Ashley Zhang: Just normal people

Thursday, December 1, 2016 - 6:16pm

Over Thanksgiving break, I went to see the new coming-of-age film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” expecting to see myself in Hailee Steinfeld’s awkward, selfish, yet entirely relatable protagonist, Nadine. And I did, doubling over with laughter at her over-the-top antics and long-winded wit that are nothing but normal for a teenage girl. However, I found my endearment unexpectedly stolen by newcomer Hayden Szeto, the lone face of color in a nearly all-white cast (Hailee Steinfeld and movie-brother Blake Jenner have Filipino and Cuban roots, respectively, but they are portrayed as white in the film). 

Rarely do I get to see an Asian face in Hollywood, and when I do, they’re usually typecast into some variation of the goofy, geeky sidekick who excels in school and maybe takes up martial arts as an extracurricular. Though Szeto’s adorably nervous, boy-next-door character, Erwin Kim, could have easily become the clichéd Hollywood Asian male, the movie makes it clear that Erwin is just “your average guy,” even poking fun at such stereotypes when Nadine tries to pigeonhole him as a stereotypical Asian with a mother who “owns a small restaurant downtown” and a “quiet, gruff father who never says ‘I love you.’ ” 

Despite that, Erwin spends most of the film ignored by the leading lady, who goes for the cooler “bad boy” Nick, potentially falling in line with Hollywood’s emasculation of Asian men. So imagine my surprise and delight when he takes his shirt off to reveal a swoon-worthy physique that falls in line with American standards of male attractiveness and (spoiler alert) wins the girl in the end. 

Let’s face it: Hollywood has not properly represented my people and our stories. Directors and producers claim that there are no big Asian stars to feature in their films as an explanation for their whitewashing, but the argument is circular: How can Asians ever establish themselves as stars if they are never even given a chance?

Asian Americans have long seen themselves erased or ridiculed in Western media. Take, for example, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the movie I'd watched the day prior for my family’s post-Thanksgiving dinner tradition of watching old Audrey Hepburn movies. In all my times of watching the film, this year was the first year I realized just how racist and offensive Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of the Japanese Mr. Yunioshi was. Not only did Rooney tape his eyelids and wear yellowface (because God forbid an actual Asian person play an Asian character), but he also sported a ridiculous accent and persona that established the “Asian” Yunioshi as nothing but a caricature, a joke. 

But, Ashley!, one might cry out, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” came out more than 50 years ago, long before all this political correctness nonsense came about! That may be true, but how can the racist ignorance of the ’60s really be a defense when Hollywood so recently disappointed the Asian-American community by casting the white Emma Stone as a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Native American fighter pilot in Sony’s 2015 “Aloha” and Scarlett Johansson as lead Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming adaption of the Japanese manga “Ghost in the Shell”? 

So Szeto’s role in “The Edge of Seventeen” may seem like a small thing to most, but to me, an Asian love interest in a big box-office movie is the hope I need that Hollywood is taking a step in the right direction. Of course, Szeto’s portrayal in the film is not perfect. After all, he’s a Chinese actor playing a Korean character, a common occurrence in this industry that perpetuates the racist sentiment that all Asians are the same and that our ethnicities are interchangeable. “Teen Wolf” is guilty of that practice, casting Korean Arden Cho as the Japanese Kira Yukimura in order to tap into Japanese lore, as is “Once Upon a Time” for casting Korean Jamie Chung as the Chinese Mulan. However, that’s a detail I can overlook for the opportunity to see my race represented on the big screen. Baby steps. With the success of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first television show about an Asian-American family in 20 years, and Steven Yeun’s Glenn Rhee being a fan favorite on “The Walking Dead,” there is hope that my children will be able to turn on the TV and see their lives and stories reflected back to them. 

And I don’t want just one revolutionary show that counts as our “representation.” I want Asians — and all people of color — integrated into mainstream media not as token minorities, but as normal people among a multicultural cast that accurately represents the diversity in America today. Let us be the protagonist. Let us be the love interest. Let us be the hero, the antagonist and the three-dimensional morally ambiguous middleman. 

What Hollywood needs to understand is that we are all human, and when we’re stripped bare, we bleed red just like the rest of the world. Asians are not all special, super geniuses or completely devoid of sex appeal. No, we are just normal people, and we, too, fall in love, make mistakes and have stories worth sharing. You know, normal people things.

Ashley Zhang can be reached at azhang@umich.edu