Have you ever been the only Asian American in a room or around a dinner table? I have, a lot of times; it happens when you grow up in a rural town and attend a predominately white college. I’ve learned to flip the script. So I ask, how often do you see the only Caucasian in a room (forget Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation for a moment, we’ll return to that)? That’s White Privilege - the phrase gaining currency through Buzzfeed and other social media sites, and that’s the simple answer for why Asian American films aren’t only for Asian American audiences.
Many of my Asian American friends go with Anglo sounding first names. My aunt gave me mine so that it would be easier - easier for whom, easier to do what? It wasn’t until I lived in Hong Kong, when my Asian friends started calling me white-washed, that I began to see fault lines. Why is it that, at my most basic, in my name, there was a battlefield? These questions are emerging, percolating, and deepening.
When I was growing up, I believed that white was right, was pretty (even for a boy), and what to strive for. And even in my twenties, I see museum art is full of white bodies, white faces, white names. It’s hard to get away from the clutch of such a persistently reinforced ideal, especially when people within your own race even try to deny it. I know people, gay and straight, who only date whites, who desire whiteness only.
So back to Lost in Translation, a film I was taught to like, a film my crowd, (read: artsy, mature, white) raved about – “a slice of life” they called it. I wanted to fit in, so I nodded along, inadvertently reinforcing a stereotype and denying my personal experience. Was this my life too? In some ways, yes, but in many ways, no – I was not an aging, overly tall, actor in advertisement with the dry wit of someone like Bill Murray (who now reminds me a lot of Frasier Crane, another white actor). That name now sounds foreign to me, in a new way it didn’t when I was growing up.
Art is a mode of transportation. We don’t need to see ourselves in the art for it to be impactful. But, it does take a willingness to try, and to entertain new questions, new forms of identification. I became very good at trying to understand myself, to appreciate art that spoke about otherness.
Recently, I’ve been laughing good-humoredly, and approvingly, about being a banana – yellow on the outside, white within. I forget where that metaphor came from – a movie, most likely. That’s the Yellow curse, perhaps, to have to articulate my own experiences, instead of being able to take it as accepted or dominant. But, no, that doesn’t totally right, either. It also is a privilege, a gift, to not just have my identity handed to me, but to actively shape it. So this year, I think I will challenge whether I am in fact a banana. I’ll go to BAAFF looking for another image to define, to redefine, myself instead. And that’s something any of us can do, already do.
Join us for the Boston Asian American Film Festival October 23 to 26th for more perspective on cultural identity explored in film.