At the beginning of May, I opened Netflix to a splash of graduated colors announcing a new featured collection, “Celebrate Asian American & Pacific Islander Stories.” The unapologetic mouthful truly surprised me — we don’t get featured. We don’t get recognized. We don’t get celebrated. But here we are, even if it took a year of highly publicized hate crimes for Americans to consider us. The history of Asians and Pacific Islanders in film and TV could fill pages, but I have a long list of titles to get to. So, here are my rapid-fire impressions, as well as some additional thoughts:
Kim’s Convenience – Watched
This show follows a Korean-Canadian family that owns a corner store in Toronto. I’ve watched all the currently available episodes, the fifth and final one is coming soon, and I absolutely loved it. It genuinely felt like watching an Asian immigrant family to me, a member of an Asian immigrant family. In conclusion, I have no complaints that this Canadian show set in Toronto made the “Asian-American” list.
Master of None
Co-created by Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari, it has a diverse cast, and Netflix categorizes it as LGBTQ+, so that’s a plus for intersectionality. Asians are gay, too! It seems like a slice-of-life dramedy that follows a group of friends as they come of age – and keep coming of age, because are you ever really done with that? Added to my list.
Over the Moon
An animated musical with Eastern themes and a fully Asian cast? Sandra Oh, Kimiko Glenn, Ken Jeong and Philippa Soo alongside some up-and-coming voice artists? Plus, lots of Asians behind the camera, too? Yes. More of this, please.
The Legend of Bruce Lee/Enter the Dragon – Watched
I have to address these together for space, but Legend is a biographical limited series while Dragon is the seminal classic, released posthumously, that Bruce Lee made in Hong Kong after being shunned by Hollywood. Lee was rightfully a legend and the stories of his experiences in Hollywood and life in general as an Asian are infuriating to learn of. I also have to recommend the show Warrior, which is moving to HBO Max with its upcoming third season. The story was created by Lee in the 60s but was rejected for having a Chinese lead, and now his daughter has resurrected it as executive producer.
The only explicit Pacific Islander feature in the Asian American and Pacific Islander collection. I do love a story of young people reconnecting with their roots, though.
Like Finding ‘Ohana, this one also follows a group of American immigrants as they travel back to their homeland.
All in My Family
An immigrant story if there ever was one, this work follows a man who emigrates from China and starts a new family, and then reconnects with his old one, rebuilding bonds and working out differences. And it’s another one with LGBTQ representation.
The Food Shows: Ugly Delicious, Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner and The Chef Show)
This category encompasses the two David Chang celebrity chef specials, plus The Chef Show, co-hosted by Roy Choi. It’s not groundbreaking, but who doesn’t love authentic Asian food? Or just food, narrated by Asians?
A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities
I didn’t even bother reading the synopsis for this one – it’s an in-language show made in Taiwan, so it’s already pulling ahead of Hollywood. And now I’m wondering why there aren’t more anime, K/J/C-dramas or other international titles in the collection, given how popular they are in the US.
Always Be My Maybe – Watched
This one was hard to place because it doesn’t revolve around the AAPI experience so much as just having Asian characters, which is still incredibly important, but not what I expected of the collection. Still, it was pretty funny, features tons of Asian casting, including Keanu Reeves, who is of both Asian and Pacific Islander descent. The characters were still undeniably Asian; Ali Wong is a rising business-owner and Randall Park fronts a struggling band – whose songs are hilarious, by the way – so we have the diversity of Asian pursuits covered.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
This is largely musician Steve Aoki’s tribute to his father, Hiroaki “Rocky” Aoki; very sweet, very candid and very Asian in its honor for elders.
After his parents’ deaths, a Vietnamese-American faces the reality of his family’s violent displacement from Vietnam at the hands of colonial powers, including the U.S. One of the few titles on the list that goes beyond the most visible East Asian countries, and one that deals with hard truths.
This one takes place in a modern fantasy setting and may not immediately come off as an Asian story rather than a story with an Asian, but a San Francisco chef who suddenly finds himself guarding the ancient “Wu powers” seems like a potent parallel to discovering previously erased roots, as well as protecting our culture and ancestral practices from settler-colonialism.
