Personal Essay: "My Life as an Alien-American" by Arthur Chu
When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing POC voices, telling what it really means to be POC reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays about the experience of being POC in science fiction.
Personal Essay: "My Life as an Alien-American" by Arthur Chu
“Asians are aliens and aliens are Asians.”
It wasn’t a big presentation, even for a small liberal arts school like Swarthmore College. It was held in a classroom, not in one of the big lecture halls, attended mostly by professors who chuckled at the idea of studying racial tropes in pulpy space opera with barely contained derision. The presenter was a scruffy Chinese-American grad student who clearly got into this field of study by being an awkward nerd and whose awkward nerdiness torpedoed any gravitas his lecture might’ve had.
It was an unlikely setting for me to hear the words that would change my life.
“Asians are aliens and aliens are Asians,” he said, and it was like I felt a light switch flipping on inside my brain, whole seemingly unrelated puzzle pieces from my life snapping neatly into one big picture.
As a Chinese-American and as someone who’d been obsessed with science fiction my whole life, I instantly knew what he meant, even though I’d never put it to myself in quite those terms before. I followed along hungrily as he elaborated, but feeling like I knew what he was going to say before he said it.
The classic “Roswell Grey,” he said, was eerily similar to racist caricatures of the Japanese from World War II, only a few years before Roswell. Bulging, strangely ovoid eyes, a tiny nose and mouth, a grotesquely oversized forehead. Hairless, childlike, yet sinister.
I mean, yes, the typical explanation for why the “Grey” aliens looked like that was that they were to normal humans as humans are to apes—“hyper-evolved” versions of people.
But that was, he said, how Asians had been perceived by Europeans for hundreds of years. The idea of the “alien” civilization—highly advanced and highly cultured yet somehow inferior to “normal” people, missing some spark of humanity despite their dizzying intellect, unlikeable and unrelatable for all their frightening competence . . .
That was a set of tropes called “Orientalism” that had been applied to Asian cultures—the temples of India, the teahouses of Japan, the seraglios of Turkey—long before the science fiction genre existed.
He talked about how what was typically now veiled was, in the simpler times of the Golden Age, explicit. How the “primitive savages” our heroes had to fight through with fist and ray gun were stated outright to be “black men” based on stereotypes of Darkest Africa. And how, by contrast, the real aliens—the ones with advanced technology that our heroes had to fight with their wits and their strength of character—were stereotypes of the Orient.
There was Buck Rogers, who awakens in the future horrified to find the Earth conquered by the evil “Han” civilization, i.e. the Chinese. Buck must gather the white people who’ve fallen into barbarism and rebuild the United States of America in order to break Han tyranny.
There’s the slightly-more-subtle villains from Flash Gordon, the aliens from the planet “Mongo” led by “Ming the Merciless.” The people of Mongo look like humans with bright lemon-yellow skin and Asian features; the men wear Qing Dynasty-inspired robes and the women dress like hypersexualized Indian belly dancers. Ming, who lusts after Flash’s female sidekick Dale, at one point captures her, dresses her up in a degrading belly dancer outfit (as Jabba the Hutt would do to Princess Leia years later), and threatens to turn her into a member of his race using his “dehumanizing ray.”
The parallels get less blatant as time goes on. But once you see how easily the Orientalist tropes were invoked back in the Golden Age, it’s hard not to see their influence later on. Look at Gene Roddenberry’s Vulcans with their rigid traditions and humorless rationality masking a wild, perverse sex drive repressed within. Look at Stargate taking Orientalist fantasies about ancient Egypt and transposing them to a science fiction setting. Or look at George Lucas’s Trade Federation from The Phantom Menace—or, rather, just listen to them talk.
Look at me, and how I’d always been drawn to science fiction, and how I’d always sided with the aliens over the humans. My years of feeling awkward and alone and, well, alienated—afraid of my own emotions, unable to relate to my peers. My years of feeling like a freak, which my book smarts and straight-A grades only exacerbated.
It was all the same thing. The box I’d been put in my whole life for being who I was—the same box I’d end up in years later when I went viral as “That creepy kid from Jeopardy! who everyone hates because he keeps winning”—was the same box that held Ming the Merciless, Mister Spock, and Marvin the Martian.
The invader. The hyperintelligent inhuman threat. The weird foreigner who will never really understand Earthlings’ ways.
I’m okay with that. I look forward to the invasion’s eventual success, the defeat of all those all-American red-blooded good-old-boys and girls-next-door by our high technology and low cunning.
Because as a student of science fiction, I know that those Golden Age stories were wishful thinking. The newer stories come closer to the truth: In the long run, the aliens win.______________
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In 2014, Arthur Chu underwent a meteoric rise from random nobody to nationwide celebrity after winning $400,000 on the game show Jeopardy! Arthur was one of many people in the modern world to “go viral” for no obvious rational reason, undergoing hundreds to thousands of attacks every day online for his appearance, his behavior, and—yes—his racial background. He’s parlayed his viral celebrity into writing about the challenges of being a non-white nerd in today’s America. His wife is the science fiction writer, not him, but that doesn’t stop him having opinions about it.