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How We Tell Asian Stories

By Kalos K. Chu, Contributing Opinion Writer
Kalos K. Chu ’22, a Crimson Arts Chair, is an English concentrator in Dunster House.

When I woke up on Monday morning, pretty much everything on my Twitter feed — which is comprised of a healthy cross-section of Asian Twitter and entertainment Twitter — was about the Academy Award nominations. Chloe Zhao, Steven Yeun, and Riz Ahmed’s faces dominated my morning news, their many broken records and Oscar firsts littering the headlines. The feeling in the room (to the extent that a bunch of Twitter threads counts as a room) was triumphant and jubilant: a celebration of the milestones that Asians and Asian Americans had finally achieved.

When I woke up on Wednesday morning, the feeling was quite different.

I spent a good portion of the day doom-scrolling, processing the deaths of those six Asian women in Atlanta. As Lulu Wang said, “I know these women. The ones working themselves to the bone to send their kids to school, to send money back home.” The more I read, the more I was haunted by how much their stories reminded me of my own mother — who, at the time I first heard the news, was at work at her job also in the service sector.

And despite this deluge of violence and tragedy, the headline from Wednesday that bothered me the most actually had nothing at all to do with the shootings in Atlanta, nothing to do with anti-Asian sentiment, violence, or discrimination. It was this one, from The New York Times:

China’s latest vaccine is made from hamster ovary cells.”

The article, whose title has since been changed, describes how China had approved its fifth Covid-19 vaccine, which was, indeed, developed with cell lines derived from hamster ovary tissue. Absent from the headline, however, was the fact that Chinese hamster ovary cells are commonly used in medical research and, in fact, have been for decades.

I find it hard to believe that a seasoned, Pulitzer Prize-nominated New York Times reporter was unable to find this fact (which, I will add, took me all of about 30 seconds of Googling to discover). Regardless of whether it was intentional, this embodies the kind of soft racism that has pervaded coverage of Asians and Asian Americans throughout this past year.

It’s President Trump’s insistence on calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” and the “Kung-flu.” It’s the opinion pieces and article illustrations that paint China as a nefarious, dystopian threat. It’s the careless misspellings of Asian names. It’s the story that has infinite versions — getting called a ch*nk on the subway, a friend asking if you eat dog, being told to “go back home” when America is the only home you’ve ever known. The disrespect and dehumanization are gradual, but when they persist for centuries, tragedies like Tuesday’s should come as no surprise.

And all of this is further complicated by the model minority myth: the very convenient (and completely false) belief that all Asians have achieved success through some combination of hard work, grit, and immigrant pixie dust — and that you, too, [insert other marginalized minority group here], can achieve this American Dream if you just work hard like them! I hope that I don’t need to point out the many flaws in this logic (though this article does), but the damage done by the model minority myth is very real — to Asian Americans, who are viewed as invulnerable to racism, and to other minority groups, who are denigrated for not “working hard enough.”

Returning to Hollywood, it’s interesting to observe the rise of shows like “Bling Empire” and “House of Ho,” which both follow well off Asians, through the lens of the model minority myth. It’s worthwhile to ask, in this oft-celebrated post-“Crazy Rich Asians” era of Asian representation: How can we eradicate the model minority myth if the only Asian stories are ones of success and wealth? If the stories of low-wage, female Asian workers like Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Xiaojie Tan, and Julie Park continue to be overlooked? It’s progress, sure, from the fetishization and offensive stereotypes of decades past, but it’s far from enough.

I am a second-generation Chinese American, yes, but I am also a writer, a journalist, and the Arts Chair of The Harvard Crimson. And what I think this all ultimately comes down to is, in fact, storytelling. How we tell stories about Asians and Asian Americans — whether real and fictional, whether in a news article or in a blockbuster movie — shapes how we’re treated. It’s not hard to draw lines between news articles that frame Chinese values as an existential threat to America and increased anti-Asian violence. Nor is it hard to see how the hypersexualization of Asian women in movies and TV shows encourages murderers like Robert Aaron Long, who claims to have been motivated by “sexual addiction.”

I address this op-ed not to people like Long, not to the incels or white supremacists, but rather, to my co-workers. To the writers and journalists and filmmakers of the world: Words matter, and how we tell Asian and Asian American stories matters. Spell names correctly. Do research. Challenge the model minority myth. Hire people to tell their own stories. Call out racism for what it is, and do not mince words. Think about the repercussions of what you put out into the world because — as Tuesday’s events have made abundantly clear — the consequences can be life or death.

Kalos K. Chu ’22, a Crimson Arts Chair, is an English concentrator in Dunster House.

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