As Seen On TV

at 12:35 AM

My first experience with racism was when I was seven while playing with a white friend. A group of white boys started screaming, "Jap, Jap," while pulling the corner of their eyes back. I felt confused, since I wasn't Japanese. I wanted to be invisible.

This taunting occurred throughout my life along with the ching chong mimicking of the Chinese language. But the abuse wasn't limited to the playground. One of the most humiliating images I ever saw was a buck-toothed Mickey Rooney wearing coke bottle glasses and screaming nonsensical mock Chinese in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." It turned my stomach. I didn't realize the effect of this mocking until I first saw myself on a video. I zeroed in on my eyes, "They seem so small," I thought. Then I felt shame.

So, when I heard there was going to be a new sitcom entitled "Fresh off the Boat," about a Chinese-American family who move to Florida to open a steakhouse, I was ambivalent. I want to see more faces like me on TV, and am also afraid to see faces like me on TV. Better to be invisible than to be caricatured. The over-the-top Mickey Rooney nonsense may be out of bounds now, but not the new stereotype of math geniuses and sneaky perpetual foreigners who drive badly.

The series is said to be based on a memoir by a Chinese-American author, so even though one TV series can never describe well the experience of any ethnic group, I'm advising fellow Asian-Americans, who are expressing negativity and trepidation, to reserve judgment.

Non-Asian friends exclaim, "It's better than before, at least they're using real Asian actors." I'm not sure I agree. William Hung, the infamous "American Idol" contestant who badly butchered Ricky Martin's "She Bangs," didn't exactly broaden the image of Asians. And I'm not sure whites would be so sanguine if TV images of them were limited to Homer Simpson and "Duck Dynasty."

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But in the end, this is a process that women, African-Americans, gay people and others have had to endure -- embarrassingly stereotyped TV characters that marked a new dawn in their march to broader acceptance. My hope is that with a broader variety of Asian-American characters, it won't sting as much to see a stereotypic image, that each character on "Fresh Off the Boat" can be viewed as just one example of an Asian-American who may or may not be much like this Asian-American.

With a Perspective I'm Larry Jin Lee.

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Larry Jin Lee is a psychotherapist, diversity trainer and father of two in San Francisco.

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