Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Representation Matters

I have been reflecting over the past few days events and trying to understand why connections with certain people on Twitter and IRL are so important to me.  This started as a tweet, but then I realized I couldn't do it justice in 140 characters or less.  SO I thought about making it a Facebook post, but then it got long enough that it needed subtitles.  So here it is in blog form.  For those who are unaware, I am a lawyer and mediator, so being concise is usually expected. My blog rejects the notion with great vehemence.  I'm going to say what I need to say. 

I think this can mostly be summed up by saying that representation really does matter.  Mirrors are so important for young people of color growing up in a white world.  Some of you will think I am wrong to see colour and that’s fine because maybe you don’t “get it” , but the unfortunate reality, as we’ve learned from adoptees and non-adoptees who grew up in relative whitopia, is that when you don’t see colour, you’re much more likely to not care when there is an absence of it, and that is such a detrimental attitude to have.  Colorblindness doesn't mean we're all the same.  It means you are disregarding the important differences that make each of us who we are.  For a person of colour, that includes their race and culture.  I refuse to be blind to who my child is at her very core, as that core is what makes her exactly who she is.

I am raising a child of colour. What good is it if I pretend she is not?  She sees herself in the mirror and knows she is a beautiful, smart, funny, strong, wonderful CHINESE girl.  I credit a great deal of her confidence to the fact that she has wonderful mirrors in her life, in her circle of friends, in our circle of friends, and in our professional network (accountants, hairdressers, doctors, lawyers, realtors, etc).

She also feels she is “allowed” to feel this by what she has been starting to see in social media, television, advertising, etc.  There was a time, not so long ago when the only Asian characters in TV and movies were the nerds and the martial artists.  Typically, they were a stereotyped version of Asians, with thick, wide-rimmed glasses, buck teeth and were smart but weren’t seen as particularly good looking.   Even cooking shows (think “Wok with Yan”) featured stereotypical self-deprecating humour, because that’s what the audience knew and wanted.  If they weren't nerds, they were Black belts in Karate, violent and mean. At the other end of the spectrum, (the one I was not exposed to in my youth) was the fetishized version of Asian women as being submissive and only good for sexual gratification. Most other roles in entertainment were white.  White actors, white producers, white writers, etc.   Had my daughter grown up at a time when those were the only common depictions of Asians, would she have the same confidence as she has today?  

I look at what we’ve been able to provide in terms of mirrors for our daughter in modern day media.  My 10-year-old daughter’s favourite YouTuber is a beautiful, unique and skilled Asian woman named Wengie.  She does makeup, hair, life hacks, etc and my daughter e a t s - i t - u p!  So my daughter feels she can be a YouTube star too, if she chooses to.  Plus, she is learning how to do makeup on Asian eyes, from an Asian person.  Because let’s face it.  It’s not the same as doing my white caved-in eye-socket eyes and big western nose!

In the first year of Masterchef Canada, Eric Chong shone so bright in our house.  This handsome (omg, that smile could melt all the ice in Nunavut!), intelligent (has an engineering degree), skilled, wonderful chef became Canada’s first Masterchef!  He was so far removed from what Canada (still!) thought of when we’d think of a TV Chef.  He was not nerdy, not self-deprecating, not there to entertain people with humour.  He was there to demonstrate and hone his mad skills and win it all.  He did use a lot of Asian influences in his dishes, but he also showed his ability to be versatile and cook all kinds of different dishes.  And so, my daughter has someone to look up to if she chooses a professional path in cooking (not likely as she has not shown much interest in cooking anything more than microwaved scrambled eggs, but you never know what the future may hold!).  Ultimately, though what she also learned is that Chinese people do not only win math competitions and martial arts duels! 

