character study

Asian Immigrants on TV Are Starting to Get Some Respect

Mei Chang on Orange Is the New Black. Photo: Netflix

The first time you see inmate Mei Chang, played by Lori Tan Chinn, in Orange Is the New Black, is midway through the second episode of the first season. Piper is getting starved out by Red, and she needs Nikki to get some stuff from the commissary for her. There’s Chang, with her no-muss buzz cut, behind the metal mesh of the commissary booth, handing out cups and Colgate and ramen in her brusque, no-nonsense manner. That’s where she’ll remain for most of the show: doing her job on the periphery, seen but unnoticed. Just how she wants it. It isn’t until the sixth episode of the recently released third season that the show lingers on Chang: In “Ching Chong Chang” we get her backstory, and if one thing’s clear, she’s the real gangster at Litchfield.

At first glance, Chang’s character descends from a mostly disavowed form of Asian caricature: a “fobby” (a term used by Asian-Americans to describe their fellow immigrants who are F.O.B., meaning fresh off the boat) immigrant who speaks pidgin English and can’t seem to properly assimilate. On TV dramas, characters like Chang popped up in procedurals like Law & Order: SVU, whenever Detectives Benson and Stabler went to Chinatown to investigate a crime. More notably, they’ve appeared in comedies as a punch line, where a failure to be American is the joke. Sometimes this role was played by Asian-American actors (Gedde Watanabe in Sixteen Candles) and sometimes it was done by white people (Alex Borstein’s Ms. Swan on MADtv), but remnants still exist. Han Lee on CBS’s 2 Broke Girls is constantly the butt of jokes that rest on stereotypes — he’s pocket-size; he has a small dick; he never gets laid. Cue the laugh track.

Han Lee isn’t a sophisticated character. He’s a classic Asian buffoon who must defer to the antics of the white protagonists, Max and Caroline, the two broke girls in question. There’s no psychic space to imagine a person aside from the stereotype. Neutered in every sense, Han Lee is invisible because he can’t be seen as anything beyond a joke. But Orange Is the New Black flips the script on invisibility: Instead of using Chang for comedic effect, the show carefully observes how invisible she is to those around her and makes that the story. What’s more, it honors Chang’s character, who is uninterested in assimilating and doesn’t want to be seen.

Recent trends in Asian-American representation on TV have by and large swung away from the Asian immigrant altogether, toward color-blind casting. Many major roles were ostensibly written without the person’s race in mind: Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation (Aziz Ansari), Beverly Katz on Hannibal (Hetienne Park), Henry Higgs on Selfie (John Cho). For instance, in John Cho’s short-lived, groundbreaking role, creator Emily Kapnek told the Toronto Star that originally they were looking for someone “several generations older and British” (presumably white), but then they “opened [their] minds.” Once they cast Cho, the writers decided not to make the interracial aspect of their relationship a plot point. “To not even talk about it is a really new and, I think, mature way to look at it,” Cho said. This comes out of a familiar narrative of Asian-American respectability that places a premium on the ability to seamlessly blend into the American body politic — the model minority.

But what of the Asian-Americans who are not “just like us”? If we’re not mocking them, is the message that they’re no longer of narrative value? Fresh Off the Boat attempts to subvert this space, but it’s limited by its network and medium. Even though the parents, Jessica and Louis, are immigrants, at its heart it’s a show about their success at chasing the American dream and how they’re adjusting to mainstream society. (If the show were to explore the other side of immigration, it would have to come through the grandmother, played by Lucille Soong, who shares Chang’s lackadaisical attitude.) There are other comedies attempting to work with the fobby immigrant that haven’t managed to move out of the realm of shtick: Jimmy O. Yang’s Jian Yang in Silicon Valley, as Erlich Bachmann’s pet, and Ki Hong Lee’s Dong in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a character who hasn’t fully uncorked yet.

Community, like Orange, is different. While Ken Jeong’s Ben Chang doesn’t speak with an accent, the show has been attentive to the marginalization of Asian-Americans. He is in some sense an exaggeration of the Asian buffoon who is constantly on the outside looking in, and driving himself mad from the experience. In the eighth episode of Community’s most recent season on Yahoo, “Intro to Recycled Cinema,” Chang is on his way to Hollywood after a commercial in which uttering the catchphrase “Ham, girl!” turns him into a star. The gang (or what remains of it) is huddled around a laptop watching an interview he’s doing. Chang reflects on his Greendale cohort and says, “I haven’t spoken to them, really. There’s not much for me back there.” The rest of the episode is spent with the gang trying to cobble together a sci-fi movie built around some leftover footage they have of Chang. It’s a smart reversal — the show shifts the focus to him when he’s literally not there.

And what’s interesting about Orange’s Chang is that while she’s never central to the ongoing plotlines, it’s clear that she couldn’t care less. She’s living on her own terms. What demonstrates this best wasn’t that she once ordered men to cut out a guy’s gallbladder but, rather, what she does in prison. She smuggles cartons of peas to her bunk, where she softly crushes a bag of Fritos in a towel before mixing them together to make a patty she cooks in the microwave. Then she shuffles off and gets some clementines from a hole in the fence, which she peels and eats while watching movies on her phone. She’s been invisible all her life, and she uses it to get what she wants.

Chang’s story line is a small improvement in the way that Asian-Americans are represented onscreen. She’s a recovery of the Asian immigrant, the one who was cast out in the name of political correctness. Chang isn’t simply a first-generation immigrant, she’s one who doesn’t care to fit into the mainstream. So for a brief moment, you get a glimpse of a character who is suggestive of another world that doesn’t center around whiteness. You might not be quite sure what’s going on, and that’s the point: She’s not here for you.

Asian Immigrants on TV Are Getting Some Respect