In the more than 22 years that I’ve been writing this column (beginning in March 1992) about anything and everything concerning the intersection of mass media and that which is Asian American and Asian, one of the constants has been how here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., Asian Americans are so often overlooked, ignored and passed over.
To say that there hasn’t been progress since 1992 would be wrong. There have been some bright spots and exceptions that I’ve written about these past two decades. Jason Scott Lee playing Bruce Lee in the feature film “Dragon.” Margaret Cho in “All American Girl.” The amiable, yet still overachieving potheads in the “Harold and Kumar” comedies.
The rise of Asia-originated movie stars Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Ken Watanabe, and Sammo Hung in TV’s “Martial Law.” The occasional ensemble cast member in TV series like “Ally McBeal,” “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” “Heroes,” “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Hawaii 5-0.”
Pro athletes Hideo Nomo, Chan Ho Park, Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki, Yao Ming, Yu Darvish and American-born and raised Jeremy Lin. Numerous reality TV show stars and winners of Asian descent, including Olympians Kristi Yamaguchi and Apolo Anton Ohno, and dancer Kenichi Ebina. (Funny how Asians actually do pretty well when comparing something purely fictional that was created in the mind of a TV or movie scriptwriter vs. the reality shows and sports.)
Still, despite those examples (and others unmentioned), when it comes to Asian Americans in general and Asian American and Asian men in particular, there’s still a barrier, still a feeling of not-quite-full inclusion. (That’s an entire discussion unto itself.) As a group, we’re still an easy punchline for lazy comedians (Asian drivers! Me so horny!) and targets for the occasional hate crime.
I have no doubt the upward trajectory will continue, though, and eventually there’ll be a TV show centered around an Asian American that crosses over and succeeds in a big way, and there’ll be an Asian American movie star who can open a Hollywood feature film.
When it comes to Asian American and Asian men, however, there has been an area of acceptance through the years that I’ve written very little about. I’m talking about TV celebrity chefs.
TV’s “Iron Chef” was an inexplicable “who’d a thought” hit from Japan (originally “Ryōri no Tetsujin”) for the Food Channel, which dubbed and repurposed years-old shows for a new American audience. But before that, there was Martin Yan of “Yan Can Cook.” (There were rumors that Yan could speak perfectly normal English and that his accent was a put-on. Don’t know whether that’s true, but if so, that’s hilarious in its own right.) Also, Ming Tsai and Roy Yamaguchi both gained fame as Asian American celebrity chefs, one getting his own cooking show, the other getting a restaurant chain (Roy’s) named after him.
Why was cooking somehow the route to acceptance and respect? Well, I suppose in part it’s because everyone loves to eat good food. And, when the ingredients and dishes themselves were unfamiliar to Americans who weren’t of Asian heritage, the usual laziness and disrespect had to be abandoned at the door, much like at a dōjō. Otherwise, you go hungry.
The latest example of a celebrity chef whose acceptance has been whole-hearted is Seoul-born, Southern California-raised Korean American Roy Choi, whose path to fame (and hopefully, fortune) was the Korean taco, delivered via the colorful Kogi food trucks.
Those food trucks gained quite a following in recent the years, and Choi’s success came in part from embracing new media like Twitter, which told foodies when and where one of his trucks would be parking.
I’m reading his recent book “L.A. Son” (HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN-13: 9780062202635, 352 pages SRP $29.99), co-authored with Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan. While it’s filled with recipes, as any good book with food as a backdrop should be, it’s also the story of Choi’s colorful life.
Choi’s immigrant Korean parents instilled in him a love of their native food, but the melting pot of Southern California added American and Mexican cultural influences, the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) gave him a formal foundation and some time under a master chef in Japan helped prepare him for his forays into the restaurant business.
Choi’s writing style is honest, funny, street-infused and ribald, with plenty of “curse words” adding some zest but not intended in any mean-spirited way. He is who and what he is, no pretenses.
Choi’s personal arc in “L.A. Son” is a story of survival, growth, redemption, acceptance and success. Turns out he had some detours that, while rough, made him into who he is now. The book is a great addition to the panoply of literature about diverse Los Angeles.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.