By: Joanne Chew
I grew up in San Francisco, with an older sister and the youngest amongst my cousins. They were all very gifted in their studies, obedient, and tidy, very much embodying the prototype of the “model” Asian child. I constantly heard how much I was unlike them. They all went to what’s known as the top academic high school in the city, Lowell High School. Grades and test scores from middle school were analyzed and then assigned an overall score. No surprise, my sister and cousins had all been admitted. By the time I was in 6th grade, I heard whispers among the other parents in my community. They didn’t think I was going to get in.
I wish I was aware of the “late bloomer” concept back then, because it would have made life a lot easier. My grades “indicated” I wasn’t smart, people critiqued my hair, my posture, whether I had gained or lost weight, and because I didn’t appear to be particularly gifted in any one area, for my sake, they hoped I would marry well in the future. And if I did not, (This I heard more times than I care to remember) people would always tell my parents consolingly, “At least you’ll have company in your old age. This one won’t go very far.”
I knew my parents loved me and didn’t want me feeling badly about myself. I’ve always been well aware of all the sacrifices they made to make sure I was as happy as I could possibly be. At the same time, seeing how proud they were of my sister, I knew the qualities widely extolled within the community I grew up in were important, and I was sick of feeling like I was some sort of consolation prize. My parents told me not to pressure myself with aspiring to get in. I knew they wanted to protect me, but it also hurt that they initially didn’t think I had what it took either.
I set out to prove everyone wrong. I pushed myself in seventh grade to get mostly straight A’s (save for gym, but that’s another story). Funnily enough, it was around this time the assistant principal stopped me in the schoolyard during lunch, and introduced me to a casting director. She then asked to take a polaroid of me, and had me write down my father’s phone number. They were scouting for a film shooting in the area and had a very small part in mind for me and another classmate of mine. We were to play sisters. My father refused, saying he didn’t want it to interfere with my studies, but relented after I begged for three days. The principal even phoned him saying my grades were in no danger of suffering if I were to miss a couple days of school for what would be a very great learning experience. At the time, I was just excited to learn I would be getting paid to miss school and I finally had something that was purely mine, something none of the other parents could compare me against the other children with. When word got out, one of the other mothers immediately snapped, “Why did they pick her? She isn’t even that pretty.” My mother was upset by the statement and had relayed this information to my father, not intending for me to overhear. Of course it stung, but at the same time, it wasn’t anything that hadn’t been said to me before.
I had an amazing time on set. I remember just being a sponge and eager to absorb all that was happening around me, a world unlike anything I had seen or experienced, but at the time it didn’t yet occur to me that this could be a possible life path. I simply saw it as a reward I had earned for finally being a ‘’good student.” My parents had me promise to wait until after I turned eighteen to do anything else of this nature. I hastily agreed, not knowing that seeds had been planted that would one day shape the rest of my life. Back to school it was.
I landed in advanced placement classes for the eighth grade, and when it came time to apply for high schools, I only had one choice on my list. Around that time affirmative action had kicked in for enrollment. There were too many students of Chinese-American descent at Lowell, so to even things out, students of other ethnic backgrounds could score far lower and still be admitted. Other Asian ethnicities still had to score fairly high, but I was in the group that had to score the absolute highest. I got a B+ in my advanced English class. I cried that entire afternoon. My other test scores were all in the high 80s to 90th percentiles, but that one B+ put me at the borderline. I saw students from other ethnic backgrounds offered admission, while I was waitlisted.
A lot of tears and anguish happened over what was just a couple of months at most, but in my thirteen-year old brain, it felt like an absolute eternity. In hindsight, this helped prepare me for the inevitable highs and lows of later on pursuing an acting career.
I wish I could say I got in, and the rest is history. I finally belonged, I was one of the “smart kids,” people could stop looking at me with pity, my parents could also be proud of me, and I now possessed a future beyond my abilities to land a decent husband.
I did get in, but it was only the beginning of what was a very difficult period of my life. I eventually cracked under all the pressure and had a nervous breakdown. I was put on anti-depressants and prescribed tranquilizers for when I had particularly bad episodes. I had sessions with a therapist. My parents arranged for a leave of absence with the intention of me recovering for the rest of the year and transferring to a less demanding school, but at the time I felt so shattered, I had no idea what the future would hold.
Looking back, this was a very pivotal point in my life, and one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. In the times when you feel completely cracked open and plunged in darkness, is also when incredible light comes in. Shortly before I hit my “breaking point,” I had discovered my intense love of running. I had signed up for track and cross country at my school. The irony was, I was a horrible runner in the beginning. I spent much of my first season injured. One of the other parents in my community even commented I shouldn’t even bother trying, because a lot of talent and discipline is needed to be an athlete, and “you are not one of them.”
Not talented enough, not smart enough, no pretty enough, yadda, yadda, yadda. What else is new?
I had the privilege of training with the best coach in the city. He told me, “What some of you may lack in natural talent, you more than make up for in drive. You’re all winners.” When he found out I wasn’t coming back to school, he had a teammate relay this message: “Even if you’re no longer a student here, come run with us. You should have something that makes you happy.”
“I have to go back,” I told my parents.
It wasn’t easy. I had a lot of missed coursework to make up, but something in me had finally shifted. I finally knew for myself that I wasn’t any smarter or less so because of what my report card said. I wasn’t lazy, unfocused, or undriven. I eventually stabilized enough to no longer need antidepressants or tranquilizers. One of the classes I signed up for to make up for lost credits was my very first acting class. I fell in love, much like I did with running. On the first day of class, I remember my instructor saying, “I know most of you are here because you need credits to graduate, but some of you may go on to become actors and actresses.” It was the first time I had heard that statement, but it was going to be a while longer before I connected the dots for myself.
I was able to graduate on time, and even though it didn’t matter to me any longer, I ended up back on the honor roll. After graduation, even though I had not yet turned eighteen, I begged my father to let me sign up for more acting classes. I had my first headshots done and started going on a few auditions. I got to work on a couple independent films and music videos. It all just made me so completely hungry for more, so I made a decision that shocked everyone. I was going to move to LA and become an actress, as my profession. There was so much light in my life now that hadn’t previously existed, and because of what I had gone through and survived, even though there are still people that try to instill doubt in me to this day, there’s a voice in me that keeps saying “Yes, I can.” Its taken a long time for me to be able to hear it.
I still feel intense guilt for what my parents went through on my behalf, but I know it wasn’t my fault. I don’t even blame the people that planted those ideas in my head, because I now recognize it’s many generations’ worth of cultural and societal conditioning. It’s a cycle we need to break, because we are ALL gifted. Maybe some take a little longer to realize, maybe some cannot be expressed in traditional ways, but we all have something that makes us so beautifully unique that no one else has. We all deserve to feel all the light and love and joy that comes with aligning with our passions.
After the “Yes I Can” period of my life started (I know it sounds very similar to a political campaign), I’ve had some incredible opportunities I never expected. I took ballet lessons, and despite still being a beginner in my late teens, was invited to dance en pointe at the Legion of Honor. I was chosen to give a speech at Davies Symphony Hall. After I made it out to LA to pursue my dreams of acting, I completed five marathons and earned a black belt in Taekwondo. My favorite thing of all is getting to bring my mother on red carpets with me, because what we’re celebrating is beyond feeling “fancy,” or “Hollywood.” We’re celebrating survival.
Life still isn’t easy. I don’t ever expect it to be. It is still a constant rollercoaster. I’ve learned to be thankful for my past experiences, even though it’s not something I would wish on anyone. I felt like it helped prepare me for the road that lay ahead, full of things I could never predict. I didn’t have a car my first six months living in Los Angeles, my apartment was broken into before I had finished my first year, and I slept on air mattresses and futons until I landed an acting gig where I had my own trailer for the first time. My big celebratory splurge was a Tempurpedic mattress.
I’ve held a variety of different types of jobs to supplement my income in between acting gigs. I’ve waitressed, worked as an administrative/accounting assistant, multiple retail positions, and close to a thousand events as a hostess/brand ambassador. On the whole I’ve been so fortunate to meet so many fellow artists in the same boat, just doing what needs to be done so we can keep chasing our dreams. I felt like such an anomaly growing up, so completely out of place, but after coming to Los Angeles, I felt like I was among peers. The endless hours, the constant juggle, and always having to switch back and forth between gears, felt so much easier to get through knowing so many of my friends were going through the same. I didn’t have to explain why I was doing what I was doing, why I loved it so much. It was such an immense relief. We inspired each other to keep going. On the flip slide, there were so many situations I found myself in that I felt were severely testing my spirit and soul limits.