Years ago, I don’t even remember how, now, I discovered my favourite author, Lisa See. I believe the first book of hers that I read was “Shanghai Girls” (although it may have been one of the books in her earlier "Red Princesses" trilogy).  I do remember that I was immediately smitten with every aspect of the first book I read.  Lisa See is Chinese-American and writes extensively about China in well-researched novels (amongst other things) in fictional stories, based on true common Chinese culture and history. As a white mom trying to learn all I could about Chinese culture (apart from information on Imperial Culture that is more readily available), her works have been integral in allowing me to understand the underpinnings of some of the more challenging aspects of culture that I have to/choose to explain to my daughter.  Where media often offers such a negative view of my daughter’s birth country, I have the tools to make sure she understands why certain things are done the way they are, and I can explain them in a neutral or positive way, which has allowed my daughter to love her birth country, warts and all. Lisa See’s writings have been a springboard for me to do my own research (more particularly, by the fact that she quotes all of her sources in each book so that further research can be undertaken).  Furthermore, my daughter sees the joy I have in reading Lisa See’s works, and she has also become a fan.  I took her to see the “Snowflower and the Secret Fan” movie when she was 5, and I used to read her random chapters of different books once in a while.  She’ll soon be ready to start reading some of them on her own.  If my daughter were to decide to become a writer, I’m happy that there are several strong Asian-American and Asian-Canadian authors (my fave being Madeleine Thien) for her to look up to.

Then comes mainstream media.  My daughter wants to become a Doctor or an actress after her ballet career is over (a kid can dream, can’t she?).  For years, Sandra Oh was our mirror there.  Although not a real life Doctor, for a kid, TV is often close enough to real life.  I adore Sandra Oh.  With a passion.  However, it did always bother me that this wonderful, talented Korean-Canadian actress was frequently cast in roles as being Chinese. This bothered me because I do feel it perpetuated the stereotype that all Asians are the same (I had the same reaction to Simu Liu, as a Chinese actor cast in a Korean role in Kim’s Convenience, but dear gawd, he’s such an amazingly beautiful creature that I would cast him in every role in the universe if I could!).  Eventually, I decided to mostly let that go, because I’m just so happy to see so many great East Asian faces on TV and in movies, that I am reluctant to be picky…

Speaking of Kim’s Convenience, let’s chat a bit about that, shall we?  What an amazing production, with such wonderful actors!  Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, is the dad of all dads in Asian-Canadian culture.  I have so many friends who identify with him as Appa and Jean Yoon as Umma as classic 1st generation Canadian parents and both Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon nail their performances EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.  Our daughter sees the younger versions of Janet (the fabulously credible Andrea Bang) and Jung (the incomparable Simu Liu) in her group of friends who are growing up as Chinese-Canadians in white Canada. I also love the relationship between Jung and his lazy, underachieving colleague and roommate Kimchee (played perfectly by Andrew Phung) as they try to manage their family relationships (well, at least Jung’s family relationships) and their lengthy friendship, which was likely, at some point (one would assume), created by gravitational pull that kids of colour naturally feel towards each other (as I've noticed between my daughter and her friends).  So here is a funny, entertaining look at 1st and second generation Asian-Canadians that normalizes some of the things my daughter and some of her friends experience.  Although my daughter may not live with first generation Canadian parents, she does attend Chinese school every Saturday morning, as well as 5 weeks every Summer, does Chinese dance weekly 10 months per year, eats Chinese foods (the authentic kind, not just North American kind), we travel to China every 1-2 years, practice our Mandarin together and we follow the Chinese holiday calendar in addition to the Canadian one.  Our daughter would like to become an actress and she sees the real possibility there in that there are a good number of strong Asian performers acting as mirrors for her.  She often also dreams of being an actress, and I love that she sees that as a possibility someday because of the wonderful Asian actors and actresses who fill our living room with their wonderful talent each week.  Actors and actresses who, when they were growing up, couldn't necessarily see themselves on screen because there were so few similar faces on screen at the time...

