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Growing up I loved the Incredible Hulk — mainly because my dad liked him. He would come home from work and bring me a new issue of the Hulk comic from the gas station or wherever he happened to be. Diving into the world of the Hulk was always a joy for me because he was the only superhero I felt I could possibly imagine myself being. Since, at that time, no mainstream superhero resembled the face I saw in the mirror.
So it was quite a shock when Marvel released The Totally Incredible Hulk and his name was Amadeus Cho — a guy with a face just like mine. Cho isn’t of Japanese ancestry, but close enough. He shared the same love of food, the same family expectations, the same cultural views. A major Marvel superhero is Asian-American!
That alone was pretty cool, but then in a recent Marvel comic book issue, a group of superheroes got together to raise awareness about the need for Asian-American bone marrow donors (a real need) — and they were all Asian-Americans! The line up included Shang-Chi, (Master of Kung Fu), Cindy Moon (Silk), Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), Jake Oh, (Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D), and Jimmy Woo (Head of the Agents of Atlas). In the story, they join forces to inspire a group of people to help the cause. It was a great issue about expectations, being a role model, and simply being yourself.
It made me realize how important it is to “see” ourselves in pop culture and the impact even one issue like this might make on a child — including my own daughter.
In the issue, Jake Oh says to the group, “You’ve got a lot of people looking up to you, all those second and third generation kids … when have they ever seen people who look and sound like them doing what you do?” That hit home like a brick.
Growing up, there weren’t very many Asian-American characters represented in other areas of pop culture either. On TV, there was Sulu from Star Trek and Arnold from Happy Days. And in the movies, most Asian roles were pretty stereotypical, like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.
Today, it’s a lot better.
Asians still have a hard time finding starring roles in big movies, but we’ve come a long way from Long Duk Dong. Fresh Off the Boat is one of my favorite comedies on TV — starring a completely Asian cast. And Melinda May on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a role model for all girls with her no-nonsense attitude, and ability to not only be as good as the men, but usually way better.
And this is the best news for my daughter, Emma. She’s growing up at a time when her heroes look more like her. She increasingly lives in a world where the faces she sees in the media match the one she sees in the mirror — I can’t help but think that’s a good thing. Not only does it inspire her to become anything she wants to be, but it also normalizes, for the rest of the world, that she CAN achieve anything she wants as an Asian-American female.
Pop culture tends to define our expectations of “normal,” so to me it is always a celebration to see more diversity represented within those norms. That’s the kind of world I want my daughter to grow up in — one where she feels capable of living up to her own potential without being told there’s a limit.
So, I say “thank you” to the Hulk. You were always my hero growing up and now you can be an inspiration to a whole new group of kids, in a big way.