Pokemon was a huge part of my life growing up. Even though I’ve fallen off of the franchise a bit, the upcoming release of Sword and Shield is getting me excited about it all over again. It’s also given me cause to reflect on my experiences growing up with Pokemon, from Blue all the way up to the games on the 3DS. In doing so, I realized that many of my memories of the Pokemon games are tied to my Chinese-American upbringing. These games have been with me my whole life, so it’s only natural that I see parts of myself in their characters and worlds. With that in mind, here are seven Pokemon that I especially associate with growing up Chinese-American.
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Ok, technically, they’re two separate Pokemon. However, they remind me of my Chinese-American upbringing for the same reason. Hitmonlee’s name is a reference to the famous martial artist Bruce Lee and Hitmonchan’s is an homage to Jackie Chan. To be quite honest, I didn’t even make the connection until I was in middle school idly browsing articles on the Pokemon wiki Bulbapedia. But at that moment, my mind was blown.
Growing up, I lost track of how many times I heard “You remind me of Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan.” I’m sure many other Asian-American boys have gotten this remark before too, and it’s not hard to see why. Representation of Asian Americans in American media is lacking. And in the midwest, I was probably the only Asian kid that my non-Asian schoolmates had met. Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were also probably the only other Asians they had ever even heard of.
I actually embraced comparisons, especially the Jackie Chan one, as I loved watching the Jackie Chan Adventures cartoons on television every day after school. Now, I just laugh at how silly this was, and I’m glad for the new ground being broken by shows like Fresh Off the Boat and movies such as Always Be My Maybe and Crazy Rich Asians that are slowly broadening and deepening Asian representation.
For a number of complicated reasons, many Asian immigrants’ parents aren’t very expressive when it comes to affection. So for many of us, gestures like our mothers preparing fruit for us to eat were some of the ways we knew she cared. Ferroseed reminds me of exactly that, since it’s based on a durian fruit.
My mom used to cut up different kinds of fruit, including durian, apples, and watermelon for me after dinner. I would tell my mom that I wasn’t hungry since it was literally right after dinner, but she would always retort with, “Doesn’t matter. It’s healthy.” Knowing I couldn’t argue with my mom, I let out a sigh and took the bowl of fruit back to my room and ate it while either doing homework, or when I was in college back home during break, watching YouTube videos.
I’ve been out of college for three years, and since then been living on my own in a completely different state. The eclectic variety of fruits in those bowls is gone. Now I usually just eat a banana in place of my mandatory post-meal snack, in some futile effort to convince myself that I’m actually being healthy.
My parents and I talk on the phone once a week, and my mom always asks if I’ve eaten any fruit. The answer is always “Yeah I had a banana.” I can hear the disappointment in her voice. She usually then tells me to come back home so that she can cook for me, in her words, “some actual good food.” It’s always a tempting offer.
You might be thinking that Braviary isn’t like the Pokemon I’ve discussed so far. It looks like the most American, most patriotic Pokemon ever. And that’s exactly the point. Braviary speaks to my identity as not only Chinese, but also American. As Asian Americans, we often struggle to navigate our dual identities. Hell, I can barely speak Chinese, as my parents thought it would be better for me to focus on learning English in order to survive in the United States.
In America, most people will see me as just Chinese or generally just Asian. When I was younger, people would ask me, “Where are you from?” I’d answer, “Ohio.” Then they would retort, “No, where are you really from?” It took me a few years to understand what people meant by that. They expected me to say a name of an Asian country, like China, or Japan.
Nowadays, I don’t hear that as much anymore and most people just accept it when I say “Ohio.” I’m not sure if it’s the modern political landscape or that I’m just in a more progressive city now, but I’m definitely thankful I don’t have to elaborate further.
I grew up loving hip hop culture when I was younger, especially artists who used it to vent frustrations about inequality and oppression. Growing up in the Midwest, I hardly had any other Asian friends, and I latched onto the identity of the “Tumblr Swag Asians” I saw on the internet. These were other Asian American teenagers my age from more diverse places than Ohio like California and New York who were seen as “cool,” and because I didn’t have any other role models who looked like me, I desperately tried to copy their fashion sense.
That’s where Scrafty comes in. Scrafty reminds me of these teenagers who adopted streetwear as part of their identities. The problem for me back then was that I didn’t have any money. When I went to college and got my first job, I was finally able to upgrade my wardrobe. I started shopping at places like Adidas, Topman, H&M, and Forever 21. Now, almost a decade later, I work full time and I was able to buy some of the brands I saw those teenagers wearing, such as Antisocial Social Club, and Supreme. Hopefully one day, I’ll have enough money to buy that Bape hoodie I’ve always wanted.
This one is self explanatory. Pandas are synonymous with Chinese culture, and are often compared to the yin-yang symbol due to their black and white coloring. They’re also considered good luck in Chinese culture. Setting aside the cultural aspect, what’s not to love about these animals? Pandas are absolutely adorable. Pangoro isn’t quite as cuddly as its real-life inspirations, though.
Of course, there’s another association many Americans have with pandas: Panda Express. Many Asian Americans my age don’t care for the restaurant chain, calling it “inauthentic Chinese food.” However, Panda Express has a history of adapting in order to survive. The restaurant launched orange chicken in 1987, with its sweet flavors to cater to American audiences. The company’s Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Chreng explains it the best:
“The first generation was about survival,” Cherng says. “The second generation is about heritage and individual expression. Not only do we get to shape the dialogue around food, but now, we get to shape the dialogue around culture.”
Here Chreng also describes the relationship between many second generation Asian-American kids and their immigrant parents. The first generation parents immigrated to a new country in order to seek a better life, so that the second generation children would be able to pursue new opportunities. Inevitably, that means sometimes-difficult dialogue about culture, identity, and symbols — like the panda.
Drampa may look like your run of the mill Chinese dragon, but to me it represents something deeper. In Chinese culture, often times grandparents act as babysitters for their grandchildren while their parents are off at work. And thus, Drampa reminds me of my own grandparents because of its kind hearted nature, as well the fact that it is based off the Chinese dragon Zhulong, which is a creature with the face of an old man and the body of a dragon.
Having my grandparents around afforded the opportunity for my parents to focus on advancing their careers to provide for our family and not worry about my wellbeing back at home. But eventually, my grandparents couldn’t stay any longer and I spent the rest of my elementary school years at a daycare.
On a side note, I absolutely love Drampa’s Ultra Sun Pokedex entry, which says “If a child it has made friends with is bullied, Drampa will find the bully’s house and burn it to the ground.” While not quite as extreme, my grandpa once gargled water into his mouth and spit it at group of bullies who made me cry on the playground.
Any Pokemon fan who has played the Generation 1 games is aware of the story surrounding Cubone’s mother, Marowak. Cubone’s mother was killed trying to protect it from Team Rocket, and the player needs to face off against her ghost in the Pokemon Tower to set her spirit free.
I know every parent would do anything for their children, but this rings especially true for Asian immigrant families. My dad often told me stories about how he grew up in China’s countryside, away from convenient forms of transportation. He had to walk miles to school and when he came back he had to help out my grandparents with their farm. In addition to that, he also somehow found time to study and excel in his classes. My dad told me that he never wanted me or my sister to ever have to go through the hardships he experienced growing up, and that’s why he decided to bring our family over from China to the United States.
Many immigrant families leave literally everything behind: their belongings, family members, and friends, in order to come to another country to seek a better life. My parents wanted my sister and I to have better lives than they did growing up, and be able to provide us with opportunities that they themselves were never able to have. Thus, Marowak is very similar to many Asian parents — willing to sacrifice anything to protect their children.