I also want to take one last moment to acknowledge the importance of Asian men being the object of women’s affection.  I remember seeing The Edge of Seventeen (Caution, spoiler alert!) and feeling so happy about the lead finally falling for the Asian kid.  Although he was a bit nerdy, and was another Chinese Canadian actor (Hayden Szeto) playing the role of a Korean, the fact that the girl actually fell for the Asian boy made me so, so happy!

In Kim’s convenience, the same wonderful thing happens.  Shannon (the wonderfully funny Nicole Power) can’t keep her eyes or thoughts off Jung (let’s face it, who can?) and it’s not an Asian fetish thing!  She is clearly in “lust” with him because of who he is and how incredibly hot he looks (is it getting warm in here?  It is, isn’t it?).  I love hot Asian men!  There you go, I’ve said it.  And, similarly to how it is (or rather isn't) for Shannon, this is not a fetish.  In my case it is because I am so tired of the stereotype of the small, skinny, nerdy Asian guy.  There are so many gorgeous, fit, sexy, strong Asian men out there, and I love that media is finally catching up with this!  I want to see more leading Asian men and women in mainstream media.  I want to see them in roles that don’t need to be Asian.  In other words, I want to see Asian men and women in roles that do not specify a race.  Let’s make that happen so that young Asian boys and girls can see mirrors of themselves on TV, in movies, in magazine ads, on YouTube, and everywhere else.  Let’s do it because representation really does matter.  Let’s raise confident Asian boys and girls who understand that they are worthy of the same kind of praise as their white peers. When a person visualizes an Asian man, I want the image that pops up to be a good looking man like Simu Liu, Eric Chong or Leehom Wang (oh dear-have I forgotten to talk about heartthrob Leehom Wang? Well, that will be a post for another day...).

While we're on the subject, I need to also point out the delightful way that women like Sandra Oh, Andra Bang and Jean Yoon have portrayed strong Asian women who defy the fetishized stereotypes.  They are all beautiful women but have also brought a strength, confidence and independence to their roles.  I love seeing Asian women cast in those types of roles because, again, when a person visualizes an Asian Woman, that's what I want them to think of first and foremost.  My daughter is already a strong, confident young lady and she has these wonderful role models to look up to! 

Clearly, in order for these fabulous actors and actresses to shine, there is much work that needs to be done behind the scenes.  I'm so thankful for the writers, producers, directors, casting directors and all the other people behind the scenes who have and continue to contribute to the rise of these awesome Asians!

SO when I tweet something and these amazing people who have such an important role in my daughter’s upbringing go ahead and like, reply to, or retweet something I’ve posted, it just makes my day.  And my week.  And my month, and even my year!  The fact that these wonderful people who are in the limelight and have made it in their chosen field take the time to recognize the young people walking in their footsteps and their parents (like my daughter and me) makes me so happy.

So why, getting back to my initial thoughts, are Social Media and IRL connections with these people so important?  Because my daughter is growing up at a time where real life and social media blend in such a way that it is sometimes difficult to make a distinction between them.  Celebrities lives have become so much on display that people feel like they know them, inside and out.  But I grew up at a time when average people did not have these personal relationships with celebrities.  If you wrote a letter to a star and they wrote back, that was a pretty effing big deal!  But I had the benefit of working closely, over the course of my life, with people who were idols to some, be it NHL players, comedians, musical artists, etc.  And I thoroughly cherished each one of those connections.  I have fond memories of time spent chatting over coffee or a couple of beers, walking around the city in the middle of the night, playing pranks on other people in my office, pouring over albums to find good photos to send to family members, etc.  some of these things happened 20-25 years ago, but their memory lasts forever....  So when Simu Liu or Eric Chong replies to a tweet and we banter back and forth, or takes the time to chat with me and my family when we come to visit, it means so much to me, and to my daughter.  These individuals are her idols.  And mine too. 

Because #RepresentationMatters.  It really does.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you to every single one of you who are a part of this.  You matter an awful lot to us.

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