By Sheilla Njoto
With the ubiquitous freshly-released movies like Crazy Rich Asians and the Netflix Original, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, it seems like the so-called ‘Asian pride’ reemerges in an instant. But not only that—it appears to be a trend to covet being represented in the Hollywood.
A couple of weeks ago, I was representing my country, Indonesia, at an International Relations conference, particularly in the track Art, Media and Culture. I came across a conversation in which we discussed this particular question: “Is it time for Asian superhero?” I have found my answer. But I’m getting ahead of myself—I’ll get to that.
There were other premises on which this question lies. It seemed to be a mental puzzle the first time I heard it. This question did not lead me straight to an answer. In fact, it raised a couple of more other questions.
The subconscious need for us, Asians, to be represented in Hollywood is in itself a fruit of eurocentrism. Yes, we want our image to be represented in the Hollywood, but Hollywood itself—or the context of superhero movies itself is rather a Western culture. So my question is, why do we want to be fit into the Western culture in the first place? Why do we want Asian culture to be boxed into Hollywood culture?
I am not at all against Hollywood. After all, there is a lot of historical facts supporting the massive contribution of Western culture to social development. But that’s not my point.
There is a thousand or a million of Asian movies that have been successful in, not only representing the Asian face, but also representing the Asian culture. I am sure that most of us who are reading this might have heard of Ip Man (it went on to Ip Man 3 and still is going)—a story of a local Wing Chun expert, who, not only was a true superhero, but he also defeated a snobby English boxer who was dishonouring China and putting Chinese people in the lowest pit during the second movie. What more of a superhero do we need?
Let’s take some other examples. Power Rangers, Ultraman, and all those superheroes represented in manga. These are the superheroes that represent the power of community and not at all emphasising on individualism as that of influence by the West. Why don’t we take these into account? Is it only because these movies are produced by Asian film productions?
“Yeah, but these movies aren’t really trending.” they said. Well, I say, who are the trendsetters? Aren’t you guys the trendsetters? Not until we start being proud of our local cultures can we be fully represented. If we don’t even take pride of our own culture, we can’t demand others to.
This reminds me that there has been a ton of critically-acclaimed Asian movies that had gone internationally recognised, like The Raid (2011), Train to Busan (2016), Forgotten (2017). There is also a number of Hollywood movies adopted from anime cultures that have gone popular, such as Dragon Ball: Evolution (2009), Tekken (2009), or Godzilla (2014). Even better—we have also witnessed successful Hollywood movies that are mainly starred by Asians--Rush Hour (1998), The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), or Charlie’s Angels (2000). I have not mentioned the legendary Hollywood movies that portray Asian face and cultures--Life of Pi (2012), Lion (2016) or Slumdog Millionaire (2008). These movies did not only go viral because of the Asian representatives but because they are extremely amazing movies. And they have been there for a long time. So why now? Why did we only start now when Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before came out?
We live in the generation of what I call as the era of ‘feeling victimised’. Everyone thinks that they’re victims but they don’t reflect on how much they contribute in this victimisation. Everyone wants to feel special by saying that “I am a minority.” Well, guess what? Everyone is victim in their own story. But what do you do with it? Do you just stand there and complain about it or feeling sorry for yourself? Everyone wants to a change for themselves or an impact in this world but no one wants to change or shift their perspective to look at the other side of the story.
This leads to another topic, which is the misrepresentation of Asians in Western movies.
“Why are all Asians depicted as smart and academically ambitious? Not all Asians are like that!”, some people say. Well, I agree. Not every Asian is smart or academically ambitious. But when we only perceive an issue from our perspective, we most of the time get some sort of a ‘cultural amnesia’. We seemingly become oblivious towards the history and reality.
In some parts of the world where Asians are considered as minority (which, by population, I don’t think we are anymore at this point), it is true that most of the Asian students I have met are intelligent beyond standards and most of them are ambitious! Most of them also love story-telling to each other about how strict their parents are about their career choices and academic grades.
A friend of mine, in a slightly humourous manner, once expressed a thought that I shared the same experience in, “there are only four career options for us as an Asian: an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer, or a disgrace of the family.” But anyway, I might have gone off-topic.
Again, I cannot stress this enough, I’m not saying that all of us share the same bring-ups but it is a fact that the majority of them that I have met do. Equivalent to this, it is also a fact that most of the Caucasian people I have befriended and encountered love drinking. Especially those I encounter in Bali (where, for some reasons, I always end up meeting more Caucasians there than here in Melbourne), almost every Caucasian you see there drinks a whole heap of beer! So it is a reality. It doesn’t mean that all Caucasians are obsessed about drinking. As a matter of fact, I do have some Caucasian friends who don’t. But it is understandable to see this characteristic of Caucasian in Asian movies too!
Let me fast forward to the Crazy Rich topic!
I am not at all saying that I am not proud of Crazy Rich Asians. As a matter of fact, I am. I am proud of the diversity that is starting to be promoted extensively. But I am also proud of thousands of successful original Asian movies like Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? (2002), that perfectly portrays an innocent Indonesian high school love drama back in the 2000s. I am proud of ridiculously bloodcurdling Thai horror movies, like Shutter (2004), that has successfully represented the mystical culture in most Asian countries, especially the rural areas. In fact, this movie had been remade in Hollywood but it went down the drain.
