I take pride in that I have watched Mad Men—an American period drama with 92 episodes—three times. And during the pandemic I went in for a fourth, because as the psychology suggests, in times of uncertainty we magnetise back to things we can predict—a comfort mechanism that revolves around control, if you like. My obsession, really, comes down to protagonist Don Draper’s relatability. Jon Hamm plays a lauded creative genius at Sterling Cooper, a small advertising agency on Madison Avenue. But what part, specifically, of this broodingly handsome, tall, successful, rich, white ad-man in the 1960s could I possibly attach myself to?
In a flashback to the Korean war, Draper (real name Dick Whitman) accidentally drops his lighter onto the oil-soaked dirt which ignites a deadly explosion. The blast killed and seared his superior, the real Don Draper, beyond recognition. Whitman, then, in a knee-jerk reaction, steals his dog-tag and assumes his identity to not only desert the war effort, but to escape his abusive and poverty-stricken life at home.
Matthew Weiner, the master director behind Mad Men, and his unparalleled band of writers were immaculate with the detail in regard to Draper’s existentialism. In one episode’s conclusion, Draper and his trophy wife, Betty, take the kids—Sally, Bobby and their newborn, Gene—around the neighbourhood to trick-or-treat. They arrive at the home of Carlton, a family friend, who acknowledges the kids’ Halloween costumes; the parents are seen in their normal everyday attire. It then cuts to a mid-shot of Carlton who looks up, off-screen, and says with supposed wit to Draper “And who are you supposed to be?”. The episode ends with a slow zoom-in on Draper, his face showing visible signs of suppressed inner turmoil. Carlton wasn’t just teasing him, he was teasing me, too, as if he knew my own troubles.
Who am I supposed to be? British? Chinese? An equal dose of each? Draper mirrors, in some ways, my own conflict of being British born with Chinese blood, and the racism I’ve experienced along the way. There are people with whom I have talked with personally about how they wished they were white and resented their parents for being Asian themselves. Pain soaked their words as they implied that they were born into a world that wasn’t made for them. It hardens a lump in my throat to learn of these accounts of racial self-hatred, because growing up I was very much guilty of the same thing.
The Western media portrayal of East Asians had, and still has, a huge influence on the way we present ourselves to the outside world. They’ve caricatured Asian men as effeminate, nerdy, and utterly incapable of courting the opposite sex. As a confused teenager, when I’d be in a class with another East Asian kid and they would display the aforementioned, stereotypical characteristics, I’d watch them closely. I’d watch them because I didn’t want to be like them. I’d avoid displaying any Asian traits that the West finds undesirable. I just wanted the country I was born in to accept me.
In another Mad Men episode titled ‘5G’, Draper’s half-brother, Adam Whitman, notices his picture from an award ceremony in the newspaper and tracks him down, having believed that he died in the Korean War. But Draper couldn’t risk having remnants of his past interrupt his inauthentic life. He offers Adam $5,000 to leave and to never return. The innocence in Adam’s face to find out his only surviving family member is not only alive and successful, but wants him to disappear forever, is painful.
This seemed to resemble my own rejection of my Chinese heritage, and being paranoid of it following me around in British society. I never used to utter a word of Cantonese in public in fear of racist retaliation. I listened to heavy, masculine American music like Slipknot to counteract the Asian stereotypes of weak effeminacy. I read books by white, rather than Asian, authors and moulded my mind along their lines of thinking. These cultural markers that I took on—the language, the music, the books—became my symbol of Draper’s dog-tag switch. I felt ashamed—the men in the street with their mock kung-fu vocalisations, the sharp ‘C’ word that sub-humanises me. In hindsight, talking to my Asian brothers and sisters, I began to understand why I cut off cultural ties: it was for survival.
But it feels as though things are changing. The media’s usage of Asian imagery when reporting on COVID-19, such as images saying “You are the virus. You are the culprits.”, has resulted in a recent petition by six East and South East Asian women, conceived out of a collective anger. The silence has been broken. My reliance on adopting a Western mind to survive has since waned. I have matured, and I’m learning a lot about how I manifest my true self in both the Western and Eastern worlds. Unlike Draper, whose identity theft is a crime, I am free of legal consequences when expressing my troubled past. Maturity is signalled to start when you are brave enough to face yourself.
Draper’s development in its entirety is reassuring; his questions are explored and answered by Weiner and the writers, like a dress rehearsal of what an identity disaster could be. I still haven’t lived out my own life; I’m still changing. I’m shaped by external forces and still finding my answers.
When I was young my mother always loved to use Chinese philosophy on me. One saying translates from Cantonese as such: by re-visiting you will always learn something new each time. I probably won’t completely resolve my identity crisis even if I watched Mad Men for a fifth, sixth, or seventh time. But with each viewing, I’ll respond to Carlton by admitting that I don’t know who I am supposed to be, but I hope to have a different answer than I did the last time.
Words by Anthony Cheng
This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.
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