Monday, October 24, 2005

Grey's Anatomy

I'm been meaning to do a write-up of Grey's Anatomy for sometime now. It's not only my "new favorite TV show" but in many ways, it's my "first favorite TV show", at least in many years. Before this year, I very rarely watched TV with any consistency. This was for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of qualitity writing that encompasses diverse perspectives. When you have the people of Asian descent on a show, usually it's for the obligatory Chinatown show, or Chinese food moment or white people save the day for culturally backward immigrants show. In less ridiculous cases, the few network minority main characters are written "just as normal people", but usually cast in opposition to stereotypical minorities of the same group. This not only goes for people of Asian descent, but pretty much any other minority power group including any ethnic minority, LBGT, religious minorities, and even in many cases, women.

Shonda Rimes' writing for "Grey's" is the first time in a long time I've seen something different. It'd be nice if she had a recurring Asian American male character, but all of her characters seem like real-to-life people and she's good at balancing the strengths and weaknesses of her characters while making them empathetic along the way.

That being said, given the dearth of Asian American male characters on the show, I was nervous when she introduced the Hmong plotline on this week's show. I almost wished she hadn't, but that's a destructive impulse, right? I mean in the wake of the Vang battle in which he killed six of the white hunters who were allegedly threatening him, now is the time that there needs to be empathetic education about the Hmong.

What the show portrayed: (there may be a few minor inaccuracies as I was a little distracted with the Sox winning their second game of the World Series!!!!!)

1. Initially you see the girl checking herself into the hospital and being diagnosed with a bad tumor that could paralyze her. The father shows up and demands that she is allowed to leave without the operation which must be done immediately according to the pompous white doctor (Derek). But the father won't agree because they are Hmong. The daughter initally agrees with the doctors (Derek and Meredith) but sides with her father because she has to follow her elder's wishes. *groan* Response: this looks terrible, the white doctors "care" about the girl, the father cares more about the weird ritual, the daughter is submissive to her father's weirdo wishes.

2. The next scene is the white doctors (again Derek and Meredith) talking on the street, they are like, "What the fuck is 'Hmong' we need to figure this out!" They conclude that they need to get a social worker (I can't remember the exact title) to talk some sense into these heathens. Response: Still looks bad, but more promising. In retrospect, the writer is trying to anticipate the audiences level of knowledge while also showing the ignorance of the white doctors. The sad fact is that this is a realistic portrayal--many doctors are not equipped to handle patients from ethnic other backgrounds.

3. Meredith is trying to convince the daughter to stay in the hospital. She continues to medicate the woman, which the daughter becomes suspicious of and calls her on. The doctor says something like, "We just need you to stay here long enough to talk to a social worker" in a condescending tone. The daughter gets pissed and says something like (and I'm not exaggerating tone here), "Look Ms. benevolent white woman, I don't think you get what's going on..." and explains that she is not some backwards poor-little-victim being controlled by her father. The doctor asks again why she is leaving the hospital and she says that she believes in her cultural beliefs. Response: Really sensitive writing of a tough situation. It doesn't come across as "rebellious second generation trying to throw off her oppressive father and weirdo roots". Instead, it comes across as a strong woman of color trying to navigate a severe medical problem, her own cultural beliefs and insensitive white doctors. She doesn't try to win points by distancing herself from her parents by mocking them in the way many second-gen characters on TV do (and many real ones do outside of media).

4. Brief scene of Derek and Meredith meeting and Meredith explaining that Derek should try to talk to the father because there's a gender issue here. Response: Minor scene, but there's a tiny, "backwards and sexist" innuendo going on. On the flipside, it's pretty neutral and there's no mock outrage.

