Working at Blockbuster Made Me a Protagonist

Writer Nancy Wang Yuen on how her high school job—and its access to "foreign" cinema—led her to finally seeing herself as the main character

I will never forget my first high school job. The hiring manager was a lanky white dude who said I made “good eye contact” during my interview. I was staring at a pimple on his pasty forehead, but whatever. It was the 1990s, and I just landed my dream job at Blockbuster Video, which dominated home entertainment with more than 9,000 video stores in the United States and 65 million registered customers. I loved the POP sound of opening clamshell cases and dropping the black VHS tapes onto plastic spools, followed by the beep of the barcode scanner before squeezing the jaws shut with a snap and handing them over to customers. “Thank you for making it a Blockbuster night!” I’d repeat like a broken Sony Walkman. 

I rarely went to the movies as a kid because my immigrant single dad didn’t believe in paying for entertainment you could get for free on TV. But as a customer service representative at Blockbuster Video, I now had access to approximately 8,000 movie titles plus the employee perk of five free video rentals per week. 

“How OLD are you?” my associate manager Marco asked when he shuffled through my first set of free movie selections. A teddy-bear-like Latino man in his 30s with curly black hair styled like Groucho Marx, Marco picked up Fatal Attraction (1987) with a raised eyebrow. I was lured by the cover of Michael Douglas holding Glenn Close in a passionate embrace (is that his hand on her breast?), about to ravish her bare neck as she turns away from him. With its promise of white seduction, the choice made me feel very adult. But now I suffered the shame of getting carded for an R-rated film on my very first day of work.

“Sixteen.” I crossed my arms so Marco wouldn’t see the pit stains through my long-sleeved denim shirt.

Marco shrugged casually. “Not your typical teenage trash,” he said as he scanned the rest of my VHS tapes and snapped each clamshell shut before handing them to me. I ran out the door like a bandit with my stack of barely legal videos before letting out a squeal of relief. Marco instantly became my favorite boss.

After a month of grumbling about my “mature tastes” in titles like The Color Purple and Amadeus, Marco walked me over to the section labeled “foreign.” He extended an arm out in front of him with a spokesmodel's flourish and said, “You’re welcome.” 

I stared at the tantalizing covers—many with titles in languages I didn’t understand (but wished I did). The whimsical cover of Tampopo (1985) displayed a large bowl of ramen filled with a colorful cast of Japanese actors. In contrast, the austere cover of Babette's Feast (1987) showed a solitary woman in a long, dark, high-collared dress, walking with a basket in hand as the sun rose behind her. From then on, the “foreign” section served as my poor woman’s film school (especially since I only made $4.25 an hour). I cried my way through the coming-of-age stories of post-WWII European children in My Life as a Dog (1985), Au revoir les enfants (1987), and Cinema Paradiso (1988). My heart leapt when Julian Sands stomped wordlessly across an Italian field to sweep Helena Bonham Carter up in a passionate kiss in A Room With a View (1985).

But it wasn’t until I saw Ju Dou (1990), the first Chinese film ever nominated for an Academy Award, that my world shifted. As a young child in Taiwan, I took for granted that I was surrounded by people who looked like me, both on TV and in the streets. But after immigrating to the United States at age 5, I saw mostly white people on television, despite going to a Southern Californian high school where I was surrounded by Asian American classmates. Nothing on TV resembled my reality. Up until seeing Gong Li in Ju Dou, I did not fully realize my erasure from Hollywood’s imagination. The film showed me what it meant to look like a protagonist again.

Gong Li plays the titular character Ju Dou, an early 20th Century rural Chinese woman sold to a sadistically abusive man decades her senior. She eventually finds love, but it costs her everything. The film was revelatory, not so much for the story, but for Gong Li. I saw my own raw rage and tears reflected in her stunning performance. My mother always chastised me for crying too much and too easily—but here was someone who did both, and she was the heroine of a celebrated film. She not only looked like me, but her experiences and emotions helped me process my own childhood abuse. The film set me off on a mission to watch as many of her films as I could. I found catharsis and validation in each of her long-suffering roles, in period films like Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Farewell My Concubine (1993).

Leung’s Cop 663, especially when he wore a wife beater and tighty-whities, reminded me that attractive leading men could look like my uncle.

