By: Joanne J Chew
“I’m not leaving because I’m scared, or because I think I’m not enough – because maybe for
the first time in my life, I know I am.”
-Rachel Chu, “Crazy Rich Asians”
Crazy Rich Asians hasn’t even been out (as a feature film) for a year, and that mahjong scene has quickly become one of the film’s most iconic moments. It struck a deep chord within me the first time I saw it, and I’ve now seen it three times, once with a girlfriend (also a fellow Asian actress), once with my sister, and a third time with my mother. What did we all have in common? We’re all Asian women. Even if we all had differing opinions of the film, we could all agree that this was something incredibly significant in terms of Asian representation in the media, and in Hollywood.
“I am enough,” has been a mantra my acting coach, Amy Lyndon has instilled in us for many years, but I feel like I’ve only truly been embodying it in the last year or so, and in more trying times, I’ve still question whether or not I’ve truly learned the lesson.
Here’s the thing. I am well aware that I’ll never be able to have the life I’ve always dreamed of unless I truly believe this. My family and friends warned me many times over as I was getting ready to move out to Los Angeles to pursue acting full time, that the odds were stacked against me. I didn’t know anyone, I had no network, I had no connections, and I was a person of color. I was determined to do whatever it took. These barriers were not going to stop me.
I can now see the good and bad sides of the “at all costs” mentality. To pursue an artistic career, particularly one in entertainment, we do need to be relentless, determined, and ready to constantly bounce back after every disappointment or setback, because those are inevitable. I’ve learned that staying in our discouragement often has a snowball effect that will make it harder and harder to snap out of the longer we remain in that space.
People constantly tell us, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I’ve completed five marathons and am gearing up to start preparing for my sixth after I recover from some minor injuries. Pursuing an acting career has been infinitely more difficult, at least in my opinion. The endurance required can at times feel insurmountable.
I was typecast pretty early on in my career, even though I’m so grateful for my early opportunities, because nothing forces you to learn faster than when you’re on the job, and all the valuable connections I was able to make. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anyone when you’re first starting out. You will slowly build and find your network. I started off booking a lot of roles as human trafficking victims and sweatshop workers, and at the time, tapping into a darker and more desolate mindset to embody the characters did a lot in training my emotional vehicle as an actress.
When I tried to branch out and move forward, I started hitting a lot of road blocks. Some of them didn’t have to do specifically with being Asian. I was urged by many to get my teeth fixed, because they were so distracting and I wouldn’t be able to portray more upscale or refined characters otherwise. I heard from quite a few people that they couldn’t “see me” in any sizable roles in mainstream feature films. And when I went out for Asian roles, casting directors constantly told me I was hard to place because they couldn’t tell what type of Asian I was. My features and body type were not delicate enough to fit they stereotypical
“ideal” of Asian women prominent in the media.
My real-life mentality started to blend in with the dismal, down-and-out characters that had made up the bulk of my resume, up until that point. I had my teeth straightened as much as I could afford and as much as possible as I was already an adult. I wore invisible aligners for about seven months, underwent painful gum surgery and teeth filing in the hopes that I could look more “mainstream.” Looking back, I wish I had stood my ground more, but hitting so many roadblocks and walls, one right after the other, had me feeling like my appearance had become a huge burden. I was getting sick and tired of hearing how talented I was, but I “looked” a certain way, therefore I wouldn’t be right for “X, Y, Z.”
It was at this point I unwittingly started giving much of my power away. I thought if I could just get through the proverbial checklist, make the necessary changes, do what everyone wanted, and fit the mold, then I would be able to get out of this stagnant stage of my career and finally move forward.
I was constantly dismissed for the more physical, action-oriented roles because of my body type, despite exercising daily, being a marathon runner, and martial artist. I had signed up for classes because everyone told me, “You’re Asian, you better have martial arts on your resume.” My intention was just to attend long enough to know enough of the basics toappear knowledgeable in fight scenes on camera, but I ended up becoming completely enamored with the practice and building so many close friendships. I’ve been at my current studio for over a decade.
