Tag Archives: Asian American

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‘So The Arrow Flies': A Political Thriller That Explores Asian American Identity

by SARAH MIN

Hours before the first plane hit the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Esther K. Chae boarded a Los Angeles-bound flight from New York. She was up in the air when news of the attack grounded her JetBlue aircraft in Kansas City. During those first uneasy hours, she and her fellow passengers watched as the towers billowed smoke from television screens, when a tall African American gentleman remarked, “Thank goodness the terrorists don’t look like us.”

“It was something that stuck with me,” says Chae in a recent video interview from her home in California.

“What if the terrorists had looked like me, if it was a Muslim Asian or somebody who was of Asian descent?”

For Chae, that question formed the basis for what would become her critically acclaimed solo performance, So the Arrow Flies, which was published as a stage play in August 2014, and which she has been developing and performing for the better part of the last decade.

So the Arrow Flies is a political thriller exploring the multiple layers of the Asian American identity through the eyes of four women, as it details the interactions between an alleged North Korean spy and the Korean American FBI agent who interrogates her. Chae, who conceived the play as a one-woman piece, plays all four characters: Catherine Park, the alleged spy; Ji-Young Park, the FBI agent; Mina White, Catherine’s American-born hapa daughter; and Mrs. Park, Ji-Young Park’s immigrant mother.

At the center of the interrogation is Catherine, a former North Korean actress and escapee turned FBI double agent, who changes names, faces and nationalities to conceal her identity. Chae, who came up with the character three years after that Sept. 11 midmorning flight, modeled Catherine after Katrina Leung, the real-life Chinese American informant recruited by the  FBI, who in 2003 was accused of spying for China during a period of heightened concern over U.S. national security.

“She was this very schoolmarm-looking,unassuming woman who had worked for the FBI as an informant, who had two romantic relationships with two very high-profile people in the FBI, and who later turned out to be a spy,” says Chae, who first heard of Leung in a 2004 PBS Frontline documentary, From China with Love. “[I wondered], how did she get away with this?”

A federal judge would dismiss the charges against Leung—which consisted of illegally copying documents from her FBI handler-turned-lover—based on prosecutorial misconduct. But Chae took note of the investigation, believing Leung would be a fascinating figure to adapt into a character for a future stage play.

In an increasingly globalized world, Chae thought at the time, what might Katrina Leung’s story say about national identity? And what might it mean to be an Asian or Asian American accused of turning against the U.S. in a post-9/11 world?

These questions haunted Chae. In 2005, she wrote a 15-minute early iteration of her stage play for the Mark Taper Forum’s Solo Performance Workshop in Los Angeles, delving into what she imagined to be the psyche of Katrina Leung to create the Catherine Park character.

Chae also developed the characters of Agent Ji-young Park and Mina White at this time, but it wasn’t until a later personal experience that she added the witty and warm narrator, Mrs. Park.

In 2007, Chae’s mother contracted tuberculous meningitis and was in a coma while Chae served as her primary caretaker. The playwright returned to her short play and added the character of Mrs. Park as a dedication to her parents and the generation of immigrants they belonged to. “My world was so chaotic, I believe I needed to write poetically in order to give some sense and meaning to what was going on personally, along with world affairs,” she says.

The rest of the play quickly crystallized. To understand all four of her characters, Chae researched the concept of hamartia, a term associated with Greek tragedy that refers to a heroine’s tragic downfall. “It is a choice that one makes,” says Chae. “They think it’s out of their best judgment to make that choice. They tried their best at the time, but it became a flaw in the end.”

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For the duration of the 85-minute run time for So the Arrow Flies, Chae slips in and out of generations, accents, postures and mindsets, without ever leaving the stage for a reprieve or a costume change. The unorthodox format caused one Edinburgh Festival Fringe reviewer to coin the word “polilogue” to describe the play as a “multi-polar performance that presents a discourse between different characters, but is expressed through the mouth and conduct of one solo actor.”