So… going back to that question: is it time for Asian superhero? I don’t think it’s necessary to add on my direct answer on top of all these. I will leave it open-ended after all these paragraphs of verbose waffles!
By Sheilla Njoto
“When I see things from the present, life seems like a maze of doors. One door closed, another one opens up for you, and another one, and another one. But when I look back, it all happened for a reason—choices that I made and what I ended up doing.” he smiled.
Let me tell you a story about a guy I know. Let’s call him John.
Wearing his ripped red shorts and dirty white shirt as his primary school uniform, John got up, ate up half a plate of rice with sweet soy sauce on top and a traditional garlic cracker for his breakfast.
“If I could have half a fried egg on top of my rice, it would be the highlight of my week” he said.
As always, he would eat up alone. His oldest sister and second brother were away for work and his first brother was in Bandung for college. John's mum was rarely home, traveling back and forth for work to Mojosari, a little town that was a 3-hour bus ride away. Meanwhile his father slept the whole day and gambled the whole night.
“You know those trucks in the CBD with those little kids secretly climbing up the trucks from behind and shouting excitedly just because it’s fun? I used to be one of them.” he added.
His school wasn’t too far away so he walked. Sometimes he would meet his classmate along the way and walk together.
No, he never had books with him because he could not afford one. All the things he had in his mended bag were found somewhere in the corner of his classroom.
He didn’t mind.
“I remember how embarrassed I was when I was a kid when a friend invited me to their birthday lunch because my school uniform was the best outfit I had.” he chuckled.
He was supposed to finish grade 5, but his marks were so poor that he couldn’t move up to grade 6. Usually, when his mum came back to Surabaya, she would spank him and lock him up in the bathroom because he did so poorly at school. This time was different—he was actually failing. His mum begged the principal of the school to let him have a month of probation in grade 6 and see if he could continue.
Afraid of disappointing his mum, John elevated his grades exponentially and started being involved in school extracurricular activities, including basketball.
This was the starting point of his journey. In high school, he was recruited in a basketball club and he started playing nationally. He became a national basketballer. For this reason, he could still continue his high school despite his financial issues because he attained a scholarship by working with the club. As a consequence, he had to juggle with school and travel intercity and inter-province all the time.
After he graduated, he started dating a lady he met at high school.
“The first time I saw her was when we had mixed-class exam. Her cheeks were very rose pink. I was there and I was wondering how could someone be as beautiful.”
Planning to marry her, he needed a decent job in order to support his future little family. He started working as a labour worker at a textile company. A couple of years after, he was promoted as the cashier. And a while later, a salesman.
Having to juggle between basketball, relationship commitment and work, he needed to rethink his decision. He left basketball for good.
When he was 25, he married his wife. Ten years after, he provided his director with a business proposal to be partners in building a new textile company. He approved. Now he’s a co-founder and owner of 13-branch textile company around Java.
John is my dad. His real name is Anton.
Every once in a while he would talk to me and say, “what are you most grateful for in life?”. What is it, indeed?
Any other day he would tear up thinking on his own—with all that he has had now, why can’t he be completely content with himself?
“I remember when my happiness was only playing in puddles with my friend and taking a bar of soap and running outside naked when it was raining so I could wash myself in the rain.” he said. “Who would have known a silly kid like that can teach me something greater than what I know now—joy and gratefulness.”
When do we ever feel enough? Contentment and thankfulness. With these can we start to receive by giving instead of demanding to receive and receive.
How many people out there who are down to do anything to be in our place? To have good education? A loaf of bread with peanut butter and jam? I even have a relative who teared up smiling when she touched my iPhone for the first time.
I once asked my dad, “papa, what can I do to be as successful as you?” He laughed and said, “What is success to you?”
In that moment I realised--isn’t success about being content and being grateful? And being grateful leads you to do your best because you know that’s the least thing you can do to express that? And what you achieve is only the fruit of it and not the other way around.
What have we really done as a contribution of our own thankfulness of what we have had so far? It’s too easy to think that it’s only us and we don’t have enough to give.
Since people love numbers, I will close with this:
According to Social Policy Research Centre (2016), Australia's poverty line for a single adult was $426.30 per week. That's way above the internationally accepted poverty line of about $2 per day. Even with this high of a poverty line, only about 13.3% of the population were living under the line.
According to Asian Development Bank (2015), Indonesia's poverty line, based on its government, for a single adult was USD 25 per month, that's about 82 cents per day. When that line was used, about 11% were living in poverty. If the internationally accepted poverty line of $2 per day had been used, 40% of the population would have been living under the line.
“If you ever had the chance, go. Go and try wearing their shoes. Try walking their walk. See how they think when you ask these little kids what they wanted to be in the future and they answered back ‘I want to be a president but—it’s impossible’ and laughed at their own dream. Then you will appreciate your place.”
We often think we give to give but we end up receiving. We often think we teach to teach but we end up learning.
Asian Development Bank 2015, “Summary of Indonesia’s Poverty Analysis”, ADB Papers on Indonesia, No. 4, October, Philippines.
Social Policy Research Centre 2016, Poverty in Australia 2016, Australian Council of Social Service, Strawberry Hills, Australia.
We come from different perspectives. We have different pairs of shoes.