“Asian-Americans,” Admission, and Assimilation

As some of you know, I review the CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls every Monday night. I do so mostly because The A.V. Club has dropped it from its reviewed shows, and partly because it brings in the hits. This past episode featured the following exchange between Korean diner owner [he’s Korean, the diner is not] Han Lee, played by Matthew Moy, and casting director Tom, played by Eddie Shin:

Before you ask, yes, I put the video together myself.

The reason this struck me is that it highlights a humorous turn of events that I’ve observed more than once. As I mentioned in my review, Shin’s character’s response echoes, almost word for word, that of Howling Commando Jim Morita, played by Kenneth Choi in Captain America: The First Avenger:

Yes, I put that clip together as well. Sorry for the out-of-sync sound.

It really got me wondering about why this sort of thing crops up in both television and film. Obviously the purpose is to amuse the audience at one character’s expectations being overturned. The discomfort of finding out that a person who you judged based on their outward appearance was actually not what you once thought.

Now don’t get me wrong, this happens all the time. We’ve all seen, in one form or another, one character’s chagrin at judging another based on first impressions of what they look like. The macho guy bragging to the young lady about firearms and then being soundly outmatched at the shooting range is but one example. The difference here is the common factor of race.

To go further, the common factor of two Asian men revealing that they are, in fact, Asian-American. “Born in the USA,” as that one Bruce Springsteen song goes. In the first case, with Tom, he does not personally identify with being Korean. As it is revealed later on in the episode, he was raised by two White women. Han, the Korean native, continues to press on the common bond he believes they have, but to no avail.

In the second case Jim Morita’s response is to what could be perceived as a veiled threat. Dum Dum Dugan’s question “Are we taking everybody now?” is in reference to the other front in the war being fought in the Pacific. Morita flashing his dogtags reveals that he was likely one of the Nisei, American Born Japanese battalions who fought in the European theatre in World War II. By stating his hometown as Fresno he asserts his identity as an American, and as an ally.

Now, why did this stick out to me so much?

I noticed that neither character ever identifies as being Asian. We can only assume that Tom is Korean, since Han is, and recognizes him as such. Jim Morita is named in Captain America, and we can deduce from his name that he is Japanese. Apart from that, neither man at any points states their ethnic heritage. It would have been quite easy for Tom to say, in an apologetic tone, “Korean, but adopted, sorry, buddy.” The reason I know this is because I’ve done the same sort of thing many times.

As a half-Chinese half-Filipino person I have very often had to explain to others that I do not in fact speak Mandarin, or Cantonese, or whatever other Chinese dialect is being spoken to me. This happens more often than you would think, because I live in East Chinatown. Just this past weekend I was asked by a Chinese woman if I spoke Mandarin, and I had to explain to her that no, I did not, and that I was in fact only half-Chinese.

Notice that I did not state, “I’m from Toronto.” Even though I am Canadian, and even though I identify very little with my Chinese heritage, that blood still flows through my veins. I’m neither ashamed or proud of this, but it is a fact. I am half-Chinese and I identify as such, in addition to other characteristics.

These two men chose to strongly identify themselves as Americans first and foremost. There is nothing wrong with this, and I’m sure  there are tens of thousands if not more who do the same thing every single day. You can be an American, and even a “hyphenated-American,” but what does this mean? Why is it important?

Maybe it’s because of this American idea of comfort. With recent films that appear to be fueled by xenophobia against Asians [Red DawnOlympus Has Fallen] perhaps the idea of an American Asian [an Asian-American] is a soothing thought. The first of the two movies I mentioned includes a US Marine [again played by Kenneth Choi] who tells the protagonists that he’s from San Diego [unfortunately I was unable to cut a particular clip of that line]. Middle Eastern stand-up comedians have made similar jokes about going to airports and easing the fears of those around them by stating that they were from Los Angeles, or whatever other American city would put their minds at ease.

“An Asian who says that he’s from Dunlap, Tennessee, or elsewhere in the United States is surely less of a threat than an immigrant. Their  identifying as an American and speak our language devoid of accent can only be a good thing, and reminds us that the USA is indeed a melting pot.”

Or maybe it says something about cultural assimilation, and the decision to let go of one’s ethnic and cultural heritage in order to become “more American.” This was certainly an issue going as far back as the mid-80s, and I’m not so naive as to think that it doesn’t still happen today. What does it mean to be an Asian-American as opposed to being simply “American”?

Is losing one’s ethnic cultural identity what it takes to seen as truly American? Is referring to an American city the hallmark to letting a person know exactly where you stand? Do Asian-Americans have a reason to do this sort of thing at all?

Maybe I’m just looking into this too much, and chances are that this is the case, but it really does make me think. If Americans are seen as White what does that make Asian-Americans? Are they simply Americans of a different colour, with no other real discernible difference?

Written for you by a[n Asian-] Canadian.

EDIT: This also appears in Selfie [which I love], Season 1 Episode 12, “Stick In The Mud”. Korean-American Henry tells his boss, “I was born in Van Nuys.”

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4 responses to ““Asian-Americans,” Admission, and Assimilation

  1. Just to throw out a thought that might develop the ensuing conversation a bit, what about the host of run-o’-the-mill white Americans who insist that they are Irish (or Italian)? There’s certainly as much of a movement by white Americans to link themselves to some old-world country…

  2. “Born in the USA” is a stirring song about a Vietnam vet sent off to a sort of Hell and brought back to a cultural and economic Limbo. What makes it inane? What makes it appropriate to describe it as such for this context? Your offhand reference to it as such surprised me — possibly evidencing a disquieting approach to pop culture. Since that seems to be part of your shtick on this site, I’m not sure it’s a good indicator of the quality of analysis that I can expect. I mean, the fact that “Born in the USA” has been misunderstood and co-opted is an often-used talking point about appropriation in pop culture.

    • I apologize for making light of a song that has such a deep meaning; I was not at all aware of its background, and did not in fact even realize that it was the song I was referencing. In my high school days I had a tech ed teacher who would blare a CD that played ultrapatriotic tracks, and through the haze of such songs as Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” I must have heard a song that uses that line “born in the USA” and simply titled it in my head as such.

      This was simply a misunderstanding of pop culture on my part, and one that I regret making. Next time I will be sure to check to make sure that music [or any other media] that I’m referring to is in fact what it is. Thank you for pointing this out.

  3. Pingback: John Cho is Hot on Selfie, and Why It Matters | Culture War Reporters

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