As of 2020, 7.2% of Americans identify as Asian American, a staggering 24 million people, which is larger than the entire population of Florida. Despite this statistic, one fact still manages to ring true: Asians are underrepresented in American literature.
Although I’ve read hundreds of books written by American authors in my life, I could probably name all the Asian and Asian American characters featured in those books off the top of my head. Most of those books were also fairly recent books, written in the last two decades. Even with recent efforts pushing for greater representation, many depictions can be inaccurate, negative, or even racist.
Children, especially those who come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, often use the media they consume, including literature, to shape the way they view the world but also the way they view themselves. Media provides children with models that teach them values and introduce them to different cultures, ideas, and lifestyles in digestible ways. That’s why children must see accurate representations of themselves and the kids around them in the books that they read.
This, of course, extends to other age groups as well. Teens and young adults who are discovering and forming their own identities, not to mention adults who may be doing the same thing, need to be able to identify with other people, whether that be the sidekick from a fantasy novel or the main character of a rom-com. Growing up, these characters simply did not exist for me, which brings us back to my focus on the lack of Asian representation in particular.
As a young first-grader delving into chapter books for the first time, my first exposure to a character that looked like me was the Korean little girl named Song Lee from the “Horrible Harry” series. She fit the stereotypical image of the quiet, well-mannered Asian child. Reading those books, I felt that I should be the same. When other kids put gum in my hair, I laughed it off and kept silent, just as Song Lee had done when a jealous kid squished clay on top of her head.
The behavior that I had seen from Song Lee set an example of my place as an Asian American in society to not only me, but also to other students. It was someone who should be singled out and overly accepting of everything that is done to them. This mindset isn’t and shouldn’t be normal for kids, and yet you can still see it emerging today in classrooms where Asian Americans are a minority.
Even in young adult novels written by authors such as Cassandra Clare and Rick Riordan, who both push character diversity, there aren’t many Asian characters. In those formative teen years, kids look up to and learn from the characters they see in the media that they’re surrounded by.
Most of the East Asian characters in Rick Riordan’s mythology books are antagonists. Japanese American Ethan Nakamura, from the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series is a side character who ends up betraying the protagonists to get revenge. Japanese American Drew Tanaka, a shallow, jealous, and mostly irrelevant side character who picks on the main female lead in “The Lost Hero,” is featured in “The Heroes of Olympus” series. The only Asian hero or “good guy” is the Chinese Canadian Frank Zhang, who is generically kind, weak, and submissive. South Asian characters are nonexistent in the large Riordanverse, a disheartening fact that I would like to see change one day.
However little Asian representation Rick Riordan himself has put out, through Rick Riordan Presents, many authors with different cultural backgrounds have published novels featuring Asian protagonists. For example, “Aru Shah and the End of Time” by Roshani Chokshi features an Indian-American demigod, and “The Last Fallen Star” by Graci Kim follows an adopted Korean-American girl while delving into Korean mythology.
In Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter novels, characters come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. The casts are still predominantly white, but there are Latino, Black, and Asian side characters who play important roles in the plot. However, the cultural diversity is diluted. As much as I love Cassandra Clare, many of her Asian characters are stereotypically depicted and lack any real difference from the other characters besides their submissiveness and seemingly inferior status.
Jem Carstairs, a half-Chinese Shadowhunter, is written as a character who lets himself get pushed around by others, especially people of higher authority. Rebellion is a common theme throughout all the Shadowhunter novels, and yet Jem is stereotypically obedient. Jem is also seen as a second choice when the female protagonist, Tessa, falls in love with both him and his best friend, Will, and chooses to be with Will in the end. In this situation, Jem was shown as accepting and unassertive, even though he loves Tessa just as much, if not more. It’s almost as if Jem’s status as a half-Chinese man puts him a tier below Will, a white man, and he’s supposed to be perfectly fine with it.
There is no largely negative portrayal of the Asian characters in many American authors’ works, like Cassandra Clare’s or Rick Riordan’s, but the general inaccuracy serves to defeat the goal of inclusion in the first place. The genericness of these characters is harmful to readers. It creates molds, shaping the ways in which people think they should act, changing their expectations for how others should act, and generating stereotypes that can cause irreversible harm.
Because, at the end of the day, it’s important to understand that not all Asian people are the same. Not all Asians are quiet and smart. Not all Asians are passive and kind. Not all Asians should be outcasts. We may appear close to each other on a map, but we don’t all share the same cultures and personality traits. It’s time that people strive to understand each other instead of pretending to know one another based on snippets of someone else’s misconceptions.
Even as I write this article, I realize that I‘ve barely touched on the lack of Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, and South Asian representation in American literature. Growing up, I had always been shown and taught to group everyone together as “Asian,” but there is no way to define everyone using that single word. There are so many groups that become minorities in America, and it’s important that people are given exposure to their cultures, their differences, and their similarities. If I had read books with accurate Indian or Pacific Islander characters, I most likely wouldn’t feel as uninformed about their lives and history as I do now.
Asian representation and Asian literature are on a rise in the times we live in today, as more and more Asian authors use their lives, cultures, and experiences to share their stories with others. As Americans living in this cultural melting pot, it’s crucial that we learn to understand and respect not only our own cultures, but also the cultures of other people, which can be done with literature.
Through increased accurate Asian representation in American literature, I believe that it will be easier for people, not just younger children, to get rid of the common misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding Asians that are still so prominent in American literature and society today.