Weeks prior to Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death, I had been thinking a lot about representation in the media and what that means and why it’s important. While his performances in other roles are not to be ignored, his portrayal of Prince, turned King T’Challa in Marvel’s Black Panther impacted so many black and other minority people who never saw themselves represented as a learned hero. Often cast as an oddball sidekick or even as foreboding villains, BIPOC actors, actresses, directors, writers and producers, have historically been cast in lesser roles and that was the norm in Hollywood for over a century. My superhero-fangirl younger daughter will tell you that Black Panther is one of her favorites. I’ll admit that while we watched the film on the big screen (remember going to the movies, guys?) I watched her face for her reactions about as much as I watched the film itself. Her sparkly round eyes shone in the dark theatre as she admired the kingdom of Wakanda, the regal costumes and iconic characters…with their caramel and chocolate complexions. She was proud during the fight scenes and the powerful ending where love and philanthropy echoed as a rallying call to the audience. If I need to remind you, my dear reader friend, we are not black. We’re Chinese American, but Black Panther still makes us proud. I don’t liken my Asian-American experience to that of my African American friends, no. I am not naïve to the differences in perception by the majority culture and the privileges I’ve possessed in stark contrast to theirs. But I have experienced my own brand of racism, and my own experience of growing up not seeing faces that looked like mine on the big or small screens telling me that I could be whoever I wanted to be.
When I was a junior in high school, I had what I thought would be a neat opportunity to shadow a professional for a day. I can’t remember the specifics of how it was arranged, but I was matched with a local television news manager at a broadcasting station about 30 miles from my hometown, in Burbank, California. At the age of 16, all I really knew was that I liked to write and had a decent knack for public speaking, so I thought broadcasting journalism might be a career I could pursue. I was funneled into a room with a group of about six other students from other high schools into a small studio office. The studio manager came out to greet us and it was obvious we weren’t just a low priority on his list, but almost a nuisance that he wanted to quickly be done with. He gave a short introduction of himself—a portly, middle-aged Caucasian man who rattled through some television news lingo as if we had any idea what he was saying. He walked us through the station, and gave us a tour. When the tour ended in the green room, he asked us casually why we chose to shadow him, specifically. I raised my hand and offered that I had expressed interest in broadcasting media to the teacher arranging this event. He narrowed his eyes at me a bit and pursed his lips.
“Do you want to write news stories or be in front of the camera?” he asked with brows furrowed.
“I don’t know. Either, I guess? Or both? I don’t know really know how it works,” I replied, probably oozing with teenage awkwardness.
“Well,” he started without so much of a pause for breath, “it’ll be an uphill battle for you, being Oriental*. It’s hard to break into this business, anyway. You’d have to be pretty special or just lucky.”
I was immediately stung by his words but also shocked.
Much to my horror, he went on to say, “The public has a hard time with faces with your features. Maybe you could get plastic surgery or something down the line…”
My mouth went dry and I could hear a whooshing noise in my ears. I looked around at the other students to see and saw that some of their expressions mirrored my feelings. Slack jaws, wide eyes. Any eyes that were on me immediately darted away as I scanned their faces. In that moment I wished I never said a word. I was humiliated. I wanted to will myself to seep into the baseboards along the wall and disappear, never to see those who witnessed my humiliation again. I am still astonished when I think back to that day. The gall of that man to say something so horrid to a kid. Spoiler alert: I ended up not pursuing broadcasting journalism.
