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Diane Nguyen and Vietnamese Americans Deserve Better Representation

Diane Nguyen and Vietnamese Americans Deserve Better Representation

By Linh Le

“I stepped outside of the Ho Chi Minh airport and felt the humid air envelope me. Palm trees taller than any I’d ever seen in California pierced the skies. In between them were two flags: a red flag with a yellow star and another with a hammer and sickle. People of all complexions, size, age, and nationality bustled around me, calling for their relatives or trying to hail a cab — all in Vietnamese. I was finally back in Vietnam.”

This was the primary paragraph of my private essay “Getting Back To My Roots” for Femsplain, again in 2016. It was the primary time I had visited Vietnam in 10 years and I used to be overwhelmed throughout all of my senses: the sight of parents who seemed like me, the bustling sounds of a metropolis and its motorcycle-riding residents, and the odor of cigarette smoke, and candy and spicy meals dancing amongst musky floral fragrances. When Diane Nguyen determined to go soul-search by visiting her homeland in “Dog Days Are Over”, a current episode of “BoJack Horseman”, I couldn’t assist however really feel deeply related to her journey in a method that no different character has made me really feel. Not solely that, however she was additionally writing an article for Woman Croosh, a fictional on-line publication for ladies within the “BoJack Horseman” universe just like actual web sites I had been revealed on earlier than. “Where is my content, Diane?” asks Stefani Stilton, Diane’s boss at Woman Croosh. The urgency that Stefani locations on Diane mirrors my deeply inner wrestle of turning my private experiences into clickable content material with a purpose to proceed to be revealed, to proceed to make a distinction on the planet with my phrases. I used to be so excited for the episode in retailer.

Sadly, the second Diane landed in Hanoi and the background music began enjoying, that feeling of connection disappeared. It had no resemblance in any respect to actual Vietnamese people music, the type my mother would sing and hum aloud whereas she cooked and cleaned. What seems like a Chinese language picket flute performs ambient music that provides me the impression that the sound man within the studio merely googled “Oriental music” and picked the second on the listing. I’d wish to say they tried, however for those who search “Vietnamese folk music” on YouTube, the primary end result will present that our conventional music is usually centered round strings, particularly devices just like the đàn bầu. Even when there are examples of folks music that use wind devices, they’re thrives on prime of the plucky, playful, and emotional string elements, and under no circumstances the star of the present.

This disappointment set the tone for the remainder of the episode.

Let’s begin with the elephant within the room: Diane is voiced by Alison Brie, who’s a white lady. Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator and showrunner for “BoJack Horseman”, has since said that if he have been to forged the present at this time, he undoubtedly wouldn’t have forged a completely white forged. Once I noticed this tweet and the ensuing interviews round it, I used to be desperate to see how Bob-Waksberg and his staff would cope with this creatively-limiting choice. I understood why he selected to not exchange Alison Brie with a Vietnamese diaspora voice actress. Diane has a definite voice and character now that Alison Brie has delivered to the character over the previous 5 seasons and to vary it now might sound too dangerous to fly within the face of contracts and executives. However this implies the group behind “BoJack Horseman” has to step up in each different method so as to overcome the restrictions of her whiteness. You could be questioning — a white voice actress enjoying a personality of shade shouldn’t matter in animation, proper? It shouldn’t matter so long as the job went to one of the best individual, proper?

BoJack Horseman’s Diane in Vietnam

Brie simply doesn’t have the vary to carry out as a Vietnamese American lady. And since there has not but been an episode explaining why Diane’s household is the best way they’re, her ethnicity feels tacked on and poorly researched, given the historic context of what it means to be a Vietnamese American.

I gained’t disparage the nuances and depth that Brie does deliver to the character at sure factors, however I’ve to elucidate what she will’t probably convey. And these shortcomings turn out to be clearer and clearer as this episode goes on.

