Hollywood has a long history of casting Asians as sidekicks, punchlines, or villains, if we are cast at all. Last summer’s Crazy Rich Asians, about a young woman discovering that her boyfriend is one of Asia’s wealthiest bachelors, was a watershed victory for media representation in our community, and became the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade.
Always Be My Maybe, another rom-com with an all-Asian-lead cast that was released on Netflix last week, carries the torch forward. While Crazy Rich Asians was about the spectacle of obscene family wealth in Asia — an entertaining drama set in a far-off land — Always Be My Maybe’s story of a friendship turned romance is far more relatable for most audiences. It also includes Asian American characters who aren’t the traditionally successful doctor or lawyer we are used to seeing on screen.
Always Be My Maybe shows a groundbreaking character: an Asian American underachiever
The film follows Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park), neighbors and childhood friends who grew up together in San Francisco. As teenagers, Sasha and Marcus have awkward sex in the back of his old Corolla, but end up heading their separate ways after graduation.
Fifteen years later, Sasha is a celebrity chef in Los Angeles who returns to San Francisco to open a new restaurant. She and Marcus have an uncomfortable reunion when he shows up as a repairman to fix Sasha’s broken AC unit. She’s disappointed that he’s still living at home without much in the way of a career. But after Sasha falls out with her successful but emotionally distant fiancé, she finds herself drawn to Marcus’s unassuming nature. He says what he thinks, noting how she uses her “phone voice” to code-switch on calls, and freely admitting he’s still hungry after an expensive meal at a fancy restaurant.
It might sound strange, but an Asian-American lead character playing a low achiever might just be what our community needs right now. The story of Asians in America is a happy one at first glance — as the nation’s fastest growing racial group, we’re seen as educated “model minority” citizens who have earned society’s respect. But Asian American achievement often faces backlash.
Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske has found that people evaluate groups along two primary dimensions: warmth (friendly, trustworthy) and competence (capable, effective). Numerous surveys have found that white Americans generally receive high marks for both warmth and competence, while black and Latinx Americans are seen as less competent and get mixed results on warmth, both depending on factors like income and profession. Meanwhile, Asians and Jewish people are seen in these surveys as highly competent but colder, less friendly and maybe untrustworthy. These stereotypes can lead to feelings of envy, an ambivalent emotion that Fiske says is a mix of both admiration and resentment.
Crazy Rich Asians brought me to tears of joy, but every character in the film was highly educated, fantastically wealthy, or both. Yes, Asian Americans have on average higher rates of college education and higher earnings, but we also have the largest income inequality of any racial group and our undocumented population has tripled since 2000. The higher average earnings of Indians, Filipinos, and Chinese can obscure the lower earnings of Cambodians, Hmong, and Thai when we’re considered as a single group.
To be fair, Always Be My Maybe depicts Asian American success in the character of Sasha. But rather than working in finance or a STEM field, she has made it in the creative world of culinary arts. Marcus strays even further from the model minority stereotype as a stoner who never made it past high school. But rather than being a joke or embarrassment, we see why Marcus stayed: he became his father’s caregiver, learned Cantonese to chat with the servers at his local dim sum joint, and built a cult following for his hip-hop band.
Why the “envied outside group” is a dangerous stereotype
Fully developed depictions of Asian Americans are rare and increasingly important — as an envied outside group, Asian Americans are in “a dangerous place,” Fiske told me. While people might generally cooperate with us because we’re useful, in times of perceived competition for scarce resources, we can face “attack and sabotage.”
I’ve found that these attacks, while sometimes blatant, are more often subtle and difficult to pin down. Five years after I graduated from Stanford, I was selected by the White House for a prestigious technology fellowship. Early into the program, I was introduced to a dozen senior government officials (all of whom were white). For inexplicable reasons, one remarked loudly that I didn’t appear old enough to have graduated from college. She used a common stereotype of Asian Americans to undercut me in front of this influential group. Perhaps she felt I didn’t deserve all the fanfare and wanted to bring me down a notch. I’ll never know.
In the Students for Fair Admissions vs Harvard University lawsuit, statisticians found that Asian American students were “‘consistently rated’ as having less ‘positive personality,’ likability, courage, and kindness.” These stereotypes around our personality were so detrimental that Asian Americans were less likely to be accepted into Harvard than whites, despite having higher standardized testing, academic, and extracurricular ratings.
These biases follow us into the workplace. A 2016 study looking at 106,000 Silicon Valley tech workers found that among professionals, Asian Americans make up the largest racial cohort. But once employed, we were the least likely among all races to get promoted to be managers or executives.
My research on Asian American men has found that we’re more likely to be recognized for working hard or our technical skills than for being creative or our leadership ability. We’re hired for our competence, but can’t seem to ascend.
Perhaps Asian Americans should simply be grateful for our general success and not complain about seemingly minor obstacles. But this kind of envious prejudice can quickly take a dark turn. Fiske pointed out that historically speaking, “The targets of genocide are often successful outsiders.” Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, best known for his platform of universal basic income, fears that we are “one generation away” from Asians being targets of violence in the same way Jewish synagogues have been.
Through its main characters, Always Be My Maybe expands what it means to be Asian American. Marcus may not have a great career, but that’s never treated as a fundamental character flaw. He ultimately reunites with Sasha not because he suddenly landed a record deal or a high-paying job, but because he overcame his fear of change and grew as a person. And that’s something we can all relate to.
So as much as I might aspire to the wealth and good looks of billionaire Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians, I’m grateful we also have the stumbling but lovable Marcus Kim in Always Be My Maybe, reminding us that Asian Americans come from all walks of life.
Jason Shen is the cofounder of a gaming tech startup and the creator of the Asian American Man Study. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, NBC News, and Quartz. He can be found on Twitter at @jasonshen and on his personal blog.