Not Your Model Minority?: The Complexity of Asian Americans in 21st Century American Film

Asian Americans are perpetuating white racism in the United States as they allow white America to hold up the “successful” Oriental image before other minority groups as the model to emulate. White America justifies the blacks’ position by showing that other non-whites – yellow people – have been able to “adapt” to the system. The truth underlying both the yellows’ history and that of the blacks has been distorted. In addition, the claim that black citizens must “prove their rights to equality” is fundamentally racist.

 — Amy Uyematsu, Asian American activist, 1969

The “Model Minority” designation so often ascribed to Asian Americans in the late 20th century remains a badge of pride and shame. Writers like Glen Omatsu have pointed out that “Model Minority” stereotypes have cast Asian Americans in the unsavory role of “best minority”, demoting other less successful groups. Robert G. Lee points out that due in part to Cold War pressures, ideas about Asian Americans as “politically silent and ethnically assimilable” grew in the post WWII era. As American military forces occupied Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, the need to illustrate American benevolence toward Asian peoples emerged as a key foreign policy priority. Once considered unassimilable and “perpetually foreign”, Asians came to occupy a new position in American society.

Though its origins remain debated (some give credit to a 1955 Time magazine article, others to William Peterson in the mid-1960s), the term “model minority” came to carry great weight over time. Critics like Lee, Omatsu, and the impassioned Amy Uyematsu (quoted at the articles outset), suggest that Model Minority paradigms created a new racial hierarchy, in which Asians remain above Blacks and Latinos but still subordinate to Whites. Additionally, the title implies some level of condescension. Asians have played nice, worked hard, not complained, and remained apolitical, therefore, whites bestow upon them most favored minority status. The discourse around the Model Minority obscures the efforts of Asians and Asian Americans in overcoming decades of racial prejudice and discrimination. Rachel Parrenas observers that it also functions to imply that all Asians are middle class professionals, free of economic worry, when in reality the immigration flows of the past 20-30 years have been increasingly feminized and poor. Through the forces of globalization, American military expansion, and/or the various reunification acts (whether through the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Act or 1980 Family Reunification Act), the last 30 years have witnessed Southeast Asian and South Asian immigrants arriving on US shores in what are sometimes dire economic straits. Often hailing from more rural areas and lacking the educational or professional attainment of those who immigrated under the Hart-Celler 1965 Act, this new Asian migration flow suffers from higher levels of economic stress, social difficulty, and political invisibility.

The opening of immigration in 1965 to Asian peoples in many ways completed American attempts to reform Asian immigration. Ironically, reforms to America’s discriminatory immigration polices occurred in large part as result of American military expansion abroad. American G.I.’s stationed abroad in Korea and Japan engaged in relationships with local women. Some married, which presented the US government with serious problems. Several states had banned interracial marriage and the federal policy had yet to alter its anti-Asian immigration biases. Still, the US government eventually passed a series of War Bride Acts granting citizenship to these new wives and at least governmentally, legitimizing the marriages. By 1965, the Cold War required greater technical and scientific expertise. Wanting to lure individuals proficient in these areas, the US government enacted the Hart Celler 1965 Act (though it took 3 years to implement) which ultimately encouraged increased Asian immigration to America. Thus, many of these new arrivals carried with them advanced skills and educations that were soon employed by the American military and private industry. Undoubtedly, the image of highly skilled Asian professionals working on American shores helped to solidify the Model Minority image.

Few movies in the past decade have illustrated the dynamics of this bifurcated immigration flow than the Clint Eastwood vehicle Gran Torino, the John Cho/Kal Penn vehicle Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. Though each remains problematic in its own way, they at least begin grasping, even if unwittingly in Eastwood’s case, at just what the Model Minority label implies.