Chae, who has acted on such stages as the Arts Nova Theater Festival in New York and the October Nights Theater Festival in Italy, continues to perform her play based on invitation. Recently, the stage play was picked up for publication in Korea by Dong-In Book, and Chae hopes to get the play into the hands of students in America and Asia to use as study material.

The self-described “portfolio artist” was born in Eugene, Oregon, and moved to South Korea with her family at age 5. She has a degree in French literature from Korea University, an M.A. in theater studies from the University of Michigan and a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama. Chae’s creative work has spanned across voice-over, television, stage and independent film. She has served as the keynote speaker for the Arts Council of Korea and performed an excerpt of So the Arrow Flies titled “One Actor. Four Women” at TED University (shorter-form talks within the conference series) in 2009.

On television, Chae has played a number of recurring and guest-starring roles on such shows as The Shield, Law and Order and E.R. Her work in NCIS as a North Korean operative reflects her gravitation to tales of espionage. However, it was partly her dissatisfaction with the roles available to her in Hollywood that led to So the Arrow Flies.

“I felt the need to form myself,” Chae explains. “My characters and ideas, I think I can safely say, are much larger and richer and more complicated than the roles that have been given to me.

“[My characters are] women of Asian descent with very varied backgrounds who have very complicated stories and personal histories that get unraveled as we journey along with them,” she adds.

The illustration on the recently published cover of So the Arrow Flies shows a young woman, one eye shut, her face bright with determination, as she motions to let loose an imaginary arrow. Arrows may seem out of place in a tale of modern espionage, but Chae connected the females in the play to ancient Korean gi-ma-jok, brave horse warriors who charge into battle with bows drawn.

“In a way, these characters are repetitions of the mistakes we’ve made as human beings throughout history,” she says. “They’re trying to survive in a situation that is larger than themselves.”

___

“So the Arrow Flies,” published by NoPassport Press, is available to order online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Lulu.

This article was published in the February/March 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the February/March issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

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It’s Ryu v. Ramsay in L.A. City Council Runoff

by SUEVON LEE | @suevlee
suevon@iamkoream.com

David Ryu hung on to his second-place finish in the primary race for the District 4 seat on the L.A. City Council and will advance to the May 19 runoff against Carolyn Ramsay, according to certified results released Friday by the city clerk.

If he prevails in the general election, the Korean American Ryu, the director of development at a nonprofit health care provider, would be the first Asian American to sit on the City Council since Mike Woo served from 1985 to 1993.

It was a nail-biting race since the March 3 primary. Ramsay, a former aide to termed-out District 4 councilmember Tom LaBonge, led with 15.3 percent of the vote while Ryu trailed closely behind with 14.6 percent of the vote. A mere 61 votes separated him from the third-place candidate in a crowded 14-person race.

After all mail-in ballots were accounted for, Ryu’s lead over Tomas O’Grady widened by 207 votes, according to Friday’s certified results, qualifying him for the runoff. In the end, Ramsay pulled in 3,719 votes and Ryu, 3,634 votes. The two candidates were the top fundraisers in their race.

In a Facebook post early Friday evening, Ryu said that he and his team will “continue to run our campaign in the general just as we have in the primary—knocking on doors, listening to residents, and working on solutions to improve our community.”

The L.A. City Council, the city’s governing body, is composed of 15 members from single-member districts who serve four-year terms.

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Featured image via Los Feliz Ledger

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Link Attack: Yeon-mi Park, Racist Frat Email, Tokyo Students Say “We’re Friends” with Koreans

The Woman Who Faces the Wrath of North Korea
Yeon-mi Park is a 21-year-old North Korean defector who has devoted herself to revealing the brutal truth about the country, but the regime is fighting hard to discredit her. (The Guardian)

University of Maryland Investigates Racist, Sexist Frat Email
Angry Asian Man highlights an email from a Kappa Sigma chapter that came to light just days after the racist video from Oklahoma University’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon blew up online.

