ASIAN VOICES

21 Book, TV, Film And Podcast Suggestions For Asian Americans, By Asian Americans

For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we asked for recommendations of what to read or watch to connect with AAPI community and culture.

It’s a difficult moment for Asian Americans: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, people in AAPI communities have been widely scapegoated for the virus, which is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China. The online reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate said that since its inception on March 18, it’s received more than 1,500 reports of discrimination primarily targeting Asian Americans.

Given everything that’s going on, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month couldn’t be better timed. To mark APAHM this year, we asked artists, writers and other creators of Asian descent to share one thing they’re currently reading, listening to or watching to counter all the negativity. 

Their recommendations include everything from a sprawling five-part PBS documentary series on the Asian American experience to a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang in which Superman absolutely pummels the Ku Klux Klan. See all their recs below.

Responses have been edited for style and clarity.

TV Shows

“Ugly Delicious” on Netflix 

“As a food and beverage professional, I immediately missed working with hospitality and flavor on a daily basis when social distancing began. One of the first things I watched when I couldn’t work every day was David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ series on Netflix. Watching this show helped with the loss of my professional identity in my day to day, but it also brought me so much more hope and joy than I expected. At the heart of this travel/food documentary series is the idea that all cultures are more similar than we expect and that we can all connect with food. In a time when I was feeling alienated because of my cultural identity, remembering that every culture has their version of a dumpling gave me a sense of inclusion. 

While watching the first episode of season two, ‘Kids Menu,’ I sat in my living room crying. Partially because I needed a release from all the stress, but mostly because the stories of parents succeeding in their careers and having families despite how difficult it is to juggle both in our industry gave me so much hope.  Seeing another first-generation Asian American use their love of food and culture to have an incredible career and beautiful family has helped motivate me to use this time to move toward the life I want on the other side of this.” ― Caer Maiko, bartender and co-owner of Daijoubu Pop Up

“Little America” on Apple TV+

“I love episode six, ‘The Grand Prize Expo Winners,’ of the series ‘Little America’ on Apple TV+. Written and produced by Tze Chun and starring Angela Lin, Chun tells the real-life story of how his single mom would stop at nothing to win her family a vacation. This episode evoked every feeling from ridiculous laughter to heartbreaking sadness. As the daughter of immigrants myself, I found the storytelling so reminiscent of my own first-generation upbringing, and perhaps, an important reminder that our immigrant parents are more than Mom or Dad, they are also real people who have overcome many struggles of their own.” ― Therese Mascardo, a psychologist and founder of Exploring Therapy

Documentaries

“The most life-giving content I’m consuming is the documentary series ‘Asian Americans’ on PBS. Watching the episodes made me bawl in a good way. My heart swelled with pride in seeing all of the contributions by Asian Americans: from Patsy Mink as the first woman of color to be elected to the national legislature, to Tereza Lee as the first ‘Dreamer.’ You can watch me in episode one gushing over Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian superstars in Hollywood. This is the perfect content for our current times, reminding us that we have always overcome obstacles, resisted unjust laws, and served as leaders in this country.” ― Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism”

I recommend this short film from 2017 by LA-based filmmakers Jeannie Nguyen and Andrew Yuyi Truong. This film is an aesthetic experiment of nostalgia and narrative. The film points to how young people navigate pressures of cultural identity and beauty expectations in the 1990s, yet its themes still resonate so deeply today. As a historian of Vietnam and filmmaker myself, I deeply appreciate how ‘First Generation’ pushes the boundaries of Vietnamese narrative and representation beyond generalizations about the war. The visual and sonic elements of the film transport me back to explore a formative and difficult time of youthful self-discovery and identity formation. The creators are examples of an exciting new generation of Vietnamese American/trans-Pacific artists speaking to fresh and profound themes related to Vietnam, its diasporas and beyond. Overall, this innovative film gives me a playful sense of hope and excitement for future of Asian American film, literature, and arts!” ― Cindy Nguyen, filmmaker and historian at Brown University

Books

“American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang 

“This three-part graphic novel tweezes out the nuances of Asian American identity with painfully close understanding. The first part is a retelling of the Monkey King legend, the second is about an ABC boy named Jin who moves to a white suburb, and the third, drawn in the style of a TV sitcom, is about a white boy named Danny who’s deeply ashamed of his Chinese cousin ‘Chin-Kee,’ who displays many racist stereotypes of Chinese people. Without giving away how all three storylines eventually converge, the price of Jin’s assimilation into his white community is rejecting his racial identity. It’s only through embracing being Asian American that Jin can reach freedom.

