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All Asians Look Alike

What I find amazing is how people can look at Asians and truly believe that we all look alike. It’s as if we Americans become instantly stupid at the sight of Asians. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in a Japanese restaurant somewhere and overhear someone speaking to a Korean waitperson in Japanese. Just because an Asian is working at a Japanese restaurant doesn’t automatically make them Japanese! Rather than ask politely before showing your ignorance, you just figure it would be super cool to say something in Japanese to someone that doesn’t even look Japanese. In the same way, some look at my last name (Ingland) and assume that I must be only half Asian since my last name is not Asian. Funny, as when I was younger people used to figure I must be only half Asian because I was 5′ 10″ and taller than the stereotypical Asian at the time. My, how things have changed! I’m actually kind of short or average in height compared to other Asians now.

If you’ve watched the movie Mr Baseball with Tom Selleck, you’ll know that there is a scene where he is at the dinner table in a Japanese home and eating noodles. Everyone at the table makes loud, slurping noises as they eat. Selleck’s character is told that it is polite and shows that you are enjoying the meal if you make lots of noise. Everyone at the table is holding the noodle bowl in their hands and slurping away. However, don’t try this in a Korean home. In Korea it is customary to eat quietly. Additionally, it is considered impolite to lift a bowl off the table to eat from it, let alone slurp noodles or drink soup out of it. Even things like how Asians eat rice is different. In Japan and China rice is eaten with chopsticks and the bowl is lifted up to the mouth. In Korea, rice is eaten with a spoon and the bowl is never lifted from the table.

With differences in facial features and customs, why then is it okay to cast John Cho as Mr Sulu in the new Star Trek movie? mickey-rooneyTo me, it is no different than casting Mickey Rooney as a Japanese man in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I guess there were no Japanese actors that could act in the role of Sulu or draw fans like Cho could. Either way, I am one that thinks that neutralizing our ethnicities and just being Asian-American really takes away from our uniqueness and heritage. Being Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese or Fillipino makes a difference. We are not all the same! Our languages are different, our appearance/features are different, and in many cases our cultural perspectives are different.

Have you seen the movie Gran Torino? Rather than pick from a very limited pool of SAG Asians like John Cho, the producers cast the movie with local talent. Not only did that add to the realism of the movie, but everyone that was supposed to be Hmong was Hmong in the film. I would have lost all respect for the film had a demure little Japanese girl been cast as Sue. In reality, since most Americans can’t distinguish between someone that is Hmong or Japanese, it really shouldn’t matter, right?

Unfortunately, I believe that this stereotypical homogenization of Asian-Americans is what clouds the judgment of the church in America. It’s believed that if a church adds a Chinese pastor to the leadership team that they will be an effective draw for Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese people as well. I mean come on, we all look alike anyways.

We as Asian-Americans should not settle for Francis Chan or Dave Gibbons as our featured pastors. We should push for more diversity within ministry and help raise up other Asians into ministry. Why should my voice be Dave Gibbons just because he is Asian? Why aren’t there more Japanese voices in the ministry. Why aren’t there more Vietnamese voices in ministry?

It’s bad enough that Americans in general think that we Asians all look alike, but when we buy into that and let them know it’s okay to confuse John Cho as being Japanese or that it’s okay to be ignorant and assume that a Korean waitperson is Japanese because they bring you a platter of sushi, then we really do ourselves and our culture a disservice. How can we ever be respected for our perspective in the church when we let the world think just attracting Asians is all that matters. Stop giving in for the sake of just getting any Asian representation! Stop letting people think they compliment us when they ask me what nationality I am and when I respond by saying Japanese, they then tell me how they used to have a Vietnamese neighbor and that he was such a nice man as if that gives us an immediate bond somehow. We need more voices in Asian-American ministry that will help educate others and bring about more understanding of the current situation. We need to take a stand against those that want to categorize us as one nice, compartmentalized segment known as homogenized Asian-Americans.

