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Bruce Lee might be the first great Asian American role model. He achieved mainstream success in Hollywood and overseas, and became an icon of the world just before his death. Bruce had charisma, and he was the epitome of the alpha male. I remember seeing his iconic fight where he defeated Kareem Abdul Jabbar and I thought to myself, wow, I am proud to be Asian.
Russell Peters might not be in the mainstream yet, but he’s damn close. Peters rose to fame by making racist jokes on comedy shows and having them streamed on YouTube. He makes fun of Indians, Asians, and other ethnicities, but he comes off in a way that makes you say, “yeah even though my race just got insulted, that was damn funny (and true too).” Peters has this mad charisma that really impresses.
Although he hasn’t achieved mainstream success yet in the US, I expect we’ll see him more very soon. Big in Korea, Henney is mainly known in the US as Agent Zero from Xmen Origins: Wolverine. He’s been landing these small but awesome roles. He’s played a super villian and also a good-looking doctor on CBS series, Three Rivers. While his activities now are mostly in Korea, I expect to see more of him in the US soon.
Although Kal Penn started off doing some stereotypical roles (Van Wilder), he’s since moved past that in a big way. Harold and Kumar was a great movie series that showed that Asian Americans aren’t just the model minority who will do your math homework for you. Yes, we’re smart, but we’re also capable of getting the hot girl. I also thoroughly enjoyed his role in House, where his ethnic background didn’t play a factor at all.
To mention Kal Penn, I must also mention John Cho, who has been causing mayhem with Kal in the Harold and Kumar series since 2002. More recently, Cho starred in Flashforward, where he was one of the two lead agents. How long has it been since an Asian male was one of the leads in an American TV series? His character, Demetri, became one of the most beloved characters in the series. They originally had written him to die, but the writers changed the script because he was so well-liked. And he also gets with Gabrielle Union (wowza!)
He’s a relative newcomer, but many audiences of the Walking Dead series are big fans of Steven Yeun’s character in the series. I really like the fact that they don’t use the race card on his character. Although he is possibly the most submissive and least alpha male, he also gets with the hottest girl in the series, and does it by being a gentleman and nice guy. That’s one of the reasons that he’s one of the most well-liked characters in the series.
I had to put these two together because my list can only be ten people long. But these two are also together for good reason. In our era, these two are the top action martial arts stars in Hollywood. Together they made Hollywood realize that audiences love to see real hand-to-hand combat and not just guns blazing and cars chasing. Even though they do fall under the martial arts stereotype on Asian actors, these two still provided inspiration for thousands of Asian actors to follow in their footsteps.
Aziz Ansari is an Indian American television actor and stand-up comic who’s recently gotten a string of great roles. You can see him on the TV show Parks and Recreation as well as in movies such as 30 Minutes or Less. What I like about Aziz is that his roles could have been given to someone of any race, and he portrays them without putting race into it. He’s playing a big part in the idea that Asians don’t need to be typecast into roles for them to get a break in the entertainment industry.
Maggie Q has been doing well for herself recently. In 2010 she starred as the titular character in Nikita. Has an Asian person ever done that in the history of American television? I’m not sure, but I doubt it. Maggie Q plays strong-willed Asian American women, which is great because the typical stereotype of the Asian woman is submissive and weak. Besides the fact that I love watching her kick butt, I also love watching her butt (had to throw that in -_0).
Yul Kwon is one of the few Asian Americans who made it onto an American reality series and managed to look badass doing it. Instead of painting Asians in a bad light, Kwon won Survivor in in 2006, and he did it with a mix of brawn and brain. We might never have an Asian male on a reality show that will be as awesome as Yul Kwon in Survivor.