The Yappie Rebellion Must Commence

Authentic, not appointed, Asian American voices of all genders and classes must fight imposed irrelevance. This is Asian American populism.

6 years ago

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I didn’t hate Yappie (which means Young Asian Professional) as much as I thought I would. I’m not trying to be snide. I will always respect Wong Fu for being Youtube trailblazers, especially for Asian Americans. Their Yellow Fever short was genuinely funny and dared to broach a forbidden topic all the way back in 2006! While the rest of their oeuvre can be hit-or-miss, they deserve credit for establishing that beachhead.

However, the trailer for Yappie didn’t look promising. The storyline suggested that a bored middle-class young Asian American man could break out of his ennui by doing something so outrageous, so dangerous: dating a beautiful black woman. Also, in the core Friends-like group, there was a white guy for some reason (and in a WMAF relationship to boot), suggesting ominously that yet again, we Asian Americans are incapable of de-centering white men in our own stories.

But actually, after having watched all five episodes of the first season and given my initial expectations, I kind of liked it! The first episode starts off well, with a resurrected and race-conscious Rufio alpha-woking our comatose protagonist Andrew (Phil Wang) in front of his date. I appreciated the fact that many of the things the Dante Basco character said sounded like the everyday dialogue within Plan A. The message was pleasingly clear: don’t be like Andrew.

Screenshot of Phil Wang in "Yappie" by Wong Fu Productions
I knew Captain Hook could never truly kill Rufio

The main problem with the series is that despite Andrew’s frequent angsting about how safe his life is, he never does anything all that drastic to address what is clearly a deep problem for him. I don’t want to see the Asian dude version of Eat Pray Love. Nobody does. But I did expect him to do more than simply take up dancing again and instantly find romance with Kalina (Janine Oda), the attractive black/Japanese dance teacher. I guess he also creates seismic waves by declaring he’s never really liked dim sum. However, credit to Wong Fu for casting because Phil Wang and Janine Oda have great chemistry and made me wonder if Yappie would’ve been better off being an Asian American version of Center Stage or Take The Lead.

In episode 3, Andrew does show fire in demanding more equality in funding for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and then trying to bring the various Asian ethnic factions at work together. And episode 4 tries to broach the touchy subject of Asian-white dating. One particularly good scene operates as a sly rebuke of the argument that being racially desirable is just as bad, if not worse than, being racially undesirable. Melody (Julie Zhan), who had previously chided Tom (Simu Liu) for saying that Asian men have it worse than Asian women in dating, becomes infuriated and defensive when a white guy tells her that he isn’t into Asian women. She sure doesn’t thank him for preemptively letting her know he’s a douchebag so that if a guy ever does like her, she’ll know that he likes her for her.

Screenshot of Julie Zhan in "Yappie" by Wong Fu Productions
Melody becomes very angry when a white guy says he’s not into Asian girls

Episode 5 exposes the other big flaw in the series: the expository and painfully obvious dialogue. In episode 2, after Andrew sleeps with an ex-girlfriend, she gives a spiel about his safeness that sounds like a back-of-DVD summary of this series. I’m talking about lines like:

“Look, it’s clear you have a lot to offer: stable job, nice condo, you’ve been a good Asian son. You’re comfortable. You’re playing it safe.”

With Andrew afterwards announcing his newfound revelation:

“I’m not going to feed into these stereotypes any longer by living a lie.”

But it’s not until Andrew gets into a heated racial exchange with Janine’s black ex-boyfriend, where we hear some classic clunkers like:

“No wait, I want to know why you feel like you can attack Asians. We’re both minorities!”

I do want to acknowledge that it must be tough to convey complex and nuanced ideas about race, gender, assimilation, and sex into 15-minute short episodes. We saw this type of duh dialogue on Master of None, a show that similarly tried to explore social issues for young 2nd-generation Americans. But they at least had half an hour to do it. So people should give Wong Fu some slack on this. It could be the format that’s ultimately the problem.

Screenshot of Janine Oda and Phil Wang in "Yappie" by Wong Fu Productions
Kalina and Andrew

Overall though, I’m glad I watched the series. What I found too basic might actually be a great starting point for newcomers. The show also had more good episodes (first, third, fourth) than not-good ones and I would watch the second season if there is one. With this article, however, I don’t only want to talk about the merits of the series. I also want to pursue the vexing dilemma that catalyzes this whole series yet isn’t fully explored:

What’s wrong with being a yappie?

Let’s define who’s a yappie for the purposes of this article first. You don’t have to be a young Asian doctor or lawyer to be a yappie. That’s not how I’m using this term because I’m not defining yappieness by age or class. Rather, I’m defining it as the whole swath of Asian Americans who feel irrelevant because they think they haven’t broken enough stereotypes to be worthy of a voice. These are the Asian Americans who’ve supposedly played it too “safe” and are thus Too Asian, which relegates them to the Asian social ghetto in modern American society.

Nobody likes being called “safe” and the implication that you could’ve done so much more with the opportunities available to you. It reminds me of a scene from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, in which two of the central characters talk to a middle-aged man in a midtown NYC bar to get his opinions on a term they’ve come up with to categorize their privileged selves: the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, or “UHB.” The man recognizes the concept right away and identifies with it. He then depressingly eulogizes his own successfully mediocre life, in which he inherited the advantages of a Park Avenue birthright and stayed right there.

