How a third-culture kid tried to act the role
by Elliot Chan
Looking back, I realized it wasn’t just that I was Asian. I was a loud-mouth, brash, broken Asian who had no respect for authority in any form, whether it was a parent, teacher, or country. Not only was I not white, to many people I wasn’t Asian either. Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat
There is much talk about cultural appropriation these days. People are trying to draw the line, but political correctness cannot be traced with a ruler; it’s jagged, squiggly, and all-round messy. Some are overly sensitive with the ineptitude of cultural exchange — or the misunderstanding of it — and will always be, while others are apathetic to the point of offensive.
But what is my culture? What is authenticity? What is a stereotype? And what is my legitimate heritage? Before I can step up and defend myself, I must understand what — correction: who — I am.
My mother demanded that I speak Cantonese at home while growing up. I’m fluent, but I use primary school vocabulary and slur my words. It makes me feel — for lack of a better word — dumb. It’s the last thing my mom can hold over me. Cantonese. If I lose it, it’s gone. Should I have children, they will not learn a word of it from me. It’s sad, but it’s true.
CBC is an acronym used to describe me: Chinese born Canadian. Respect — even though us CBCs are perhaps the first generation of Chinese people to have never felt the wrath of poverty, the injustice of forced labour and head tax, and the hardship of immigration and a life of a refugee. Yes, we haven’t done much to garner respect, but we still deserve it; the glass ceiling above us is evident, but the platform of privilege we stand upon is quite sturdy as well.
But I was more than that whole CBC business. I didn’t know it at first, because people would just put a label on me as a kid, and I accepted it. Especially when I was growing up in a multicultural community like I did in Vancouver/Burnaby, Beautiful British Columbia. My mom and dad wanted me to be one way, the school system wanted me to behave in another, and of course, I had no idea what I wanted, except to be a star on film and television.
I was a kid grasping at influences in all directions. I admired famous white people, I admired famous Chinese people, I had friends of all hues, and I had dislikes from people of all culture; douchebags — I later found out — existed on every continent, and I don’t discriminate. I was a third-culture kid. My parents were yellow, the country was blue, and I was green, not ripe for pickin’.
Eddie Huang, owner of Baohous in New York and host of the popular Fresh Off the Boat segment on Vice Magazine, also found influences in an unconventional realm: hip-hop and rap.
Pac made sense to us. He wrote in his memoir. We lived in a world that treated us like deviants and we were outcast. There was always some counselor or administrator pulling us out of class to talk. We stayed in detention and we were surrounded by kids who had no idea what we were going through. We listened to hip-hop because there wasn’t anything else that welcomed us in, made us feel at home. I could see why Milli wanted to pull a pistol on Santa or why B.I.G. was ready to die. Our parents, Confucius, the model-minority bullshit, and kung fu-style discipline are what set us off. But Pac held us down.
As a Canadian, there isn’t much to go on, especially when it presents mashed potatoes and casserole content. Good try Canadian Broadcast Company, but CBC ain’t CBC enough for me. I was proud, but of what, someone else’s culture? I caught of glimpse of Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie and absolutely shuddered.
I wanted to change it, but I had to get my foot in the door without falling to my knees. My dad would walk into my room and see me being whitewashed by the television. I told him, I wanted to be an actor. Maybe in Hong Kong, he replied. He wanted me to flee, but I wanted to invade. I was watching television so I could know my enemy.
But when a man of colour asks a white man for anything, whether it be food, work, or acceptance, there is still this raw feeling, as if something between us, as human beings, is still unresolved. Equality is having chips to play, choosing the game is the privilege.
Huang describes the emotion of watching his cousin join a frat, but I believe it relates well to every thing else a minority group goes through in this new world. You can say “please” and “thank you,” but you know that they owe you nothing; the whole process brings you down:
Something about watching my older cousin walk around with PKA hat on his fat head being hazed by white “brothers” pissed me off. It must have been how our grandparents felt watching the British or Japanese herd their people around in water lines. OK, maybe I was imposing my own meaning on the image, but there was something wrong with it either way. White people making my cousin carry their shit, wear their colours, and walk with his head down. It took every ounce of self-control not to go apeshit on his brothers and, when I was done, beat the shit out of Phil, too! It made Allen and me so mad that it finally brought us back together. Like watching William Hung sink your entire race with each word of “She Bangs,” we died every time Phil walked through the towers surrounded by frat brothers.
For eight years, I pursued acting as my Plan A career choice. I bought into the culture 100 per cent. I devoted myself to acting and film school. I printed myself a month’s salary of headshots, produced a demo reel, and even got myself a talent agent.
I knew I was heading down the wrong path when I saw myself waiting in an audition room, hoping to beat out my other brothers, third-culture kids like myself in every way, for a role as a minority in a half-baked television pilot. When your childhood dream was to be Hamlet, anything less than Horatio will not do. So Nerdy Guy #2 was as far as I would stretch.
Legitimate roles for Asians are so limited that the audition rooms become a tense place for those who get a call back. I remember looking around at all those familiar faces, and thinking, we should be partners not rivals. We should work together to make a new brand of entertainment for our own demographic. The industry believes they are offering a piece of the pie, but no, we are fighting each other for crumbs.