Choi Sun

Choi Sun’s Paintings That Will Make You Cringe
Since graduating from the art college at Hongik University, the “rebel artist” has sought to disrupt accepted norms in painting, according to Korea Herald.

The Untapped Political Power of Asian Americans
Third Way‘s Michelle Diggles, Ph.D, explains how Asian American diversity and experiences are often overlooked and not well understood in national political debates. Asian Americans also lag in participation in civic life … so far.

With Plan to Walk Across DMZ, Women Aim for Peace in Korea
Last Wednesday at the United Nations in New York, using a conference on the status of women as a backdrop, leading female advocates of disarmament formally announced their intent to walk across the Demilitarized Zone. (New York Times)

“We’re Friends”; Tokyo High School Students Speak Korean and Touch on Korean Culture in Speech Competition

Talking Kimchi and Capitalism with a North Korean Businessman
The Washington Post talks to Mr. Kim, a factory manager in a small town outside Dandong, China’s commercial gateway to North Korea.

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Ron Kim Calls for Student Resolve in Face of Failures
The New York State Assemblyman spoke to the AHANA Management Academy (AMA) and the Korean Students Association at Boston College about his journey into politics as an Asian American man.

Hyphen Magazine Interviews Seoul Searching Writer and Director, Benson Lee
Lee talks about Asian cinema today, premiering the film at Sundance and preparations for the film. Check out KoreAm’s feature on Benson Lee and Seoul Searching here.

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Transcribing his notes

First-World Problems: Welcome to the Club

by SUNG J. WOO

This past New Year’s Eve, I was on the second floor of Terminal 5, a concert hall in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Leaning over the railing, I screamed, “I love to hate you!” with the rest of the frenzied crowd below me, above me, all around me. As the song reached its end, the singer segued into a countdown, and then he yelled, “Happy New Year!” Gold balloons and white confetti rained down from above, and then we all sang the next song, “I try to discover, a little something to make me sweeter …”

If you are of a certain age and Asian American, there’s a high likelihood that you know these two songs are “Love to Hate You” and “A Little Respect.” This was my first time seeing Erasure. I probably should’ve done this a quarter of a century ago, but back then, I didn’t even know who they were, and more to the point, I didn’t know who I was.

Growing up in the ’80s, music was not a meaningful part of my life. My two older sisters had a small collection of LPs and cassettes, so I ended up listening to their favorite artists, which is why I still have a soft spot for Journey (respectable) and Air Supply (shameful). I listened to what was on top-40 radio and MTV, and these songs became a part of me, but on a background, ancillary level, as if my life were an elevator and what I heard around me was Muzak.

Even as a freshman at college, music didn’t define me in any significant way. At least a band or two came to campus that year to play, but I have no recollections because I didn’t go. But, then, everything changed my sophomore year.

By this time, I’d joined a fraternity (not what you think—worthy of its own future column), and one of the brothers in the house was a guy named Dave, a fellow Korean American. Dave was pretty much the opposite of me in every way—quiet, laid-back and loved rap. But his musical tastes ventured far beyond N.W.A. and Public Enemy because, one day, I heard these lyrics flowing out from his room:

Every time I see you falling

I get down on my knees and pray

I’m waiting for that final moment

You say the words that I can’t say

It wasn’t the lyrics that got me; it was the melody—a layered, synthesized sonic landscape with driving drums; the words, I noticed later.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s New Order,” Dave said, and handed me the double CD. It was all white, except for the name of the band and the title of the album in black, capital letters: SUBSTANCE 1987, five years in the past. Looking over the 1987 Billboard chart for singles now, I can tell you with great certainty that I had listened to the Bangles’ “Walk like an Egyptian,” Whitney Houston wanting to dance with somebody, Bon Jovi living on a prayer and Wang Chung wanting everyone to have fun tonight.

How the hell did I not know about New Order, who had put out this album, which was a frigging best-of compilation? That meant the band had other albums before this one. Many of them. I was glad to have found them at last, but I’d also totally missed out.

