Asian parenting and sacrifices

When I was younger, my mother enrolled me in everything possible for me to suck at: dance classes, art classes and the worst — piano classes.

I grew up in Diamond Bar, Calif., a suburb in East Los Angeles county filled with high-achieving and competitive Asian Americans who stuffed their schedules with AP classes and extracurricular activities.

No doubt, there are many people at USC who grew up in similar areas and have their own version of my hometown, but I never noticed the extent that growing up in this specific city with this specific demographic would shape my identity.

I spoke Cantonese at home, went to school, and went to a Chinese prep school called “after school” to learn Mandarin. In high school, the Mandarin school would become SAT school.

It was “normal” to be enrolled in dozens of activities with the ultimate goal to gain entrance to the best college. Except I was never gifted or talented and I would be bitter when pushed, rather than motivated.

My mother would set a timer for me to practice, perched behind me every practice session, attentive as my teacher told her every week what I could improve on, her voice echoing along as I practiced every piece. I had just started learning back then.

“You didn’t practice today,” she was always so quick to say, as I rolled my eyes.  

A few years later, I grew resentful and I quit playing. My refusal to practice meant I was no better than before. Academics getting harder, the mistakes piled up, drama from school clouding my brain. Quitting things, had become synonymous with the heaviness of failure. I wish I could have been a Carnegie Hall playing prodigy, but I wasn’t even half of that.

After many arguments about her quitting, I remember her expression — resigned, disappointed and hollow.

I didn’t know that her face would light up in pride and happiness every time I would play and learn a new song and I didn’t care either.

Our piano is still in the living room years later, collecting dust, with a red satin cloth over the keys. It’s a conversation topic whenever friends and relatives come over.

“Oh, you play?” they would ask.

“Nope, I used to,” I would answer.

After I stopped, the feeling of being a quitter has never escaped my mind. The feeling that I should be doing something to make my parents proud after all that they have done for me.

My mother quit her job to raise me, dedicated countless hours, days and weeks — so my life could be better. And she has never for a second made me feel like it wasn’t worth it.

I can’t even begin to list all of the things my mother has done for me. It’s how she picks up my phone call even when it’s the middle of the night, just so I can talk about something as trivial as somebody who ignored me at school.

She is the voice of reason for all my minuscule issues, the rides to and from school from preschool to high school, the encouragement and praise whenever I need it, and the endless amount of patience — because we all know it was pretty tough to raise somebody like me.

My mother deserves the best for the sacrifices she has made for me. Not just the world, but the whole solar system. But when I see the strands of silver in her straight hair, or the bags under eyes from a lack of sleep, I wonder if even the best would be enough.

From my column, "Asian American Heroine" in Daily Trojan, which ran every other Mondays in Fall 2016. 

Stop fetishizing and stereotyping Asian women

A compilation of columns I wrote every other Monday in Fall 2016. 

I was born and raised in California. But despite this, I’ve spent a lot of my life receiving backhanded comments about being Asian.

Since I don’t have a car at USC, I rely on Uber and Lyft to get me from place to place. I love the convenient price of UberPool and Lyft Line and the fact that I don’t have to find parking, but I am often fearful when I step into these cars because I am berated with offensive comments 60 percent of the time.

Some comments I have gotten in the past year are:

“Are you Filipino? You look like you are. You know, my wife is Filipino.”

“How do you like America so far?”

“What English name do you go by?”

“Where are you really from?”

“Oh! My cousin married an Asian woman last year. Her last name is Chang. Do you know her?”

Yes, because I know everyone in the entire Chang dynasty. Most of these comments have been made by white males. It’s not that these comments leave me in tears, but it shows a lot about the way Asian women are viewed and treated.

When I went to a writing conference for fiction in Connecticut this summer, my mom and I got off our flight at the Tweed New Haven airport and was greeted enthusiastically by a man we did not know.

“Koni chi wa,” he said slowly, happily and a little too close to my face. Did he not know that we speak English? I didn’t think that these things actually happened, but they do.

At the conference, I listened to a talk by author Robert McCann, and sat next to a guy who was taking a poetry workshop. We got coffee and bonded over the fact that we work at newspapers. He told me interesting stories about living in Florida, how his ex-girlfriend broke his heart, and recited his poetry to me without asking if I wanted to hear it.

After listening to a bunch of pretentious words mushed together for about 15 minutes, I felt bad saying it was horrible because he was so excited and passionate to share. To my dismay, he continued and read more.

After the coffee shop closed, he told me about his passion for anime and comic books. I cringed. Was I talking to one of those white guys with weird Asian fetishes? I decided not to be so judgmental and just continued to listen and ask questions. After all, I used to watch my fair share of Naruto back in middle school.

He elaborated on his love for this specific anime character I never heard of and said I kind of looked like her. Then, he abruptly grabbed my face and tried to kiss me. I pulled away and said I had to go home.

