The Asian Media’s Burden

This week, I watched Boogie virtually with a few friends. The movie was almost universally panned by critics, rare for an Asian-American story these days. I knew this before watching, but it was about basketball and had a runtime of less than ninety minutes, so I figured there couldn’t be much harm. And there wasn’t; I genuinely enjoyed it. Much media that I consume is burdened by unfair expectations; when they aren’t met, I feel dissatisfaction regardless of how passable the media was.

Boogie wasn’t subject to that promise. It was a low-budget production by first-time screenwriter and director Eddie Huang, laden with his East meets Westside identity. The movie starred Huang’s personal assistant and Pop Smoke (RIP), and contained cameos of Charlamagne tha God and Huang himself, so I regarded the movie as a vanity project and a good way to pass the time.

My expectations weren’t completely subverted, but I was astonished at how enjoyable Boogie was. There was humour, and depth, along with good music and arthouse-esque cutting. It touched on many topics without being obnoxious and preachy. It was the opposite of r/ATBGE: the taste, idea, and heart were all there, but it could have been executed so much better.

In the movie, Asian-American high school student Boogie must balance his hoop dreams with his family’s need for him to provide the answer to their financial woes. Along the way, Huang shares his thoughts on Taiwan (it’s complicated), Jeremey Lin (he gave all the credit to Jesus), and Asian-American yuppies (sleazy sellouts). There were a few jarring scenes, like when Boogie gets on his knees to apologize to his coach (this is our culture), or the continual insistence that juniors need to pour the tea (no, allow me, I’m the youngest), but the movie ran smoothly. This was no doubt aided by a slew of fast-paced jokes and references that tickled my pretensions, as well as some wicked Baohaus and ALD sweaters.

However, it was fundamentally the lack of expectation that turned Boogie into such an enjoyable viewing experience. Reading positive reviews have ruined movies across the board for me, and I am particularly susceptible to this pitfall when it comes to Asian media. My friend Gaston Modot touched on this in a piece entitled The promise of Minari, where he criticizes Minari for lacking depth and failing to resolve communication gaps. I found that Minari didn’t resonate with me for similar reasons; aside from the Yi family’s obvious Korean heritage, I felt that there was nothing uniquely Asian-American about the movie.

In the past, I’ve written about the difference between Asian-Americans and Asian-Asians, and the dangers of painting them both with one brush. Ironically, perhaps much of the criticism leveled at Asian-American media by Asian-Americans is founded in the expectation that each piece must speak for the entire Asian-American experience, or at a minimum, can be personally relatable. Since Crazy Rich Asians spurred investment in similar media, I’ve found that the Asian-American criticism of Asian-American content has grown as well. This isn’t inherently harmful; a productive discussion on the nascent collection can serve to improve and refine future content.

However, this places an unfair burden onto these artists. Most of them only want to tell their own stories, share their own perspectives; few ask to define the entirety of the Asian-American identity. Due to the scarcity of Asian-American media, I too hold high expectations for the few I deem promising, which usually eliminates any enjoyment I stand to derive. In addition to movies, this also extended to my reading of Asian-American classics like The Joy Luck Club. Interestingly enough, when rereading the review of the novel I wrote over two years ago, I realized I already touched on the idea of holding Asian-American stories to a higher standard.

Boogie was free of this heavy weight, instead just a coming-of-age story about a basketball player from Queens. The media machine and culture factory didn’t herald it as a touchstone for Asian-American identity, and perhaps rightfully so. Despite its flaws however, it was able to capture certain universal aspects of the second/third generation experience while telling a story that is uniquely Eddie Huang.

The only classroom interior is shown in the movie is an AP English class taught by an old white man, perhaps a nod to Huang’s undergraduate accolades in the subject. Aside from a meet cute, the setting serves only for Huang to voice his displeasure with the system through Boogie. As the words “coming-of-age” left the teacher’s mouth, I saw where this scene was headed. The hottest point of contention for English pedagogues right now, the benefits of a diverse curriculum against the merits of the traditional syllabus, selected for genre, literary elements, and accessibility. Of course, the teacher assigns The Catcher in the Rye, a novel whose relevance is currently questioned as dubious for anyone but upper-middle class white boys. Boogie gives a nice monologue sharing this perspective which his teacher condones, and his friend suggests Junot Díaz as an alternative.

