Back to US Life Histories

My Experience With Television and Film in America

Kenny K. Yu

I arrived to this country from Cambodia in 1982 at the age of four. Television and film were as strange to me at first as was most aspects of America culture. In Cambodia there simply was no T.V. and there were only three movie theaters in the entire country, and those could only be viewed ever so often. Through my early experiences here I discovered that films were showed daily, and television was a major part of the American culture. Little did I know how much it would become part of my own culture as well.

My first memories of television are in black and white. I remember being wildly addicted to cartoons, especially Tom and Jerry. I liked them because they made me laugh regardless of the fact that I did not yet, in my early years, speak or understand English. I also had a hard time figuring out that the shows were not random, that they came on at a specific time. I also did not understand the function of the commercials, they seemed to just jump in at any time and interrupt my comedy with some senseless dramatization. Sometimes I thought my show was over, only to be happily surprised a few minutes later when it resumed. I didn't realize then that my ignorance to the vast subject of the television world went much further than that.

Living in a very restrictive environment, television was my door to the world outside. As my parents worked many long hours, my sisters and I spent the majority of that time right in front of the TV. Sometimes we would even fight over which channel to watch, or which show was best. My sister always wanted to watch strawberry shortcake, but I liked the Thundercats. Most of the time I got my way, because I was older. My parents believed that watching to much television would rot our brains. They saw it as an interference in our learning time. Coming from Cambodia, my parents were used to children learning by trying, and doing, not by watching a box with pictures in it. To them, television was for entertainment purposes only. They certainly weren't aware of, nor would they probably by able to conceive of, educational programming. But for me it was more than educational, it was the key to this American culture I was so eager to learn and become a part of.

In grammar school, first thing in the morning, everyone would talk about the things they had watched the day before. Since I was only familiar with a few cartoons, I would often miss out on these fun discussions. That's when I started watching channel 11. By watching shows like Sesame Street, I started to learn how to count my numbers in English and to began to learn my A-B-C's. This was a fun way of learning these things that before had seemed so hard. I liked being able to sing my letters as opposed to simply reciting them. But best of all, now I could participate in the morning discussions, I no longer felt left out of the crowd.

I believe that this is when the cultural transformation began to take place. As I grew older I began to watch other popular shows like Happy Days, Bionic Woman, and my personal favorite Wonder Woman. By watching these television shows, I quickly learned to like American culture. I started to fall in love with the beautiful girls that I saw on TV. Especially the ones in Happy Days. I greatly admired Fonzie and the way he attracted all the ladies. I admired him so much that I wanted to do everything I could to look like him! I started to put gel in my hair and began to wear blue jeans. I really wanted to buy a leather jacket, but I couldn't afford it. This made me very upset. I had no choice other than to wear my dad's cheap vinyl version. It wasn't fair, I just wanted to be cool like everyone else. I promised myself that someday I would get that jacket, I knew it would take a long time, but I didn't care. I was determined to own this great symbol of pride, if Fonzie had it, I had to have it too.

In Junior High, going to the show was the thing to do. Once again I was unable to join the masses as my parents were very strict, not to mention the price. Every once in a while my uncle would treat me to see a movie. I was excited at the mere idea of seeing and American film, after all, at home all we ever saw were mainly Chinese, and few Cambodian movies. Along with this excitement came a sense of fear that is hard to explain. For starters, American movies have much better sound systems, and much more realistic graphics than anything I was used to. For instance, the movie Friday the Thirteen was extra scary to me because I wasn't used to the build up that came before someone was about to be killed. Nor was I used to the gruesome methods and graphic details of the murders. That not to mention the explicit sex scenes and nudity. All of these things were very shocking to me, it made me feel uncomfortable and excited at the same time. It was very interesting to me that Americans use sex and violence to attract audiences. Although I was appalled by the crudeness of this behavior, I was still attracted to the fame and glamour of the spotlight.

As I continued to watch more films, I began to really enjoy watching James Bond movies. I liked the way the character had lot's of fancy special weapons, fast cars and not to mention fast girls. How exciting and fun it must be to be him. I felt that if I couldn't be a secret agent, then I would become a famous actor. That's when I really started to fantasize about being rich and famous. I had no idea at the time what show business was really all about.

As the years went by, I started to look past the glamorous aspects of television. I began to listen more closely to the stories being told by the stars themselves. Stories of how their privacy was constantly being invaded, and their families being torn apart. I read about the countless stars who have died of alcohol poisoning, drug abuse and overdose. I then started to think about my family and loved ones, and how they would feel if I got caught up in this dangerous scenario. I realized quickly that I had to get my priorities straight, and make the right decision towards a life best suited for me. I decided that I should not have let the thrill of the big screen go to my head, and that there were many things more important in life.

By letting go of this obsession, I began to read and travel more often. I was finally free to explore my Asian roots, and stop wanting to become someone I was not. I'm still amazed at how strong of an influence movies and television had on my as a young boy. I cannot say that I regret my years of viewing, for these mediums taught me things about American culture that I could not have learned otherwise. I do feel however that the media in this country is overrated, highly glamorized, and has way too much power over the minds of young adults. It frightens me to think of how my life may have been different had I let my self become immersed in this bloodthirsty business of fame. I thank my parents for teaching me to always think for myself, and never to let the desire for money or power cloud my decisions in life. Like the say in the movies "all that glitters, does not shine."

Back to US Life Histories