Unfolding in deindustrialized and depressed Detroit, Eastwood’s Gran Torino explores the place of the Hmong and Hmong American population through the medium of lovably racist Walter Kowalski. One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves Kowalski’s armed stand off with a local Hmong gang who have offended his sense of property rights. Kowalski, the gruff native Detroiter and apparent Korean War veteran, grumbles something sufficiently racist about how he used to pile “zips like you” ten feet high. Did know he was intervening to save the neighboring Hmong family’s henpecked boy, Thao, from a beating or worse? Or was Eastwood’s character a crotchety old man who hated people on his lawn? Maybe both. After catching the boy trying to steal his invaluable Gran Torino, Thao’s family forces him to work off his crime by basically serving as Eastwood’s lackey. Along the way, Kowalski teaches Thao how to be a man and the boy’s family teaches Eastwood about tolerance, family, and atoning for regret.

Stop here. One wonders whether or not Eastwood knows that he has fallen into Orientalism in his depiction of the Hmong. While the family is clearly modern, there remain aspects of mysticism and feminization. At a family gathering, which Eastwood attends (and gets ripped mind you), the Hmong are portrayed as clearly modern but with eccentric twists like “ethnically attired” shaman and livestock. Moreover, Thao’s family is dominated by women; his own mother and sister believe that Kowalski can teach the boy how to be a man. One might suggest Eastwood feminizes Thao, a traditional construction of Asian male masculinity under Western Orientalism. Then again, maybe Eastwood is sharper than one might think. After all, his movie does challenge the middle class nature of the Model Minority myth that has proven so pervasive. Eastwood’s charge and his family are decidedly low income, female dominated, politically translucent, and subject to violence from various corners of the twenty first century “Motor City.” Most striking is the apparent brutality that occurs within and between Hmong community members. The local Hmong gang terrorizes its fellow Hmong Americans. Rape, extortion, and murder are only a couple of activities in which the local gang excels. Eastwood acknowledges the difficult place the Hmong occupy in Detroit; a position pressured by external forces like a declining economy and urban infrastructure fracturing within. This is certainly not the vision of Asian American life perpetuated by Model Minority paradigm. In many ways, Eastwood’s Hmong resemble numerous portrayals of struggling black families, female led with a generation of sons apparently deficient (according to some observers) in or not understanding proper masculinity. The absence of fathers in lower income black communities remains a divisive and controversial issue (the recent comments by Jalen Rose regarding Duke basketball and Grant Hill in ESPN’s recent Fab Five Documentary and Hill’s pointed response in the NY Times serves as only the most recent controversy over this subject). Thus, it is hard to tell if Eastwood is falling back on Orientalist stereotypes regarding the masculinity of Asian males, Patrick Moniyhan-like assumptions about pathological black families, or reflecting an accurate image of modern day Asian immigration that Parrenas goes to great lengths to uncover. [Note: Thao’s family has no surname at IMBD’s webpage for the movie implying they have no last name – “perpetual foreigner” anyone?]

Still one would be foolish to underestimate Eastwood. Anyone who has followed his career from High Plains Drifter to Pale Rider to Unforgiven to Mystic River knows the crotchety old movie star refuses to traffic in simplicity. His movies are not so much dark morality tales as movies about human community. Eastwood’s conclusions about humanity are at once disturbing and thought provoking. The ending of Gran Torino flips the violence that Eastwood’s career cashed in on for decades on its head, while also subtly illustrating that law and society continue to value white lives over those of minorities. Remember, Detroit is the same city in which Vincent Chin was murdered by two unemployed auto workers. The two men resented Chin’s appropriation of a local white stripper at a Detroit gentlemen’s club. Confusing the Chinese American Chin for a Japanese American, the two autoworkers beat Chin to death. Early 1980s automotive competition with Japan stoked nasty nativist fervor. The two men yelled “It’s Because of you motherfuckers,” at Chin, a non too veiled reference at the Japanese auto juggernaut of the 1980s. If there was a silver lining to the Chin tragedy it lay in the emergence of an Asian American activism that reached across ethnic lines as evidenced by the pan Asian American Citizens for Justice (ACJ). Likewise, Eastwood’s death in Gran Torino serves to mobilize local authorities but also unified the local Hmong community against the youth gang that had been terrorizing them.

Gran Torino’s depiction of Hmong-American life may challenge the Model Minority myth but Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow warps the identity all while clinging to it tightly. The story of a group of middle to upper middle class Socal Asian American high school teens, Better Luck Tomorrow is probably as much about middle class boredom and conformity as it is the Model Minority. Yet, Lin plays with the concept circumscribing his characters worlds by it, yet granting them agency to harness it for their own ends.

