Am I An Asian American Sell-out?

Elder J has written a provocative post taking a look at the cost of assimilation. As one commenter put it: “The Deadly Vipers are off the shelves; Ninja Assassin is a box office hit! Folks of Asian America, this is precisely where we live: damned if we do, damned if don’t.”

Ninja Assassin isn’t a movie that makes my must-see list, but it sells. What it sells I’m not exactly sure. I can appreciate the cinematic genre, but let’s face it. Kung Fu movies in America play out differently in the culture than they do in, say, Asia Why? Because I live in America, and it gets old having boys or “men” come up to me with a karate-chop greeting.

I’m all for more Asian/Asian Americans represented in the entertainment world, but I’m also not so comfortable with what the average person takes away from a movie like that. Is it really “just” entertainment? We lament that there are so few Asian/Asian American faces on the silver screen that when they do appear we (sort of) feel obligated to show support and use box office totals to communicate power and influence. We have to at minimum buy into the system or at least understand how to manipulate it in order to influence it, right?

Elder J defines a sell-out as “one who bargains away his own identity or people in exchange for acceptance and benefits afforded by those in power.”  He goes on to challenge us to consider this: “Asian Americans cannot continue to sell out their cultural inheritance and then expect others to honor it.”

I’ve been sitting on this for awhile now. The difficulty is that as Asian Americans we are still understanding and trying to identify our cultural inheritance. Our ancestors who immigrated to the States had a much clearer understanding of their Asian roots and cultures, and so much of that continues to get lost in translation. When I share mandoo (Korean potstickers) at a church potluck or send it with my kids for lunch my intent is to share my culture but how then do I keep that from becoming at some level tokenism or perpetuating a stereotype? How Asian do I have to be to be AA or how American do I have to be to be AA – and all of that in the balance of being genuinely AA and not selling out. It feels a bit silly to even use food as an example, but on a very basic level I think I’m still figuring what it means to be Asian American.


  1. elderj December 18, 2009

    When you figure it out I’m sure there will be a line at your door waiting for the answer, or perhaps not depending on whether the answer you come up with satisfies those who want you to be more militant or less or more asian or more american. There is no real tool for figuring this all out and maybe it doesn’t matter anyway and we should all just dissolve into a happy goopy melting pot that is america, whatever that means.

  2. DF December 23, 2009

    Thanks for this post, Kathy.

    You ask what it means to be Asian American. Perhaps I can suggest what it does not mean–and this speaks to your statement “We lament that there are so few Asian/Asian American faces on the silver screen that when they do appear we (sort of) feel obligated to show support and use box office totals to communicate power and influence.”

    While we may feel obligated to support Asian Americans in film, let us clearly distinguish between what is Asian and what is Asian American.

    Cutting to the chase, Ninja Assassin and many films like it are not Asian American, nor do they depict Asian Americans. Our problem, as Asian Americans, is allowing ourselves to be subject to what is essentially a depiction of an Asian character who is both foreign in terms of his/her nationality and the film’s setting. What is occuring here is at its root, a internatlized permutation of the “perpetual foreigner.”

    Because we are unable to be seen as distinctly American, we are expected to behave as foreign characters would, even when they appear in clearly foreign or mystical settings. The Asian male knows kung fu, so it is expected that Asian American male will too. Asian females are plagued with their own stereoptypes, which are often applied without distiction between what is Asian and what is Asian American. After all, to the majority, there’s really no difference between the two is there? The more fundemental problem, however, is when we
    ourselves feel the obligation to associate with these depictions.

    I’ll flip this around in terms of African Americans to draw contrast. Take the film Blood Diamond, for instance. I do not expect all African Americans that I meet to talk like Djimon Hounsou’s character in that film. I don’t make jokes about African Americans and child soldiers. I wouldn’t expect African Americans to understand cheeky phrases spoken in Afrikaans. Neither would most of white America. Nor does African America feel the need to associate with or explain depictions of Africans. The distinction between African and African American is quite clear to Americans both white and black.

    Unfortunately not only is the distinction between Asian and Asian American not clear to that same American public, it’s not even clear to us as Asian Americans. We still feel the need to promote, associate, defend, or worse yet, own what are essentially foreign characters.

    Sadly, examples of truly Asian American films are supremely rare (Charlotte Sometimes, Better Luck Tomorrow, The Debut).

    If we’re going to make a stand on films & media, we need to make a stand on what we are responsible for. We should seek accuracy and diversity in depictions of Asian Americans in film instead of focusing on Asians who are clearly not Asian Americans. To hold ourselves to account for the depictions of all Asians in any media anywhere is to ourselves, buy into the fallacy that we are no different, culturally or experientially, from foreign nationals and to internalize the phenomeon of perpetual foreigner. We will continue to be subject to perpetual foreigner from external sources, but the beginning of the fight starts when we disavow the lie ourselves.

    • Kathy Khang January 5, 2010

      DF, fantastic comment! Yes, there is a difference between Asian and Asian American. I do believe, however, that some of the stereotypes add to the fallacy. Aren’t all Asians and Asian Americans good at math? I write that with a huge dose of sarcasm. And then trying to differentiate ourselves from white/Caucasian American adds another layer of confusion/complexity.

      Question: do you think this Asian/Asian American distinction will continue with each generation of Asian Americans? I’m waiting and watching to see how my children will define those differences as they do not (at least that I know of yet) have some of the cultural family dynamics that have often defined Asian Americans.


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