Having to work in so many different industries, at times working a lot of odd hours so that I could stay available for auditions and shoot dates meant being exposed to a wide range of people. In my head I always told myself to do as I was raised to do, work hard, and do the best job I possibly could, but to avoid getting emotionally involved at all costs, so I could devote as much strength and energy as possible towards furthering my career.
Regardless of which one of my jobs I was at, I was constantly inundated with questions and comments like:
“I’ve never been intimate with a Chinese woman before. Would you like to set up?”
“You were hired because he has a thing for Asian girls.”
“Are you looking for a sugar-daddy?”
Even if the people meant no harm and they were asking out of genuine curiosity, it got a little tiring to constantly have to answer bizarrely-worded inquiries about what ethnicity I was. Many of my colleagues who weren’t Asian were surprised that this was something I had to deal with on an almost daily basis, because it wasn’t something they usually encountered. If I didn’t answer favorably, I was often chastised by past employers (I’ve since left these companies,) for not being personable or friendly enough. There was one instance where I was working for a travel company at an outdoor fair when a man who was old enough to be my father approached and started bragging about how much money he had and that he could take me on a trip to Hawaii. He started asking more of the typical uncomfortable questions I’m often asked. I tried to disengage as politely as possible and get back to work, but was later scolded by my colleague because I may have messed up a potential sale. When encountering similar scenarios, at times with unwanted physical contact, and trying to voice to my then-employers that I felt my safety was being jeopardized or that the situation was exceedingly uncomfortable, I would get responses varying from “You’re a cute Asian girl (what do you expect?),” to “Aren’t you flattered?”
I remember one evening, after arriving home from a late shift at around 2AM, my mother who had just come in that evening from San Francisco for visit immediately told me to set my things down.
“Don’t hold it in. Scream. Throw something. Let it out. Don’t worry about the neighbors,” she said.
It was like I was back in high school all over again.
When I submitted my resignation for that job, I was told to reconsider because I would not find a better opportunity.
For the longest time I felt embarrassed to admit that I still had a “day job,” as if admitting that was admitting that I wasn’t doing a good enough job as an actress. It took a while to realize I was reverting back to my old ways of thinking that were such a dominant part of my childhood and early teen years. Even though I would often spend days locked in my room cramming and studying for tests, because my grades reflected otherwise, because of what so many people in my community were whispering about me, was I not doing a good job? Was I not working hard enough? Did I not possess the abilities to go after and attain the things I wanted?
My life had shown me repeatedly that those old thoughts resurfacing in my mind couldn’t be further from the truth. By now I had learned many times over that we ALL have what it takes to make our dreams come true, and we all deserve a chance to live them. I was extremely proud of how hard I had worked. I was extremely proud of my peers who had done the same, and who were shining examples of what was possible. Even during my lowest moments where I felt as discouraged and defeated as I had during my childhood, I never doubted that it would all one day work out. I was surrounded by people who were living proof. I was living proof. We all just had to keep pushing forward.
Even so, it was still extremely hurtful to hear from some of my community back home that they wanted to know what my plans would be if I were to fail at acting. Hadn’t I had enough of being a “career girl” and shouldn’t I settle down and get married ‘before it’s too late?’ After all these years, was I still nothing more than who I could find to marry? (As I’m working on this second draft tonight, Sandra Oh just became the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe in a lead category in almost four decades. I’m holding back tears and feel chills going up and down my spine. We must never give up on our dreams).
For me, the payoff has always been worth it, even though it may be hard for those who measure success according to more traditional or conventional standards to comprehend. The way I love acting is very similar to how I love running, and that love was strong enough to drag me out of a very dark period of my life. In an industry where rejection is the norm, we’re living in constant uncertainty, at times scrutinized for things that are beyond our control. I’ve been told that I can be difficult to cast because it’s hard to tell “which Asian” I am, that I don’t look full Chinese. It can hurt when the reasons for being turned down have nothing to do with how hard you’ve worked and the constant quest to improve.
