When I was in elementary school, a playground squabble with a non-Vietnamese classmate left me consciously suppressing my Vietnamese identity thereafter. I was just a kid then, so when said classmate threw a petty racial slur at me, it was really unsettling, and a sort of ethnic chagrin stayed with me.
But, when you’re growing up in a Vietnamese family, eating Vietnamese food daily, and even taking Vietnamese language lessons every Saturday because your parents are absolutely convinced that’s how elementary school-aged kids want to spend their weekends, it becomes impossible to eschew something so patently part of you. So, even though I outwardly tried to distance myself from my Vietnamese-ness, inwardly I still longed for a way to reconcile with my ethnic identity. Being a kid and a bit of TV junkie, I looked to Vietnamese on television for solace. (Adolescent me reasoned that if you appeared on TV without an embarrassing mug shot or a Jerry Springer-type headline under your name, you were someone to take note of.)
One of the figures I found solace in was a 2D man, a 2D man by the name of Mr. Hyunh (A mispelling of the common Vietnamese last name Huynh).
A Childish Need and a Crude Asian Man?
For those of you not familiar with him, Mr. Hyunh was a character on the hugely popular Hey Arnold!, a cartoon created by producer Craig Bartlett and broadcasted on Nickelodeon from 1996 – 2001. Despite the ambiguous spelling of his last name, Mr. Hyunh was introduced as a Vietnamese immigrant living at the Sunset Arms, a boarding house owned and managed by the title character’s grandparents.
Now at first glance, Mr. Hyunh doesn’t seem like one to take much pride in. In fact, it’d be easy to tack on him a big, bold “STEREOTYPE” or “TOKEN ASIAN” label. He’s loud and uncouth with a malt-thick accent. He’s overly fastidious when it comes to laundry, and he’s known to be a bit on the hooky-kooky side. Especially with his conspicuous mustache, Mr. Hyunh bares a dangerous resemblance to the sinister Fu Manchu, the fictitious embodiment of Yellow Peril from the early 20th century.
However, there have been plenty of moments on Hey Arnold! wherein the producers have approached Mr. Hyunh with a true cultural sensitivity. The mere fact that Craig Bartlett even specified Mr. Hyunh as Vietnamese is enough to raise both an eyebrow in wonder and a hand in applause. It goes without saying that Asians are sorely missing from mainstream American media, and even when included, “Asian” usually translates to Chinese, Japanese, or sometimes Korean.
Consider this: the only other Vietnamese embraced by mainstream television I can think of in the 80s and 90s were actors Thuy Trang and Dustin Nguyen. Trang played the yellow ranger Trini Kwan on Power Rangers, a Chinese character. Nguyen played Steven Ioki on 21 Jump Street (a long-running detective show with Johnny Depp) and Steven Loh on V.I.P (another detective show, but with Pamela Anderson). Nguyen played Japanese and Chinese characters, respectively.*
So, given the paltry number of Vietnamese on television, the very existence of a distinctly Vietnamese character on American TV—on a kid’s show no less—is really quite something to marvel at. But that’s not all. As crass as he might’ve been, Mr. Hyunh was a multi-layered character, and I daresay that Mr. Hyunh’s presence played an integral part in creating the show’s legacy.
Mr. Hyunh, Vietnamese Idol?
Some of the most beloved episodes of Hey Arnold! figure Mr. Hyunh prominently. For instance, in the episode “Mr. Hyunh Goes Country,” it’s revealed that Mr. Hyunh has one of the sweetest-sounding, country-singing voices you’ll ever hear, and he is even given the chance to become a chart-topping country super star. But Mr. Hyunh rejects riches and fame because he prefers a simple life—a life with close friends and a humble job.
Now I’m not sure this goes along with the emerging Vietnamese-American ethos of make-lots-of-$$$-and-all-the-prestige-you-can-garner-along-the-way, but I certainly feel like his rejection of the celebrity life for a simple life speaks volumes to the resilient spirit of Vietnam itself. Vietnam is very much a country still in the process of recovering from suffering in one form or another, and Mr. Hyunh’s actions reflect Vietnam’s desire to find stability and tranquility again. It’s admirable. If you want to get academic, you can even say that Mr. Hyunh’s actions represent a rejection of the yellow peril myth: Asians aren’t out to take over every part of your world; they just want to find peace with themselves. (A bit of a stretch, I know.)
Also, the Hey Arnold! Christmas special “Arnold’s Christmas”—one of my personal favorites—is a poignant episode that revolves around none other than Mr. Hyunh. In this episode, we learn about Mr. Hyunh’s back-story. He’s not just any Vietnamese immigrant. He came to America with a specific purpose: to find his long-lost daughter, Mai Hyunh. In this episode, it is revealed that in the early 1970s, when Vietnam was at one of the most tumultuous points in its history, Mr. Hyunh had to hand off his daughter to an American G.I. in a helicopter so that she might have a better life. Mr. Hyunh’s life is shown in flash blacks that allow unembellished glimpses into Vietnam’s history. No casting of judgment, no pandering to sentimentality—just an unadulterated look at an all too sad, all too true, and surprisingly not infrequent story of one Vietnamese man’s past. At the end of the episode (spoiler alert!), Mr. Hyunh does reunite with Mai, and they embrace in Vietnamese. I’m willing to bet a C-note that this is the only time you will ever hear perfect Vietnamese spoken on an American kids’ cartoon. I know my heart leaped a bit when I heard it.
So yeah, he may have just been a cartoon character, but Mr. Hyunh had a profound impact on me as child. To be honest, Mr. Hyunh was also one of the first exposures to Vietnam’s past. As a kid, my parents never talked about their life back in Vietnam, and you certainly don’t learn much about Vietnam in elementary social studies. Mr. Hyunh’s admirable presence made me proud to be Vietnamese again, and he reminded me that the Vietnamese are a humble, resilient breed, doing our best to survive in a world that has been too cruel (to just about everyone, actually, not just Vietnamese). Through Mr. Hyunh, kids across America actually had an honest exposure to Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese history. When I think about this, that accent of Mr. Hyunh doesn’t sound too bad after all…it’s actually quite endearing now. And you know what? At least it’s a real Vietnamese guy doing his voice, not someone imitating an accent (think Apu on Simpsons—voice actor is not Indian).
If you ever watched Hey Arnold! as a kid, do you agree with my analysis of him? Or can you think of any other instances of American cartoons acknowledging Vietnamese people? Alternatively, did you have any Vietnamese people in the media that you looked up to when growing up?
*To 21 Jump Street’s credit though, there is an episode wherein Nguyen’s character Ioki reveals that he’s actually a Vietnamese man who has to adopt a Japanese identity to avoid complications with the INS. But that’s a different issue all together.
Mr. Huynh in action – a country star is born!