New Order became (and still is) my favorite band, but the group also served as the gateway for other artists like them. In this day and age, Spotify and Pandora would make this discovery easy, but back in 1992, human recommendation was the way to go. Dave introduced me to Erasure as well; I can still remember hearing “A Little Respect” in his room, holding onto that jewel of a CD in my hand as I stood in front of his boombox and basked in the synth-pop beat.

One of my favorite pastimes back then was ordering CDs from BMG Music (12 CDs for a penny!), and Judy, a Chinese girl in my Japanese literature class, looked over my shoulder and recommended the Pet Shop Boys. Later that semester, when she invited me to a Chinese Students Association dance and all I heard were these British new wave bands, I turned to her and asked, “Do all Asians love this music?”

She smiled. “Welcome to the club.”

Dancing under the strobe, for the first time in college, I felt like I was a part of something bigger. As my feet stomped to the drums, I knew I was finally at the right place at the right time.

I saw New Order in the cavernous Meadowlands in 1993, my first rock concert, and again in 2005 and 2012. Last year I dragged my wife to the Pet Shop Boys in Philadelphia (thank you, honey), and as 2014 clocked over to 2015, I celebrated the brand new year with 3,000 fellow Erasure fans. Standing next to me with a smile as wide as mine was a woman of Asian descent. She was a complete stranger, but she was also my sister.

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Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 10.27.25 AMSung J. Woo’s short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s and Hyphen. His debut novel, Everything Asian, won the 2010 Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Youth Literature Award. His second novel, Love Love, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in 2015.

This article was published in the February/March 2015 issue of KoreAm.  Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the magazine issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

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Jessika Van Talks Madonna, Playing a Pastor’s Daughter in ‘Seoul Searching’

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
jamesskim@iamkoream.com

When Jessika Van first read her lines for her character in Seoul Searching, she didn’t have much to go off of: Writer-director Benson Lee had initially sent her only three pages of dialogue. Fortunately, Van (MTV’s Awkward, Paper Lotus, The Moral Thief ) had a place to work from when portraying Grace Park in Lee’s Seoul Searching.

Grace’s provocative style of dress and come-hither look draw every guy’s attention, and she doesn’t hold back when it comes to toying with their emotions. The teenage boys at the Seoul summer camp—in particular, Sid, who is played by Justin Chon—don’t stand a chance against Grace, who channels an ’80s Madonna at the height of her sexual prowess.

The persona, however, comes from a repressed home environment. Grace has always wanted to break free of the constraints that come with being the daughter of a pastor. The role resonated with Van, who had played a similar character in a previous short film. This time, Van was able to explore that character a bit further as Grace in Seoul Searching.

The actress spoke with KoreAm earlier this year before Seoul Searching premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. In our conversation, Van discussed her experience in South Korea filming with the cast and working with Benson Lee, as well as the universal themes in the film that connected with her personally.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

JessikaVan_Field2(Photo by Daniel Nguyen)

What did you think of Grace Park when you first read about her?

Jessika Van: I luckily had a little heads up from Benson because we talked a little bit, even though he only sent me three pages. He looked at another short film I’d done where I played a pastor’s daughter, where it was a very dark take on the character. She was in an abusive family, and he really liked it.

That’s kind of the jumping off point where we started our conversation. He told me how much Grace wants to be Madonna and that she’s also a pastor’s daughter, and she’s struggling before she shows up at the summer camp.

When I read the script, I could really relate to Grace because I feel like I grew up maybe not dissimilar to other Asian girls in America, or even in Asia. There’s a lot going on underneath that we feel we need to cover to stay safe, because we’ve grown up in families where showing pain or vulnerability or showing weakness isn’t thought of as a good quality.

Growing up, I was really close to both my parents but in later years, I’ve really looked up to [my dad] in the way he works and how well he did that work, and how smart and business-minded he seemed.