I thought back to my early days as a runner when I struggled to build up endurance and stamina, and I was plagued with various injuries. Hard work WILL make a difference. Determination will carry you through, and one day you’ll just be completely immersed in the pure euphoria of simply being able to embody and enjoy the process. When I started I could barely finish a mile, but now, years later, after a lot of hard work, I’m in the process of planning my sixth marathon. It’s the same whenever I get to be on set, throwing myself into a new character, figuring out where the stories will live in my body, being in the company of fellow artists who are equally passionate and in love with what they do, and together we will create something. We each get to contribute to eachothers’ dreams coming true.
It’s this intense love I’ve also carried that has also made it all the more difficult when I’ve found myself in the same spirit and soul-testing situations that I had encountered in my jobs outside of the entertainment industry. Because I’ve allowed myself to become so emotionally invested, because I care so much, I’ve often felt like my hands were also tied.
I recently read Priyanka Chopra’s Vogue interview where she talked about never publicly acknowledging a significant other until she met Nick Jonas. That resonated with me so strongly because that was a principle I had always kept, as well. I suppose it started as a sort of rebellion because I was made to feel like my entire self-worth boiled down to whether or not I could attract men from a very young age. I kept the details of my relationships so private (save for my mother) that there was a time when even close family members questioned my sexuality.
I’ve been told many times that if I was more forthcoming about my romantic relationships, I’d encounter far less harassment from other men. My stance has always been, ‘why should that matter?’ I see it all the time, when I experience questionable behavior from certain men in mutual friendship circles, some of my girlfriends say “Oh, he doesn’t pull that stuff with me because he knows I’m not single.”
Do we not deserve the same level of respect and boundaries?
Relationships can get difficult, especially while trying to build a career in one of the most challenging industries out there where so much is based in uncertainty. Things can get messy. It’s hard enough without third parties getting involved simply because they’re just hungry for gossip. I’ve been quite protective of them regardless of whether or not we were able to work things out. I’ve only divulged details to those who absolutely needed to know.
I became even more so after a project I was in last year was hit with an almost instantaneous avalanche of backlash. I was, and still am very proud to have been part of the webseries “Three Chen Sisters,” written and directed by Elaine Wong. I knew the project was special from the very beginning, created by an Asian woman and with Asian women as the lead characters. We became a second family almost immediately, while we were preparing to shoot our first episode. One of our storylines centered on interracial dating, and it triggered a group of people who felt Asian men were largely emasculated in mainstream Hollywood media (something I do not dispute and fully advocate better representation for all minorities). They launched an endless barrage of personal attacks which still pains me to recount to this day. I almost felt “lucky” for encountering the least of it, compared to my other castmates and director, save for some disparaging remarks about my appearance, that I hated my heritage, and myself.
The last part was what truly bothered me the most. I had become quite active in the last couple years at rallies fighting for equal rights within immigrant families, and lending my support to film projects supporting the #MeToo movement, because of what I and so many of my fellow sisters have continuously encountered. Also, my own personal journey of truly realizing my worth and arriving at a place of self-love had come only after so many years of feeling like I was constantly hitting brick walls. These people had no idea who I was. Because their own insecurities were triggered, they felt justified in drawing their own conclusions to topics that were actually none of their business.
At the time, I was helping manage our social media accounts as we prepped to get our series through the film festival circuits, and I remember feeling like I was at my wits’ end. I felt responsible for what was happening. I went through days of barely sleeping to the point where I was near tears one evening, when I had stopped for dinner after work. I reached out fellow entertainer I have the utmost respect for, because he’s also living proof of what’s possible through hard work and determination. He told me it wasn’t my fault.
“Don’t pin your self-worth to other people’s opinions. Sometimes it’s easi n mer said than done to ignore, but you have to. Do what you like. Do what makes you happy and let the haters fall by the wayside.”
The most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life, reinforced.
Some days we will be riding high, and during others fall incredibly low. As a woman of color pursuing a career in entertainment, I’m constantly aware of all the extra barriers, and we are constantly having to make peace with a steady stream of rejection. It can be difficult, but at least I know that rejection (or acceptance) doesn’t dictate my worth.
Nothing can, because it’s not something that can ever be measured.
This is true for every single one of us, from the moment we’re born, even if we may spend a lifetime finding what our true purposes are. I’m still learning myself, but I feel like it’s my duty to say “YES YOU CAN” to as many people as possible.
We are all winners.