A Vietnamese diaspora individual’s damaged Vietnamese sounds totally totally different than a non-Vietnamese individual. We develop up listening to it and for many people, it’s our first language. Whereas Vietnamese people can inform we’re Việt Kiều (“overseas Vietnamese”) due to our American accent when talking, our American accent is totally different than a white individual’s American accent — even when we aren’t fluent in Vietnamese and haven’t spoken it in many years. Listening to Alison Brie say số hai in her harsh, grating accent over and over once more was only a painful, stabbing reminder that this character with a Vietnamese face, identify, and historical past is voiced by a white lady. Non-Vietnamese viewers in all probability couldn’t inform the distinction, however Vietnamese viewers can. And in case you assume that shouldn’t matter, it’s a must to ask your self which viewers Diane’s character is supposed for and whether or not that counts as true illustration.

Her Vietnamese accent wasn’t the one factor that harm about having a white lady play Diane in an episode that facilities her Vietnameseness. Brie can’t probably have been the most effective individual to play this character as a result of she lacks the expertise and perception to liven up the position. When Diane rants about social justice or will get right into a battle together with her companion, one can argue that a white lady can voice these elements simply advantageous — to be trustworthy, any individual of any race can. These are usually common experiences, positive.

From BoJack Horseman’s “Dog Days Are Over” Episode

However what Brie can’t ship is a fascinating efficiency centered across the #1 factor on Diane’s listicle: “Reconnecting with your ancestral roots.” The transition from that to #2 (“You can be a tourist here!”) felt too sudden. Despite the fact that it’s established that Diane is a personality who has hassle understanding what her true feelings are, a Vietnamese American voice actress undoubtedly would have added extra uncooked emotion and gravitas to that scene. Diane is aware of she’s Vietnamese American, and regardless of how “American-ized” she is, it should harm and harm deeply to know that she is going to by no means really belong in Vietnam. This harm will linger, making the transition to simply accept that she’s only a vacationer extra painful to simply accept. Even when Diane is a personality who isn’t in tune together with her feelings, we see time and once more how her repressed feelings bubble to the highest. The author might’ve taken this recurring trait of hers and actually run with it this episode, however as an alternative she brushes off her Vietnameseness as if it was by no means an essential a part of her id within the first place. That is one thing a white individual can simply do, however not an individual of colour.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg has said in an interview for Slate that this episode was written by mixed-race Latina Joanna Calo and additionally they consulted briefly with Vyvy Nguyen, a voice actress on the present, to listen to her experiences of being a Vietnamese American visiting Vietnam. This can be a huge cause why I haven’t completely disparaged this episode. I actually respect that they requested a Vietnamese American lady to share her private experiences. I like Joanna Calo’s enthusiasm in the direction of doing a narrative that clearly means quite a bit to her and, on some degree, is a narrative that many second era, and onwards, diaspora people of colour can relate to.

Nevertheless, it simply wasn’t sufficient. It’s ironic that Diane has worn the marketing consultant hat a pair occasions all through the complete present — as a marketing consultant on the Secretariat film in Season 2 and on the present Philbert in Season 5 — however a correct marketing consultant wasn’t employed to ensure Diane’s story, historical past, and even the situation of Vietnam, was correct. On the very least, the writers might have completed some primary analysis about Vietnamese American historical past.

The Vietnamese refugee disaster started round 1975. As a result of Diane turned 35 in Season 2, which occurred in 2015, this units her canon delivery yr to be 1980. She grew up in Boston. So if we assume she was additionally born there and we glance to a few of Diane’s earliest reminiscences of her mother and father, they may have solely been within the US for at most 15 years by the point she’s in highschool. It might be close to inconceivable to study to talk English not solely and not using a Vietnamese accent, however with a Boston accent as nicely. Her mother and father may need been upper-class Vietnamese people who discovered Western languages like English and French at a younger age. But when they did, they might have migrated to Europe, the place there was a sizeable Vietnamese inhabitants for hundreds of years, as an alternative of take the rather more perilous journey to the US. No matter her mother or father’s upbringing, this timeline would imply her brothers have been almost certainly born in Vietnam and spent their childhood there, which might probably have resulted in some type of a Vietnamese accent as properly.

