By: Emma Galbraith
As a young teen, the creative media I was consuming was fairly standard: teen drama
shows (mostly white main casts), sitcoms in New York (mostly white main casts). But I started
with Chinese influences. Hóu Gē, the Chinese cartoon about the Monkey King, was this stack of
DVDs in white plastic sheaths that towered over me on top of our DVD bookcase. The story had
talking monkeys in imperial China, the artwork in a calligraphic landscape style. There were
gods in an Imperial Palace in the sky. It was awesome. I love Hóu Gē. But Disney’s Mulan was the first protagonist that stayed with me. I think I watched it in Chinese first before I watched it in English. I liked both, but the English one was the one that I kept watching. Maybe because it was the most accessible to an American. But also I wonder if seeing a Chinese girl save the world in English resonated with me in a way that seeing a Chinese girl save the world in Chinese didn’t. And as I got older, I became impressionable. How? I entered middle school & realized I wanted boys. How was I going to acquire one? Consult the Internet like any other research. I learned from the media I consumed and the peers I talked to that the best way to find a guy was to be like the characters I saw that other characters found sexy.
Which is something a lot of girls do go through. Then I discovered Ming-Na Wen & Chloe Bennet in Marvel’s Agents Of Shield & realized how much I loved seeing Asian characters on screen again. I entered high school & started reading about more Asian women in world history. Crazy Rich Asians and To All The
Boys I’ve Loved Before came out, and I started discovering popular media for and by Asians again since Amy Tan’s phenomenal books The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter. One gets a certain feeling when one sees a positive character who shares their ethnicity in media. For me it’s like every nerve in my body is leaning forward, begging to enter this world where an Asian person means something good. This world where an Asian face is attached to a person who means something important. Where I look into the screen and see not a Scientist Asian in a lab coat, not a Biker Asian with a purple streak in their hair, not a Mob Asian who stands threateningly and speaks with knives & broken English, not any character with a
personality of Asian + gimmick but a Person who just is also Asian. I rediscovered that electricity of seeing someone who actually looks like you, that sense that you have come home to someone who can show you a good way to be. As much as I would like to be non-impressionable, to not care how others see me, to not be porous to the models of humanity that media gives us, how could I be and still exist in our
culture? The fact is simply that representation is made up of…representatives. They may not always be ambassadors of the accurate or current characteristics of people, but they are maps of the potential that young media consumers have, to go in any direction. Tell young, miserably pubescent girls that happy looks like sexy, and that sexy looks like a dark and mysterious petite chick with purple highlights on a motorcycle & a personality of ice & steel who doesn’t speak because it’s •mysterious•, and we will mold ourselves into those images until we become that representation of ourselves. One that we didn’t even create as our own. And if we don’t have a motorcycle license or hair dye we just become silent. That’s not even taking into account the overwhelmingly undersexualized Asian male characters and, conversely, hypersexualized Asian female characters in popular current media. The hentai girls, the props in music videos who can’t speak and are therefore sexy in the way sex dolls are sexy. The ones who are written for their impossible bodies to speak for them so that their audience doesn’t need to think about what’s in their heads. Those characters aren’t written to be seen as actual humans. They’re mass-produced, exotic edition, silent robots. The Asian representation I saw in the classical music culture is different. But yet again, this musical representation of who I could be didn’t talk. It was presented as a contest of note perfection and “musicality”. A game that could be won, not an art. I never feel anything at musical competitions unless I know the person performing, and then it doesn’t come from the art but from my feelings about the performer. But how sad that this form of creativity was quantified into a subset of what is considered the model minority’s specialties: logic, math, science. Only now, independently of the culture, am I beginning to appreciate classical music as a way to release energy and communicate emotion. But for me it still carries this connotation of being silent, of letting another person’s work speak through you, of being as transparent as one can. And let’s address the problem of erasure while we’re here. There is a certain universal magic to seeing someone who shares one’s traits or culture in creative media, especially when that is rare. But I also acknowledge that as a Chinese-Caucasian cisgender person, I have representative privilege that other, darker-skinned Asians don’t have, especially in screen media, and talking about art that represents one type of Asian as a massive representative win for all Asians is just another form of silencing someone else. When we can measure the adequacy of representation in our creative media on a scale that encompasses as many people’s experiences as possible, that to me is an end to silence. So how can we, Asian folks of all genders, skin tones, and ages, find representation that does just that?
Make our own, right?
We just have to show ourselves that we exist.
Emma is a social activist, actor, writer, and musician. She is also Chinese-Caucasian. She is an intern at 350 Austin and was a student ambassador at the Austin, Texas chapter of the 3/15/19 Youth Strike 4 Climate. Sometimes she goes outside.
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