Colorado balloon boy Falcon Heene: I notice when Asian Americans are in the news, for good or bad

The Heene family in a publicity shot from ABC, for the network

I don’t know about other Asians, but I bet Erin and I are not the only ones who flinch whenever we hear or see coverage in the news media that involves an Asian or Asian American. If it’s good news, hooray and we cheer on the butt-kicking Asian, or applaud the award or medal or accomplishment.

But if it’s bad news, we share the tragedy, shame or embarrassment as if it’s happening to our own family.

A good example is the big story today north of Denver, where a six-year-old boy reportedly climbed into his parents’ homemade flying saucer-shaped balloon which took off and floated for several hours across northern Colorado. The media first reported that the “balloon boy” had crawled into the balloon and managed to untie a tether, which set the helium-filled craft free into the sky.

This story took over my office for several hours, with staff standing around glued to TV screens in the break areas, and others sitting at their desks glued to the live feed from KUSA, the Denver TV station where Richard Heene, the father, first called to ask for help with their station helicopter (before he called the police…). Talk about a “water cooler” story — everywhere I went for a time, people were talking about it.

It was either a tragedy or a miracle in the making — if the kid ended up alive, he’d be on the “Today” show tomorrow morning for sure.

As it turned out, tragedy seemed the outcome, when the balloon finally landed on its own, safely in a farm field — without the boy, Falcon Heene. Had he fallen out during the flight? Was a speck captured on one photo below the balloon, seemingly falling to Earth, an attached box that maybe he had hidden in, that had gotten loose?

But tragedy turned to tragicomedy an hour later, when Falcon was found… in a box all right, but a box in the attic of his family’s garage. At this moment, the details of his misadventure are unclear. I’ll tune in to “Today” to learn what happened.

What was interesting to me, was my own reaction to the story as the events unfolded. I was entranced by the balloon’s flight like everyone else. After the initial reports broke,, the site that my company, MediaNewsGroup Interactive, owns, posted a story from 2007 that profiled Richard Heene and his entire family’s passion for science — in particular the science of weather. The entire family are storm chasers. That added a layer of intrigue to the story.

But when a Facebook friend sent me a Huffington Post link that revealed the family was on the ABC reality TV show “Wife Swap,” that added another layer of interesting detail.

But what caught my immediate attention was the fact that the mother’s name is Mayumi, and she’s Japanese, and that the family’s three sons are all cute Hapa, or mixed-race, kids.

When I found that out, I immediately posted the fact to Twitter, then wondered to myself as a journalist, was that important?

To mainstream media, nope. But to Asian Americans, yup. My gut clenched a little more when I realized he was Asian — not for his sake, but oddly, for my sake: that I was a little bit afraid he’d done something wrong and that would be embarrassing, well, to me.

I’m sure many people would find this logic unbelievable and just crazy. But when I called Erin and told her the kid is Hapa, her immediate reaction was, ‘Oh great,” which verbalized my feelings exactly.

A bigger example of this kind of situation was when Cho Seung Hui shot all those students and teachers at Virginia Tech in 2007. The initial news stories reported the shootings without describing the shooter, but my immediate reaction was “Please don’t let it be an Asian.”

When it was reported that he was indeed Asian, the next reaction was, “Shit — please don’t let him be Japanese.” And though it’s tasteless, I have to admit, when I found out the attacker was Korean, I felt bad for Koreans but was relieved he wasn’t Japanese.

We’ve spoken to other Asian Americans including Koreans, and many of them felt the same way whenever Asians make the news.

I wrote about the tendency to paint all Asians (or ethnicities within Asians, as a subgroup) in an earlier post right after the V-Tech shootings. I don’t know if European Americans feel the same pangs when a crime is committed by someone of their own background. Does an Italian American identify with a mass killing if it’s committed by an Italian or Italian American?

I guess it’s simply a part of being cast as an outsider group by mainstream (Euro-American) society, so we feel a group responsibility hoisted upon us. Plus, partly it’s the fact that many Asian cultures historically value tribal, group identification.

But I found it worth noting that today, the story of the balloon boy took on a personal cast simply because he’s Asian American.

Now, I just hope that he didn’t do something bad, and the balloon’s takeoff was just an unfortunate accident. I’m sure we’ll all know by tonight’s 10 pm news locally, and the nation will know after tomorrow’s “Today” show.

NEXT DAY UPDATE: The speculation is growing — fast — that the Balloon Boy episode may have been a bizarre publicity stunt. This morning they went on all the networks and denied it was a hoax. Here’s the CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer last night, where young Falcon says to his dad, “You guys said we did this for the show.”

Here’s video of an interview from 9News, the Denver NBC affiliate that Heene called first for help, before calling the cops. 9News benefitted from the story, and racked up amazing traffic for the day:

UPDATE OCT. 17: After a couple of days of conjecture that the flight of the Balloon Boy was a hoax, the media are announcing that Richard Heene will be charged by authorities tomorrow (Sunday). The obvious charge would be filing a false report to authorities, a low-level misdemeanor. But there may be other charges related to releasing the balloon. Plus, I assume the family will be responsible for the cost of all the law enforcement and rescue equipment and personnel.

So, how do I feel about this now? I feel bad for the kids, and I might feel bad for the mom. I don’t feel much pity for Richard Heene. If he did make this all up and forced the family to go along with the setup “for the show,” I hope he gets hit with more than just a misdemeanor charge and a slap on the wrist.

I hope he loses all chance at the limelight he craves.

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19 Responses to Colorado balloon boy Falcon Heene: I notice when Asian Americans are in the news, for good or bad

  1. jinah kim-perek says:

    Love this article!!! So true, so true. What a great, insightful, culturally aware writer you are Gil!