Of course, I could restrict my diet further, push myself to exercise more than I already was, to fit the “ideal,” but even in my defeated state at the time, I knew that was not a rabbit hole I wanted to fall down, because I wasn’t sure I would be able to get out. There were times when I despised my appearance, but I never hated my body. I recognized how strong and durable it was, especially after having a life-changing surgery a few years ago. Thyroid illness is very prevalent in my family, and it was something that further affected my metabolism and energy levels. I will need to be on medication for the rest of my life, but
this wasn’t something I wanted to constantly explain to people. It got particularly tempting whenever I heard disparaging remarks from males in the industry in regards to my body. In hindsight, it was a lot of these types of experiences that drove me to become so active in championing female empowerment, self-love, and positive body image.
There were times when it became incredibly difficult to see some of my Asian peers be offered opportunities I wouldn’t even be considered for, despite us all having the same skillset, and the same work ethic. During the instances I was able to get feedback, it was always some diplomatic version of letting me know I just didn’t have the “right look.” I told myself not to become bitter or resentful, because this was something that was out of all of our control, to a certain extent. People would joke that if I could find a rich husband or date a plastic surgeon, I could make all the “necessary tweaks.”
I feel as if I’ve hit different versions of rock bottom the past couple of years, whether it be health challenges and enduring some painful personal situations, on top of all the professional challenges. After hearing different versions of “You should just be grateful, you’re not going to find any better,” and unfortunately interacting with the types of people who feel justified in dictating a persons’ worth (Nobody has the right to do that) to the point where I felt like I was completely driven into the ground, I finally became consumed with a crippling anger. Much of it was anger at myself for letting things get to that point. I needed to stand up. I needed to stand up for myself.
It can be incredibly scary and alienating at times. It’s often a lonely experience, because in standing your ground, you will undoubtedly lose a few people, and perhaps, opportunities. Some have been harder to let go of than others, but it was in forcing myself to do this where I discovered my passion for activism, getting involved with helping defend those less fortunate, or in a more vulnerable position than I’m in.
I channeled much of the heartbreaks that came with sticking to this journey into a second artistic venture, as an abstract artist. After I finish this article, I’ve got about five or six more paintings I need to complete for my second art show. It’s been incredibly humbling to hear people say they can feel the emotions in my paintings. As an artist, my favorite thing to hear has always been when my work spoke to people. Isn’t that the point of it all? To make people feel?
I’ve slowly started to see the beauty in this grueling process of constantly picking yourself up after you’ve fallen. Peeling yourself off the ground you once felt you’ve completely dissolved into, because you’ve been down so long. In my lowest moments I was constantly repeating the mantra my acting teacher taught us, “I am enough,” as a desperate means to keep hanging on, to try and block out a lot of the pain and discouragement I was feeling.
It’s not until you find it within yourself to look directly at all of these things and experiences that have hurt, and face them head on, that we can begin to stand up and fight back. It’s okay to acknowledge the bitterness, sadness, anger, jealousy, betrayal, or whatever emotions that organically come up that we feel we need to suppress. Acknowledge that those are valid feelings, but they don’t make up who we are.
Who we are is someone who just got back up. “I am enough,’’ becomes a quiet voice of inner knowing, not something we forcefully repeat to ourselves in the hopes of it becoming true. We have to step back and allow it to become so, because it’s something that always was, we just tend to get disconnected from time to time.
I was recently on the phone with my regional agent in Atlanta. “All of the tapes you’ve been submitting are high quality. You’re a professional. You’ve been keeping all your materials top-notch. When we ask you to do something, you get it done. On top of that, you’re a good actress. You’re doing everything exactly right.”
I felt incredibly humbled and grateful for this surprise feedback I wasn’t expecting, but what was more surprising was that I could hear my inner voice in quiet, but resolute agreeance. There will always be people out there telling us why we don’t fit the bill, or how they don’t believe we have what it takes, but none of that is a match once we truly become aware of what we are capable of.
We are heading into an exciting transition that’s been a long time coming. More and more Asian entertainers and artists are coming into prominent positions, showing that we are more than capable of holding our own in the mainstream, we always have been. We just need to keep pushing and encouraging each other.
For the first time in my life, I feel like I truly know I am enough, too.
Joanne Chew is an actress, artist, and writer residing in Los Angeles. She is very excited to have her fourth piece published in Overachiever Magazine. She is a passionate advocate for womens’ rights and their empowerment. In her spare time, she enjoys studying martial arts and training for her next marathon. Her upcoming art show, “Spring Into Summer,” will be in Los Angeles on April 28, 2019.
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