By Evan Seto || Contributing Writer
On Wednesday February 4, 2015, a sitcom premiered on ABC called Fresh Off the Boat. This is network television’s first Asian-American show in nearly 21 years, and only the third attempt in the history of American television. The fact that this bears mentioning speaks to the problem, and why I want this show to do well. In America today, the Asian-American experience is a sorely underrepresented identity, and one that is not gaining awareness, I would even argue it is one that is regressing.
I was born in New York, to two Chinese-American parents. Although my grandparents were all born in China, they moved to the United States at a relatively young age. I grew up speaking English, and my knowledge of the Chinese language can be described as sorely lacking at best, and nonexistent at worst. I grew up and went to school in New Jersey, among a set of people that can be described as typically American. On the surface, my upbringing isn’t particularly culturally distinct, and seems to be a bit whitewashed. Friends often tell me things like, “You’re practically white.” Perhaps they consider it a compliment, but I consider it an affront to my cultural identity. I consider myself a proud Chinese-American, and there are many facets of my life that speak to that, although it may not be obvious. The food I eat, the traditions I hold sacred, the cultural identity that I have a strong affinity for, and more define me as who I am today.
This identity is often lost on the majority of people because of the image of the “model minority.” It is true that many Asian-American people have tried hard to integrate into the mainstream of American society. Many cultures have struggled to integrate, but no other minority has been considered as successful as the Asian-Americans who arrived in this country a few generations ago. This is where stereotypes like the oppressive parents, the straight-A students, the shy wallflowers, and the hard worker have come from. Some of those can certainly be construed as compliments, but there’s a lot of baggage that comes with those labels. A stereotyped Asian-American is smart, but uncreative, unambitious, not personable, and uncontroversial.
Take Jeremy Lin, for example. For me personally, my love for Linsanity stemmed partially because for those two weeks, people were actually talking about not only the novelty of an Asian-American excelling in the NBA, but also about Asian-American issues in America. At least on ESPN, people were recognizing these distinctions. There’s also a reason I have an affinity for Jeremy Lin that I don’t have for Yao Ming. The chasm between Asian, and Asian-American, is vast.
The reason the Asian-American experience is losing ground in American society today is because of the rise of Asia. Yes, my ancestors and my grandparents came from China. But our experience could not be more different. As much as I defend my Asianess in the face of my perceived Americanization, I also fight for my American identity in the face of people’s rapidly forming opinion of Asians who live in Asia. There is no place where this distinction is dying more than the college campus. Colleges are increasingly admitting international students, many of whom hail from East Asia.
The problems start in college admissions. International students are not eligible for federal or state financial assistance, so many can be counted on to bring a lot of money into their school, as maintained in this New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/education/international-students-pay-top-dollar-at-us-colleges.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&. Asian-Americans, on the other hand, fall into the same diverse set of socioeconomic backgrounds that any white, black, or Latino American falls into. However, in racial categorization, both Asians and Asian-Americans check the same box. Some have theorized that the rise of international students in college admissions has been to the detriment of Asian-Americans (see, for instance, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-12-28/lure-of-chinese-tuition-squeezes-out-asian-americans-at-california-schools). It is said that the most difficult category to be in in college admissions is not to be a white American, but to be an Asian-American. I don’t want to make any accusations, but I am saying that most college admissions officials often lack, as many Americans do, a grasp on the distinction between the Asian immigrant experience and the Asian-American experience.
Once in colleges, some of the cruelest stereotypes persist. The international students that now populate campuses across the nation often keep company among themselves, are perceived as constantly studying in the library, and completely eschewing the typical American college experience.
Do you want to know the worst part about these stereotypes? The vast majority of people don’t consider them racist. I know other minority groups also suffer in America today, but a typical educated person can usually figure out what is racist when it comes to Black and Latino Americans. This is not the case when it comes to Asian-Americans. Casual racism still persists when it comes to Asian-Americans. This is what I’ve been trying to point out with this article: the things people said about Jeremy Lin, when my friends of all ethnicities consider me “practically white,” the college admissions practices, and the jokes people on college campuses make. It holds us back from being the people we know we can be, throughout our careers and our lives.
That’s why I’m rooting for Fresh Off the Boat. I haven’t seen it yet, and I don’t even particularly care for the author of its source material, Eddie Huang. However, an Asian-American network sitcom that directly deals with issues of race and cultural identity in the Asian-American experience is a rare thing for our community. Perhaps it can be a step towards normalizing perceptions of our experience, and bring awareness to the distinctiveness of our often forgotten identity, one that is still integral to American society.