Here's a Mind-Boggler: Asian Americans Hard at Work

    Here I am, on my soapbox. I’m going to talk about being Asian.

    The pigeonhole my ethnicity has been stuck in — we are a demure kind that only speaks to ask class questions — has produced a whiplash effect: Asian activism looks like overcompensation.

    Five years ago, I was that embattled image. Asians had no Malcolm X, so an unassuming high school student became his own set of horns and trumpets. The first target was 7-feet 1-inch worth of Diesel.

    “You tell Yao Ming, ‘Ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh,’” Shaquille O’Neal told Fox News Radio about his rival center. I’ve been a Laker-hater ever since. (And I hated on the Atlanta Brave John Rocker before that.)

    O’Neal set me off, and I had the marketing down.

    The setup: How could he say that? How could he cast aside a whole race of people by shitting on their language? How could he be so racist — on national radio, no less?

    The clincher: I mean, remember “Shaq-Fu?”

    That last point was an easy sell to the badminton team.

    Then, I blasted Asian stereotypes. After that, I thumped “The Joy Luck Club.” I even paid money to see Ang Lee’s “Hulk.”

    But since high school, the frills of group cohesion have made my message lazy and stagnant. It was obvious at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, which showed this month in Mission Valley. Surrounded by familiars, I still felt lost in a sea of cultural awareness.

    It was frightening; I had become a recap, still spouting standardized Asian messages of underexposure in media, social pressures to succeed and Bruce Lee’s philosophy.

    Then, film director Justin Lin gifted me with a dose of colorblindness.

    Five years ago, Lin was broke, dodging bills and credit-card companies to pay for his pet project “Better Luck Tomorrow,” a ballsy teen flick rife with angst and violence refreshing to Asian movies. The indie flick, eventually distributed by MTV Films, was praised as a breakthrough for Asians nationwide: An Asian director and all-Asian cast beat the Tinseltown system that regularly shits out weak and hollow Asian content. At a time when we were sick of Jackie Chan’s sidekickers (the Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon series), we got Lin’s social rumpus through Asian America.

    It was a tonic for Asian-cinema habitues. But five years after BLT, I was in a drunken lull, waiting anxiously for another Lin revival. He delivered at the film festival’s panel, and proved he still had something earnest to say.

    “Don’t fuck with Mickey Mouse,” Lin said of his Disney directorial stint with “Annapolis.” “He will fuck you up.”

    Lin described his post-BLT life as a paradox, full of soul-selling studio offers and compromising handshakes. It was the dark Hollywood we all hear about, right before an artist turns corporate, a la George Lucas.

    Then there was Lin’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” which seemed to be the filmic antithesis of a director who made his bones on indie movies. FF3 was obvious popcorn fodder: fast cars, hot tits and Bow Wow. I was disillusioned when the film was released. My points about Asian America had grown dull, and so had Lin’s. I wanted the reason why Lin became a turncoat.

    “It could have been much worse,” Lin told the audience about the film. “The original screenplay was something with temples and a lot of geishas. I made it into the best thing I could, considering the studio system.”

    Though I thought it couldn’t get worse than the “l-eady, set-o, go” line, Lin explained himself with an impeccable cliche: “You can’t win them all.”

    Lin did manage to cast a BLT vet as an original and realistic Asian character, and did the same in “Annapolis.”

    Little by little, Lin is bringing Asian America along for his ride through Hollywood, and that’s what I wanted five years ago. But after Lin’s recounting of FF3’s casting call, I’ve changed my mind.

    “I don’t think Asian American actors were ready for the experience,” he said. “We had people coming in reading off the script straight. I was like, man, that’s heart-wrenching.”

    To me, the room morphed into a dusty Calcutta alleyway — full of beggars, myself included, waiting for a Hollywood handout from some accomplished big shot because we are the same color.

    One audience member asked the perennial ethnic film festival question: “How can I, as an [insert ethnicity here] filmmaker/writer/producer, overcome stereotypes and succeed when all the odds are against me?”

    It’s a euphemistic question, so obviously dressed in political correctness and sophistication that its real meaning is clear: “I’m [insert ethnicity here] and it sucks. How can I get my in?”

    Lin’s answer, though recycled from motherly advice repeated countless times over generations, was more meaningful in context.

    “Man, just work hard,” he said. “The reality of things is really fucked up when it comes to being Asian sometimes; you have to at least acknowledge that.”

    Yeah, I took care of that years ago.

    “Do that, then work hard.”

    Oh, there’s a step two.

    I suppose I’ve strived to work hard, but a brooding sense of entitlement made me sag. The race card was nothing more than a nifty save from the cold facts of big business. It was an excuse.

    So I’ll play the hard-working stereotype, for now.

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