Later, I discovered Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai; I swooned over Chungking Express (1994), which starred Faye Wong and Tony Leung as star-crossed crushes. There was also a secondary love story about a broken-hearted police officer (Cop 223) played by the devastatingly handsome Takeshi Kaneshiro, and a femme fatale played by famous Taiwanese beauty Brigitte Lin. Cop 223 forever changed the way I saw expired cans of pineapple as a metaphor for rotten relationships, while Lin served the most killer blonde-wig-and-trench-coat look ever. Leung’s Cop 663, especially when he wore a wife beater and tighty-whities, reminded me that attractive leading men could look like my uncle.

But the character that captivated me completely was snack bar worker Faye (played by Wong). Her obsession with Cop 663 (who was still in love with his sexy flight attendant ex) captured the essence of all my high school crushes. I even bobbed my hair in a feeble attempt to approximate her pixie waif-look. As a fellow service worker, I identified with Faye’s desire to escape the drudgery of her life, as represented by her blasting the song “California Dreamin’” on repeat at work. Wong also sang a fantastic Cantopop cover of The Cranberries’ song “Dreams” on the soundtrack. Using my Blockbuster savings, I went to a local Chinese music store and purchased a pirated CD of the Chungking Express soundtrack. For an entire summer, I listened to Wong’s “Dreams” on repeat in my California bedroom, imagining what it would be like to live in Wong Kar Wai’s smoke-filled, color-saturated Hong Kong. 

Movies like Ju Dou and Chungking Express helped me see myself as the lead character in my own movie. But as a young person, I never questioned their place in the “foreign” section. After all, strangers regularly asked me, “Where are you from?” and sometimes they shouted, “Go back to your country!” Even the green card I had as a child said “RESIDENT ALIEN'' in huge capital letters across the top. “Alien” and “foreigner” were identities foisted onto me as soon as I stepped foot into the United States, and I never questioned them until adulthood. 

Fast forward to 2021, more than two decades after my last day at Blockbuster, when Minari won a Golden Globe award for best foreign language film. I felt torn about Minari getting honored under the “foreign” category. What should’ve been a celebration of an Asian American film getting a major U.S. award became a trigger for me. I ranted about how Minari’s win felt like the award equivalent to the backhanded racist compliment: "Your English is so good!" Set in rural Arkansas and written, directed, and produced by U.S. artists, Minari should have received a best picture, not foreign film nomination. When Minari’s Golden Globe nomination was first announced, Lulu Wang, director of The Farewell, tweeted: “I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year. It's a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterize American as only English-speaking.” Wang’s own excellent movie, The Farewell, suffered the same fate of being nominated the year prior for the Golden Globe best foreign language film award because of its majority-Mandarin dialogue. Asian Americans have long borne the perpetual foreigner stereotype in our own country—something that became an epidemic when anti-Asian violence surged in the United States alongside the COVID-19 virus.

Based on Korean American writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s life, Minari also captured aspects of my own Asian American life that I’d never seen represented before in Hollywood. Seeing 7-year-old David (played by Alan S. Kim) complain that his grandmother (played by Yuh-jung Youn) “smells like Korea” when she comes to live with them, I relived my own shame. When I was about 7 or 8, my nai-nai came to visit me from Taiwan and, after one night of sleeping in the same bed, I said, “Nai-nai, ni hao tso.” She looked horrified and sniffed herself with tears in her eyes. The truth is she didn’t stink. I loved (and missed) her scent of Ponds cold cream with a top note of moth balls. Maybe I resented being apart from her. Or perhaps I mistakenly thought that by distancing myself from her and what she represented would somehow make me more American—a form of internalized racism. Whatever the reason, I wish I could take it back and give her a big hug instead. 

These days, I reject the idea of borders and labels alike. When I (still) hear, “Go back to where you came from!” I think, “Not a bad idea!” During the rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic, I fantasized about returning to Taiwan—a first-world democracy that invented boba milk tea and provides universal health care. Growing up, I never reflected on the fact that I did not have a choice in my immigration. This epiphany came while watching The Farewell and seeing Billi (played by Awkwafina) tell her parents: “But you chose to leave. You were adults and you understood why. I was just a kid. Nobody ever asked me what I wanted or how I felt. I just had to trust you and you told me it was a good thing to leave, but it didn’t feel like a good thing.” In that moment, I realized I’d experienced similar trauma when I left my nai-nai, who raised me, to live with a father I barely knew, and in a country that alienated me on its official documents and in the streets.

