Between the ages of four and six, my favorite pastime was devoutly watching Disney’s Mulan once a week, every week. I could recite every line of the movie, much to the annoyance of my parents. Despite this repetition, my commitment to Mulan never faltered. I loved being swept into the rice fields and imperial cities of ancient China, where I imagined my ancestors once roamed. I saw myself there, too, for Mulan was the only princess who, with her long black hair and olive skin, looked just like me. She enjoyed the same porridge and dumplings I saw at the table every night, spoke the same painstakingly-difficult Mandarin Chinese I had to communicate to my grandparents with, and sported the same traditional hanfu dress I wore on Chinese New Year. I found comfort in this sense of familiarity, and so I continued watching the only movie I could obtain it from. A keystone of my childhood, Mulan was an intimate link to my personal life and one of the only times I saw myself on the screen. As my first encounter with Asian representation in the media, it shone a profound spotlight on the beauty of non-Western culture—something I’d learn would not occur very often as I grew up.
When I was twelve, my friends urged me to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s for the first time because it was a “classic.” Yet my stomach turned when a white actor portrayed Mr. Yunioshi, a miserable Japanese character whose only qualities were a mishmash of just about every Asian stereotype: taped eyelids, buck teeth, and a sibilant accent. As others giggled, I felt my face burn with shame at this toxic caricature whose sole purpose in the movie was comic relief—to be a joke. I felt like a joke. I couldn’t help but feel like my immigrant parents’ broken English was being ridiculed; that my family’s unique qualities had been distorted by this ugly lens. I had already been feeling insecure about my appearance—as all twelve-year-olds do—and this uncommon depiction of an Asian in Hollywood was anything but flattering. Was this how half my identity would be portrayed to the world? Had this perception of Asians become so accepted that no one else was disturbed by the cruel misrepresentation in such a “beloved” movie?
When I was thirteen, I was watching The Voice when an Asian-American teenager emerged among a sea of generic contestants. Her name was Katherine Ho, and her presence on the stage jolted me awake, for it was not every day that I saw a Chinese person on television or in music. My brief “Mulan” moment—that feeling of instant connection—crumbled when The Voice decided to cut out Katherine’s first performance, then her second performance, then her third performance, repeatedly showing the nation only five second snippets of her talent. She clearly never had a chance at winning the show, and she was eliminated before anyone ever heard her sing. Every time Katherine was disregarded by the show, I felt my heart plunge to the pit of my chest—it was the same painful mortification I experienced watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As an eighth-grader at the time, I contacted Katherine in the most practical way I knew how: Instagram direct message. In my message to her, I released my internal heaviness by expressing my disappointment about the way she had been represented, to which Katherine responded with a sad appreciation. “I wish you all the best with your future goals!” we had exchanged before we parted ways. Yet I understood the bleak reality for her goals: Katherine would never “make it big.”
Fueled by this disappointment and a desire for social change, I patched together my own website, DeclarASIAN, in 2017 to serve as a platform for Asian-Americans to discuss stereotypes and advocate representation in all aspects of the community. Since then, I have had the opportunities to interview Asian-American CEOs, authors, comedians, musicians, Congresswomen, and even a Radio City Rockette. As I try to provoke thoughtful discussion, I’ve also begun to witness diversity in the media make strides on a national level. This summer, I teared up as I watched Crazy Rich Asians, one of the first Hollywood movies featuring an all-Asian cast, for I had the “Mulan” moment I had been yearning for since my childhood. As the end credits rolled, my heart skipped a beat when I saw who sung the soundtrack: Katherine Ho, the young woman who I had consoled back in middle school. Naturally, I recognized her name and contacted her again, this time with a message of congratulations.
Katherine’s song has reached Number 1 on Spotify’s Viral 50 Global chart, and my passion for Asian-American representation remains just as strong as when I would watch Mulan over a decade ago. As I watch Katherine’s music career take off and I see Hollywood gradually incorporate more diversity, I have hope that my kids will have more than one movie they can relate to as they grow up.
Author: Claire Cao
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