Growing up in a predominantly Asian neighborhood, you would have thought I’d have blended in well and felt comfortable among my peers. Please refer to my second post on this blog about my quirkiness, and I’ll also remind you that I’m an Enneagram 4 (Individualist) and never felt like I fit in anywhere. Multiple classmates in high school told me I wasn’t “Asian enough” and I really struggled to understand what that meant. They started calling me Twinkie (the snack cake that is yellow on the outside, white on the inside) to tease, but the nickname always made me uneasy because I knew that there was an underlying implication that I was not what I was supposed to be. In the end, I decided that it was better to be considered a Twinkie because assimilation to the majority was better in the long run to be accepted by my peers and be successful in life. Yes, I realize I just cracked open a whole other can of worms. I will need to write another piece deconstructing whiteness and racism as it relates to my cultural identity at a later time…
In 2018, a major motion picture came out with smashing success that included an all-Asian cast and director and made millions in the box office during its opening weekend. Crazy Rich Asians was a romantic comedy based from a series of books written by a Singaporean author. I read the books for fun a couple years before the movie was released. I found the stories entertaining and somewhat relatable, though I am not from Singapore and am definitely not “crazy rich.” The movie was fun and it felt great to see Asian actors playing main roles like a romantic lead, a glamorous supporting role while NOT using martial arts or speaking in broken English…roles I grew tired of seeing in Hollywood prior to that. One scene undid me, though. A surprise cameo appearance of a Filipino actress during the wedding scene. To give background—for years, Filipino nurses I worked with in hospitals told me my doppelgänger was this actress. Not being familiar with who she was, one nurse made me meet her during her lunch break to show me her copy of a Filipino tabloid magazine in her locker to show me the picture of this actress. While I didn’t feel like I looked much, if at all like this woman, I was flattered and amused. Seeing the actress I was told resembled me on a big screen in this film flooded me with emotion. I remembered what that news manager said to me 20-plus years before…that the public wouldn’t want to see a face like mine…and I felt in that brief moment, vindicated. It seems overdramatic for me to even say it, but it really meant something.
Several years ago, when I started adjunct teaching at a prominent Christian university. I love mentoring students and had a desire to teach students entering into my profession the way I wished I was taught. What puzzled me was that towards the end of each semester, it never failed—I had at least one, but usually a few students…Asian American students, mind you, tell me that they were so glad I was their professor. Not necessarily because of my teaching, but because of how they felt like I represented them, or how they saw me as a role model. Each of them told me how they always felt odd, like they didn’t fit in. That at this university, there seemed to be internal segregation that prevented them from feeling wholly accepted and that they knew of so few Asian faculty. While I was initially disappointed that their appreciation wasn’t so much for my stellar teaching methods (harhar), I became aware of the way our American society, even within the evangelical community that touted unconditional love and oneness in Christ, was fractured when it came to diversity. Being that speech-language pathology and audiology is one of the whitest medical professions in America (less than 8% self-identify as non-white according to asha.org), the majority of my students were white and female. It was no wonder that the few Asian students took notice of me.
Now before you think that I liken my being a speech-language pathologist (SLP) to being a superhero in a summer blockbuster movie, understand that I don’t. But in a similar way that people of color don’t often see themselves represented in entertainment or the media often, they also don’t see themselves represented in places of leadership, like politicians, education administrators, pastors and other leaders in their community. And to not see themselves represented in their own schools, workplace and mentors in their career of choice, is troubling. So, for an Asian American student to see an Asian American SLP who is also their professor is/was profound for them, and I don’t take that for granted anymore.
Whoever you are and whatever you bring--your profession, your race, if you have a disability, a talent, an unusual love or passion for something/anything. The world needs it. Someone needs it. I promise you there is someone who will look at you and see even a glimmer of themselves reflected in you and it’ll bring them hope and joy. Don’t be afraid to be a mentor. Just be a friend to someone and share your story. Without ever realizing it, you are affirming someone who has doubts, who has been hurt and needs that lift. A friend once made a greeting card for my girls that read: “THE WORLD NEEDS WHO YOU WERE MADE TO BE”** and I think it best sums up what I think representation is. We can’t rely on Hollywood or anyone else to do it for us. We have to step up and represent for ourselves and everyone else.
*In case anyone is wondering, referring to people as “oriental” is generally considered offensive and is an antiquated term that dates back to the 15th century, when explorers like Christopher Columbus were in search of “The Orient.” You’re better off using the term Asian. Just a bonus tidbit: In the past when people have referred to me as “Oriental,” I have replied, “Rugs are oriental, people are Asian.”
**I later found this inspirational quote on @magnolia ‘s social media and products, but this is not an ad.
Photo credits: Dreamstime.com