Should I, as a long-silenced Asian-American female, be proud or horrified at the rise of the Asian-American female media troll? Yes troll, as in someone saying insane, oppositional, provocative things on any form of media, particularly social/internet-related, to gain attention, albeit negative in form?
Many are unfortunately familiar with the bipolar extreme stereotypes of the Asian American female personality: the quiet, submissive Lotus Flower Girl and the deathly, vampy Dragon Lady. Both types inhabit a subterranean space of mystery that can be easily digested and dismissed by other non-Asians, or better yet, used as sexual fantasy templates.
When it comes to the entertainment industry, there has been minimal progress in moving past these tropes for Asian women. As for the mainstream media, attractive TV journalism Connie Chung-clones aside, there haven’t been any significant Asian-American female (or even many male) thought leaders or public intellectuals. Until the rise of the Asian-American female troll.
One might argue that the first one was Filipina-American Michelle Malkin, the Clarence Thomas of Asian-Americans. Like Thomas, she rose through the conservative ranks by trolling in right-wing values at the cost of highly curated self-denial. Her heavily affected pseudo-WASP accent, her alliterative married surname, her defiant arrogance in spouting the party line of an old rich white male GOP’er, all successfully gave her the most political commentary screen time an Asian-American female has ever seen (if she’d even categorize herself as one). The banana queen proved that Borg-style assimilation can be richly rewarded.
Until something hotter came along. Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, upended everyone’s fear of an Asian planet and richly trafficked in the glory of it. Dragon Lady to the max, she married that trope with that of the enduring Mommie Dearest, resulting in a nightmarish hybrid that brought out the rage of coddling, academically indifferent American parents and children everywhere. Asian-Americans also cried out in horror at the unveiling of something they thought was their own hidden household secret, meant to be kept as an awkward inside joke. Yes there’s a dark reason behind those straight A’s and gold medal wins at competitions.
That controversy gave me mixed emotions. I never had to deal with a Tiger Mom (Tiger Dad in my case) but the single-minded pursuit of Ivy League admission perfection was very familiar to me, and it was interesting to see those values debated as popular public discourse. It was a form of brainwashing that I easily adopted, until I left the nest and realized it left me existentially empty. So I’m at Yale, and I have no social skills or inner confidence. Now what?
I also had to struggle with having been raised to actually be the Lotus Flower Girl. My father fell into another unfortunately common if less publicly known Asian stereotype, the chauvinist abusive father figure. I was berated for talking back or acting too “American” when I asserted my independence. I watched my mother insulted and mocked while being forced to be the perfect Stepford housewife.
So in the increasingly competitive arenas of college and medical school, my trained mousiness became a major handicap. I developed worsening social phobias around speaking in class and talking to teachers. In the gung-ho self-driven hospital learning culture, as a medical student at the bottom of the totem pole, I floundered, afraid of offending or doing something wrong or just being wrong. My evaluations repeatedly said, “quiet,” “needs to be more assertive,” “timid.” One supervisor outright said, “She’s just a shy Oriental girl.”
Frustrated, I started going to therapy and gradually built up my confidence, but not without some troubled forays to the other extreme: my own Dragon Lady started to come out. As I learned to suppress less emotion, some underlying anger started to leak out at inopportune moments, and I wasn’t allowed to wear mental Depends. As I rose in my professional career and had to take leadership roles, I overcompensated with aggression at times, and not always without reason. It was harder to get people to listen, to respect your authority, when in society, you aren’t considered a natural leader. I would see countless instances of even quiet men saying a few soft, deep-voiced phrases, and everyone bending over backwards to get it done. But when it came to my request, people often reacted like schoolkids throwing spitballs instead and looking the other way. Sometimes I’d wonder if the only way to get people to do what you want was to be a bitch.
Sadly, Amy Chua has used that tactic with great success, getting attention but also death threats. Not to be dissuaded, her second book is even more distasteful. The Triple Package turns self-aggrandizing racism into a happy cultural self-help perk. Now you too can achieve my brand of trashy single-minded success by following a mindless tripartite formula than only ten special ethnic groups have figured out! The rest of you, too bad!
Yet, despite what ought to be ambivalent shame towards her “success,” Yale’s Asian-American Alumni Association invited her this past April as a panel speaker to their first-ever alumni reunion event, alongside other luminaries like David Henry Hwang the famous playwright and Gary Locke the former Governor of Washington. Somehow, she is still considered an Asian-American celebrity role model, for trolling her way to the top on the carcasses of eugenics and child abuse.
Earlier this year, Suey Park, Twitter legend and social critic, added rocket fuel to her meteoric twenty-something rise by adding gasoline to the March #CancelColbert controversy. After starting an interesting Twitter feed called #NotyourAsiansidekick and promoting fresh dialogue on neglected Asian-American feminist issues, Suey Park was profiled in the Washington Post and the Guardian. My initial reaction was appreciative; she was using her hip Social Media savvy to bring attention to voices and issues that often don’t go mainstream. She was the new confident generation of Asian-American woman: smart and outspoken.
Until she decided to cheaply hijack the Colbert media storm. I will be blunt about how I feel about that “controversy”: Colbert was mocking racism with an ironic racist quote. To call that racist is wrong, even idiotic.
Instead, Suey Park went on a rant on Salon about the “white ally industrial complex” and rambled about how somehow the joke was still racist since a white man told it (albeit a very liberal one). She became the main ongoing momentum behind #CancelColbert. Her notoriety continues to climb.
But at what cost? She has every right to her opinions and to showcase them as she sees fit, as does Amy Chua and Michelle Malkin. But when our public Asian-American female voices are so few and far between, is this the only way to get mainstream American to hear us? By espousing extremist, reverse-racist, rabblerousing viewpoints? The American Media is highly complicit as well; they clearly relish and promote these women for the publicity storm they create, all the while having ignored the more moderate Asian-American, let alone any female, voices waiting in the wings, begging to be heard.
With time and experience, I’ve learned that balance is the way to go; that quiet strength is not an oxymoron, while speaking up when needed is a virtue. I would ask for similar Asian-American role models and messages to be heard by the mainstream media, in a room now full of senseless shouting.
Jean Kim works as a psychiatrist in Washington, DC and lives in Bethesda, MD. She is working on her M.A. in Nonfiction Writing at Johns Hopkins and has been a Nonfiction fellow at the Writers’ Institute of CUNY (City University of NY)’s Graduate Center. She will be published in an anthology on mental health by Creative Nonfiction, and has also been published in Bethesda Magazine, Medical Student JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), Pharos, The New Physician, and Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine.