RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
What happens when someone who has spent the past 15 years in a doomsday cult finds their way to New York City? A lot of hilarious encounters and some awkward moments. "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" is a new Netflix sitcom written by Tina Fey. And in it, Kimmy, played by Ellie Kemper, leaves her underground bunker in Indiana for the big city, where she meets a cast of quirky characters and misfits. One of them is named Dong, played by Ki Hong Lee. The character's name, Dong, might tip you off to the fact that this character, or maybe the stereotypes he's based on, has stirred up a bit of a controversy about how Asian-Americans are portrayed in pop culture. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team wrote about the show and this character for the NPR Code Switch blog. She joins us now in the studio.
KAT CHOW, BYLINE: Hey, thanks for having me on.
MARTIN: Thanks for being here. So, who is this guy? What is Dong's back-story on this show?
CHOW: So, Dong is a really fascinating character. He's played by this Korean-American actor named Ki Hong Lee. And in the show, he is good at math, he works at a Chinese restaurant delivering food, he has an accent. And he's a Vietnamese immigrant who is always worried that he's going to be deported. Now, from a distance these are all stereotypes of Asian-Americans.
MARTIN: Yes. (Laughter).
CHOW: So, that's partly why some people, including a lot of Asian-Americans, are so worried.
MARTIN: So, immediately I think, but this is a Tina Fey show. She's a sophisticated comedian, not someone I would think would want to build a one-dimensional character just to play on these kinds of stereotypes.
CHOW: Right, exactly. And actually, Dong is a really nuanced character. For example, the very first time we meet Dong, he's walking into a GED classroom and he introduces himself to Kimmy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT")
KI HONG LEE: (As Dong) Hello. I am Dong.
ELLIE KEMPER: (As Kimmy) Hi, Dong. I'm Kimmy.
LEE: (As Dong) In Vietnam, Kimmy means penis.
CHOW: Yeah, so that right there is where Dong - he is completely flipping the script in a sense, where to Kimmy, you hear her laughing, and she's kind of stifling this giggle where you know she wants to make the same joke that he actually makes about her name. And in that way he's kind of reclaiming the joke. And that's what really gives people a lot of hope about his character.
MARTIN: But giving him the upper hand in the joke every once in a while clearly isn't enough to appease critics who don't like, you know, what they see as a stereotypical repetition of an Asian-American. I mean, first of all, let's talk about this guy's name, Dong. You can't be a member of a certain generation - mine - without conjuring up images of Long Duk Dong.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SIXTEEN CANDLES")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) His name is Long Duk Dong.
GEDDE WATANABE: (As Long Duk Dong) What's happening, hot stuff?
CHOW: Yeah, exactly. So, Long Duk Dong comes from this movie called "Sixteen Candles" in 1984. And Long Duk Dong is notorious for just a parade of stereotypes of Asian-Americans that haunted Asian-Americans who grew up in the '80s. So, Long Duk Dong for example, he was a foreign exchange student from some vague, unnamed Asian country. They don't even specify where. Everything about Long Duk Dong is just postured as so different.
MARTIN: But she's clearly - Tina Fey - in naming him Dong, she's clearly - wants to make some kind of connection.
CHOW: Right, exactly. And at the same time, I think she's pushing back on it because in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Dong is different because his foreignness actually makes the show better. His foreignness is why he fits into the show. His foreignness makes him a romantic interest of Kimmy.
MARTIN: So, you're saying that these stereotypes actually work to empower this particular character in this world, in this context, it works?
CHOW: In a way because the show is one that's all about foreignness. So, if you think about Kimmy's character, she was stuck in a bunker for 15 years and now she's in New York wondering what the city is all about. And Dong, who's an immigrant from Vietnam, is also kind of wondering the same things. And they're both helping each other out. And while they're both naive, they're also savvy and they're savvy together. And the thing about this sitcom is that we're rooting for Dong. And we're rooting for the actor Ki Hong Lee because until recently, there really weren't that many Asian-Americans on TV. And it's better now, but it's still rare. So, maybe in a perfect world where there were plenty of Asian- American characters, it's possible that Dong wouldn't bother us so much.
MARTIN: NPR's Kat Chow. She writes for the NPR Code Switch blog.
Thanks so much, Kat.
CHOW: Thank you.
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