The Forever Foreigner
The Forever Foreigner trope is yet another complex and harmful trope that stems from an inherent bias against Asian Americans from the beginnings of Asian immigration to the United States and furthered by the various political and economic relationships the U.S. government has had with Asian nations. Within this trope, Asians are represented as comedic caricatures who do not fully understand the Western way of life, often speaking in a heavy accent. In terms of historical context behind this trope, its roots stretch all the way to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the intense discrimination against Chinese immigrants within the United States. Waves of immigration and conflict with Asian nations allowed this xenophobic nativism to persist. To contextualize these governmental interactions, we can look to the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, nearly 120,000 Japanese American were incarcerated from 1942 to 1946 under the pretense of national security. Japanese Americans became a target of extreme scrutiny, seen as foreigners poisoning American society; roughly two-thirds of these individuals were American-born citizens. The trope persisted in the 1970s which saw an influx of Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, and Hmong immigrants seeking refugee from the devastating events in Southeast Asia. Asians were lumped together as one unit without separate identities and experiences, causing society to stereotype all Asian Americans as new immigrants who had yet to assimilate to the American way of life. This lack of differentiation between Asians of different ethnic groups is evident in the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, a Chinese American who was mistook for a Japanese that was ‘destroying’ the American economy. More blatant discrimination against Asians as unwanted foreigners is revealed by the involved the murder of Filipino American, Joseph Ileto in 1999 by a white supremacist that despised the infiltration of immigrants and people of color. The attacks on September 11, 2001 only exasperated the problem, leading to discrimination of anyone who resembled the terrorist portrayed in the media, such as Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian American, who was murdered for resembling an Arab Muslim. This gross stereotype has appeared in modern times with the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic. The coining of the virus as “the Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu” has created a violent environment towards Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans who are mistaken for being Chinese.1 Like other societal perspectives, Hollywood has taken ahold of the forever foreigner and depicted various Asians as outsiders and aliens ‘fresh off the boat’ regardless of where they were born or how long they have lived in the United States. Majority of Asian American actors are only sought when a film requires international regional accuracy, such as being set in an Asian nation. Asian Americans are hardly casted as ‘true’ American despite many of them being born and raised in the United States. This portrayal of Asians as the forever foreigners not only limits the employment of Asians in Hollywood, but negatively impacts the mental health and socialization of Asian Americans.2
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Following World War II, the United States saw an influx of Japanese immigration due to the War Brides Act of 1945 and the McCarren-Walter Act of 1952, which cancelled the 1924 Immigration Act, making Japanese immigration legal once more, and made first generation Japanese eligible for naturalization. These factors, along with the continued denial of hardships committed against Japanese Americans throughout the war (in which official acknowledgment of the atrocities was not given until the 1980s) led to a stigmatization of all Japanese attempting to assimilate into the United States and being new to the American lifestyle.3 This is reflected in Breakfast at Tiffany’s depiction of Mr.Yunoishi. Mr. Yunioshi is a buffoonish and bucktoothed Japanese photographer who functions as a comedic killjoy for Audrey Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly. Mr. Yunoshi’s foreignness is encapsulated in one particular scene at the beginning of the film. In this scene, buzzes in to enter her apartment in the early hours of the morning. Inside his own apartment, Mr. Yunoshi abruptly wakes up, disturbed by the loud noise, and proceeds to bump into various ‘oriental’ items including a paper lantern and Japanese-style furniture. This paints the image of Mr. Yunoshi’s ethnicity and Japanese culture being the very objects that get in the way of his life.4 Not only are Mr. Yunoshi’s surroundings oriental, but he himself is entirely exotic as he puts on a Japanese Kimono and futon slippers. Breakfast at Tiffany’s stereotyping is not the only harm this character does; the act of yellowface by Mickey Rooney is equally as harmful and offensive. The film’s use of yellowface allows them to depict Mr. Yunoshi in a far more buffoonish way, with like glasses, buckteeth, and bizarre eye makeup that paint the Asian as not only foreign, but inhuman. 5
Sixteen Candles (1984)
Sixteen Candles portrays one of the most prominent Asian characters that displays nearly every aspect of the forever foreigner stereotype and is often cited as one of the most offensive representations of Asian people. In this film, Gedde Watanabe plays a foreign exchange student from an unidentified Asian country with the sophomoric name Long Duk Dong. Long Duk Dong’s character is built on an exaggerated stereotype of the goofy and naïve foreigner with a heavy, incomprehensible accent. Throughout the film, racist humor and offensive nicknames suffocate the character, with students at the local suburban high school mocking him and him labeling himself “The Donger” with no rationalization as to why those around him find it comedic. Long Duk Dong constantly makes a fool of himself, using a spoon and fork in the way one would use chopsticks and embarrassing himself after a druken night by mumbling “Ohh, no more yanky my wanky. The Donger needs fooood!” The depiction of this character causes the audience to mock Long Duk Dong, laughing at him instead of with him. His first appearance in the film involves him hanging upside down from the top bunk of a bed and wiggling his eyebrows at Molly Ringwald’s character, Samantha, as he says, “Whasssss happenin’, hot stuff?” This appearance and every other one he makes throughout the film is followed by a gong going off in the background. The character is linked to a stereotypical ‘oriental’ sound effect that further depicts him as the bizarre foreigner in case it slipped the audience’s mind. Overall, Long Duk Dong paints Asians as bizarre and eccentric caricatures who have little understanding of American ways and will forever be unable to fully fit into American Society.6
The Karate Kid (1984) and its 2010 remake are interesting films to analyze because of their differentiation in the treatment of the martial arts guru which reveals the prejudice against Asian Americans.
