Fighting Stereotypes Abroad: The Perception of Vietnam in Hollywood

Blogs - Vietnam: Jan. 2, 2018

Vietnamese-American comedian Rosie Tran, 33, loves phở and isn’t afraid to show it. During a comedy routine at The Comedy Palace in Los Angeles, she told the crowd, “For those of you who don’t know, we take all the weird [stuff] off the cow that white people don’t eat and we put it in a soup. And the lower the number on the menu, the weirder the [stuff].”

The joke killed, and she quickly moves on to another bit.

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With parents who moved to the United States during the American War, Rosie Tran has never been to Vietnam herself, though she speaks Vietnamese, can cook Vietnamese food and has a foot in two different cultures. Negotiating both identities is anything but easy.

Tran grew up in New Orleans, and laughs when she talks about her experience during a Skype interview.

“A lot of people have asked me if it was hard growing up Vietnamese in [southern US], if there was a lot of discrimination. I tell them that I’ve had more discrimination and stereotypes in LA, which is supposed to be a huge progressive hub.”

Does it Pay?

Her identity as a Vietnamese-American, as well as her place in Hollywood’s dog-eat-dog entertainment industry, relies on dualities. “I would say it’s hard and easy,” she said. “It’s quite a niche. There’s very few roles for us, but there’s less competition.”

Nguyen Stanton, a model/actress based in Austin, Texas, feels similarly. Although Austin has a large Vietnamese-American population, she only knows of three fellow Vietnamese actors in the region, and they’re all younger: “I’m 48. So if they need someone to play the Vietnamese mom, guess who gets that role! I’m not complaining.”

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Stanton and Tran acknowledge the heavy societal pressure put on them by their family, and especially their parents, who grew up in Vietnam. “I don’t think my mom really understands or knows that I act,” Stanton said. Speaking about her older sister, she said, “Every time I talk to her about a film, she always asks, ‘Does it pay?’”

For Stanton, who holds down a regular 9-5 office job in the IT industry, this question misses the mark; since she began acting in theatre and films in 2009, she has seen performing as a powerful creative outlook.

She suspects that Hollywood will soon see an influx of Asian-American millennial actors, who she notes are much more confident than peers in her age group, after growing up in the United States.

Pushing Past Mean Girls

There might be limited competition for Asian-American performers, but that doesn’t mean it comes without serious hurdles. For Rosie Tran, getting the audition is easy, but dealing with the stereotypes is harder.

“Typically, I would say over 80 percent of the roles are a little bit stereotypical,” she said.

She points to the comedy classic Mean Girls (2004) as one example, a movie that features a group of Vietnamese students, dubbed the “Cool Asian Kids”. “[The movie] had them as snobs. They were kind of cliquish,” she said. Throughout the film, the Vietnamese characters spoke no English, spoke nonsense Vietnamese (“Anybody that actually speaks Vietnamese would realise they clearly weren’t,” Tran said) and only interacted with one another. Towards the end of the movie, it was revealed that one character, Trang Pak, was having an affair with the high school’s gym teacher.

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“I’ve had that a lot in Hollywood, where they’ve had Vietnamese women portrayed as very slutty, or as prostitutes… Or I’ll go out for the very intelligent role, the valedictorian,” Tran said. “And then there’s a stereotype that Vietnamese women are very aggressive—dragon moms. Or, they’ll be very submissive. There’s a lot of bipolar associations with Vietnamese women,” she said with a laugh.

Tran channels these stereotypes in her own stand-up comedy. During one set, she quips, “I don’t understand why people think Asian women are so submissive… Just go to a nail salon—those women will get in your face.”

Tran finds the most offensive stereotypes not with the roles so much as with the casting directors themselves. She recalls one particularly offensive audition three years ago. “I auditioned for a role where I needed to speak Chinese, and I don’t. I told the casting director and the producers that I don’t, and they asked if I spoke other languages. I said I spoke Vietnamese, and they said, ‘That’s fine, just speak Vietnamese; nobody will know the difference’.”

Reality vs. Caricature

Nguyen Stanton sees things differently. For her, many roles she’s asked to play aren’t so much stereotypes as just reality. She remembers playing a Vietnamese donut shop owner in the movie Zero Charisma, a role she effects with a heavy accent. “[The filmmakers] were more troubled by it than I was. They kind of asked me for approval of this character having an accent. We know that the reality is that anybody my age or older will most likely speak with an accent, so for me that’s just reality, not a caricature.”

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Stanton herself speaks with a Texas twang, having spent most of her life in the Lone Star State; she mentions playing similar roles as nail salon technicians, a popular profession for Vietnamese-Americans across the US.

For her, diversity in Hollywood has gone a long way since Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which Vietnamese soldiers were portrayed by Hispanic actors in the jungles of Acapulco, Mexico.

Tran, on the other hand, has not seen as much of a change since she moved to Los Angeles 14 years ago. “I have noticed that there’s more awareness and talk about the stereotypes against minorities and women, with things like #OscarsSoWhite,” she said, referencing a Twitter campaign in 2016 protesting the lack of diversity in the academy awards.

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Stanton touches on the struggle of living as an American while trying to retain her Vietnamese roots. “In their eyes, I’m still the hyphen: Asian-American, instead of just American. But when I go to Vietnam, I’m not 100 percent of a fit, I’m too Americanised.” She pauses, and jokes, “I can’t win, even though my name is Nguyen.”

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