Is Glenn Rhee the Most Beloved Asian American Male in the U.S.?

Guest Post by Ken Fong

I'm on vacation! This week, I'm taking a much-needed break to recharge the batteries and get a change of scenery. To keep things going around here, I've enlisted the help of several friends of the blog to submit guest posts on various topics of their choosing. Here's one from Ken Fong.

Spoiler alert: If you haven't kept up with The Walking Dead, don't read any farther.

A little more than three weeks ago, multitudes of fans of this hit show on AMC exploded with a collective shriek of disbelief that no doubt attracted multitudes of unwanted zombies to wherever they were watching when actor Steven Yeun's character Glenn Rhee was killed by hordes of the now-infamous reanimated corpses.

For those of us who hadn't read the graphic novel before the show aired, we were de-lighted when, during Episode 1 of Season 1, it turned out that the voice on the radio that guided Sheriff Rick to safety from the "walkers" surrounding the tank belonged to an Asian American character, Glenn Rhee. Even though I was creeped out by the horrific hordes of undead, I was immediately hooked on one of the few current TV shows that featured an Asian American in a heroic-without-being-a-badass-martial-artist role.

While one could certainly make the case for both Louis Huang (Fresh Off the Boat) and Dr. Ken Park (Dr. Ken) as examples of this, too, those characters (played by Randall Park and Ken Jeong, respectively) are on situation comedies, not a white-knuckle sci-fi horror drama. It's one thing to be heroically guiding your family through 1990's suburban life in Orlando (FOTB) or gamely practicing medicine in a zany modern-day HMO (Dr. K), but Steven Yeun's Glenn has been foraging for supplies and stabbing "walkers" in the noggin for five and a half seasons! And he's one of the only Asian American male char-acters on any screen who has wooed and won a non-Asian American wife. Like I said, while fictional, Glenn has become a heroic figure to many of us Asian American men. He's not that tall, he doesn't have six-pack abs, he doesn't wear the most fashionable threads (hard to come by in a zombie apocalypse, ok?), and he's usually soaked in a puerile mix of sweat, mud, and bodily fluids. But this Asian American dude is resourceful, reliable, romantic, and responsible.

Fans of the show have gotten used to seeing Glenn get himself and others out of can't-escape situations so many times now that we just assume we'll see him next week, hopefully back with his devoted wife Maggie. But at the end of Episode 3 "Thank You" of Season 6, Glenn is made to fall into the mangled maws of the zombies when his for-mer nemesis Nicholas commits suicide, and his suddenly limp body topples into Glenn, knocking him off the dumpster. Even as this was happening, I kept telling myself that, hopeless though this seemed, Glenn would find a way out. He couldn't die. He's my hero. But when his eyes bulged in horror as mangled teeth ripped out what appeared to be his flesh his entrails, I couldn't help but wail "nooooooooooooooooooo."

The internet exploded. #letglennlive and #glennlives came to life on Twitter. Fans of Glenn began to look for clues that he was somehow, some way, still alive. Wasn't Nicholas, the guy who shot himself, out of bullets? So maybe this was him hallucinating, meaning it actually hadn't happened. Or hadn't Nicholas' dead body landed on top of Glenn's, so while it appeared the zombies were eating Glenn's, they were actually feast-ing on Nicholas! And Chris Hardwick's follow-up show, "The Talking Dead," didn't list Glenn in its weekly "In Memoriam" segment. Plus Hardwick didn't have Yeun on his show, which he always does for any non-zombie characters who just died.

So we all tuned in the next Sunday, fully expecting the writers of TWD to end our grief. And what did they give us? A full 90 minutes that didn't mention Glenn at all. But they did remove Yeun's name from the credits (What?!?). And then this last Sunday, Glenn's wife shared that she was pregnant with their first child, but she was starting to think he was dead. Her attempt to avoid the zombies to find him failed, so the episode ended without resolving her and our dilemma. So we rabid fans of Glenn continue be fingering our prayer beads, lighting altar candles, and asking the Almighty for a miracle.

What I find fascinating is how many fans of the show have been devastated by Glenn's apparent demise. We cannot grieve for a stranger, for someone we didn't know or care deeply about. While Glenn isn't real, he has been an onscreen example of an ordinary mortal thrust into terrible circumstances, one who has fought through the darkness to find reasons to keep loving, keep hoping, keep looking, keep pushing back the endless legions. And yes, there have been plenty of actors -- male and female -- who have played similar roles and won a place in many hearts. But Yeun's Glenn stands out be-cause he is an Asian American male who's been on that hero's journey.

I'm going to lift up another prayer to the One that I worship to let Glenn live, to let him return to his Maggie, to hold their coming child, and to let him resume his essential place among those who've learned what it takes to keep living in a zombie apocalypse. But even if we were only led to believe that he had been killed, it's been amazing to see how beloved he was. No, how beloved his IS! #glennstilllives

Rev. Dr. Ken Fong is senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church of LA (Rosemead, CA) and executive director of Fuller Theological Seminary's Asian American Initiative and assistant professor of Asian American church studies. He's also the host of Asian America: The Ken Fong Podcast, which features weekly guests from all over Asian America.


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