Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Unbelievable Dong Nguyen

dongSo after four months of dragging my feet I finally got around to watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a Netflix exclusive show I had been meaning to check out if only to join in the conversation that Em Liu over at Fiction Diversity started surrounding the character of Dong Nguyen, played by Ki Hong Lee. Before I really get into things it has come to my attention that I can be negative, so allow me to preface this post with a list [CAUTION: spoilers from here onwards]:

1. I liked [and continue to like] Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It not only succeeds, but soars on the merits of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s comedy as well as Ellie Kemper’s unbridled performance.

2.  I’m grateful a character like Dong Nguyen exists. Asian characters are rare enough on TV, let alone as romantic leads [something we desperately need].

3. I wish nothing but the best for Ki Hong Lee and have absolutely nothing against the guy. Similar to how I feel about Austin Falk on 2 Broke Girls my criticisms of a character do not affect my opinions about the actor portraying them. I think it’s great that he made #4 on People‘s 2014 Sexiest Man Alive list and hope it’s the first milestone of many.

I also want to mention that Em, whose article I linked to up above, has primarily approached Dong Nguyen as a character who subverts, instead of embodies, stereotypes. That’s ultimately not something I’m going to be delving into. Instead what I’d like to address is how Dong holds up as a believable Asian character, specifically as a Vietnamese person, and how this reflects on the show’s creators.

Authenticity Is Important

You should’ve watched that video above. If you can’t, however, you should know that Kumail Nanjiani is a very funny comedian and most of the time you are the only one who’s really in command of what you can and cannot do. You should also know that this snippet of stand-up is all about how Call of Duty®: Black Ops 2 has a level that takes place in Karachi, Pakistan, where he grew up.

While he riffs on the cognitive dissonance of how “[his] hometown is now a battlefield” what really irks him is how all of the street signs are in Arabic. In case you didn’t know, the official language of Pakistan is Urdu.

“”[The creators of the game] were literally like ‘What language do they speak in Pakistan?’ ‘I don’t care…”

The reason I’ve chosen to spotlight the video isn’t just to introduce you to a hilarious person you may not have known of, it’s also to really hammer the point home that authenticity matters. What’s more, it matters particularly to those who expect to be able to relate to whatever piece of art they’re engaging with. It’s why my first point has to be:

Korean Ki Hong Lee, Vietnamese Dong Nguyen 

As Gordon’s bio reveals he spent a good number of years in the Middle East, and as a result is no stranger to what an Arab person looks like. It’s why he takes such umbrage whenever Indians like Danny Pudi on Community or Naveen Andrews on Lost are passed off as such.

For him there is a very clear and obvious difference between the two. I’m the same way when it comes to Koreans and Vietnamese people.

As my bio reveals I happen to be neither [as a Filipino-Chinese person], but have lived around both for long enough to be able to make a distinction. The truth is that while there are similarities not all Asians look the same. In fact Vietnam is a South East Asian country [alongside Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, etc.] whereas Korea is East Asian [joining China and Japan]. The aesthetic differences between the two are apparent to anyone who have lived in that part of the world.

Now what I don’t want this to boil down to a conversation about whoever is most talented, and I hate to reiterate my positive list up above so soon but I honestly do think that Ki Hong Lee is just great. Why he was cast isn’t the question I want answered, what I’m really curious is about is what came about first: the character of Dong Nguyen or the casting of Ki Hong Lee? Was it the Vietnamese character or the Korean actor? Was this merely another example of one-size-fits-all casting?

Nothing about Dong really requires him to be Vietnamese, so why not simply have him play a Korean? Nothing about him except for, well . . .

What’s In A Name? One Tired Joke, Over and Over Again, Apparently

I couldn’t find a video clip on YouTube and don’t have the time or skill to make one, so this photoset from tumblr will have to suffice as a recap for Dong’s introduction:

For those of you who haven’t seen the show [and really, I recommend it] this is a comedic well they pump dry. This scene takes place in the sixth episode, and in the next four or five we’re treated to such gems as the protagonist exclaiming “I need Dong!” followed by others commenting on it in an expected fashion.

While I’m not impressed that they wrung ever drop of humour out of that joke, I don’t actually have any issues with it. Foreign names can sound funny; that’s life. What really bothered me was how the showrunners sought to subvert the joke, seen below with what follows immediately afterwards:

I’ll readily admit that what clued me into this apparently being complete and utter BS was the same tumblr post I pulled the images from. The person who posted it, Vietnamese themselves, had something to say about the accuracy of the joke [emphasis theirs]:

“moreover, the show is attempting to make a terrible joke here – ‘kim mi’ does not mean penis in vietnamese, it is literally just a gibberish phrase. it’s obvious that they were just trying to make fun of the fact that the man’s name ‘dong’ in english is a euphemism for penis and making up ‘vietnamese’ words to sort of mitigate the racist joke because hahahaha kim mi is penis too!”

