When Long Duck Dong appears for the first time during Sixteen Candles, a gong rings, and if you’re Asian, as you see his face swing down over the bunk bed and the halo of black hair appear around his head, you experience a moment of PTSD, remembering every time anyone ever followed you on the street softly muttering “ching-chong-ching-chong-ching-chong”.
The comic here, by the amazing Adrian Tomine, accompanied a piece on stereotypes of Asian American men in media, also blogged by John over at the excellent 8Asians. And it does a good job of describing Tomine’s mixed feelings about the character.
But when I thought about it, I couldn’t, in the end, decide Dong was a stereotype.
Dong does have a relationship to Gene Yang’s brilliant Cousin Chin-Kee, from his graphic novel American Born Chinese. Chin-Kee is a character Yang created out of actual dialogue he found in nationally syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant’s political cartoons.
Here’s Cousin Chin-Kee:
I’ve taught this comic in my graphic novel class, and what’s so brilliant about Chin-Kee is that he’s the part of your life you have to deal with, no matter what you want to be true. He’s the world reminding you that you’re not white, i.e., “race-neutral”, he’s your family back home, he’s your relatives talking to you in what you think of as ‘their language’.
And in a way, so is Dong.
The experience I have of Sixteen Candles is a complicated one. The pleasure for me in the film is about being really in love with Jake Ryan right alongside Samantha’s character, her story as an allegory for my own awkwardness and desires as a gay teen. Being overlooked on your birthday because your pretty perfect sister is getting married—even if she’s marrying someone no one likes—is a metaphor for being gay in America in the 80s. There’s a reason Molly Ringwald became a gay icon for life after this film, in other words. I also came to believe, as an adult, that Anthony Michael Hall’s “The Geek” character is the proto-Bart Simpson, Bart before there was Bart—all of Bart’s characteristic dialogue comes from Hall’s dialogue in the film: “Don’t have a cow, man”, for example. And so I watch that happen in a kind of meta awe. And these, by now, are the most familiar feelings to me of watching the film – and the easiest.
But then there’s a feeling I get when Dong appears that is a hard feeling, a feeling that’s really easy to dismiss but that is complex, and I decided to really focus in on that and figure out what that was.
Part of how I feel about Dong has to do with POV. There’s a hilarious scene early on where it is his POV shot—all of these white people at the dinner table leaning in, asking him what he thinks of ‘quiche’. He’s adorable, his hair slicked down, eating happily, gradually uncomfortable from the attention. He realizes he’s being asked to perform some sort of experience beyond simply being happy eating but doesn’t know what they want from him. He makes an attempt, and soon everyone is laughing though he’s not completely sure why.
That dinner moment was also the only time in my life during the 80s that I’d ever seen anyone portray that experience. I remember thinking, Yes. That is exactly what it is like.
Part of my discomfort in watching his character comes from remembering things I don’t want to remember. I was born, yes, in Rhode Island, the child of a mom whose family has been in Maine for over 300 years on the same farm. Most of my cousins just built houses there, proudly. My father, a Korean immigrant, brought me to Korea shortly after I was born, and we lived around the Pacific rim for a while, until I was 6, when we moved back to Maine. And despite having been in Guam prior, an American territory, I arrived like an immigrant, with a house full of foreign objects and different food. I also had an earnest desire, quickly thrown in my face along with the word “chink”, to connect with my new classmates.
I’m not really sure why people peg Dong as a stereotype. Yes, his name is an ethnic joke, but under close examination, he is unlike the stereotypical East Asian men in films. He doesn’t know martial arts. He is not mystical. He utters no fortune cookie wisdom. He is neither a cruel, enemy alien nor an industrious, quiet, law-abiding citizen, as Wikipedia’s Stereotypes of East Asians puts it.
He IS a geek, though, lost in America, a place that seems to him at once ridiculously brutal and full of terrifying people who are hard to understand, and also… lots of fun. Who among us has not felt like this? What’s more, he is everything we’re not allowed to be in other films: tall, loud, drunk, profane, sexually successful with someone he desires who also desires him—even if the girl he hooks up with is made out to be something of a geek like him, and she’s beautiful to him, and we end up cheering them on. And as an Asian American whose dad really was a tae kwon do expert, I have to say, for all of this, I finally love him.