It’s no secret that the media landscape is finally coming to terms with their lack of representation. It feels like we’re in a diversified renaissance, as we’re seeing BIPOC stories being highlighted more than ever. This movement for a medley of new cultural viewpoints has uplifted the voices of minority persons, both children and adults, but it is not without its detractors. In the tumultuous space that is social media, it’s not surprising to find pockets of negativity stained amongst the overwhelming positive praise for representation.
There’s always someone to scoff at the idea of society celebrating cultural milestones such as Jordan Peele becoming the first Black screenwriter to win an Oscar (2018), or Sarah Thomas being the NFL’s first female referee to officiate a Super Bowl (2021). The arguments tend to follow the script of…
“Who cares what race/gender they are?
I’m sick of the media forcing diversity. So what?”
…and these are the “nicer” comments. It all begs the question: Does representation really matter?
If I’ve learned anything in my adulthood, it’s that some people’s minds refuse to be swayed—and I get that. After all, no two people have had the same exact experiences growing up. Not everyone has dealt with the emotions of feeling invisible, boxed in, or that you’ll never amount to your desired dreams due to the way you look. Not everyone has had a surge of exhilaration seeing somebody who looks like them finally portrayed positively on screen. Not everyone has felt the comradery amongst familiar strangers in circles that lack representation. I’ve experienced all these things and after careful consideration I can positively say that representation does matter to me. It all traces back a decade ago, at a niche horror convention, when a then barely known actor met a kid with a dream. I’ll come back to that.
“When I grow up I want to be a paleontologist,” I said years before, over cake on my fifth birthday. Ambitious I know, my mom has video proof for the skeptics and non-believers. I can’t say I held on to my desire to dig up dinosaurs but the discovery of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) on VHS cemented my interest in all things creative. That love for the VHS era evolved into DVD special features where I would immerse myself in “Behind the Scenes” vignettes, fascinated by the bells and whistles that made movie magic. This attention to detail permeated into much of my media consumption. I would laugh along with cartoons while picking them apart like a mechanic in an auto shop. I traded in the desire to pick at fossils and instead found myself picking up the family camcorder to hone my directorial and acting skills—I was hooked.
This creative pursuit eventually joined forces with my musical endeavors as I was introduced to 2000’s pop-punk from my older sister, along with an obsession to become a guitar student of Jack Black in School of Rock (2003). I had years of piano lessons under my belt and essentially begged my parents to let me trade the keys for power chords. Soon enough, by thirteen, I was hell bent on making a name for myself in the media landscape. I wanted to make movies. I wanted to make music. I wanted to be heard and seen and I felt unstoppable with my head in the clouds. That’s the beauty of those years though, you’re not really concerned about reality but, like a mosquito buzzing in my ear, reality slowly revealed itself—and that buzzing became deafening.
Even though My Chemical Romance lived in my Walkman and I prided myself on my knowledge of George A. Romero’s zombie films, I still didn’t limit myself to just one specific genre. I explored different styles of music and film and enjoyed the hunt for discovery; however, that exploration was combated by the Asian stereotypes that were thrown at me growing up. It’s no secret that Asian Americans were heavily underrepresented in mainstream media. Mainly, the roles we were given fueled negative stereotypes and fed the Model Minority myth—and people weren’t shy to remind me of that. As a kid people never ceased to call me Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee while shouting onomatopoeic and exaggerated karate chops. I couldn’t talk about Indiana Jones without being reminded that I look like Short Round, accompanied by their best broken English accent, worthy of a Razzie nomination. I would tell people I’m in a band and they immediately assumed I play piano or violin, they couldn’t seem to wrap their head around me doing anything else. “Oh you’re the vocalist? So is it like Filipino karaoke?” made my eyes roll. Hell, I even played Little League and was bombarded with “It’s Ichiro!” from fellow teammates. And don’t even get me started on the “What do you mean you’re not good at math?” comments. The thing is, I genuinely believe that most of these encounters weren’t rooted in malice; that is inherently the problem.
Representation is important because it shapes how people perceive BIPOC and also has an effect on how BIPOC see ourselves. To this point, the media had pushed a one-sided narrative, a narrative that barricaded Asian Americans from being seen for our vibrant communities and instead subjected those communities to stereotypes created by non-asians. I have pride in my culture but, after being subjected to comments like the ones above all my life, I suddenly resented it because I felt trapped by society’s view on AAPI. I couldn’t help but obsess over the fact that none of the bands or artists I looked up to looked like me. The magazines and media I grew up loving became reminders that I was indeed different. I felt trapped between wanting to achieve my goals while dealing with the reality that most of the public viewed people like me as anything but the main character. We were reserved for ninjas, the punchline of a joke, the broken English immigrant, the academic scholar—it sucked. There’s a wealth of captivating roles to be cast but we were always given the crumbs.
