As a child, I never used the term "activist" to define myself. Although I grew up in the heart of the diverse city of New York, societal beliefs and stereotypes remain within and between different cultural groups. As someone of Teochew-Khmer American heritage, I was raised to believe that being an activist wasn’t a "safe" path for Asian-Americans — certainly not one as acceptable as acing every single math exam.
But I didn’t want to take the "safe" path. It was difficult for me to tell my family in elementary school that my earliest career goal was to become a politician so that I could help people and fix problems in my community. This aspiration didn’t last long: Watching so many broadcasts of speeches made by politicians who didn’t look like me made me lose hope. I also recall one of my cousins telling me that Asians aren’t politicians; they are doctors, lawyers, and mathematicians. I figured my family must be right, and eventually I gave in to what they wanted me to do and dropped my political dreams.
But that changed in 2013, when I saw Grace Meng, an Asian-American from New York, inaugurated into Congress. While another cousin told me that Meng "got lucky" and that it’s nearly impossible for any Asian-American to be a successful politician, seeing Meng's achievement was eye-opening. It showed me that I could overcome the barriers built by stereotypes. When I excitedly told my mom about Meng's success, she said that perhaps I could pursue a political career as a side job in the future.
In middle school, I developed another aspiration: to become an actress. When I was introduced to theater by my eighth-grade English Language Arts teacher, my initial thought was, I shouldn’t do this because I’m Asian and this isn’t something Asians do. But I tried to ignore that pessimism; seeing Meng succeed in politics had taught me to disregard the mentality that I couldn't succeed in a field just because my race was underrepresented within it. Unfortunately, my family still held on to that misconception, and they disapproved of my potential acting career, too.
Instead of giving up, though, I decided to prove to them that there are successful Asian American actors and actresses. I researched the casts of every film I could recall watching, and I did find a few Asian-American actors. But none of them were leads, and most played very stereotypical roles, such as "Asian nerd" or Chinese food delivery guy. I thought, sadly, Well, my family has won another round.
Then, during my sophomore year of high school, Fresh Off the Boat started to air. It was the first television show I had ever seen that featured multiple Asian-American leads. I was especially inspired by Constance Wu, who expertly played the leading female role of the family matriarch. The show gave me hope that one day more Asian-American stories would be heard, and that more Asian-Americans actors and actresses would be given more opportunities to do what they love. While I had already decided not to pursue acting by the time the show aired, it was still great to finally see people who looked like me on TV, to feel like I was finally represented. Fresh Off the Boat's success also proves that Hollywood’s conviction that only white actors and actresses are "bankable" is a lie (which, in fact, past studies have already proven).
I decided to build on the show's momentum and start a conversation. Inspired by the #StarringJohnCho hashtag, which was created to counteract hollywood whitewashing and show what mainstream movies could look like with diverse lead, I launched a sister idea: #StarringConstanceWu. Although there was some resistance — one Twitter user thought I should "go back to China" even though I was born in the United States — I was astounded by the amount of support that both movements received. Teachers supported me at school, and my peers at the New York City Asian American Student Conference encouraged me. The media also picked up on these movements, and I started to receive messages of gratitude and encouragement from all across the internet.
While I still have family members who firmly believe that careers in math and science are the only "safe" paths for Asian-Americans to take, this experience reminded me why I initially dreamed of being an activist and creating political and cultural change. I want to be someone whom Asian-American youth can look up to, someone who is speaking up for us and addressing the injustices done to our community, someone who will keep moving forward and pushing for change.
Furthermore, I’ve realized that perhaps the reason my family isn’t fully supportive of Asian-Americans choosing different paths is because they've only seen a handful of successful Asian-Americans in those fields. Although our presence has grown in both the political sphere and on film and TV, they’re probably worried that since we’re still minimally represented, success would be very difficult.
I understand this, but I want to prove them wrong. I will continue to speak up to raise awareness about issues like whitewashing in the media, while also pushing for more diversity on TV and in film. I believe that if not only kids, but also their family members from older generations see more people who look like them, people who are successful in fields in which they're underrepresented, that today's young people will be encouraged to pursue those careers — which is how we'll wind up with more successful Asian-Americans in different industries. But I know that personally, whether my family fully supports me or not, I will continue to do what I’m passionate about and be proud of my Asian heritage — no matter what.
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