How to be somewhat invisible (without really trying) in America

Culture Curmudgeon

Ken Jeong Ken Jeong speaking at the 2012 WonderCon in Anaheim, California. PHOTO/ Gage Skidmore via flickr

I am invisible, probably even a phantom. But I’m not like those beings you hear about in ghost stories or watch in science fiction flicks. I am invisible in the sense that I’m almost nonexistent to almost all those who consume Western pop culture- whether they read comic books or mass market novels or watch Hollywood blockbusters. 

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business America show on CCTV America. His analysis represents his views alone.

Some will say that as an Asian American man I exaggerate, that I am paranoid. They probably have a point because there are Asian American men who figure prominently in western culture and to be more specific, U.S. culture.

Some will say we have a proud history. And who wouldn’t be proud of Long Duk Dong, everyone’s favorite Asian nerd in the 80’s Hollywood hit ‘Sixteen Candles’ or the sexless and stoic Captain Sulu in the original Star Trek television series, or Charlie Chan that scheming and evil villain in 1950s pulp fiction, or the goofy, chop-socky, and also strangely asexual Chinese guy in any action movie starring Jacky Chan and/or Jet Li.

Some will even point out that the career of Ken Jeong is proof that the Asian American thespian has come a long way. Yes, that same Ken Jeong of ‘Hangover’ fame. The film where he became a megastar through histrionics, dressing like hipsterized version of Liberace and speaking a hybrid of pidgin English and an over-the-top Chinese accent.

Maybe you get my point but then again you probably are confused. You may ask, ‘aren’t all these characters and actors proof that we, as a community of Asian Americans (namely the men), are adequately represented in the U.S. media and the wider pop culture landscape? And maybe I’ll agree with you.

Unfortunately, being both an Asian American man and an Asian from Asia I’m finding it hard to come up with real people who actually resemble the Asian Americans who populate Hollywood and Western culture.

To be more specific, I don’t know many Asian American men who fit the typical Hollywood perception of us. It’s hard to find a U.S. born Asian American man who can barely speak English, who is the stereotype of a nerd, who is completely emasculated and sexless, who doesn’t mind getting bullied, who knows kung fu, who loves Moo goo gai pan (which isn’t really a Chinese dish), etc. Maybe they existed in ages past, but I doubt it.

Some pop culture experts will point out that all the other ethnicities have had odd representations in Tinseltown and pop-culture throughout the years- whether they be white, black, yellow, brown, pink, purple, green, maybe even magenta. And I would agree that there are the European and Caucasoid villains and weirdos aplenty from Hans Gruber to the talented Mr. Ripley.

But those stereotypical villains had their polar opposites in heroes and complicated characters whom audiences’ cheered for and fell in love with. Just take a look at the past decade in Hollywood. Almost all of the leading men are monochromatic.

From Brad Pitt to George Clooney to Tom Hiddleston to Robert Downey Jr to Liam Neeson to Chris Hemsworth to Frank Underwood (better known as Kevin Spacey) to Bradley Cooper to Michael Fassbender to Daniel Craig to almost every main male character in Game of Thrones.

Maybe you get my point. And yes, one can argue that there are also Black and Latino male superstars: from Denzel Washington to Will Smith to Idris Elba to Samuel L. Jackson to Ice Cube to Kevin Hart to Michael Pena to Javier Bardem to Oscar Isaac, etc.

As for the most prominent Asian American actors we have Ken Jeong, John Cho, Aziz Ansari, Sung Kang and Randall Park. And you may ask what about Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Jacky Chan? Yes, they’re Asian but not American. And among the Asian Americans I mentioned- like Aziz Ansari, Sung Kang, John Cho and Randall Park- they’ve had roles that don’t require them to speak with funny accents or have ridiculous mannerisms. But I’ll hazard a guess that you probably can’t even put faces to those names.

And some of you will say: ‘wait a minute, aren’t Asian American actresses making giant strides in Hollywood?’ To which I will respond: ‘Yes, I’m completely part of that choir.’ Asian American actresses get offered fully fleshed out roles that are complex and require real thespian skills.

But then again, I’m talking as an Asian American man aren’t I? And Asian American men in western culture are completely different and much inferior species compared to their female counterparts.

So, most of you will then ask: ‘What’s your point?’

My point, dear reader, is that I’m sick of being mis-and-under-represented in Western media. My point is that I’m invisible. My point is that I don’t see myself reflected and represented in a culture(Western and U.S.) that’s supposed to be my own. My point, dearest audience, is that I don’t want to be made a butt of racially –tinged jokes and stereotypes. Or if you do, please also give Asian American males the opportunity to play characters of depth and complexity. Given the chance, I’m sure any of the Asian American actors I mentioned earlier can and probably pull a Leonardo DiCaprio to win an Academy Award. But even the Oscars are problematic for obvious reasons.

When I look at this country, I see one whose racial makeup is terribly represented in the media- whether it is in books, film, music, etc. Looking at the latest statistics, nearly half of the U.S. population is made up of people of color. By 2060, they’ll be the majority.

But if you look at television shows, a majority of movies being produced, and the popular culture dominating most of the world- you’d be forgiven to think that large swathes of the nation or the world doesn’t exist. That someone like me- the quintessential immigrant and aspiring Asian American- doesn’t matter.