The 2004 film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (dir. Danny Leiner) not only subverts audience expectations but also symbolically retells the Asian American experience through the lens of a buddy stoner comedy film.

I remember when my sister first introduced me to this film while growing up. Upon multiple viewings, I noticed that while some of the scenes were exaggerated and theatrical, many were experiences that I could relate to in a more metaphorical sense of understanding.

The antics that Harold and Kumar endure throughout the film are one gigantic criticism of American culture and the nature of offensive identities (such as racial stereotyping) used to subtly degrade Asian Americans and other minority groups.

Throughout the beginning portion of the film, Harold (a Korean American) is portrayed as your stereotypical tight-edge, nerdy pushover. Things such as his inclination to avoid conflict with his coworkers or even those who antagonize him become a prominent feature of his character. A lot of his actions are a consequence of an internalized view of racial inferiority due to the nature of society catering to white individuals that surrounds him. It is increasingly evident that Harold often feels trapped within a role put onto him by societal standards, something that he comes to want to break free of, but struggles to do so.

Harold encapsulates a lot of the East Asian experience. Much like early Asian immigrants who came to America, he follows the idea of avoidance to peacefully integrate into white society. A lot of the stereotypical jokes made against him by other characters in the film tend to highlight certain aspects of his Asian identity, such as his dialect, mannerisms and physical appearance. An example of this is when a group of white college students harass Harold by stealing his parking spot and telling him that he should learn how to drive in an Asian accent, a joke commonly used as a way to attribute racial stereotyping to Asian individuals. However, Harold’s character growth comes from the gradual empowerment of his identity as an Asian American through confronting these racial normities, and the willpower he gains through his experiences with Kumar.

His roommate Kumar (an Indian American) helps Harold break out of his shell and realize that he has a right to live life to the fullest. However, just like Harold, he is forced into being confined by the stereotypical perceptions of his race by not only society but his family as well. 

Kumar plays an identical role to Harold but also heavily focuses on the cultural aspects of growing up as an Asian American. Much of his character has to do with his will to choose a path he wants, rather than what others expect of him. For example, Kumar is forced into pursuing medical school not because he wants to, but because his family pressures him to. Later on, he discovers he enjoys performing surgery after getting a chance to do so and decides to give it a try. This highlights a shift in character for Kumar, as he realizes that his parents’ expectations of him do not have to define his passion.

Oftentimes white characters are shown either taking advantage of the protagonists for their selfish gain or having something that both Harold and Kumar deeply yearn for. An example of this is the two white office workers forcing their work onto Harold so they can party or when the protagonists’ two Jewish friends enjoy a hotdog while Harold and Kumar are just about to give up on finding White Castle. These two events signify a turn in both the protagonists’ drives towards attaining their dreams, as even the yearning to enjoy things that are typically reserved for non-minority Americans is something worth fighting for.

Many of the events that occur in this film are in direct relation to the dynamic nature of Harold and Kumar’s position where they are left wanting something that is deemed nearly unobtainable in their everyday life. What the journey to White Castle represents in the film is not necessarily that two stoner guys are hungry for some food, but rather the aspirations of two Asian Americans who want to make a place for themselves in a land that has discriminated against them since they were born.

This film also encapsulates this notion through the complete subversion of expectation and the comedic parody of engrained American party culture. This film takes the script of the average buddy party film and completely flips it around, reinterpreting it through race. While there are some jokes made at the expense of Asian individuals, most of the time those jokes are used to empower them rather than make them the butt of a joke. They highlight racist behavior practiced by ignorance rather than perpetuate it for entertainment.

The movie is able to accomplish this by making ignorance the subject of comedic ridicule, which flips the script of minority groups being the basis of comedy due to their race. The existence of exaggerated situations that focus on racially motivated discrimination helps to highlight both the ridiculous nature of certain racist ideologies and the complete injustice that people of color face. These include the film’s commentary on police brutality against minority groups, blatant internalized racism and workplace discrimination.    

There are also other great examples of symbolic criticism in the film, such as when Harold and Kumar come across individuals who look exactly like them. These individuals are seen getting beaten by a white group of people with baseball bats, something that can be an allusion to cases such as Vincent Chin or other real-life scenarios in which Asian Americans were violently beaten to death due to racist violent hate crimes enacted against them. 

The image of the White Castle represents the American Dream. The name of the establishment itself is used as a commentary by the film to accentuate the idea that the dream is something only attainable by white Americans. What the Castle represents to the protagonist greatly differs from the other white characters in the film. Instead of the average American life of a white picket fence house, it is the idea that they too will receive an equal opportunity to live a life full of fulfillment without the discrimination and limitations placed upon them by societal norms.

Hence why Harold and Kumar desperately want to pursue this journey, to not only break that status quo but also prove to themselves and others that while minority groups cannot attain the same dream as White Americans, we can create our own.

The film’s Asian American representation and its commentary on certain aspects of growing up as a minority within the U.S. make it an interesting yet fun film to watch. While this film is a bit outdated in terms of its comedy, it carries cultural value in what it represents. I honestly have a soft spot for this film, as it was one of the first movies I could identify with as an Asian American. I hope this discussion gives you some insight as to why I enjoy this film; even if you don’t like it yourself, hopefully it will give you a different perspective about it that is more positive.

Visual Credit: Pixabay

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