American TV learns Asian equation
ALL American means apple pie, grid iron and blonde cheerleaders, right? Wrong. Not now that 'minorities' have gone primetime.
If Bill Cosby broke down the barrier for middle-class African Americans, a new sitcom is set to crack the stereotypes about Asian Americans on network television and explore the unique pressures they find themselves trying to resolve . . . and all with a laugh.
The ABC-screened, Walt Disney Television-made comedy is called All American Girl, and its stars represent the new generation of Asian Americans who have struggled with the cultural confusion of feeling as American as the next jock, being treated like an outcast by their blue-eyed counterparts, and all while being expected to be true to mother-country values by their families.
It is a tug of war, and love, familiar to many young Hong Kong people and its stars - all American by birth but Chinese, Korean and Japanese by ethnic background - are happy that this cultural dilemma is at last being portrayed.
Starring as the all-American girl is Margaret Cho, who grew up in San Francisco and made her mark as a stand-up comedian. She is delighted that Asian Americans have finally gone mainstream.
'This whole thing is so great. If you look at the American sitcom, it is the most conventional, commercial, conservative medium of entertainment there is. It is the most American. And it is one of the things we do very, very well.
'So the idea of an Asian American being the subject of a sitcom and for all of the different characters to be Asian is a statement, I think, on how far we have come in terms of immigration and diversity in America.' Cho plays a young Korean American trying to cope with the conflicts between being free-spirited and growing up in a conservative Korean family. The show is largely based on Cho's stand-up comedy routine, which has won her both applause and awards. It is a reflection of the problems she faced growing up.
While Cho may have been heralded as a comic great by her audiences, her family was less than enthusiastic about her chosen career - as a young comic she would sneak out of her parents' bookshop on a 'break', and bolt to the nearby comedy store to perform her routine.
'I think that this generation of Asian Americans are ridding themselves of the immigrant stigma,' commented Cho.
'I think that every different nationality that comes to America goes through a weird period of a couple of generations where they yearn for acceptance. I think we're coming into a time when we're putting roots down and there is a generation of Asian Americans growing up that are finally realising that there is a separate culture attached to Asian Americans and that is something we are trying to explore.' Cho summed up All American Girl like this: 'It's very much a family show and in a way it's a coming of age show. It's about a young woman at the end of her adolescence dealing with her very traditional family and she has these values that don't necessarily match with her parents' or her brother's [played by Chinese American B. D. Wong]. Her grandmother [Japanese American Amy Hill] is the only person who understands her really, which is very ironic because she is supposed to be the matron of the household.
'B.D.'s character and mine are going through the college of adolescence, if you will, being an adult but still living at home.' Wong, whose family emigrated from Hong Kong, chipped in: 'This is a show about a girl who is so influenced by things like sitcoms, she is someone so caught up in American popular culture, yet where does she fit in with that. This is a show about negotiating those culture conflicts.
'I think in Hong Kong there is an understanding and fascination with that person who is American and Asian, someone who is not really one or the other, but both. I imagine there is a big curiosity about what that is, and this show kind of illuminates that,' Wong said.
'And it's not just the United States,' Cho commented. 'All over the world people will say to you, 'Your English is so good' and you've lived in the States for generations and that reflects the power of television. To the world, all-American indicates white, blue eyes and freckles and people would never guess that you were American.
'I think there is a need for something to come out of Hollywood that shows America as more multi-national, more multi-cultural, because Hollywood has such power world-wide.
'I think we've gotten a lot of attention because it is so different and also why we are very attached to it because it is something we all really believe in doing,' added Cho.
For Amy Hill, comedy is proving a great way to get across some serious 'political messages'.
'Comedy has always been a way for people to be very serious and talk about their experiences and I think through this show you can get across a lot. Comedy opens doors and opens minds - you can sneak stuff in without them knowing and they walk away and go, 'Oops, I think I just learnt something'.' 'In countries all over the world, Asians are living and working and some of them have been there for generations, but they are still ostracised. I think the show can be a very good tool for getting across a lot of important social messages. While I think we need to find ourselves with the show, I think we've been given a great opportunity by Disney and ABC to do so,' Cho said.
JUST fresh on the air, some of its Asian American critics have agreed that All American Girl has a way to go in really confronting the issues of racism. While many Asian Americans have heralded the show as an incredible breakthrough for Asians who have made America home, there are those who worry that All American Girl is not really breaking through the stereotypes. But the general consensus is that the show is a step in the right direction.
One viewer wrote: 'The great thing about this show is that it's a beginning, and has the possibility of growth. I'm taping the show and will hold on to it until my children are old enough to watch it. It's a good thing for everyone, but for Asian American children in particular, to know that television is not just a bunch of white folks and Bill Cosby.' Other viewers have not been so willing to accept just any old attempt at mainline recognition, as this Asian American expressed: 'I don't care if this show means more exposure for Asian Americans, or more work for Asian Americans in showbiz. Why should we settle for this with the lame-ass attitude of, 'at least they're noticing we exist'? I loathe the show. Frankly, I really do hope it flops. And it probably will because it's not very funny.' However, on the strength of expectation, All American Girl trounced the opposition when it debuted, unexpectedly winning its time slot by almost eight ratings points and striding to a fifth place ranking overall, just behind Monday Night Football and just ahead of the new well-received hospital drama, Chicago Hope. But much of this was novelty value, summed up the critics, noting that it fared much worse on its second showing.
At worst perhaps All American Girl illustrates the previously unrecognised Asian American audience potential. But for the Asian American cast of All American Girl, the show is a true depiction of the real-life trials they have faced.
'Margaret's character embodies all the elements of what it means to be Asian and American - she deals with her parents who are more of the traditional, root culture and there is a conflict there. And she has to deal with her own identity,' said Wong.
'When I was fantasising about what my character would do, what he would be, I was like, 'Gee, I wish that my character would do this, address those issues' and many of them have already been dealt with,' Wong continued.
'Something that I have dealt with and a lot of people I know have dealt with was whether you should do what you want to do or whether you should do what your parents want you to do. That's not specifically an Asian American issue, but many Asian Americans feel a lot of pressure about that.' Cho said: 'It is very real and very true to how a lot of us were brought up. There are little scenes, like breakfasts when we will sit down to bowls of rice and kimchi and spam and chopped eggs. I saw that and I almost cried. It may look weird, but it is right on and people don't always think about those cultural details.' While Hill commented: 'Playing a grandmother,I was inspired by my own mother who is from Japan and speaks in an accent, in broken English, and I grew up embarrassed by her and wishing that I didn't have this woman in my life. And now it has come to a point where I get to embrace all of those things about her and put it up there and have it validated by the audience.'