Having a pawnshop as the family business was an interesting window in the world for me. Not because of the times I spent working at the store and interfacing with customers…but because of movies. My family was a strictly reading family. Television time was limited. As is often the case with a young person the phrase, “I’m Boooooored!”came up a lot. Much to my youthful chagrin the regular refrain I received was three letter phrase, sung to the tune of the William Tell Overture: “Read-a-book, Read-a-book, Read-a-book-book-book, Read-a-book, read-a-book, read-a-book-book-book…” You get the idea.
Yet, something separate from my limited TV time was movie time. Regularly, used VHS Tapes (Hey, I was born in 1982!) would find their way home. We were able to watch our fill of movies before we returned them to our store shelves. Sometimes, my father would allow us to keep some to build a robust movie library. Of those films I recall three distinct groups of VHS tapes cluttering the hastily assembled, particle board shelf in our den: Monty Python, Classic Films from the 1930’s and ‘40s, and Godzilla films.
The Monty Python turned me into a loony, BBC-loving anglophile…which I remain to this day. Those classic films I mentioned were enjoyed with my grandparents and myself…and despite some of the problematic imagery of racism and sexism, I still admit I have a soft spot for Abbot and Costello, The Marx Brothers, the Comedic work of Cary Grant, and Hope and Crosby’s (Crosby, not Cosby dear young ones) Road Pictures. Another indicator that I’m, in fact an 80 year-old man stuck in a 35 year-old body: I just used the word “Picture” to describe a movie.
The Godzilla films, however…were unique.
“I like Godzilla. All the people in the movies look like me!” I would tell my parents.
You can pretend that I’m pausing for your collective, “Awwwww…”
Continuing onward. As I sat cross-legged on the shag carpeting of our den in front of our television, shrouded in darkness I remember staring wide-eyed at all the other Asian faces. They all have an epicanthic eye-fold just like mine! They have almond eyes…straight black hair just like me! “This. Is. Cool.” The guys in foam monster suits pummeling each other over Tokyo was equally exciting…but it was the sea of almond-eyed Japanese people fleeing from destruction that kept me coming back to this storied franchise.
Okay…to be clear, I was thrilled that Japanese people were the only faces to be seen in these movies…not that I was thrilled they were terrified and fleeing for their lives.
The cognitive dissonance I experienced was the familiarity of faces similar to mine, while (at the same time) these faces and customs still appeared incredibly strange to me. Growing up I only knew two Asian families. The Miamotos, who were a Japanese couple that lived in our neighborhood who adopted a Korean girl, and the owner of the local Thai Restaurant we would often frequent – Linnie’s (the owners and their daughters were actually Laotian…but…nobody in Spokane was likely to ever notice that particular nuance of ethnic diversity).
So, I knew seven Asian people in Spokane, and these were people of whom I only had a casual acquaintance. I know there are more than just seven Asians living in Spokane and I got to know and befriend a few more when I started high school. So, despite the familiarity to which I immediately gravitated towards, the faces…the customs…and mannerisms remained distinctly…alien to me.
Occasionally, my wife and I will binge-watch Netflix. When I say occasionally, I mean…regularly. More rarely, there are times we’re willing to exert the necessary brainpower to find a foreign film where we can enjoy the wondrous experience of having our eyes dart between the action of the film to the subtitles below. Even as a relatively well-educated and well-rounded individual surrounded by diversity, I continue to remain confounded by Asian culture in International Film and Television. I can most easily conceptualize and wrap my mind around the larger scope of action packed genres like historical war films, samurai dramas, and kung-fu flicks…relatively “main stream” genres in the United States among cinephiles, nerds, and people who enjoy watching round-house kicks to the face. These films are a huge upgrade from Godzilla…but for any film reliant on lots of action, cultural subtext tends to take a backseat. I confess to find the imagery and behavior mostly alien to me, even as an adult.
What I can’t reconcile are my attempts to jump into films from Japan, China, or Korea that are departures from the action-packed dramas mentioned already. Could I name a Korean Movie Star? Flat out No. Would I recognize a Korean Movie Star…likely not. I at least can name a few Chinese actors and actresses, and barring that ability, I at least can point at the screen and say: “Wasn’t that the guy (or gal) in that one movie?” I may self-identify as a Nerd or Geek, yet my own appreciation of Japanese Anime remains very limited.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the Japanese Anime that I really enjoy (Ghost in the Shell, the work of Hayao Miyazaki, etc.). Despite my appreciation for the genre and the imagery…I tend to gravitate to more “mainstream” anime. The costumes, dialogue, and music ultimately confound my sensibilities as to what works in a film/animated feature. Why…oh why…is a perky Japanese teen pop-song the musical theme for a fight scene? Why the obsession with school girls? Why can’t we translate the original Japanese dialogue in a way that doesn’t sound clumsy or obtuse? If anything, modern anime has embraced these particular elements and ongoing tropes within the genre. Perhaps, were I more culturally aware of Japanese culture I could see beyond the stereotypes of Business, Work-Related Stress, Samurai Culture, Panty-hose vending machines, and suicide. These are Stereotypes. Knowledge, Understanding, and Cultural Empathy are tools to combat the ignorance of stereotypes. I only started the process of correcting my own ignorance, and thus…my confusion remains, but I’m working on it.
On reflecting on this, both my wife and myself are thrilled to live in a diverse part of the world; surrounded by Latinos, Asians of all varieties, Persians, Arabs, Indians…etc. It gives me great solace to know that this is the environment our children will grow up in…surrounded by diversity and hopefully not confused or placed in a situation where they feel the need to reject their physical appearance and heritage in an effort to blend in.
To this day, seeing another Asian face in movies or TV really makes me perk up and take notice. Depending on the role, I’ll typically say to myself (or out loud to me wife more often), “Asians Representin’!” I’m of course pumping my fist in the air mentally as I think this as well. I want my children to grow up with confidence in themselves and whether we like it or not many of our role models are derived from movies and TV. I may still be a book-loving nerd, but I see the value of growing up with Asian Role-Models in the media…and that’s how I want to see my children gravitate towards their heritage; not as I did, gravitating towards cheesy Godzilla movies for the novelty of Asian faces…but as an everyday event. My kids should grow up surrounded by diversity as part of a normal occurrence…not an exception or strange anomaly. That is what I appreciate now and hope to pass on down to the next generation of the Singer Family.
Please, if you enjoyed this article…Like, Comment and Share. As always you can follow me on Twitter @streamingdan82. Are you Asian-American. I’d love to hear your unique story…and with your permission would be happy to publish it. Got a blog talking about your Asian-American Experience…let me know in the comments! I’ll check it out and with your permission would love to re-blog your story here as well.