“Hollywood isn’t for me, it’s for Americans.” It’s a thought that crossed my mind as I started to fall in love with performing at 16 years old, thinking I’d never stand a chance to make it in show business. Seeing little to no Asian representation brainwashed me into believing that my name could never be in lights. Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan made it the ridiculously few spots for people who looked like me were taken. Now we, as a community, are choosing empowerment over competition.
But even then, there’s so much more work to be done on the other side.
The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes is in many ways a direct result of the scarce and inaccurate portrayals of us in television and film. For decades, we’ve been the punchline and the stereotype, with only a handful of spoken lines — and we’d be lucky if it was in English. We simply weren’t taken seriously outside of playing a nail technician or a mathlete.
As an immigrant from Shanghai, I can tell you that the foreigner feeling never really fades. I came here at 4 years old, straight to the San Gabriel Valley. Although the area is home to many Asians, I still felt the pressure to adapt to what it means to be American.
I had to learn some things the hard way. From getting flipped off and not knowing what it meant, to getting called “Chino” in class, I was oblivious to the toxic energy. This happened in real life, and it happened in the pop culture I heavily absorbed. I just accepted it. Reflecting back now, we were reminded left and right that we’re visitors, especially in the media. From “Fook Mi, Fook Yu” in Austin Powers to “Ling-Ling, you forgot your Bling-Bling” in The Hot Chick, we’ve been ridiculed in mainstream entertainment since before I can remember.
We got used to being the supporting character, watching from the sidelines as everyone else gets to shine. We were constantly given the bare minimum and expected to be grateful for the mere opportunity to be there. But we have so much more to offer. We were tied down to society’s ignorant idea of us – submissive and silent. Now, I’m ready to speak up.
The truth is, when I was younger, I was laughing along without even realizing how harmful the long-term effect was going to be. It’s why the mean Caucasian boy in the playground would slant his eyes to belittle me. Cut to 2021, and my people are still hearing “You don’t belong here,” and “Go back to your country.” How can we prove that we deserve to be here and that our perspectives are worthy of being told?
Before “Crazy Rich Asians” was released in 2018, the last big studio film with an all-Asian cast was Joy Luck Club in 1993 — a full 25 years prior. Our experiences were never prioritized and always shelved. Our stories weren’t respected as important enough to be shared with the rest of the world.
A few recent films, such as “The Farewell” and “Minari,” have received critical acclaim and attention — but of course, there’s a catch: Award shows had the audacity to place them in the foreign film category. The latter came from Brad Pitt’s production company, for goodness sakes. How much more American can you get?
Even in the handful of times that we could celebrate something special, the moment was tarnished. Mulan posters were vandalized last year as Asians were targeted and blamed for Covid-19. It breaks my heart that we’re given the least, and we can’t even enjoy it. It’s just unfair. Period. The struggles we’ve been through aren’t talked about. The discrimination we’ve faced isn’t taught in history books. We’re seen as the “model minority” — certainly not by choice. As someone who went from crashing and burning in her abacus class, to taking the risk of becoming a stand-up comedian, I’ve never related to that label, and I never will.
The way America sees us during a family movie night is how America sees us when we’re walking down the street. We need to be authentically visible, to be appreciated, understood, and seen in the full spectrum of life that we occupy. We need to shift from the stereotypes and derivations that depict Asians on the screen — it could single-handedly bring us closer to a state of love, and away from this current state of hate that has permeated this last year.
This country has had such low expectations for my community, but we’re here to change that. I know that the American dream should, and will, include us. We’re so proud and more unapologetic than ever, and we’re not backing down. Get used to seeing our beautiful Asian faces, because we’re not going anywhere.