Growing up in a predominantly white town, ‘American Born Chinese’ made me feel a little less alone in my experiences. Now it’s a topical reminder that Asian American assimilation has always been conditional. It may not exactly be a comfort read, but ‘American Born Chinese’ is a story about what we’re fighting for when we say we’re fighting racism: It’s the right to be able to exist without fear or stereotypes, to declare and reclaim the terms of our own existences. In short, we’re fighting for our own humanity.” ― Ashley Wong, an incoming AAPI issues reporter for The Sacramento Bee

“My mom has always expressed her love, not through words lost in translation, but through food, whether through her Cantonese steamed fish with ginger and scallions, pork spare ribs with black bean sauce or soy sauce chicken. So, while distancing from Mom, when not getting takeout to support Chinatown restaurants, I’m learning my mom’s dishes. I remembered watching Martin Yan as a kid on PBS and whipped out his old-school ‘The Yan Can Cook Book’ to make those spare ribs. And I picked up ‘Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen’ by Grace Young, a chef who’s been chronicling Chinatown coronavirus stories, then picked up a whole fish from a still-open Chinatown seafood market and figured out, with Grace’s help, how my mom would make that fish. Last week, Mom came to Chinatown for her monthly trip to the Chinese pharmacy, bringing compliments on my WeChat fish photo and multiple containers of her soy sauce chicken. And I knew she’d always be with me.” ― Annie Tan, teacher and activist 

“When my daughter was a few months old, a good friend sent us the book ‘Babies’ by Gyo Fujikawa, an Asian American illustrator and writer, though in her lifetime and to her frustration, she was often misidentified as Japanese. My husband and I were captivated by her book as much as our daughter, and we fell down a rabbit hole of researching Fujikawa’s life and collecting her work.

When ‘Babies’ was published in 1963, it was one of the first children’s books to feature people of different races playing together, just existing together. It was Fujikawa’s first time authoring and illustrating a book, but still, she dared to battle with her publisher when they said it wouldn’t sell well in the South. The book became a bestseller. Much of her work that followed depicts our multicultural, multiracial world. In the weeks since we’ve all been confined to home, I’ve found myself reaching for ‘Oh!, What A Busy Day!’ (1976) at bedtime. It is a book about the simple joys of childhood and the beauty of the day to day. Its pages and words remind both me and my daughter that the world is a big place, even when work, rain, or illness keeps us inside, and that there is room here for all of us.” ― Tienlon Ho, writer and co-author of the forthcoming Mister Jiu’s cookbook

An illustration by Gyo Fujikawa, a before-her-time artist and writer who depicted children of all ethnicities playing as
An illustration by Gyo Fujikawa, a before-her-time artist and writer who depicted children of all ethnicities playing as one. 

“Living for Change” by Grace Lee Boggs

“Post 2016 elections, Grace Lee Boggs’ autobiography reminded me that this country has overcome many dark times, and in dark times, unlikely community heroes are born. Now, her wisdom and partnership with Jimmy Boggs remind me that only in community and only in caring for the most vulnerable of us will we get through the fire. And when physical contact and connection are at an all-time low, I find solace in the hope that one day I will find my Jimmy, my partner-for-change.” ― Nancy Ma, actress and writer

“In the face of pervasive forms of xenophobia and anti-Asian racism (some of which were directed at me personally), this book helped me think through how major some of my seemingly ‘minor feelings’ are about being Asian American in this moment. Hong provided me a vocabulary for making sense of my rage, my depression, my loss. Hong theorizes from her personal experience the often unspoken affective experience of being racialized in the U.S. and ties it to an urgent critique of the myths of American exceptionalism and the ‘American dream.’ This dream, and the model minority myth that sustains it, is what Lauren Berlant has called ‘cruel optimism’: a hopeful desire for something that in turn harms us. Hong reveals how cruel that optimism really is, especially in our pandemic moment.” Travis Chi Wing Lau, assistant professor of English at Kenyon College

“I’m finding this book a helpful antidote to the confusion so prevalent these days when people argue over difficult topics. With humor, verve, and a knack for making complex ideas accessible, Cheng shines a light on the role and the limitations of logic, and how to use logic, together with emotion, well.” ― Francis Su, author of “Mathematics for Human Flourishing.” 

“This comic was inspired by a 1940s radio serial which pit Superman against the “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a fictional stand-in for the KKK. Yang ingeniously draws a metaphor between Superman’s early pre-flying/heat vision incarnation and the assimilation foisted upon immigrants. The Asian American Lee family featured in Yang’s story are charming and their family dynamic moved me numerous times throughout the book. Of course, it’s therapeutic to witness the power fantasy of Superman smashing white supremacists.” ― Jeremy Arambulo, illustrator and author of the graphic novel “A Challenge” 

