Asian American Slackers

The model minority myth is a pain in the ass.

Living with the pervasive misconception that Asians are submissive, assiduous, SAT-acing geniuses is enough strife, especially since the myth reinforces the denigration of Black and Latino Americans. Seeing this one-dimensional caricature of overachiever Asian Americans in pop culture adds insult to injury.

With shows like Master of None racking up the Emmys, we’ve come further than the days of mustache-twirling Fu Manchu and the cringeworthy Mr. Yunioshi. But scan major Hollywood releases and you’d still be hard-pressed to find an Asian character that isn’t:

  1. the emasculated sidekick who handles the gadgets.
  2. the exotic racial fetish.
  3. Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson, or Tilda Swinton.

Is it too much to ask that Asian Americans be portrayed as…normal people? (Or in that last case, portrayed at all?) Normal people who have friends and insecurities? For whom “Asian American” isn’t a struggle or an all-encompassing adjective but an interwoven part of a life experience?

Enter the graphic novels and cartoon collection Same Difference and Other Stories by Derek Kirk Kim. A Korean American artist who immigrated to the United States at the age of eight, Kim won the “triple crown” of debut comic awards (the Heisner, the Harvey, and the Ignatz) for the featured story Same Difference in 2003.

Same Difference follows the friendship of two Korean American 20-somethings, Simon and Nancy. They’re home from college, uneasy about “the next step.” They smoke on the sidewalks of a Bay Area suburb. Simon hardly speaks Korean; Nancy can be a jerk to her friends sometimes. Far from prodigious, they are Asian American slackers.

The aimlessness of this period of Simon and Nancy’s lives is reflected in the narrative structure: Same Difference follows less of a conflict-resolution formula than a wave of shifting moments that glide in and out of the focus. Amidst their friendly teasing, the characters confront tender everyday pains: long-simmering regrets, difficult apologies, and growing up uncertain of where exactly “up” leads.

And yet, the protagonists in Same Difference, as well as the Asian American protagonists in the shorter Other Stories comics, are imbued with a distinct Asian American-ness. It manifests in weighty ways, like racism. (In one scene, an acquaintance of Simon’s wife tries to “practice” Chinese with him. Kim exaggerates the awkwardness of this moment—shifting glances and tense smiles and all—across multiple excruciating panels.) But Asian American-ness is also in the details, like having a Spam omelette for dinner.

Some of the most compelling facets of this collection are the many complex ways that Derek Kirk Kim handles the the theme of Asian American masculinity. And not one character is the one-dimensional IT guy. The collection recalls the spirit of the rebellious punk rock zine Giant Robot, a relic of Asian American popular culture that blossomed in the late ’90s. Giant Robot and Same Difference evoke truths that are often erased by the model minority myth: a defiant and disobedient Asian America.

In Same Difference, Simon wonders aloud, “Just what the heck is ‘Oriental flavor’?” as he examines a cup of Maruchan Ramen. “Is there one specific flavor that encapsulates the entire ‘Oriental’ sector of the world, or…?” Nancy gnaws on Simon’s arm to find out what he tastes like. As a best friend would. It’s one of many distinct metaphors that Kim deftly incorporates, to great visual effect: Same Difference and Other Stories doesn’t claim to subsume an singular Asian American experience. The only truth Kim claims to tell is Simon’s. And his arm-gnawing friend Nancy’s.

The Other Stories are worth reading, particularly “Pulling,” a short scene about a college-aged man struggling with a long-distance relationship. Not all are quite so thoughtfully executed: Some of the gags in “Oliver Pikks” (a cartoonish sketch about an unlucky-in-love olive whose roomie is a sloth) contain insipid references to suicidal ideation. This story is better off skipped altogether.

But the very best part is the final section, titled “Autobio Stories.” These humorous, confessional scenes cobble together some of the frustrations and epic fails of Daniel Kirk Kim’s own life as a 20-something. To the college-aged reader, the sentiments of uncertainty and aloneness may be familiar. The vulnerability is refreshing. A dash of honest realism perfectly rounds out the mostly-fictional collection that has earned its place in contemporary Asian American art.

And it’s way better than watching Ghost in the Shell this weekend.