Capturing the Invisible

The challenges of Asian American representation in art


in Features • Illustrated by Alexander Hotchkiss


I have long understood the appraisal of the Asian American in the public conscious — as a vagrant third man, situated between white and Black. The Asian American has sought to extricate themselves from this precarious position since their arrival as imported labor, then later as empirical evidence of American justice. The challenge, in part, has been to define, in terms that are shrewd and concrete, the third man’s distinct form of alienation. There is a prevailing sense that since there has not been an honorific deprived of the East Asian American especially, that their wealth, education, and professional attainment must indicate the same level of privilege experienced by their white counterparts. There is the impression that the Asian American can and has transcended the limitations of their marginalization by way of achievement. 

But this is how the illusion works. For no record of achievement can safeguard against the irreverent handling of the Asian American, their personhood, or their stories. 

The third man has very little confidence in how to regard themselves, either. For this reason, a considerable proportion of Asian American art still involves the very process of becoming American. The characters in third man stories, typically immigrants or their immediate children, seek a sense of security in their hyphenated identities yet, in the end, find themselves unmoored and, in some ways, even more profoundly lost than they had started. This single lens of ethnicity provides a necessary framework for understanding the third man’s experience but does so at the cost of eclipsing all other aspects of the Asian American’s identity.

For instance, in Chang-Rae Lee’s 1995 novel Native Speaker, the narrator, Henry Park, attempts to “become American” by refuting his Korean father’s austere lifestyle and carefully adopting the mannerisms of whiteness. Yet, despite his best efforts to sublimate his Korean identity, the woman who eventually becomes his wife tells him, “You look like someone listening to himself. You pay attention to what you’re doing. If I had to guess, you’re not a native speaker.” Henry manifests the anxiety of maneuvering the liminal space between “Korean” and “American” by expressly asking his place in the American psyche, a question he cannot answer. After his son dies by being suffocated under a dog pile of children, Henry, who had already imagined himself as a spy in America, continues looking back into his own past, as though, by doing so, he might make sense about what happened to his son. In the end, despite having gathered intel on American culture his entire life, Henry is still left wondering whether his son’s death was the product of a freak occurrence or racial unviability. 

In the decades since early Asian American novels such as Native SpeakerThe Woman Warriorand The Joy Luck Club have explained, to varying degrees,the mechanisms of Eastern cultures to the Western reader, how have second and third-generation Asian American authors advanced understandings of the condition of thethird man? While the immigrant novel expressly focused on the development of an assimilated identity, current Asian American novels have moved away from this singular concern. Their narrators are not encumbered with the charge to explain or grapple with the weight of cultural confusion. Of course, an explanation for this shift is the change in the extent of the need for explanation. Since early novels, aspects of Asian American culture have become more prevalent and integrated into the mainstream, allowing modern novels to pick up where those that came before left off. However, in the absence of the third man’s reckoning, Asian American characters have come to bear ethnic surnames only to serve as vessels for largely white, acultural narratives.  

Celeste Ng’s 2014 literary thriller Everything I Never Told You attempts to find a new approach to capturing the Asian American experience. The novel opens with the fact of 16-year-old Lydia Lee’s death and follows her mother Marilyn as she pieces together the events that might have led to her daughter’s drowning. Over the course of the story, Marilyn begins to realize the extent of her daughter’s ostracization as an Amerasian and the insolubility of being a forever foreigner, especially as this tragedy has befallen Lydia, the whitest of her three children, who is characterized as being studious and having blue eyes. Yet, the idea that an individual may experience exclusion on the basis of their racial difference is a familiar and present reality for the Asian American. Novels that came before had already started with the understanding that there is no place for the third man. Because the novel traces the mother’s early introduction into her daughter’s world, Marilyn’s character is a vehicle for Ng’s white reader, for whom this notion is unfamiliar. The reader is never challenged to live in the third man’s central dilemma, which is how his interactions and perceptions of self are plagued by W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness, or the experience of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” in a white racist society. Consequently, in the absence of the psychological negotiation between Lydia’s two selves, one that is racially subjugated and the other that still wishes to be fully accepted by white society, a novel that promises to be about an Asian American experience more accurately concerns itself with the isolation of an everyperson who so happens to be of ethnic descent.  

The use of the Asian American in the role of the everyperson aids in the illusion of diversity without estranging white audiences. This is why, for many viewers, films such as Crazy Rich Asiansand Star Wars: The Last Jedifeaturing Kelly Marie Tran fulfill the same compulsory function as Parasite, The Farewell, or Minari of expanding Asian American representation. Despite these movies’ vastly differing levels of engagement with the issue of identity, they are regarded monolithically. Asian American audiences have also come to conflate visibility with the depiction of Asian American identities, even though their satisfaction with visibility alone stands in the way of real deliverance from invisibilization. 

There is no greater example of this than when Crazy Rich Asians premiered in 2018.Asian Americans exalted the film for finally featuring actors ‘who looked like them’ on the big screen. This is what they had been waiting for. The film, the first major motion picture out of Hollywood to star an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Clubpremiered 25 years earlier, featured characters who were loud and vibrant — powerful, even, in their ability to use their wealth to make demands and to lean into frivolity. The film, which went on to earn 238.5 million dollars worldwide, featured characters that were seen as a much-welcome departure from the tertiary roles offered to Asian American actors to date. They were dignified and chic, a far cry from the slight, naked man who jumps out from the back of a trunk inThe Hangover or the vapid Genki Girl in Scott Pilgrim vs. the Worldwho, in part because of her sheltered upbringing, is easily enamored of a meek older man who pays her no mind. 