Tracking a four month arc in the lives of four teens, the film focuses on Ben, who gets lured into a life of petty high school crime by selling exam answers to other students. His sojourn into crime culminates in an unfortunate act of violence. As their activities increase exponentially, almost unbelievably if not for Asians being so damn industrious, the criminal exploits of Ben’s gang bring them notoriety and infamy. This also encourages them to indulge in various unsavory activities including gun play, drug use, and armed shenanigans with a Las Vegas prostitute. As Ben narrates, their fame spread far and wide such that “it got to be people came to us.” Ben even gets the lady he’s been chasing, the girlfriend of “frenemy”, Steve (John Cho possibly the most famous Korean American actor around, he stars as one of the leads in Harold and Kumar as well), in whose demise Ben plays a central central role. If this sounds a little David Green’s remarkably fast crystal meth addiction (fellow contributor Professor Cummings has pointed out and noted that David took his crystal meth with orange juice, a means of drug use not since seen on network television or really anywhere) and rehab on 90210, well it’s a movie about high school so you need to suspend disbelief sometimes.

Lin divides the plot into sections that foreshadow aspects of the story. For example, Ben defines the word “punctilious” at the outset which essentially described his approach to life. More words follow such as “quixotic,” “temerity” and “catharsis”. One might argue this approach is a bit overbearing especially since Ben also narrates much of the movie. Other aspects of Lin’s take on the Model Minority ring truer. For example, writers like Yen Espiritu have argued that many Asian Americans see their identities tied more to transnational existences than a linear connection to nation states. Two prominent characters in Better Luck Tomorrow exhibit a transnational existence. Daric Lu’s family resides in Vancouver while he tends to their home in Socal, attends high school, and throws “crazy” academic decathlon competitions that involve obscene amounts of tequila, sexual hijinks, and apparently the coolest set of academic decathletes this world has ever seen. Of course, the national championship is held in Las Vegas … really? Again, you must be in the moment.

Ben and his gang consist of Virgil (the irrational, sensitive, crazy one), the aforementioned Daric (the social climber, club joiner, schemer, schmoozer type), Ben (the level headed one trying to balance two worlds) and Han (the brawny, sexually virulent, muscle – it must be noted Han also has easily the best style in the movie, his shirt in the Vegas scene is fantastic). Even as they operate as criminals they do so in a way that remains circumscribed by their middle class nature. Virgil notes elite schools’ predliction for early admissions, “it makes them all wet.” In another scene, Virgil babbles on manic depressively as three real gangbangers relate to the four teens how middle class they are when one flashes a semi automatic in the boys direction. Finally, when planning to rob the home of Steve’s parents, who Steve thinks need a “wake up call,” he casually mentions that he can get Ben a valuable internship. Not exactly Menace to Society. Nor are the four young men oblivious to their Model Minority status or white America’s ignorance of them. The very activities the teens engage in remain obscured by their high GPA’s and Asian identity. When they pull off an electronics scam at a Best Buy like retailer, they do so under the assumption that whites cannot distinguish between Asians.

Interestingly, Stephanie, Ben’s love interest and Steven’s girlfriend, is Asian but raised by a white family. Is Lin drawing attention to the complexity of Asian American identities? American military expansion and the reach of adoption agencies have led to increasing numbers of white families with Asian children. Laura Briggs has suggested that such systems of adoption to some extent have been attempts to overshadow the negative effects of US foreign policy in nations like Vietnam and Korea while highlighting the generous nature of Americans. Additionally, the advertising techniques adopted in the 1950s to promote such adoptions suggested Asian parenthood was somehow deficient when compared with that of American parents. To be fair, there are those who question some of Brigg’s premises. Besides, one doubts Lin based this plot device on Briggs. Still, Lin is saying something,