5. The male doctor meets the father on the street outside of the hospital. He treats him with respect and tries to troubleshoot the problem. He basically does what a good doctor should do: instead of trying to twist the patient into his belief system, he tries to treat the patient within their belief system. The father sneers a little at the doctor--with good reason, the man is obviously ignorant about Hmong culture--but is touched when the doctor is not condescending and proposes a solution which allows for the daughter to receive both the Hmong treatment and the surgery. Response: Excellent. The Father comes across as caring about his daughter first and trying his best to balance the cultural beliefs of the family, the benevolent agenda of the doctors and the cultural beliefs of the daughter (which are close to the family's but not identical). The doctor is rebuked when he is identified as "typical dumbass white doctor" but rewarded when he shows ability to be empathetic.

6. The Hmong shaman is flown by helicopter in to the hospital and performs the treatment. The doctors watched, half-enthralled, half-skeptical. Derek performs the surgery and go back to focusing on the love triangle between Meredith, Derek and his ex-wife. There's no follow-up, but I think you are supposed to get the impression that the daughter pulls through. I doubt they revisit it next episode. Response: In the end, the doctors do their job and show respect without being condescending. As a result they are able to save the patient. There's no "if only these people could not be so weird" or masturbatory backslapping for being special little white boys and girls. All in all a very empathetic portrayal.

Of course, just because it was well done, doesn't mean that it will come across well to mainstream (probably white) folks. Let's face it--you can have the best portrayal of a minority character in the history of media and some aversive racists will sneer until their face freezes that way. But is that really a failure of writing?

Here's a detailed summary of the episode.

I really enjoyed this plotline, but am still hopeful to see a strong, mainstream Asian American male character at some point in the story.

22 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good critic on the episode. I was watching the game and flipping through channels (during commercials) when the show caught my attention, being Hmong I was like woa. I was nervous at first when the daughter said "he's the elder and I do what my elder wants" (or something like ther), but the show made up for it by portraying the daughter as a regular person who knows the modern world but who also happens to believe in her cultural heritage. But the show did make me miss the homerun.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Ironcheffie said...

Distancing yourself frmo your parents is just so much easier though. But make sure you do it right as to not to distance yourself TOO MUCH. You still need them to pay tuition.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous alan said...

Thank you Xian for this very interesting review. I saw that episode you were talking about and truly flinched at the start with the way they portrayed the Hmong father, though I guess the writer tried to present a more balanced view later on.

In any case, my beef with this show is, as you mentioned, the dearth of compassionate asian male characters. This was tacitly conspicuous in the episode prior to the Hmong episode, when Sandra Oh's character was sick and her mother turned up by her bedside. No father in sight. Halfway through the episode we also learn that the mother has remarried, to some doctor with a Jewish sounding last name. Nothing wrong with that, but frankly, the conspicuous absence of the father/ex-husband really began to bug me. I was actually hoping the show would surprise me and have the dad pop out from out of the blue to see his sick daughter, as I know the majority of asian fathers would do. But I guess that's expecting way too much from white america. Asian males aren't supposed to be heard from, much less seen. The stereotype, repised in the Hmong storyline, is of Asian fathers who by their very absence aren't supposed to care much if at all for their daughters, unlike the white knights or black surgeons hanging around the hospital.

Now, I bet to most viewers, non-Asian viewers at the least, this is a non-issue, and I'm making mountains out of molehills. But I find these absences, these apparent unwillingness to portray any asian father, husband or whatever in a positive caring light to be much more malicious than any actual asian male caricatures that actually make it to the screen.

12:49 AM  
Blogger xian said...

Thanks, being in Chi, of course, we COULDN'T miss the HR, it was lucky we switched back just for that particular pitch.

Alan, thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I share that frustration, but the reason I'm hopeful is that the head writer on the show is a woman African American descent. While the people writing the roles for individual episodes may not be empathetic on these issues, Ms. Rimes has been responsive to emails on the subject, and I hope that this week's episode is a sign of positive things to come.

Now, that might be wishful thinking, like all of you, I've heard the "we need to attract the white audience, but it'll get better later" posturing followed by the later that never comes.

But in following the show, I've noticed that it has actually, noticably gotten better. Over time, the drab main white female character has faded into the background and the three WMs characters are neither at the forefront and all are deeply flawed characters. The most likeable characters to date are the BF, AF, BM, WF non-sexualized ex-model.

