I was surprised to see a cartoon by Adrian Tomine on NPR bemoaning the image of the character Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles as it was just 3 weeks ago that I wrote this random post on why I think Gedde Watanabe’s portrayal of Long Duk Dong is the best Asian American performance ever. Tomine is clearly annoyed by the stereotypical elements of the character and says that that negative image has followed Tomine throughout life. I on the other hand argued that the great thing about Long Duk Dong is that he defies the Asian stereotype. Introduced as an obedient and innocent exchange student, he later is proven to be just as real and typical of a teenager as the other students at the high school.
Stereotypes pervade comedy because they are often based on an element of truth, but it is smart stereotypes that make Sixteen Candles a great movie. In my earlier post, I showed the same clip below talking about the obedient innocent Asian stereotype that Long Duk Dong first appears to be along with the funny revelation from the audience that Grandma and Grandpa have brought over the exchange student for slave labor.
Now I’d like to talk about the other stereotype in this clip: the brother Mike. If you watched the film you know that Mike is an idiot. He is an overweight kid who watches TV and plays video games. In this clip he feels oh so superior for being a native English speaker in his own country who knows how to pronounce the word quiche. He laughs at the stupid foreigner who doesn’t. Does Tomine think this stereotype is unfair? I think this stereotype is hilarious because OMG it is so true. I have definitely witnessed an American treat a person with a foreign accent (though usually not European) as inferior for making a mispronunciation.
Tomine’s cartoon depicts what he feels are painful moments in two parts of the film: “No more yankee my wankee” and “Wassa happening hot stuff.” It’s true that Long Duk Dong has perhaps an overly done up Chinese accent, but is Tomine’s problem that it is overly done or that Dong has an accent at all. If it’s the latter then I have news for Tomine; foreigners and immigrants usually have accents. Asian immigrants and foreigners are every bit a part of the American experience as Asian Americans born here who don’t have accents. And what’s wrong with a done up accent for comedic affect? I don’t see anyone complaining about the ridiculously unauthentic “Manchester” accent of Daphne on Frasier. So long as it’s not a pejorative representation then I don’t see what the problem is.
Tomine also says that his impression of actor Gedde Watanabe is that he is “an honest guy whose desire to be a professional actor supersedes any sense of ‘political correctness’.” As a former actor, I don’t think taking that part was due to a desire to be a professional actor as much as a desire to get a really good part. Sad to say that Watanabe hasn’t gone on to do anything else that high profile and we should blame Hollywood for that as there are a lack of good parts for non-whites and people with accents. By the way, Watanabe is an Asian American who doesn’t have an accent.
I would argue that Long Duk Dong was Watanabe’s role of a lifetime. He owns that part and those of us who have done comedy can respect such a thorough embodiment of the character as what Watanabe does. Compare it with Christopher Guest’s style. Long Duk Dong is unaware he is funny. The character is played completely straight as a real person.
Over the years I have definitely heard my share of ignorant statements from people who notice my race, so I don’t mean to completely disregard Tomine’s life experience. I just think Long Duk Dong is something to be proud of and not ashamed. And note to Christopher Guest: hire Watanabe.