The Tao of Innovation

Insights for the modern business samurai

Asians Behaving Badly

Is the mild-mannered Asian community getting more vocal?

Why are Asians, usually so polite and reserved, now suddenly getting all feisty? Take Amy Chua, one of this year's most talked about authors. Chua started a heated debate and media frenzy when her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, revealed that her daughters were never allowed to attend a sleepover, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, choose their own extracurricular activities, or get any grade less than an A. The resulting outrage ensured a bestseller for this tiger mom, who wasn't afraid to make waves and get in America's face. Her excerpt in the Wall Street Journal has been read more than 1 million times and attracted more than 7,000 comments.

Another is Satoshi Kanazawa, who recently ignited a firestorm with a single blog post concerning race. Kanazawa is not racist; he is simply good at writing viral posts. Making controversial statements under the name of science and evolutionary psychology was his schtick -- there are many examples: Muslim men do not have enough sex, which drives them to suicide bombings; menopausal women cannot hang onto their philandering husbands; conservatives are dumber than liberals; and much more. Maybe he was trying to demonstrate his thesis that political correctness is a bigger threat to evolutionary psychology than religious fundamentalism.

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Hmm, both Satoshi and Chua are Asian. Is there a bigger trend afoot? Is the mild-mannered Asian community, which has suffered for decades in polite silence, finally getting more vocal? And does any of this have to do with something like China's rise as an economic power?

Unfortunately, it's hard to research such a trend; an Internet search for "feisty Asians" turns up a million hits of the wrong kind. But persistent research led to an interesting perspective to share:

It's the media's fault. According to observations of Asians in the media, Benjamin Tong, Ph.D. -- who was formerly a Lecturer in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State and now a professor of psychology at California Institute of Integral Studies -- the media is the culprit here. He has noted subtle trends in the mass media across several decades, particularly shifts in the content of themes and stereotypes, studying films from D.W. Griffiths Broken Blossoms to Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon. His conclusion? That every image of yellow people in 20th century film media have been essentially racist, and all stereotypes portrayed - from an obeisant Hop Sing to a one-dimensional Fu Manchu - defended white supremacy. Every single image.

This kind of subtle societal messaging will inevitably lead to a boiling point, when Asians will stop being nice and agreeable, and start behaving badly -- on screen and off. It just takes longer for Asians, because, well, we're kind of nice and accommodating. In other words, when it comes to being the squeaky wheel, we are our own worst enemies.

In my own observations of 20th century film and television, I've noticed that up until 1992, every Asian male protagonist portrayed as having a sexual relationship with a white female -- a rare situation in itself -- was subsequently killed off in the show. I started tracking this trend when I was young, with my first television memory -- it was an episode of Bonanza, season 13, in which Hop Sing and a Caucasian woman fall in... and the entire town tries to lynch him. Man, what kind of message is that for young impressionable Chinese boys? Portrayals of power in the media can impose a subtle but pervasive impact on societal behavior, whether it be in fashion, morality, or sexuality. (Oh, what happened in 1992? That's when The Lover was released, which was based on the semi-autobiographical 1984 novel by Marguerite Duras. The film depicts a sexually explicit affair between a young French girl and a wealthy but very polite Chinese man in 1929 Vietnam. It's no Jungle Fever, but it's a start.)

A telling example of the new trend is the film Better Luck Tomorrow, which portrays over-achieving Asians gone bad -- they turn to crime and do it better than anyone else. At its screening at the Sundance Film Festival, audience members attacked the director, the writers, and the actors because the film portrayed Asian teens in a way no one felt comfortable with. Some audience members got so distraught during one screening that they actually threw a chair at the cast members. As if the audience was begging: "Please don't be bad Asians, please be good and well-mannered and obedient!"

Of course, there would have been zero flack if James Franco and Lindsey Lohan played those parts. Rarely do you see Asians playing anti-hero roles of deep character -- demonstrating complexity, diversity, and personal power. Actors like Samuel Jackson and Denzel Washington are happy to play powerful anti-heroes, and you never hear the public protesting about those roles. Ethnic hyper-sensitivity is in itself a kind of censorship and reinforces societal expectations.

And so, as the Asian race liberates itself from the subtle repression of bad behavior, we'll likely see more Asian portrayals of powerful characters in both the media, and in the real world.

Chua and Kanazawa are only the beginning of this trend: The Asian behaving badly. I predict that the next thing we'll see is a series of kung fu flicks where an Asian male lead actor destroys a corrupt redneck community, a la Billy Jack or Rambo. But not with the nice and friendly Jackie Chan paired with a funny black man; a lone angry Tony Jaa is all you need. Expect the film to be a hit with Asian men and denounced as racist by everyone else. Don't forget that Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon was the first American film where an Asian protagonist beat the daylights out of a Caucasian antagonist. The back story is that Lee, who originally proposed the show to ABC, was rejected as the lead actor and replaced by David Carradine, a white guy. Plenty of emotional fuel to power a powerful performance. Take that, Hollywood!

Hollywood's already getting the message not to mess with the Chinese. The forthcoming remake of Red Dawn, the 1984 Cold War flick about American teens repelling a Soviet invasion, completed principal photography with the Chinese as bad guys. The studio immediately recut the film, editing out the Chinese and positioning them as North Koreans. The move came not because China raised objections but because MGM got worried Beijing might take offense. Let the new kowtowing begin.

Finally, as Charlie Sheen has aptly demonstrated, the ultimate act of behaving badly has to do with sexual misbehavior, so who knows, perhaps someday we'll even see the emergence of the first X-rated Asian male porn star -- someone with the equivalent of Yao Ming's proportions. However, the thing that America needs to watch out for is when China acts up and shrilly demands that the yuan be the replacement of the dollar as the global reserve currency. When that happens, it's game over baby.

Fortunately, behaving badly is really only a phase, like teenaged angst and loathing can be on the road to self-esteem, self-empowerment and self-actualization. Let us hope that this is true for the evolution of the Asian minorities in America. Because the alternative would be, metaphorically speaking, like the recent saga of Catherine Kieu Becker of Garden Grove, who after years as a quiet and accommodating Asian wife, suddenly had enough of her American husband's crap: she drugged him, tied him to the bed, and after waking him, inflicted the most unthinkable kind of damage to his private parts. Now that's behaving badly!

Moses Ma, a partner at Next Gen Ventures, is co-author of the forthcoming book Agile Innovation.

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