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The Yellow Plague: Asian Americans in Zombie and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

I originally wrote this as a guest post for Angry Asian Man back in 2010. I rewrote it recently for Nerds of Color with some updates. I still have chosen to write more about The Walking Dead comic than the television series, primarily to avoid confusion.

It is appropriate that this is perhaps my last blog entry before I am devoured by the zombies.

It has been eight days since the tragic epidemic first swept through the world and turned most of humanity into the shuffling dead. I have taken refuge in a showroom model tool shed at the local hardware store. I left my small community of survivors to forage for supplies and became trapped here. I am surrounded by zombies, their moans for brains are louder than the tick-ticks of my fingers on the laptop keyboard. I am down to two cans of Lime Diet Shasta and a rapidly dwindling Ziploc bag of pepperoni minis for provisions. The katana I bought off of eBay during that period of my life I was obsessed with the film Ghost Dog has so far failed to live up to its pedigree and has been useless for opening up Hostess cake wrappers, let alone lopping off zombie heads. Note to self: if you survive this zombie apocalypse, buy a samurai sword that at least claims to be made in Japan.

My partner and child are safe. By fortuitous coincidence they were in Alaska when the outbreak hit, and as you know, Alaska is one of the few places on earth where the epidemic has not yet spread. They are safe in the fortified haven of Juneau and are experimenting to see if zombies can be distracted from their hunger for human brains by salmon, rich in Omega 3 Fatty Acids…

***

I’ve long been fascinated with post-apocalyptic fiction and film, particularly visions that include zombies. The first zombie film I remember watching was George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead on VHS. I can’t remember exactly how old I was, but I am pretty sure I was too young to be watching it. I watched campy zombie comedies like Return of the Living Dead at slumber parties. And of course, as a child in the 80s, there was the colossal pop culture phenomenon that was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.

I won’t pretend to be a zombie expert, as my engagement with the genre is sporadic at best. However, certain aspects of the zombie and apocalyptic fiction and film continue to fascinate me. How many of us could survive without the present day comforts we take for granted — electricity, running water, supermarkets? If the institutions and ways of life we know today were suddenly thrown to chaos, could we co-exist with whomever we found to be our neighbors? And if you add zombies to the equation, you add a brain-munching predatory threat to the scenario — but unlike, say, vampires, werewolves, or aliens, it doesn’t take a great deal of resources or talent to fight a zombie. You don’t need Bruce Wayne bank or UFC-level hand-to-hand skills to dispatch the walking dead, just some smarts, cooperation, and resource management.

With the current government dysfunction, recession, and the trauma of 9/11 still fresh on many American psyches, the zombie and post-apocalyptic genre seems to have undergone a resurrection (HA!) in popularity. There are mainstream apocalyptic/zombie films like I Am LegendThe Book of Eli28 Days Later, and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead. There are zombie spoofs like Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. Even the old grandmaster of zombies, George Romero, has gotten back in the action with his smart Land of the Dead movie, and less successful films Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead.

Y: The Last Man, a comic series about a virus that wipes out all men on earth except for one, was such a critical success that its writer and creator, Brian K. Vaughan, went on to write for a little show called LostThe Walking Dead, an ongoing comic series about a group of people’s struggles to survive a zombie outbreak, just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and of course the AMC television series is the most watched cable drama of all time. Fiction such as Max Brook’s World War Z have gained mainstream success with a spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list, and was very loosely made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, while lesser known books like J.L. Bourne’s Day by Day Armageddon still find niche success in their genre.

I am a fan of almost all of the above works — they scratch that itch I have for survivalist narratives and encourage me to ponder what things in every day life I take for granted.

But like many brands of American horror and action genres, popular post-apocalyptic and zombie fiction tends to veer towards straight American white male fantasy — many of the fiction and films in the genre operate under the assumption that, if all hell breaks loose, all issues of race, class, and gender are (supposedly) irrelevant compared to basic human survival — and consciously or otherwise, most leaders that emerge in these imagined post-racial scenarios are straight, white alpha males. In the Western pop imagination, there seems to be a desire to wipe the difficult questions of co-existence off the table — and what better way to do that, then to imagine a situation where five to ten random (and mostly white) strangers must fight off mindless brain-hungry hordes while trying to divide the bullets, bacon, and fresh water into equal shares? Where the musings and philosophies of fancy pants artists and social commentators like myself are next to useless? Poetry and blog writing — what good is all that stuff during a zombie apocalypse? I’d have to fall back to my earlier, more primal years, back to my rough working class upbringing and rely on my experience, uh, pushing carts and breaking down cardboard boxes at the supermarket.

There is often a failure of imagination, or maybe a lack of value, towards those aspects of survival and co-existence which lean towards the social. Sure, knowing how to clean and fire a gun sure would come in handy in a zombie and/or post-apocalyptic scenario. But so would knowing how to console someone who just saw their loved ones eaten by zombies. Or understanding why some of the survivors who are people of color may eat their rations together under the dinner tarp. What if one of the survivors decided, fuck it, it’s now or never, and came out of the closet while foraging with fellow survivors for potable water?

