By Catherine Ruiz
Thirteen-year-old Matthew Duarte, a Filipino American eighth-grader at Lindbergh STEM Academy in Long Beach, notices that there aren’t too many faces that look like him on TV.
“The other shows sometimes have Asian people and they are nerds, and I am not a nerd,” Duarte said. “It sucks, but it does not bother me that much because The Walking Dead has Glenn.”
Duarte’s sentiments echo many Asian American youth, who grow up seeing mostly stereotypical representations of themselves in media.
From 2000 to 2010 the Asian American community in the U.S. grew almost 10 percent, according to the Census.
In Long Beach, where there are high numbers of Cambodian and Filipino American youth, young Asian American men can feel lost and confused when they don’t fit the mold of the Asian stereotype of nerd or martial artist.
“Ninjas, math geniuses, kung fu masters, servants, laundry workers, terrorists, villains, cooks, or ‘good’ boys. Those are the typical depictions of Asian American men in the media,” said Peter Ly, math teacher and former sponsor of the Asian American club at Jordan High School in North Long Beach.
Ly, who grew up and went to school in Long Beach himself, started the club in 2009 after he saw young Asian Americans go through the same identity crisis he went through as a teenager.
While the stereotypes are everywhere on TV and the Internet, they often go unnoticed and unquestioned. So what does that mean for young Asian American men?
Ladine Chan, Cambodian American youth mentor at Educated Men with Meaningful Messages, says stereotypes give young men a false sense of self and a pressure to adhere to a false standard.
“People usually perceive them as smart so they are expected to be smart and if they get anything lower than they are ‘expected,’ they are seen as less than the Asian on TV,” Chan said. “These boys are not straight A students, they are average but still smart. Sometimes they don’t feel that way.”
There are currently just a handful of non-stereotypical and complex Asian American characters being represented in the mainstream media such as John Cho from Selfie, Kunal Nayyar from The Big Bang Theory, and Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead.
According to the Screen Actors’ Guild, “Only 3.8 percent of all television and theatrical roles were portrayed by Asian Pacific Islander actors in 2008, compared to 6.4 percent portrayed by Latino actors, 13.3 percent portrayed by African Americans and 72.5 percent portrayed by Caucasian actors.”
Because of this disparity, Asian American actors are further subject to roles that perpetuate stereotypes of the community.
“Pop culture reinforces stereotypes and feminizes Asian men making them the butt of the joke and in our culture anything that is feminized is considered less than. It is a way to discount or dismiss Asian Americans,” said Dr. Shira Tarrant, an assistant professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies at California State University Long Beach. “Since they [Asian Americans] are usually not put in roles of virility and the sex symbol star power male lead they feel as if they do not belong therefore are not good enough to be portrayed.”
The stereotypes are also further compounded under the umbrella term “Asian American,” which includes more than 30 different ethnicities. Movies and television portray Asian groups as a collective identity, obscuring critical ethnic distinctions.
Korean American student Lance Kim, a third year Environmental Engineering major at CSULB is not surprised that Asians are underrepresented in the media.
“This is not our country and we are part of the minority,” Kim said. “I look up to Michio Kaku the famous physicist because I can relate to him but do not see that in the television shows I watch.”
Ly, a Cambodian American who grew up in Long Beach, said he understands why many youth do not see the underrepresentation of Asian American men as a crucial issue.
“The Asian American culture assimilates well with the dominant culture because Asian Americans are [supposedly] good at following rules, listening, and doing what we are supposed to,” said Ly, who started the Asian American club at Jordan High School in 2009 to give students a place to belong.
Ly said what he saw in the club inspired him to sponsor the Male Academy.
“The club stopped in 2012 and I saw how much of an issue identity was for Asian boys in particular, so I started to sponsor the Male Academy, which targets at-risk boys and teaches them how to be successful and respectful,” Ly said.
The Male Academy focuses on social issues pertaining to the under representation of Asian Americans in the media.
“We have talked about the depiction of Middle Eastern Asians and how that is very problematic because they are depicted as terrorists. They are also not associated as Asians,” Ly said. “People look at them and say Muslim and even Asian students do not recognize them as being under our umbrella. I would like to see more emphasis on the subject so students are more knowledgeable.”
Some community organizations in Long Beach are also addressing the issue of Asian American identity with young people.
Seng So coordinates the Khmer Girls In Action’s Young Men’s Empowerment Program, which has been in operation since 2011.
“The young men in our program have someone or something to look up to in their lives both in the mainstream and in their community, says Seng. “They have mainstream role models even if they are stereotypical such as Bruce Lee but they see him as more, since he is a philosopher and big part of Asian cinema. We work to teach the boys about their culture so they can embrace it.”
So wants boys and young men to understand they are not bound by the deficit messages and stereotypes they have been led to believe.
“A fuller picture needs to be painted in order for them [Asian American youth] to find a voice,” So said.
It’s may be too soon to know if contrasting shows like ABC’s comedy “Fresh Off the Boat,” which features an immigrant Chinese family, and MyX TV’s “I’m Asian American And…” will begin to shift depictions of Asian Americans in media or will continue to perpetuate stereotypes, but Chan is hopeful.
“I would like to see something like Full House, it is one of my favorite shows,” Chan said. “It could talk about the struggles the parents had to go through in their other country to migrate to America and just represent the culture and family itself. I think it would be a cool idea that would allow people to see the Asian culture.”