Shortcomings: Coming to Terms with Asian American Identity

In Adian Tomine’s graphic novel, Shortcoming, Ben Tanaka, a Japanese American, is like a hamster in a cage; insecure and lonely, he is a willing prisoner of his small, narrow world at Berkeley where he clings to all people and objects of familiarity, obsessively trying to tie them down like his own constant pessimism traps him. Throughout the work the reader sees the double standards that Ben plays as he berates Miko Hayashi, his Japanese American girlfriend, for cheating on him with a Jewish, Native American, white-passing man, even though he himself cheats on her with a white woman. The insidious effects of white idealism are demonstrated most plainly in this protagonist, as he pines after blonde, blue-eyed beauties and denies his own internalized racism.

The result of this consistent inability to comprehend the feelings of those around him and himself, fuel his own insecurities as an Asian American male and ultimately leave him in a dazed loss by the end of the comic. Tomine explores the fragile sense of self that many Asian Americans have and how their desires to buy into the White American models that populate media lead to them further distancing themselves from their own ethnic and cultural identity.

At the beginning of this comic, Ben and Miko attend an Asian American Digi-Fest, where many Asian Americans submit their own original pieces and short films about their experience as an Asian American and life in the United States; it is a gathering where those of similar cultural identity can exert agency through the medium of film in an industry that is still dominated by white hegemonic forces around the world. However, while Ben scoffs at the films shown and questions, “[…]why does everything have to be a big “statement” about race?” Miko seems to shown genuine interest in the exploration and themes of the festival’s entries.

As a matter of fact, while Ben seems completely indifferent about films of Asian American identity, he takes pride in his knowledge of many popular western films that we can assume do not talk about any issues of race. In his prideful statements, “That’s right…a real movie theater. Where none of those movies are good enough to play at,” about the theater where he works compared to the Digi-Fest, we can see the dominant force that western media has played in the formation of Ben’s ego and character. Ben takes pride in the distance that he puts between himself and fellow Asian Americans who hold concerns about racism in the country. By devaluing their experiences and stories, he is seeking escape from the very hegemonic force that affects all Asian Americans living in the United States.

Unable to come to terms with his own self-hatred and race, Ben seems to have accepted the very racist stereotypes that other Asian Americans choose to fight. In doing so, he emasculates himself, playing into racist jokes about the size of Asian penises and lacking the confidence to initiate sexual intercourse with the white women he cheats on Miko with. In contrast, Ben’s only friend, Alice, is confident in her sexuality and eager to pursue sexual relations freely, having had a history of hopping from girlfriend to girlfriend. He also holds an idealized fascination for white women as is consistently pointed out over the course of the story, by both friend and girlfriend. And his porn collection of entirely white women is only part of what builds Miko’s growing insecurity as Ben’s girlfriend. Because he shows no sexual interest in her whatsoever and negatively comments on everything that brings her joy, we should not be as surprised as Ben when she cheats on him with Leon, a man who embodies the West’s fascination for stereotypical Asian exoticism. For both Ben and Miko, hooking up with a white-passing person is their escape: for Ben, from his Asian identity, and for Miko, from her dispassionate romantic relationship.

Ben’s life seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which his negativity causes the destruction of the day-to-day routine that the passionless man takes security in. He lacks both confidence and drive, completely without agency in his life we see him at the end of the novel alone and unsure of where paths will lead him next.

Some readers might choose to interpret the work as a statement that race might not have as big of an impact in simply being attracted to someone else as one might think, as Alice’s girlfriend, Meredith Lee points out, “[…]it’s possible that this guy might be in love with Miko regardless of race. And vice-versa.” However, in order to honestly claim this, we must also then deny the impact that negative portrayals and stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans have had through media and the general populace. And in his denial of these aspects of his identity, Ben ultimately loses everything that he thought he cared about, but even then he might not have even lost that much in the first place, which just adds to the vapid quality of his existence. If any of the common Asian stereotypical jokes in this work sound familiar than it would be hard to deny that they had some sort of impact on our lives as “Asian Americans.”

Works Cited

Tomine, Adrian. Shortcomings. Montréal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2007. Web. 28 Jan. 2019.

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