Part of entitlement is assuming these issues aren’t important, or would not surface if disaster struck. Those of us who are people of color are not so naïve. The sad fact of the matter is that it doesn’t matter if electricity, plumbing, and indoor heat ended for all of us tomorrow — if any human beings are still alive, so is racism.

Quite a few of the more popular works, such as World War ZY: The Last Man, and Day by Day Armageddon, suggest that apocalypse was brought forth by Asians (though to be fair, J. L. Bourne does offer a twist to this in his sequel Beyond Exile, which I can’t talk about without ruining the surprise). This aspect of the work suggests a new yellow peril, this idea that China and Asia loom in the future as a superpower wherein the great unwashed Yellow Horde of men is destined to overwhelm the white man with sheer numbers, forcing everyone to ride bicycles, wear rice picker hats, and speak toneless Mandarin.

Of course, what none of these white American writers touch upon is something all of us Asian Americans who have studied history know too well: if Asians in Asia bring about apocalypse or head up the new world order, Asian Americans will suffer the most consequences. There has long been this conflation with Asians and Asian Americans — this assumption that if there is a New World Order with Asians at the top, Asian Americans will somehow benefit — like China will send checks or something to every Asian person in America so that we can gentrify all the neighborhoods, force McDonalds to serve kimchee, and enslave the white man.

What most non-Asians don’t understand, is that if that happened, Asian Americans would get none of the benefits and all of the backlash. Japanese Americans got their property seized and were interned after Pearl Harbor, though none of them had anything to do with the attack and most had little or no ties to Japan. Asian Americans were harassed, beaten, and in some cases murdered in the 80s when Japanese car companies were portrayed as little yellow devils in business suits set to destroy the American car companies — never mind that Asian Americans did not benefit from any perceived or real success that the Japanese auto industry enjoyed. After 9/11, any brown person who looked like they could be Muslim was in danger, and remains in danger, to the point where our vaunted national ideals such as freedom of religion no longer apply to them — for example, just look at the debate about opening a mosque near Ground Zero.

To put it plainly: let’s say that North Korea or China suddenly launched an attack on present-day America, like in the video game Homefront or recent movies like Red Dawn and Olympus Has Fallen. The popular, traditional white male western narrative would then position a white hero leading a resistance of people against the invaders, and our race wouldn’t matter — because we’re all Americans right?

No. History has taught us that if that shit went down, and Asians in Asia attacked America, the first people who would be fucked would be Asian Americans. We’d be imprisoned without due process, called traitors, tortured and murdered in the street. And yet none of this is ever explored in post-apocalyptic scenarios where Asians bring about doom. I guarantee you, if a science-project-gone-wrong in North Korea causes zombie apocalypse tomorrow, you can bet it’s the Asian Americans who won’t be getting their share of beans at the survivalist pot luck.

This is not to say that Asians can’t be bad guys, in real life or in fiction. What I’m pointing out is this contradictory element of the new yellow peril: Asians as the bringers of doom, but with a failure of empathy and imagination about consciousness of the consequences for Asian and Asian American people.

And in works like Y: The Last Man and the dystopian blockbuster video game Bioshock, the Asian men that have a hand in bringing about disaster fall into disturbing women-hating stereotypes and have an emotional coldness that suggest they are less than human. Sure, you could argue that in both works, seriously fucked up characters of every race and gender can be found. However, what does it say that, in genres where Asian men are underrepresented, the only time they are included is when they’re a scientific evil genius? And it takes a special kind of sexist sociopathic asshole to perform horrific science projects on little girls. Dr. Suchong from Bioshock abuses a little girl while his voice describes the incidents like he’s checking off a grocery list. Dr. Matsumori from Y: The Last Man sends a ninja(!) to sabotage the pregnancy of his own daughter due to his scientific competition with her.

“Asians are viewed as technologically advanced but socially and culturally backwards,” remarks Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre, a rapper, spoken word artist, community activist, and fellow zombie nerd. “Asians are seen as smart, but not having that American white soul or sense of compassion. It’s a racist kind of respect: you’re brilliant enough to figure out how to destroy the world, and heartless/cold/alien/reptilian enough to actually do it.”

It could be said that the creators of Y: The Last Man put forth many troubling, and politically challenging, questions in their man-pocalypse scenario, that all races of men and women’s flaws are explored within its narrative — and it may therefore seem unfair or overly sensitive to single out Dr. Matsumori as some kind of modern day Ming the Merciless. However, it’s hard to deny that Matsumori fits neatly into a common Western liberal conceit: all men, regardless of race, may be sexist, patriarchal, and/or useless, but Asian men are by far the worst — cold, emotionless, asexual, robotic patriarchs who have centuries of foot-binding baggage weighing down our tiny, tiny penises.

