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So while I was driving my nephew back to Falls Church for a weekend visit, we were having a conversation about the experience of 8th grade. This is a fraught topic for me, as I remember my last year of middle school as one of the most miserable times of my life. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone enjoying that cesspit of hormones, casual cruelty and teenage social Darwinism.
Yes, I have a tendency to project a bit.
Fortunately, my nephew appears to be having the opposite experience, making new friends and generally growing into his newly minted, 13-year-old teen self. Remembering how difficult it was to break out of social circles at that age, I asked him how he was managing to do that, for which he had a simple answer: ”Every group of friends needs an Asian.”
On the surface, that seems like a fairly cute and innocent answer from a Vietnamese-American kid in a Pennsylvania middle school where out of a few hundred classmates only 10 or so others are Asian. I even posted the quote on Facebook — without tagging my nephew, because while I may be brazen in mining my personal life for material, I’m not cruel — where it got some nods of recognition from Asian friends, plus white friends telling their Asian friend, ”Look, see, that’s you!”
The problem was the reasoning my nephew gave me: On TV, groups of friends will sometimes have one Asian friend (if any at all). And that Asian friend is generally tasked with comic relief and stereotyped behavior that fulfills the set list of items that make up our modern television-writing formula. Hence, every group of friends needs an Asian.
I really have a problem with my nephew having that as a template for his social skills.
It reminds me of my childhood, when TV’s gay characters were family jokes (Jodie on Soap), risqué tragedies (the various Stevens on Dynasty), or perverted objects of pity or hatred (everything else). When you don’t fit the prevailing narrative conception of normal, television can be an inadvertently poisonous influence.
I realize I’ve inured myself to this because not only do I not watch much TV these days, I married into an Asian family. I live right smack in the middle of Northern Virginia’s huge Vietnamese community, an area which also happens to be heavily Latino. To be in an all-white environment, I would have to stay at home in my office with the door closed.
I’m generally dismissive of the idea of counting gay or minority characters on TV because it’s less about the number of characters than it is about what those characters are doing, the same as it doesn’t matter how many Asians and Latinos and African-Americans you live around if you don’t interact with any of them. Yes, numbers are important because you have to get the characters on the screen before you can start raising questions about what they’re actually doing, but that’s all it is, a start.
I have no obvious solution to the problem. I can’t airlift an infusion of Asian students into my nephew’s school. I can’t wave a wand and give him a fully inclusive media where Asians are more than martial-arts bad guys and where Asian actors are actually cast in Asian roles. I can encourage his love of anime, partly because I share it, partly because it opens up a lot of Asian culture. And I got him hooked on K-pop, so he’s aware that Asians are part of the world’s music culture. Thank God for the Internet.
My nephew is an extroverted and energetic kid and I expect he’ll be just fine, regardless of my own fears. I just want everyone to remember that your Asian friend is neither your comic relief nor your badge of diversity. My nephew will grow up to be a man, not an accessory.
Sean Bugg is editor emeritus of Metro Weekly. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @seanbugg.