About Dave Ingland

22 responses to “All Asians Look Alike

  1. Dan ⋅

    Nice post. Just one criticism regarding casting John Cho. I agree that it is awkward to portray a Japanese person with a Korean person. But I disagree with your criticism of Asian-American identity. I think this is necessary for advancing equality and freedom for all Americans of Asian descent. Think how ridiculous it sounds to split up Latin-Americans into categories such a Guatamalan, Brazilian, Peruvian, Salvadoran or African-Americans into Sudanese, Ghanan, Libyan. I’m sure Latin-Americans and African-Americans also recognize that they don’t all look alike, but none would see Brazil or Sudan as their main country. They are Americans now and the homogeneous identity such as Latin-American or African-American are very useful political tools. Therefore, Asian-American identity is a necessary tool which we cannot dispense with until there is full equality in America so that one day Latin-American, African-American, and Asian-American labels will no longer be needed.

    Given this fact, I think all the pseudo-labels such a Chinese-American, Japanese-American, Korean-American should be dispensed by Americans of Asian descent (i.,e., Asians who have American citizenship and see America as their home country). Do you know any Latinos or Blacks who call themselves Brazilian-American or Sudanese-American? How ridiculous.

    • Dan, thanks for your reply. I can see the point you make, but not sure I’d fully agree. There are cases where some people of Latin descent don’t want to be referred to as Hispanic. As well, even though blacks may not refer to themselves as Jamaican-American or Ethiopian-American, they do have distinctive culture. I would celebrate their uniqueness rather than lump them all together as African-American. What happens is that when a black person from Jamaica becomes African-American they lose some of their cultural identity in the world. What about people that are Latino and also black? I guess it’s much easier to say that people should be categorized in a generic way, but from the perspective of the church it becomes a problem. Can a Korean pastor really be the voice of Vietnamese and Chinese people? The better question is should he be?

      Theoretically, the labels you talk about don’t even really matter as those that were born here or are residents here really are just plain and simply American. However, a homogenized world culture loses so much when we as Asians are spoken to in generic terms. Just because America has tried to pass generic minority tags to other races such as African-American for all people that are black or Latino-American for all Hispanic people doesn’t mean we should all gracefully accept it.

      • dan ⋅

        hi dave, i agree with your assessment. labels are “political tools.” ideally u would just have everyone be americans with equal rights and appreciated for their unique background (especially those who don’t fit into any racial category). however, in a democratic society, numbers do speak volumes, and pan-asian identity would help mobilize change.

        with respects to african-american or latino-americans whom you have pointed out, they are exceptions to the rule (we can always point out exceptions as counterpoints to any argument). after third generation and up, most do not know the stories abroad in africa or south america, they identify with the story of america (e.g., pilgrims, civil war, industrial revolution, et. al); they are fully americans by then. when i say asian-american i am talking about these types, most of these people (whether chinese, vietnamese, cambodian, lao, et. al.) all share similar experiences in america as “yellow” people. remember, i am talking about those who are 3rd generations and up. they no longer know the stories of their native countries nor the language. some may retain them as a kind of nostalgic endeavor, but the american story becomes more pivotal in their lives. anyhow, you concern about losing individuality is a valid one and we would need to seek some type of balance between generic usage of labels and taking exceptions seriously. thanks for the feedback.

    • John Lee

      Hey Dave. You have some good points. I think some of the social theory of Peter Berger may help in parsing out the structure of society, especially his points on ideology, deinstitutionalization, and plausibility structures. I think when we understand how society works (or gain a better understanding) and the injustices and assumptions it possesses, the church needs to formulate a way to educate. From this perspective, I believe Asian can be important conduits of grace and understanding as they seek to mediate between people. Humility and sacrifice will be required. Just my opinion. I wrote a little outline of this:

  2. DYdaktix

    disclosure: I am a Japanese/American seminarian. I wish there were more JAs in ministry too.

    When Gene Roddenberry was coming up a name for Sulu, he intentionally chose the name Sulu because the Sulu Sea sw of the Philippines was where a bunch of Asian seas met up. While Geo. Takei is Japanese American, and Sulu’s first name was Hikaru, Sulu was meant for pan-Asian representation, because Asian (Americans) recognize the similarities, yet very real differences in the cultures.

