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COLUMN ONE : Separate, Distinct--and Equal : Asian-Americans have long endured stereotypes. And the struggle to establish an identity apart from their motherlands, and each other, continues--because images of Asians change slowly here, if at all.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a Japanese-American growing up on the Eastside of Los Angeles, Don Nakanishi dreaded going to school on Dec. 7.

“Inevitably, some teacher would mention that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and all the eyes in the class would turn to me,” said Nakanishi, director of the Asian-American Studies Center at UCLA.

He thought that part of his life was over when he enrolled at Yale University, which he believed to be a great center of liberalism and tolerance. He was wrong. Late on the night of Dec. 7, 1967, as the freshman Nakanishi was studying in his room--relieved that no one had reminded him of the day--a throng of dormitory mates marched in and threw water balloons at him, shouting: “Bomb Pearl Harbor! Bomb Pearl Harbor!”

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As Nakanishi sat in his chair, stunned and dripping wet, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, a classmate began to recite by memory President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech declaring war against Japan and calling Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.”

The incident, he said, changed the course of his life. Instead of working to become a doctor, in the months following the incident he studied the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, including his parents. His search led him to become a specialist in Asian-American studies.

“It made me wonder why I was being identified with an event I had nothing to do with, one that involved Japan, and why my fate was wrapped up in U.S.-Japan relations,” said Nakanishi, 44.

But he has learned over the years that American images of Asians change slowly, if at all.

Just this week, his 10-year-old son told him that last Dec. 7, a fourth-grade teacher had mentioned Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in class.

When Nakanishi asked the boy how he felt, the child replied: “I felt like everybody was looking at me. I don’t know why.”

*

For nearly 8 million people of Asian ancestry in the United States--40% of them in California--life often means reflecting images from two worlds.

“Ever since yellow men came to Gam Saan (Gold Mountain, the immigrants’ name for California), the fate of Asian-Americans was decided by forces beyond their control,” said K.W. Lee, an editor at the Sacramento Union and a pioneering Asian-American journalist. He said he changed his first name, Kyung Won, to K.W. when he became a reporter more than four decades ago in Tennessee to accommodate Anglo editors who could not pronounce his name.

“Not only did I change my name, but I became Chinese because no one knew what Korean was,” said Lee, 65. In the Tennessee of the 1950s, Lee remembers being called “Chee-na-man.”

No matter how many generations Asian-Americans live in this country, many people continue to think of them as foreigners, contends Jon Funabiki, director of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University. “You can never be a full-blooded American citizen as long as you look different from the classic white Anglo.”

Funabiki--who is sansei, third-generation Japanese-American--says he has been verbally harassed more frequently in recent years as U.S. trade frictions with Japan accelerated. During a business trip to the Midwest, , he recalls, a stranger stopped him on the street and said: “Why are you trying to buy up all the farms here?”

His experience is not uncommon, according to a new Times poll, which found that the most prevalent form of discrimination reported by Asians comes from strangers in a public place. This is in contrast to African-Americans, Latinos and Anglos, who most commonly report discrimination in the workplace.

The poll, which surveyed 1,232 Southern California residents, also found that 72% of the respondents believe that movies and TV distort Asian characters.

But 60% said Asians are treated fairly by the news media. Even among Asians, more (50%) believe that the news media treat them fairly than say they get negative treatment (32%).

Still, such findings do not mean that all is well, say Asian-American media watchers.

In 1991, the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, working with the Asian-American Journalists Assn., launched Project Zinger, a watchdog for Asian-American coverage in the news media.

In its report on 1992 coverage, Project Zinger identified 10 editorial cartoons depicting Asians with buckteeth, slanted eyes and with thick glasses--a image straight out of U.S. World War II propaganda.

One cartoon--by Paul Szep in the Jan. 12, 1992, Boston Globe--showed four Japanese car dealers helping an American car salesman who has fainted, an allusion to President George Bush’s trip to Japan. The four Japanese characters have slits for eyes and buckteeth, and three wear large glasses.

