Glee’s “Born this Way” – the self-hating Asian

by doorhalfopen

I don’t watch Glee regularly. Not because I’m ashamed to do it, but because I found it to be a little monotonous after a few episodes (not the biggest fan of musicals). Nonetheless I paid some attention to where the show was headed. Like Star Trek in the 60s, Glee’s setting and storyline allows for a truly diverse cast that gives each actor and actress pretty significant screen time. Of course, this also means someone like Harry Shum Jr. gets a rare opportunity to have real lines on a popular American TV show.

Recently it was brought to my attention that one of the new episodes had a powerful message. Based around Lady Gaga’s track Born this Way, the theme was to be happy with yourself. This isn’t an uncommon theme amongst shows for children and teenagers. What stands out for me in this episodes, however, is that the characters bring up examples that are close to the kind of pressure real students face today.

The episode touches on subjects like plastic surgery, disorders, obesity, and homophobia. I think this is great. The teenage audience is also the most insecure, and I’m happy there are episodes like this available for them. For the purpose of this blog, I’ll be focusing on one issue that was briefly discussed by one of the characters: the self-hating Asian.

Mike and Tina, played by Harry Shum Jr. and Jenna Ushkowitz

Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr.) and Tina Cohen (Jenna Ushkowitz) are an AA couple on the show. When one of their fellow members of glee club, Rachel, decide to get a nose job, nearly everyone disapproves. However, Santana speaks up and reminds them that they all have things that they want to change about themselves. Eventually Santana mentions that Tina definitely has looked into ‘getting an eye de-slanting’.

Tina responds, saying “That’s extraordinarily racist!” and then argues that she’s perfectly happy with who she is. This is when Mike points out that she is wearing blue contacts. “Self-hating Asian”. Tina tells him that there aren’t very many Asian sex symbols, and the contacts only help her stay in-fashion and to mirror what she sees in magazines.

This is the first time I’ve personally seen a real Asian American issue addressed on TV like this. It’s not in the form of a documentary, not a news story, and not in celebration of APA Heritage Month. This is a show that appeals to audiences of different age and race, and is actually fun to watch. True, the writers probably couldn’t have slipped something like this in if the episode theme wasn’t already about superficiality and self worth, but the scene was still extremely refreshing to see on TV.

And it’s a very real issue. It’s well-known that plastic surgery is very common in Asia. It’s popular here in the US as well, but I rarely hear about pressure from loved ones to do it. Some of my Asian friends get that sort of pressure every time they go back to visit their relatives. One of the most popular surgeries? Eyelid surgery. It’s becoming popular for Asians to not like natural Asian eyes, regardless of where they grow up. The difference for Asian Americans is that we can face criticism in the form of racism as well. It’s a different motivation to change ourselves.

It’s not really the changes that are a problem. A person can dye their hair or wear contacts if they want. I think it’s fine as long as they believe that’s who they are. Just like how being with an Asian partner isn’t necessarily yellow fever, changing your looks doesn’t have to be self-hatred. It becomes an issue when a person makes a change in order to imitate a person or group of people that they find to be superior. Then again, getting contacts and changing hair color are temporary changes, and you can return to your natural self after a period of time. This might explain why I’m not a fan of cosmetic surgery unless it’s for restoration: it’s a permanent change and you can’t be your natural self again.

Later in the episode, Tina admits that she sometimes doesn’t like the shape or color of her eyes. However, as Rachel gets closer to getting a nose job, Tina ends up being one of the biggest opponents of the idea. Rachel’s “self-hatred” helps Tina realize how wrong she is to be unhappy with the way she is. She decides that from this point on, she should love herself more.

I know, it’s a very abrupt transformation. Corny, even. Yet I can’t believe I’m seeing an Asian American character on TV say something like this. Her final thought is, if she doesn’t have any Asian sex symbols to look up to, she should become one herself.  She then proceeds to share a passionate kiss with Mike. And guess what? Mike in real life must have reached the same conclusion too because he is starting to be a bit of a sex symbol himself. And as far as I know, he still has brown hair, brown eyes, and no surgery.

Harry Shum Jr.

This episode and cast is subtly helping change the image of Asian Americans, and as a result this show has my respect. Twenty years ago the writers wouldn’t bother having two cool Asian characters in their show, let alone address an Asian American issue. We’re seeing progress, as slight as it is, happening before our eyes.