The Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has been an enormous hit. For one group of USC Annenberg students, at least some of its appeal came down to tiny details specific to the Asian American experience.
Melinda Wang, a math and economics major in May Lee’s “Asian American History and Journalism” course, recalled a moment when the characters were at an underground fighting ring. “Ronny Chieng’s character was like, ‘I speak ABC,’” the USC Dornsife junior said during a classroom discussion, a reference to the slang acronym for “American-Born Chinese.” “There are all these little things sprinkled throughout the film that only Asian American kids would get. It showed a pretty nuanced understanding.”
As Wang and her fellow students analyzed the movies strengths and weaknesses — dealing, as it does, with stereotypical themes like filial piety and martial arts — Lee emphasized how the film’s success would open more doors for Asian and Asian American stories.
‘It’s a Marvel movie that's going to reach a jillion people — who are all going to see this mostly Asian cast,” said Lee, an adjunct lecturer. “It's going to make an impact, just like Crazy Rich Asians did. Some of us didn't like it, there was controversy over those stereotypes, but it still reached the masses and opened up the gates to other content.”
Lee, an award-winning broadcast journalist, sees this new course as a way to address the “huge information gap” about Asian American history. While she’s been using her current podcast, “The May Lee Show,” to push back against the racist attacks on Asian people over the past year based on COVID-19 conspiracy theories, she knew she could also address these issues in the classroom. “I asked myself, ‘Why isn't there any kind of course at Annenberg that talks about this that can actually educate and inform our students to be better journalists?’”
Lee, a second-generation Korean American, created a syllabus that would fill in that gap with lessons ranging from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only law ever to specifically exclude anyone by national origin or ethnicity, to the Wong Kim Ark case, which confirmed the Constitutional right of birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment, all the way up to the repercussions of former President Trump insisting on calling COVID-19 the “China virus.”
Throughout this history, Lee says, the media has played a role, and not always a favorable one. “Journalists oftentimes have misled the public, amplifying or even creating these stereotypes of Asians,” she said. “It's really important for our students to do a deeper examination of how the media can skew the public perception,” she said.
May notes that the course will be offered again the Spring under a new name: “Evolution of Asian Americans and the Media.” In addition to history lessons — including Los Angeles field trips to the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, and to the site of the Chinatown Massacre — the course also involves media analysis. One case study: the Atlanta spa shootings in March, in which eight people, six of them Asian women, were killed. Pointing out how the victims were consistently “othered” as sex workers in early coverage of the story, while the suspect was treated with humanity, she asserted that the mainstream media “did not cover that story properly, showing once again the lack of diversity and cultural awareness in newsrooms.”
While Lee says she was hoping for a mix of Asian American and non-Asian American students in the class, the fact that all of her Fall students have Asian ancestry has created “a very safe place” for them. “I have seen them open up, sharing their stories of being victimized by racism, of the issues they’ve had with their self-worth, identity and history,” she said.
Ryan Tran, a senior majoring in public relations and minoring in the entertainment industry, was already familiar with Lee from her podcast, and has found her emphasis on the untold history of Asian Americans refreshing. “Growing up in Portland, we barely touched on Asian American history in high school,” he said.
Tran, who is of Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino ancestry, says the rise in hate crimes against Asian people has made this class timelier than ever. “Looking back at when people were shaping this negative messaging about Asian Americans, there weren’t any Asian Americans in the room,” he said. “When you’re telling stories about people, you need to make sure that you make room for them to speak, because, at the end of the day, it’s their story.”
Tiffany Mankarios, a master’s student in specialized journalism, grew up in Culver City west of Los Angeles, the daughter of an Egyptian father and a Japanese mother. She says she spent most of her childhood with her father, and thus didn’t learn as much as she would have liked about her Asian heritage. “This course has helped me see how that history applies both my personal life and my professional life,” she said.
Mankarios says that she grew up with complicated feelings about her heritage. “I was always thinking that the blonde girls were prettier than me, or that I was lucky to not be fully Asian because I have Western features,” she said. “And that’s a problem.”
The historical context of this class, Mankarios says, has inspired her to push for change, in the journalism field and beyond. “I see a lot of my Asian brothers and sisters remaining quiet, even though there have been a lot of injustices towards us,” she said. “But we’re starting to come into a new era where we’re able to speak up. We're sharing our life experiences and we're really understanding what has happened to us and why we feel the way that we feel. That is something very special that I haven't gotten in any other class during my time at USC.”
May Lee’s JOUR 499: “Evolution of Asian Americans and the Media” course will be offered in the Spring 2022 semester on Mondays from 9 a.m.–12:20 p.m. USC students can consult their academic adviser to register.