Being Asian American can make you feel invisible at times or worst, the butt of every bad joke.
Sure, lots of Americans love Asian things like sushi, kung fu, anime, and tacky calligraphy tattoos that don’t mean what they say they mean but they don’t particularly care about having the people themselves present or even represented.
And typically when we are represented it tends to look like this.
Now Asian Americans are not by any stretch the most marginalized or even the least represented people in the larger American cultural diaspora, but they’re fairly consistently forgotten or grossly stereotyped in our media regardless and this has larger consequences. Representation is important because it makes a people’s presence known to the larger majority.
Our pop culture has unfortunately played a role in erasing, appropriating, and misrepresenting Asian folk. An action movie may feature a white actor with extreme martial arts skills fighting in Hong Kong but might not have a single prominent Asian voice throughout the plot and those that do are typically gross caricatures. The Cyberpunk genre loves Asian aesthetics from its Tokyo inspired neon lighting, futurist cityscape, and ramen carts abound but boy, is the populace typically dominantly white.
It’s not shocking then that 2004’s stoner comedy classic “Harold & Kumar” starts with a pair of white dudes beginning their own adventure by leaving one of the titular heroes in the dust to do their dirty work because “Asians love math” or something. Despite not being a stoner, at the time at least, I related hard to this movie and its characters as the film touched on a number of triggers I had growing up.
2004 was a formative year for me as an Asian American. For the first time ever, my history classes were touching on Asian culture with discussions on Japanese feudalism which awakened a deep sense of pride I didn’t know I had at the time. I was watching NHK samurai dramas about Miyamoto Musashi and later the Shinsengumi which led to me begin training in kendo. Anime had suddenly become more mainstream with the premiere of Shonen Jump and pirated subtitled anime littering all of YouTube. But more importantly, and distressingly, I became more aware of my identity because it was increasingly getting called out as I was getting older.
I’ve been labeled a number of different pejoratives growing up through my teens.
But none cut deeper than “Chinese boy.”
I’m not Chinese, of course, in fact I’m half white and half Japanese but try telling the various ignorant lunkheads I knew growing up to respect and differentiate between them all. Hell, better yet tell them I’m just as American as they are too.
Being labeled “Chinese” hit a very personal chord with me. To lots of Americans, unfortunately, we’re all “Chinese” and the various qualities that make each of our cultures unique are inconsequential to them. We AAPI’s all individually take a measure of pride in those unique qualities and to have it all sequestered under a blanket “Chinese” label was beyond insulting.
For Asian Americans, there have been various ways one reacts to these insults. Some of course, who learned confidence at a younger age, would shrug it off or ignore it, some would outright resent it but for me at least it only made me dig my heels in deeper. Yeah, I’m Asian, so fuck you!
That energy is deep “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” as these two Asian American characters not only navigate a crazy night of searching for an open White Castle to satisfy their stoner cravings but also confront various microaggressions from outside and within the Asian community.
Harold, of course, struggles with his confidence. He can’t stand up for himself when the aforementioned two white bros from the start of the film saddle him with extra work. He laments doing the typical Asian thing of being too passive when confronted by authority. He can’t find the will to ask the girl next door out because again he sees himself as an impotent Asian guy unwilling to make the first move. The whole movie he struggles with his inner feelings because he’s been taught and programmed to a certain extent to be timid because that’s the Asian identity.
Meanwhile, Kumar’s character is about resisting conformity to those same stereotypes but in the worst ways. He co-opts black and hip-hop culture as seen in his messy apartment room. He fights his dad who is forcing him to take his doctor’s exam, something he doesn’t want. Generational pressure is common in all cultures but it’s an entirely different animal when it comes to the Asian upbringing. Kumar embodies this resist from beginning to the end of the film and though he does decide to take the test, it’s important that he chooses to do it, not his dad, and certainly not because he’s Indian. He decides that choosing to be a great doctor doesn’t mean he is becoming a stereotype because his identity is not just about being Asian.
Harold and Kumar’s differing approaches create a charming pair for the film to bounce off as Kumar’s brashness often lands them in trouble and Harold’s timid demure keeps them down in its own way and the two finally come together when Kumar learns to understand the difference between conformity and choice and Harold learns conformity doesn’t define him.
Both characters confront all kinds of microaggressions against their identity throughout the film. Cops making fun of their names. The extreme sports bros making every racist joke every Asian kid has every heard growing up at them. All Asian Americans have grown up wanting to deliver the perfect comeback or “fuck you” moment against these types of people and when our heroes triumph and put them all in their place there is undeniable catharsis as it happens for everyone who has seen this movie.
The movie confronts stereotypes in more ways than one though. Throughout the movie Harold and Kumar are confronted by a situation that makes them think it’ll go one direction but ends up (usually comedically) the opposite. Harold and Kumar try to hook up with two beautiful transfer students who turn out to have horrible bowel issues. Harold is reluctant to go to the Asian American club party because even he believes in his own ethnic stereotypes of them but it turns out it’s a banger of a party with plenty of weed to boot. Harold and Kumar are picked up by a lonesome, disfigured tow truck driver and are shocked to find he’s married to a beautiful woman. And the aforementioned extreme sports bros turn out to love cheesy pop music and romantic songs.
Basically, the whole movie is about giving a big middle finger to all our preconceived notions we have about identity and it’s brilliant.
“Harold & Kumar” is great for other reasons too. John Cho and Kal Penn still play greatly off each other. There’s plenty of great one-liners sprinkled between each scene. The entire journey to find White Castle burgers in the middle of the night is a fairly genius premise for a stoner comedy still. And Neil Patrick Harris playing “himself” is still iconic.
Parts of the movie haven’t aged, well of course. There’s some bad gross-out humor, some lazy gay panic jokes and not to mention some sexist quips that don’t land well in 2020. Also, let’s just not talk about the sequels.
That said, “Harold & Kumar’s” first film in this munchie saga is not only a grade-A stoner flick but simply one of the best films ever when it comes to bringing that much needed representation of the time to Asian Americans. Watching Harold & Kumar stick it to their annoying white antagonists while delivering a “fuck you” to every racist joke I ever heard growing up is still cathartic as hell and made me feel proud to be Asian American during a turbulent time for myself growing up.
Though it’s not Masterpiece Theater by any stretch, Harold & Kumar will always hold a special place in my heart and remains forever “high” on my list of favorite movies of all-time.
Happy 4/20, y’all!