Last night we finally watched the latest episode of Glee, Asian F. Yes, I like Glee. Get over it.

For those who have watched Glee from the beginning, you know that there have been ups and downs in the pace and content of show. In this third season, episode 3 is one of the best episodes in terms of content and entertainment. Leaping above my three favorite song bits, Defying GravityTake Me or Leave Me and I’m A Slave 4 U, the full cast rendition of, It’s All Over from Dreamgirls, was genius. And as far as content goes, the episode where Burt Hummel blasts Finn for using the word “faggy” in his home is still my favorite, but in the Asian F episode where we learn more about the character ,Mike Chang Jr., and his family ranks it a close second.

For those who did not see it or do not watch Glee, the story line for Mike Chang Jr. is the dominate one mainstream entertainment usually gloms onto when tackling the complexities of Asian American culture. There are plenty of other Asian American narratives to tell, but jumping on the model minority bus seems to be the most common. It goes a little something like this . . .

  • Asian American student has at least one overbearing parent. Pressure usually revolves around expectations about education, relationships and future success.
  • Asian American student does not want to do what parent/s want him/her to do. Anxiety usually revolves around rejecting the aforementioned expectations about education, relationships and future success.
  • At issue is the struggle to honor the commitment to and expectations of the family while following ones individual hopes and passions.
  • Listening for the required topical language would make a good drinking game as dialogue must include some, if not all, of the following references: Harvard, Stanford, doctor, lawyer, shame, disappointment, family, obedience and at least one mention of life back home before coming to the United States.

I this case, Mike Chang Jr., played by Harry Shum Jr  – Elliot Hoo on LXD – wants to be “an artist” and his father wants him to go to Harvard. Glee Club and his girlfriend, Tina Cohen-Chang, are standing in his way and are seen as distractions. This comes to a head when Mike gets an A-minus on a Chemistry Test. And yes, an A-minus is also known as an “Asian F.” In the end, Mike’s mom, the amazing Tamlyn Tomita of Karate Kid II and Joy Luck Club fame, gives the “don’t give up your dreams like I did” speech and Mike, we assume, gets to keep on dancing!

So yes, this was cliché and everything was tied up in a cute red ribbon at the end of the show, but sue me, I was moved by seeing a new generation get pushed on the realities of some  – NOT ALL – Asian Americans today.  Sure there is always a danger that now every Asian American must now claim Team Tina or Team Mike, but I think there were some great subtleties that were present that deserve notice.

  • In the family language – The only people who used the “Asian F” term on the show were the Asian American characters, Mike Sr., Mike Jr and Tina. While there could have been opportunities for this phrase to get used by other characters, it was kept within the community. So much language around cultural struggles gets co-opted, I was glad to see that this was not. The unspoken meaning behind some words, phrases and references are powerful and healing only because they are spoken by the communities that are impacted.
  • Not just a dancer – The subtext of Mike Chang’s character is that, up until now, he has only been known as the dancing guy. From being “the other Asian” in season one, his character has progressed to now being able to sing, have a romantic relationship and play on the football team, and now we learn about his family. At no time do I get a sense that Glee is trying to deny the Asian American part of Mike, but rather, in his character the audience is being challenged to see an individual as a complex combination of gifts, struggles and experiences.
  • Passion over Success – As the parent of a new high-schooler, my wife and I talk a pretty big game now about not placing unfair expectations of  vocational success on our children. Still, I know far too many friends for whom education and learning has been predominately about getting into a prestigious college in order to have an economically successful career, and little about pursuing a passion. Mike’s final line after his break-out performance, “This is what I love to do, it will never be a waste of time” was powerful. We have supported our eldest child’s decision to attend a performing arts high school over the college prep school in our city, so we think we are encouraging her to find a harmony between creative art and traditional academics.  Check with us in a few years 😉

These three observations are, at some level, universal truths that cross many communities, but I am glad to see this story line being played out through the experience of an Asian American. There are so few Asian American characters on television right now – Maulik Pancholy, Grace Park and Shelley Conn are a few – that it’s good to see some of these areas explored on a mainstream show.

And yes, while the character that Harry Shum plays is trying to get out of the “only a dancer” bubble, make no mistake that Harry can bring it on the dance floor.  You can see a compilation of his work through 2008 on Youtube, but if you want to see a great example of his style, click on over and watch John Chu’s League of extraordinary Dancers, “Elliot’s Shoes.”

If you plan on trying any of his moves at home, be sure to stretch first 😉

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