In many ways I tried to emulate that—I tried to emulate how put-together he is, how strong he is. Because of that, sometimes, a lot of our vulnerability and pain gets trapped inside, and it becomes even more difficult because we can’t let it out.

That’s what I love about Grace. She’s trying so hard to be Madonna. She thinks that look is strong. [She wants] to be able to express her sexuality, to know what it takes to control her sexuality. She doesn’t want to let guys be controlling that.

She grows up in a church environment where women are second-class, and they have to be kind of timid and well-put together and let that male culture dominate. But she doesn’t want to do that. This is her first chance outside of home, outside of church where she can really let loose and create her own personality.

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What did you think about Grace’s story arc?

I loved it. It was really important to me. Benson was wonderful in that he let me really take control where I wanted to go with the character. I remember the last few days of filming, he saw (laughs) the front of my script, and I guess I had all these pages of research stapled together and things I’d written for myself. But I also had a timeline the night before my first day of shooting, which kind of took my character from the beginning of the script to the end and included everything that she went through on the inside.

I guess he saw it, and he laughed. (laughs) At the time, I kind of took it personally, because, jeez, why is he laughing at me? This is personal, you don’t have to look at it! Go away!

But later he was like, “No, I’m not laughing at you–I’m laughing because I’m impressed. I didn’t realize you did all this work, and now it makes perfect sense because I see it throughout the arc.”

To me, it was really important that Grace really is able to show that she’s not just a tough-girl act. I felt like it would run a risk of being over-sexualized, and it’s really important to me that I fight for female characters who aren’t just going to be some sexualized object in the male vision.

I really liked that she had that chance to see for herself, that maybe she isn’t as strong as she thinks she is. Maybe strength doesn’t just come from putting on some show, in which you’re acting really sexual.

Also, she can see, as Madonna did in real life, that it comes with a risk. Sometimes when you think you’re in control and you can express your sexuality the way you want to, it’s possible that people might take you the wrong way. It is possible you might put yourself in dangerous situations and that the woman needs to be aware of that. You need to be making sure that you take care of yourself and aren’t naive about the choices you’re making.

What was it like working with an ensemble cast?

It was my first experience in Korea, so it was so exciting on so many levels. The people were just the nicest, both the cast and crew. I honestly couldn’t have asked for more.

At the wrap party, Benson asked me to make a speech, and I just started crying because I felt that all the crew and cast had been so welcoming to me, and I didn’t know what to expect. Everyone was so welcoming and showed me so much love from beginning to end that I was overwhelmed by it. I was so grateful.

I have nothing but the best things to say. I thought that some of the girls were just the best. We became really great friends. They took me out in Seoul—we went out all the time*. We went shopping and bought too many things, I made them wait too long for me because I was indecisive and looked at all this jewelry and got too excited. They really took care of me. They took care of me like I was their own and I was so grateful. They were the best people.

(*Note: Van apparently went out to explore by herself, too, getting herself lost. You can read about her exploits in Korea in her interview with Audrey Magazine.)

SAMSUNG CSCJessika Van with Nekhebet Kum Juch and Uatchet Jin Juch, who play the Im twins.

What was the atmosphere like on set?

Working on set, it was pretty crazy. It was up and down. There were days that were more chill, but there were also days when we were there for a really long time. I don’t even know how to say how many hours. (laughs) The whole day, probably. We were really there for a long time. Sometimes, everyone was just really exhausted.

For Benson, I think his relationship with every person on set was different. I don’t feel that I can speak for anyone else because I know he probably has a different actor-to-director relationship with every single actor.

He talked to me about that afterwards as well. He said, “With you, I really left you alone because I felt like you already knew [what to do].” I think every actor has a different relationship with the director, because he’s smart to know to cultivate the individual relationships.

He’s a strong person. He will get sh-t done.

