As children during China’s 1949 revolution, my parents, like so many Chinese of their generation, fled the Communist takeover of the mainland. Many of them planned to return when the Communist leadership collapsed. It doesn’t appear that any of them will live to see it. Both sides of my family landed for a while on Taiwan and then, in the early 1970s, my parents came to the United States, where I was born not long after.
I grew up in Colorado as the only person of Asian descent in most of the environments I lived in, and so learned to assimilate into American culture while rejecting, sometimes violently, my parents and their culture. And so I looked on with anxiety — and some measure of fear — as the South Korean film “Parasite” won four Academy Awards on Sunday evening, including the biggest prize of all, best picture.
The victory of “Parasite” is a stunning moment that may not also be a watershed moment. It’s certainly cause for celebration that an organization with notoriously questionable taste seems to have gotten it right this year, and it’s unquestionably huge for the South Korean film industry. But despite the initial euphoric reaction from many Asian-Americans, the “Parasite” victory has nothing to do with Asian-American representation.
This is merely Hollywood recognizing, very belatedly, South Korea’s amazing film industry — which has been making superlative films for decades.
The social media chatter around these wins has quickly become polarized. For the left, the victory of “Parasite” represents a validation of diversity initiatives undertaken by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recent years. The prominent Asian-American film critic Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times observed, cautiously, that it was “a sign, perhaps, that the academy’s efforts to diversify its ranks and become a truly global institution are having an imperfect but measurable effect.”
For the right, it’s more fuel for the fear machine. It’s evidence of, if not the beginnings of a new Yellow Peril, a progressive media conspiracy to frustrate conservatives’ pursuit of an increasingly authoritarian nationalism. Even before “Parasite” won best picture, Jon Miller, a prominent host on the conservative outlet BlazeTV, complained to his nearly 60,000 Twitter followers about “a man named Bong Joon Ho” winning the screenplay award over “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “1917”:
The lingering aftershocks of the honors for “Parasite” will satisfy some of the hopes and stoke some of the fears of both sides of the social divide. The left’s belief that Mr. Bong’s film is a remarkable of-the-moment statement about how fed up the 99 percent are with the greedy 1 percent is valid. In a way few films ever have, “Parasite” captures the spirit of its time by nailing the dissatisfaction with the ruling elite that is driving the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren campaigns and, paradoxically, carried Donald Trump to office in 2016.
And the right’s belief that the film’s awards were a craven effort by the academy’s voters to counter last year’s loathsome win for “Green Book” (and atone for this year’s repeat of a near-#OscarsSoWhite repeat) probably holds some kernel of truth as well. But I’m hesitant to give too much credit to the academy for its sudden interest in “inclusion.”
Caught in the middle are Asian-Americans. For many of us, our great hope for representation at the Oscars wasn’t “Parasite,” it was Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” about a young Asian-American woman who at a time of personal crisis is confronted with the widening cultural gulf between herself and her parents and grandmother. Alas, “The Farewell,” despite finding popular success and recognition at the Golden Globes and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, garnered no Oscar nominations. I find its exclusion a better indicator of how not just Asian-Americans but also female directors are still seen in Hollywood.
As a child, I was frequently asked if I knew Bruce Lee. For my classmates, there were two Asian people: me and Bruce Lee. The belief that there is only one Asian culture and not dozens, some with entrenched dislikes and prejudices against one another, has been one major source of misunderstanding between the East and the West. What “The Farewell” gets right about my specific experience of being an Asian-American is the idea that we are as foreign and alien in China as we are in the United States. It captures exactly the feeling of being culturally homeless. The win for “Parasite” is a win for Asian-Americans only if Asian-Americans buy into the prevailing generic notions around Asian culture. But I didn’t know Bruce Lee. I don’t know Bong Joon Ho, either.
There is a quiet, yearning part of me that wants to just celebrate all of those faces that look like mine. But the nervous, weather-beaten part of me worries that Hollywood will simply start strip-mining Korean product and luring Korean talent to the United States to humiliate them as sidekicks in action cop franchises. Hollywood did this with Hong Kong’s cinema in the 1990s. The biggest star on the planet, Jackie Chan, was never able to be much more than Chris Tucker’s straight man in a series of “Rush Hour” films that featured a running joke that Mr. Chan’s character was Japanese. Given China’s difficult history with Japan — reports vary among historians, but it’s widely accepted that at least 14 million Chinese people died during the second Sino-Japanese War — that’s a pretty loaded jab.
Even Bruce Lee found himself cast by a racist industry as the driver in “The Green Hornet” and, among other things, a homophobic hothead who leaps off a building after being called “gay” in the 1969 movie “Marlowe.” When a white man was cast in Mr. Lee’s place in “Kung Fu,” a show he helped to develop, he returned to Hong Kong to finally find the success he longed for.
It’s important to remember the provincialism of the Oscars, which Mr. Bong himself acknowledged last fall in an interview with Vulture. The Academy Awards, he said, are “not an international film festival.” Instead, “they’re very local.”