From the Executive Director: Cultural Advocacy Is Also Key

June 14, 2019 • Columnists, Executive Director

David Inoue

Food plays a significant part in our lives. Obviously, we need it to survive. The advent of celebrity chefs has brought even greater attention to food, particularly Asian food, with the Japanese TV show “Iron Chef” leading the way just a few years ago. Yet, we also face the challenges of Asian food seen as exotic and perhaps even disgusting.

During this year’s season of ABC’s “The Bachelor,” female contestants were treated to a meal featuring the most exotic examples of Singaporean cuisine possible, not the typical foods that tourists might try out of a hawker stall, but what would elicit the biggest reactions of disgust from the women.

For many, this probably elicits memories of various lunch box moments from childhood, or perhaps even from the office where peers turn up their noses at what might be in our lunch.

A few years ago, my daughter had such a moment where a classmate said her curry rice looked and smelled like poop. It took a while before she wanted to take curry to school in her lunch again.

In recent years, we have seen this topic addressed in shows revolving around Asian characters. The first episode of the ABC comedy “Fresh Off the Boat” highlighted the protagonist character’s desire to bring 
Lunchables to school like everyone else, instead of the noodles packed by his mother.

The new Netflix feature “Always Be My Maybe” also has a discussion about the lunch box issue, though I will not say anything about that one in case there are those who have not seen the movie yet.

Where this is all connected is in the intersection of how Asian American lifestyles are portrayed in the media.

Programs such as “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Always Be My Maybe” and last year’s NBC show “I Feel Bad” feature Asian American casts that help to normalize the presence of Asian Americans in the average American living room.

Not every place is like Los Angeles or San Francisco, cities with large concentrations of Asian Americans — watching one of these shows could be someone’s only interaction with an Asian American.

Often in civil rights advocacy, we think of the major marches or court actions as being the most important work that we do. It is certainly often the most visible. However, cultural advocacy is also an important part of what we need to do as a community.

The turnout for 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians” from the Asian American community was unprecedented. It helped that the film had broad appeal to non-Asian moviegoers, but the support from the Asian American community was overwhelming and noticed by the major Hollywood studios.

We often clamor for greater Asian American representation in the media, whether in movies or on TV. Now that attention is shifting to streaming channel services such as Amazon and Netflix. Hopefully with the increasing channels available, there will be more opportunities for Asian American representation.

JACL partners with the major networks to discuss issues of diversity across their full portfolio of business. It’s not just the faces in front of the cameras, but also those behind, writing the stories, producing and directing the shows.

It even includes procurement — what vendors are the companies using? We do this because representation matters across the board, particularly in media. Representation is out there for millions of viewers to see, or not.

A realistic portrayal of an Asian American character can do much to break down stereotypes for someone who has never actually met someone Asian American before. Or, it can reinforce those stereotypes if we allow such portrayals.

That doesn’t mean that a character always has to be “good.” There are plenty of Asian Americans who are not good people, but those portrayals should not rely upon stereotypes to convey negative character traits.

Hopefully, as we see an ever-increasing presence of Asian Americans and our personal stories on the screen, we won’t continue to have the lunch box moments that seem so common to many of us from our childhood.

Maybe for my daughter’s children, 
curry rice for lunch will be as normal as a bologna sandwich. So, as you read this issue’s feature celebrating Utah’s delicious food, be reminded that our culture and how it is seen by others is very much a part of our struggle for civil rights.

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