    I however, have a problem with the Karate Kid remake, which will star Jaden Smith (will smith’s son) and is shot in Beijing, with Jackie Chan playing “Mr. Miyagi” who teaches “Daniel-san” Kung fu, not Karate.

    RT: Dan I have a friend who is very clear that he is not black, he is African American, and calls himself Zambian American. Dutch/Irish/Italian Americans are all Americans who try to hold onto their identification with the motherland.

    • dan ⋅

      yes. there are always exceptions which need to be taken seriously. however, as you can see (even in the way you phrased your response), generic labels are useful.

    • elderj

      yes, I was going to point out that “Sulu” is really a generic pan-Asian name, as is “Uhura” which is Swahili, but the character herself is from the US of Africa.

      • Succumbing to the name Sulu being a generic pan-Asian name (even though obviously the name is blatantly Japanese in nature), should we as Asian-Americans also succumb to the betterment of our cultural voice by doing it in a generic, pan-Asian scope?

      • elderj

        I would like to point out that I have outed myself as a moderate Trekkie. Please make a note of it.

  3. Geoff Chang ⋅

    The challenge with this discussion is figuring out where the splintering ends. Do I need particular representation as a Brazilian-born, American-raised Taiwanese-Texan living in the East Coast?

    • dan ⋅

      exactly my point.

      • I would say that this depends on who you see yourself as and if you have any internal conflicts or struggles with finding your identity. For me, being a Japanese-born, American-raised Asian-American, I personally haven’t really struggled with my cultural identity within the church. The church being the primary environment that I was trying to lead this discussion. For others though, there seems to be a very serious issue with finding their identity in the cultural context of the church and some actually leaving the church as a result. As someone that doesn’t quite relate due to my own personal perspective, I’m trying to figure out what this all means and if there is some way to resolve it for the sake of losing 2nd, 3rd, 4th generation Asians in America to an identity crisis. Whether that be a 3rd generation Chinese Christian, or a 2nd generation Brazilian-born, American-raised Taiwanese Texan that now calls the east coast home 🙂

  4. James Burnett ⋅

    I think like most people you are spending too much time talking about the difference in people instead of the similarities.
    1st they probably casted John Cho because he had the right look and the best acting skills that they were looking for and will be a box office draw. Hollywood is a very bad media to judge race issues. They tend to be motivated by money alone. 2nd I would assume the waiters in a Japanese themed restaurant is Japanese. Just like I would assume that the waiters in a French themed Restaurant is French. Is that always the case (no) but going into the place you would assume it. (but I do hope the chefs are at least authentic) I mean that is why you go to these ethnic themed restaurants, to have a different cultural experience? If you go into an Indian restaurant you dont assume that everyone there is Indian?(and be truthful) Lets say you happened to know how to say Hi in Hindi. But it turns out that they are from Bangladesh or Guyana. Question now is should the waiter be offended? Seems a harmless mistake with no ill will. 3rd What’s more important where the Minister is from or the message coming out of his mouth.
    Now should I be offended if someone called me Greek American instead of Italian American? I mean White people are lump into one group. I believe its called White People, and I fine with that. When one group doesn’t understand the difference between another group they will generalize them. That is natural, and it doesn’t mean that they all mean any ill harm. The Greeks and Italians have some differences in their culture and physical looks, but a lot of similarities, as do all Europeans. The Same goes for Asians, Africans, and people from the Middle East. Because most cultures derives from another in that same region. And all derives from the 1st culture a long time ago.
    Even down to our looks. All Humans look alike. We have more in common in appearance than we differ. That is why we have so many race issues in this world, cause we dwell on our difference.
    Don’t get me wrong if you want to be proud of your nationality, fine be proud. But we should be prouder of being Earthlings.