This brings us to the most famous of the three movies Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. What can be said about this film that has not already been said? The movie tackles Asian stereotypes, Black Asian relations, interracial relationships, and the right of Asian Americans to engage in the very negative activities white counterparts like Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Jeff Spicoli made so famous, [“What was that? That was my SKULL MAN! I’m so wasted!”). Harold and Kumar overlaps with many of themes that Lin addresses a bit more dramatically. It goes without saying that sexuality in Harold and Kumar occupies a central place in the movie. These are not effeminate Asian stereotypes. Harold pines for and eventually earns some intimate moment with his hot neighbor played by Paula Garces. While Kumar seems at least marginally interested in women, it must be noted that the scene with him copulating with a giant bag of marijuana suggests a true love that dare not be spoken. Like Lin’s characters, Harold and Kumar enjoy life’s finer substances. In Gran Torino, with Eastwood’s guidance Thao earns a date of a local Hmong-American girl. In contrast to Thao’s more innocent sexual interest, Better Luck Tomorrow’s Han and Steve serve as exemplars of male virility. Steve even scores a white girlfriend on the side as he cheats on Ben’s love interest

Who is part of the Model Minority also remains a question. Does the moniker include South Asians? Kumar both fulfills and rejects the ideal. Despite his apparent innate skill at doctoring (a scene featuring a cameo by dreamy Ryan Reynolds), Kumar refuses to follow in his father’s medical footsteps, going so far as to sabotage medical school interviews. The crushing pressure of middle class life and the weight of internal and external Model Minority expectations necessitate only one response: drug induced consumption of White Castle sliders. The characters of Better Luck Tomorrow refused to be satisfied by weed and fast food. Cocaine, crime, and nihilism appear to more their speed. Nonetheless, Kumar undoubtedly should be operating on someone, somewhere in the future. This too hides the fact that while many South Asians have migrated to the US for jobs in medicine, technology, and science, since the 1980 Family Reunification Act many others who lack the education or professional skills of their better off counterparts have also arrived. What of the targeting of South Asian Muslims by Federal authorities under the Patriotic Act? What about the racializatoin of many South Asians, most prominently Sikhs, as terrorists due to their brown skin? (The scene in Spike Lee’s fantastic Inside Man when a hostage of the Sikh religion is subject to accusations of being “Arab” and a “terrorist” is fantastic in illustrating this prejudice. It also clearly reveals differences in how racism manifests itself for various racial groups as Denzel Washington’s detective interrogates the Sikh cabdriver reflecting on the more positive aspects of such racializations, “At least you can get a cab.”) These poorer immigrants have found themselves in the odd position of adopting more skeptical forms of citizenship identities. As Sunaina Maira points out, these lower income South Asians, particularly Muslims, have been subject to higher levels of Patriot Act scrutiny. In addition to Maira’s work, Stanley Thangaraj’s research on South Asian basketball leagues in Atlanta contributes key insights into this discussion.

Critically, of the three movies, only Gran Torino gives women a prominent role. Thao’s sister, Sue, though enduring various levels of tragedy in the film, serves as the family anchor. Smarter, confident and more outgoing than Thao, She drives much of the film. It is interesting that the movie about a working class minority would do this while its middle class variants exhibit obvious gender blind spots. Additionally, though debatable, one might argue that Eastwood’s means of resolving Gran Torino could be gendered as submissive since he basically submitted to the local gang’s fetish for violence to achieve his goal. Stephanie of Better Luck Tomorrow does play a reasonably central role but the movie is clearly a vehicle for Asian American male masculinity as she remains identifiable more by her relation to Steve and Ben than her own person. One could suggest the similar issues for Harold and Kumar. Despite this difference, each movie features a main male character that simply must “man up.” Be more assertive. Be tougher. Don’t accommodate.

At the very least, these three films illustrate an increasing complexity within Asian American life. Model Minority paradigms obscure as much as they reveal. Immigration flows and American military expansion of the last 30 years have helped to facilitate a more diverse Asian American population. The expansion of material culture representing this growth serves as a harbinger of things to come. USA Today declared American society to now consist of a minority population that accounted for 36% of the population. Only time separates the US from a majority minority society. The racial hierarchies and cultural normatives the Model Minority myth imposes will serve only to make this transition more difficult. One wonders what future movies about Asian American life will bring.

Ryan Reft