Tim Kang: Almost the subject of Nikkei Heritage Science Issue Editor’s Note


In an early draft of my editor’s note for the science issue of Nikkei Heritage, I made mention of an Asian American actor who appeared in a Shell gasoline ad. It turns out said actor was Tim Kang, whom I recently interviewed for the Nichi Bei Weekly. Here’s the original draft, in which I make reference to Tim in the second paragraph, not knowing, at the time, who he was:

Science: it’s given us nanotechnolgy, Wi-Fi, space travel, X-rays, CAT scans and biotech. In short, it’s what makes our modern world modern. Yet despite all the exciting, sexy things it does for us, science (and scientists) get a bad rap. They are stereotyped as being dry and boring, at best, and at worst as being “spacey” and completely unable to understand the world in qualitative terms. This happens to coincide with another stereotype: Asians are boring and unable to understand the world in qualitative terms – and therefore, they make great scientists.

The gas station around the corner from my apartment has a new video ad that plays while you’re pumping fuel. In it, two men in lab coats (we’re to assume they are scientists) explain the advantages of using their brand of gasoline. One of the men is white; he looks somewhat aged, and he’s thin and bald. The other man is Asian; he’s young, muscular and handsome. I like the ad a lot, and it’s sort of cool to see a good-looking Asian dude as part of a prominent campaign — my partner has expressed (repeatedly) that she doesn’t mind either. But there’s something interesting at work here. I think that there’s a good chance that, if he weren’t Asian, they wouldn’t have chosen an actor that handsome or masculine. The fact that he’s Asian alone (and wearing a lab coat) makes him believable as a scientist.

There are plenty of scientists who do fit stereotypes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. These people cure diseases and prevent us from dying in car crashes — asking them to also not conform to stereotypes seems a bit silly. However, this issue we happen to have the stories of many Nikkei scientists, whose scientific achievements were made possible not by a detachment from humanity, but by their remarkable compassion for mankind: Linda Dairiki-Shortliffe, a pioneering surgeon in a field notoriously unwelcoming to women. Ruby Ichinose MacDonald, who had a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Sussex in England and the University of Chicago, and then decided to spend her would-be retirement teaching underprivileged youth in a public high school. Tooru Nemoto, who traded his salaryman life in Japan to do research in San Francisco with the transgender and sex worker community. And Michio Kaku, one of the leading figures in ‘String Theory,’ — as well as the host of a nationally syndicated progressive radio show.

Nikkei Heritage even took some time out to chat with two prominent Nikkei who, like Kaku, are using the airwaves to educate and entertain the world (as well as dispel the image of the boring scientist). Our summer issue features an exclusive interview with “The Nature of Things” host David Suzuki, one of the world’s foremost environmentalists, and Grant Imahara, special effects guru and host of TV’s “Mythbusters.”

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