Minari and The Farewell gave me invaluable insights into my Asian American childhood. The fact that both films were branded “foreign” by the Golden Globes felt like a dismissal of U.S. immigrant realities. According to the Golden Globes rules, any film containing 51 percent or more of any non-English language can only compete in the foreign language (now “international”) category; they cannot be considered for best motion picture prizes in drama or musical/comedy. But there is no official language of the United States, and English itself is a foreign language to the Americas. No other nation has as large an immigrant population as the United States. With the important exception of those descended from Native peoples and/or enslaved Africans, most Americans can trace their ancestry to an immigrant. The immigrant story is a fundamentally American story and should be celebrated as such.

Despite getting branded as “foreign” by the Golden Globes, Minari would go on to receive six nominations, including best picture in 2021 for the Oscars (which does not have language restrictions for best picture). For his performance, Steven Yeun became the first Asian American to be nominated for a best actor Oscar. Yuh-jung Youn won best supporting actress, making history as the first Korean actor to win an acting Oscar and the first Asian performer to receive one since 1985. In her acceptance speech, Yuh-jung Youn turns the idea of who is a foreigner on its head: “As you know, I'm from Korea and actually my name is Yuh-jung Youn and most of European people call me Yuh-Young and some of them call me Yoo Jung but tonight, you are all forgiven.” By centering her Korean heritage and calling out white people for their inability to pronounce her name, Youn reminded me of how my nai-nai would call white people “laowai.” Foreigner.

Since Minari, Asian and Asian American cinema have steadily gained recognition. In 2019, Parasite—a South Korean film—became the first non-English film to win a best picture Academy Award. Even as Parasite director Bong Joon-ho hilariously reminded the world that the “Oscars are not an international film festival” but “very local,” the win meant something to me as a “local” Asian American. Seeing Asian faces that resembled mine winning top honors at the Oscars felt like a long overdue acknowledgement in the United States that Asians have been and continue to be great storytellers behind and in front of the camera. 

I cried tears of joy when Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian woman to ever win an Oscar for best actress in 2023 for her role in Everything, Everywhere All At Once (which also won best picture). Yeoh began her acceptance speech acknowledging the significance of her winfor all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight.” As someone who has followed Yeoh as an international superstar since I was a little girl, her win was that much sweeter. She also won the Golden Globe for best actress in a motion picture comedy or musical and she thanked the writer-directors Daniels for creating “a very ordinary, immigrant, Asian woman, mother, daughter” in her character, Evelyn Wang. By portraying this character and her family through a multiverse premise, the Daniels presented an ingenious counter-narrative to the historical erasure and one-dimensional Hollywood portraits of Asians, and Asian women in particular. As a result, I could trace the Asian women in my life through Yeoh’s multi-dimensional character. I recognized my sharp-tongued working-class nai-nai who lived multiple lifetimes worth of disappointments. Yeoh also captured my immigrant mother’s longing, terror, and evergreen disappointment in me, her only child. I also saw myself, an Asian American woman laboring to shed intergenerational trauma in a country that often treats me like I don’t belong. Yeoh portrayed an Asian woman protagonist that I’d never seen before—one that literally contained multitudes. 

Blockbuster unexpectedly came back into my life in 2022 when I got to interview Randall Park for a new Netflix series called Blockbuster. Park starred as a former high school Blockbuster employee-turned-owner of the nation’s last Blockbuster video store. Park and I joked that the series was streaming on Netflix—the very company that quickened the demise of Blockbuster (which filed for bankruptcy in 2010) by introducing mail-service DVDs and then streaming services, forever transforming home entertainment. Even though the series was canceled after just one season, I marveled at seeing a protagonist that looked like me, working at the very place that first taught me I can be the protagonist in my own Asian American story. Thank you Netflix, for making it a Blockbuster night!

Published on November 2, 2023

Words by Nancy Wang Yuen

Nancy Wang Yuen is a sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. She is currently writing a book about her life through the films and TV shows she grew up watching.

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.