*Guest writer Maya Chen also contributed to this letter.
Our names are Maya Chen and Jennah Haque, and you’ve kind of been our person for most of our formative years. We’re two undergraduate college students at Occidental College and MIT, respectively.
I, Maya Chen, am an aspiring editor, or maybe a lobbyist – a DC fixer, if you will.
And I, Jennah Haque, have found my hum in the world of journalism and storytelling. I also love coding with Elsa (you should try it). I’m a regular steminist!
Although we both have our own individual passions, we’ve been drawn together by a singular mutual cause – the dream to see people like us on screen. We’re writing you not because we necessarily are demanding for you to produce a show about Asian people; we’re writing because as one of the most powerful figures in American television (a titan as you so perfectly coined yourself), we’re hoping you, Shonda Rhimes, can be an advocate for us all.
We’re both young women of color, two Asian Americans who grew up watching other people who looked nothing like us succeed. The characters we saw became so real they could practically step out of our TVs, and that was wonderful. They shared our hopes, our ambitions, even our worries, but there was one thing missing — on the outside, they were just White strangers. As time went by and the industry progressed, this began to change. We saw strong women, real despite their fiction, and people of color slowly gaining representation, becoming so much more than the token Black friend, the hot Latina, etc. In our view, so much of this is your handiwork. But despite these amazing changes, we still feel left out.
Hidden Figures said it best: “Any upward movement is movement for all. It’s just not movement for me.” When a show is praised for its diversity, rarely does one ever see one Asian actor in the main cast, much less multiple. Maybe there’s an Asian character, but they’re usually the nerdy one, the one who knows karate, the aspiring engineer, the immigrant with the accent.
I, Maya, am a Chinese-Taiwanese American who is majoring in English. I have a knack for watching YouTube video essays on film and television.
And I, Jennah, am an Indian-Bengali American who wants to join the Peace Corp and become a journalist.
Our very existence crushes stereotypes.
The one true memory I (Jennah) have of seeing people that look like me was in this show on NBC called Outsourced. And the entire premise of the show was based on tacky stereotypes. Random White dude moves to India because a branch of the company got outsourced there and he has to galvanize the tech support staff. Aka, White dude liberates Brown people. Surprise, surprise. The script was lukewarm at best, the characters had little arc and the females were either there to have a love interest or to be annoying, and every other joke could produce half a chuckle from me and my family. The show was absolute trash, but it was trash that had representation, so we had no other choice than to tune in every week because viewership was the only way that change was going to come. And still, the whole series only made it to 22 episodes before it was cancelled.
Even in progressive shows, we feel as though the Asian perspective is minimized or all conflated into one monolith. In Grown-ish, for example, one of the main characters, Vivek, is introduced in the pilot episode as Indian. But the actor playing Vivek is actually Filipino. It seems unfair to morph an entire continent together when in reality each country has its own culture and flair. Asia is not made up of a monolithic culture, and deserves to be treated as such. Not all Asians look the same, have the same skin tone, features, and have the same struggles. They should not be placed under the blanket of Chinese or Japanese in culture or appearance. Respect is not just crucial, it’s everything today.
Thankfully, things aren’t all bad for Asian American representation today. I (Maya) can clearly remember the day that Fresh Off the Boat premiered on ABC in 2015. My whole family anxiously waited in front of the television. My father was so nervous, he later confessed to me – was it going to be good? It had to be good, better than good even, if it were to avoid the same fate that met Margaret Cho’s one-season failure of All American Girl. Scandal summarized it best: “You have to be twice as good to get half of what they have.” FOTB was the first sitcom starring an Asian American family since All American Girl, which had been the first ever. It took 21 years (and all of pre-AAG history) for American network television to show that Asian people, fellow American citizens, the fastest growing minority population in the U.S., could be funny, could be real, could be just like anyone else.
I remember how jarring the feeling was watching the premiere, seeing events that had literally happened to my family play out on television across the country. It was the first time I ever saw people who looked like me, who looked like my parents, my younger brother, and who actually acted like us. There was one particular scene in the pilot where the main character, a Taiwanese-American middle schooler named Eddie brought his lunch of Chinese food to school only to be looked at with revulsion and confusion by his largely White classmates. My family burst into laughter, because the exact same thing had happened to my little brother in elementary school: he had been so embarrassed about eating his weird Chinese noodles in the cafeteria that he attempted to hide them under the table.
Thinking about watching FOTB for the first time makes me tear up a little, even now, because it was the first time I ever saw people who I really felt represented me, my family, and who I could fully identify with. It found that balance between keeping our cultural quirks while still being a wholly American show. It not only showed some of the struggles of being an Asian American, but also made it humorous, relatable and accessible. You don’t need to be an Asian person to watch the show; it wasn’t exclusive, it was American.
During that 30-minute block of time that encompassed the series premiere, I felt seen. As of today, 75 episodes of FOTB have aired; 75 episodes of the daily lives of an Asian American family have been broadcasted on a major American television network to millions of people across the country — a long way from that single season of All American Girl. But, FOTB isn’t going to last forever, and by no means should it be the only show around featuring an Asian main cast. This isn’t a one and done deal. FOTB needs to be the first small step of a giant leap, to use cliche, because all Americans deserve to be seen.
All Americans deserve to feel the way I did the first time I watched FOTB all the time. The fact is, it shouldn’t have taken 16 years of my life for me to feel seen, when I, my parents, their parents and three generations of my family prior have lived their entire lives in this country. But times are changing.
Show my story, the first generation story, the immigrant story, the story of the indentured slave. Please don’t give us the quiet, submissive Asian woman, the IT geek, or that guy who can beat stuff up; give us real, fully-fleshed human beings with stories transcending societal molds. In other words, to use the slogan of a certain long-needed movement, time’s up.
Our grandparents and great-great-great grandparents took sketchy boats to this country and fought day in and day out to carve a life for themselves and their families in this great nation so that their flesh and blood would have better lives. But Maya and I, we were born on American soil. Meaning, we have the audacity of equal representation (not that immigrants have any less right to be portrayed with respect.) And so we want to use our voices to effect change now, so that our next generations won’t have to even consider these soon to be trivial problems. But we can’t do it alone. We need YOU!
Shonda, you said “Yes” changed your life. So, just say yes.
Maya Chen and Jennah Haque
P.S. Also, come on – there was only one Cristina Yang? On a hospital show? Please don’t kill off Dr. Bailey!