Addressing Troubling Tropes Regarding Asian and Asian-Americans in YA (and Excuses For Them That Need to Stop)
*While the main focus will be on the YA genre in this post, these tropes do apply to other literature genres as well*
A Brief History of Asian-American History, Representation, Yellow Peril, and the Origins of these troubling tropes:
Contrary to popular belief, the first documented case of Asians date back to Chinese explorers and the ‘Manilamen’ as early as the 16th century, pre-Revolutionary War:
- It is believed that Filipino-Americans were the “first Asians to cross over to the Pacific Ocean as early as 1587, fifty years before the first English settlement of Jamestown was established.”
- From 1565-1815, ”during the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade, Filipinos were forced to work as sailors and navigators on board Spanish Galleons. They arrived in Morro Bay, California. A landing party consisting of Filipino seamen, namely Luzon Indios (Luzon Indians ), were sent to the California shore to claim the land for the Spanish king.“
- Saint Malo, Louisana (1763) – the “Manilamen” or Filipino-Americans made their first permanent settlement after fleeing mistreatment aboard Spanish ships. The Manilamen then intermarried with Cajun and Native American women.
- ?Hawai'i (1788) – When Hawai'i was still independent nation under the Hawaiian kingdom and inhibited by the Native Hawaiian kanaka maoli peoples, Chinese sailors settled in the same year of British explorer, Captain James Cook. Though, Korean and Japanese would also arrive later in the 19th century to work as laborers on Hawaii’s sugar plantations.
- There are also accounts of Asian-Americans, notably Filipino-American Joseph L. Pierce, and Chinese-Americans William An Hang and Woo Hong Neok fighting in the Civil War.
19th Century Immigration and the Development of Yellow Peril
- ?Chinese and Japanese immigration noticeably increased in the mid-1800s, when many were hired to work on the transcontinental railroad. So, most Asian immigration was concentrated in the West. This led to the “Yellow Peril” or “Yellow Terror” that reflected the fear of the change in immigration patterns represented by the growing number of Asians in the US.
- ?Chinese Exclusion Act (May 8th, 1882) - federal law that banned all Chinese immigration to the US. This led to a detrimental effect on the Chinese-American community already in the US, and arguably prevented full assimilation into US society, unlike other European immigrant groups.
- Chinese immigration was then swiftly replaced by Japanese immigration, though Asian immigration in general would face curtailment with the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. A ban on all racial immigrant quotas wouldn’t happen till the mid-20th century.
20th Century Onward
- Yellow peril, xenophobia, and racism also persisted in yellowface portrayals in minstrel shows and vaudeville that would “other-ize” Asians, since ‘minstrels selected highly visible traits unique to a group and molded distinct ethnic caricatures and presented them as if they were adequate representations.”
- Within larger media, particularly Old Hollywood, under the Hayes Code in conjunction with anti-miscegenation laws, portrayals of miscegenation such as people of two different races kissing, were banned, thus severely limiting the screen time and roles of Asian-American actors and actresses, or simply having them replaced by white actors/actresses in yellowface.
- Anti-miscegenation laws in the US forbid interracial marriage and even some cases, interracial sex between people of two races and these laws weren’t ruled as unconstitutional until 1967, but the active repeal wasn’t complete until 2001 in Alabama.
- It actually wouldn’t be until 1952 under the Walter McCarran Act that outlawed all federally based anti-Asian exclusion acts and subsequently allowed for the naturalization of all Asians in the US as citizens.
Addressing Troubling Tropes of Asian-Americans in YA
1. Asia as one giant, homogeneous monolith
Asia is a HUGE continent. China, for example, alone has over 50 ethnic minority groups. Asia as one giant monolith is a trope seen in Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, featuring Asia re-imagined as ‘the Eastern Commonwealth’ seemingly ruled under a Japanese prince in the capital of ‘New Beijing.’ Yet in this alternate depiction of Pan-Asia, "the main cultures haplessly “cobbled” together are just the Japanese and Chinese (there are Arabic and Sanskrit influences on a few names, but that’s it)…and a large helping of Western culture. Sure, the language and descriptions have figments of Asian (by Asian, I mean only Japanese and Chinese) culture, but the way they act is completely Westernized."