In Karate Kid (1984), Mr. Miyagi enters the film trying to catch a fly with chopsticks and shouting “Aye!”. In this scene, he is surrounded by bonsai trees and wears a cloth around his head in a Japanese fashion. The character of Mr. Miyagi is a Japanese American who was born in Okinawa, Japan and immigrated to the United States around high school age. Later in the film, it is revealed that Mr. Miyagi worked in Hawaiian cane fields and was incarcerated with the thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II. After his release, Mr. Miyagi served in the 442nd Infantry Regiment and received a medal of honor. Despite the film taking place in Los Angeles, California and Mr. Miyagi having been an American citizen for years, even serving the country in what is considered one of the most American ways possible, he still speaks broken English and is characterized with extremely stereotypical traits of the ‘Oriental’. The character often speaks in fortune-cookie aphorisms and is depicted as mythical through scenes such as the one in which he claps his hands and heals Daniel during the Karate tournament. Alongside these stereotypical traits is the evidence that all Asians are viewed the same through Mr. Miyagi’s very teaching of karate, a Chinese martial art. Mr. Miyagi is painted very clearly as the forever foreigner who has failed to fully assimilate despite having lived in the United States for several years.7
The approach to this character of the martial arts guru differed slightly in the 2010 adaptation of the film. In Karate Kid (2010), Dre Parker travels with his mother to Beijing, China, where he meets Chinese maintenance man, Mr. Han. Mr. Han is played by Jackie Chan, and while he still has a heavy accent and embodies certain elements of Ancient Chinese culture, it makes far more sense due to the character being a Chinese native and never once portrayed as setting foot in North America. There is also a scene which parallels that of the 1984 film, where Mr. Han is disturbed by a fly while eating. He holds up his chopsticks as if to catch the fly, but quickly pulls out a fly swatter to complete the job. This scene alteration sheds light on just how bizarre the mirrored scene is from the original film and how Karate Kid (1984) was simply perpetuating ridiculous ‘Oriental’ stereotypes. Through the comparison of both characters, we can see how the Forever Foreigner trope is particularly harmful because it does not apply to all Asians, but instead directly attacks Asian Americans and makes them out to be eccentric and mythical outsiders. This ostracizes Asian Americans and allows them to be easy targets for discrimination in U.S. society.8
- “Perpetual Foreigner – Systemic Racism Against Asian Americans.” The Asian American Education Project. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://asianamericanedu.org/perpetualforeigner.html.
- Chong, C. S. (2016). Where Are the Asians in Hollywood? Can 1981, Title VII, Colorblind Pitches, and Understanding Biases Break the Bamboo Ceiling? Asian Pacific American Law Journal, 21. http://dx.doi.org/10.5070/P3211031952 Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2cm1r6db
- “Rebuilding a Community.” The Library of Congress. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/japanese/rebuilding-a-community/.
- Fuller, Karla Rae. Hollywood Goes Oriental : CaucAsian Performance in American Film, Wayne State University Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/brynmawr/detail.action?docID=3416357.
- Edwards, Blake, director. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Paramount Pictures, 1961. 1 hr., 55 min.
- Hughes, John, director. Sixteen Candles. Universal Pictures, 1984. 1 hr., 33 min.
- Avildsen, John G., director. The Karate Kid. Columbia Pictures, 1984. 2 hr., 6 min.
- Zwart, Harald, director. The Karate Kid. Sony Pictures, 2010. 2 hr., 20 min.