Asian Representation, A Southeast Asian Perspective
Hey guys! Asyi here again. This time with an article that’s not about Iron Fist (wait till 2017 comes around though…). Besides being Geeks of Color’s resident Iron Fist, I’m also their resident non-American Southeast Asian (I’m Malay-Singaporean).
In this article, I want to talk about Asian representation. Specifically Southeast Asian representation. There isn’t much of it, and my Southeast Asian friends can agree.
“But there are more Asians on tv and movies now!”
It’s still not the same though, is it? The majority of Asians that you see in the media now are East Asians, and some South Asians. Don’t get me wrong, us Southeast Asians are proud to see them get their representation but we still can’t fully relate to them. Yes, we may have slightly similar aspects in terms of cultural upbringing but there are still societal differences that make us uniquely Southeast Asians.
(For those who are unsure, Southeast Asia consists of Brunei, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, East Timor, Thailand, and Vietnam. Here are a list of Southeast Asian ethnicities.)
Proper representation of East or South Asians will pave the way for Southeast Asian representation.
Thus making it important that Asians, East or South, American or not, are represented well in the media and in the international sphere. The way I see it, by having more representation for our fellow East and South Asians, it will pave the way for Southeast Asian representation as well. I think most Southeast Asians can agree with me on this. However, just as I’ve mentioned above, we still can’t fully relate to East and/or South Asian characters. We Southeast Asians are in a weirdly unique position. Without characters that truly represent us in international media, we would only feel compelled to relate, connect and embrace the current Asian characters that we see. However at the same time, at the back of our heads, there will always be a part of us that yearns for proper Southeast Asian representation. We look at these East and/or South Asian characters feeling like we ought to feel represented, but we don’t, because we’re not.
“In Jersey, I stick out because I’m too Pakistani. Here, I stick out because I’m too American.” – Kamala Khan
Another issue faced by East and South Asian people from Southeast Asia is actually getting accurate representation. Well, you might ask, “if you have proper representation, wouldn’t that be accurate already?” You see, the difference between proper and accurate is in the details. If a person grew up in America, even if they come from an Asian descent, their life experiences would be vastly different from an Asian person that grew up in Southeast Asia. This goes for Asian characters and personalities that we see in the media as well. Southeast Asians still find it hard to fully connect with characters that are American or from the western world, simply because of the differences in our societal upbringing.
Just as Kamala Khan said, “In Jersey, I stick out because I’m too Pakistani. Here, I stick out because I’m too American”. This is a problem faced by many Asian people, Southeast Asian too, if they spent a part of their lives outside of their “homeland”. Many Asians returning to or visiting their “homeland” often feel that they are treated differently. They are stuck in limbo between the place they grew up in and the place where their culture is from. This is the beauty of diversity even though not many appreciate it. However, art still doesn’t fully imitate life.
We need to be discontented by the status-quo in order to shape international media.
Southeast Asians also should not be content with the current East and/or South Asian representation. We all have different cultures and upbringings and we are not interchangeable. Many times, Southeast Asians are underrepresented but there are instances when we feel that we are invisible. When people look at me, they can’t pinpoint my race. I normally get Filipina or Thai. But I am Malay. My grandparents came from Malacca, Malaysia, before settling in Singapore, but my race is not commonly known by people outside of Southeast Asia. We Southeast Asians need to be discontented by the status-quo in order to shape the international media to represent us for who we truly are.
Hollywood can’t just put us all in one single group.
And that’s why I get passionate when Hollywood tries to make Asian people interchangeable. We are not interchangeable and even my culture is completely different from the other Southeast Asian cultures. We are the most diverse group of people in the world. There’s Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia, West Asia, North Asia, Central Asia. Hollywood can’t just put all of us into one single group. It is an injustice and an erasure of all the beautiful cultures in Asia and the rich history behind them.
My hope is that in the near future, we’ll see Southeast Asians being represented internationally. There are so many talented Southeast Asians and it would be upsetting to have their talents go unseen by the rest of the world. We can’t let that happen and I know that we won’t let that happen.