Representations of Asian Americans on reality TV shows

Recently a UC Berkeley student named Kay interviewed me for a research project on representations of Asians/Asian Americans on reality TV shows.  She was nice enough to provide me with a transcript of our interview:

Kay: Well, to begin, I really want to thank you for taking the time to interview with me. Again, like I said, this interview will be about 45 minutes to an hour long, so I really do thank you.  My topic is gendered representations of Asian Americans and Asians in reality TV shows.  For this assignment, we are asked to interview someone who can provide insight into our topic. After the interview, we reflect on it and provide any new insight that we might find and list the pros and cons of the research method. So, that’s the reason why I would like to interview you. 

James: Can I ask you a question?
Kay: I’m sorry?          
James: Can I ask you a question?
Kay: Yes, of course!
James: How did you find out about my blog?
Kay: Well, um… I… (2 second pause) I can’t remember actually. (Laughter)
I believe I just looked up Asian American blogs…
James: Yeah
Kay: …because the main one that I actually read is Angry Asian Man.
James: Yeah

Kay: I looked it up, and there were a lot that talked about Asian American representation in the media. But I found yours to be very interesting, because it provides a different approach to it.  I know your mission statement is using the internet to create an honest representation of Asians and Asian Americans, so I thought that was very interesting.
Looking into your background, the background of the blog itself, I found that you do a lot of work with physical fitness and bodybuilding. I was just wondering how you got your start in that. 

James: I don’t know if you checked out my other blog, Strength and Physique.  I was a trainer before, and then I went into law enforcement.  I’m a cop, but people still ask me about exercise stuff all the time, and cops ask me about how to train.
I thought, you know what, I should just go back to training, but I couldn’t train as much anymore because I have a full-time job. So I thought, “Okay, I’m just going to write a blog,” and I ended up writing books and articles for magazines.
I was doing this Strength and Physique blog, but after a while, I was really tired of just answering questions about exercise and diet.  I wanted to talk about Asian American stuff, Asian American issues and post YouTube videos about Asian Americans. 

I didn’t really like some of the Asian American blogs at the time. I think I started… gosh… 2006/2007, and I didn’t like any of the other blogs where they kind of did Asian-spotting.  “Hey! There’s an Asian in a commercial!” and they’d showcased that.  It was very shallow, and I wanted to show more Alpha Asians.  

Kay: Do you think that since you started the blog, do you think the Asian blog scene has changed at all from what you saw earlier?

James: Yeah, I think it has changed a little bit. Because when I started, Angry Asian Man was around, of course, and he was well established. And he’s still the number one guy. When you think of Asian American blogs, he’s the go-to guy.
At the time I started, there was him, there were some other ones, like 8Asians and Disgrasian.  There were forums like Yellow World and the Fighting 44s. You know, a lot of these forums and blogs have disappeared.  If you go to this website called Vincent Who, it lists all of the Asian American blogs, about 50% of them are gone. They don’t exist anymore. I think the evolution is really moving towards YouTube and Vlogs and comedians like David So, Wong Fu Productions and Off the Great Wall.  So, I think it’s moving more towards YouTube, Vlogs and podcasts as opposed to written blogs.

Kay: Do you think that the move towards YouTube is proving to be a bit more effective in relaying a message to the general public about Asian Americans?

James: I’m kind of an old guy, but I think the younger generation likes to be educated, but they also want to be entertained at the same time.  You’ve got shows like Jon Stewart or the Colbert Report and that’s how people get their news, through entertainment. They’d rather watch news in an entertaining way rather than watch the actual news or to read about it.
I think it’s the same thing with Vlogs and YouTube videos, because people are all trying to make viral videos, videos that spread quickly and get a lot of views. So it’s good in a sense that it transmits information quickly, because it’s readily viewable and it’s entertaining. But you don’t really go deep into the issues as much.
There are blog posts that are very good in-depth articles or opinion pieces, like those on the Huffington Post. You have a lot of Asian American writers that write about Asian American issues, and every once in a while you have an article like the PaperTigers article or the Tiger Mom article.  So you have some in-depth writing on the Net.  
But even then, those articles are packaged in a way to be viral and to spread, so they have very sensational headlines or memes. But I think that blogs, or at least Asian American blogs, are on the decline and I think the only one that is really going to endure is Angry Asian Man.

Kay: Do you think that your blog has changed at all in terms of content or its goals?  We’ve talked about the evolution of Asian American media.  Do you think it’s changed?

James: Yeah, it definitely has changed. When I first started, the blog had a general sensibility of empowering Asian Americans through imagery. I think over time, I started focusing more on Asian American men and the issues that we sort of have. I think with Asian Americans and Asian American men, it’s not an issue about civil rights, because we have civil rights and everyone has equal rights under the law.  But I think in this post-civil rights era, it’s kind of about respect. And I think that with Asian American men and with Asian Americans in general, we don’t get as much respect, and this partly contributes to the lack of self-esteem or body images for many Asian Americans.

