OPINION: Asian characters are more than their heritage

Dec 8, 2023 | OP-ED, Opinion

Tell me if you’ve heard any version of this story before. An Asian person who lives in North America has a somewhat normal life and eventually finds out that because of their own or their family’s past, they have to deal with the consequences of their ancestors and have to figure out what is happening to them to either set themselves free or eventually accept who they are.

If you have heard any version of this story before, then great, you have learned the basics, and I do mean the basics, of what it is like to be an Asian character in the media.

Many of these characters are written to explain why the character is Asian even though they can exist without their heritage used as a plot point.

Filipino author Loridee De Villa says more conversations are needed surrounding these harmful stereotypes.

“I think there is just a lot of [media] out there that take cultural identities and they want to focus on negative aspects of it, being non-white I think in general is just harder and there are so many struggles that we definitely need to talk about,” De Villa said.

Growing up as an Asian immigrant in Canada, it was hard to find any representation when I was watching movies or TV shows. There was Jackie Chan to go off of, but that was pretty much it.

“What about books?” you might ask. To my knowledge and memory of being a 2000s kid, there was probably Sunfire from the Marvel Comics series X-Men, but even the most loyal comics fans wouldn’t have known or remembered who that is.

The most I got were characters who relied heavily on Asian stereotypes or Asian creatures to even seem the least bit interesting, like The Supah Ninjas, a Nickelodeon show that happened to have only one Japanese person in a trio ninja squad that lasted about two seasons and ended on a cliff hanger, or American Dragon: Jake Long by Disney which also lasted two seasons.

Probably the closest thing I got to feeling represented was Brenda Song, who played London Tipton on the Disney Channel show The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, because growing up, she seemed like a normal teenager who wanted to do good while also wanting to make her father happy.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are so many Asian characters who don’t rely on Asian stereotypes to feel interesting, like Mike Chang and Tina Cohen-Chang from Glee or Nini from High School Musical: The Musical Series.

One of the most common places Asians found representation during the 2000s and 2010s was through YouTube, with people like Ryan Higa, Wasabi Productions, and the first-ever all-Asian-American production studio Wong Fu Productions.

Wong Fu became a prominent staple in the Asian community, and as I got older, I watched stories that I could relate to on a more personal note. It felt like I could relate to these characters without my heritage being the thing to make me feel powerful and to make these characters feel cool.

I grew up watching stories like Yappie, a comedy series about the modern Asian American experience with Simu Liu, or Single By 30, about two high school best friends reuniting a decade after making a promise to get married if they are still single by 30.

I found myself watching these shows again as they became even more relatable as I got older, especially since they were stories that anyone could relate to even if they were not Asian. That is lacking in the entertainment industry right now.

Asians aren’t just grand one-off heroes. We can be normal. We don’t need a story about our ancestors and heritage being the reason why these Asian characters are interesting.

These characters can be interesting without our cultural identity and heritage being the driving factors.

If you don’t believe me, ask London Tipton, Minho, Cristina Yang, and many other Asian characters who weren’t created because of their heritage or cultural identity.