Szep defended his work. “A lot of people don’t really understand or appreciate satire and caricatures and take umbrage,” he said. “I treat all ethnic groups the same. I’ve gotten complaints from everyone.”

Even children’s literature is not immune. The July/August issue of Jack and Jill, a nationally distributed children’s magazine, drew complaints after a story included an exchange in pidgin English.

“The tiny, ancient master stroked the hair on his chin.

“Not end of world, young Freddie. Master Hojo teach you seclet weapon.

“A secret weapon, Master Hojo?”

“Wong Fong. Ancient Oriental art of tickring.

“What exactly is ‘ tickring ' Master?”

“Everybody tickrish some prace or other. Watch carefurry. Wong Fong will show you how to find most tickrish spot on whole human body.”

“I have not seen such a stereotype in years,” Oakland resident Teri Lee wrote in a letter to the publication, canceling her 7-year-old’s subscription. “I had hoped our country was getting beyond portrayals of inscrutable Oriental karate sages who speak broken English and cannot pronounce l and r sounds.”

It was a “mistake--an oversight,” said an apologetic Steve Charles, editor of Jack and Jill. “We did not realize it would be taken that way.”

*

Ever since Chinese, Japanese, then Koreans, Filipinos and Asian-Indians began immigrating last century, they have been met by bizarre stereotypes.

When the first Chinese came to California about the time of the Gold Rush, they were called celestials-- peculiar beings from another world. Later they were depicted as heathens who frequented opium and gambling dens.

In the early decades of the 20th Century, American admiration of Japan’s might tended to soften scapegoating--until World War II, when Japanese in this country became the “yellow peril,” and California newspapers promoted the internment of Japanese-Americans.

In the early ‘40s, when the United States supported Chiang Kai-shek, Chinese here and abroad enjoyed a period of good feelings from Americans. But with the triumph of the Communist government on the mainland in 1949, the Chinese for the most part once again were seen as evil enemies.

Pre-1970 portrayals in Hollywood were mostly negative: sly and sinister Fu Manchu; bumbling Charlie Chan, whose bogus “Confucius say” fortune cookie aphorisms denigrated the great Chinese sage; exotic geisha images, and subservient women being used as exotic playthings for white males.

The Korean and Vietnam wars contributed their share of negative images.

“When I watched M*A*S*H, I was often enraged by a supposedly Korean person wearing a Vietnamese-style hat wandering around in a Japanese-looking village mumbling nonsensical syllables that were supposed to be Korean,” said Los Angeles attorney T.S. Chung, a Korean-American. “Americans may not think all this amounts to much. But let me ask this question: How would you feel if a Korean TV producer portrayed an American as a Mexican in a Canadian village mumbling sounds in German or French?”

In recent years, as the economies of Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and other Asian countries have become increasingly competitive with the United States, Asians have become linked in the media in another context of war.

With the great Asian influx into the United States in the 1970s and ‘80s, the images changed. The country’s Asian population more than doubled, and new stereotypes began to rise. Popular portrayals cast Asians as model minorities who excel academically and economically at the expense of others, as greedy inner-city merchants, or as boat people who are a drain on social services.

Those stereotypes have continued into the ‘90s, along with a tendency to confuse Asians from abroad with Asian-Americans--a sore point as recently as this summer with the opening of the movie “Rising Sun,” which many activists criticized for failing to draw those distinctions.

“In the 1990s, images of Asians in the media are schizophrenic,” said social psychologist Ki-Taek Chun, deputy director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ eastern regional office in Washington.

The commission, in a 1992 report called “Civil Rights Issues Facing Asian-Americans in the 1990s,” said: “These blurred distinctions are in part attributable to the media’s inadequate coverage of Asian-Americans: In contrast to the extensive media coverage of foreign Asians, Asian-Americans have been largely invisible in the media.”

The public, however--at least in Southern California--seems to recognize the differences. The Times poll, conducted Aug. 7-10, found that 75% of those surveyed believe that different Asian ethnic groups such as Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese have diverse mentalities rather than similar mentalities.