The Stand-up Specials – (Mostly) Watched (Hasan Minhaj, Ali Wong, Jo Koy, Hari Kondabalu, Ronny Chieng, Joon Park, Russel Peters, Aziz Ansari and Ken Jeong)
There are just so many of them. The featured talents are all solid. I can personally vouch for five out of the nine comics, and I appreciate the inclusion of Minhaj’s Patriot Act, which goes beyond the usual comedy. My issue is with the sheer volume of these and the discomfort I can’t quite explain at how willing and encouraged people are to laugh at us, even if we’re the ones making the jokes. With the long line-up and many of the comedians having several different acts featured, this seemed to me like a ploy to fill out the list rather than take on the task of finding more titles.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before – Watched 1.5/3
All three of them. I again find it disingenuous that every title in the franchise had to make it onto the list. Just one would have done to introduce audiences to it, and then Netflix can work its usual suggestion algorithm to let people know there are two more.
I’ve only seen the first movie in full, and I don’t find it to be the pinnacle of representation, or even all that interesting, but romance isn’t my genre. The few moments that remind us that Lara-Jean (Song) Covey is half-Korean don’t quite live up to Netflix’s claim of “celebration.” Plus, there are still some racist moments throughout the films, like downplaying the racist caricature of Long Duck Dong in
Sixteen Candles, which the characters watched, so overall it doesn’t meet my bar for the purposes of this collection.
This is like recommending Say Yes to the Dress as a representation of American culture. Okay maybe that would actually work, but you know what I mean. It’s trashy reality TV and yes, it is sometimes funny and does feature real Indians, but it has no place on this list.
Never Have I Ever
I was originally excited about Mindy Kaling writing a show about an Indian-American teen, then I saw the summary on Netflix, which casually included a caste-ist slur, and then I heard the narrations, all by white men. Please never mention this show to me.
I understand wanting to follow up Crazy Rich Asians, but that book and film were about way more than Asians being crazy and rich. This show is just a model-minority myth-perpetuating fantasy of the already-visible minority of wealthy Asian-Americans and their obsession with status and proximity to whiteness.
Spelling the Dream
Ah, yes, the epitome of the Indian-American experience: winning spelling bees. It’s certainly true that Indians have been incredibly successful in American Spelling Bees, but I have no hopes for a wider audience to pick up on the cultural and colonial nuances for why that is, especially when there are so many Indian-American stereotypes to be exploited.
Into the Badlands
This could totally be an interesting show – it’s a post-apocalyptic martial arts series, which is right up my alley – but it just doesn’t have enough in its cast or storyline for me to feel like its representation rather than exploitation of a genre pioneered by Asians. One of the writers is Asian, though, so I could still be wrong.
It’s been a few days since the collection dropped, and it seems to have grown already. Perhaps I’m overly suspicious, but there were a few titles that seemed to immediately appear on the list for me after I separately searched for them on Netflix to make sure they were still available. Needless to say, I recommend them, but I’m not sure if they are officially part of the collection or not.
Those titles are: The Claudia Kishi Club, Tigertail, For Here or to Go?, Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir and The Half of It.
Finally, here are just some of the titles I’ve watched on Netflix, and are still available, that I think would have been right at home on this list. To me, these offer deeper cuts and a more authentic representation of the AAPI community, and, yes, a few more Pacific Islander narratives, although the pickings are still slim. They’re the hidden gems that I expected this collection to boost but seem to have been overlooked in favor of what already saturates the market.
Sky Ladder, Enter the Anime, Advantageous, Okja, Ram Dass, Going Home, LOEV, Namaste Wahala, Avatar: The Last Airbender, American Factory, Grand Army, Shirkers, Nadiya’s Time to Eat, Merata, Bending the Arc and The Casketeers.
Netflix’s BLM collection last June largely featured expository narratives of anti-blackness, police brutality and the Civil Rights movement alongside its stories of Black Excellence and has since expanded to include more lighthearted media that is simply good representation. I guess that shaped my expectations for this collection to be something similar – a candid conversation about our history in and out of this country featuring some masterful filmmaking and under-recognized names. I knew that it was going to be a challenge to accurately represent immigrants from not only the entire continent of Asia, but also the vast and diverse islands of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, especially when we are already reduced to a monolith in the U.S. and with Netflix’s limited rights acquisitions. In that regard, Netflix still managed to miss my low bar, neglecting a vast portion of the AAPI community, notably Pacific Islanders as a whole. There are still plenty of worthy titles available on other platforms, and as Netflix’s collection matures, I still have hope for its growth as new titles are released, the presence of Asians and Pacific Islanders in media is better recognized and the industry recognizes the demand for a higher standard of representation.