On Being Asian American & The Issue with Whitewashing

On Being Asian American & The Issue with Whitewashing

Unless you've been living under a rock recently, you probably know that race is sort of a big issue right now in America--almost as big as the whole controversy surrounding Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian. Now, I'm not an expert on either issue, race or the Taylor controversy, but there are a few things that I feel the need to touch upon, including the recent public outrage toward whitewashing in the movie industry.

2016, though hardly past the halfway mark, has already witnessed quite a few major incidents: police shootings followed by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Donald Trump's increasingly controversial presidential campaign, and now the issue over the lack of Asian Americans on the big screen.

Just for clarification, I am Chinese American. My parents were both born in China, and they immigrated to the US a few years before my sister and I were born. When I was little, being Asian was easy. I got along with my teachers and played with my fellow preschoolers, and I didn't really pay any attention to the world around me. My childhood was all sunshine and daisies--flying down the street on my bicycle in the dress I had worn to my piano recital earlier. However, as I grew older, the repercussions of being from an immigrant family began to show themselves. That feeling of childhood freedom was quickly replaced by a heavy, rainy awareness of society's values. It's like one of those times when it's sunny outside and then the next thing you know, rain comes thundering down out of nowhere. I started to notice the strange looks the cashier gave my mother when she didn't understand what "Paper or plastic?" meant. I started to hear the broken English crawling out of my mother's mouth and felt embarrassed and annoyed by it. I started to receive comments from my classmates that took the form of "What do Asians do to get so smart?" or "I don't know. Ask that girl, she's Asian".

Last year, my English class was instructed to write a bildungsroman, which is the term you use when you want to sound more pretentious than saying "personal narrative". More specifically, though, a bildungsroman is a recount of personal experiences that are shaped by spiritual, formative, and educational forces. I wrote about a piece about volunteering at a retirement home, and how I came to see the elderly's viewpoint of life and their experiences. One of my friends, who is also Asian, wrote about her struggle with accepting her identity and Chinese heritage, and how she'd always felt compelled to despise her ethnicity. When I read her narrative, a few lines in particular stood out to me: "I used to love reading (and still do), but almost all the books I read featured a white protagonist and a stereotypical American family. I had the impression that to go on cool adventures and have loving families, you had to be white."

I was shocked and slightly distraught after reading her narrative. Never had I fully been aware of the oppression that Asians faced, the oppression that lurked discreetly even within children's stories. Previously, I'd been taught and conditioned to accept that white was the dominant race in America--the "norm". I never could've imagined that an Asian protagonist was possible. They were almost always delegated minor roles--the white protagonist's Asian friend, perhaps, or an Asian family that a white character encounters when visiting a foreign country. After I realized that Asians can and should have roles, in literature or film or any other form of media, I felt that change was an imminent necessity.

The reason why the issue of whitewashing is so important is because when little Asian boys and girls growing up in America turn on the TV set and see virtually every show dominated by white characters, it sends a message that reads something along the lines of, Asians cannot share the same experiences and roles that white people do. These kids are then conditioned to believe that they don't deserve a role in the spotlight, that they are forever cast backstage, that they cannot have their spot on the stage.

Take, for example, the recent dilemma sparked over Matt Damon's role in the to-be-released movie "The Great Wall". This isn't the first instance that a white actor has assumed the role of an Asian character, but this specific movie has gotten so much publicity because of its magnitude and its many big actors (such as Lu Han--I would start fangirling but this probably isn't the appropriate time to do so). I personally love Matt Damon's work, but placing him into such a role only perpetuates the idea of whitewashing.

Constance Wu, an actress who stars in the TV series "Fresh Off the Boat" (which is an absolutely amazing show by the way), offered her insight about this issue on Twitter.


It's true awareness is something that needs to be raised and spread around. How else will people, especially children, learn to eschew this ugly stereotype surrounding Asian Americans in the media as well as the other roles they take in society? Wu tweeted more about her opinion, which I think is very insightful and worth a read: https://twitter.com/ConstanceWu/status/759086955816554496. 

The consequences of these stereotypes are apparent everywhere among the Asian American community. More than once, friends have told me about the struggles they've faced because of their race--how they felt like they couldn't fit in, or how they've received racist remarks from fellow classmates. "All Asians look the same" and "Are you squinting because you're nearsighted or because you're Asian" are a few common examples that I hear at school.

Asian Americans are being forced to shy away from their ethnicity and culture instead of embracing it, and it's a horrible thing. Whatever they are, culture and ethnicity should be embraced and even celebrated. When I visited China for vacation a few weeks ago, I only realized how unimaginably rich and diverse my culture was. China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world with thousands and thousands of years brimming with history, and this--this glorious, breathtaking culture--is embedded in my bones, in my family, in all the ancestors before me. How could one not love and appreciate this magnificence that shapes so much of our identity? Being Asian should be something that should be looked upon with pride. Whenever one of my friends dejectedly sigh to me that they wished that they were white because everything would be "so much easier", I want to go and remind them of everything that they are made up, that their culture is made of. I want to pull a slice of China's manifold culture--the steamed pork buns in busy crowded streets, the chiming bells and festive fireworks on Lunar New Year, the vast wheat fields hidden among quiet and mystical mountains--and store it in their minds as a perpetual reminder that their ethnicity is beautiful and should not be taken lightly.

Embracing your own identity is far from an easy thing to do; it takes time and change and some self-reflection. My goal in writing this post is to express the circumstances that Asian Americans are surrounded by, and how I feel about the current situations that plague Asian Americans. When society can learn to accept us and reject stereotypes, and when Asian Americans can embrace themselves, then the situation will be better. Not perfect, but better.

I'm going to end this post with a quote from "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan, one of my favorite books of all time:

"People there only dream that it is China, because if you are Chinese you can never let go of China in your mind."

And since I love the book so much, I'll include a second quote (that may or may not be related to this post but whatever):

"I asked myself, what is true about a person? Would I change in the same way the river changes color but still be the same person? And then I saw the curtains blowing wildly, and outside rain was falling harder, causing everyone to scurry and shout. I smiled. And then I realized it was the first time I could see the power of the wind. I couldn’t see the wind itself, but I could see it carried the water that filled the rivers and shaped the countryside. It caused men to yelp and dance."

Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or feedback, please feel free to comment below. :)


Published by Cindy Song

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