Now That’s Reality TV

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image by Matt Mignanelli

My family believes itself to be camera-ready in spite of being Chinese. So much so that when we tried out for the game show Family Feud, we mistakenly believed that it didn’t matter whether you won or lost, it was how you appeared on camera.

The 1970s had just ended. Charlie’s Angels had not yet been integrated. There was no Survivor with a“Team Asian.” No liberal multiculturalism (nor yet its cynical detractors). Growing up, I learned to keep a low profile; the Vietnam War was coming to a messy conclusion, and a Filipina in New York had been pushed in front of a subway train after being mistaken for a member of the Viet Cong. It seemed proof that we all looked alike, a fact that might have great consequence for the criminally insane. Nevertheless, it was reasonable to think that times had changed.

I had never harbored a fixation about being on television, even though lately it seems to have taken hold of the American imagination. My sister Nancy spotted an opportunity for tryouts while she was interning for That’s Incredible!, a real-person talent show hosted by John Davidson, Fran Tarkenton, and a spunky Cathy Lee Crosby. (Nancy actually persuaded Tarkenton to sign a rude autograph for our little sister, Melissa, that read “To Melissa, President of the Sissy-Butt Club. Best Wishes, Fran Tarkenton.” This club, invented by me, required you to wear an inverted bucket over your head; I’m not sure why.)

The day of our audition, my sisters and I wore sundresses and heels; we believed that approximating the feminine ideal would increase our chances of getting on the show. Hopes of meeting then-host Richard Dawson, serial kisser, were deflated; tryouts were held in a generic Marriott near our town, far from Hollywood, but crowded with hopefuls who, like us, wanted their 15 minutes of fame. We firmly believed in our collective cuteness and, intuitively, that the time was right for more Asians on TV–after all, Sesame Street was multicultural.

So strong was our faith, our subtle challenge to the concept of meritocracy, that we didn’t realize that we would have to actually play the game. Ushered into an overly air-conditioned conference room, we were confronted with our opponents, a family still standing after roundly defeating a seemingly identical group of wannabes who lingered on the margins, apparently uncertain whether or not they had been dismissed. Our competitors were yellow-haired, corn-fed folks–frightful in their average Americanness–who had driven all the way up from Fresno to be there. They wore T-shirts shouting out various slogans, attire that we found somewhat incomprehensible but now seems entirely appropriate. They didn’t bother to dress up; they had only to be themselves.

It goes without saying that the secret to Family Feud–and its beauty–is that you have to reach for the lowest common denominator. The highest scores accrue to the most common answers in a survey of a mythical 100 people. If you fail to come up with an answer that the majority of middle Americans might come up with, your opponents get the chance to steal the board. Forget eccentricities, regionalisms, or human uniqueness; winning the game depends upon answers everyone else would say.

The game started promisingly with Nancy, our most competitive and most spunky, acting as team captain. She faced off against a teenager wearing a lowest-common-denominator kind of outfit–his shirt ordered us to FALL INTO THE GAP! I suspected he might be an albino; blond eyelashes seem so, so wrong.

At the moment the stand-in emcee announced our first category–Patriotic Songs–we realized we were sunk. But my sister rammed the fake button so hard at this announcement that she almost toppled the makeshift lectern marked “Property of the Burlingame Marriott.” “America the Beautiful!” she cried.

“Good answer! Good answer!” We supported her enthusiastically, thinking that it was spirit and good looks that counted most. Her competitiveness won us the right to guess America’s top nationalist melodies first, and we did well going down the line: “The Star-Spangled Banner!” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee!” “Yankee Doodle!” we shouted.  We wanted to be on TV. We wanted to be the Hatfields or the McCoys, it didn’t matter which.

Then the emcee reached my father. “Dixie!” he hollered. I don’t think you could find another Chinese man in the continental United States who conceives of this song as patriotic, but my father is from an anomalous Chinese American enclave in the Deep South and old habits die hard. I guess “Dixie” would be patriotic if you lived in the Confederacy in, say, the 19th century. Still, we gamely screamed “GOOD ANSWER! GOOD ANSWER!” as if to make up for his deficiency. And then, “HOOray! HOOray!”

The eccentricity cost us. In desperation, my sisters and I began bouncing up and down, clapping loudly for added measure, our cotton dresses flapping around us in the frigid air of the hotel room. Be spunky; nobody hates spunk–that’s what we’re all about. We still believed that it was not accuracy–how best you could approximate the norm and parrot it back–but personality, charm, and good old-fashioned can-do spirit that ultimately mattered. We thought that post-1970s America was ready for the spectacle of racial competition. So what if Detroit was losing ground to Japanese automakers? So what if Chinese kids were destroying the curve in math classes around the nation? So what if the country was still smarting from having failed to heed the wisdom–never get involved in a land war in Asia–later offered by Vizzini in The Princess Bride? We were wearing sundresses, dammit. We were Chinese, yes, but we were cute.

We were not invited back. We would never lock lips with the esteemed host. Our ability to mimic national fealty was only adequate, not prize-winning. We were crushed, but it wasn’t about the money. It was also not difficult for me to suspect that our inflated opinion of our ethnic attractiveness might be inaccurate–as Joe Jackson sings, they say that looks don’t count for much and so there goes your proof. Or maybe there was another reason; the thing about being a minority is that you never really know for sure.

My Chinese American family had lost fair and square to the real Americans, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the temporary emcee had had it in for us and selected that category purposely, not sharing our collective belief in our ready-for-prime-time qualities, our trust that times had changed, our faith in television itself.

But to think this way would mean that you had developed the kind of consciousness that would cause you to steer clear of subway tracks, suspecting that at any moment someone was going to mistake you for a communist and push you into the path of an oncoming train, no matter how pretty you were.

Leslie Bow is associate professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion and the forthcoming book Partly Colored. Reprinted from the Michigan Quarterly Review(Spring 2008);

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