Entertainment

07.18.14

Model Minority Rage: Why the Hulk Should Be an Asian Guy

Captain America is black. Thor is a woman. The ideal Bruce Banner is a cuddly teddy bear, an adorkable loser, likable in a wussy kind of way. He’s totally harmless—until he isn’t.

Whenever I take a clickbait quiz to determine which of The Avengers I would be, I always game the questions to aim for the Hulk. No question, the Hulk is my Avenger, hands down, and I will always be upset that of the Avengers his stand-alone movies have fared the worst, box-office and critical-opinion-wise.

The main reason, of course, is that they didn’t get the right actor to play Bruce Banner until The Avengers hit theaters. You definitely don’t want a brooding hunk like Eric Bana to be Banner, nor do you even really want a weedy, pugnacious punk like Edward Norton (who was awesome in films where a weedy pugnacious punk was exactly what you needed, like American History X and Fight Club).

No, the whole point of a superhero with a secret identity is the dichotomy. Clark Kent shouldn’t be sexy or buff, he should be a nebbishy dork; Bruce Wayne’s public face shouldn’t be grim and foreboding, he should be a spoiled, dissolute playboy. The recent Superman and Batman film franchises have both suffered for forgetting this.

And the whole point of the Hulk is that Bruce Banner isn’t a scary, seething cauldron of rage, at least not most of the time. The transformation into the Hulk only has any power if it comes out of nowhere, if that big green rage monster emerges from the last man in the world you’d expect to raise a hand in anger to anyone.

The ideal Bruce Banner is a cuddly teddy bear, likable in a wussy kind of way. An adorkable loser. Totally harmless…until the moment when he isn’t. And there’s no better actor to portray such a character than scruffy hipster heartthrob Mark Ruffalo.

With one caveat—he’s a white guy. And he should be Asian.

No, I’m not just jumping on the bandwagon in the wake of Marvel Comics’ announcement of a black Captain America and a female Thor—although if there were ever a politically opportune moment to give the Hulk a Race Lift, this is it. (If any of my fellow Asian nerds have created a change.org petition, I’m ready to sign it.)

I just have this personal mental obsession with the Hulk being an Asian-American male icon. I have ever since Ang Lee directed his version of Hulk in 2003—which, yes, was unfortunately not that good—and Lee’s involvement predictably led race to become part of the conversation. Lee himself said, “My Taiwanese upbringing makes my interest in such stories very personal…Growing up, my artistic leanings were always repressed—there was always pressure to do something 'useful,’ like being a doctor."

Speaking as a kid who ran headlong into the problem of having parents whose dream for me was “software engineer” and whose dream for myself was “stand-up comedian,” I can relate. Especially since all my parents were doing was acting out a script laid out for me by the society around me—every time an Asian guy tells people he’s into acting, or comedy, or poetry people do a kind of double-take. It gets old pretty fast.

Asians are in an interesting place, ugly-stereotype-wise. The most common thing for people of color to be stereotyped as is as impulsive, emotional, violent—this is the ugly stereotype that clings to black and Latino communities. And being stereotyped as a “thug” not only puts limits on one’s socioeconomic mobility, it also has more immediate results like getting shot dead and your murderer being acquitted. By comparison, being stereotyped as intellectual, stoic, and boring might seem like a nice problem to have. Certainly there are some Asians who have gleefully embraced the image of being the diligent worker bee.

But stereotypes like this reflect what I like to call (appropriately enough) “Goldilocks racism”; it’s not that African Americans get a “negative” stereotype and Asian Americans a “positive” one, it’s that both stereotypes represent unhealthy extremes on a spectrum with white Americans presumed to occupy the “normal,” desirable middle.

If I had to pick one, would I rather grow up with people assuming I was going to become a boring, hard-working engineer or doctor than with people assuming I was destined to a life of low education and poverty? No question.

But it would be even better if, like my white peers, I got to pick between being passionate and emotional or being rational and practical based on how I personally felt instead of being pigeonholed.

I’m going to speak for Asian guys for the moment rather than Asian girls, who have their own whole separate world of crap to deal with. It would be nice for people not to be surprised when Asian guys are funny, or crude, or aggressive, or cocky. Especially in a cultural environment where those traits are associated with masculinity and therefore, for most straight guys most of the time, with dateability.

And it sure would be nice if we were allowed to get mad.

Yes, I’ve written about this before. But it bears elaboration.

Asian Americans’ cultural niche comes largely from the fact that we’re a product of a “brain drain”—the immigration preference system set up in 1965 that encouraged the cream of the educational crop in Asian countries to come here for better schools and a better life. The “model minority” stereotype mostly comes from the fact that the immigrants who came here, like my parents, were the ones who were already on track to get Ph.Ds.

If you consider that the U.S. has, since 1965, been trying to get the smartest Asians out of Asia rather than taking a random sampling of whichever Asians want to come, then the “model minority” thing isn’t so impressive—in fact, Asian Americans actually make less money than white Americans of the same educational level.

It’s not hard to see why. Asian-American immigrants were taught that they would be tolerated here if they stayed in a particular niche—if they learned to be really good in fields involving quantifiable, objective achievement and made themselves useful, as engineers, as scientists, as doctors, to white bosses. To be model employees, not employers.

