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'Reality' From a Different Shore

A new reality show focusing on life in Los Angeles Koreatown is in the works. But will the series break old stereotypes or create new ones?

K-town reality show hopefuls make their pitch at a Los Angeles open casting call April 24. Photo by Josie Lanuza.

By Haewon Asfaw

Yes, that’s right. There’s a new series that will put a Koreatown spin on Jersey Shore. For those of you unfamiliar with the popular MTV reality show, Jersey Shore follows the lives of eight Italian Americans, dubbed “guidos” and “guidettes,” who are enjoying their summer on the sandy beaches of Seaside Heights, drinking, fist pumping and fist fighting. In its first season, the show was the highest rated original cable series among 13- to 24-year-olds, and according to MTV, a second season has been ordered and will air this summer.

Now, Tyrese Gibson, a famous African American singer and actor who starred in Transformers and has his own production company, HQ Pictures, wants to take that winning formula and apply it to Los Angeles Koreatown life. What an ingenious idea.

Sarcasm aside, the fact that this new show is being compared to Jersey Shore has me concerned and full of questions. What would a similar show featuring Asian Americans look like?

As much as it’s been a ratings bonanza for MTV, even Jersey Shore debuted to a great deal of public outcry from Italian Americans and their allies who were infuriated that their ethnic community was being depicted as gel-haired, fake-tanned and inarticulate drinking thugs. Some critics of the show argued that such negative representation would never be allowed for minority groups like African Americans, Latinos and Asians.

Well, that doesn’t appear to be the case now, does it?

It’s true Asians have come a long way since “yellowface,” a practice dating back to the 18th century whereupon white actors with taped eyes would portray our people, or even the 20th- century stereotypical Asian characters envisioned by whites: the hypersexual dragon lady, the submissive China doll or the feminized Asian male. Now we see more humanizing and complex characters portrayed by Asian American stars like John Cho, Daniel Dae Kim and Sandra Oh.

Yet, as far as we’ve come, our exposure is still quite limited.

As justified as the Italian American critics of Jersey Shore may have been, at least, this ethnic group can also claim membership in the white American mainstream that is allowed to maintain a sense of individuality and human-ness on the big and large screens. “Snooki,” also known as Nicole Polizzi, the one-of-a-kind obnoxious and promiscuous castmate on Jersey Shore, can just be Snooki, after all. She doesn’t have to be the dominant or lone image of the Italian American woman.

But would that hold true for a Korean American individual on this new reality show? Groups of color tend to be lumped into stereotypes that represent them as a whole, and it’s not like we have a slew of other media images that necessarily combat that pigeonholing.

And that’s why I am so concerned about what we might have in store for us with this K-town “reality” series. Declares the casting call: “We need beautiful Asian Americans with lively, strong and unique personalities between the ages of 18 to 30 with equally interesting life stories and perspectives to share, especially individuals who know about and/or experienced the Koreatown life.”

What? Apparently real-life K-town experience isn’t necessarily required. It’s enough just to be aware of what such a life looks like. But it gets worse. The casting flyer for the show says non-Asians can also apply if they are “obsessed with Asian culture or people in some way.”

The show could potentially cast people who have an idea, have heard of, or are trying to represent what they believe this image holds. It’s as if the mold of what the show’s producers are looking for is already set: it’s up to the applicants to try and fit it.

So, bottom line: Does a Koreatown Jersey Shore mean progress or a giant leap backwards?

At the April 24 auditions at the HQ Studios in Hollywood, I asked some Korean Americans what they thought. Kenny, a student at Cal State Long Beach, said that the new show could be a step backward if the producers sell a positive pitch, but then, the cameras portray them differently to the public. What kind of “different” portrayals could he be referring to? Well, the application questions for the K-town reality show might be instructive: “(7) Have you ever been arrested and/or charged with a crime”; “(8) Are there any nude or other revealing or compromising images of you that are available publicly…”; “(13) Do you drink alcohol? How do you act when drunk?”; “(17) How often do you lose your temper?”; “(18) How many fights have you been in?” Those questions clearly set up what they are looking for in the cast.

