Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | There! Up on the screen… it’s … Super Asian Man!
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There! Up on the screen… it’s … Super Asian Man!

When “Survivor” announced its just-ended season, I was one of the many critics who thought splitting up the tribes along racial factors was a stupid and potentially harmful idea. After just two episodes, the series mixed the groups.

On the season finale that just aired, an Asian American man, Yul Kwon, won. He is the Survivor.

How cool is that? In the end, it wasn’t race at all, but his smarts and his determination that helped him outlast the others. It probably didn’t hurt that he’s remarkably hunky, but isn’t everyone on the show?

He was quoted eloquently in the Contra Costa Times (and cited by Hyphen Blog): “’I wanted America to see Asian-American men as they truly are,’ he said while speaking about the under-representation of minorities on television. …’I want to be a very visible spokesman for talking about how we can get more minorities on TV.’”

This guy is a pretty good role model. The 31-year-old Korean American management consultant was born and raised in Northern California’s East Bay, and has degrees from Stanford University and Yale Law School.

I’m not a fan of the show, but I think it’s pretty cool that someone like me (OK, so I’m not as buff, handsome, smart or rich as Kwon) just took won $1 million in one of the biggest reality shows on TV.

It’s just another sign that slowly but surely, Asians are making inroads into mainstream American culture, and that it’s getting to be commonplace to see Asian faces in television shows. And they don’t always have to play either a geek or a geisha, although those stereotypes still do nag at us.

Look at the high-profile Asians currently on primetime, from a poll posted on the Web site of East West Magazine (Daniel Dae Kim is voted the most popular so far):

Masi Oka as Hiro on “Heroes”
Mindy Kaling as Kelly on “The Office”
Ming-Na as Lin Mei on “Vanished”
Lauren Tom as Mai on “Men in Trees”
Suleka Matthew as Sara on “Men in Trees”
Sandra Oh as Cristina on “Grey’s Anatomy”
Naveen Andrews as Sayid on “Lost”
Daniel Dae Kim as Jin on “Lost”

It’s a small but mighty minority on the small screen, and doesn’t even include some prominent hapa actors, such as Kristen Kreuk of “Smallville,” the half Chinese/Indonesian who plays the teenaged Lana Lang, the young Superman’s first love.

Of the bigtime Asians on the tube, I’m most intrigued by Sandra Oh, whose character in “Grey’s Anatomy” is based in the smart/driven/medical career Asian stereotype.

Yet, as my wife Erin points out, in her relationship with an African American surgeon in the series (Presto Burke, played by the terrific Isaiah Washington), and in scenes outside of the hospital, Oh’s character, Cristina Yang, displays not a lick of Asian culture. There’s no art, no clothes, no food, no language… about the closest acknowledgement we get of her ethnicity is that she uses chopsticks to eat take-out Chinese food. Big whoop.

This is OK in one way, in that I’ve always advocated that Asians need to attain the kind of familiarity onscreen that African Americans have, so that Asians aren’t hired to fill “Asian” roles (the geek or geisha, or the good student, or the exotic sex object, or the martial arts master – you know the routine). But dang, once we have an Asian, I guess I somehow want to eat my cake too, and have some acknowledgment of the actor’s Asian-ness.

Maybe my need for this double-standard will fade with time and more Asians on TV and at the movies.

By the way, Oh as an actress does a superb job on movies including “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Sideways” – playing two very different roles.

The Asian actor I like very much on TV this season, although I’ve missed enough episodes that I’ll have to enjoy the entire series next year on DVD, is Masayori “Masi” Oka, who plays the goofy Japanese geek-gone-great Hiro Nakamura on “Heroes.”

His sheer earnestness at playing the unwitting hero with superhuman abilities is what caught my eye immediately. The show was respectful in its early scenes of the Nakamura character in Japan as he discovers his wondrous talents (teleporting and shifting time), and in those scene Nakumra spoke perfect Japanese. I thought he was a Japanese actor, but it turns out he was born in Japan but raised in the U.S., and held on to his native language. In later episodes, he speaks perfect American English, which caught me off-guard and got me scrambling for his bio.

It turns out Oka is a geek in real life after all – he graduated from Brown with a degree in computer science and math. He works for Industrial Light and Magic, the movie special effects company spun off by George Lucas, and Oka helped create some of the computer effects in the recent “Star Wars” movies, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and other blockbusters. There’s a nice interview piece with Oka on the Hyphen Blog.

Even though he’s a somewhat surprising pop idol because of Hiro on “Heroes,” he continues to work for ILM.

I hate to say it, but that’s so… Asian!