Another reviewer on Cinder notes how "this New Beijing could be any North American city that I’ve seen on a tv screen (but surely even then the USA, with its history, is unlikely to accept a hereditary ruler so perhaps not even then). The chances of it being even pan Asian, let alone Chinese, are unlikely. There is nothing in Cinder that gives a sense of place, let alone a sense of a sprawling Chinese city. There is no ridiculous architecture, no noisy press, no constant flux. Awkwardly for me this New Beijing is in a far-flung renumbered distant future, so a defense of this book could be that Earth politics has changed so much that Emperor Kaito (Japanese) could indeed peacefully rule the Eastern Commonwealth of (unnamed) China and Singapore and Mumbai at least, living in New Beijing, and it’s all good. But uh we live here, in the real politics of the world, and to imply that there is a Japanese ruler of a combined China and Singapore and India is there are no words, imagine me lying on the floor making choking noises as I bury my head in my arm and laugh and laugh and laugh." Likewise, the implications of having a Japanese prince rule all of Asia glosses over the real world implications of Japanese imperialism (which still remains an extremely, extremely volatile subject).
Another trope that ties in is when there is a tendency to exclusively focus on East Asian countries and characters (usually China, Japan, and Korea) and forgetting about…well the rest of Asia? When East Asian countries are favored over non-East Asian countries, it results in the neglect/sometimes complete erasure of characters from Southeast, South, West, Central Asia countries - And YES. For God’s sake, characters from these countries are ‘real’ Asians too (I don’t even know what that statement means when I hear this used as an excuse???) As mentioned before, Asia is a HUGE continent, already chock full of its own rich diversity regarding each country’s own ethnic groups.
Poor worldbuilding as related to authors who write outside their culture, is significant because “the borrowed cultures are always being commented on, always aware of their difference and foreign nature to people who are likely reading the book” and this reviewer of Alison Goodman’s Eon explains how ”Eon is very clearly aware of itself and then fact that its readers are not as familiar with the specific culture beyond shorthand of the Chinese Zodiac and a general idea about how ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures worked. It doesn’t feel genuine. The story would have been stronger if it had started at a different point, as well, revealed all the secrets Eon was keeping in a different way, and trusted the reader to pick up the vagaries of the culture as the story unfolded.”
Also I can’t believe I have to say this, but if your idea of incredibly shallow “research” is just relying on Wikipedia, anime or Asian dramas…well hate to break it to you, but that definitely ain’t gonna cut it and quite frankly incredibly insulting. Do NOT be like these authors:
Jay Kristoff, author of Stormdancer, when asked about authenticity, admitted, “I’ve had people ask if I did a degree in Japanese studies, but the closest I’ve come is reading all six volumes of AKIRA in a week. Maybe I’d picked up a lot of detail through film and manga that I’ve consumed down through the years, but Wikipedia was really my go-to-guy.”
When asked about the inspiration behind for her male lead Jason in her book, Hello, I Love You, author Katie M. Stout replied that “Jason isn’t based on any K-pop idol in particular, but more by my love for k-drama characters.”
Because a consequence of shallow research can be this: Kirkus Reviews states that “Stout’s depiction of Korea is often shockingly insensitive and riddled with errors and inconsistencies. Grace thinks crowds of Korean people smell like garlic, is nauseated by Korean food, and obsesses over the horrors of squat toilets. A Korean character incorrectly describes Hangul, Korean writing, as a syllabary rather than an alphabet… Skip this embarrassing example of clueless cultural appropriation.”
2. Asians with ‘unique’ colored eyes and constant descriptions of Asianess (as the only distinguishing character trait)
This is particularly true in cases where Asian characters with ‘unique’ eye colors such as blue or green act as an overly emphasized character trait with the sole purpose of setting them apart from other characters. The special eye color trait becomes problematic when it errs more toward the side of fetishization or exotification. This is seen in Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, though probably most recognized with the character of Chiyo/Sayuri with her blue eyes in Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of A Geisha. (More on the overall problems dealing with ‘appropriation of Asianess in Memoirs of a Geisha seen here ). The problem of the green eyed love interest in Stormdancer is explained here and Park’s green eyes in Eleanor and Park is explained here. Furthermore, constant descriptions of a character’s ‘Asianess’ become problematic when it is "bought up in the context that it is exotic and magical" and leads to open fetishization and ‘other-ing’ of that character. Alternatively, here’s Asian-American author Malinda Lo on avoiding writing the ‘exotic’ in her book Huntress:
3. Reliance on lazy, lazy stereotypes (that don’t evolve)
There’s a whole litany of these. Oppressive, overbearing (and sometimes tragic) Asian parents obsessed with their children getting good grades, geisha girls/China Dolls/lotus blossoms who are docile/subservient/obedient, almond-shaped eyes, the list goes onnnn.
- Here’s the almond-shaped eyes stereotype addressed here on Racebending here and debunked by author Claire Light here.