  2. darleene says:

    I can see where you would have cringed in chagrin….the family seems a bit kooky, but are they kooky just because its a mixed-race family? Or are they kooky because they’re an American family?

    Personally, I saw off the bat that the boy was Hapa, but it didn’t color my perception of the story. I simply chuckled to myself that, assuming the boy was found safe (and thank God he was), he is in SO MUCH trouble….

  3. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi darlene, great point, They’re not kooky because they’re mixed-race. They’re more interesting to me because they’re mixed-race, though. They’re def. kooky because they gave their son the middle name “Falcon,” though!

  4. letsugo says:

    well, i’m always trolling around the internet for japanese american news, so if you tell me that something involves a hapa kid, of course i’m going to take a peek. 🙂

    i went through some similar emotions when i merely tweeted about an upcoming documentary called “power of two.” i mentioned that the main subjects are “LA-born hapa twins” and then i had doubts about using those words because i realized it seemed TOTALLY self-serving, right, because it’s me who’s trying to spread los angeles japanese & japanese american news when the doc is more about surviving cystic fibrosis. then i felt sort of relieved when discover nikkei retweeted it because maybe there are others out there whose interest is initially peaked by the japanese american subject-matter, and then they’ll go on to dig further into the story. or not.

    fine by me that you mentioned the bit of japanese background to balloon boy’s story. what i’ve latched on to is why did that dad alert the news before the cops? oy, this better not be a lame publicity stunt!

  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hey Letsugo, I also wondered right away if this was some sort of freaky publicity stunt. Mist be the cynic in me…. I’m inclined to think now that it wasn’t all a stunt, and that dad called 9News because he thought they’d use their helicopter to help rescue the kid. (They did, too!) But yeah, I would’ve called the police first. They have helicopters too, right?

  6. Lac Su says:

    I heard about this story today at the office in passing–something about a kid in a balloon…but I didn’t know he was Asian. Rumors at the office (around 1:30 pm PST) was that the kid had died because he wasn’t in the balloon when it landed. I shook my head and thought “tragedy”…and asked myself who in the fuck would leave an active balloon in the backyard with kids around. I thought about my kids and made a promise to myself to be more cognizant about EVERYTHING…because shit happens.

    Thanks Gil for the good news. Gawd…thank heaven.


  7. Lxy says:

    Given their reality TV background and how this incident eventually played out, I wonder if this Heene family is into publicity-seeking stunts.

    And this entire episode was the best media- manufactured non-event since the latest Jon and Kate Gosselin divorce saga update.

  8. John says:

    What is your source for your claim that the Heenes called KUSA before they called 911?

    And even if true, did they place this call before or after they were aware that one of their children was missing?

  9. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi John, it was reported early on, and I believe is repeated in reports today. OTOH, I guess the media reporting something doesn’t make it true… I of all people should know that! And even the 9News people last night were saying Richard Heene called them to ask for help rescuing their son Falcon. So it’s def. after they knew he was missing.

  10. John says:

    What I had read was that he called the FAA first. For people who had already made up their minds this is suspicious. I’m betting the order is FAA (“Oh crap this could cause an accident”), 911(“Oh crap where’s Ryo?”) and then KUSA.

  11. reader says:

    I thought the second son’s name is Ryo?
    Bradford, Ryo and Falcon is what the news reports are saying.

  12. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks Reader, and apologies to my readers bfor my sloppiness. I’ve corrected Falcon’s name.

  13. reader says:

    You’re welcome!

    Enjoyed your article. I cringed, too, when I learned this odd family and I share a heritage.

    I saw some of the Wife Swap episode they were on and I admit feeling embarrassed despite not knowing them personally, so I understand exactly what you are saying!

  14. letsugo says:

    update: well, officials have ruled it a hoax, a publicity stunt, “‘a conspiracy’ between Richard and Mayumi Heenea” at least according to CNN just now. authorities also mislead the media a bit while they continued their investigation, smart.

  15. Paul says:

    It’s a shame that people think that the actions of a single Asian-American should reflect on all Asian Americans in the US. African Americans, I am sure, have felt the same way and it’s a part of the minority outlook and the racial way we have of looking at just about everything in America. When a majority person commits a heinous act, do you think White people sit at home thinking, “That sure reflects on all of us, I’m so embarrassed”? Of course not. Idiocy doesn’t discriminate.

  16. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Paul, I wish Asians didn’t feel that shared sense of shame and embarrassment — really, it would be great if we didn’t feel it. That’s one of the curses of our Asian values which promote strong group ties (family, classroom, corporate, organizations) over individual expression (this is strongest, I think with East Asian countries like Japan). But it’s also compounded by the racial ckassifications foisted on Asian Americans by the (European American) mainstream. We’re constantly lumped into one homogeneous group (the same does happen to African Americans and Hispanic Americans too).

    We share the pain when an Asian does something wrong, because the rest of American places the blame on us. This may not make sense to some people, but I grew up dreading Dec. 7 not just because I felt a weird sense of shame that the Japanese bombed Pearl harbor — even though I certainly had nothing to do with it!) but also because I grew up with dumb people telling “remember Pearl Harbor!” on that day, and not in a nice way. It was part of the “Jap” “Chink” “Gook” “Nip” parade of slurs, which the historical fact of Pearl Harbor helped fuel.

    Thanks for posting your comment — it helps me to think and see all sides of the prism!

  17. jo says:

    I’m Korean American and I gotta say, when I heard what Cho did at Virginia Tech, I was shocked then really pissed off at his parents. What were they doing? If he is mentally unstable, he should’ve been sent to a mental institution. Crazy Korean boy seriously had some major freaking issues!

  18. Nick Applease says:

    I’m betting that little Falcon got a thorough ass beating when he got home after the show.

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