My father is white and my mother is Japanese-American. Sushi dinners were a regular part of my childhood, one of the few ways that my third-generation Japanese-American mother could connect my older brother and me to our roots. Culturally, my mom was very American (don’t get her started on the Dodgers or apple pie—and especially not Dancing with the Stars), but for special occasions—birthdays, anniversaries, graduations—we celebrated with Japanese food.
And while my cousins and brother embraced the cuisine with open, uh, mouths, I crossed my arms, refusing to learn how to hold hashi and begging for Burger King instead of icky raw fish. In fact, the first time I ever really gave sushi a chance, I was 20 years old.
Why did I resist so adamantly? Mostly because growing up, I was taught by movies and television to value my whiteness over my Japanese roots. Though Southern California has a healthy Asian population, the neighborhood I grew up in—an affluent and conservative pocket of Orange County, just south of where you might stumble upon the Real Housewives or the cast Laguna Beach—is predominately white. Favorite cultural pastimes included surfing, watching others surf, or learning about famous surfers from the area. My exposure to Asian culture, outside of my mom’s dinners, was limited to what I saw onscreen.
And what I saw onscreen wasn’t much.
On my preferred childhood channels, Disney and Nickelodeon, there were, at most, two characters who gave me a sense of what “being Asian” meant. Even in commercials and in movies, these characters played by Asian actors were drawn almost exclusively with stereotypes: studious and intensely quiet; adept at solving Rubik’s cubes; literally and figuratively buttoned up. These characters were not fun, sociable, or cool; and from what I could tell, not one of them was going to capture the heart of Ethan Craft in Lizzie McGuire. Ever.
I internalized all of it, and felt that one-half of my identity was unworthy and unfortunate—like an unflattering birthmark you go to elaborate lengths trying to conceal. Admittedly, I wasn’t outraged by these stereotypes. In fact, I never even questioned them. That Asians were one-dimensional was as true to me as the fact that the sky is blue and that *NSYNC was by all measures a better boy band than the Backstreet Boys.
So for years, I didn’t just claim my whiteness: I insisted on it—asserting my white heritage at every opportunity. My father’s last name gave me credibility, and I proudly told my teachers I was Italian and English, a little bit Irish and if they asked about my espresso curls or olive complexion, I would throw in that I was one-sixty-fourth Native American. I went to bed every night wishing that I’d wake up with different hair and skin. I was so desperate to be white that I didn’t even think about what it might feel like if anyone in movies or on television looked and acted like me.
While Asian characters were pigeonholed into roles like doctors, IT whizzes, and drycleaners, the white characters were multidimensional, complicated beings who got to be whatever they wanted—journalists! Actors! Superheroes! The love interest! The world was (er, is) their oyster.
In 2018, things have changed. For the first time, I’ve seen actors who are Hapa—or half white, half Asian—like me on screen, especially on those influential teen dramas, like the ones I binged in my youth like so many bags of Hot Cheetos. There’s Janel Parrish and Shay Mitchell on Pretty Little Liars; Charles Melton on Riverdale; Ross Butler on 13 Reasons Why; Chloe Bennet on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Kelsey Chow on Teen Wolf. And then we have Mitski and Hayley Kiyoko holding it down in the music world.
Like their full-white counterparts, these actors play complex characters with a range of interests. They aren’t the de facto geeks or quiet types—but that doesn’t mean they can’t be. Mitchell’s Pretty Little Liars character, Emily, for example, is an athlete, a lesbian, and an amateur murder mystery solver; while Melton plays a jock with a mean streak on Riverdale. Finally, actors of Asian descent are allowed to be.
And yet, as much as I adore these Hapas, there’s a fundamental understanding that they are cast in these roles because they don’t look too ethnic. I’m reminded of Zendaya, who recently spoke of being a light-skinned black woman: “I am Hollywood’s, I guess you could say, acceptable version of a black girl, and that needs to change,” she told the crowd at Beautycon in New York. Sometimes I wonder if Hapas are Hollywood’s acceptable version of Asian. Notably, their Asian heritage rarely plays a part in their character. No sushi dinners for them.
Though I didn’t realize it back then, what I needed at that time was a healthy representation of non-tokenized Asian-Americans dealing with the same middle school drama as Lizzie McGuire. What I didn’t need were actors that felt like they were special enough to be part of that drama because they were part-white.
So while yes, these Hapa actors are without question Asian, and that’s important (seeing my unique family’s experience played out on screen, with a white dad and Asian mom with two ambiguous looking children still looks strange on TV, even to me), there is still a massive void where there should be portrayals of rich Asian experiences.
Cue a film like Crazy Rich Asians, which hit theaters on August 15th. A dynamic portrayal of emotionally complex, interesting, Asian people (that includes Hapas like Sonoya Mizuno and Henry Golding), is the representation I never had as a kid.
Awkwafina’s Peik Lin, for example, is quirky, fashionable, and cool. But she’s also accepting of her Asian heritage, a proud child of immigrants. Her foreignness is an interesting and celebrated facet of her identity, not a fragment of it to keep hidden away, to feel ashamed of or lie about. I imagine young girls seeing her offbeat portrayal and further associating a Singaporean background with an edgy precociousness exemplified by a shaggy blond pixie cut. The way I assigned a positive sentiment to specific European cultures—the British, the French, really any Anglo-Saxons—so, too, could a young person see Asian cultures for their rich diversity rather than strictly as a breeding ground for tech geniuses where humans have a difficult time interacting with human-like robots, let alone other humans.
As an adult, seeing a feature length film with a predominantly Asian cast feels not only like the ultimate validation, but also a learning experience. I spent so much of my youth ignoring and hiding my culture, only bothering to learn the bare minimum for the sake of preserving my whiteness in the eyes of others. I’m starting to finally open my eyes to all of it, and films like Crazy Rich Asians (and hopefully, the cinematic representation that will follow after this film’s success) are helping. It’s slow going, but we’re making progress, and that matters. Because no one should be deprived of sushi, no matter how much self-imposed cultural repression we have under our belts. No one.