A discussion on /r/KimmySchmidt contains a few more people confirming that, no, “Kimmy” or “kim-mi”, however you spell or say it, does not mean penis. One person in that thread posited that they are referring to “chim” which means “bird”. Further research on my part yielded a Yahoo Answers page where a number of users, ostensibly Vietnamese themselves, state that “lon chim”, which translates to “birdcage”, is slang for vagina. Yet another Yahoo Answers page further backs that definition.

Really, no matter how you try to work it out it doesn’t make sense. If it’s solely the thought that counts I applaud the idea behind flipping the script. Two people from vastly different cultures may find each other’s names hilarious for different reasons. As I said above that really is life, but the inaccuracy really damages what good they were trying to go for. What’s really unfortunate is that in addition to noticing that Ki Hong Lee is visibly not Vietnamese, and on top of the faulty translation joke, there’s the fact that his-

Accent Ain’t-Good [That’s Funnier If You Know French]

I guess Ki Hong Lee is actually a lot more like Austin Falk on 2 Broke Girls than I thought, because every time he opened his mouth I-

Again, no offence to the guy at all, but accents are not his strong suit. It’s not recognizably Vietnamese, which I’m familiar with given the woman who lives with my granddad, who I in turn lived with for a number of years. It’s not even a very good Korean one, though that’s obviously not what he should have been going for.

Initially I didn’t want to spend that much time on this point as it appeared fairly cut and dry to me, appearing to have more to do with Lee’s abilities than the showrunners’. What gave me pause, however, is that there is a shining example of a show where effort was made in this regard.

Fresh Off the Boat has garnered some criticism due to Randall Park and Constance Wu putting on a Taiwanese accent when they can both speak unaccented American English. When asked about that on Twitter Wu responded with:

In an interview with Time she further elaborated that they had “two different dialect coaches” and that she had to “break [her] accent work down like a drama student does, in a phonetic and rhythmic way.” It’s obvious that nailing down accents is not easy, and that a lot of work went into having the show skew as close to real life as possible. What throws me is when a little bit of work isn’t done to attend to the simplest details [see: the language of Pakistan] or, even more mindbogglingly, when a lot of work is done for a nonsensical reason.

“I’ll Be There for You” (Korean version) from Friends Six White Complainers

This is ultimately what convinced me to write this post. In the eighth episode the following scene takes place-

-and honestly I shouldn’t have had to look into it at all, since turning on the subtitles would have revealed the words “[In Korean]” above the translated lyrics. I did look into it, though, and found an interview with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt composer Jeff Richmond on TV Guide. He comments on a number of the original songs featured on the show, and had this to say about what went into the creation of the tune that headlines this section [emphasis added]:

“So no one told Richmond songwriting was gonna be this way. By far the toughest song to write was the Korean version of the iconic tune. ‘Oh, jeez. That was crazy,’ he says. ‘We were like, “We have to get Korean singers, professional voiceover singers.” We jumped through a lot of hoops to get an American voiceover singer to learn Korean to sing that song, and to work with a Korean dialect coach so that it’d sound correctly. It was very hard. It’s not an easy language.'”

So yes, credit where it is due, Richmond and others really went above and beyond to create an authentically Korean version of “I’ll Be There For You” as a theme song to the show their Vietnamese character used to watch.

That’s still so hard for me to wrap my head around.

I’m not even going to say any more about that. Instead I’m going to type out another line or two to let you mull it over [and you should, because it is nonsense] and give me time to build up to my conclusion and answer the question:

“So What Was the Point of Picking Apart Dong Nguyen, You Pedant?”

It should go without saying if you’ve read this blog for any length of time [or if you at least read the blog post I linked to in the second point of my list of positives] you know that I am for more Asians on television. We need more Koreans and more Vietnamese people and more Thais, Filipinos, Taiwanese, you name it. It’s important that the art we create and consume/engage with reflects the world we live in, a world that isn’t solely populated by straight White men.

My issue is when attempts at diversity are made that fall flat. There are some fun moments that actually ring true, like Dong’s discomfiture and disgust at innocuous hand gestures that are actually pretty offensive in parts of South East Asia, but as a whole he isn’t all that believable.

An easy way to gauge the importance of this, without simply reiterating my point up above with Nanjiani’s stand-up, is to put yourself in the shoes of a Vietnamese person who has heard that the latest Netflix show features a character named Dong Nugyen. The first thing you see is an actor who clearly isn’t Vietnamese, and the first thing you hear is an accent that isn’t Vietnamese either. The second line he utters is a language joke that you know isn’t true. Much later they begin to play the Friends theme Dong grew up with in, while you’re primed to hear your native tongue, Korean. What little expectations you had for authenticity are accuracy are shattered. On the basis of a name you were promised some and given very, very little.

It’s particularly disappointing because of what Dong does add to the show. Kat Chow for NPR’s Code Switch commented on how Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is ultimately all about foreignness, which is what allows him to fit in seamlessly with its narrative. The world is strange and new for Kimmy due to over a decade spent in a bunker, and it feels the same way to Dong as an immigrant to America.