Still, criticism of the portrayals persists.

“The Times poll results might show that, but my experience . . . is that the general public does not distinguish different Asian ethnic groups,” said Keith Kim, an engineer for the Xerox Corp. in El Segundo.

“What bothers me is that even though Asian-Americans are a diverse group of people, we are so often portrayed as people who came here to make money and send our kids to Ivy League schools,” said Kim, chairman of the board of the Korean-American Scholarship Foundation.

“There are a lot of Asian-Americans who lead just average lives like me,” he said. “My kids attend state universities because private schools cost too much. . . . We are individuals--not hordes. I, for one, chose to live in the United States because I believe in the democratic principles on which this country was founded.”

Some, including Asian-Americans, view the model minority image as flattering. But Stanford University law professor Bill Hing said it can be harmful.

“There are a lot of Asian-Americans who have psychological and mental problems because their academic performance is not measuring up to the expectations of their parents or of their teachers,” said Hing, author of the book “Making and Remaking Asian-America Through Immigration Policy.”

The frustration of Asian-Americans is that, for the most part, they are not in positions to create their own images, said Darrell Y. Hamamoto, who teaches comparative culture at UC Irvine and is the author of “Monitored Peril: Asian-Americans and the Politics of TV Representation,” to be published next year.

In researching his book, he found no Asian-American males in high-profile TV news anchor positions--which he attributed to the “Connie Chung syndrome,” in which an Asian-American woman is paired with an Anglo male news anchor.

“In every major city in the U.S., there is a female Asian-American anchor. Is that coincidence? Or is it part of the media marketing strategy?” asked Hamamoto.

George Toshio Johnston, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, said his group finds a lot not to like. But there are exceptions.

He particularly likes California Milk Advisory Board commercials. One shows an Asian-American teacher drinking milk, and another an Asian-American family with a baby girl taking her first steps.

“It feels good to see Asian-Pacific images like that,” Johnston said. “While very few Asian-Pacifics appear on prime time TV shows, commercials on the other hand demonstrate noticeable progress.”

THE TIMES POLL: Images of Asian-Americans

Two in five Southland residents believe that Asians have had a positive impact on life here; just one in six believe their impact has been negative. Most say the news media treat Asians fairly but call movie and television portrayals distorted.

* What do you most admire about Asian-Americans? (Two replies accepted) Industrious: 51% Close-knit families: 19% Intelligent: 15% Children go to college: 8% Strong work ethic: 8%

* Where do you get most of your information about Asian-Americans? (Two replies accepted) Personal experience: 50% Newspapers: 35% TV news: 33% Acquaintances: 21% Books: 9% School: 8% TV entertainment: 5% Movies: 1% Other/don’t know: 4%

* Who do you think is the most prominent American of Asian background? Michael Woo (Former L.A. councilman): 18% Sen. Daniel Inouye (D -- Hawaii): 7% Connie Chung (Journalist): 6%

* What is your biggest criticism? (Two replies accepted) Clannish: 18% Unfriendly: 9% Aggressive: 8% Uninvolved in community: 7% Don’t speak English: 7%

* What impact have Asians had on life in Southern California? Positive: 41% Equally positive ad negative: 37% Negative: 16% Don’t know: 6%

* How do the news media treat Asians? Fairly: 60% Too positively: 11% Too negatively: 17% Don’t know: 12%

* What is the portrayal of Asians in television and movies? Accurate: 13% Distorted: 72% Don’t know: 15%

SOURCE: Los Angeles Times Poll, taken Aug. 7-10. Poll conducted among 1,232 adult residents in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties. Margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Valley Asians

Following are statistics pertaining to the Valley’s population of Asians and Pacific Islanders:

Population: 99,599 % of Valley population: 7.9% Population growth (1980-90): +136.3% Median age: 31.8 High school dropout rate: 6.7% Unemployment rate: 4.7% Median household income: $46,839 Individuals below poverty line: 8% % who own homes: 62.3%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau


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