I just finished reading Jenny Han’s opinion piece in the NY Times about representation in films and what that opens up for people. You can read the article here.
Of course, I thought on what that all meant. What does representation mean to me?
With the release of Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, I can’t help but to reflect on my life. I really don’t want be the guy that will explain representation and why it’s so arbitrarily important. I think the meaning of representation is different with every person you come across. So I’m just going to share what I think.
Representation plays two different ways in my mind. The first way is the young me wishing that she can be an actress someday. When I was young, I did dream of becoming an actress. I imagined wearing different outfits and pretending to be other people for a while. I always thought it was interesting to be a veterinarian one day and then a bad ass gun-for-hire the next.
I dreamed of playing one of those World War II nurses bandaging wounds and making tourniquets. I’d watch soldiers fight and fall and maybe have a tryst with one of them. The only thing that kept me back? Here’s a quote from my life:
If I were in a World War II movie, I’d probably play some geisha in a war-riddled Japanese village with “Fat Boy” about to drop on all of us. Or like a worker in a rice paddy field bent over in my little pointy hat and water-logged legs.
This is the quote I said to myself that deterred me from ever becoming an actress. I would never play a World War II nurse unless I somehow evaded being sent to a Japanese internment camp and served a country that didn’t recognize me as human. I would never be a successful actress like Meryl Streep.
Why? Because no one hires Asian people to be lead characters in movies and if we were, it’d be some kung fu movie or another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
And this honestly bugged me. Why couldn’t I play the main character? Why couldn’t I have a love interest? Why couldn’t I be a Meg Ryan falling in love with a Tom Hanks?
In my young mind, I already determined that white people are the only ones allowed to be in romantic comedies. White people are the only ones who can be dramatic and draw guns and fight people. White people are the ones who star in World War II movies.
And I stopped my needless dreaming and decided to go for something more practical, writing. But seeing any person of color play the main character or the main premise of the story is validation. Yes, you’re allowed to pursue a dream you didn’t think you could. Yes, there are places where you can be the main character. You can be the love interest. You can have the world focus on your little life for a moment and resonate so deeply with you.
Hollywood hasn’t been the friendliest to Asians or people of color in the past. We’ve been white washed and saved by white people countless times. Our methods are considered primitive when we call it tradition. Countless numbers of Asian Americans move to China or Korea or Japan just so they can have the shot at stardom they don’t think they can get in America. That’s right, some of your favorite Kpop stars herald directly from the States.
Seeing movies with Asian Americans playing lead roles, being the director, being the dude that gets everyone coffee feels like we’re finally breaking the mold. We’re finally striding towards a world where all cultures are welcome and accepted in Hollywood. It’s a small victory, but it only takes a spark to start a fire.
The second way is similar to that of Jenny Han’s feelings. Feeling like I’m not the nerdy sidekick or token Asian. I’ll have to admit that most of my friends are white. I’m usually the token Asian in the group and sometimes I get very insecure with that fact. With movies like Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, we’re showing the rest of the world that we’re us.
We’re not the overly nerdy kid who’s good at math and wears glasses. I’m terrible at math. TERRIBLE. We’re not the tiger moms or the kung fu masters. We’re human beings like everyone else. We love and we hate and we try to do what’s best for our families. I mean, you would think everyone would believe in those same traits and we would all be represented fairly.
And with representation, young girls like Jenny Han can believe that they can have love and they can go out for the swim team and they can be the senator of their state. With representation, we stop being type-casted as sidekicks and nerds and bad drivers. We can be the awkward girl who has a ton of crushes. We can be the lacrosse champion who just got that coveted scholarship for college. We can break the glass ceiling or be a comedienne or be happy with just staying home and taking care of our kids. It’s so funny that we need representation to show people that we’re just like them, but that’s what happens.
And that’s all representation is. It’s a way for all of us regardless of race, religion, sexual identity, or disability to be us. We can show the world who we are and what we stand for in a light that makes us look good. We can share our stories with the public and not get pushed aside because we’re not a safe bet. We can pursue careers we didn’t think were possible for us because the doors of possibility are finally open. I think the moment I saw the cast for Crazy Rich Asians, I rejoiced a little. It actually made me wonder again what it would be like to pursue acting. It might not be my goal in life, but it feels good that I have the option again.
What I hope out of everything is that people watch Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and they see themselves. They get how scary it is to meet your in-laws for the first time. They understand and even fondly remember crushing on that one person in high school. They remember how challenging it was to balance your home life with school or work. We might all have different skin tones and facial structures. We might all have different traditions and beliefs, but we’re all human. Out of everything, I hope that we realize the humanity in us all.