My parents sometimes tease me about the things I used to say and desire when I was a little girl. You used to want blonde hair, they’d remind me. You wanted to wear everything pink, you wanted blonde hair, and you wanted to be a princess with a pink dress.
Sadly, I know this to be true, because I remember saying these things as well.
When I was little, I didn’t realize that these sentiments — particularly of having blond hair — implied I didn’t want to be Asian, that I wanted to be white. I simply saw the change of hair color as an easy way to fit in with the other girls at my school.
At recess, some of the girls in my classes would play the “Middle Name Game”, where they would call each other by their middle names, instead of their first names. I stuck around to hear all my friends’ middle names, but couldn’t bear to say my own. I’d only briefly mumble, “It’s Chinese,” but remain silent for the remainder of the game, feeling somewhat envious of everyone else’s simple “Ann”s and “Elizabeth”s.
I had few Asian American friends growing up, but I didn’t find this unusual or uncomfortable because it was simply how reality was. There weren’t many Asian American families in my school district, so it just wasn’t realistic for me to make friends with Asian Americans.
I grew up with a somewhat conflicted mindset because of this. I was fine and comfortable oftentimes being the only Asian American person in the room, but I didn’t quite enjoy it. I was aware of my differing physical appearance, but I didn’t directly attribute it to my race.
As a result, when I was older, sometime around my first couple years of college, I was somewhat detached from the matter of representation in media. I didn’t think representation was not important — but I also didn’t think it was as big of a fuss as it seemed to be.
My mindset has changed in recent years. I am very much an advocate for representation in the media, and not just because I now feel the desire to represent and stand up for my people (fellow Asian Americans) with pride. It’s also because I’m experiencing a very personal struggle of just seeing characters — in novels, and in my own writing — as Asian American.
Not being able to see people who look like me, in my own writing, is a disconcerting, unsettling thing. Because this implies that the people I see, most naturally, do not look like me.
As a writer and a reader, I take great joy in imagining characters. I like creating their backstories and envisioning what they look like at the present moment of the story they’re living through. This was something I did with Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice, long before I watched either of the movies.
When I recently read Crazy Rich Asians, however, a book filled with an all-Asian cast, I found myself facing the same obstacle I met with in my writing. I struggled to put faces to names, flesh out each character, and give them a distinct look. This shouldn’t have been difficult.
Author Kevin Kwan goes into an incredible level of detail when he depicts the grandeur and luxury of these characters’ homes, clothes, and cars. The Mandarin phrases (among the Hokkien, Cantonese, and Malay phrases) were familiar. The cultural bonds and family values felt normal (though I might argue that the ending felt a little too neat, and some Asian American household values became rather Westernized if the story was to end this way). The protagonist, Rachel Chu, even hailed from Cupertino, California and went to Stanford.
It should have been simple to see each of these characters in my mind’s eye. But I struggled, because my mind wasn’t used to constructing non-white characters.
Earlier today, I read an interview where UC Berkeley alumna and author, Shanthi Sekaran, discussed the release of her second novel, Lucky Boy. In it, Sekaran is asked, “You say you usually make your characters Indian. Often in writing, there is an assumption that the default mode of a character is white. Is that something that you have had to consciously combat?”
Sekaran replied, “I had a professor tell me that if I was going to have an Indian character, I would have to really talk about the fact that they were Indian and really explore their Indian identity in the story. And my viewpoint was, I didn’t want to have a whole sort of treatise on their Indianness. I just wanted an Indian character going through the motions of the story instead of a white one.”
I resonate with Sekaran’s response completely — even if I am part of the crowd holding the assumption that characters are white until described otherwise. It should not be so difficult to imagine a character as a different race, nor to imagine people of different races doing very normal, everyday things without constantly referencing their racial identity.
We are all people here. Everything we do — what we read, what we see, how we act, and how we believe — should reflect that, and the change ought to start with us. This is where I’ve started; I’d love to hear any other book/film/media suggestions from anyone else.