Benson Lee on Jessika Van:

 

“I think she’s one of the best Asian American actresses out there. She’s a completely undiscovered talent. She’s been in movies [and TV shows], but not many people know of her. They’re going to, because she’s a phenomenal actress.”

 

What were some of the themes in the film that resonated with you as an Asian American?

I guess it’s funny, that as Asian Americans, sometimes, you get this big mish-mosh, and some of us don’t even know anything about the culture or speak the language. I definitely saw that growing up. Some of my friends don’t speak the language, some do speak it. Some are really cued-in to the culture, some aren’t.

Now I see and meet more Asians from Australia and New Zealand. The other day, a cast member of mine on set showed me videos of Asian guys from his country. And I’m listening to these people, and they just sound like they have accents I can’t even comprehend. It’s crazy. Even as an Asian American, it’s crazy.

I think it’s really cool that Benson brought us all that together. But I think the themes of Benson’s story are a lot more universal. I don’t know if I would just attribute them to Asian Americans, you know? I think they would pertain to anyone growing up in America.

I also think it’s great that Benson’s putting together a film where we can really see how [Koreans] growing up in America become American. Wherever we go, if we go into other countries, the people there going to perceive us as American. We’re not going to walk into Korea and expect Koreans to perceive us as Korean, because we’re so different from them. I think that’s really an interesting fact that he’s bringing up.

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Seoul Searching premieres tonight at the Center for Asian American Media Film Festival (CAAMFest) in San Francisco. We’ll keep you updated on further news regarding the film’s distribution and screenings, so keep your eyes open and ears peeled!

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The Hollywood Mamalogues: Game Changer

Pictured above: Hudson Yang, who portrays Eddie Huang in Fresh Off the Boat with Aubrey Anderson-Emmons. (Photo courtesy of Amy Anderson)

by AMY ANDERSON

Born in Seoul, I was adopted and raised by a Caucasian family in suburban Minnesota during the ’70s and ’80s. My daughter is a hapa growing up in present-day Los Angeles. Needless to say, my daughter and I have very different Asian American experiences. One significant difference is that growing up, I rarely saw Asian faces featured in media or entertainment, aside from Connie Chung, Mr. Miyagi and Long Duck Dong.

When I was around Aubrey’s age, the musical Annie was a huge Broadway hit, and every little girl in America wanted to don that red dress, myself included. I was cute, the right age and I was a terrific singer. I was convinced that all I needed was a wig to audition for the role. Boy, was I wrong. I also had a rude awakening when I realized I would probably never get to play one of the Von Trapp children or Jane from Mary Poppins.

Still, I became a comedian and actor. While I’m proud to say that my generation and the one before it planted seeds and opened several doors for Asian Americans in the entertainment industry, I believe it’s Aubrey’s generation that is actually changing the perception of what it is to be an American.

To this day, I still cringe a little whenever someone asks me about my nationality by bringing up the notorious question, “Where are you from?” People ask me this question a lot, and I never know what they really mean when they ask it.

My country is the United States of America. I’m an American—to be more specific, a naturalized American citizen. My ethnic origin is Korean, but South Korea is hardly my nation or my culture. While I’m proud of my Korean heritage, I’m also proud to be a U.S. citizen, even though I’m often seen as a foreigner in a country where I have lived for almost my entire life. As for “where I’m from,” I currently live in the San Fernando Valley. However, that’s usually not the answer people expect or want to hear.

So, I think it’s pretty astounding that my daughter plays an Asian adoptee daughter of a gay couple on an award-winning TV show. Up until last week, Aubrey was one of the few Asian American child actors who act as series regulars on a primetime TV show. Albert Tsai and Lance Lim had brief stints on the short-lived shows Trophy Wife and Growing Up Fisher, but other than that, there hasn’t been many little Asian faces on TV. That is, until now.

IMG_2506Aubrey with Hudson Yang of Fresh Off the Boat. (Photo courtesy of Amy Anderson)

Earlier this month, ABC unveiled Fresh Off The Boat, the latest in its lineup of ethnically diverse family comedies. This sitcom not only stars three young Asian American boys (one of them being Aubrey’s good friend, Hudson Yang), but also their immigrant parents!

