Some of us here at The Nerds of Color are also fathers, and we decided to put together a popcorn style post about being dads. Happy Father’s Day!
This essay contains spoilers for both the television series and the comic book.
I don’t have cable. So I usually have to wait until the day after to watch The Walking Dead. As luck would have it, I’m in a cheap hotel with complementary AMC with my daughter when the episode “Thank You” airs. Six years old, my daughter is in the bath and complains about the sound from my television show — the two things that she fears the most, while awake and in her nightmares, are racists and zombies. Our compromise is that I turn the sound down and the captions on. And then I watch one of my favorite characters in pop culture get deluged in zombie claws, teeth, blood and guts.
Years ago, before the TV show existed, a fellow Asian American comic nerd suggested I check out this series called The Walking Dead. I read through the first trade paperbacks and have kept reading, (admittedly begrudgingly the last couple of years) ever since. I was impressed that there was an Asian American male character, Glenn Rhee, a pizza delivery driver and weed dealer who seemed like a good hearted, normal kid.
When the show rolled around, I wasn’t feeling it at first, but I did like the actor they selected for Glenn, Steve Yeun. Of course, anyone paying attention to the show knows by now that Glenn is a fan favorite regardless of race and that the actor, Steve Yeun, is considered a hottie. Those of us Asian Americans on pop culture watch, of course, also appreciate the added layers: Asian American men are seldom portrayed as likeable, desirable guys in Western pop culture.
Originally posted on The Loft’s Writers’ Block
One of the most serious jobs I have as a father is to get my daughter hooked on books. When I was a little boy, my father taught me how to walk to the Franklin Avenue library and back to our house, which cut down on my begging for toys and the Atari 2600 while keeping me out of gangs and other trouble in our neighborhood. It was in books that I learned that other worlds existed, and indulged (perhaps too much) in fantasizing I was someone else, somewhere else. In my dreams, I often imagined myself as white because all the characters in the books, the myths, the comic books I liked so much were almost always white. They were so unlike myself and my family: poor, alien, shouted at in the streets as Americans of all colors blamed us for the sorrow and hurt of the Vietnam War. So in my dreams I made myself white, too. Handsome, brave, heroic, perfect. Call it a nerd refugee survival mechanism.
It’s too bad that in making its first movie based on a Marvel comic Disney didn’t decide to take a real leap into the future, say, by making Hiro a girl…
Dear Ms. Dargis,
I was born in Vietnam shortly before the tanks rolled into Saigon and my family was forced to flee. Raised in South Minneapolis’ largest, poorest, and most racially diverse neighborhood, my father taught me to walk to the library and got me hooked on free books. Later, I would learn to run there, mostly to avoid the myriad groups of bullies wanting to beat me for whatever reason they could conjure that day, and I would read books and comics to take me far away from who I was and where I was. It is safe to say that the majority of my boyhood was spent imagining that I was anything but who I was.
Many of us nerds were bullied as kids, and subsequently we dreamed not of a world without violence, but some sort of payback. Slicing up our tormentors with lightsabers or adamantium claws. Slow motion punching the jock bully in the jaw, hopefully while beautiful women were watching. As we grew older, some of us questioned this desire for retribution, our conditioned response (particularly in straight males) to strike back. But what do we do with these contradictory feelings, our questioning of violence as power against our catharsis when we see the bad guy get his comeuppance?
The Japanese cult classic film Battle Royale looms large in the minds of pop culture nerds ambivalent over our negative reaction to violence and our desire to see stylized versions of it. Battle Royale is almost meta in its questioning of this contradiction: a future Japan is made safe by telecasting, once a year, a brutal contest wherein a random class of young people is set in a trapped zone with weapons, and only one person is allowed to leave alive.
I’m out of town, and there’s a movie theater a block from my hotel. As a father, I don’t get to the moviehouse often unless it’s a kid’s movie. So over the weekend, I figured I’d treat myself to a movie. What’s the worst that can happen? The answer to that question: the theater is only showing Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Around 1987 or ’88, I was in junior high and in a funny stasis where my nerd creativity was beginning to grow out of my bookishness (I routinely wrote awful Dungeons and Dragons-type short stories) but before I collided head first into confronting issues like race, violence, and poverty that was all around my world and in my school (I had no idea that my misplacements in advanced math and ESL had to do with my race). Add this to adolescent hormones and — well, to keep it short, it was rough on many different levels.
For whatever reason, one of our shop class teachers wheeled a TV and VCR into class one day and decided to show us a movie called Warriors of the Wind. Some of my friends were absolutely crazy about it. I thought it was cool, but honestly, I didn’t get it.
I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember. From my dad giving me four quarters — and no more than that — to spend at a video game arcade, to sleepovers at friends to play Atari 2600, to playing text-based adventure games on the Apple IIe, to helping my friend defeat shadow Link, to Doom to Half Life 2 to Knights of the Old Republic to Plants vs. Zombies to the Last of Us… OK, you get the idea. And for most of my early years, I had no problem that, in roughly 99% of the games I played, the protagonist was either a white male or a white elf or a white looking quasi-human.
It didn’t matter to me because it was drilled into my head that being white was the norm. Which is a bit weird because the neighborhood I grew up in was predominantly working class and poor people of color and American Indian. It wasn’t like I was trying to be like everyone around me (that came later), it was like being white was an escape. Escape from where I was, escape from people of all colors blaming families like mine for the Vietnam war, escape from a rainbow of bullies chasing me and calling me chink. And video games are in many ways the ultimate escape. Even more than films or books, you can get lost in lovingly rendered worlds and realities. You can effect a positive outcome and become a great hero or villain if you work hard and you don’t quit. But you better be OK with playing a white man, because you often won’t have a choice.
Many years ago, I watched a bonus feature on a Matrix DVD in which Keanu Reeves seemed to have a bromance with a stuntman and martial arts trainer named Tiger Chen. Slim, petite, and diminutive looking, it was obvious the guy had serious skills. But seeing him next to Reeves, a mixed race, tall and lanky Western movie star, it became apparent that, at least in the West, he’d never be a leading man type. Hollywood likes to train stars and actors in martial arts, not give opportunities to martial artists and stuntmen that don’t fit the Western standard of attractive leading man. Trained martial artists and stuntmen in Hollywood movies, especially the Asian ones, usually get the thankless job of making the lead white actor look really good by acrobatically acting like they’re getting their asses kicked. Tiger looked like the dude who’d be destined to be “Triad Hitman #2” at best. He was, in fact, one of the “vampire” baddies in The Matrix Reloaded.
Fast forward almost a decade, and I see on Facebook that my fellow Nerd of Color Keith posted a trailer for a Keanu Reeves directed(!) martial arts film showcasing his homie Tiger. Yes, directed. And he also stars in the film as the lead antagonist, Donaka Mark. These facts alone will probably scare off the majority of people from seeing the film. Which is too bad, because I finally got to see it this weekend, and there is some enjoyment to be had here.