• John Cho and Kal Penn in ‘Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle’. (New Line Productions)Source: New Line Productions
A common joke among Asians is that they get five career choices: Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer, Accountant or Failure.
Annie Hariharan

12 Mar 2020 - 11:26 AM  UPDATED 12 Mar 2020 - 11:26 AM

A retelling of this joke will likely elicit groans, nods and eye rolls because although immigrants have to try harder to prove themselves, it is also exhausting to be a model minority whose image is used as a proxy for studiousness. 

So what are the unambitious and underachieving Asians supposed to do? And where is their representation in Western pop culture today? A good start was the movie Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004) which challenged the stereotypes of Asian Americans and let them be normal people with a penchant for fun.

The characters played by John Cho and Kal Penn smoked marijuana, broke a few laws and insisted on having a grand adventure at the expense of attending a medical school interview. This movie became a stoner classic but did not usher in a new era of Asian representation in movies.

However, in recent years there has been a slight shift. There are noticeably more Asian slacker characters on Western TV perhaps as first- and second-generation Asian immigrants start pursuing careers in the entertainment industry or use their experiences in pop culture.

This is why we have characters like Marcus Kim in Always Be My Maybe, Josh Chan in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Dev Shah in Master of None, Kimchee in Kim’s Convenience and half the cast of Parasite.

But the hat tip is for Jason Mendoza in The Good Place whose character started out as a silent Taiwanese monk but turned out to be a small-time American-Filipino criminal who managed a 60-person dance crew and loves the Jacksonville Jaguars.

This loveable dummy has the stupidest, funniest lines and delivers them with so much exuberance that you forget how useless he is in times of crisis. It is a relief that nobody expects the Asian person to know martial arts and save the day.

Jason and the rest of the slacker characters are portrayed as adorable losers without much life or many career prospects but these are not considered flaws to be overcome. Instead, they forward story arcs by pursuing their passion for music or dance as long as it does not require too much effort. They also maintain friendships and relationships with their trademark looks, talent or loyalty but not their intelligence.

These are roles perfected by actors like Seth Rogen and Michael Cera, and it’s interesting to see Asian men now playing a new generation of slackers.

These examples are gendered because Asian female characters do not get to aim for mediocrity yet or make questionable life choices. The notable Asian female characters on TV are doctors (Dr. Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project, Dr. Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy) or Type A personalities (Jessica Huang in Fresh Off the Boat, Kalinda Sharma from The Good Wife).

This is not unsurprising since it’s only in the last decade that female TV characters really started becoming complex, flawed or even unlikeable, so we may be a few years away from the next reboot of Broad City or Girls with an Asian character. 

It must be pointed out that even if Asian slackers are on the rise in Western media, it is unlikely to transcend into Asian media. Take stoners’ movies which are a sub-genre in Hollywood, yet largely absent from East Asian and South East Asian movies.

One reason for this is because most Asian countries criminalise the use of drugs, and this stance is consistent in most of their media. Singapore, for example, has some of the world’s harshest laws on drugs. Therefore, when any type of drugs are shown in Asian media it is associated with crime, immoral activities or dodgy characters who need redemption. In comparison, medical and recreational cannabis is legal in Canada and parts of the US and Australia. So, screenwriters can use it as a trigger for road trips or hilarious conversations which are the basis of any good stoner movie. 

The rise of real and fictional slackers somewhat correlates with the rise of the middle class because people first need access to financial stability and minimum wage before they can afford to reject it and take risks instead. This is not quite the case in many South East Asian countries where class divide and economic inequality is still a prevalent issue. In this environment, audiences look to mainstream movies for stories of triumph where idealised characters succeed against all odds, similar to the Hero’s Journey archetype.

A popular Malaysian movie, Ola Bola (2016) exemplifies this in its dramatised account of the Malaysian football team who put aside social and racial differences to qualify for the 1980 Olympics. There is little to no room for goofy characters who daydream while the people around them fend off evil bosses or money lenders. 

Clearly this means that for now, Asian slackers are going be more popular in Western media. For writers looking to create realistic Asian representation on screen, could we start by having the characters remove their shoes before entering a house? Ask Always Be My Maybe’s director Nahnatchka Khan. She gets it.

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