“Brave, Not Perfect” by Reshma Saujani 

“Saujani teaches women to be brave in what they do and shed the notion of being perfect as society has taught. It was very refreshing to read a book by a fellow Asian woman and entrepreneur. The themes of fearing less, failing more, and living bolder are consistent throughout her book and were relevant to my decision in taking the leap of faith, leaving my corporate job, and, thus, being the founder of a dress shirt company at a time when everyone is work-from-home. The fear of failure is overwhelming as a small business owner and a first-time founder in an unconventional career path as a first-generation Asian American, and her book really showed that by choosing bravery over perfection, I have agency over my voice and what I wanted to accomplish: more size inclusion and AAPI representation in fashion.” ― Tanya Zhang, the co-founder of Nimble Made, a slim-fit dress shirt company

“This is a graphic novel about the Vietnamese refugee experience and coming to America for a new life. This book is reassuring to me during these difficult times because it reminds me of the strength and resilience of the Vietnamese people. My parents and their generation lived through unimaginable suffering and challenges in order to come to America for a better life; if they can live through that, then we can live through the COVID-19 pandemic.” ― Cindy Trinh, photographer and visual journalist

“The Sweetest Fruits” by Monique Truong

“I recommend the novel ‘The Sweetest Fruits’ by Monique Truong. It’s a captivating work of historical fiction that flung me into three very different places in time around the world, as told through three female characters who are each constrained in some ways by their society. It made me feel a bit grateful and empowered because of that, of course. But more than that, so impressed with Truong’s ability to write in such disparate voices and bring together a really original novel. I gave the book to my dad afterward, and he read it swiftly and also remarked at what inspired storytelling it was.” ― Cathy Erway, journalist and author of “The Art of Eating In” 

“I’ve been thinking a lot about filial piety and my experience as a Chinese daughter and an American mother. To be honest, my days are so overwhelmed with eldercare and other chores that I haven’t read much, but before bedtime, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Maxine Hong Kingston’s classic novel, ‘The Woman Warrior.’ I last read the novel when I was a teenager, but I’m utterly entranced by it again.” ― Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China”

Movies

“I just watched filmmaker Jong Ougie Pak’s highly anticipated film featurette ‘Sunrise/Sunset.’ It’s a New York love story shot in black and white and spoken almost entirely in Korean. Though the film itself chronicles a complicated relationship, including heartbreak, what I appreciate about it in this current moment is its reminder of how cities are full of people, full of interactions, full of life. It’s something I’m holding on to in anticipation of brighter days ahead.” ― Ellen D. Wu, associate professor and history director in the Asian American studies program at Indiana University Bloomington

“The Half Of It” on Netflix

“Alice Wu was one of the only female Asian directors around when I started writing my film ‘Yellow Rose.’ Her film ‘Saving Face’ was groundbreaking at the time it came out because it featured all Asian leads, a lesbian storyline and a director who was Asian but more importantly, smart, witty and original. Alice was an inspiration to me and a generation of other female Asian directors to keep pursuing their vision. I loved the film so much that I reached out to her producer, who ironically came on as one of my first producers. Her follow-up film ― ‘The Half Of It’ ― took as long as it took me to eventually make my film, but it was worth the wait and it’s every bit as relevant, clever and moving.” ― Diane Paragas, director of “Yellow Rose”

YouTube Channels

“I’ve watched these guys grow up from making Justin Timberlake and Jason Mraz music videos to doing original productions now. And throughout their 10-plus-year career in the public eye, they’ve always been unashamedly proud Asian Americans willing to explore relevant identity and relationship issues, challenge stereotypes, and celebrate Asian American culture. And they’ve always managed to do it all with a sense of humor and humility. It’s a fun escape getting lost in their YouTube channel.” ― Jonathan Jui, cartoonist

Podcasts

“Queer podcasting is hard to come by, more so if it features Asian American hosts. ‘Nancy,’ co-hosted by Tobin Low and Kathy Tu, does a fantastic job at covering both heartwarming and hilarious stories about what it means to be LGBTQ+ today. One of my favorite episodes is ‘Taiwan,’ where one of the co-hosts, Kathy, returns to Taiwan to reconnect with her cultural roots and engage in the tricky business of explaining her sexuality to those who remained behind. At the end of the day, ‘Nancy’ is a timely and pertinent podcast that centers the voices of many queer Asian Americans, and what makes it extra precious is that it is made with a lot of heart.” ― Skyler Wang, sociologist at UC Berkeley

“This is a new weekly podcast by Sharon Lee Thony (Chinese American) and Raman Sehgal (Indian American) featuring conversations on race and gender, with guests of all stripes (black, white, brown, yellow, boy, girl, gay, straight).

Since many of society’s issues stem from a lack of empathy and understanding, the podcast uncovers how we’re the same and how we’re different through guests’ stories from many cultural backgrounds. In their first few episodes, they’ve already spoken with a Hispanic media leader, a stand-up comedian, and an Arab tennis pro.” ― Rajiv Satyal, a standup comedian

Got a great recommendation? Share it in the comments.

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BEFORE YOU GO

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Old-School Asian American Actors You Should Know About
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