I have an thorny relationship to this topic: my favourite stories, be it movies or books, fall almost entirely into this category of “white people problems”. A few weeks ago I contrasted Hemingway and Fitzgerald, classically white literary heroes. A few weeks before that, I wrote about Mumblecore, and listed several of my favourite books and movies, which upon inspection, are all examples of upper-middle class white folks complaining about their non-problems. A friend has described many of my favourites as “white violence”. In Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong describes Holden Caulfield as “an entitled asshole who was as supercilious as the classmates he calls ‘phony’” and criticizes Wes Anderson for glossing over the racial tensions in his revisited histories.

I don’t feel beholden to the whims of these tastemakers, and I don’t think they’re trying to shape my taste either. Rather, they’re arguing that minorities cannot empathize with these stories. Largely speaking, they’re also right; immigrant experiences are inexorable with race and culture, which don’t come near the concerns of these protagonists. Granted, the ability to relate to their musings about purpose, meaning, and love stems from some degree of my own privilege: I’m not struggling to put food on the table or living in constant fear of deportation. Some of my earliest memories have also been free of racial concerns, another privilege perhaps, of growing up in a racial enclave.

Where then is the Before trilogy with a diverse cast? The Asian-American Wes Anderson? Sure, we have the Vengeance trilogy, and Wong Kar-Wai, but where are the Asian-Americans? There’s better representation in literature, most recently Min Jin Lee and Ocean Vuong, or so I hear — I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t had the opportunity to read any of their writing yet, instead occupying myself with the Western canon. The majority of my favourite books are written by white men, the few I’ve read that were penned by Asian-American authors not making the list.

But perhaps these works exist because of this neutral medium, this white canvas that needs no qualifications, backstories, or explanation, onto which the artists paint. These stories aren’t burdened by a need to explain certain customs or to translate certain expressions because they are the default behaviour, everything else is the other. Exposition becomes simpler, and more attention can be devoted to the nuances of the story and character without forcing the reader or viewer to jump through additional hoops.

Likewise, stories designed with the majority as an audience are also unburdened by the expectation of representation. There can be ten poorly-written Netflix Original romcoms, but only To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before will receive undue scrutiny. There can be twenty boring, non-linear, Oscar-bait dramas, but only Tigertail will receive undue criticism.

Asian-American media and all American media featuring non-cis-het-white-male stories are then faced with these two issues. Firstly, the expositional effort needed to create the world and the characters detracts from narrative and characters themselves; it’s not Tolkien, but for some readers it might as well be. Secondly, balancing the expectations of viewers demanding a unique, nuanced story, while still requiring some universal bearing is a near impossibility. Writing a story in the default for the default is much easier. After all, this is America.

In an ideal world, Asian-American media shouldn’t have to bear this burden; creatives should be allowed to tell their stories without this baggage. But given the dearth of accessible Asian-American stories, the ones that reach a large audience will inadvertently have that expectation thrust upon them. People will want their lives and experiences reflected in what they see, read, and hear. In a sense, this is capitalism: these books are published and these films are produced so someone can take Asian-American money; if the purchasers aren’t happy with that they’ve bought, they have a certain right to complain. And if they buy enough, and complain loud enough, maybe there will be something they like next time.

I’m not suggesting that more media representation is the solution to all that ails minority groups. But in an age where media is pervasive and can motivate the masses, it can help. To quote the Slovenian philosopher, “We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom”. Recognizing that media with Asian-American actors doesn’t show everyone is the first step to better representation, then a realization of meaningful change. So until there are more options out there, more opportunities for diverse and intersectional media, you my creative friend, you’re gonna carry that weight.

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