- Another general role of thumb if that you’re describing POC characters, particularly in terms of skin color and eyes and they sound like a tasty Starbucks beverage or cafe pastry (caramel, mocha, coffee, etc.) yeah….no. Food-related metaphors tend to be terribly overused and overdone. Likewise, even more so when the foods used to describe skin color were also the same food items that were PART OF THE SLAVE TRADE, such as coffee, cocoa, and chocolate. Likewise, this is also in conjuction when POC characters’ skin tones are the only ones described but never white characters - thus contributing to the not so common trend of inadvertently establishing ‘white as the default’ narrative, particularly when it comes to racially ambiguous characters
- Regarding the use of clichéd phrases such as ‘geisha girls’ and ‘China Dolls,’ touches more on exotification, fetishization, and orientalism. This is seen when Park’s mother ‘Min-Dae’ in Eleanor and Park (who adopts an Americanized name ‘Mindy’) is imagined by Eleanor as a “dainty China Doll who was tucked in the flak jacket of Park’s dad Tom Selleck, and snuck out of Korea.” This description is problematic as “Park’s mom isn’t a person, but a literal object to be moved and shifted according to the whim’s of Park’s dad, a Korean war vet.”
- On a more serious note, *trigger warning ahead for sexual assault and for Sunny Woan’s article* exotification and fetishization can have serious real world consequences for Asians and Asian-Americans. Consider Sunny Woan’s study on sexual assault of Asian women on college campuses and how ”mainstream America shrugs off the notion of Asian fetishes, believing men who have such fetishes ‘are harmless.’ However, Asian-American journalist and scholar Helen Zia notes that "it’s the image of Asian American women being exotic and passive and won’t fight back and speak up. Predators think they have free rein with Asian American women.’
- Alternatively, another problematic trope can be the oversexualization of East Asian women in tandem with the desexualization, sometimes complete erasure of Southeast/South Asian women. For example, consider the Yule Ball scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire where Padma and Parvarti Patil are essentially treated as “pity dates” for Harry and Ron in comparison to how Cho Chang is depicted (and indicative of a microaggression). More on this topic here.
- The model minority myth (usually in the form of ‘smart’ Asians who are good at math and science, also glosses over educational disparities between different Asian groups along with lumping them together as one monolith again).
While perhaps a case can be made when stereotypes are inverted for the basis of social commentary or specific intent of deconstruction, it become problematic when a stereotype ultimately does not evolve and only contributes to already internalized, negative views of Asians and Asian-Americans that can lead or be a contributing factor to harmful, real world repercussions (discrimination, hate crimes) and reinforces a long history of xenophobic viewpoints.
4. The Perpetual Foreigner (Especially for Parents and/or ‘backward’ or ‘weird’ Relatives)
Deals with the idea that Asian-Americans are never truly “American” and inherently remain foreign/haven’t assimilated. The ‘tragic immigrant parent’ narrative (bonus points if parents can only speak and communicate with their children in heavily accented or broken English) is usually indicative of this trope. Though, Asian parents that undergo little to no character development can be indicative of the perpetual foreigner stereotype (along with the overused cliche of Westernized children vs. strict, traditional parents always at odds with one another). Consider Park’s relationship with his parents in Eleanor and Park where his mom “speaks broken English and is demure but madly in love with his dad, who, need I remind you, “liberated” her from her oppressive country. Miss Saigon, anyone? Park’s dad is typical American machismo, a simple kinda guy, but at heart a good one….the parent’s relationship felt more like where the white dude comes home and just makes out with the Asian woman all the time and she stays home and tends to their perfect house and their perfect family.
And Excuses for these Tropes that Need to Stop
1. But it’s only fiction! Stop taking it so seriously!
FICTION DOES NOT EXIST IN A VACUUM. When Asian and Asian-American readers are told ‘not to take fiction so seriously,’ this essentially takes an overly simplistic stance, and glosses over the REAL WORLD consequences in terms of representation and ACTUAL ASIAN and ASIAN-AMERICAN PEOPLE who are affected by it. This is a very dangerous attitude to have overall. Why? Because Media matters. FICTION matters. Fiction helps shape the lens in which we view the world, and "the narratives that we surround ourselves with can subtly, subconsciously influence how we think about ourselves and others.”
And here’s the thing: you can be a fan of something problematic, as long as you acknowledge its problematic elements. By trying to deny the existence of problematic elements in a book, especially when critiques come from individuals who are directly affected by these depictions of Asian characters, you’re essentially trying to derail/talk over our own experiences as Asian-Americans. So yes, as an Asian/Asian-American person who is coming across one of the very few depictions of herself in the larger media, particularly YA, you best be damn sure that I will examine how I am portrayed and take this piece of fiction so “seriously,” and even more so if it is problematic. Here’s more on this topic overall.
