A couple months ago, several blogs dealing with Asian American issues (including 8 Asians) posted this adorable Target commercial featuring a family that just happens to be Asian-American.
The commercial is cute, but it isn’t anything spectacular. What made it stand out for me (and many other Asian American viewers), however, was that it highlighted by contrast how rare depictions of Asian Americans just being “ordinary” Americans are in US media. Movies featuring Asians are usually imported from Asia and take place in Asian countries; otherwise, Asians are often used as the punchline (verbal or visual) of a joke or otherwise exotified.
When I was in grade school, “The Joy Luck Club” came out. I know a lot of people can’t stand the film for marketing in campy stereotypes and being too cheesy and cliched, but I remember what a huge impact it had on Asian Americans, especially Asian American women. Basically, grandmothers, mothers and daughters went to watch the movie together and had a big cry fest. It was a cultural phenomenon. I watched the film with my mother and we were surrounded by sobbing Asian American women. Neither of us like crying in public, so we felt a little adrift in a sea of tears and hiccups (which was actually kind of a bonding moment for us and one of my favorite memories). “The Joy Luck Club” might not be the greatest film in the world, but it clearly resonated on a deep and profound level for a lot of people (and, to be honest, it is still my PMS film of choice, along with “Terminator II”).
I think one of the reasons “The Joy Luck Club” had such an emotional impact was that it was the first time many of us had seen Asian Americans — or Asians in general, for that matter — in a mainstream US film where they weren’t used as decorative props, sexualized or made the laughingstock, complete with goofy accent, of totally random scenes (i.e. the Long Duk Dong syndrome).
A few years later, “Mulan” came out. To my profound horror, I found that it had also had an emotional impact on me. I was 16 and at that age I considered Disney to be the root of all evil in American culture. My usual reaction would have been to turn up my nose and sniff “oh look at those bastards, commodifying and putting an unrealistically optimistic spin on another culture’s folklore for their own capitalistic gain.” But I went to the theater and watched the cartoon wide-eyed. Mulan wasn’t an American, but she was voiced by actress Ming-Na (who is), had an American accent and what I perceived to be an American girl attitude (and her best friend was Eddie Murphy in the form of a saucy miniature dragon). A few years later, I told my college professor what a great experience it had been to finally see a Disney character who looked like me (if I looked like a bug-eyed alien). It felt like a kind of validation, no matter how small.
Anyway, back to the Tarjay commercial. Out of all the commercials I’ve seen featuring Asian Americans, this is the one that reminds me most of my own childhood, albeit in an idealized way. My parents owned a small business and they would often take my brother and me to their office, where of course we’d goof off, hide in the cubicles, raid the supply cabinet, eat all the sugar cubes, write insulting letters to one another on the typewriter and generally drive everyone insane. We didn’t play tetherball or beat box for our grandparents, but my family did go bowling on the weekends and occasionally my Dad would take my brother and me to a driving range. My Mom, brother and I once accompanied him to a golf course, where Michael and I nearly drove a golf cart into a tree. My Mom sometimes bought Suave hairspray and its fragrance still brings back memories for me. She packed Caprisun with our ham and cheese sandwiches for summer camp and, of course, we all shopped at Target, where Michael was once stalked up and down the aisles by some girl who had a crush on him.
I know this Target commercial is just a cynical marketing ploy to appeal to the fast-growing Asian American demographic and there are better movies about the Asian American experience than “The Joy Luck Club” (“Better Luck Tomorrow” is one of my favorites. Oh, and “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” I could write a book about my love for that film.) But it still warms my heart and reminds me of my all-American childhood.