One morning I caught my 8-year-old son studying his face in the bathroom mirror. He liked what he saw.
"I have strong cheekbones," he said, a little too gleefully.
It is a proud and peculiar thing to witness your half-Chinese boy admire himself in America. Not for his accomplishments on the soccer field or a perfect score on a spelling test, but his sheer physical appearance.
But then I thought about how I've tried to curate his media diet for as long as I've been the keeper of the tablet and remote control. Under my watch, he will never view "Sixteen Candles," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" or even "Fargo," all widely adored classics in which the sole Asian male character is a buffoon. As a child of the '80s, I saw Long Duk Dong all but eviscerate Asian American masculinity for a generation. The phrase, "What's happenin', hot stuff?" still makes me shudder.
In a perhaps misguided attempt to overcorrect, I've let my boys watch other shows, like all four seasons of "The Good Place." Manny Jacinto played a sweet but dumb-as-a-rock DJ, with, yeah, impossibly fabulous cheekbones.
But now with the new Marvel movie "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," I have hopes that we are turning a corner in how Asian American men are seen in film and beyond. As a community, we celebrate this moment.
Ryan Stopera saw the movie on opening weekend and felt "seen in a way I always wanted as a kid." He and his friends are part of a racially diverse club they call the Secret Society of Nerds of Color Film Fanatics. Stopera, a Minneapolis-based photographer, filmmaker and educator of Chinese and Polish descent, said the movie has the power to expand the story for Asian Americans everywhere.
"When 'Crazy Rich Asians' came out, it was like, 'Cool — there's something besides 'Long Duk Dong,' " Stopera said. "But I don't think it was necessarily helpful to the model-minority narrative. With 'Shang-Chi,' he has a layered identity. He's clearly strong, he has a lot of power, he's a superhero. But he has an internal conflict, and there's emotional weight behind his decisionmaking."
Nuanced portrayals of Asian Americans were not even thinkable when Stopera was growing up in Columbia Heights. At 37, he is hopefully part of "the last generation to be called" racist Asian slurs, he says. He was born in the year "Sixteen Candles" hit theaters.
Asian male characters "typically fell into the tropes of weak, dirty and undesirable, if there was any representation at all," Stopera recalled.
He still remembers watching Mickey Rooney's bucktoothed character in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and wondering: Is that how my classmates see me? He remembers telling his Taiwanese-born mother that life would be easier if he were just white.
Will an Asian American superhero prevent kids like Stopera from being the target of racist taunts? Hardly. But what impact could it have on the psyche of young men and how they move through this world?
I presented that question to three cousins — Jadyn Galloway, 15; Michael Betts, 13; and TJ Moody, 15. I met up with them at Liberty Community Church, a Minneapolis congregation whose members adopted the cross-armed Wakanda salute at the beginning of the pandemic because they could no longer hug one another.
It is not an overstatement to say that "Black Panther" — a movie about a superhero born into a kingdom of Black excellence, wealth and knowledge — has empowered these three Minnesota teens. They had been accustomed to seeing Black men on film portrayed as the villain, or the first character to die.
The movie taught them it was OK to stand out and be proud of their Blackness.
"It makes me feel like I can be a hero, not a thug," said Michael.
"It moved past stereotypes, so we could be seen in a different light," Jadyn added.
If you are white, you may not know the feeling of never seeing yourself play the hero. Pioneering playwright and Theater Mu co-founder Rick Shiomi said when he was a young teen growing up in Canada, he remembers falling in love at a drive-in theater with the 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven" with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. Even when someone told him the plot was largely lifted from a Japanese film, he couldn't believe it — until many years later when he stumbled upon "Seven Samurai," the movie that inspired his favorite western.
He realized he had been internalizing Hollywood's biases. When Shiomi started to write plays, he made sure every protagonist was Asian American, "to try to expand that universe of possibilities."
Now 74, he's old enough to remember how one superstar crushed racist notions about Asian masculinity.
"The Bruce Lee cultural impact was huge for Asian American men," said Shiomi, who is now co-artistic director of Full Circle Theater Company. "For me, there was a certain level of excitement. But at the same time, there were so many ramifications of it, like when I'm walking down the street and people thinking I know kung fu."
Even with "Shang-Chi," it's not exactly groundbreaking to see an Asian martial-arts dude on the big screen chop and pummel the bad guys.
Stopera, the photographer, is working on a personal project about Asian American masculinity. Hollywood still has miles to go with inclusivity, but he is making sure to photograph everyone from Vietnamese Americans to men of South Asian descent, as well as those who identify as gender-fluid.
"What I'm trying to capture is that there can be power in softness, there can be power in masculinity that shows femininity," he said. "Yes, kick butt — and care for your mama."
Still, seeing Asian American superheroes who aren't going to be pushed around is important at a time when anti-Asian hate is resurfacing and many are terrified of a wave of attacks targeting women and elders, Stopera said.
While taking long walks with his mom during the pandemic, he has found himself clenching his fist, ready to fight back if a stranger were to start something. So "Shang-Chi" is much more than a movie.
"It's like a life preserver when we've been treading water," he said.
Beautiful and strong
A few months ago, my two boys were in line with me at the grocery store. As I was emptying the cart, the 8-year-old grew quiet and said, "Mom, is that Jung?"
I glanced at what caught his gaze: an issue of Men's Health magazine with Simu Liu, the actor starring as Shang-Chi, on the cover. My son recognized him from the character Liu plays in "Kim's Convenience," another sitcom I have greenlit for my boys to watch.
In the photo, Liu was smiling in a sleeveless shirt, his jacked biceps holding space.
I proudly told my son: Yes, that's Jung, and soon we'll see him play a superhero.
And I envisioned a future where all Asian American boys could see themselves on a magazine cover, in a Marvel movie, or in a bathroom mirror, as beautiful, brave, desirable and strong, and not think twice about it.