To address your exact point. I think this is one of the biggest problems with a horrendous media representation. When Yang's (Oh) mother appears and no AM father is written, we can't help be suspicious and mournful of the lost opportunity. But that's not just this shows fault, but the fault of every single other show on TV that uses every trick in the book to avoid AM character.

The key for me is will we see a recurring Asian American male character on the show in the future? Only time will tell, but like I said, I'm hopeful. A few more missed opportunities, and I'll lose that hope and pronounce a different judgment.

2:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i wish i saw this show! not too often do we ever learn about hmong people, but whenever we do learn about hmong people, it always has to do with some sort of clash between the traditional hmong ways and western medicine.

1:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I caught maybe only five minutes of the episode, but thanks to your review, I finally understood the situation the Hmong girl was facing in the show, which interested me not only because I was also a Hmong (a 14-years-old girl, f.y.i.) but because I had not yet seen a show with a Hmong person in it (actually, they were actors pretending to be Hmong-which my slightly insulted brothers immediately reacted to by saying no Hmong chic could ever be THAT hot, which I thought was pretty funny even if it was offensive of my ethnic background). I respected the portrayal of the Hmong but thought the father's strictness was somewhat exaggerated, for many parents have come to accept and depend upon the modern medical world. But then, this is more of an opinionated comment which I cannnot support. After thinking this over, I decided that the patient and her family was probably more traditional and religious than I my own. I probably would have made the same decision myself as well, and my parents probably would have reacted to the situation in a like manner. Ironically, or at least ironic to me, I have become more open-minded to the Hmong religion. I would simply like make it clear that not all Hmong families are like the one depicted in the show and the younger generation (in the US) are much more "americanized" than most would think.

8:27 PM  
Blogger xian said...

Anon and other Hmong posters:
Thank you for your write-ups. I really learned from reading them. I think an important thing to remember is that even those of us who want to be as empathetic as possible, often have little access to each other's experiences and stories.

In terms of Hmong images, as many responses have said, there is very little in the mainstream media. Lately, we have seen their racist approach through the poor reporting of the Vang case, and even positive portrayal are through white or African American eyes (this episode and the massively popular "When the Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down").

These positive portrayals should be applauded, but they should not be confused for people of Hmong descent sharing their own stories.

So don't be shy--share your lives, experiences and perspectives--we dearly need to hear what you have to say.

I mean, I'm not a very good writer, but I know I can write from a single Asian American perspective better than most of the decorated journalists or writers in Hollywood, who happen to be almost exclusively white.

So anyway, please share more. If there's anything you'd like me to link or publish here, please email me (I think it's posted, but if not, it's xianb8 over at yahoo dot com)

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Weren't there OTHER inaccuracies as well?

Three to name:

1) from what I heard, the "Hmong" characters' last names were "Chu."

There are NO Hmong last names like that!

2) Shaman rituals are almost never performed in a hospital or a public setting for an individual person,
unless it is when there has been an accident at an area and the shaman goes there to raise the spirit of the person who experienced it.

3) The "Hmong" father, regardless of his stance on treatment, would not be that uncaring as to be outside the hospital, smoking a cigar/cigarette.

While it seems that writer, who is African-American- judging from what you all wrote in the comments, seems to take some time to write this episode- I still think
only people who are knowledgeable of certain cultures or who are committed to taking more time and hiring qualified consultants, should write.

I am sick of non- Hmong writers and their attempts to write about Hmong people.

I do hope though that this is a sign of better things to come! (Like seeing more Asian-Americans and less white people on TV- wow. That'd be great.)

3:29 AM  
Anonymous Moua, Sandy'Ci said...

last commented blogged by:
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3:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I should start by saying that I really liked your review about the show, and I read all the comments and those were interesting too. The only thing I disagree with is the person who posted two people above me. As someone who is not Hmong but is still a under/unfairly represented minority, I can say that while I don't understand your feelings on the same level, I do have empathy for your anger. I'm not sure why this bothers me, but you wrote "While it seems that writer, who is African-American..." What does Rimes's specific race have with anything? It seems like to me you are accusing her of not understanding the Hmong just because she is African-American. I think I wouldn't have felt the urge to reply it you had just said "non-Asian."
Well, sorry to get this off-topic. Anyway, I'm glad I found this blog, I got the link for your site, it was from AngryAsianMan.com

2:23 AM  
Blogger xian said...

