For many of my fellow Asians across the country, the characters they see representing them in the media only serve to unwittingly bring about embarrassment, self-loathing and a stunning loss of identity.

Asians have historically been absent from the main character role or only been cast as side characters, brought in for comedic relief and to reinforce widely held stereotypes. A recent example of this is Ned, played by Jacob Batalon, in Marvel’s Spider Man Homecoming. Ned is played for comedic purposes as the Lego-loving, chubby sidekick. Other stereotypical roles across films and genres include overbearing tiger parents, oversexualized women, nerdy men aspiring to become doctors, kung-fu action stars, and gangsters. The kicker: many speak broken English, even though the actors themselves are fluent.

These ignorant depictions have perpetuated a society that doesn’t see a need to understand Asian culture more fully.  A study by Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change showed that 42% of Americans can’t name a single famous Asian American. That’s truly disappointing, yet unsurprising. Even worse, it impacts the Asian community itself. Ann Arbor Pioneer High School student Alysa Zhu said that the lack of Asian representation “made me less appreciative of my culture… and I struggle to appreciate it even within myself.”   

Constantly seeing beautiful white people as leads and nerdy Asian computer scientists on the side creates a culture where Asian masculinity is questioned. John Cho, one of the few Asian actors to land desirable lead roles such as Sulu in Star Trek, had to fight through this. “We believe what girls tell us, what the movies tell us, that we’re not supposed to be leaders, we’re not masculine and we’re weak, all those things,” he said in a 2015 interview. His frustration is shared by John Shim, who wrote a piece in UCLA’s The Daily Bruin and said, “I feel cheated out of a myriad of romantic experiences that could have been brought to fruition were I not an Asian male.” 

I am immensely grateful that I didn’t have to look to the media for role models. My parents don’t let the media dictate how they should act, raising me with the same mindset. I live with my role models. But I worry for those who don’t. We all remember being young and impressionable as kids or teens. The kids who don’t have role models at home look to the media and their friends to find identity.  And sadly, for many Asian youth, that means trying to become white, because Hollywood will tell you that’s the only way to be the main character in everyday life. Shankrith Chandru, another Pioneer High student of Indian heritage, said that if you asked him to identify as more white or Asian two years ago, “I would 100 percent say more white, just because I thought that being more white was how I could have more friends, have more fun.”  Sara Chang, who leads Asian students at Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, felt similarly when she was younger: “Growing up… especially because I was adopted by white parents, I always wanted to be white… I didn’t love myself, didn’t feel like who I was created to be was valuable and worthwhile.” Her words have no doubt been echoed by countless other Asians across the country. What they see on TV, what they read in books (think Ximena Chin in the popular book Wonder), what they see in commercials, all of these representations lock these kids into narrow paths that they feel are the only paths they can take. All representation is not accurate representation. 

One such path is to listen to the media, to listen to the stereotypes and to be reduced and limited to the roles our culture and media offers. While there may be Asians who desire this path, there are many others who only do so because they feel like they are expected to. If Asian youth only see Asian doctors, computer scientists, gangsters and kung-fu masters on screen, they feel limited in what roles they can choose. In their minds, if they choose these professions at least they can be somewhat accepted into society. And if they choose differently, venturing into fields or vocations where there is hardly any representation, they have to face a whole new set of challenges. For example, “In sports, you always have to doubly prove yourself because people see you and think that you can’t be that good because you’re Asian,” Bert Chi, Senior Product Manager at DraftKings, said.   

The second path is when Asians make fun of their culture in hopes of fitting in. To be more accepted, Asian youth embarrassed by these racist depictions often seek to become the opposite of what those depictions say, and will try to become “more white” by putting down their culture. “They try to play the role that other people want them to play, in order to succeed,” said Chandru. “Say I’m an Indian guy and I make fun of a bunch of Indian people just to make my way to the top… I’m not only showing my family and people that I don’t stand for them, I’m showing the white people that it’s okay to stomp on such Indian people because I do it myself.” 

Yet another path where the media indirectly influences Asians is where Asian youth do everything in their power to break the stereotypes they resent. This sounds good and can sometimes be good, but is surprisingly not.  Just because Asians are portrayed as smart in media doesn’t mean you act dumb in class. Be a doctor or computer scientist if that’s who you really want to be. I myself am a victim of this mindset. Recently, I started thinking about why I was so bent on keeping tan. No, it wasn’t to look good (although that couldn’t have hurt), but to look different from stereotypical Asians in the media. And this is wrong. I shouldn’t worry about getting a tan so I can look different from other Asians. The tan is a byproduct of spending a lot of time outside – and that’s who I am. Don’t break stereotypes for the sake of breaking stereotypes. In doing so, you lose sight of who you really are.  It sounds cliché, but the best path to take is the path where you stay true to yourself. 

When you stay true to yourself, you break stereotypes because you are no longer giving power to someone else’s narrative. The power of stereotypes becomes useless, because one of the most powerful qualities of humans is that we are all different. When people decide to stay true to themselves, they cannot be generalized into one stereotype. We are all unique. The people I interviewed for this story have come to realize this. “I realized that I was created to be valuable,” Chang reflected.

The way to stay true to yourself while being strong enough to combat the messages of the media is to surround yourself with strong role models.

Dr. David Chao, director of the Center for Asian American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary, said that role models “actualize your imagination… they embody pathways and vocations and they kind of give a story for what’s possible.”  Recently, I reflected on my previous experiences and realized that my identity today would be different if it were not for the inspirational people around me. My identity was influenced by strong parents who taught me that other people should not have a say in how you live your life. Thanks to them, the racist depictions of my skin color in the media embarrassed me, but did not stop me. In times of doubt, I looked to my father, a pillar of rock that pushed me to be my best self, and my mother, a shining voice of reason that made me feel comfortable in my own skin. I know others feel the same way. When talking about how he stayed true to himself as a child, software engineer Chris Combs said that the difference his parents made in his life was “huge,” and because of their support, “I didn’t feel a super strong need to see representation in whatever I wanted to do… just because I had that stability.” 

So, to all the beautifully unique Asians out there, I have a message: Be that role model to someone today. Somewhere in your community, there is a kid who needs you to tell them that they can be whomever they want to be, not who the media says they have to be.  Work hard to represent your identity and push for those representations in culture and media. But do more than that. Dr. Chao argued, “Yes, representation is important… I will always advocate for more Asian American representation… But just because you have representation does not mean that the industry becomes more just.” It isn’t enough for Asians and Asian Americans to be represented in the media and across all industries. Make sure that you have kicked down the door so that the next person doesn’t have to endure the hardships that you did. Do your best to take down the structures and policies that weighed you down and rebuild new ones.  Lead by example. Staying true to yourself will show others that they can, too. 

Our skin is beautiful. Our culture is beautiful. Asian is beautiful.