We were asked to watch Mississippi Masala with the previous two films in mind, so here I consider some similarities and differences between the three depictions of Asian Americans coming into adulthood.
In any of the films, one could see that being Asian American placed the main characters in unique social niches, affected to various degrees by economic status and social expectations. The teens in BLT and Monkey Dance, and Meena in Mississippi Masala, knew the culturally-based hopes their parents held for them even when they were silent. In BLT, these parental pressures were something the audience might infer, as there were never adult authority figures on screen. Yet the common result of cultural norms (expectations from inside) and American stereotypes (expectations from outside) was not an outright rejection by the young adults, but rather narratives of adolescents struggling to find their own identities while acutely aware of what everyone else expected. Trends have been discussed, but ultimately I feel as though the characters just wanted happiness for themselves and for their parents (except for maybe BLT’s Steve). It was the internal negotiation of opposing needs that we saw playing itself out.
How much did their specific ethnic backgrounds matter? I think that each Asian group depicted—East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian—arrived and continues to exist within its own American context. In Monkey Dance, the parents were refugees of the Khmer Rouge genocide; in Mississippi Masala, Meena’s parents were exiles of Idi Amin’s anti-Asian regime, originally affluent in their homeland of Uganda; in BLT, the high school seniors were raised by upper middle class parents, who I assume came to America and worked very hard within the system to provide comfortable lives for their children. The disempowerment associated with being a refugee was visible to various degrees between Meena’s parents and those of the Cambodian students. Choosing to flee to America out of some sort of necessity meant that the children would not be able to freely pursue personal desires, whether those were educational or social. The BLT characters, on the other hand, seemed to be getting exactly what they wanted. Socioeconomic conditions mattered here.
Regarding how outside communities perceived the main characters, I believe it really depends on the level of “threat” each immigrant group poses to previous settlers. It came out in Mississippi Masala that Indian families were seen as “foreigners,” and “nothing but trouble” because of their economic accomplishments upon entering the U.S. Demitrius receives the criticism: “[He] think he got a white chick.” He angrily asserts to Meena’s father that Indians have come in, and instead of siding with African Americans, chose to employ the same oppressive attitudes as white society. The stereotypically competitive Asian American students push white students out of positions that would otherwise be theirs in colleges. Though this specific theme was not addressed in BLT, I saw it as a factor in the tension between “white jocks” and the Asian American characters. But perhaps this is drawing too much from outside information. Lastly, the Cambodian American students did not address any feelings of racial conflict within their social and economic spheres, but you could see it in their parents’ generation—Cambodian immigrants who were trained as professionals in their home countries were regarded as uneducated once in the U.S., then relegated to cheap labor positions. Establishing Cambodian refugees as a low-threat population economically has allowed for existence of a harmoniously unfair social structure. But of course, this is changing.