When ‘The Foreigner’ Makes a Foreigner of You

“Are you also mad that there are no actual Vietnamese people in The Foreigner even though they used a Vietnamese name?” a friend of mine asked shortly after the trailer had dropped. To be truthful, in the flurry of excitement for another Jackie Chan movie, I hadn’t seen any mention of it and so immediately began researching. Sure enough, the name “Ngoc Minh Quan” stared back at me. As I continued pursuing the subject I found it had even been changed from the more obvious “Nguyen Ngoc Minh” in the original book in case I had any doubts about the intended origin of the main character. And suddenly, made aware that something precious had been snatched from both of our Vietnamese hands, I felt not mad, but frustrated and deeply hurt.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Jackie Chan as much as the next person, especially as an Asian American hungry for anything that will highlight our stories enough to make us feel seen and human. But when you are Vietnamese and American, your inheritance looks like this: jokes about nail salons, mispronounced and nightmare “re-imaginings” of phở, and always, always The War. Not as we as a people and diaspora experienced and continue to experience the ramifications of it, of course, but as a gristly historical event that traumatized a country an ocean away (fun scavenger hunt activity: try to Google “Vietnam War Movie” and find a cover that doesn’t feature a white man front and center).

So shouldn’t I be grateful that there’s an Asian actor at the center at all? What else can you expect from a script by a white man adapted from a book by a white man literally originally titled The Chinaman?” Certainly, we’ve seen this sort of twice lensed whiteness pan out for award-winning works like Memoirs of a Geisha, which itself portrays many of its Japanese characters with Chinese actors. But I think instead about my mother wryly telling me how where she lives in Europe, the locals refer to her as “the Chinese woman,” or the hours spent devouring Amy Tan books and watching The Joy Luck Club together, searching for something to approximate our Asian American experience if not mirror it. I remember growing up idolizing the Yellow Power Ranger, Trini Kwan, and recall the day I discovered with absolute bliss that she was played by Vietnamese actress Thuỳ Trang. I can’t help but wonder why that feeling couldn’t be replicated now. That if Jackie Chan at age 63 could land this role, why not, say, Dustin Nguyen at 54?

 Dustin Nguyen in the 2015 film The Man With The Iron Fist 2

Dustin Nguyen in the 2015 film The Man With The Iron Fist 2

Because the superstar name (and subsequent Chinese marketing) continues to supersede the care that the truth of these “foreigners” should be handled with. Because to be Southeast Asian in a majority white country means constantly surrendering your representation to East Asian depictions if not outright stereotypes, ignoring centuries of complex “territorial disputes,” cultural differences, and power dynamics. Because just like Phan Thị Kim Phúc’s name continues to be erased for her convenient symbolism, our history is just a convenient plot point to be slipped in when while we’re barely recognized as people in media. Because the obvious parallels of the real life terrorist attack in which a Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurant where 11 people were murdered is worth less sensitivity than the dark tone the movie achieves.

A real war traumatized an entire culture and people, carnage that did not grant us magical martial arts powers for audiences to gawk at. My grandmother survived it, my mother was born despite it, and my friends and their families are still here despite the destruction that presumptive and insecure whiteness chose to enact when the damage of colonialism had grown tired with exploiting our people (and no, London’s Chinatown setting does not make us forget that British troops occupied our land and then “returned” power to French oppressors).

Painting of my grandmother by my mother entitled "No, I'm Not Chinese. Are You?

Painting of my grandmother by my mother entitled “No, I’m Not Chinese. Are You?

You can read learn us in our poems, in our songs, in our novels, in our movies, in our articles, in our own words. You should learn about us. To quote Thuỳ Trang, “Each one of us has to take responsibility for reality.” We are real. All that we ask is to be seen as such.

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