‘We’ve been seen as less than men for so long’: John Cho reflects on breaking stereotypes in ‘Harold & Kumar’

  • John Cho recently spoke in an interview with GQ about how his film franchise “Harold & Kumar” was ahead of its time.
  • “Its posture towards race is to laugh at it. Instead of elevating it, it took the stereotypes and turned the sock inside out. Looking back, I think we were ahead of our time a little bit,” he said.
  • “In America, everyone sees your race first, but that’s not the way you feel,” Cho said. “I never feel Asian, necessarily — it’s the world that makes me think about it.”
  • Cho starred alongside Kal Penn in the film franchise at a time when AAPI actors hardly ever headlined major Hollywood productions — a pattern that’s only begun to shift in recent years.

John Cho may be long past his days of weed-fueled road trips in “Harold & Kumar,” but almost 20 years later, the actor reflected back on how the film franchise may have been ahead of its time. 

Cho, now 50 years old, spoke on the years he reprised the titular role of Harold along with Kal Penn as Kumar in a recent interview with The Guardian: “Its posture towards race is to laugh at it. Instead of elevating it, it took the stereotypes and turned the sock inside out. Looking back, I think we were ahead of our time a little bit.”

The original 2004 film “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” followed by “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” (2008) and “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas” (2011), starred Cho and Penn at a time when AAPI actors hardly ever headlined major Hollywood productions — a pattern that’s only begun to shift in recent years. When they were on screen, it was to push a stereotypical narrative far removed from the reality of many Asian Americans. 

“In America, everyone sees your race first, but that’s not the way you feel,” Cho said. “I never feel Asian, necessarily — it’s the world that makes me think about it.”

He continued: “I don’t want this to sound whiny, but we have been seen as less than men for so long. I fully appreciate that Asian men who are younger than me may be living in a different world, but certainly my generation was dismissed by larger society so much, and I just know from all my friends that they had a breaking point. And when it happened, you didn’t want to be around to see it, because the clenched fist in the pocket was often literal — it could come flying out. It was definitely a young man thing, but it was also informed by a culture that doesn’t value us very much. We grew up with that, and it took me some time to untangle it and to calm down and to not think that people are after me.”

Generational differences may play a role in these views, he noted, pointing to how his father’s generation may not have been so easily affected by such harmful narratives. 

“You can call them every ethnic slur in the book,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to them. They didn’t grow up here. I was thinking people in Asia don’t really think of themselves as Asian per se, because they’re the majority – they just are, just as a white person walks around without needing to put an adjective before white.”

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