2. But it’s *insert genre* or set in the future! This is just the author’s own worldbuilding!
This is a common excuse I’ve seen used for fantasy, science fiction, or futuristic reads. Creativity in general does not come from a magical, unbiased void: it comes from at least some sort of trigger, baseline, or starting point. This is true with some genre reads that clearly derive their influences from Asian or Asian-inspired cultures, and one can generally pick up on whether an author hasn’t done even basic research as you read further on. Asian SFF author Aliette de Bodard discusses the negative effects of poor worldbuilding here. In addition, here are some examples of what thorough author research looks like:
Zoe Marriott on writing Shadows on the Moon: "In the course of writing the story I acquired nearly thirty reference books on Feudal and modern Japan, a Japanese Akido set, a Japanese tea set, a full Japanese kimono with tabi socks and zori sandals, and twelve albums of traditional Japanese music.”
Cindy Pon on writing Silver Phoenix: “Xia was inspired by ancient China, and I knew very little about it. I had the leisure of two years to write Silver Phoenix, and did my research by buying tons of books on China: the architecture, the clothes, the scenery. I also read up on Chinese folklore, religions, the imperial palace, and a girl’s place within Chinese society hundreds of years ago."
Ellen Oh on writing Prophecy: ”When I first started the research, I could hardly find anything. I came across one general historical text in the library, but it didn’t have much detail on the ancient kingdoms. My dad, who is also interested in ancient history, was incredibly helpful; he went to the Korean consulate office in New York City and was able to borrow a bunch of books there. Some were in Korean, so he sat with me and translated passages. I knew I still needed more, and I bought a lot of books off the Internet. When I started teaching at George Mason University, I got access to all the interlibrary books — I was in heaven at that point, borrowing ten to twenty books at a time, from art to archaeology, on anything that remotely touched upon that time period. Still, there wasn’t a whole lot, and I had to piece together bits and pieces: I found information about pottery, for example, from one book, and then something about royal life in another, and that told me about how a palace meal might have been like at that time. I’ve been researching ancient Korea since 2000, but the actual story idea for Prophecy came to me in 2008.”
***Also note with the last two examples that even though Pon and Oh are both Asian-American authors writing from their own cultures, they still took the time to do thorough research.
3. At least the authors included Asian characters, so it’s diverse!
Not all diversity is an example of good and/or respectful diversity, especially if it falls along the lines of tokenism and cultural appropriation. And if the diverse representation that I’m getting as an Asian-American only manages follows from a very long tradition of dehumanizing stereotypes, then I quite frankly would prefer not being represented at all. Many, including myself, are sick to death of white writers who will appropriate elements from our culture that just end up re-creating the same dehumanizing, culturally fetishizing stereotypes which we have, for decades, have never truly been to escape and only serve as a reminder of our perpetual foreignness in how we are depicted in the media at large. Even if a work of fiction is in a futuristic setting, this never excuses an author from not even bothering to research the BASIC elements of our culture. Korean-American YA author Ellen Oh discuses more regarding the privilege of white authors who write about Asian cultures, and how this affects her as a PoC author here.
Particularly Oh notes, "There is that part of me that wonders why is it that when I see a list about what Asian fantasy books are out there, the books are predominantly by caucasian authors. Are POC writers not writing them or are they being passed over for books written by non-POC authors instead? And why is it that books by or about POC don’t tend to sell as well as other "mainstream” books. What is the difference? Is it the difference in how they are marketed? Is it their cover art? Where they are placed in the bookstore or library? How they are pushed or not pushed by the booksellers, librarians, and teachers?“
4. There is more diversity in this book that I’ve seen in awhile, so it can’t be a bad thing!
Once again, not all diversity is good or respectful diversity. Even if you come across a work where you think it has ‘the most diversity that you’ve seen in awhile,’ the job for diverse representation is far, far from over. You can’t can’t just cite one example on diversity and be like “Bam! That’s it! We’ve clearly covered the diversity quota on Asians.” A similar understanding regarding the types of diverse representation in the media and why this is significant can be found here.
5. Okay, I get the importance of good and respectful diversity, but why do you have to act so mean when you’re talking about it?!
This is something I’ve previously seen happen when actual Asian and Asian-Americans critically discuss works that feature them. Here’s the thing, even if you are a fan of any of the previously mentioned works, do not ever talk over Asians and Asian-Americans who are directly affected by representations of themselves in these books. If you do, then you’re very well engaging in tone policing. Specifically, an emotional response that critiques a problematic work does not make that person’s comments any less valid. Furthermore, tone policing acts as "a form of silencing to call people from a non-dominant group “angry”. It’s a way of dismissing them as irrational… Yes, we are angry, and that anger should be empathized with, not dismissed.”
Furthermore, it’s also important to keep in mind that people of color, when generally critiquing works that feature ourselves in the larger media, "often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences." I would also suggest refraining from using the phrase “I’m sorry you were offended by it,” because this is typically another derailing tactic that attempts to invalidate the points we are trying to express.
Likewise, Author Foz Meadows also discusses how 'a writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write.'