My childhood dreams started drifting away as I debated dropping the band goal for a “traditional college experience” like my peers. After all, if no one like me was doing the things I wanted to do, were my dreams even possible at all? The melancholy was real as I opted for community college to sort my life out. I still hung onto the hopes I could continue playing in bands or making movies one day, but what was once a fire was just embers at this point. I struggled between having pride in my culture and simultaneously changing who I was to fit the “mainstream.” I felt Asians didn’t have a place in punk rock or film so I shied away from sharing my days of piano lessons, family karaoke, and martial arts with new people. I felt like a cliché. But as the idea of making it one day started to fade, a new episodic drama suddenly put some wind in my sails: The Walking Dead.
The hour-long drama initially caught my attention ’cause I was a sucker for the undead, but the second episode unexpectedly piqued my interest. In episode two of season one we are introduced to the character Glenn Rhee played by Asian American actor Steven Yeun. What started as a “Oh cool, an Asian actor on cable television” became “Dude, his character is actually a part of the main cast and he’s awesome!”. I was ecstatic. Yeun’s character, Glenn, wasn’t subject to any heavy stereotyping. He’s presented as just a regular guy, trying to survive in the apocalypse. His race is mentioned but never becomes a crux in the writing and, overall, the dude was just cool. Glenn became a fan favorite and the show became an instant hit. For the first time I really felt seen and represented in the media. It felt like a breath of fresh air as someone revered by the public looked like me and was portrayed as a normal guy for the first time. It lifted me from doubt and pretty much showcased that my goals were not impossible. Most importantly, it showed the mainstream we are more than just a stereotype.
After the first season The Walking Dead was a clear success a second season was quickly ordered with more episodes. In the summer of 2011, to promote the second season, AMC sent a majority of the cast to all the popular pop-culture conventions. I was a little bummed, as at the time I didn’t have the funds to afford the steep prices of those cons. Instead I opted for the more intimate Flashback Weekend Horror Convention that was held during the same weekend but at a much smaller venue. So when they announced Steven Yeun was going to be there I didn’t hesitate to snag a ticket; to say I was excited would be an understatement. The Walking Dead was a success, no doubt, but I was surprised to see that Steven’s booth had a fairly open line. Once he arrived I paced back and forth before heading over. I asked for an autograph and flat out told him, “Hey man, it really means a lot to me to see Glenn, an Asian American on television.” I remember him pausing and taking it in…then he smiled and told me thanks. We actually chatted for a bit about Chicago and his career. I can’t remember specifics but I remember feeling inspired. We snagged a picture. I told him thanks. And I left. It was a short moment—but it’s a moment I hold close.
The years that followed included me going to college to study television in addition to grinding away in the band. I was more confident in what I wanted to do and was determined to make those dreams a reality. At the same time The Walking Dead’s popularity sky-rocketed and the empty autograph lines for Steven Yeun became hour-long waits at the largest conventions. It was insane to see. After his stint on the show it seemed he took a small break from the mainstream. I loosely followed his career as I became focused on my own and started to play more shows and immerse myself in multimedia. As my band started to tour there were a few instances where I found myself in Steven’s shoes (albeit at a much smaller scale).
I’ll never forget playing a show in Wisconsin when someone from one of the other bands came up to me and said, “Hey dude, it’s really inspiring to see another Asian fronting a pop-punk band. Can I get a picture?” I was astounded, humbled, and really felt like I was doing something right. To my surprise I started seeing more of this at shows when I would meet other AAPI in the scene and we would chat about how awesome it is to see other Asians in a setting outside of the “norm.” A sudden friendship amongst people I just met is a wonderful feeling. These comments were echoed even more when my band Action/Adventure hit “viral” success with our song “Barricades”. One comment that’s been repeated is, “Where were you guys when I was in high school?” To have people tell us our representation means that much to them really brings a sentiment to me that is hard to describe.
Fast forward to April 2021 and the band announces our signing to Pure Noise Records, after grinding away for the last six years. That same month it’s also announced that Steven Yeun became the first Asian American to be nominated for Best Actor at The Oscars. I remember seeing that headline and immediately being transported back to that Rosemont Convention Hall a decade ago. I remember looking at the picture that Steven and I took and reflecting on where we were and where we are now. I talk like I know the guy but we’re really just strangers. However, that month in April I felt strangely connected to him. And it was that moment that really solidified how much our meeting meant to me.
Does representation really matter? If you grew up like me, it absolutely does. I don’t just mean from a media-centric perspective. Representation can be felt everywhere when we are seen and heard outside of society’s metaphorical box for minorities. It can inspire children and adults to follow their dreams. It can change the public’s perspective on BIPOC. It can bring a better sense of community to all facets of life, creating a more inclusive and safe space.
I wish I had more bands filled with artists who look like me growing up, but I’m not letting that stop me from being that person for the next generation of creators. We’ve made huge strides for representation but there’s still much more work to be done. To quote my favorite movie, “Life finds a way.” We’re not dinosaurs by any means, but I feel that we’re truly in a time of mass discovery for the millions of unheard BIPOC voices out in the world. It’s crazy to see how far we’ve come, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.
In support of the AAPI community, Action/Adventure is releasing a limited edition Ice Blue color of their “Pop-Punk In Color” shirt where 20% of proceeds will be donated to Stop AAPI Hate. The shirts are available until June 2nd here.
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