By: Joanne Chew
My mother tells me the nurse that helped the doctor pull me out of her the day I was born took one
look at my hands, and said, “This one is going to be an artist.”
It’s decades later and I feel I’ve only recently begun to settle into my identity and own myself as an
artist. For the longest time, I haven’t felt qualified to call myself one. I’m sitting on my bed typing out
this article, surrounded by paintings I’ve completed for my first art show. I’m still a little shell-shocked
and a bit emotional because my mom told me recently, “Your dad and I are so proud. You’re talented.”
They’ve told me quite a few times they’ve been proud of me for how hard I work, and that they’re proud
of my character, but for her to say it in such a way that sounded like even they were surprised at what
I’ve been able to pull out of me is a feeling I’m still trying to process. It’s very humbling.
I struggled through academia and trying to fit the mold of the “model” Asian child (as I’ve described in
the first article I’ve had the privilege to write for Overachiever Magazine) to the point where I had a
mental breakdown, but the aftermath of coming together again is something I’ve learned to become
more and more grateful for the older I got. It was the beginning of finding myself.
There was a sudden, inescapable pull towards acting at this time. I had taken a class to fulfill my high
school graduation requirements, and then attended an on-camera open call audition shortly thereafter.
It felt like life was being injected into my veins, a new vitality and energy I hadn’t felt in a long time. It
was strange to feel this way while I was still so young. I still often feel younger now than I did back then.
I remember being in a painting & drawing class, (Yet another I signed up for to fulfill graduation
requirements. It’s really interesting how these “filler classes” would have such a profound effect on my
life) and we were working on self-portraits. My instructor came by, grabbed an eraser, and said, “A lot of
this is really good, but please don’t have so much of these. You have at least fifty more years of living
before seeing these.” She started erasing the lines I had drawn under my eyes and around my face.
“It’s how I feel,” I answered.
“You just need a little more rest.”
I didn’t get particularly good marks on my artwork back then, but when I completed the class, she told
me I had an interesting style, and to keep creating more art.
I was still seventeen when I graduated high school, and by the time I was eighteen I was determined to
move to Los Angeles to pursue acting full time. I think, in the beginning, everyone just humored me and
assumed it was a phase I would one day snap out of. I know my parents were very concerned (and still
are) that I had picked one of the most difficult and unstable professions to pursue.
It took a few years for me to work & save up enough money (and do a little more growing up) before I
finally made it out to LA. Every day was a challenge, and still continues to be, but I can still feel all of the
excitement from the first day I arrived. I wouldn’t have a car for over six months and had to get around
by foot and public transport, I wasn’t going to have a proper bed to sleep on for almost three years, but
the world felt so new and full of possibility.
I was lucky to be able to land a few roles within my first year, but I also ran into many of the barriers
artists of color face. I didn’t recognize the early pratfalls of typecasting, because at the time I was just so
grateful (I still am, but I’m learning the importance of standing strong and fighting for better
representation) for the opportunities. Much of my early credits were playing human trafficking victims
and sweatshop workers. In terms of casting, at times I was told I was “difficult to place” because
although it was clear that I was Asian, it was hard to figure out what kind, due to my appearance, and
therefore I often couldn’t “pass” for many types of roles on basis of physicality alone. I walked into an
audition one day where they had specifically asked for those of Chinese descent. Both of my parents are
from China, but the second the casting director saw me, she shouted “You’re not Chinese!”
It was a huge struggle being limited to the types of roles available to Asian actresses who were just
starting out, and then also being told I didn’t look “Asian” enough for them at the same time. At other
times I was told my features were too quirky/not delicate enough to go out for leading lady roles, and at
the same time, “too pretty” for character roles. There was a solid few years where I felt like I was hitting
one brick wall after the next, based on factors I felt were out of my control, my physical appearance. I
didn’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of overly modifying my appearance just to “fit in,” although I did
get my teeth fixed. I was told countless times that my teeth were so distracting people wouldn’t be able
to see my talent, but I drew the line there. I felt like it didn’t matter how hard I was working or whatever
talent I felt I possessed at the time, everything was being overlooked because of what people saw in the
physical. I went through a period believing that perhaps I wasn’t talented enough, because if I truly was,
I could blow past all of these preconceived notions people were constantly telling me.
Around this time, I started getting pressure from certain family members and friends that maybe it was
time to quit, move home, get married, find a more stable profession, hadn’t I burdened my parents
enough? If I really loved them, I would come home. Strangely enough, these words were not coming
from my parents themselves. There was one instance when I was with a family member in the car,
hearing all these words coming at me so relentlessly. I felt so trapped, I wanted to open the door and
throw myself out, but we were on the freeway.
I thought back to what life was like before I started acting. Everything felt so hopeless. I felt so out of
place in my community and back home, like I was a total anomaly. There was one day I remember sitting
on a street curb, struggling to hold back tears. I had pretty much run out of money and was out of
options. Was this it?
In my desperation, I took on a couple survival jobs that did give me the means to stay in LA for a bit
longer, but they happened to be in very toxic and stressful environments that took a great toll on my
emotional health. At the time I felt like it was my only option to be able to stay out here and continue
pursuing my dreams. I’m incredibly thankful to have been able to leave those environments several
years back. Around this time, while I was also going through some health challenges and dealing with
difficulty in my personal life, a girlfriend took me out for one of those painting & wine classes. I hadn’t
painted since I was a teenager, and I had forgotten how calming and soothing it could be. I attended
more of those classes, and then started practicing with tutorials on my own at home, eventually
branching out into my own abstract ideas.