At the same time that Crazy Rich Asians established the formidable earning power of an all-Asian cast (comparatively, Book Club, the second-highest-grossing romantic comedy that premiered the same year, earned less than half in domestic box-office sales), the precedent it sets for the future Asian American films is concerning.  

Crazy Rich Asians, which takes place entirely outside of the US, centers on the lives of the wealthy members of a Singaporean dynasty. While the film might be said to refute the historically subjugated roles offered to Asian Americans, at no point does it contend with the central aspects of the Asian American experience — one which centers on the simultaneous grappling with ancestral ghosts and the fashioning of an identity in their wake. In its vacuous world of luxury, the film establishes that identifying with a character on the basis of shared appearance suffices as representation. Consequently, its characters are mere complements to the existing narrow roles for Asian Americans in white narratives. They are cultural avatars that encourage a casual survey of a frictionless ethnic experience. 

Nevertheless, it is clear that even when films do reckon with the distinct American questions of belonging, social mobility, and racial viability, they are deemed remote, foreign experiences. Such was the case for Minari, a film that considers a husband and wife’s struggle to bring their Korean American family out of poverty in the heartland. The A24 title, produced entirely in the US, won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film but was ineligible for nomination for Best Picture according to a rule established by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that prevents a film’s qualification in both categories. Minari’s categorization raises larger questions about how gatekeepers in the arts distinguish between foreign and American. While the film is nearly entirely in the Korean language, it is, at its core, a meditation on a fundamentally American question: What is one willing to sacrifice to fulfill their dream? 

For me, Minari embodies new possibilities for Asian American representation in art. The film exudes a quiet confidence that derives from the specificity of its storytelling and is not preoccupied with representation as an abstract concept but the dramatization of the emotional experiences of its Korean American characters. As is often the case when directors draw on the events from their own lives (including in François Truffaut’s 400 Blows, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises), Lee Isaac Chung exhibits a deep sensitivity toward each of the characters in Minari. Viewers are torn between Jacob’s decision to invest in a farm for the family’s future stability and Monica’s desire to prioritize their children’s immediate safety, even if it means continuing to work as a chicken sexer for the foreseeable future. They have transplanted their entire lives for the possibility of becoming landowners in the Arkansas boondocks. And, now that they have left behind their church community and network of Korean families in California, they are on their own. There is no one to turn to for help, no safety net if they fail. For this reason, it is even more devastating when Jacob perceives his motivations being misinterpreted by his wife, or when Monica views her husband’s investments as irrecoverable debt. They are all each other has. Yet, after years of continued struggle, their promise to secure more for themselves by leaving Korea begins to weigh on their marriage. The film is a rumination on the construction of an Asian American identity as a means of survival. For the father and mother in Minari, there is no way home but through the slow, arduous cultivation of the very ground on which they stand.

I was moved when I watched this film, not because I saw a replica of myself onscreen, but because the film achieves what is needed most in a moment in our country when hate crimes against AAPI members across the country have skyrocketed in an open season for overt racism set in motion by former-president Donald Trump. Minari offers the opportunity to see and live in the intense debasement of the human condition that results from invisibilization and, in that way, provides the Asian American viewer the dignity of finally being seen.

Earlier into the pandemic, something broke in me. I could not bear yet another instance where an Asian American was made to be small. To a great extent, news outlets were indifferent about their coverage of the mounting discrimination and violence against Asian Americans, and I could not risk the same carelessness pervading the art I consumed as well. I began an East Asian cinema retrospective, perhaps instinctively. I had only ever watched a handful of East Asian films before, and I was taken by the characters in the films, who ranged from the sexual to the repulsive, the virtuous to the morally repugnant without those choices having to signify anything for the viewer. The films by Wong Kar-wai and Jia Zhangke and Edward Yang were not riddled with a sense of burden that comes with racial self-awareness and, while I was watching, neither was I. Instead, they delighted in aesthetic expression: indulgent shots of Tony Leung smoking at his office desk, protracted views of the varied Chinese countryside, three-, four-hour-long epics that mimicked the pace of the quotidian. These films were indulgent yet commanding. They reached a level of rapture in their visible regard for film, itself. Still, at the end of the retrospective, which ended up consisting of 25 or so films, I felt largely dismayed. I wondered if this level of freedom in filmmaking was an affordance exclusive to East Asian cinema, whose viewers did not start from a place of invisibility like Asian Americans, but a shared history. How could Asian Americans rival East Asian artistry when, in America, the complexity of representation continues to cloud this greater achievement? 

Perhaps Minari’s greatest lesson for Asian American cinema is that representation of the third man need not be a burden to a film’s artistry or some superficial appeal to audiences. Minari demonstrates that representation of the third man can, instead, provide an opportunity for art to achieve its highest aim: to set another free. • 


Theresa Lin received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was awarded the De Alba Prize for Fiction. She has taught Writing at Columbia University and Literature at Fordham University and currently serves as English Department Chair at Democracy Prep Harlem High School. She lives on the Upper West Side with her partner Morgan.