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SXSW: Charles Yu and Lisa Ling talk feeling invisible in light of Atlanta shootings

In light of the recent spa shooting in Atlanta and over a backdrop of increased acts of violence against the Asian American Pacific Islander community due to COVID-19, New York Times bestselling author Charles Yu sat down for a keynote with CNN's Lisa Ling to talk about the importance of representation in the media.


Yu began the session with a statement on the Atlanta spa shootings, in which eight people were killed at two different spas, six of whom were of Asian descent. Yu said he was still processing the news.

"My heart and thoughts go out to the victims and their loved ones," Yu said. "I also want to remember that those who were killed were more than just victims. They were individuals, human beings with lives and families."

The events in Atlanta are just one of the many crimes against Asian-Americans that have happened since COVID-19 hit in the United States. According to NBC, there have been 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents in the past year, compared to 2,600 last year.



Yu said he feels like Asian-Americans are often boxed together into a single group, not accounting for nationality, which can be damaging no matter if it is a positive or negative stereotype.

"We're perceived as a group. I mean, if there's one thing that's unifying these attacks it's that, 'oh, that's an Asian,' whatever signals Asian," Yu said. "Those victims have come from all different backgrounds, you know, but for whatever reason, they're lumped together as Asians."

In his book, "Interior Chinatown," Yu tackles the same sense of "feeling invisible" through Willis Wu, or as he is known in the book, "Generic Asian Man," who is stuck playing a background role but dreams of being "Kung Fu Guy."

Growing up in a world where Asian people weren't on TV or had hurtful traits and accents when they were, Yu said he learned that invisibility from the way people who looked like him were only given certain roles on the small screen.

"Asian characters were invisible on-screen, punctuated by brief moments of visibility, that's often accompanied by a sort of self-consciousness or even shame, because it's like, 'oh, here's my brief window of visibility and this is what it is,'" Yu said. "It's like, keep all the Asian stuff over here in this corner. I think that really sort of shaped my sort of consciousness, in terms of where do I fit into this story, where do my parents fit into this story."

Yu and Ling, who are both of Taiwanese descent, weren't able to learn much about Asian history until college. When they did, it bothered them to learn about things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese immigration, juxtaposed against concepts like the model minority, which has historically been used to avoid intervention for socioeconomic disparities.

Both said, even though they were born here, that they might never feel truly American. Yu said that as his kids grow up and ask him things like "what are we?" he is forced to articulate a hard truth about their identities.

"It just makes me think, how can we ever change it if it hasn't changed in close to 200 years," Yu said. "I feel like it's driven by deep-rooted perception, you know, of these are foreigners, this is a foreign face this is a foreign body and it is really unsettling, and yet not totally shocking."

Yu, who is developing "Interior Chinatown" for Hulu and writes for HBO, FX and AMC, said he hopes to change how Asian-Americans are perceived in the media in his lifetime by bringing issues into open conversations and reaching out to people with shared experiences.

Seeing Asian media get more and more attention over the past few years looks like a sign of progress to him.

"That's really why I wrote it, you know, to connect with people," Yu said. "All of a sudden people feel like there's some kind of shared experience and that's an extremely gratifying thing, to be having this conversation."

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