About three years ago I was out with my ex-girlfriend and a bunch of friends at a horrible dance club on Bowery. We’re all Asian, and there were two guys in our whole group and about 10 girls, who were hitting the dance floor hard. Dancin’ Till the World Ends, or something. Meanwhile, being the life of the party I am, I sat on the sidelines with an $8 beer, unsuccessfully trying to hide my misery.
Then, out of nowhere: a blur on the dance floor. Something was wrong. My then-girlfriend was yelling at the top of her lungs at a group of five to seven big, hovering dudes near the bar. Another friend was talking with the manager, waving her arms like a maniac. I pulled my GF in, took one look into her watery eyes, and scanned the room to make sense of what was going on. One of the guys had apparently reached out and touched her butt while she was dancing. Well, shit. The bouncers, however (who were apparently the perv’s friends) were already escorting their buddy out, albeit reluctantly.
We took a breath and grabbed our coats. While leaving “da club” shortly thereafter, that same guy and another friend were hiding near the entrance. As my GF and I passed them unknowingly, he yelled out at our backs. “That’s right, you fucking chink [something something]. Get the fuck outta here.” He looked right at me. His friend, an equally large man with pristinely manicured facial hair, just laughed. “Keep walking chink-ass [something something].”
I looked at her. She was tired, and so was I — 5’5” and 135 pounds of uninsured magazine intern against four fists and 360+ pounds of reckless stupid. I shook my head (like, REALLY shook it), squeezed her hand, and hailed us a cab home. Or we walked, I don’t remember. All I recall is that while she dozed off at some point, I selfishly daydreamed three totally perfect comebacks in my head.
I never got to use them, of course, as tends to happen with something as fleeting as perfect comebacks.
The Atlantic Wire wrote a thing today about a few numbskulls who watched “Olympus Has Fallen” — a movie I’d watch on TV if it came on — and subsequently tweeted a bunch racist stuff about Asians out into the Twitter vacuum, a.k.a. where all my half-assed jokes go to die.
Yes, I found the offending tweets shocking and gross, at least at first. But unlike the usual ignorance catalyzing other social media shamings, I felt strangely okay with the underlying fear driving all that ugly racism.
This is Rick Yune, who plays Olympus’ North Korean badguy. From what IMDB tells me, he doesn’t spend the film doling out mysticism in Yoda-speak or getting friendzoned by Aaliyah. He isn’t even a pudgy, Tumblr-friendly dictator with his trigger finger on a nuke. He’s handsome (a former Versace model IRL!), menacing, and pissing off real Americans by murdering fake ones onscreen — the opposite of an easy stereotype, in other words.
It’s weird. On one hand, it’s glaring coming face-to-face (sort of) with idiots who feel a fleeting, unsubstantiated hatred towards a group of people they don’t understand. Big duh: racism exists, and Twitter’s search tool makes that kind of nastiness easily accessible. But the air of hatred here is a different flavor from the diminishing small penis jokes and reductive praise heaped on Gangnam Style’s cartoonish buffoonery. It’s reactive fear masquerading as patriotism.
One of the main differences, here, is that for the first time in a long time, an Asian man is scary enough in a visible medium that complete strangers feel compelled to punch me in the face. (Okay, maybe it’s not really that different.) But it’s a new kind of characterization, one that’s antagonistic, threatening, and the opposite of cartoony; it adds a layer of complexity to a neutered Asian male composite that was most recently used to hawk pistachios during the Super Bowl. Although it’s not nearly as multi-dimensional, it’s a little empowering, kind of like rap once was to the community that birthed it.
And as of right now, in 2013, this scary new dimension is one that I find myself largely okay with, mostly because it fucks up the funny, cuddly caricature already out there. And perhaps the worst part of all? It’s 2013 and I shouldn’t have to be.