When I got home, I called my friend to tell her what had happened. She didn’t share my frustration. Instead, she made it seem like getting male attention was hardly an issue and I was just overreacting about something that many women “would want.”

I’m sure these disturbing instances don’t just happen to me, but to Asian girls everywhere. It might not seem like a really big deal, but this treatment is extremely problematic. It’s problematic to group all races together (Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese) as one race, to assume that they do not speak English and that they can fulfill your weird yellow fetish fantasies. Asian and Asian-American girls deal with this type of treatment on a daily basis. We are people, and it is time we were treated as such, instead of as objects of misconception, stereotype and fantasy.

Erika Lee is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism.  Her column, “Asian Amerikan Heroine,” runs every other Monday. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan.

Fox “Chinatown” segment is offensive to Asians

Last week, before the vice presidential debate, the first general-election debate moderated by an Asian-American journalist, Fox News aired a segment on The O’Reilly Factor filled with every Asian stereotype you could think of.

I remember secretly watching it during one my classes, after scrolling through Facebook and seeing posts of outrage and disgust from my peers as well as dozens of shares on articles by Asian media outlets demanding an apology.

While reporter Jesse Watters intended for his segment to be hilarious and satirical, mentioning that it was supposed to be “tongue-in-cheek” on his personal Twitter, it was offensive and unabashedly racist.

Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly sent Watters to do this segment in New York City’s Chinatown to sample the political opinion of Asian Americans on the election. But instead of a segment actually sampling political opinion, it became a mockery of an entire race.

He poked fun of Chinese people who clearly did not speak English, asking them in a Tae Kwon Do studio, which is Korean, if they knew karate, which is Japanese. The segment also zoomed in onelderly Chinese people who didn’t respond because they didn’t know English.

He went on to ask if Chinese food in China was just called food, if he had to bow to say hello and how they felt about everything being “made in China.” I thought of somebody interrogating my grandmother in English and then zooming in on her face on national television for humor and felt immediately hurt and disgusted.

Disguised as light-hearted humor, the segment was dehumanizing and openly racist. How is harassing elderly first-generation immigrants and perpetuating stereotypes funny? Especially when it’s so rare that a major news station actually samples the opinions of Asian Americans.

I shared the video on Facebook and a friend of mine, who saw my post, messaged me and asked me if it would have been different if an Asian hosted the segment and if it is different than other Asian people who sometimes poke fun at themselves too.

The difference is that when Asian comedians poke fun at their own stereotypes, they use it as as satire effectively to raise awareness, so everyone can know how disgusting it is that they are being treated that way — not the way that Jesse Watters did in The O’Reilly Factor.

While the reaction from most media outlets (even right-wing websites) was of anger and disgust, everyone knows Fox News is just going to get a slap on the wrist. Just like how Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump always says outrageous things and gets by — even getting applauded for transparency, — Bill O’Reilly continues to stand by Jesse Watters and Fox News is still going to air shamelessly horrible segments.

The best thing that came out of this however, if we’re trying to be positive, is the humorous segment that The Daily Show ran after the incident.

“If you wanna come at Chinese people, make fun of China’s high pollution, or the fact they censor most of the internet, which in this case might actually be a good thing since no person in China will ever have to watch your garbage attempt at comedy,” Daily Show correspondent Ronny Chieng said.

Erika Lee is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism.  Her column, “Asian Amerikan Heroine,” runs every other Monday. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan.

Whitewashing exploits cultures of minorities

I remember, very clearly, the first time I heard about the term “whitewashing,” the act of giving white actors preference in casting, especially in roles where the character is not white.  I almost didn’t want to believe it was real. From seventh grade to high school, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was one of my favorite films. I, like many young teenagers, romanticized the Audrey Hepburn movie’s elegance, fashion and overall splendor. However, when I watched the movie with my friend who is passionate about social justice, she pointed out to me that Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney, was a very offensive portrayal of yellowface. As we continued to watch the movie, I didn’t know how to feel. I wanted to say, “But, other than THAT part, the rest of the movie is great!” However, I knew that there wasn’t any way that I could possibly justify something that is so offensive to the Asian-American community.

After that enlightening instance, I started to pay more attention to casting in movies. I started following the tag on Tumblr, where many angry bloggers vented their frustrations. I began to understand them. Recently, Matt Damon was given the lead of the movie The Great Wall.  The movie is a historical fiction story about the protection of Europe and its “growing system of walls, where the characters fight monsters to protect it. Those who think that the movie is actually about the Great Wall of China will be mistaken. The film also takes place during the Song dynasty, a very dynamic time in Chinese history. However, I didn’t know there were white males in China during the Song Dynasty. There are billions of Asians in this world, yet they choose a white person to play an Asian character. To make things worse, Damon also publicly announced that diversity is more important in front of the camera than behind the camera on an episode of HBO’s Project Greenlight. He also said the show should focus on diversity primarily “in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.” Despite the fact that Damon apologized for the statement, it still doesn’t discount the fact that he’s a white man starring in film with a major Chinese landmark as the center of the narrative.

