AAPI Heritage Month #15

May 15, 2023

Have you ever been excited about an AAPI celebrity?

Truly, my insides jump up just a bit every time I come across an Asian American or Pacific Islander who has reached a place of fame to be considered a “celebrity.” In the context of the United States, celebrity status tends to be saved for actors, musicians, athletes, politicians, and other media personalities. Additionally in the U.S. context AAPI folks remain a small proportion of the celebrity world, although we are showing up more and more. The more rare the sighting, the more exciting the feeling.

Interestingly, I feel this way with truly anyone I could perceive as Asian American or Pacific Islander–not just South Asian or Indian people specifically. My excitement has varying degrees of emotional intensity, depending on the celebrity setting. For example, AAPI actors, musicians, and athletes will usually positively intrigue me. Seeing AAPI people demonstrating their art or physical skillset is powerful. Politicians and other media personalities tend to excite me into aggression. I get excitable to a point of audible frustration at the sight of conservative or wealthy AAPI people getting a spotlight–which is unfortunately a large portion of specifically Indian-American politicians in this country.

I have always experienced some version of excitement at seeing an AAPI celebrity, even as a child still learning about my racial identity. Young people are always searching to see ourselves–or our future selves–anywhere. This was a challenge for me growing from adolescence through teenhood in the 90s when we were significantly less visible than today. Layered upon this developmental desire was the fixation of my immigrant family to see our place in American culture. Before cellphones it was my whole family–parents, brother, me–immediately exclaiming at the TV: “Oh, are they Asian?” “He looks desi.” Really stretching it when we knew we were looking at Latino actors and didn’t want to admit it.

Since the mainstreaming of smartphones, I’m out here IMDBing within 30 seconds. My spouse (a white man) knows to do this for me if I’m not looking at the screen. I must know immediately, he knows this, and this is one reason I love him. It then becomes a deep dive involving Google and Wikipedia and researching migration histories and diasporic development. I crave that often brief feeling of excitement to know I am looking at an AAPI person on TV.

Why am I this way? I feel the reason is because I want us to be present in all aspects of society, even the messy ones. Is that true? Do I want white America seeing wealthy obnoxious hateful AAPI people? Terribly unlikely. However, I do want our representation to be so wide and varied that no one AAPI person is a monolith. We are as complex as any subset of humanity, and I want that depicted in celebrity culture.

Lilly Singh, Tan France and Jameela Jamil. Getty Images. Three South Asian celebrities who I realize now are not American sigh. (Lilly is Canadian, Tan and Jameela are English)

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