Krystal Hur: The parent trap: Asian edition

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 - 3:18pm

2018 and 2019 have thus far been milestone years for Asian Americans in the entertainment industry. The 2018 smash-hit “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first Hollywood movie since “The Joy Luck Club,” released over two decades ago, to feature all Asian American leads. The movie brought in more money than any rom-com released in the last nine years. Actress Sandra Oh won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama TV Series, making her the first actress of Asian descent to win for a leading role, or win multiple Globes, in nearly 40 years. Oh also hosted the event, using her platform to jokingly call out actress Emma Stone for her largely unquestioned white-washed role as an Asian American character in “Aloha.” When Awkwafina hosted Saturday Night Live in 2018, she was the first Asian American woman to do so since Lucy Liu in 2000; Sandra Oh hosted in March of this year.

Even outside of Hollywood, stars of Asian descent have risen to celebrity status in the United States. K-pop group BTS has made appearances on noteworthy shows such as Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Ellen and more. They have also performed at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, as well as various other programs. They are scheduled to perform their new single “Boy with Luv” with Halsey at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards. Another prominent K-pop group, BLACKPINK, appeared on Strahan and Sara, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Good Morning America and recently performed at Coachella.

While these trends suggest that American popular culture is becoming more welcoming toward people of color, there remains a trend among the treatment of Asian American celebrities on TV appearances that point towards an inability to see them as Asian Americans, rather than as Asians. Unlike white people or other people of color, Asian Americans, as well as people of Asian descent and of other nationalities such as Asian Canadians, are often asked about their parents. While Asian Canadians are of course subjected to a different set of social norms specific to Canada, all people of Asian descent tend to always be seen strictly as being only Asian, whether they’re Canadian, American, or of another nationality. Thus, while Americans and Canadians are the most prominent celebrities of Asian descent in American media, any person of Asian descent and of a non-Asian nationality would likely receive the same treatment were they to be thrust into the spotlight in American culture. While this may be unintentional on the parts of TV hosts, such questions are problematic because they demonstrate how public figures of Asian descent, even at the most successful they have ever been, are othered by American media.

Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj recently appeared on Ellen. At one point during his interview, Ellen mentioned that his parents, Seema and Najme, were in the audience before asking Hasan, “So, when did you start in stand-up and how supportive were they?” while briefly pointing to his parents. This question was most likely pre-planned between Minhaj and Ellen, especially given that his parents were in the audience and Minhaj launched into a story following the question that he’s told before on the Deep Cuts segment of his Netflix show, Patriot Act.

However, Ellen also asked actor Steven Yeun, who is also Asian American, about his parents when he appeared on the show in 2014, commenting, “So your parents — then your parents were not happy that you chose this profession.” She asked him this after clarifying that he was born in Seoul, South Korea before moving to Saskatchewan and later to Michigan. Furthermore, when Sandra Oh first appeared on the Ellen Show in in 2007, Ellen started the interview by bringing up a photo of Oh and her parents at the Emmys, telling her, “They must be so proud.” Ellen then asked more questions about when Oh’s parents immigrated to Canada, before asking, “Were they proud like right away? They were like, 'Go and be an actress.'"

Such interviews contrast harshly with when Ellen has spoken with celebrities not of Asian descent on her show, such as her interview with Zendaya, a Black actress. Rather than asking whether her parents supported her career, Ellen conversed with Zendaya about her relationship with her parents instead. At one point, Ellen asked, “how have you managed to stay out of the young-child-actor-going-bad thing?” Even though this would have made a natural segue to asking about Zendaya about her parents’ support (there were no such natural transitions when Ellen abruptly asked Minhaj, Yeun and Oh about their parents), she didn’t do so. In another interview with Allison Janney, a white actress, Ellen didn’t ask any questions about her parents support either, even though Janney brought them up in the interview while talking about the holidays.

Ellen’s need to ask only her guests of Asian descent about their parents’ support, even when doing so doesn’t fit in with the rest of the interview, shows that there still exists a clear divide between how celebrities of Asian descent and other celebrities are perceived in American media. Unlike other stars, celebrities of Asian descent are not acknowledged as having diverse backgrounds and are instead characterized by their Asian immigrant parents. This perpetuates the misconception that all people of Asian descent are homogeneous and reminds audiences that they have immigrant roots, which in turn implies that they belong in Asia, not the United States. Thus, when Ellen asks guests like Yeun and Oh about their parents’ support, she simultaneously reduces them to props to confirm American society’s stereotypes about people of Asian descent and puts their identities into question.

Even when they aren’t asked about their parents’ support or lack thereof, talk show hosts always seem to find a way to ask celebrities of Asian descent about their parents: Conan asked Yeun’s parents how they reacted to his love scenes on The Walking Dead, Jimmy Kimmel asked Asian Canadian comedian Lilly Singh about her parents after she appeared on his show and Jimmy Fallon asked Singh about her skits where she imitates her parents, rather than her numerous other segments.

Celebrities such as Yeun's and Singh’s success in the United States is mostly unprecedented, since there have historically only been a few celebrities of Asian descent in American culture and even fewer who reach this same level of prominence. As a result, TV hosts struggle to reconcile the Asian parts of these celebrities’ identities with the American part. Because the only “Asian American story” they are familiar with is that of the immigrant, or child with immigrant parents, interviewers such as Ellen ask celebrities of Asian descent about their parents’ support, expecting them to explain that their immigrant parents were not supportive and then delve into their parents’ “immigrant story.”   

However, such questions also establish celebrities of Asian decent as "others," whose roles in American society is to bolster the United States’ reputation as a country where anyone can succeed. Ellen wasn’t interested in Oh or Minhaj’s parents as actual people when she asked about them. She was interested in how they fulfill their stereotypical roles as immigrant tiger parents whose exterior eventually cracks when they see how the United States has allowed their children to succeed. Questions about parents ultimately undermine the American or Canadian part of these celebrities’ identities, and depict them as being only Asian.

This explains why such questions are limited to only celebrities of Asian descent who grew up in predominantly English speaking countries. Neither members of BTS nor BLACKPINK have been asked questions about their parents in any of their interviews in the United States. This is because their otherness is already established. They are Korean, not American, and they perform K-pop, which is decidedly not an American music genre. Thus, there’s no need for TV hosts to remind themselves or their guests of the artists’ roots in Asia, or attempt to reconcile any complex parts of their identities. They also may have no idea that BLACKPINK members Rosé and Lisa are Korean-Australian and Thai respectively, since it is likely that they assume all K-pop artists are Korean.

TV hosts need to stop asking celebrities of Asian descent about their parents. They need to stop expecting them to talk about their ethnicities and their own or parents’ stories as immigrants. Such stories are deeply personal, and while all of the celebrities mentioned in this article have seemed open to speaking about these topics, such questions often feel invasive and act in the same way that a huge, blaring, “You don’t belong here” sign would. There are more to these celebrities than their parents or their ethnicities, and while such parts of their story are important, they should not feel obligated to speak about their “immigrant backstories” because they are of Asian descent. There’s so much more to people of Asian descent than their ancestry, and it’s high time America recognizes that.

Krystal Hur can be reached at kryshur@umich.edu.