Anon 10 and Anon 8:
Thank you for your perspectives. I think I can answer both of your posts together.

Anon 8's perspective is how I often feel when I see writers of non-Asian descent write on the Asian American experience (or for that matter, native Asians write on the Asian American experience). The key issues for me are ones of empathy and conscious effort. You are right that most of the time, the best people to write about experience are those who live that experience. But if our choices are "No representation" or "Representation written by others who are doing their best to be empathetic", I'll take the latter everytime.

You see, I would love to see an utterly diverse group of writers take TV and Hollywood by storm, but I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I'm thankful when we get an episode on TV where it's not a five-minute Fu Manchu thrown together travesty. There will undoubtedly be inaccuracies, but they will also spur discussion and visibility for underrepresented groups.

Of course, I can't be the judge on this, since I am, as I said above, quite ignorant on Hmong communities. That's why I'm thankful for your critique, Anon 8, since you help educate me about the issues involved.

On your specific comments:
1) The characters' last name was "Chue". That's a Hmong name, right? (You'd know better than my shallow internet searching) I can't remember how it was pronounced. It's possible that this was just a case of the doctors butchering the name.

If that's the case, isn't that realistic? How many people here haven't been the victims of (white?) people butchering their names?

2)I thought that Rimes did a plausible job conveying how rare a hospital ceremony would be. She tried to cast it as "flexibility in a very difficult situation". Of course, you would know best if that was inaccurate or not, so I respect your judgement, but I'd say that both could be true. It shows a great deal of research on the author's part and still could be inaccurate and insensitive.

3) I can certainly see this criticism--she was probably trying to make a "man's conversation" and added the cigar as a writing technique--an error in judgment.

Your conclusion is very important. Would you be satisfied if we came down a notch? Something like:
"Individual shows can be constructive and empathetic without doing so, but really there's no excuse for not hiring a team of consultants when writing on a minority community you don't belong to. It will help contribute to realism and prevent stereotyping."

The questions coming out of that though are, "What happens if that just makes writers want to avoid minority plotlines all together and go back to chinese take-out delivery boy tokenism?" and also in this particular case, "What if Rimes DID hire a Hmong consultant, but they were less than knowledgable?" Looking at the writing for the show, it looks like she definitely did a lot of research and may have had a consultant...

Anyway, Anon 10, that was my take on Anon 8. I think Rimes did her very best to present an empathetic storyline about an underrepresented minority.

I think the fact that she did so was partly BECAUSE she was African American. I sincerely believe that a ethnic majority author would have been less likely to write the piece at all and more likely to stereotype extensively should they actually write the piece.

Would you agree?

So when I read Anon 10, I did take it to mean, "As a non-Hmong, she did XYZ" rather than "As an African-American she did XYZ".

Perhaps the post you responded to was similar to Rimes' show--powerful, informative, well-intentioned and like any writing, not perfectly empathetic?

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your critique of the episode. It was pretty right on. A couple things that I noticed that weren't mentioned. (And I am a Hmong professional woman, though I must admit, am a bit rusty on exact details of my culture.)

1. They did glaze over the ritual a bit. I do believe with that kind of ritual, there's usually an animal sacrifice that goes along with it.

I'm a bit mixed about that. One one hand, you'd want to showcase the culture fully and not sugar coat it. But on the other hand, with the negative light portrayed by the Vang trial, maybe that was a good thing. The last thing I'd want associated with the Hmong and it's ritual animal sacrifices is satanic rituals.

2. This is a bit silly, but what sensible Hmong man would smoke a cigar AND buy a $3,000 suit?!?! A true Hmong man would -- at the most -- buy a $300 suit and spend the rest of the money on their family, be it here in the U.S. or back in Laos and Thailand.

5:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a Hmong and I Have live throught somthing that is like "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman. Exccept that story is like a walk in the park on a very hot day compare to mine.

1. The father said that they need the shawman to intact the soul befor the sergery.

Answerd is: WRONG! not going to happen. No shawman would do that becasue it would be a total waist of time and serves no Purposes.

2. The father said there is no shawman around this area so the docter says ok then well just fly one in.

Answerd is: HOLLYWOOD! If any person can convence a doctor to fly in a shawman I myself will give him/her one ginuwine hmong knife pluse a ginuwine hmong wet sharpening stone :)

3. You see the shawman burn some incent then some paper and finaly he's on his bench bouncing away like there is no tomorrow.

Answerd is: WRONG! Thats not intacting the soul, that is somthing els totaly different. Also where do they come up with this idea that you can burn incent or paper in a hospital.

4. As many have stated what you see in this epidso is a rich hmong family who just happen to speaking only proper english.

Answerd is: NOT LIKELY! If the writer was trying to go for realism then the family should not be wearing 3k suit and speak proper english.
In most case you would have a hmong family acompany by translater, should be provided by the hospital. Or acompany by a family member who can speak some english.

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would just like to say that I didn't get the opportunity to watch this episode, but I will more than likely search for it via youtube.com or somehow download it.

Anyway, being Hmong, coming from an upper-medium wage family and having a shaman mother, I would like to put in my two cents.

It's not very likely that a hospital would have no hmong doctors. Most of my immediate family has a background in medicine, and I can sure as heck tell you that they've worked all over the nation. Many of them have even worked outside the U.S., so for there to be no Hmong doctors at that specific hospital is demeaning. At the most, the writer could've written in a Hmong doctor or nurse somewhere. I'm not trying to prance around a title, but am rather just stating the facts. Numerous other Hmong physicians, nurses, caretakers...etc., are being under-represented.

Secondly, shamanism being used in a hospital most definitely is an uncommon thing. It's almost like one's chances of winning the lottery. Why the writer chose to use this in the storyline is most bizarre to me. It is quite reminiscent of the "Doogie Howser, M.D." episode. Please, if you are going to portray Hmong people, by all means...be original.

Shamanism is not the only way Hmong people treat the ill. We understand western medicine and even before coming to the U.S., western medicine was practiced in Laos and other parts of southeast Asia. Like the Chinese and other asian groups, we also use herbs and other forms of sedatives to help the sickly.

Another point that I would like to make, not only to non-Hmong folks but to those who are Hmong as well, Hmong fathers most definitely can purchase $3,000 suits. If you want proof, you can sure as heck have my father's, or my brother's, or my uncle's...or cousins'. I know most of you mean well, but just because someone chooses to purchase an expensive suit does not mean they care any less for their family or that they want to flaunt their riches. Why can't we just be considered normal people? If this were a white father, would this even be an issue?

And, I know that I may come off pompous, but I feel as though some folks don't truly understand the diversity of the Hmong. It really is bothersome to be represented in such a stereotypical way. Not because it is true, but because it is simply ignorant.

One thing I will give the writer credit for is the reaction of the daughter. I would most definitely have reacted the same way if I were in her position. Although, I wouldn't say that it's because of my beliefs.

My family has a long line of shamans. But I, along with numerous friends, relatives, acquaintances, usually are not that abiding...even if it's for the sake of "our" religion. In fact, my brother and sister are Christians. I wouldn't say that no Hmong daughter would feel that strongly for her beliefs, but I can certainly say that she would opt for the treatment rather than her beliefs.

Next time the writer decides to write about the Hmong, how about featuring a Christian family who is westernized (NOTE: I DID NOT USE "AMERICANIZED".)? How about having the situation be discrimination because of assumptions that they are on welfare or that they don't speak proper english so that doctors can talk smack about them right to their faces and keep information from them? Believe me, my dears, that is more likely of a situation. Don't forget to add in that there's a Hmong nurse who's afraid of losing her job, so when people come to investigate the department, she follows orders and lies that all is well. Yes, the Hmong are capable of turning their backs on each other...just like any other culture. Shocker there? I think not.