Kay: Do you have any thoughts on what would contribute to an Asian American male’s lack of self-esteem today?

James: Well… where do I begin? Obviously media is a big part of it.  If you don’t see someone who looks like you, who can do certain things… then you’re going to think, “Well, you know, I’m not really meant for that. Like being great or doing certain things like playing basketball.”
Then all of a sudden we get Jeremy Lin, and you think, “Okay, if he can do it and I work hard enough, then maybe I can do it too.”
There were only two Asian American images that I could remember growing up. One was Bruce Lee, and the other one was the TV show Kung Fu. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that…

Kay: Yeah, I think I’ve heard of it.

James: … yeah, if you watch clips of it, it stars David Carradine, who is a white guy… so he’s playing an Asian guy.  Each episode, he would kick butt, and I’d be like, “Yeah, alright, cool!”
It’s sort of weird, but at that time I felt so starved for positive Asian American images that I was actually rooting for a white guy pretending to be Asian.  Since then, I think we’ve got a lot more role models, like Jeremy Lin, Yul Kwon from Survivor and Daniel Dae Kim from Lost.  But even then, it’s gone from two to five… Really, the number of Asian American role models is still very limited.

Kay: You kind of talked about this already, but what do you think of Asian American representation in the general mass media today, especially on the TV and Internet?

James: I don’t watch as much TV as I used to, so I don’t know who’s on. I mentioned Daniel Dae Kim, but I know there are other people… I know there’s Two Broke Girls that has the stereotypical Asian. But I think that as far as Asian American actors and actresses, I really can’t think of too many on TV.
I think we have a better chance of finding Asian men and women on reality TV. If you think about people who have won these shows, a lot of them were Asian American. Obviously there’s Yul Kwon from Survivor, but there’s also Yau-Man. He was one of the more well-liked characters, players, on the show.

Big Brother also had quite a few Asian American contestants. There was a show called Solitary… I believe the first two seasons were won by Asian American guys. It’s a better bet to find Asian American people in reality shows than finding them on TV shows.

Kay: And why do you think that is?

James: Because for reality TV, it’s supposed to be about reality, even though it is staged reality. The contestants, the people who are playing, are going to be like you and me. So they basically get everybody: white, black, Asian American, Hispanic. And if Hollywood is situated in Southern California, then there are going to be a lot of Asian Americans down there, and they end up on the show.
But with TV shows and movies, someone writes the story. You as the writer, as the director, you actually create the reality. So in their reality, there’s no Asian people unless you go to Chinatown. Because whoever is writing is probably going to be white, and their thought is that in Hollywood world, everyone’s white unless you go to Chinatown, then everyone’s going to be Asian. They can write characters the way they want to, and they’re going to write them as white.  

I think that’s a big difference between reality TV and regular TV and movies.  In TV and movies, they have control as to who gets represented, and so they end up representing white people.
Kay: Looking back at some of the contestants that you’ve seen on reality TV, do you think there are any specific traits or trends that might have allowed them to be on the show and allowed them to be successful on the show?

James: I kind of wrote about it on my blog. I think there are certain things about Asian Americans and Asian culture that they learn to eat bitterness. If you as an Asian person can stay quiet, work hard, persevere and be diligent, then you can survive and even thrive. People don’t like whiners.  They just want you to do your job and get it done.  You have to grin and bear it.

So that makes Asian Americans ideal for some of these reality shows, because if you work hard, persevere and grin and bear it, then you can endure a lot of stress.  I’m not saying that people from other cultures don’t have that quality. But I think Asian Americans definitely have this quality, where they can learn to eat bitterness, to persevere, and in the end, if they’ve worked hard enough and worked intelligently, they win.

I think that’s the reason why a lot of them are able to do so well on reality shows. As long as it’s not rigged of course… (laughter).  Because James Sun, if you looked at the way he performed on The Apprentice, he should have won.  But Donald Trump said, “I’m going to pick the pretty girl over this guy.”

Kay: Makes sense. So, for the class that I’m taking right now, I did a survey assignment where I asked people who watched reality TV to name someone, an Asian American male or female, that they’ve seen on reality TV and list some adjectives about them. And a lot of them, or at least most of them chose Yul Kwon from Survivor, and a lot of them said that he was very strong and aggressive and… dominant.  I haven’t seen the TV show, which is why I’m a bit more interested in it. So, would you agree with the people?

James: About the adjectives about Yul Kwon? (3 second silence) You know, the one word that keeps popping up in my mind about Yul Kwon is strategic. You know, he was a very strategic player. He was very calculating… you could kind of see it in his head.  Calculating all the right moves.  He was definitely a strong player, a dominant player.   