    • elderj

      James, I think the chief reason this is an issue for ethnic minorities in the US more than whites is because the racial history and current reality of our country. We’ve always been White and not-white. That’s the only category. So Germans and Irish and Greeks and Lithuanians when they first arrived, they didn’t think of themselves as Whites. The became White in order to distinguish them racially and privilege wise from the Blacks (and others) who weren’t privileged.

      We still live with this legacy. White is normative in our society. It is the default. Asian is not unusual, but it isn’t normative.

  5. Dan ⋅

    Just something to note. It is fairly unanimous among sociologists who are studying the intercultural phenomenon in North America that cultural identity usually solidifies by 3rd generation and up. Hence, identity crises among 1.5 & 2nd Gen Asians (and others) are not truly a “crises” at all; it is just a natural phenomenon which reaches its own stasis as time progresses. However, for those who are 1.5 & 2nd Gen, life is going to be confusing (especially with respects to identity issues); just a matter of fact. Best we can do is offer “safe-havens” where they can comfortably traverse the generational gap, be it ethnic churches, or utilizing temporary, identity markers such as “ABC, Indian-American, Japanese-American, Korean-American, et. al..” Staying in close dialogue with those who have gone before us may also help (i.e., learning from 3rd/4th Gen Asians).

    P.S. So long as there are constant flux of incoming immigrants from the “motherland,” these small pockets of transitory Asians (i.e., 1.5/2nd Gen) will never completely disappear. Much research into accommodating this immensely diverse group of Asians is needed, but still secondary compared to what must be done for the emerging pan-Asian, minority, North American group we know as Asian-American.

  6. j

    i absolutely love this blog, and discussions on race. i am an african-american woman, and it is refreshing to hear the experiences of other persons of color…if you don’t mind, i will be linking your blog to my blogroll. be blessed! i look forward to having many more discussions!

  7. jpbronsin ⋅

    Been reading around, good insights. I don’t always agree and some of it contributes to the problem, but glad there is a blog such as this.

  8. Pingback: Open Discussion: Do All Asians Look Alike? « Stuff Asian People Like - Asian Central

  9. Speaking as a Chinese-American, I have to agree with others who say that the Pan Asian approach, especially when we speak as citizens of America. We can even look at this at the basic level of pop culture, where people constantly lament the lack of Asian representation in American cinema. Taking the aforementioned John Cho as a Japanese character, it certainly leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth. But John Cho resembles a Japanese person more than a non-Asian does. I’ve read an article online that suggests that there simply aren’t enough Asian Americans (in this case, Japanese Americans) who are in the business of performing arts.

    Has anybody heard of the pop cultural phenomenon, the “Korean Wave”? Apparently, people all over east Asian and southeast Asia have been embracing South Korean pop culture. Some people theorize that it’s a response to the continuing Westernization of their culture. I recently saw a film from Thailand. The subject matter was what it was like to grow up as a child in 1980’s Thailand. Even as a Chinese-American, there were more resemblances to my experiences growing up than in American films that try to explore a similar subject. Of course there are some subtitle facial differences, but with a large amount of my family and family friends in northeast America, a great proportion of my time growing up was around other people who had dark-brown-almost-black hair and brown eyes. So there are differences, but the Pan Asian identity is still easier to identify with than other identities at the moment. I’ve even read testimony from others actually living in Asia that intermixing has been going on for a good deal of time now that you can no longer just assume somebody is, say, a “pure” Chinese person.

  10. …Incidentally, one of our family friends (also Chinese) has a Korean girlfriend.

    And I don’t know if “Sulu” is really a blatantly Japanese name. I don’t think the Japanese language even has an “L” sound.

  11. There’s a lot of name calling going on here.
    I guess we can’t agree on what to call someone who looks different (to whatever degree) from us. I think I’m German-Swedish. But I only call myself American. I’m sure they are great countries but I care more about America than Sweden or Germany. I’m speaking in terms of political borders here.
    But people are people, not countries. All people are equal, and God wants us to love everyone the same, regardless where their ancestors are from.
    Do people all look the same? Maybe from a distance. Maybe we need to get closer. Close enough to call each other “brother” and “sister”.

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