Partway in The Last of Us Part 2, Ellie is joined by her friend Jesse as they venture deeper into Seattle. They’re exploring an abandoned library when she brings up how Joel used to think she had a crush on him.
“I mean, you’re handsome and whatever… but I’m not into your type.”
“Yeah… that’s obviously what I meant.”
It’s a silly little moment that can be easily missed due to it being an optional piece of extra dialogue, yet it’s an important one. Naughty Dog’s sequel features one of the most diverse cast of characters in any mainstream blockbuster game, and unlike the controversy of Uncharted 4 (and Lost Legacy) it’s also appropriately cast. The writing however largely opts not to use any specific terms - for example, Lev is never referred to as ‘trans’ - which when applied to race can be seen as a bit colorblind. So it stands out when Jesse explicitly brings up his ethnicity.
Yes, games do already have iconic Asian characters, such as Ryo in Shenmue or Kiryu in Yakuza, while Sony’s next first-party release is Ghost of Tsushima where you play as Japanese samurai Jin. However, they exist because those games are set in Asia, which isn’t the same as a story and setting where being Asian is the minority. Prior to this, Sleeping Dogs was probably the most high profile game with an American-Chinese character as the lead, but even that took place entirely in Hong Kong. It makes me wonder whether Wei Shen would have been allowed to shine had he stayed as a cop in San Francisco, instead of going back home to ‘his people’.
For Asians, or indeed any marginalised people, the experience of only finding respect and recognition amongst your own isn’t uncommon - the most famous example being Bruce Lee, who achieved his level of fame only after leaving the US. As a British-Chinese person, I can’t speak for all Asians, but in the entertainment industry it’s not unusual for Chinese people to grow up in the West only to then find work either back in Hong Kong or making content specifically for the Asian market.
After all, partly why my parents’ generation has never been bothered by a lack of representation in Western media is because they just watch entertainment from Chinese service providers. But where does that leave someone like me, who grew up in Western culture and doesn’t want to live and work in Hong Kong?
That’s why it’s meaningful to see Jesse in The Last of Us Part 2, brilliantly played by Stephen Chang - he doesn’t just look like me, he’s also representative of my experience. Fair play that he’s also not the only Asian character, since there’s the Seraphite siblings Yara and Lev, as well as Whitney (better known as the Hotline Miami Vita girl).
It’s admittedly still a supporting role but Jesse isn’t just another stereotypical nerdy Asian male or, thank god, one who knows kung fu. Instead, he gets to be what few Asian males get to be depicted as - he’s a handsome, charismatic and funny guy. And that’s despite you first encountering him when he’s just broken up with Dina, who then hooks up with Ellie.
It would have been feasible for the story to just leave it there and keep him out of the picture, except he also arrives in Seattle determined to help Ellie in her quest for revenge. Unlike Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, where another male character unexpectedly drops into a story that had been solely focused on two women, he doesn’t feel like a third wheel either. You learn that Jesse and Dina have a history of an on-off relationship, which gets a little more complicated once she discovers she’s pregnant with his child. In a flashback, we also see Joel in a doting awkward dad mode and he mentions how he’s picked up on the way Ellie and Jesse spend time together, hilariously oblivious of his surrogate daughter’s sexuality.
Whatever your persuasion, the point is that Jesse is attractive and desirable, the opposite of all those quirky Asian sidekicks you laugh at rather than with, who are regularly portrayed as not being as masculine as other men or asexual.
The way he responds to Ellie in the above exchange is obviously a joke since she’s not attracted to him because of her sexuality, but there’s also a stinging truth in it.
Against my better judgment, I still have a couple dating apps on my phone even though it’s practically meaningless using them. Maybe I haven’t been witty enough in my bio or I don’t have enough interesting pictures, or maybe I’m just not anyone’s type. Then there’ll be times when anxiety-induced insomnia strikes and I find myself Googling why Asian men face racism on dating apps to further add to my insecurity.
Studies show that Asian men are frequently at the bottom of dating preferences for both women and gay men - even for Asian women - and there’s no doubt that the way they’re portrayed in all kinds of media is a contributing factor. Besides exploring revenge and the cycle of violence, I personally find it refreshing that The Last of Us Part 2 is also breaking the cycle of the Asian male stereotype.