American stereotypes about East Asians have existed ever since waves of immigrants first came to the United States, and the unpleasant examples are countless. Among them include the idea that Asian Americans are A) model minorities who are only good in math and science, B) people who eat dogs, cats, and other assorted animals, and perhaps most ridiculously, C) all underground martial artists. Keep in mind that while martial arts does have a proud tradition in Asia, just because someone is of Asian descent doesn’t mean they know taekwondo from kung fu. Sadly, fueled on by martial arts movies, this stereotype is probably familiar to any Asian American who grew up as a minority in an American suburb. When I was young, I was spared for the simple reason that I’m half Asian and didn’t look as Chinese as my friend Jason, who was the butt of more than a few “make him angry so he’ll do some karate” jokes as an elementary school student. (Odd that he would be bullied in such a way—one would think that if he did know karate, bullies would avoid picking on him.)
In recent years, however, a new Asian American stereotype has emerged—that of the “techie,” the guy in the electronics store who randomly pops up and can somehow manage to fix whatever problem your computer has. Possibly influenced by the success that many Asian Americans happen to find in the technology world, recent ads, such as the ones described by this article of The Washington Post, all seem to portray Asian Americans as wizard-like tech experts. This has gathered mixed opinions from members of the Asian community. On the one hand, it’s nice to see Asians be portrayed as upstanding, well-informed, and intellectual, but on the other hand, reading into the ads makes it seem like this new stereotype is saying that Asian Americans are all nerds just as much as they are computer experts.
All debate aside, a recent commercial by Intel incorporates both the Asian martial artist and the Asian technie stereotype, taking these two ideas and spinning them together. The commercial, called “House of Flying Laptops,” promotes Intel’s new line of Ultrabook computers. It shows two Mandarin speaking Asian ladies dressed in traditional Chinese outfits, battling wire-fu style in what appears to be a tea house. The kicker is that the two women, who both carry chunky laptops, are fighting over using an electrical outlet. At the end of the ad, a third woman enters the picture, looks at the fighters amusedly and then glances down at her own computer, a super-thin Ultrabook. She then comments in English that she’s “still got hours of battery left.”
The commercial, which came out on August 19th, has already gotten some comments about how it reinforces the idea that all Asians somehow know martial arts. One Youtube commentator, yodelr, yells “HOORAY FOR PERPETUATING EAST ASIAN STEREOTYPES,” while another, somichaelgoes, points out: “It’s not racist, but it is boosting a certain image that will make the general population subconsciously think Asians always act like this… Depending on where you live, this media image can really impact the way people act towards you.” Despite these comments, however, negative reaction towards the ad has been few, with most people, such as Youtube commentator unak78 stating: “It’s merely a parody of Hong Kong cinema. It’s not even a stereotype. There’s a difference between a parody and racist stereotyping.” Many people, several admitting that they are Chinese themselves, have said that the ad is clever and is probably intended to poke fun at the idea of all Asians knowing martial arts rather than support it.
As a half-Asian, I watched the ad and didn’t find it insulting, although I could have done without the bit at the end where an old man berates the woman for bringing “shame on this coffee hut.” That part aside, the commercial is witty in the way it makes the women seem like they’re battling in ancient China when actually, they’re probably Asian Americans in modern times, as pointed out by the perfect English of the third woman in the last part of the ad. In short, this commercial is a far cry from the recent Asthon Kuther bit that caused a ruckus for its stereotypical portrayal of Indians. Whether or not it unintentionally continues to promote questionable ideas about Asian Americans—that of them being either martial artists or nerdy techies—is a matter up for debate. But because stereotypes will unfortunately always exist, perhaps it’s better to take a more positive outlook on things rather than a negative one. While the stereotype of all Asians being tech experts is still grossly incorrect, it’s still better than the stereotype of all Asians knowing karate or eating dogs in their spare time. And while the old man at the end of this ad might be borderline offensive to some, at least the ad also ends with a modern Asian woman speaking perfect English rather than one speaking in an obviously fake accent.
At the very least, perhaps if the general American public begins associating Asian Americans with technology, this idea, however misguided, still might bring some attention to the fantastic work many Asian Americans have done in the tech world. Under the folds of the nerd stereotype, such excellent work does exist, and one only has to look at the multitude of articles on this site for evidence. Hopefully, some day all negative ideas of martial artists, nerds, and computer geeks can be shed, and people will see through these images and finally notice the hard work and positive effort that Asian Americans have contributed in their communities instead.
Jeremy Blum: I've actually never seen this Mcdonald's commercial, though it sounds pretty dumb. While silly commercials and stereotypes will never truly vanish, I think it will be nice to one day reach a time when Asian Americans won't be put into these sort of borderline insulting commercial roles, the sort of thing you probably wouldn't see other races shoehorned into for fear of backlash.
Patty Keyuranggul: Wow, that MCD commercial made me have temporary amnesia about the whole Asian men (and women) are timid and meek. Let's hope that as companies realize that "Asian Americans More Likely to be Tech Savvy" they will start marketing and taking input from the Asian community more. Maybe HuffPo will listen up too. :)
Peter Shen: Hey Patty. Like I said I wasn't really bothered by the MCD commercial. However, I can see why some people might be offended by it. You have to understand it from an Asian male perspective. The commercial did make me think about the streotype that Asians are timid. And for a man, that is at the core against their manhood. As this was an Asian man you can see how some people may link that stereotype with saying "I don't want to be chicken". Asians being in commercials is a good thing as long as it is not offensive. We've come a long way from the days, not too long ago I might add, where it was a nice surprise to see any Asians at all in commercials. And it used to be only pretty Asian girls with white guys. Now it is a lot more diverse with true Asian only families. So yes, I think we have come a long way and for the most part, it has been a positive trend in the last 5 years.
Patty Keyuranggul: IMHO that MCD commercial wasn't racist. What connection is there between Asian men and chicken? You could fill that spot with any actor and the line would still be more about acting chops and delivery. As for Intel, I thought the commercial was boring and lame but not racist. Peter, you touch on a hot topic by saying that it's positive for Asian Ams to simply have a presence on TV.
Peter Shen: I saw Intel's laptop commercial a few weeks ago. It did make me think "What, every Asian knows martial arts?" But now after reading your article, you're right, now all Asians are martial artists and techies too. That said, I wasn't offended by it. The stereotypes are not at the core offensive and I actually see it as a positive that we are in a commercial. I find this commercial less offensive than the McDonald ad where a small Asian man said "I don't want to be chicken, I want to eat chicken.", implying too me that Asian males are chicken. But also on a scale of 1 to 10 offensiveness it was a 1.5 even on that one.
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