With that said, Fresh Off the Boat is a game changer. It’s the first Asian American family show on primetime television since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl aired 20 years ago. Many Asian Americans of my generation never thought they would see developed, multidimensional Asian American characters have their own TV show in their lifetime. Thankfully, most of the reviews for Fresh Off the Boat have been positive, and there has been some great dialogue about race and culture within the AAPI community. It’s exciting to see how much the show is gaining traction.

What moves me even more, though, is knowing what this game changer could mean for my daughter. Maybe in the near future, when Aubrey sees a casting breakdown that says “girl next door” or “All-American girl,” she won’t have to assume that the casting directors mean “Caucasian.” Maybe from now on, when she sees faces on TV that look like hers, she’ll feel proud and happy instead of feeling embarrassed or confused. Hopefully she’ll get called “chink” a lot less than I did. And maybe one day, when people ask Aubrey where’s she’s from, she can confidently say “Los Angeles,” knowing that that’s exactly what they meant.

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Amy Anderson is a Korean American adoptee, comedian and actress. She created and hosted the first Asian American standup showcase “ChopSchtick Comedy” at the Hollywood Improv. She has appeared on Comedy Central, VH1, AZN, and the Game Show Network. Her daughter Aubrey Anderson-Emmons plays the role of Lily on the Emmy-winning show Modern Family.

The Hollywood Mamalogues are published online biweekly. Read the previous Mamalogue here.

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‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Brings Down the House at Watch Parties

by Suevon Lee | @suevlee
suevon@iamkoream.com

From a spacious nightclub in Times Square to a 190-seat auditorium in LA’s Little Tokyo district, Asian Americans coast to coast packed venues holding live community watch parties for the highly-anticipated network debut of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat Wednesday night.

By any measure, the events were a raging success: New York’s Circle nightclub reached its 1,000-person capacity while the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, a non-profit center across from the Japanese American National Museum in LA, saw lines to enter forming well ahead of a 7:45 pm doors-open time.

“This was supposed to be a quiet, casual community gathering,” Jeff Yang, the writer and culture critic and also the father of Hudson Yang, the young actor who plays the central protagonist Eddie Huang on the show, told Vulture’s E. Alex Jung of the New York event.

Appearing in person at Circle was Huang himself, the writer and restaurateur whose memoir of growing up in Orlando, Fla. after his family moves there from Washington, D.C., the show is adapted–plus members of the cast. Anname Phann, a New Yorker who waited an hour to get into the venue, said she “ran right for the stage to sit on the edge, not realizing I’d have the best position for listening to the panel presentation.”

“Eddie was incredibly articulate and funny,” Phann told me by email, referring to the talk-back portion of the night. As for the show itself, she said, “It was so fun to watch with a big group of people, hear from some of the actors, and support a big moment in television for APAs.”

And the sheer turnout at these venues only began to skim the surface of the outpouring of enthusiasm expressed on the likes of social media for the first network sitcom in 20 years to feature an Asian American family. On Twitter, #FreshOffTheBoat was a trending hashtag in New York for four hours, with a similarly strong showing in LA, reported NBC News.

As for the ratings, nearly 8 million viewers tuned into the 8:30 pm pilot, while 7.6 million tuned into the second episode that aired an hour later, according to Nielsen ratings. Those live numbers, by the way, don’t account for all the people who may have DVR’d or recorded the show to watch later.

“‘Boat’ may have actually fared better on Wednesday, but the premiere likely caught some viewers by surprise,” Variety wrote on Thursday. “ABC for weeks had been promoting the show’s ‘series premiere’ as February 10, so any viewers who tune in on that date for the first time will have missed the key pilot episode that aired last night.”