Diane Nguyen in BoJack Horseman’s “Dog Days Are Over” Episode

Nevertheless, I’ve doubts that the writers have given this a lot thought into Diane’s mother and father and household historical past. In any case, Bob-Waksberg talked about to Uproxx that Diane is “second or third generation immigrant, if not more.” It is extremely unlikely that, within the historic context, Diane, a 35 yr previous lady, is a 3rd era (or “more”) Vietnamese American. Third era Vietnamese Americans do exist, however they’re very uncommon. Given the showrunners’ monitor report of representing Vietnamese Americans on the present, I extremely doubt they put this a lot thought into her household historical past. The informal method he tacks this onto her character with a view to justify how “American” she is exhibits that he created a Vietnamese character with little to no information in any way of how we even got here right here within the first place. Whereas third era and extra, Asian American immigrants do exist within the US, notably Japanese and Chinese language diaspora people, conflating their distinctive histories such because the Meiji Revolution for Japanese Americans and the constructing of the Transcontinental Railroad for Chinese language Americans, respectively, with Vietnamese Americans’ is offensive and willfully ignorant.

The primary wave of Vietnamese American migrants have been additionally not immigrants — they have been refugees, and their youngsters are the youngsters of refugees. To name her an immigrant erases that historical past and, once more, conflates her id with different Asians. It’s irritating to need to repeat this in 2018,  however not all Asians are the identical.

We discovered within the Season 1 episode “Live Fast, Diane” that Diane hates her abusive household a lot that she has tried to lookup whether or not she was adopted earlier than (and came upon she wasn’t). If she was that devoted to seek out out who her nonexistent “real” household was, then she would have additionally put effort into discovering out who her prolonged household is. This is able to be very straightforward to do given the typical Vietnamese individual, within the diaspora and in Vietnam, makes use of Fb like Americans use Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Virtually all of my relations in Vietnam have accounts and publish every day. My mother livestreams even probably the most mundane chores and actions to her Fb buddies listing of just about 5000, of which just about 500-600 all the time tune in and ship their emoji reacts her method. Belief me, Diane would have discovered her household in Vietnam. And she or he would have visited them throughout her time there.

However, once more, as a result of there wasn’t a Vietnamese author on the staff how might the writers probably know this area of interest cultural reality about Vietnamese social media use? And the way this retains the diaspora and homeland in contact? And see the potential it’d deliver to Diane’s character improvement? They might have written a narrative centered round her visiting her household. She might discover consolation in seeing those that appear to be her and feeling love from household who is definitely sort to her. However in the long run, she would nonetheless really feel remoted as a result of she’s American and they’re not — as a result of she’s Việt Kiều and they’re not. That may be a consultant and true Vietnamese American expertise.

On the subject of household, I’d wish to once more handle Diane’s mother and father, Ma and Pa Nguyen. Pa Nguyen makes a quick look in a flashback the place Diane asks him about Vietnam and regardless of him being a professor of Vietnamese historical past at Tufts College, he refuses to inform her something as a result of it’s “his day off,” and reminds her that she’s no totally different than anybody else. Whereas it’s potential that a second era Vietnamese-American may need mother and father who can be reluctant to talk an excessive amount of about what it was like within the homeland as a result of trauma from the Vietnam Conflict and the refugee disaster that ensued, I discover it very unrealistic that her mother and father would have assimilated to the purpose the place there can be completely no hint or dialogue of their Vietnamese heritage of their house.

In a rustic that made the conflict in Vietnam worse, which has residents which may not even settle for you due to your race and ethnicity, and whose residents have a historical past of not being variety to refugees, assimilating is survival. Masking your variations is survival. Pa Nguyen clearly understands this. However most first era Vietnamese diaspora people didn’t depart Vietnam as a result of they needed to.

They left as a result of they needed to.

