2010s: The Decade Asian America Goes Mainstream

In an effort to prepare for the release of Iron Man 3 I devoted a several hours over the past few weeks to all of the Marvel Studio blockbusters I missed when serving as a missionary for the LDS Church. These films inspired the following observation: Asians Americans [1] are now an established part of America’s popular culture.

The portrayal of racial minorities in pop-culture is a volatile issue. The over-use of “Token Black Guys” to fill out Hollywood casts has been a source of particular derision. Urban Dictionary explains:

1. token black guy – Any black character in any movie that is neither the protagonist nor antagonist, is unimportant to the plot and does not significantly contribute to it, preferably dies before the end, usually does not end up with the girl. 

2. token black guy – Any fictional character of African-American descent that has been inconsequently inserted into the plot a movie or TV show for the express purposes of creating an image of commercially safe, politically correct, and insipid racial harmony. [2]

In the Marvel Studio films Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger the stereotyped token black guy has been eclipsed by a new character type: the token Asian guy.

Thor begins his film with a posse of Asgardians introduced as “Lady Sif and the Warriors Three.” Reflecting Thor’s identity as the Norse God of thunder,  the group is dressed in shiny Hollywood versions of Viking attire. One does not need to be playing close attention to notice that one of these warriors looks distinctly un-Viking.  

The Asgardian posse in Thor. 

Captain America has his own side-kick team, a group of talented soldiers handpicked by the movie’s titular hero to face off against super villain Red Skull and the renegade Nazis under his command. Included in the team is another “Token Asian Man”, the Japanese American Jim Morita.

Captain America’s side kicks.

This character is less of an anachronism than it seems at first glance.  The most decorated American unit of the Second World War was the 442nd Infantry, composed entirely of Nisei Soldiers. The best of the Nisei soldiers certainly deserved to be on America’s premiere special-ops team; whether or not the military brass of 1944 would agree to place a Nisei soldier on such a team is a different question. 

We do not have to ponder the question at great length. Fortunately for the viewing public, Captain America: The First Avenger is a super-hero adventure movie, not a work of historical fiction. Thor and Captain America  are a window into 2010s, not the 1940s. As with most films, these two movies betray the expectations of their audience. The inclusion of “Token Asian Men” in these blockbusters suggests that Asian Americans are now too prominent a part of American society for politically correct Hollywood producers to ignore.  [3]  

Source: Pew Research Center. Rise of the Asian Americans.
(Pew Research: Washington DC). last updated 4 April 2013. p. 1

It is not a coincidence that this is happening in the 2010s. The growing presence of Asian Americans in American pop-culture mirrors the growing Asian American population of the United States: the 2010s is the first decade in American history where Asians are the largest group of new immigrants entering the United States. [4]    

This is just the beginning. Over the next few decades more American communities will start to look like the 626. As the number of Asian Americans grow, their impact on American pop culture will only increase. Who knows? Before the decade is over America might have her own Asian Will Smith.  


[1] “Asian American,” as the term is used here, refers to the peoples most Americans associate with the phrase: immigrants from Northeast and Southeast Asia (or descendants of such). Sorry my Desi and Arab friends: you are not main stream quite yet. 

[2] themarcuscreature. “token black guy.” Urban Dictionary. 13 Feb 2013.

[3] Hollywood is not the only place to see more Asian Americans during the 2010s. The music industry has also seen notable shifts: in late 2010 the Far East Movement became the first Asian American group to reach the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.  

[4] This is especially true in the areas close to Hollywood itself. See  Jennifer Medinia.”Asians Now Largest Immigrant Population in Southern California.” New York Times. 28 April 2013. 

Leave a Comment


Possibly, but that seems dubious – I suspect if national markets were at play, 'token' characters would not be enough to make any difference. They would need to be more keen more prominent characters or at Asian locales (ala Fast and Ferious: Tokyo Drift) or famous Asian stars (ala Fan Bing Bing's scenes in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3)

Do Southeast Asians usually get lumped together closer to East Asians in western countries than to South Asians in general? In the US, Canada, Australia etc. they do?

Is it because they look more similar? But what about culturally?

How come historically then, Southeast Asians belong to the Indosphere rather than the Sinosphere? Has more recent Sinospheric influence "erased" Southeast Asia's more Indian cultural roots?


A good question!