The sitcom, which is narrated in voice-over by Eddie Huang, follows the life of a young Eddie as his family makes the move to a white neighborhood in Orlando where Eddie’s father (played by Randall Park, KoreAm’s December/January issue cover profile), has decided to run a steakhouse called “The Cattleman’s Ranch.”

Not since Margaret Cho’s “All American Girl” debuted 20 years ago has a show about an Asian American family hit network airwaves.

At LA’s watch party, which was hosted by Phil Yu, creator of the Angry Asian Man blog, and writer and stand-up comedian Jenny Yang, the airing of the episodes on a giant projector screen was as much a highlight as were the discussion and comments expressed in between episodes and afterwards, as Yang ran up and down the aisles with a microphone.

“This is f***ing huge,” said one audience member. “We’re watching a sitcom that’s not making Asians out to be ‘the others.’ ”

Another audience member gushed, “As a Taiwanese American, I couldn’t be more proud of the show.”

And high up in the seats, a young man in a black sweatshirt took the microphone and, bellowing just a little at first, remarked on the sea of billboards plastered around LA promoting Fresh Off the Boat – prominently featuring the Asian American faces of Randall Park and co-star, Constance Wu, and how powerful a symbol that has served.

unnamedJenny Yang (left), Oliver Wang, Milton Liu, Jen Wang, and Phil Yu at the LA’s watch party.

As for her reaction to the show and the moment, Yang, now sitting back down at the front of the theater alongside her fellow panelists, smiled. “I love all of it,” she told the crowd. “I almost feel like some black people did when Obama got elected.”

Yes, although we’re talking about a sitcom here, there are parallels: in many ways, Wednesday night’s premiere felt like a triumph, and historic. But as Phil Yu, who disclosed to the crowd that he’s seen future episodes yet to air, said, “I don’t think people should watch it just because it’s a bunch of Asian people on screen…I can attest, it does really go to interesting places.”

Also discussed at LA’s watch party was that nervous feeling of hope that the first show to feature an Asian American ensemble case in two decades will succeed. There is “representational anxiety,” joked the panelists, coining the abbreviated phrase, “rep sweats” to capture this feeling.

“You’re so invisible and any time you see yourself on television, you hold your breath, because you hope it’s not something that can be used against me,” Yang joked. As her co-panelist, Jen Wang of Disgrasian, remarked, identifying with a character on TV growing up meant, for her, the character of Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years, who was a little nerdy and “had bangs.”

“Everyone has this drive to see themselves at the center of the narrative,” Wang said.

Asked by an audience member why a 20-year stretch must separate the appearance of an Asian American family on network television, Oliver Wang, an associate professor of sociology at California State University, joked, “White supremacy.”

“They’re afraid to take a chance,” chimed in co-panelist Milton Liu, of Visual Communications. “Yes, we shouldn’t put all our hopes and pressure on this show but seeing this crowd here and in New York, I wouldn’t say it’s intentional racism, it’s fear.”

Fresh Off the Boat returns to the airwaves next Tuesday, Feb. 10, at its regular time slot of 8 p.m. But the discussion, reaction and reflection on an historic moment for Asian Americans and in Hollywood pop culture will continue well beyond that, no doubt.

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Featured image via Jeff Yang/Twitter

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BuzzFeed Releases ‘Ask an Asian’ Video

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo
reera@iamkoream.com

“Actually, I’m not that good at math.”

Last month, Buzzfeed asked its fans to submit questions they had about Asian Americans for its “Ask an Asian” video. Within hours, the site’s Facebook page became flooded with nearly 7,000 comments, and a good chunk of them were ridiculous, ignorant or racist.

ask an asain comments

Surprisingly, there seems to be a lot of people who have never seen a pregnant Asian woman before and are actually distraught over this revelation.

Comedian Jenny Yang teamed up with Buzzfeed and writer Thomas Reyes to answer some of the fans’ questions with her trademark sass and wit. Eugene Lee Yang also makes a fun cameo in the video, so keep an eye out for that.

You can watch the “Ask an Asian” video below:

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