I'll watch the video now.

12:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. The girl in this episode is ...I think Japanese. She's been in numerous movies where she's played a variety of Asians. I believe she was also in The Joy Luck Club, although I could be mistaken.

12:29 AM  
Anonymous Chelsey said...

I wish I've seen that episode. I would just laugh. No disrespect because I don't think any of the Hmong roles were played by Hmong but some other asians.

It's ridiculous.
The writers of Grey's Anatomy are amazing. They can relate the plot situation to the situation that the main characters are dwelling with in their lives. But the writers should have done more research instead of just a general overview of Hmong.

When the doctor ask "What is Hmong?"
Yeah, its common for people to ask that.

They portrayed 'Hmong' wrong because no one that rich with a 3k suit is that religious. So the father is religious enough to not let his daughter take modern treatment? But at the same time rich enough to be wearing a 3k suit? If he have a good job than he must be dealing with more "modern" things than some weird religious ritual and/or laws. He would know that his daughter needs the "modern" treatments.

Who the hell fly in a Shaman?
I've seen a video in which a Shaman was doing his ritual in a hospital room. It was an old video though.

Hmmm, I have to see this episode.

2:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmmm. I was watching this show on tv and i just thought, this is ridiculous. I mean me being hmong and also come from a shaman family, I just thought, what are they trying to do. First of all, if someone does get diganose with a tumor, we don't stop the doctors from performing a surgery and second of all, no hmong shaman goes to a hospital and perform a ritual...that was kind of weird. I was kind of disappointed that the actors and actress don't even speak a word of hmong because they weren't even hmong. Well, all I got to say is that if someone's going to write about the hmong culture, they got to do their homework, just don't assume that, that's what we do. Oh and also, is "Chu" even a hmong last name? I've never heard a hmong person with that last name.

12:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, does Hmong people actually do that? I'm Hmong and I've never seen or heard a Hmong Shaman performing at the hospital. It's kind of funny if you think about it. And I don't think I've ever heard a Hmong person with the last name "Chu"! Anyone know anybody with that last name?

12:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in the 80's, DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D., third season, episode "THAT DAMNED SHAMAN," had already featured a similiar plotline about the Hmong played by the Hmongs except their attorney. One of the feautred extra, the guy banging on the gong was a person my father knows, and even Doogie spoke Hmong. It is loosely based on Anne Friedman's book the SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN. I have not seen GREY's version, but I assume that there are Hmong shaman chanting and bangning a gong in real hospital, despite the comfort of other patients. Trust me, I am a Hmong. I have heard these things, and they are loud. Plus the inscense burning and chicken killing. In Doogie, they featured a live chicken. Freedom of Religion verses the comfort of others?

12:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey yeah I was trying to look up Hmong Doctors and your review came up. I agree with you for the most part but i didn't watch the show so I can't say i do for sure. Anyway if you know any Hmong doctors in Minnesota let me know.

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Xiong said...

For all the thrashers and bashers, I'm sure you guys, as much as you guys want the story to be perfect, will never be. The writer has done the best she can, to show a little side of the Hmong people. And here we are hanging her for some mistake that is in due part a conflicted argument about whats really right and wrong. Are you accusers right too? Just because you are Hmong does that mean you also know everything about yourself? As i know we all don't know much about our pasts because we didn't live it. After a story has passed through two people the story changes.
As for the writer, i think it was a bit off on my own, it's ok. You learn from your mistakes. Thats why your a writer. Not somebody who wants to hang someone else just because they think they have the right too. If i was doing a story about America, i would probably still get it wrong too. If we were so perfect at knowing other peoples history, we wouldn't be here okay.
Goood luck with the writings.

2:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1:the "hmong" dad is a korean actor on lost
2:the "shaman" is not even hmong to begin with, he is chineese

7:11 PM  

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