And whenever you’re pressured to go away a spot you grew up in, the one place you’ve ever recognized, it’s exhausting to shirk off your tradition completely and refuse to ever move that onto your youngsters. Regardless of how a lot you attempt to assimilate, regardless of how a lot trauma you could have, and regardless of how abusive that each one makes you, I can’t probably think about Vietnamese mother and father sounding and appearing the best way Diane’s mother and father do.

Diane Nguyen in BoJack Horseman’s “Dog Days Are Over” Episode

Does this imply all hope is misplaced? By no means. I feel “Dog Days Are Over” is an unlucky misstep, however I consider there’s nonetheless area inside the “BoJack Horseman” canon for these wrongs to be righted by the creators behind the present.

We’d like them to rent a Vietnamese author and do their analysis. If you will do any justice for a Vietnamese primary character, you’ve got an ethical obligation to rent somebody who can perceive the nuances of how we transfer on the earth. On the very least, rent a correct marketing consultant or do the analysis wanted to translate a whole diaspora tradition to the display. I extremely advocate Vietcetera’s YouTube channel as a kick off point studying concerning the modern-day Vietnam and Vietnamese diaspora. Nevertheless, since they’ve had 5 seasons to do the analysis and failed, I feel the one choice now’s to rent one among us to put in writing for Diane.

We’d like an episode that facilities Diane’s mother and father. This shouldn’t be too exhausting since we’ve had comparable episode executed already about Princess Carolyn and BoJack’s mother and father. I feel if we got a glimpse into why they’re the best way they’re, it’d higher humanize them and give us perception into what Diane’s upbringing was like.

I can sense some love and fear in Pa when he tells Diane that she’s like everyone else, however these phrases additionally come from a spot of deep trauma. How did Pa and Ma and the brothers Nguyen come to America? Was it by way of boat? Did they keep at a refugee camp in Thailand or the Philippines? The place did they keep once they made it to the US? What have been their early experiences in America like and how would that have an effect on how they raised Diane and her brothers? What’s their relationship with their household again residence like? Do they ship a refund house or are they estranged? Do they not have household as a result of they died within the struggle? If her brothers spent their childhood in war-torn Vietnam, how does that trauma translate to the best way they deal with Diane? The writers are clearly very intelligent and artistic and I’m positive they might provide you with a wacky, heartfelt, and genuine story even when it requires suspending our disbelief.

And eventually — We’d like them to take heed to us. Diane Nguyen speaks to so many Vietnamese-Americans. Not often has there ever been this excellent character for Vietnamese-American ladies to determine with in animation! I encourage the writers to see her ethnicity not as a hindrance to cover so as to make her extra relatable or as seasoning on a personality who may in any other case be learn as white — however as a chance.

Simply because the present has been lauded for its nuanced portrayals of psychological well being, intergenerational trauma, and asexuality, I need to see “BoJack Horseman” succeed at writing a nuanced portrayal of an individual of colour and their tradition. In any case, if the writers might create and painting a nuanced fictional underground tradition of ants, they’re greater than able to placing in the identical effort at portraying my individuals.

Till then, Diane Nguyen will learn as a white lady with the identify and face of a Vietnamese one, as a result of on the finish of the day, that’s who she is. That’s simply the “original sin” that we’ll should stay with. However it doesn’t have to finish there. We will study from and apply one of many central themes of this season to this very state of affairs: Infinite guilt over the dangerous issues we’ve accomplished gained’t change these issues. Like Diane says within the final episode, there’s no such factor nearly as good guys or dangerous guys, we’re all simply guys making an attempt to do fewer dangerous issues and extra good issues. Time’s arrow marches ahead, and all we will do is study from our previous and do extra good sooner or later.


Writer Bio: Linh is a Vietnamese-American author based mostly within the Bay Space. Her work has been in on-line publications reminiscent of Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Femsplain. In her free time, she likes watching anime and enjoying video video games. Comply with her on  Twitter.


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