Nothing that I’ve written so far even takes into account a very troubling narrative revolving the White, blonde Jane Krakowski playing a Lakota woman. Looking back on the thirteen episode season it becomes starkly apparent, unfortunately, how clumsy the show’s attempts at dealing with race really are. At this point I’d like to think that you’re asking a different question than the one up above, that being: “Does the poorly handled race stuff in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt mean I shouldn’t watch it?”

Look, when I started this entire post off by saying that I liked, and like, this show I meant it. It’s exceptionally funny and a true blessing to anyone who thoroughly enjoyed watching 30 Rock. My purpose in writing this is to underscore the fact that authenticity matters and that people notice. This doesn’t invalidate a piece of art as a whole, but it is evidence that the entertainment industry still has a lot to work on and that effort needs to be made, if only so that we don’t have those who don’t know any better believing for the rest of their lives that “Kimmy” really is Vietnamese for “penis”.

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7 responses to “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Unbelievable Dong Nguyen

  1. Ok I have a theory about what will be revealed in Season 2 that explains everything – hear me out:

    Dong isn’t actually a Vietnamese immigrant. He’s a Korean American US-spy who’s been burned. He’s been in hiding undercover. He falls for Kimmy, which compromises him, and his handler (that “immigration” guy who came to try and deport Dong) had him moved. In a dramatic (and comedic) reveal, he’ll suddenly drop the accent entirely: “Look girl, I’m not actually Vietnamese…”

    TELL me that doesn’t sound like a Tina Fey comedic plot twist.

    The fact that Dong apparently doesn’t speak Vietnamese, the Korean version of the Friends theme, the fact that the actor is obviously ethnically Korean – all clues for those wise to Tina Fey’s game.

    Also – if you really want to wring every last ounce of humor out of the name double entendre: Dong at one point tells Kimmy he sometimes goes by the name Richard Pennsylvania….Dong’s “American name” is Dick. 😉

    • If your theory actually does turn out to be true, then I’ll . . . politely ask you to introduce me to Tina Fey, I guess, haha. It’s such a wildly specific premise that I feel like you’d have to know her personally to find out about it. But hey, if it is true it more or less invalidates this entire post. I’m looking forward to Season 2 either way.

      ALSO: Your attention to detail never ceases to amaze me. I did not pick up on that “Richard Pennsylvania” joke at all. . .

  2. Ahaha I was, of course, mostly joking.

    But it also doesn’t have to be quite so specific to work – it’s entirely possible Dong is hiding his identity for some other reason, and that it will come out that he’s actually Korean American. The potential for humor in that reveal is simply too good to pass up. And I’m pretty good at guessing plot lines…M. Night Shyamalan has yet to fool me. 😉

    After reading your post I was inspired to re-watch my favorite episodes (again). I’m so depressed we have to wait until March 2016 for season 2…

    • I think he is actually Vietnamese. Cause when he said that “In Vietnam, Kim-mi means penis” and if you are Vietnamse, you will know Kim-mi can write that : Chim-my and “Chim” means penis
      LOL 😄

  3. I agree with this article. At first I blamed it on ki hong lee’s bad acting (he needs improvement and I’m saying this base on his other projects) but after hearing about the lack of effort on the authenticity from the production, I no longer put all the blame on ki hong lee. The character does not have any hint if Vietnamese in him at all. Ki Hong Lee probably tried and the producers probably thought ‘ eh good enough, no one will know’. I find it insulting.

  4. I think when you say he’s clearly not Vietnamese, you’re making a generalization based on appearance that’s the kind of insensitive thing you’re writing the entire article about. Just as you can see a white guy and not know whether he’s from California or Austria, you can see an asian guy and not know which part of the huge expanse of Asia he’s from. I had a Vietnamese friend in college, and if I looked at him based on appearance without knowing his name or hearing him speak, there’s no way I could make an educated guess as to which country he’s from. You can see an asian man with a deep tan and think that perhaps he’s from a more tropical locale such as the Philippines , but what if he’s in fact just a fisherman or an outdoor worker from northern Japan? There are regional genetic majorities that can manifest certain facial features more commonly, but don’t act like you could just go down a police lineup of asian men and start guessing their ancestry with 100 percent accuracy, that’s bullshit.

  5. I m vietnamese, and i m not feel that this character is insulting. I know, he is not the best in potraying a vietnamese guy, but i dont care, as long his total performance makes fun. I laugh alot about the written scenes with him and enjoyed the story about this couple. Maybe, he isnt at the end a vietnamese guy. There isnt even one hint (as long i can see), that he is vietnamese, except for his name. They even played the Corean Song “i ll be there for you”. It could also be,that Tina Fey wanted that this character, is not vietnamese, but pretend to be one for some reason we dont know yet.
    But if he should play a vietnamse character i dont care also.
    Also i am glad to see, that there is an amww couple in a popular TV show. To be honest, i dont know another tv show with this kind of interacial couple.

    I can also agree with the fact, that it is not easy to say in which part of a country an asian come from. I m vietnamese, but many vietnamese people thought i m coming from korea. Chinese people think also i am chinese.

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