What It’s Like to Never Ever See Yourself on TV

THE JOY LUCK CLUB, Kieu Chinh, Ming-Na Wen, Tamlyn Tomita, Tsai Chin, France Nuyen, Lauren Tom, Lisa Lu, Rosalind Chao, 1993

I watched a lot of TV as a kid. Growing PainsWhose The BossFamily TiesSilver SpoonsMr. Belvedere. From the hours of 3 to 9 from the ages of 8 to 18, I watched attractive white people living in huge houses, having problems and solving problems and eating a lot of pancakes.

There were a few black people. Arnold and Willis. Theo and Rudy. No Latinos. No LGBTQ. For the most part, diversity meant someone less than affluent, or slightly nerdy. America, at least according to my television—and what other or better window did a 10-year-old me have into the larger world out there—was a country largely made up of, by and for white people, in which black people were acknowledged with a time slot Tuesdays at 8:30 or from time to time, i.e., once-a-season, in a very special episode about racism.

Suffice it to say, there were no Asians on my screen. The Incredible Hulk was green, which was as close as we were going to get to yellow. Closer than David Carradine was, anyway.

Whenever I did see an Asian on the screen (which wasn’t often), it would immediately take me out of whatever the story was. I would point at the screen and go, “Hey!”

And then the rest of my family would look and we would be excited for about ten seconds. Which was how long it took to realize the Asian was either:

  • Doing kung fu (or some imitation thereof)
  • Delivering food
  • In the background
  • Portrayed in a way that was kinda offensive
  • Preceded or followed by a gong sound, or
  • All of the above

Read more, an excerpt from Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown at TIME

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