I’m an Asian woman and I'm not who you think I am
“Could I see the drink menu?”
The shock on the bartender’s face told me he was not expecting me to sound the way I did. I was in Miami for a conference and wanted to explore the town the evening before the seminars began. The clouds looked ominous as I headed out, but my Lyft driver assured me passing thunderstorms were the norm in this part of the country. “It’ll clear up in a few minutes,” he told me as he dropped me off. As soon as I started wandering around the artsy Wynwood District, the sprinkles turned into a downpour, and I ducked under the awning of a small Italian restaurant.
“Come inside,” the host offered, opening the door. “It’s safer in here.”
But instead of letting up, the storm rattled the windows, and the view outside became one wet blur. "We’re not in California anymore," I thought. "Might as well stay for dinner."
“What’s better? Spaghetti alle vongole or linguine carbonara?” I asked the bartender.
“Linguine indiavolata,” he replied.
As I ate my pasta with giant prawns, I chatted with the young bartender with the thick Italian accent. The two women seated next to me periodically paused their own private conversation in Portuguese to interject into the group. I felt a sense of curiosity around me.
“Where are you from?”
“Is this your first time in South Florida?”
“What brings you here?”
During my 24 hours in Miami, I had only seen two other Asians — a couple sitting at the far corner of the hotel pool speaking only to each other in Mandarin. That morning, as I walked into a coffee shop, all heads turned to look at me. At the time, I thought it was because I wasn’t one of the toned, 20-something South Beach denizens just emerging from spin class, but I later wondered if it was because my skin and my features didn’t look like everyone else’s. When I touched the screen of my phone to call for a ride, several times my requests were canceled by the driver without any explanation. When another driver finally arrived, he openly volunteered that he doesn’t like taking black women as passengers because they “get drunk and are too loud.”
“I hope that doesn’t affect your impression of all black women,” I told him. What kind of notions did he have about Asian women? I wondered if I was the first Asian-American my dinner companions had ever had an extended conversation with. While Miami-Dade County is cosmopolitan and diverse, it’s less than 2 percent Asian, compared with Asians making up 6 percent of the overall American population. And there are swaths of the United States where there are even fewer of us.
As the rain let up, I asked for the check, hoping to visit some of the neighborhood’s famous murals and art galleries before it got too dark. But I kept thinking about the conversation at the bar. How many Americans don’t have any Asian friends, coworkers or neighbors? Their main exposure to us is what they see on television, in movies or in books — if there are any representations at all. When those images are few or only focus on foreigners with hard-to-understand accents or when the characters are simply sidekicks without well-developed personalities, people might get the idea that those stereotypes represent all Asians. From my attempts at finding books with Asian-American themes for my own kids, I know the choices are slim. And when it comes to the screen, Asian characters — let alone positive role models — are even fewer. Sure, it’s getting better, with a handful of TV shows such as Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken or Master of None showing Asian-American families, it’s still only a handful — versus decades of erasure or minor characters playing villains or servants.
So when young adult author Ellen Oh approached me last spring about joining in the #WhitewashedOUT online movement, I was in. Spurred by the casting of white women to play characters that were originally Japanese and Tibetan in two major upcoming blockbuster films (Ghost in the Machine and Dr. Strange), actors, filmmakers and writers hosted a series of Twitter chats each Tuesday morning during the month of May to call attention to the way Asians have been whitewashed out of the narratives we see on the big screen. Two years ago, I joined many of the same organizers for the #WeNeedDiverseBooks initiative. I wrote blog posts and tweeted as part of a movement calling for more inclusion of people of color, LGBT people and people with disabilities in the children’s publishing world. That campaign has since grown into a nonprofit organization offering classes, scholarships and publishing contests for aspiring authors of color.
The whole reason I was in Miami was to attend the Voices of Our Nation writing workshop, a step toward publishing my own books, the next step in my journey that has included reporting on Asian-American communities and blogging about my own mixed-race family at HapaMama. American culture seems increasingly divided between inclusiveness and those who hearken back to a time when diverse voices were not given the opportunity to be heard, when Asian women like myself were only portrayed as demure Madame Butterfly-type tragic lovers or conniving, hyper-sexualized Dragon Ladies. I want it to be commonplace for Asian-American women to have big-screen adventures and complicated internal lives, and for audiences to think, “That looks like a great movie!” not “That movie is for the foreign market,” or “Is that an Asian book?”
At the end of an inspiring week, I climbed into a car on my way to the airport. The driver looked at me and asked, “Where are you from?”
I took a deep breath and thought about how to answer that question, but before I could say anything the driver offered his own guess.
Perhaps the narrative is slowly changing. And I want my stories to be part of that.
Grace Hwang Lynch is a speaker at the #BlogHer16 conference, the premier event for women online taking place from August 4 – 6, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. Don’t wait! See the agenda and all the speakers and get your ticket now.