As Asian Americans, we’re no strangers to the model minority myth – you know the narrative, where Asian Americans are uniformly deemed as polite, hard-working, and mathematically capable.
One of the many dangers of the model minority myth is that Asian Americans are treated as a monolith, where individual differences are ignored and their challenges are diminished. I really enjoyed reading Randall Park’s recent director’s statement for his new film Shortcomings, in which he expresses the “simple yet sadly urgent notion that to be Asian American is to be human.” And of course, to be human is to be imperfect, constantly make mistakes, and hopefully have the opportunity to learn and grow from them.
In this edition of Short Takes, we’re highlighting several new works that showcase the wide breadth of what it means to be Asian American, flaws and all. In her latest novel, R. F. Kuang does not portray Athena Liu as a perfect, one-dimensional writer without pitfalls. Jamie Jo Hoang illustrates the complicated dynamic of a traumatized refugee father and his daughter. And in Park’s Shortcomings, he presents characters who are clearly flawed and yet, deeply human.
These stories continue to challenge the model minority myth and prove that Asian Americans are not to be grouped solely into one category or larger narrative. Rather, we are individuals with vastly different insecurities, challenges, and stories of their own accord.
See below for four recommendations:
Yellowface, by R. F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang’s newest book, Yellowface, is one that may already be on your radar – but consider this your sign to pick up a copy ASAP. Released in May, the novel became an instant New York Times bestseller and has only continued to gain traction in the last few months. The book centers on two young writers: Athena Liu, an Asian American literary starlet at the top of her game, and Juniper Hayward, a white woman struggling to catch her big break. After a freak accident occurs in which Athena chokes to death, June makes the impulsive decision to claim Athena’s just-finished work (an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers during World War I) as her own. What follows is a series of events just about as absurd as the book’s premise.
Chinese American author R. F. Kuang takes on the voice of Juniper to an impressive degree, fully immersing readers in the inner thoughts of a young white writer turned paranoid plagiarist. The book is as much about the current state of the hypercompetitive publishing industry as it is a biting commentary on privilege, racism, and cultural appropriation. It’s deeply provocative, uncomfortable, even horrifying at times – and yet, it will have you on the edge of your seat turning pages until the very end.
My Father, The Panda Killer, by Jamie Jo Hoang
Another book to check out this month is Jamie Jo Hoang’s newest work, My Father, The Panda Killer. The book alternates between two voices: a California teenager named Jane in the 1990s, and her father, Phúc, who experienced a traumatic refugee journey from Vietnam to the United States in the 1970s. Readers learn of Jane’s tumultuous upbringing, as her mother abandoned the family and Jane became the target of her father’s outbursts of anger and at times, abuse. Before Jane leaves for college, she realizes she must tell her younger brother, Paul, about where their father’s anger comes from.
My Father, The Panda Killer is a moving novel about the refugee experience, and how trauma can affect multiple generations. At its core, it’s a story about empathy, healing and forgiveness that will stay with you, especially if you are the child of immigrants.
Shortcomings, Dir. by Randall Park
Shortcomings is Randall Park’s directorial debut and the film’s premise definitely intrigued me at first glance; the film follows Ben, a struggling filmmaker who lives with his girlfriend, Miko, who works for a local Asian American film festival. What was immediately clear to me within five minutes of this film is that Ben (played by the fantastic Justin H. Min) is not a likable guy. He’s overly cynical, quick to judge others, and spends his time obsessing over unavailable blonde women. At the start of the film, Miko invites him to a screening for her work, and he scoffs at the film afterwards saying, “It’s depressing to see a room full of people lose their minds over a movie just because of representation or whatever.”
Shortcomings stars multiple interesting, complex characters with – well, shortcomings. The film is unafraid to show these characters for who they are, however flawed they may be, and this is one of the ways Shortcomings succeeds most. Though I was frustrated with the decisions of Ben and his friend Alice (played by Sherry Cola, who absolutely shines in the role) at times, I also saw parts of myself in them and was rooting for them to grow as people.
If you go into this film expecting a shimmery rom-com with a happy-ever-after ending, prepare to be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a film that will amuse you, pose challenging questions, and offer up some very interesting character studies, you’re in for a treat.
Love in Taipei, Dir. by Arvin Chen
Also released earlier this month (and now streaming on Paramount+) is Love in Taipei, a romantic comedy film based on Abigail Hing Wen’s 2020 novel Loveboat, Taipei. For those unfamiliar with the book, the plot centers around a young woman named Ever Wong who finds herself in a love triangle while abroad.
Since Ever was born, it seemed like her path was carved out for her: Ever would work hard throughout college, get accepted into a top medical school, and finally become the successful doctor of her parents’ dreams. But this predestined future is called into question when Ever’s parents send her away for a cultural immersion program in Taiwan.
Though the film has received somewhat mixed reviews (it’s currently 67% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this piece), there were definitely aspects of the film – and of Ever’s story – that resonated. Toward the end of the film, Ever has a heartfelt conversation with her parents in which she admits, “I don’t know what I want. Right now in life it feels like I’m torn between two of everything. Two cultures, two languages, two career paths.” It’s a sentiment I feel many Asian Americans, including myself, can relate to.
I appreciated the fact that this film doesn’t magically resolve all of the conflicts and questions Ever faces in her journey of self-discovery. Rather, one of the biggest lessons Ever learns is to have courage to embrace the unknown and feel at peace with not having everything in life figured out – and that’s a message I can definitely get behind.