | Captain (Asian) America
Honest-to-God | Why Asian Americans are neither comic book victims nor heroes
April 19, 2012, 12:00 am · Updated April 23, 2012, 12:11 am·
Lately, the home of the Asian Arts Initiative — a building on the outskirts of Philadelphia’s Chinatown — has been attracting more passersby than usual. Those who stop in their tracks are mostly hipster types and college students. They peer through large glass windows, trying to catch a better glimpse of the walls plastered with bubblegum pink and yellow, shamelessly scribbled with Comic Sans.
Upon entering, I’m told, “Enjoy your stay!” But I soon realize that’s a tall order. The “Marvel and Monsters” exhibition is not what I imagined or hoped for. It tells the stories of the heroes of America through comics (and no, not Captain America) — this is the story of Asian Americans.
Inside the Asian Arts Initiative, I am guided through a history of how Asian characters were portrayed in American comic books. The first display reads, “Shades of Yellow.” Here, slips of cardboard in different shades of yellow that comic books once used to portray Asian characters are on display. I spot an unusually greyish yellow and one that resembles red. I see neon and even orange, but my yellow is nowhere to be found.
Further into the exhibit, I spy the Guru, the Brain, the Temptress, the Manipulator, the Alien, the Kamikaze, the Brute, the Lotus Blossom, the Chop-Chop. These characters represent the only portrayal of Asians that most Americans encountered in their entertainment. The problem is, I don’t fit into any of these categories. No one does.
“I wouldn’t get hung up about seeing Asian tyrants or gangster or femme fatales or martial artists if they were all different and individual and human,” reads a quote on display from Greg Pak, a comic book writer and film director. “What I get angry about is that there are a million ways to write an Asian martial artist, so why is it that we keep on seeing the same darned one?”
I walk around the building, horrified and slightly amused by the absurdly exaggerated comic illustrations of Asians staring at me from the walls. Then I hear “Wow, I didn’t know this!” from a couple as they read some of the descriptions about how Asians were portrayed in comic books. I struggle to decide which is worse: denial or ignorance.
In December, when choosing which courses to take, I was most interested in selecting ones with high professor and low difficulty ratings. One of those rare goodies was a seminar called, “Asian American Activism” taught by professor Ajay Nair, associate vice provost for student affairs.
I can safely say this seminar has been one of the most rewarding and enlightening courses I have taken at Penn (hope you’re reading this, Dr. Nair — an ‘A’ on my final will do, thank you).
Before this class, I was largely unaware and apathetic toward the issues surrounding my ethnicity and race. I didn’t want to make mountains out of molehills. I didn’t want to be that guy who made an issue about everything that had to do with being Asian. I wanted to be inconspicuous about it.
Now, after 10 seminars worth of discussion, working with the Asian Arts Initiative and interviewing Penn alumni of color about their experiences, I have a different perspective. I realize that my prior tendency to withdraw my voice from the discussion of the Asian-American experience hindered my understanding of this very topic.
If there’s one thing I learned from this class, it’s that no one can be defined. Asian Americans, through all their struggles, are not asking to be viewed as comic book victims or heroes. We’re asking — no, we’re demanding — to be seen as human.
Joseph An is a College freshman from Vancouver, Canada. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Honest-to-God appears every other Thursday.