All Asian Americans Are Asian, But Not All Asians Are Asian American

Just to start with, I honestly don’t think anyone expected to see Scarlett Johansson mercilessly gunning down Asians in two separate movies:

Lucy (2014) – “You speak English?” *BLAM*

Ghost in the Shell (2017) – Well, at least they’re armed this time.

That’s a bit of a tangent, but still relevant as this was sparked by the live-action Ghost in the Shell adaptation, which premiered in theatres across the country today. It’s also worth starting things out with a diversion, if only because I didn’t want you to get into a breakdown of the title a split second after reading it.

FACT: All Asian Americans are Asian by definition, but not all Asians are Asian Americans. The truth is that most Asians aren’t. While they may share an ethnic heritage, as well as many cultural similarities, Asian people who were born and raised in and reside in an Asian country have vastly different wants and needs and priorities than those who were born and raised in and reside in North America [and other non-Asian countries].

For the purposes of clarity I will be referring to the former as “Asians”, and the latter as “Asian Americans”.

With all of that being said, it should be obvious that Asians and Asian Americans also have very different views when it comes to their shared representation in Western media.

Take the following video, that was released on YouTube exactly one week ago:

For those who don’t have the time or simply don’t feel like it, the six or so minutes are comprised of interviews conducted by Yuta, who runs the channel, with Japanese people about whitewashing in Hollywood. What’s worth noting is that this is a concept he has to explain to them, and it’s especially apparent when he asks-

Regarding Johansson playing Major Kusanagi “The Major” in Ghost in the Shell.

-only for the interviewees to respond with confusion. A number actually surmise that it’s because standards are too high, that those who are upset about the casting don’t believe she would do a very good job. To them there’s nothing out of place about her taking the role in a Hollywood, see: American, production.

There’s a chance I might not even break a thousand words with this post, because the reasons for this are just so staggeringly obvious to me.

By some counts 98.5% of the population of Japan is ethnically Japanese. For those who were born and raised in that country they are fully immersed in a culture that produces media created by and for that demographic. For these individuals it is more jarring for them to see a non-Japanese face; White people are a novelty, not the norm. With all of that in mind, why would they consider the reverse to be any different in America, which they consider a White country?

This is an opinion that’s widely held across Asia. America is adapting their films and other media for a Western audience, so why not have them star who they imagine Americans look like? After all, a Thai person can always pick up a DVD [or VCD] of what they know as  ชัตเตอร์ กดติดวิญญาณ [2004], how does Hollywood’s Shutter [2007] affect them at all? These films aren’t seen as opportunities to an Asian audience, they’re more a matter of passing interest than anything else.

I keep seeing over and over again people online proclaiming, “Well, Asian people don’t care! It’s just oversensitive Westerners who are making a big deal out of this!” In doing so they paint those criticizing the whitewashing as being White themselves, as well-meaning, hand wringing “activists” who have no stake in the fight. With that being how the outcry is framed, what happens to the Asian Americans saying the exact same things? Not only is it a comment that doesn’t provide a solution, it’s mentioned without a degree of research or nuance.

Honestly, there’s not much more to say than that. It should be no mystery, especially for readers of this site, how poorly represented Asians and Asian Americans are in Hollywood. I’ve penned so many articles about the sorry state they’re in that I’m not even going to link to any; just dig around, they’re not hard to find. For Asian Americans the desire to see themselves portrayed at all starts early, and certainly won’t end or be satisfied if Ghost in the Shell is any indication.

It can even happen before pre-production starts, with the two kids in Jurassic World, the second highest grossing film of 2015, originally being Chinese in the script. Director Colin Trevorrow describes their extensive rework as “[starting] from scratch”, which meant keeping the characters but altering their race.

At this point we can’t even star in our own movies, with last year’s Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon having its promo reel centred on a fictional White character instead of the martial arts master himself. Producer Michael London admits that this was “made primarily to allow distributors to see the film as a marketable proposition.” It’s Dr. Felicia Chan, a University of Manchester screen studies lecturer, who rightly points out that:

“Bruce Lee is iconic and well-known, and holds near-mythic status both in eastern and western markets. It is not as if his character/persona needs to be ‘explained’ to an audience … There is something illogical and ironic about depicting the apparently strong ‘influence’ Lee is said to have had in the west by sidelining him.”

Which is all to say, at just short of a thousand words, that there is a clear problem, and it is a problem for Asian Americans. Yes, it indirectly affects all consumers of Western media whose perceptions of others benefit from diversity, and no, it doesn’t completely discount Asian opinions and perspectives, but it’s undoubtedly a problem for Asians and Asian Americans to have roles erased and to not have opportunities play out time and time again.

None of these are issues in Asian cinema. Asian cinema, i.e. for the people of that particular Asian country. Yet here we are, in North America, 2017.

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4 responses to “All Asian Americans Are Asian, But Not All Asians Are Asian American

  1. Pingback: The Unbearable Whiteness Of Being (Part I) | Culture War Reporters

  2. Pingback: Culture Integrity and Hollywood’s Whitewashing: What the Debate Gets Wrong – Autumn Hoang

  3. At risk of sounding sarcastic (which I really don’t like, I agree with whoever it was that said sarcasm is the lowest form of humor and add some more stuff), why would anyone not know what your headline says? If your heritage is Asian, and you live in the United States and want to do the hyphen thing (mine would be way too long, & it is a bunch of people who used to go to war against each other, so it gets stressful!) , I get “Asian-American”. But why would anyone think that people who live on the continent of Asia, were born there, etc., should ever be called “Asian American”? Maybe I am just really missing something?

    That did remind me of a friend I work with. She is one of the few rare people who cares a great deal about everyone around her, cares about their feelings and their dignity…. but one day, she biffed it big time. She knows I share this so there is no talking behind her back – I sort of like being a nice person too.
    A gentleman who is based in London was in our office (in St Louis) for a week, and my friend wanted to know if it would be OK to ask him to dinner. I said I didn’t think there would be any work fraternization problems. But we were overheard and asked who my friend wanted to go out with.
    She replied, “You know, Matthew, the African-American guy”

    Why is that silly? Because Matty is black. But he was born in England, as were something like 5 generations of his family 🙂 He isn’t any kind of American. He doesn’t live here, he is British. His parents nor g-parents live in America. But at least she erred on the side of truly wanting to be kind. But I am still wicked confused that anyone would be so confused, en masse, like she was. Are white people who dig being PC but don’t always think first in the United States calling everyone whose skin is not white (insert continent & add “American”, even if they aren’t American?? This seems sort of obvious and needlessly confusing, like with Matty. He told us he preferred to be called by his name, we all joked, and then when we were serious, he said “Black is fine. I am no Yank though, so lose that one”.

  4. Pingback: Culture Integrity and Hollywood’s Whitewashing: What the Debate Gets Wrong – Autumn Hoang

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