A Conversation with Angry Asian Man Founder, Phil Yu
by Editor, Joyce Chen
Race and diversity are two topics that are inescapable when discussing the state of the country these days. Whether it be Hollywood, politics, or higher education, the very things that define America — opportunity, difference, and freedom of speech — are the very things that are being called into question. Are we doing enough? Is change going to upset the system? What does it really mean to “Make America great again”?
Not that any of these questions are new. But they are, importantly, being brought to the forefront of public discourse now because it’s clear that staying silent or just talking within our communities and not between our communities is not enough.
Phil Yu, otherwise known as the creative mind behind the popular site Angry Asian Man, has been engaging in the dialogue of race and representation for some time now, so it comes as no surprise to him that the talk about diversity has reached fever pitch. When he began the site in 2001, his main purpose was to have a space to share his annoyances and make commentary about the way Asian Americans were being portrayed in the media.Fast-forward 15 years, and there have clearly been some vast improvements, with more visible faces in mainstream media — Constance Wu and Hudson Yang of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, Harry Shum Jr. of Shadowhunters, Mindy Kaling from The Mindy Project, and Aziz Ansari from Master of None — playing a wide range of roles.But there are still some pretty sizeable problematics of how the community is being understood: Often meek, always foreign, and not relatable to people craving an “American” story. (A look back at this year’s Oscars and Chris Rock’s off-color joke proves that point.)
Here, Phil talks to The Seventh Wave about what changes he’s seen over the years, his thoughts on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and what it truly means to call yourself an American.
THE SEVENTH WAVE: I’ve been following your work for quite some time now, so it’s great to be able to sit down and chat face to face! But for those who are unfamiliar, could you give me a brief background and history of Angry Asian Man, its inception and where it’s at right now?
PHIL YU: Sure. So it started in 2001. And in the beginning, it was just the side section of a personal website that I had created. Now, it’s a full-on website with lots of random shit on it. Back then, everyone was still creating personal websites and so I decided to devote this little corner to what I called “Angry Asian Man,” because I thought, “Oh, this is where I’ll talk about Asian stuff.” I was just out of college and had taken a few Asian American studies courses and it was a pivotal moment in my life because those classes politicized me and encouraged me to learn about Asian American history. It’s not an uncommon transition; lots of people go through it.
So the blog was kind of a way to keep that conversation going — and that passion, to keep it swirling. Back then, I had the HTML skills to build a website, and that’s pretty much all I needed. I didn’t know that blogging was even a form then; I don’t think it had really taken off yet. As in, I don’t even think I knew what I was doing was called blogging.
TSW: Was this pre-Xanga, pre-LiveJournal?
PY: Those were all coming up, but I think we hadn’t all agreed that we would call these things “blogs” yet. So I just started writing. And in the beginning, it was sort of these snarky, one-line comments — you know, a link with a short sentence, like, “Check out this article on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” that sort of thing. I look back now and if Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or any of those had existed back then, that’s probably where I would’ve diverted those energies. That’s where people are voicing their opinions these days — on Twitter. And then the short version is that I kept doing it and didn’t stop. It grew over time and it picked up a following, and you do it for 15 years — this year is my 15th anniversary — well, you do anything for 15 years, and sooner or later people are going to notice.
TSW: Was there a particular post that kind of blew up the site?
PY: No, it was a really gradual process — there were little milestones, but never ones that blasted the site out to the world all at once. It was more kind of like jump rope — a few more people got to know it and then a few more people got to know it, and it built an audience as people continued to share the content. A lot of people come to my blog through college, because that’s when they start thinking about this stuff too: What does it mean to be Asian American? That’s when they start taking Asian American studies and are learning more about it. In fact, I learned recently that some college classes are actually using my blog as reading material.
TSW: That’s when you know you’ve made it, when college courses are teaching your writing!
PY: Yeah, when I started to hear about that, it was kind of stunning because that’s where I began, you know? College courses. It was cool to think that this had come full circle. One bigger milestone, now that I think about it, would be Abercrombie and Fitch and their whole T-shirt debacle in 2002 [editor’s note: the brand launched apparel with racist caricatures of faces with slanted eyes and slogans like “Two Wongs Can Make It White”]. That was an illustrative moment for me because it made me realize that people are reading my blog, and not only that, but that that they’re reacting too. I put up the contact info for Abercrombie and I said “If you feel like I do, go ahead and let them know.” And people did. They really did.
So that was, for me, a big moment. It was like, okay, I can write stuff and people will act on it. I can move people to act. There’s this sense of efficacy and that was very powerful. And it changed the direction of the blog in a lot of ways. It was reassurance that it wasn’t just me shouting into the ether.
TSW: Absolutely. And I mean, it’s funny because I feel like the most impactful projects are the ones that just start as passion projects, because then people can feel that and they’re on board with what you’re doing. Versus hey, I’m gonna try to shove this pill down your throat and you need to learn about these types of things.
PY: I mean, that sort of passion, that’s what sustains me. That sustains my work and it’s because I really believe in it, not for any other reason.
TSW: When did members of the community start to say, “Hey, can you speak at events?”