And there’s a lot of cultural baggage that comes with that. Model employees don’t raise their voices; they don’t hold strong opinions; they don’t get impatient or mad. That’s what bosses do. Employees just do their jobs.

And let’s face it—no one wants to have sex with the model employee. The brash, opinionated, heroic-if-flawed white guy playing the Green Hornet is the one girls fall for; the humble, hard-working Kato gets to deposit a fat paycheck and then spend his weekends alone.

Jewish Americans were in a similar place a few generations ago, with similar cultural baggage, and the voice of Jewish-American entertainers shows their struggle to negotiate with that stereotype and overcome it—you can see it when you trace the arc of Catskills comedians playing with the “harmless Jewish nerd” persona, guys like Woody Allen and Mel Brooks deconstructing it and guys like Adam Sandler and Lewis Black straight-up taking a hatchet to it.

Repressed anger is one of the key dimensions to this struggle. I don’t want to reduce either entertainer entirely to his Jewishness, but I don’t think you can really get the full dimension of Adam Sandler’s screaming meltdowns without understanding them as a cathartic rejection of Woody Allen’s stock character of a bottled-up neurotic whose rage only emerges as kvetching.

Whereas Asian guys have Daniel Dae Kim being sexy and Bobby Lee being crude, we don’t really have someone out there being angry. Indeed, our A-list Asian blogger Phil Yu calls himself Angry Asian Man to address this lack.

The brash, opinionated, heroic-if-flawed white guy playing the Green Hornet is the one girls fall for; the humble, hard-working Kato gets to deposit a fat paycheck and then spend his weekends alone.

I certainly didn’t grow up with the expectation that, as a Chinese guy, I was entitled to get angry. Our heroes on TV were all notable for being levelheaded—even our badass action heroes were guys like Jet Li who mostly projected stoicism and discipline, not white-knuckled adrenaline.

I grew up in a household where “airing dirty laundry” and “making a scene” were mortal sins, and where keeping your head down, working hard and playing by the rules were bedrock laws of survival. Amy Chua and her ilk argue that this is why Asians do so well in terms of GPA and college admissions; that may be, but it doesn’t do us any favors in terms of mental or emotional health.

In my case, as someone who started out awkward and nerdy, having that set of cultural expectations layered on top of my existing personality led to extreme results. I’ve had multiple people unironically and apparently innocently refer to me as “inscrutable.” My coworkers have said it’s remarkable to see me smile or laugh. People have expressed shock that I do comedy, or that I do acting of any kind, or that I have emotions. (I vividly remember overhearing a girl being told she’d hurt my feelings and replying, “Wait, is that even possible?”)

In my particular case, I don’t have to speculate about how I come across; I have thousands of commenters on the Internet telling me to get off their TV because I have zero charisma, am totally unwatchable and utterly emotionless.

Sure, sure, Amy Chua would advise me to ignore the haters and laugh all the way to the bank, and I did, albeit in a far more roundabout and unusual way than most Asian Americans who make six figures.

But it really gets old after a while, being seen as nerdy, harmless, asexual and unattractive even if you’re also a wealthy brainiac. It gets old seeing “Gay or Asian?” pop up as a quiz topic on the Internet “gently” mocking Asian guys. It gets old when our star athlete gets dissed, harshly and humiliatingly publicly, by his own team and his response is to “turn the other cheek.” It gets old when the typical pattern is for people to see the slurs against your race as the “safe” ones to invoke as hypothetical or satirical examples in a venue where they’d never say the N-word out loud—a point that got lost in the noise of the #CancelColbert fiasco.

A community that basically, for the past few generations, has been taught by white people and has taught itself to let itself be walked on—to shrug off provocations like Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner gamely letting Tony Stark prick him with a pin—is not a healthy community.

When that bubble bursts, it may burst in the form of hashtag activists like Suey Park who, yes, loudly and intentionally overreact, in an attempt to take back some dignity and agency after what feels like a lifetime of underreacting.

Or sometimes, when it’s combined with enough self-loathing and alienation and a healthy dose of unaddressed mental illness, it explodes into tragedy. Sometimes you get a Seung-Hui Cho or an Elliot Rodger. Or a Jiverly Wong, or an One Goh, or a Jeong Soo Paek…The last thing I want to do is start a witch hunt against guys who look like me, but Asian-American males are statistically overrepresented in the small, exclusive club of American mass shooters, a fact that keeps me up at night.

In my own case? Aside from dropping out of school for a while to throw myself into acting, an avocation that revolves around doing the one thing Asians are stereotypically bad at—having emotions in public—I’ve also quixotically chosen to leverage my 15 minutes of game show fame into churning out obnoxiously self-important articles like the one you’re reading now, intentionally poking cultural hornet’s nests like race and gender.

People keep asking why I need to stay up till all hours aggressively tweeting, blogging, and generally making a lightning rod of myself, whereas better-adjusted Jeopardy! champions like Julia Collins are taking a vacation and counting their money.

All I can give is the same answer Bruce Banner gives in The Avengers. The answer that’s the “secret” to his powers, the blessing and the curse that he lives with, that has him constantly teetering on the edge of becoming a villain and a menace and yet is the force that empowers him to be a hero.

I’m always angry.