Before joining this course, I had little awareness of the representation of Asian American artists in media. I must also admit that I took Asian stereotypes and racial comments very lightly, being very passive about the jokes that were being passed along. Yet, after participating in the class and engaging in the course material, I still find that I am exploring how I react and feel when I observe or hear racial stereotypes in society. Especially after reading The Collective, I questioned what Asian Americans are really doing to change things so that they are fairly represented in the art community. I admire the honesty of the book because it described real life reactions to what seemed like impossible solutions. The book does not end with a happy note, but still left me with a feeling of optimism and wonder.
I believe Don Lee painted a very vivid picture of the real and honest scenarios that Asian American artists must go through, and the bittersweet resolutions that those artists must confront. I appreciated the journey that Lee takes the reader on, giving me a seamless story that follows a group of friends from college to adulthood. While witnessing the timeline of the characters’ lives, I was also able to learn about the struggles of being an Asian in America, especially when trying to pursue an artistic career. Lee includes stereotypical racial slurs and racial tension into the language of the book. Reading these throughout the book made me feel like I was becoming more aware of what Asian American artists had to go through. And yet, while reading about these issues, I feel very anxious to know what solutions are being found in society today so that there is justice in the system for giving Asian American artists equal treatment and representation. As I was getting to know the characters’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as well as their strengths and potential, I started to wonder if it is the system that will forever create a perpetuating attitude of fear and selling out when it comes to Asian American Artists chasing their dreams. As with many artists, the character in the book are in the midst of discovering their identities.
The theme of sexuality is brought up in The Collective- through the hypersexuality of Asian women and effeminate image of Asian males. The relationship between Joshua and Eric also made me see that Joshua had a genuine trust in Eric that was not really brought to the surface. I felt that the moments that Joshua and Eric shared together reveled a deep bond that affected each individual. Joshua seemed to hint at the loneliness he truly felt deep down inside all of his selfishness. Their relationship may have suggested a love for each other that was never confronted.
I most relate to Eric’s character as an Asian American. He described situations where he felt more passive, unoffended and confused with where to place his opinions. For example, when there was a gathering of the 3AC there was a discussion of how Asians are misrepresented in movies. The group starts to talk about the movie Sixteen Candles and how the character of Long Duk Dong created a perpetual stereotype of geeky Asian men. However, Eric admits to himself that he did not feel offended. I wonder the same thing. If I am not offended, does it mean I am not being loyal as an Asian American? I believe that these scenes give me more awareness on how I personally feel, and it forces me to ask questions about my Asian American identity. I believe Don Lee confront an issue that allows the reader to examine how to define identity. The lack of defining your identity may create more indecisiveness and obscurity in the way one looks at him/herself. In contrast, Joshua was very blunt and bold in stating how he felt about Asian American issues. He was a character that had no filter and made himself feel above others. However, through his selfishness and arrogance, there is the thought that Joshua may have just wanted to be loved. He had it made up in his mind that he would always be alone. There is a wonder if Joshua may have been the most idealist character of them all, as cocky as he was. His inability to grow and mature may be testament to the fact that he could not accept who he was inside. His suicide could have possibly been a result of his lack of acceptance for himself that inevitably became his reality when the 3AC disbanded.
Jessica’s character made me think about artistic integrity in the community she worked in. I felt that Jessica had the most integrity in her work. She worked hard to support the lifestyle she chose, even when it was against her parents expectations- the stereotyped expectation that Asian parents want their children to excel as scientists or engineers. However, Jessica is caught with a challenging issue when her art causes controversy because of its graphic material. From being categorized as “porn” and not “art”, the issue suddenly, but not surprisingly, starts to become a personal attack to their Asian race. Jessica sells out, and gives up her art. How do Asian American artists, and artists in general, overcome these struggles? It is unfair that Jessica, Joshua and Eric had to make it a racial struggle, when it really should just be a struggle with the art- just like most artists who are not Asian must experience. However, I learned that this is something we must accept. But, it does not mean we cannot make a change.
The conclusion of the book enlightened me about the reality that many face in their journey of becoming an artist. The discussion we had in class made me think about whether or not these artists had no other option but to settle. I am still optimistic though that the small changes that have been made are credited to the Asian American artists who have persevered in their work, accepting the challenges of their situation, but also going confidently in their own direction as an artist.