Sarah, a student at Cal State Fullerton, thinks the producers are “looking for people who are fun and themselves. Also people who are free and like to go out late at night.” Her goal in applying to get on the show’s cast: to help promote a positive awareness of Asian Pacific Islander people, she says.

It’s worth noting that three Asian American producers are working on the untitled K-town reality show. In fact, it was one of them, Mike Le, who brought the idea to Gibson. Le is vice president of Gibson’s production company.

In the show’s “Talking Points” released to the media, the producers, who also include Eugene Choi and Eddie Kim, themselves pose the question: Will the show perpetuate or break existing stereotypes? Their answer: “We will let our cast be themselves. No culture or race is perfect, and we would be manufacturing a false reality if we didn’t show the worst of Asians along with the best of them. If anything, we are trying to break down Asian stereotypes by highlighting people who are unique with real and interesting perspectives. Ultimately, we are looking to show the human element of this cast.”

Producer Choi tells me he grew up seeing one-dimensional Asian characters in the media and that the last thing he wants to do is create negative images of Korean Americans. But the 31-year-old also adds, “With any ethnic/racial group, people sometimes just want only ‘rosy’ images featured.”

A 1.5-generation Korean American, Choi is well aware of the negative outcry that could come from such a production, but he still thinks audiences should give the show a chance before passing judgment.

The potential wide-scale exposure of a historically underrepresented and misrepresented racial group is both exciting and nerve-racking. It could show the public just how human and varied members of Asian/Korean America are, or it could simply replace the model minority stereotype with another: the spoiled brats and hoodlums who karaoke, drink and brawl in the streets of K-town.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.

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  • kat ponnaha

    The Asian community needs to sit the eff down because frankly, this show will NEVER get picked up ANYWHERE. Asian Americans — even if they have crazy personalities– will never make it anywhere even close to the mainstream media. The best this show will get is via the Web. That’s right, a web series. Even with Tyson Beckford’s name, don’t expect this to air anywhere other than KBS or Arirang TV.
    WACK

  • essbee

    Damn…WTF…is someone bitter or something?! Kat ponnaha, you need to sit the eff down and take a chill pill cuz you showing a lot of hate… And how the hell you know it’s not gonna make it… Times are changing and maybe this show will be ground-breaking…who knows…it hasn’t happened yet.

    Maybe it’ll be a flop, but who cares…a lot of shows flop even without Asians in it!

  • kat ponnaha

    ESSBEE? SB? SON OF A B*TCH. Yes, I AM Bitter. I’m 40-years-old, living in my grandparent’s basement, eating cheetos out of the bag every night, and humping my pillow fantasizing about your mother’s peehole. Wouldn’t you be too?! give a tranny brother like me a BREAK! Your daddy did.

  • Fo Real

    kat: you got a good point. But essbee is right too because being apprehensive about all the negative ramifications that might ensue from this show is acting uptight. Even if Koreans act silly or downright stupid, at least Koreans get some exposure. Most non-Asians stereotype Koreans as uptight nerds who dwell on math; kill themselves to get into Ivies; don’t have sex until marriage; end up on the short end of stick in the dating game i.e. lose their girls to whiteboys; drive fancy cars to compensate for their fragile egos aka small penis syndrome; aren’t lively, and so forth.

    Koreans, of all East Asian groups in the U.S., got more pizazz and rhythm. We’re more expressive and emotional, not always in negative ways. Chinese and Japanese Americans are dry and stiff. They’re boring, uptight, and prissy. I’m not generalizing btw, my high school and college had lots of them, and some of my friends were of those ethnicities.

    If some of you Koreans on this reality series can parlay your ephemeral exposure to bigger things a la Jamie Chung on the Real World, then more power to you.

  • TFJ

    @Fo Real

    First, Fo Real, what you are doing IS generalizing. That is, drawing conclusions from specific examples.

    Second, thanks for breaking my generalization. I thought ethnic ignorance was only in the Old World…

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