When I first started watching Netflix’s newest hit show, Orange Is the New Black, I fell into the Litchfield Correctional Facility world quickly and easily. I appreciated the story of Piper, an upper-middle class woman whose unfortunate past puts her in prison years later—but I was much more intrigued by the immensely diverse cast and their back stories: tempestuous Red, the Russian cook; transgender Sophia; naïve Daya. Then in the second season, my eyes lit up when Brook Soso, a doe-eyed activist, showed up in a cell. The character, played by actress Kimiko Glenn, brings yet another perspective to this group of women—a stubborn activist who refuses to shower and goes on a hunger strike to protest conditions. Even better is the fact that her race is, refreshingly, barely acknowledged in the show. Her hygiene habits make her stand out much more.
I’m a fan of this casting for two reasons. Generally, I’m always happy to see new Asian American faces on my TV screen. And, as we learn in our cover story with Kimiko, the role didn’t specifically call for an actress of Asian descent.
And it’s not just edgier cable shows that are raising the diversity bar. In the past few seasons, we’ve gotten to know the inimitable Mindy Kaling, who produces and stars in The Mindy Project, and Janel Parrish, the villain we can’t help but love in Pretty Little Liars. This fall, John Cho lands—gasp—a romantic lead in Selfie, playing a modern-day Henry Higgins. I’m a little wary of the premise, but I will generally watch anything John Cho is in. And in January, Fresh Off the Boat, the long-awaited sitcom based on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir, will debut, featuring TV’s first Asian American family since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl was canceled in 1995. Could we finally, finally be nearing a golden age of Asian Americans on TV, not merely playing the nerdy sidekick, the foreigner, or the asexual male?
We’ve titled this issue the Ambition issue—not just to celebrate what many may consider the fierce drive often associated with Asian Americans (thanks, Tiger Moms and Dads), but also the ambitious new reach of pop culture. After all, long gone are the days where the very sexy Harry Shum, Jr. plays a mute dancer known only as “the other Asian.” In fact, Harry stars in Revenge of the Green Dragons, a joint effort from celebrated Hong Kong director Andrew Lau and the renowned Martin Scorcese. The film, about New York’s Chinatown gangs, has a cast that includes Justin Chon of Twilight and Kevin Wu, better known as YouTube star Kevjumba. The movie has its faults and some predictable plot twists, but it’s a fascinating portrayal of the seedy underbelly of the Chinese immigrant experience in New York, one that’s not wholly Asian or wholly American, but uniquely Asian American.
This issue is full of characters who share their own Asian American experiences: Ki Hong Lee, the new star of The Maze Runner, Tony-winning costume designer Linda Cho, musician Dan Matthews, teenage CEO Elina Hsueh. Their stories are nothing like those of today’s Asian American characters in pop culture—a romantically challenged gynecologist, a teenaged hip-hop lover in Orlando, a mafia leader, and a jailed activist—and that’s a beautiful thing. For decades, we’ve been clamoring for a more diverse portrayal in entertainment, regardless of how fictionalized said stories might be. These are, dare I say, some incredibly promising—and ambitious—steps in the right direction.