Things started to shift in the last year or so. I started landing roles that weren’t of the typical ones I was
used to, and had long struggled to break out of. I got to spend some time with an established actress
whose career I’ve admired for a long while, and she told me that it was time to let go of the guilt I had
been carrying, feeling like I was a burden on my family for chasing after my happiness. Whoever made
me feel that way was wrong to do so. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my chest, and
although that was the first day we had interacted in person, I cried from the sheer relief of it all. It had
nothing to do with my talent or work ethic. That was there. I deserved to be here, and there was
definitely a place for me.
Recently, I landed the lead in a webseries that I’m not at liberty to name just yet, but hopefully will be
able to soon. It was vastly important because the role wasn’t Asian specific. I can still count the number
of roles on one hand that I’ve gotten to play that fell into this category. It was such a collaborative effort
and our director started tailoring the roles to each actor as we continued to interact with each other and
find our rhythm together.
This was something I had been wishing for, for a very long time. To be judged on my talent and work
merits, rather than just my physical attributes.
In the same token, I’m so incredibly proud to be an artist of Asian descent, and excited about how things
are slowly starting to shift in terms of diversity and representation. It’s my hope that one day Asians
who pursue less conventional life paths, such as one in the arts, won’t immediately be branded as the
family’s black sheep or lost cause. We can lead just as successful and fulfilling lives, if not more so,
because we’re following our true calling. I had the privilege of working on another webseries, “Three
Chen Sisters,” created by Elaine Wong. We’ve had a good run on the film festival circuit and it was very
important to me that we were able to present a story that was very genuine and relatable to the way a
lot of my Asian brothers, sisters, and I grew up. It’s important for us to continue sharing our stories,
learning about, and educating each other. There is a lot more that connects us than we think. We can
be completely proud of our heritage and also represent it in the way we all deserve to be seen. We need
to realize there is a way for us all to exist and celebrate each other, every cultures’ uniqueness and
individuality, without feeling the need to blend together. Our differences are beautiful. There is a place
for us all in the mainstream.
I had continued painting on the side, merely as a means of stress release, and an alternative way of self-
expression. Towards the end of 2018, Rehana reached out to me and asked if I wanted to submit work
to Overachievers Magazine. I’d never written an article before, and I was working on my second draft
the night Sandra Oh was hosting the Golden Globes and won. I remember when I had first decided I
wanted to be an actress, I stumbled across one of her first films, “Double Happiness.” In the film, her
character also wanted to pursue a career as an actress, and her traditional Asian father subsequently
disowned her over it. I’m thankful my parents never issued me an ultimatum and were always as
supportive as they could be, but for a very long time, I feel they’ve doubted the possibility of my survival
and longevity as an artist. I have had to sacrifice other familial relationships because I couldn’t walk
away from pursuing my career. The pain runs very deep.
Watching her call out to her parents in Korean, and seeing them in the audience brimming with pride at
what a monumental moment this was for Asian actors was a very emotional moment for me. I felt like
things were in the process of coming full circle. A day after I submitted that draft, I was invited to be in
my first art show, Kidz Hope 4 Artz. The proceeds of the event would go to benefit CASA of Los Angeles,
an organization of volunteers dedicated to advocating for the foster youth community. I had a little
under two months to come up with a collection of original paintings. The thought of showing my work
and potentially selling them had never occurred to me before. Initially, I had butterflies from all the
excitement, but when that wore off, I started feeling really intimidated. Would I have enough ideas?
Would they pan out into successful paintings?
There were moments when I dealt with imposter syndrome. I was going to be showing alongside more
established artists. What if people thought my work wouldn’t qualify as “art?” What helped me quell
these thoughts was reflecting on how hard I had fought to make it out to LA, and then to stay here. If I
didn’t feel like I belonged, like I had a right to be here, there’s no way I would have worked this hard. I
had come to own my identity as an actor, because I had been doing it a long time and worked so hard
for it. What was the difference in being comfortable enough to own myself as a painter? I started
painting at around the same age I had started acting.
I told myself to focus on the job at hand. Create paintings to help raise money for an important
organization. The ultimate goal was to help children. There wasn’t time to wallow in self-doubt. So, I
started painting. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. I ended up with twenty-six new pieces by the time I
felt like I had an adequate collection to have a first showing with. As I was painting, I embarked on one
of the busiest audition seasons I had had in a very long while, and it was a very diverse selection of roles,
many of which were so far out of my comfort zones. Because I was constantly painting and my creative
channels were subsequently always open, I felt far more relaxed. It’s all just another form of expression,
I told myself. I found myself slipping into these new characters far more easily. Just focus on the job at
hand, be it painting or telling the story.
I’m still sitting in so much uncertainty over what the future holds. Nothing is guaranteed, and it’s been
one long journey. I’ve run five marathons and even those felt far easier. Despite that, having all these
opportunities open all of a sudden, and me learning to trust again despite any trepidation for crossing
into unknown territory, I’ve felt reconnected to that feeling of excitement and possibility, where
everything felt brand new, my first moments after arriving in my first apartment in Los Angeles.
“You picked a really hard profession, and it’s even harder because you’re Asian. But, you’re doing it,” my
mom recently said. After she’s had the opportunity to attend a few screenings with me, particularly
when “Three Chen Sisters” was on the film festival circuit, she was able to see that there’s many out
here just like me. We’re all working, hoping, believing, and feeling that shiver of excitement when we
get to see someone like us breakthrough barriers, showing us it’s possible.
I may have felt lost countless times trying to hang in there as an artist, but that was the only way I would
end up ultimately finding myself.
Joanne Chew is a San Francisco native who relocated to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, and has recently embarked onto new territory as an abstract artist. Other passions include advocating for women’s rights and promoting their empowerment. In her spare time she enjoys studying martial arts and training for her next marathon
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