PY: That didn’t happen until a couple years in, I want to say 2003. The first time that it happened, the student coordinator over at UC Davis, someone who I’d barely met over AOL Instant Messanger, asked if I wanted to come speak on a panel for their heritage month programming. She said it was going to be me and [comedian] Kristina Wong. That had never crossed my mind, to be a public speaker, or that anyone would want to hear what I had to say. But I remember being like, “Okay, I’ll drive out there.” I was in the Bay Area in the time. It was me and Kristina Wong, and I was so new, like, “Hi everybody, I run a blog. Does anybody read it?” But then there were a good amount of people who did, and that was awesome, meeting readers face to face. And that’s a feeling that doesn’t get old, getting to meet people who read my blog and appreciate it, because so much of what I do is work by myself at a laptop at my kitchen table.
TSW: So I know initially, a lot of what you wrote about had to do with entertainment, and more specifically, Asian American representation within entertainment. Is that still your primary focus?
PY: Yes. And it’s kind of always been. I mean, that’s my background. I grew up loving media and pop culture and watching TV and movies, and I was a film major in college, and I went to grad school for film too, so this has always been my jam. Sometimes people will be like, “I don’t think that stuff is that important,” and I’ll be like, “I don’t care, this is what I like talking about.” And so that’s why I’m very much interested in better representation, because entertainment’s just always been my lifelong passion. And, you know, I think people seem to like it.
TSW: Yeah, because you’ve created that space there for people to talk about it.
PY: And also, there’s so much interesting stuff happening with television, and in movies, these days. There’s a very big discussion about diversity in the media right now, which is great, but part of me is also like, I’m sorry, but I’ve been talking about this for years.
TSW: It’s actually kind of fascinating to me that people are just getting clued in on the need to talk about diversity. I mean, it’s great. It’s never a bad thing if there’s a discussion, but part of it is, like you said, wanting to shake people awake because it’s been happening forever. But you also don’t want to flaunt that in people’s faces, because everyone comes to their own understanding at different times.
PY: I sincerely believe that too, that everyone wakes up on their own time.
TSW: So I’m curious about your thoughts on say, the whole #OscarsSoWhite issue. All that controversy that’s happening right now about needing more diversity within the Academy and also needing more films made with diverse casts — what’s your take on that dialogue?
PY: So it’s a big question that I have several answers to. I mean, the Oscars are kind of like a state of the union in terms of improvement. We’re symbolically awarding the best of Hollywood — or at least, of what the movies have to offer, right? So the fact that all the nominees, or all the acting nominees, are white, that’s essentially the state of the union. And that’s the problem. The Oscars are just a big symptom of a greater problem. Let’s talk about why there weren’t any movies with minorities to choose from or to nominate. Let’s talk about what’s being put out there right now and why diversity matters. Listen, I love the Oscars. As much as I gripe about them, I gripe about them because I love them. I’m passionate about them. We’re making noise about the awards because we actually really love what they mean.
But for me, whenever they announce the nominations for the Oscars, I know there aren’t going to be any Asian names — I mean, every once in awhile, there will be people like Ang Lee or Rinko Kikuchi. But mostly, I go into those nominations knowing already that there aren’t going to be any Asian nominees because there weren’t even any Asians in these movies that people are talking about. Just straight up, none. So I’m not going to be disappointed because I have no expectations of that happening. And so in a lot of ways, I think it must be really nice to be mad that so-and-so didn’t get nominated, because there was actually somebody to hang your hopes on. You know what I mean? I can’t hang mine on an invisible person. I can’t even say “Wow, so-and-so got robbed!” It’s kind of crazy. TV has made a lot of strides. But movies. Man. It’s like we’re going backwards.
Right now, the difference between progress within the television industry and the film industry is that with TV, there’s just so much programming and content happening. There are so many options and channels that you can choose from, so that means networks can go for shows with more niche audiences. They can even showcase stories about Asian American families, versus with film, where you have more of a product. And that means that there is more time and money invested into these products, so filmmakers and backers have to be willing to take that risk. And in that sense, movies are still stuck in the old models. These days, it feels like you mostly get either quieter indie films or robots and explosions or other over-the-top stories. The space for the in-between is a little less populated.
TSW: One thing I’m curious about too, is that even though it seems like people are talking more openly about race and the lack of diversity in Hollywood nowadays, at the same time, there’s still a silence surrounding the issue. What do you think is the main barrier for people to have these conversations? What’s the hesitancy?
PY: I think for a long time people‘s idea of “let’s all get along” just meant no more race, no ethnicity altogether. It would be like, “Okay, we’re cool. I don’t see you as Asian, I see you as a person.” But that’s sort of a denial of my own identity, because that’s something that I hold very dear and that is essential to who I am. It’s an erasure of our past. But that goes hand in hand with people not wanting to broach the subject of race. That’s why I think right now there’s still so much resistance to talking about it. It makes people squeamish. In polite circles, it’s just not something you talk about.