Screenshot of "Metropolitan"
Charlie and Tom learning about their inevitable UHB fates in “Metropolitan”

Metropolitan is a movie about the NYC debutante ball circuit, so its conception of disappointing safeness is of a different level than that of Asian America. But the core elements are the same. There is the sigh of regret at merely being a white-collar professional. There is resentment at having lived exactly up to parents’ expectations. There is a creeping fear that as you get older, your concerns become myopically domestic until you are completely out of touch with the greater world.

Some Asian Americans preemptively reject all this from an early age. These are the ones who proudly proclaim they can’t be Too Asian because they’re so bad at math and so good at theatre. Or they don’t have Asian friends and certainly don’t date other Asians. They project all the perceived negative stereotypes of Asian Americans onto others in order to purify themselves. There’s a reactionary obsession with breaking stereotypes that betrays their core belief that those stereotypes about the boring, robotic, and irrelevant Asian American are indeed true.

I’ve always wondered why a genuine Asian American culture is so missing from our landscape. Yes, it’s true that Asians are mostly recent immigrants with 2/3 of our population being foreign-born. It will and should take some time for a grassroots culture to develop. But still, when I look at Asian American cultural works, whether they’re films or books or whatever, I see a disconnect between the creators and their community. There are too many stories of Asian American creatives having had to fight their parents and community all their lives to do what they wanted to do. I admire their doggedness, but I also have to question how that influences the narratives they tell about Asian America. To put it another way, if Asian America has been an obstacle to your dreams and you found acceptance in non-Asian (often white) circles, would that skew your perspective? How could the answer possibly be no?

Screenshot of The Lela Lee vs Phil Yu debacle from Washington Post
The Lela Lee vs. Phil Yu debacle — Source: Washington Post

Asian America lacks a genuine grassroots culture because so far, it has been unable to organically encourage and produce our own representatives. In self-defeating fashion, Asian America has made it so that it will mostly be our most estranged and embittered exiles who will speak for us. We then complain about invisibility and heap all sorts of expectations on these exiles to suddenly understand us and feel kinship with us. But it’s too late by that point.

Which brings me back to Yappie, both the show and the real-life yappies (i.e. Asian Americans who don’t fit the type that’s been bestowed with a platform by mainstream America). The awakened yappie voice is the voice I want to hear because it’s been more steeped in the lived Asian American experience. The story of the stereotype-breaking unicorn Asian American is a tired one at this point. Even though it’s over a decade old, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle spoke way more truth than Master of None. Harold and Kumar dealt with real problems like being the Asian workhorse in the workplace or feeling intense family pressure to be a doctor. Dev and Brian faced fake problems like wondering whether to go to Italy to learn to make pasta.

We live in a society that shed tears of joy over Boyhood (a movie I adore, by the way) for its prosaic narrative about ordinary people. Mason Jr. was compelling precisely because he was so typical. But would even Asian Americans celebrate an Asian Boyhood? I don’t think so, because we ourselves have little respect for the typical Asian American. I think of all the thoughtful Asian American voices that have resigned themselves to silence because society convinced them they had nothing to say. But what Asian America needs now more than ever is for the hitherto irrelevant to speak up. It is their voice that Asian America needs, not those whose primary qualities are white-fluency and being Asian but not Too Asian.

I won’t say there’s been a tyranny of the unicorns, but I’ll say that our cultural leaders and spokespeople have not been representative enough. There’s too much of a disconnect with the actual everyday people. I’m tired of seeing a type of Asian American — the ones who deign to be a part of our community only when convenient — constantly explain us to non-Asians, especially white people. They are given this authority despite the fact they’ve been removed, either physically or emotionally, from our community for much of their lives. Rather, they’re likely given that authority precisely because of that removal. And I hate this fetishization of the unicorn Asian, the one who cinematically runs out during their MCAT to pursue artisanal herbal jewelry. I see this in every fawning interview by an Asian American of one our own who’s “made it.” There’s the implication that unless you’ve broken out of Asianness and been validated by outsiders, you deserve to be irrelevant.

Picture of George Takei, Jeff Yang, and Angry Asian Man (Phil Yu)
They Call Us Bruce with George Takei, Jeff Yang, and Angry Asian Man (Phil Yu)

Because to only celebrate the not Too Asian is to denigrate Asian. If we let outsiders select our voices, we will always be second-class because the outsiders will always prioritize their interests first. And we’ll forever be asking for favors from people, both Asian and non-Asian, who fundamentally do not share our sympathies and experiences.

Being thought of as safe does suck. Andrew in Yappie was right to be upset as he did. But the show, at least from what we’ve seen so far, under-explores what a yappie should do fight their way out of irrelevance. “Dating a black girl” is a woefully inadequate answer that might’ve seemed radically powerful in the 1970s, but not today. So the show can only provide a spark, not answers. I won’t say I know what the answer is, but the first thing to do is for yappies to wake up and get angry, both at themselves and those who’ve looked past them. Everyone’s viewpoints can be valuable if examined and honed.

After that, harness that energy to start talking about all the things that you’ve been compulsively suppressing about where Asian Americans stand in American society. Not everyone has to make a TV show to write a book, but everyone can start having conversations so that those around you don’t feel alone. Get conversations started and normalize once-forbidden concepts. Because I guarantee everyone will know exactly what you’re talking about, whether they initially admit it or not.

So the yappies — whether you’re white collar or blue collar, female or male, young or old, Fancy Asian or Jungle Asian — must make your voices heard. This is what Asian American populism will look like. Don’t let the people appointed by Hollywood, Harvard, and HarperCollins always speak for you. It’s time for the hitherto irrelevant to seize relevance.

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Chris Jesu Lee

Published 6 years ago

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