My parents believed in me, they wanted me to climb the ladder. They wanted me to land those bit parts and wait for my lucky break. In other words, they wanted me to follow orders, run with dynamite and build the CPR for little to nothing. My parents believed in me. But I was not going to misrepresent who I was in the world. Yes, I wanted to be an actor, but no, I would not be Nerdy Guy #2. If I wanted to be Nerdy Guy #2 I would have been an accountant, I would have been a doctor, I would have been an engineer. Being typecast was as bad as failing. Maybe it was me, or maybe I just didn’t understand the whole entertainment industry.
“When Gene Roddenberry gave me that role,” said George Takei, for PBS documentary Pioneers of Television, “it was a breakthrough role for me personally, as an actor as well as the image of Asians and Asian Americans on the television screen and also on the motion picture screen. And today, if you have a hospital series or a detective series, you always see an Asian as part of the diversity of that regular cast.”
And the token Asian role evolved since. Now, the succeeding Sulu has taken reign as a leading male in a romantic comedy. “Asians narratively in shows are insignificant. They’re the cop, or the waitress, or whatever it is. You see them in the background. So to be in this position . . . is a bit of a landmark,” said John Cho when interviewed for his television series on ABC, Selfie.
Hell, maybe I could be the best damn Nerdy Guy #2 in cinematic history, but no. Respect to Takei and Cho for continuing to inspire, but I’m taking a different route. I would not praise Asian actors for simply making it on screen. I’ll praise them if they dare to be vanguards. I’ll praise them if they can boldly go where no Orient actor in Hollywood has gone before. Some might find the “Me so sorry! Love you long time” bit entertaining, but I hate it. I cannot and will not influence people to do the same cheesy accent and stereotypical jokes.
Asian filmmakers need to take a stand for the actors. Filmmakers are the ones generating work, so it hurts to see Old Boy whitewashed, the same way The Departed took all the credit for Infernal Affairs. Can we Americanize something without changing the skin colour and the language? It appears not. But there was nothing wrong with The Godfather, was there?
Coincidently, my cousin is now pursuing acting. He’s found his style and is getting work here and there, finding far more success than I did half -a-decade ago. Yet he’s still rooted in the same third-culture I am, so I hope he represents us well; not my family necessarily, but other third-culture people. But no offense taken if he doesn’t. Paying the bills is important. We can’t all be activists. Some people just want to be “artists.”
My family would be happy to just see him sell out and live a happy life. My family is liberal like that; they’ve given up on trying to convert us. What may seem to be defeat for them appears to be respect for us. Free will. The respect to let your children create their own legacy, their own traditions, and still welcome them into the old ones.
Am I afraid of losing my heritage? I can lie to myself, but it’s already gone. So when I see a white person doing squinty eyes, when I hear mocking “Ching-Chong” dialect, and when I feel put-down by racial stereotypes, I don’t act the fool — I play the bigger man. Respect.
I have my roots, sure, but more importantly, I have an open mind. I am able to look at each culture, cultures that simply present themselves to me on a daily bases and say: “This is not my life, this is yours and if you don’t get in my way and I don’t get into yours, then no hard feeling. Hell, maybe we’ll even learn something about each other.”
I’d like to believe that most third-culture kids have this forward thinking attitude, I mean, they sort of have to. It’s those who have a reserved, conservative mindset that are keeping future generations back from reaching a common ground. Just look around the world and see the strife; the cultures are diverse, but the attitude is similar.
If you are from a third-culture like me, you can have intelligent conversations about science and religion without feeling defensive. If you are from a third-culture like me, you can welcome people with different values, sexuality and lifestyles with almost zero hesitation. We have lost a bit of ourselves, but we have found something new.
Tradition, whether it be in the form of an industry that teases a minority or a closed-door ritual, we can’t just take it at face value, we need to analyze them, assess what they mean to us, and ask if it holds any value to the future generation and ourselves, then we must protect it like we protect a five-year-old’s belief in Santa or make the child face reality and grow up. If people forget about Chinese New Year, then there won’t be one. Simple as that. Traditions are sturdy anchors, holding us boat people together, but it might also be the shackles holding us back in this new culture.
When it comes down to it, it’s all about perception and every Asian actor understand one thing and that’s how the Western world perceived us, and Huang notes it in his memoir:
My cousin Allen was the first to point it out to me one day when we were still kids: “Yo, you notice Asian people never get any pussy in movies? Jet Li rescued Aliyah, no pussy! Chow Yun-Fat saves Mira Sorvino, no pussy. Chris Tucker gets mu-shu, but Jackie Chan? No pussy!”
So remember, if they are mocking us, they probably aren’t celebrating us.
I quit acting. I felt a bit of shame, but it faded. There were no roles for me. Because not only am I white washed, I’m also acid washed. I watch television today and I’m glad I’m not a part of the industry. I might not be the solution, but at least I’m not part of the problem.
I have assimilated with North American culture; there is no denying that. But I’m content. I can learn from my parents and I can defend their honour. But I cannot live a life trying to change ignorant SOBs, CBCs and FOBs. I accept that there will always be a polarizing opinion toward cultural appropriation and other BS. I cannot guarantee that I won’t offend another. None of us can. We all have our home team. It’s not about being born white, black, yellow, green, or anything anymore. We in Canada have the liberty to find our own identity, instead of having it branded on us at birth. For now, I’ve chosen my side.
My mother told me to speak Cantonese.
“Who would I be speaking to?”
See original piece on Medium.