And you can’t blame people if they don’t know the right words and then they don’t want to offend; there’s a lot of that. But I think that right now, there are really robust conversations, a lot of thoughtful conversations, about race taking place, and I think it’s a shock to a lot of people’s systems. It’s a hard pill to swallow for a lot of them, because it’s busting up the sense of harmony they might have had. And for the most part, people don’t usually have conversations about race no matter who they are in their everyday lives. So if you’re not flexing those muscles, you’re pretty sore after having a conversation about race. But I think that on top of that, a lot of these conversations are trying to happen over social media, with varying degrees of success. There’s some awesome stuff that can happen when you have a well-crafted message. There are some great thinkers who are using Twitter to inspire dialogue, or at least inspire more people to be talking about race, but social media can also be messy. It’s a great way to deliver a message but it’s not perfect.
TSW: And you can still hide behind an avatar, say what you want and not truly be yourself.
PY: Yeah, exactly. But then again, there’s a difference between people who are sort of resistant to talking about, say, privilege, and then there are people who are just fucking assholes. No matter what you’re talking about, that’s just within their character to be an asshole. And they’re probably super nice in real life, which is what’s crazy. That’s what scares me.
TSW: There’s definitely something to be said about talking about things face to face. Before we launched our second issue, we actually hosted a roundtable of sorts, bringing together 15 people from all different professions, fields of study and ethnicities all in one room to talk about race. It’s interesting how uncomfortable people were initially, but once you start just opening up and making yourself vulnerable first, then people are more willing to jump in.
So our second issue is all about labels, and we’re thinking about three main kinds of labels: the ones you give yourself, the ones you give other people, and the ones other people give you. We’re saying that when those three don’t align, that’s where there’s friction. So within, say, the Asian American community, what do you think have been the biggest problematics in terms of how people are labeling Asian Americans or how we’re labeling ourselves, and what have been the biggest successes?
PY: Well, certainly one of the biggest perceptions that has been placed on Asian Americans is that we’re the passive, quiet, good minorities, and it’s sort of forever plagued us. It gets in the way of a lot of things, and I think a lot of what my site was born out of was this idea of resisting that and being angry about something, angry enough to freak out and start shit. I think that’s not something that people are used to. And I think Asian Americans also have this tendency to stick to ourselves and be insular and not want to stick out. And unfortunately, it’s one thing for that image to be placed on us, but it’s another when we’ve sort of embraced it. And I think that that’s something that, from day one, I wanted to dispel or at least inspire others to also challenge.
The other thing is that we are always seen as foreign. As not belonging here because of the way we look. And you can see that playing out now with the elections, the rhetoric that’s coming out: Who’s a true American and who’s not? And it feeds into this idea of foreign versus native. Donald Trump’s slogan is “make America great again,” but that doesn’t answer the question: What was so great about America before? I can’t help but feel like there’s this separation of those who are white and those who aren’t. Because for many people, “America” has always equaled “white.” To many Asians, especially, that’s been ingrained in us. But I feel entitled to call myself American. If I’m going to call myself anything, it’s going to be American. I think it’s necessary to change the idea of what it means to be an American, and who gets to belong and who doesn’t.
And this is not me saying that we need to shed our Asianness and integrate ourselves. We have to see ourselves and our culture and our ethnicity and our stories of immigration as just as legit as anybody else’s. For instance, there was this article in the L.A. Times about the opening of a 99 Ranch Supermarket. And there was this lady in the article complaining about how it replaced a Ralph’s and how the other Ralph’s she has to go to now is too far away. She was saying, “I need to get my bread and my milk and my potato chips and my lettuce” and she was complaining about these things — this happens all the time. It’s the growing pains of what it means to be a community. It’s always going to happen. But the part that bugged me and became a sticking point, is that when I was reading comments, someone said, “There aren’t enough American supermarkets anymore.” And I just wanted to say, “Excuse me, but 99 Ranch is an American supermarket. It was created by Americans, Asian Americans, in America.” I just wanted to split hairs with this guy. It sells all these things that you won’t find at Ralphs or whatever, but these markets are just as legit.
TSW: One thing you just mentioned is that Asian communities tend to be more insular. Is that a perception, or a reality? And have you seen that shift in terms of more openness and talking about issues outside the Asian community? Instead of, say, just Asian Americans talking more about Asian Americans within our own communities?
PY: I think so. To be honest, when we talk about race in this country, it’s still very binary. And there have been issues of asserting ourselves to be like, “Hey, we’re here too.” I think there’s still a lot of dialogue that needs to happen within the Asian American community. The Asian American community is big and diverse and unwieldy in a lot of ways. It’s this collection of cultures and histories that aren’t necessarily all supposed to be grouped together, but it’s the political term that’s been historically used, so there’s still a lot of things to sort through.
I don’t even think a lot of Asians realize why we’re all lumped together. It’s like, just because you sort of look like me, is that why we’re in this club together? It’s kind of an assumption, and we don’t really think enough about why that term exists. But here’s the thing: Nobody is Asian until they come to America. If you’re from your respective country, you’re Chinese or Korean. Nobody really refers to themselves as a political identity. Nobody calls themselves Asian when they’re in Asia. It’s not until you get here that that’s a label that’s placed on you. And I think there’s an extra level of questioning that not a lot of people examine. But I think more of those conversations need to be had.