People sort of naturally assumed that he was pulling the strings in the tribe, so they thought, “We’re going to submit to his dominance.”
People already gave him the image of “Godfather,” which was his nickname… So the other contestants thought, “He’s the Godfather. We shouldn’t mess with him and go along with what he says.”  

He really wasn’t that way, but once he learned that was his reputation, he played it to his advantage. So he was definitely strategic. And I would agree with what the other people said, but the one word that I would think of is strategic.

Kay: You talked about how many Asian American reality TV show stars play up the passive but enduring image.  Do you think that’s more positive to the general Asian American public or… is it a more accurate representation of them?

James: There’s a distinction between passive and enduring.  Having endurance is being able to withstand competition, to withstand the rigors of the race or the show. Passive is they’re not doing anything. They’re just coasting by.   

I wouldn’t say that any of the contestants that I’ve seen, the Asian contestants that I’ve seen, are passive. Most of the Asian American contestants of Survivor were very active and very aggressive in pushing their agenda.  So, I think that distinction needs to be made.  Whether or not what they do is positive, yeah, I would say so.

Kay: Going back to Internet representations, do you think that those stereotypes are being played up there or is it completely dispelled, and how might that be different from reality TV or Hollywood?
James: As far as how stereotypes are played out as well on the Internet, on blogs and YouTube?
Kay: Yeah

James: I think stereotypes are there, and they are played up.  With stereotypes, sometimes we just assume they’re true.  Let’s take marriage for Asian American men and women.  If you presented information that 75% of Asian women marry outside of their race, and only 50% Asian American men marry outside their race… if you present data in that way, then what is somebody going to do?  Somebody would say, “Hey, look, there are more Asian American women who are marrying out, not marrying Asian men.”
Well, if you actually look at this hypothetical data and see that 50% men are marrying outside their race, then that’s still very significant, right? But for some reason, Asian Americans on the Internet focus on the negative. They turn around and say, “Oh, look at all these Asian American women, intermarrying more into general society.”
A lot of commenters on these blogs and forums and on YouTube videos, assume that Asian American men must have a hard time dating.  In my experience and in my experience watching everyone else who is Asian American, I don’t see any problems with dating. They seem to date around and get married, and they’re doing perfectly fine.
But on the Internet, for some strange reason, everybody wants to project their own insecurities and say, “Oh, Asian American men have such a hard time dating. Nobody wants to date Asian guys, blah blah blah.” And I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, you need to come to places like San Francisco or L.A. because, in general, Asian people date other Asian people.
I think on the Internet, people who post or comment on these blogs project all of their insecurities and inadequacies, and they make it a racial thing… and sometimes it is. But I think since we concentrate on the negative, it takes on a life of its own, and if you perpetuate that sort of inadequacy enough, and talk about it enough, eventually it becomes the truth.  You believe that it’s true, and you’re going to act that way.
Kay: I like that. That was very insightful. (Laughter)
James: It was a really roundabout way of me going into the insight :)

Kay: Jumping back to reality TV, do you think that at this rate… Do you think that reality TV might help dispel Asian American stereotypes or maybe more negative stereotypes because it’s, quote-unquote, “showing reality,” or do you think that it’s TV or because it’s mass media that it might still be played up?  
James: I guess what you’re asking is reality TV a good thing and does it help dispel myths, or does it actually promote and strengthen these images? You know, it really depends. It really depends on the contestants themselves and how they act. The bottom line is that you got Asian Americans going onto a reality show.  He’s probably not your, quote, “typical Asian American.” He’s certainly not going to be conservative. He or she is willing to make a fool of themselves on TV. So they’re probably going to be very different. They’re probably going to dispel some myths and stereotypes.
But it doesn’t mean that the people who do the editing aren’t going to try to portray Asians in a stereotypical light. 
It’s kind of tough because if you have a camera in front of you 24/7, they’re going to catch a bad moment, and they’re going to want to play it up and make it into a negative racial stereotype.

Kay: I think that we can both agree that the portrayal of Asians come from the contestants themselves and the editors, so there are two sides of it. Do you think that there can be anything to change in order to dispel any possible portrayal of these stereotypes?
James: You know, I think it’s a matter of critical mass.  We have an Asian American population that is growing, and the trend is that by 2050, the majority of the people in the United States will be people of color. That would mean that there’s going to be people of color, Asian Americans, in all levels of society. 

Hopefully this would mean that they will not just be the contestants on reality shows but the directors, producers and editors.  Because it’s too much for one person to really do. Julie Chen is the host of Big Brother, but all sorts of racist stuff happens on that show anyway, and she’s the host. 

So, it would make sense that if we have more Asian Americans in various roles in the entertainment industry… and have more Asian Americans in control of the material, how it goes out and actually do something, then we’ll see a change.  It’s just a matter of time where if you have enough Asian Americans in the industry at all levels, then you can get away from the bad portrayals.

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