I cannot speak for Australia or the UK. But in the U.S. —

Yes, Southeast Asians usually get lumped in with East Asians. In fact, Indians often get lumped into the general 'Asian' label too.

"But what about culturally?"

To be honest, most Americans do not know enough about SE Asian culture to intelligently make these distinctions. Moreover, the largest SE Asian immigrant groups in the U.S. are 1) Filipinos (who were never part of the Indian cultural sphere) and 2) Vietnamese (who turned to China, not India, for most of its high culture cues).

There just are not enough Thai, Cambodian, Lao, Burmese, Malay, or Indonesian immigrants in America for Americans to classify them separately from the much more numerous Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigrants.

I notice though that "Asian" usually refers in the US to East and Southeast Asians because of their looks resembling one another more than either does to South or West Asia and apparently looks trump culture sometimes for people's impressions.

Some people in the US even confuse Indians with Arabs (!). See the hullabaloo over by people with the racist comments on the last Miss America event. Also, when supposed "Muslim" Middle Eastern-looking people were attacked and "blamed for 9/11" in hate crimes some of the targets were even South Asians, like Sikhs.

Very few people know that say, Thailand had historically closer roots to India's sphere of influence earlier on than it did to China's. But they will look at a Thai and think they are similar to Chinese or Japanese people because they look more alike even if the Thai person claims their culture derives from India more than China. It's like an Ethiopian immigrant telling people that their high culture is Judeo-Christian and thus closer to Jewish/Christian and Middle Eastern roots than most of sub-Saharan Africa, and that their country was Christian and even part of the classical world before much of Europe, yet Americans lumping in the Ethiopian with all other "blacks" regardless of culture.

I'd wager if you asked most Americans who knew South East Asians personally, they'd still perceive Cambodians or Laotians as closer to Chinese or Japanese. In the show King of the Hill, Kahn is a Laotian, and there is a scene where Hank asks if "he is Chinese or Japanese", and upon explaining that he's Laotian, and about all that, Hank is confused and asks yet again "so are you Chinese or Japanese".

Now, the issue is, some would argue, that despite S. E Asia being more Indian in high culture, besides physical looks, it could be argued that S. E Asia has "non-high" culture or culture that is more visible that seems more Sinosphere-like — certain things like S.E Asian languages sounding more sing-songy, monosyllabic and "tonal" and thus to American ears like Chinese, than Indian languages (despite linguistically, most S.E Asian languages being related to neither) or S. E Asian food being perceived more like Chinese food (eg. Thai noodles etc.) than Indian curries. Indeed, SE Asia has a large Chinese community overseas and thus if some of this community migrates to the US, they may self-ID as say Indonesian or Thai, rather than Chinese-Indonesian or Chinese-Thai. So, there is some justification for putting SE Asia more to E Asia, but still it feels like South Asian links to there is really underplayed relative to South Asian links to the Middle East (eg. Taj Mahal, a Persian architectural form is seen as more emblematic of "India" than Dravidian temples that resemble Angkor Wat).

"I'd wager if you asked most Americans who knew South East Asians personally, they'd still perceive Cambodians or Laotians as closer to Chinese or Japanese"

Yes, I'd say that is a fair assessment.

I do think this correlates with what I was saying, however – you need a certain critical mass of newcomers for the salient features of their cultures to become well known. There is probably a difference between someone who knows many Indonesians and someone who knows only one.

"the issue is, some would argue, that despite S. E Asia being more Indian in high culture, besides physical looks, it could be argued that S. E Asia has "non-high" culture or culture that is more visible that seems more Sinosphere-like"

I have wondered this questions myself. See my musings on this post and the attached comment thread, esp. my first comment there. A I said there, my subjective evaluation of mainland SE Asians is that even when they have very different 'high' cultures (Vietnam and Cambodia), the 'low', every day norms and (perhaps even cognitive quirks) are very, very similar. I suspect that much of SE Asia's connection to the Indian world is merely skin deep.

But this is just conjecture on my part. More research is needed to figure out if it is true. And it certainly is a poor explanation for American attitudes, for far too few Americans have met enough SE Asians, East Asians, and Indians to make these distinctions. My case is an unusual one. (In contrast, we were having this same discussion about Slavs, Greeks, and Romanians I would be unable to say anything intelligent at all!)