When I grew up in Norway in the early 80s, there weren’t a lot of other Asian immigrants in my area. If my mom wanted to cook dinner, we went to a Norwegian store to buy the food. And since the classes were organized after where you lived, I ended up in a class with a bunch of Norwegians and some Turkish students. Which is what I had been used to, since my daycare center was also all Norwegian. Being different? I was just another Norwegian students.
I don’t think I really paid attention what it meant to be an Asian until I went to the US to study. For some reason, Asian students in the US were more aware of their ethnicity than I ever thought of. I just couldn’t understand why I would join a Asian Student Union, and not a Norwegian Student Union. Do I feel like I lost something? Not really. I am who I am, not only because of my heritage, but also my environment. Why should one part be more important than the other?
One thing about growing up in Norway was, there were no Asians on TV or movies. But since I felt Norwegian, it really didn’t bother me. So, a blonde guy was the main character on TV. My friends had brown hair, I could still relate, big whop.
As I grew older, however, I did notice how Asians were being portrayed in the media. Maybe because of my years in the US had made me more aware, I’m not sure. What bugged me more was the way they were portrayed when they did show up, more than the lack of representation. So, Friends having no Asian characters while living in New York, bothered me less than the was Han Lee is portrayed in 2 Broke Girls. What started to bother me was that the discussion in the US in regards to people of colour was that you were either white or black, and everybody else were others that really didn’t have a say in the matter. But why couldn’t an Asian guy who was born by American parents be portrayed like an American? Why did he always have to be an immigrant with the funny accent and the mannerism? It wasn’t how I felt I was.
So, it was interesting that in the fall of 2014, a new show called Selfie arrived on American TV starring Karen Gillan and John Cho. Selfie is based on the old George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion and My Fair Lady. But, the part of professor Higgins was played by John Cho, and Korean-American. Because, why not? I never realized how refreshing it was to have someone like Cho play Higgins. There were nothing in the role of Higgins that made him one ethnicity or another. Why should a role with no ethnic characteristic have to be played by a white actor? Doesn’t that imply that an Asian like Cho is somehow not really an American? That he can only play Asian characters?
And Cho was great in the role. I don’t know if the plan was always to make Higgs a romantic interest for Dooley in the show, but the chemistry between Cho and Gillan made it impossible to ignore. And the audience loved it. And I loved it, because the emphasis wasn’t on Higgs being different because he was Asian. He was different because he wasn’t connected in the new Social Media obsessed world. It was so refreshing.
Unfortunately, the show never found its audience, and the network decided to cancel the show after 7 episodes (which was bizarre since the back 8 were some of the funniest and best episodes ever produced). Whether an outfit like Netflix will pick the show up, is still up in the air.
Around the time Selfie got cancelled, I was made aware of another show starring Asians called Fresh Off the Boat. Inspired by Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir, it was the story about a Taiwanese immigrant family moving to Florida in the 90s.
I can’t say I was happy about it. It seemed to me that going from character like Higgs to Jessica with her accent, and her other status, was a huge setback. So, Asians were no longer part of the American experience. Back to immigrant status, the other, the different. The people who don’t really belong. Oh, joy.
But the reviews were good. Em Liu over at Fiction Diversity wrote a review of it. Eddie Huang wrote a really good article about his experience developing the show. And some of the trailers for the show looked really funny.
So, I tried it out. And it was good. It was funny. It’s not exactly my type, since I’m personally into workplace comedies these days, but it’s still very good. And not just good, in the sense of being Asian, so I need to support it otherwise there will be no Asian representation on TV. It was good in its own right.
I’m still stung by the cancellation of Selfie. I liked the portrayal of Asian as part of society without being portrayed as an Other. That said, Fresh Off the Boat is also a story that needs to be told. I just wish there were room for both.