Now, at this point I need to say that I am not, in any way, trying to justify or excuse the horrific patriarchy in various Asian histories and cultures, historically or in the present — in society at large, or my own privileges that I need to check and work on. I am more curious as to who perpetuates, and benefits from, the common assumption that white Western men are somehow inherently less sexist than Asian men. Anyone who is familiar with Western civilization knows this is not the case — sexism and patriarchy has a long history with white dudes too, and it’s alive and well today. But I guess that’s the point — white men have far more power and platform to shape and control how they are perceived. The fact that I must take great pains to clarify this, whereas white men can and have routinely made gross racial generalizations about Asians and Asian culture that are taken as truth by the status quo, is telling in and of itself.

Many would retort by saying that white men are just writing what they know, and suggest that Asians in Asia are just as bad, creating all Asian characters and excluding whites. Which is a funny argument since the video game world has a disproportionate ratio of Asian creators (lots) to Asian characters (very few). Asian-created zombie games like Dead Rising and the Resident Evil series all feature white protagonists. Resident Evil does feature Ada Wong — a supporting character, and a dragon lady stereotype if there ever was one.

Thanks a lot, guys.

Then again, maybe it’s besides the point to diss Asian game creators for creating games with white characters, since Hollywood and other American institutions would just make them white by the time they came overseas anyway. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go exchange some emails with Marissa Lee at Racebending.

Perhaps out of all the examples discussed here, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic series may try the hardest to portray the complexities of a zombie-infested world. Amongst the action and the gore, Kirkman gives room for the story to breathe, for his characters to have messed up affairs and mental breakdowns, and believable friendships. But once again, for all its complexities, it’s still a white male police officer who’s in charge, who makes the tough decisions, and there are moments where some of the characters of color and women are screwed — both in terms of story, and character development. The Walking Dead does feature an Asian American character, Glenn, who doesn’t fit into the same old stereotypes. But he also seems like the only Asian person to have survived the apocalypse, and he remains a peripheral character — and honestly, the main reason I like him so much is because, well, he’s not a stereotypical Asian American man. Damn, our standards are so low.

However, maybe a small step is still a shambling shuffle worth taking. “I like Glenn because they chose to use his character to tell a story about love conquering — if not all, then most things, in a post-apocalyptic scenario,” remarks poet, activist, and fellow nerd gamer Justin Woo. “He and his wife are decent folks who really do love each other, but still have reasonable fears. I think it’s a realistic romance, given the circumstances.”

*SPOILER ALERT* And as groundbreaking as the series is, there is no denying the often brutal and graphic depictions of violence that women and people of color, in particular, suffer. The decapitation of two little girls, what Michonne goes through at the hands of the Governor, the graphically cruel way that Tyreese is beheaded, and of course, the brutal and stomach-churning murder of fan favorite Glenn, make it hard to remain on Kirkman’s bandwagon. Fellow Nerd Jenn Fang pointed out that Glenn’s tragic death was more like torture porn than a meaningful coherence to the brutality of Kirkman’s vision. Of course, popular characters getting killed is part and parcel of The Walking Dead. But the graphic way in which Glenn is killed, and Kirkman’s suggestion that he did it so that “having Rick experience that and being powerless in front of this guy is really going to fundamentally change the book in huge ways” is, in essence, another example of a person of color dying so the white main character can learn an important lesson.

I want to stress once again that I’m a fan of the works I’m talking about. Being critical is not the same as hating. I just think it’s interesting that in these genres, as with most other genres, Asians and Asian Americans are at once conjured by our race while our race issues are dismissed. The stereotypes about us, the fear and anxiety directed at us, makes us visible — while our lives and experiences are invisible.

***

I can see the broken dirty nails of the zombies scratching between the planks of the tool shed. Their constant moaning is a drone to me now, I am trying to hear the music in it. I have no more pepperoni. I wish I had lived long enough to read Linda Watanabe McFerrin’s Dead Love, as it sounds promising and has potential to change up the genre for us people of color. I wish I had time to tell the Asian American refuge of survivors outside of Stillwater that I have grown to know over the last few days that I love them, and that I hope these past few days were as meaningful for them as they have been for me. Also, sorry that I was not able to return from my foraging trip with Red Hot Cheetos, condoms, or any of the other supplies requested. However, I am at peace, knowing that my partner and my baby daughter are safe from the teeth of this apocalypse. They will see, if not a cure, then a beautiful and slow survival.

One thought on “The Yellow Plague: Asian Americans in Zombie and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction”

  1. I was never really bothered by the fact that in the novel World War Z the source of the zombie outbreak begins in China. I suppose that’s because in The Zombie Survival Guide they state that it could have happened anywhere, or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that there were so many racial perspectives from people whose lives were affected that there was no reason to “cast blame.”

    What did bother me, however, was the film adaptation featuring the very White Brad Pitt doing what he can to save the entire world. The lack of racial diversity in the movie was . . . ah. Frustrating. I wrote about it, too: http://culturewarreporters.com/2013/06/24/world-war-z-doesnt-take-place-in-a-world-i-live-in/

    Like

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