In addition, Scarlett Johansson was recently rumored to have been casted as the lead in the new live-action Mulan movie after she was already under fire for playing a Japanese character in the film Ghost in the Shell. While I am a fan of Johansson, I was definitely not a fan of this decision. In other instances of whitewashing, such as when Angelina Jolie was cast as Cleopatra, there wasn’t much backlash. However, when actress Zendaya Coleman was cast as comic book character Mary Jane in the Spider-Man Homecoming, the casting decision received a lot of flack. While it’s not a secret that minorities are underrepresented in the media, the public is still choosing to be frustrated by the wrong things.

Growing up, the only Asian characters I saw on my TV screen were Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Otherwise, the Asian characters I saw in movies and TV were never the leading roles, only nerds and supporting character. So how is it fair that when there are movies about Asian culture, Hollywood still doesn’t cast Asians? While there has been some progress, with actresses like Mindy Kaling and Constance Wu starring in their own shows, it’s still not enough. Asian Americans should be able to comfortably feel that they are represented in the media and not have their stories, histories and characters whitewashed by Hollywood.

The solution is actually very simple — if the film is about black people, use black actors. If the film is about Native Americans, use Native American actors. If the movie is about Chinese or Taiwanese people, use Chinese or Taiwanese actors. If the show is about Egyptians, please use Egyptian actors. It’s really not hard. If the film has a storyline about characters who are different races, there’s no point if we don’t use the correct race. Our world is diverse, with cultures that are diverse, and our movies should absolutely reflect that.

Erika Lee is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism.  Her column, “Asian Amerikan Heroine,” runs every other Monday. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan.

Asian-American beauty standards perpetuate colorism

For most of my adolescence, I believed the lie that a lighter skin complexion was more worthy and signified greater beauty. As someone who grew up as a dark-skinned Asian, I knew I did not fall into that category.

It was the first thing that anybody would ever point out whenever they saw me. I remember very clearly, on a family vacation to Hong Kong, a stranger saw my mom and me and stopped us.

“Hi little girl, are you Native American?” he asked me, smiling. His voice was condescending and high-pitched. “Why is your mom so pale and why are you so dark?”

He asked my mom in Cantonese, unaware that I speak fluent Cantonese, if I was adopted.

I remember running to the bathroom and sobbing in a stall because I did not want anybody to know and also because I couldn’t hold the tears in.

I was only 7 years old, but at that moment, I knew that there was more than one way to look “Asian.”

The homogeneity of East Asian beauty is startling and in a way, unsettling. If you look in any Korean, Japanese, Chinese or Taiwanese magazine, every girl has the same porcelain skin, small pink lips, straight eyebrows, dyed straight hair, and big eyes with double eyelids. Their bodies are petite and have super slim figures.

However, if you asked any millennial what the American beauty standard would be, chances are it would be along the lines of tan skin, full or thick lips, a curvy physique but with a nice flat stomach and arched and well done eyebrows. White people actually pay to get darker and make trips to the beach just to tan and pale means that you didn’t go out much.

Whenever some of my friends suggest to go to the beach to go tanning, I think about if I ever went back to Taiwan, my grandparents would be encouraging me to stay in the shade so I don’t get too “dark.” Whenever some of my friends talk about wanting a bigger booty, I think about how that would have been viewed negatively in Asian media. I have realized that, as an Asian American, I will never be completely homogenous to the beauty standards of both of the worlds that I am from.

Over the years, my skin has lightened naturally, possibly due to the fact that I hate playing sports and prefer indoor activities. However, there are still parts of my body that are darker than others, and I still tan extremely easily, especially in the summer.

But guess what? I take it with a grain of salt. How can I hate myself, when God has made me the way that I am with my best intentions in mind? It’s great that it doesn’t matter to me anymore. But I can’t help but wonder — if it has taken me so many years of self-loathing and self-doubt to come to this conclusion, how many other girls in the world currently hate themselves because they don’t meet a certain physical and cultural beauty ideal?

I think of my younger self, the one who thought that drinking milk or bathing in lemons would make herself feel less worthless and more beautiful, who cried in the bathroom, and I would never want any other young teen girl to hate herself because she is bombarded with these standards of beauty that she can’t live up to.

It’s too late to go back and change where it began, but it’s not too late to change the way it will end. What’s the solution besides the advice that everyone gives, like “love the skin you’re in and love who you are?” The solution is not only limited to practicing self love, but also with diversity in media and acceptance within our own community. There are almost no celebrities in Asian films and television who are darker skinned unless cast as the villain or a derogatory role. Being beautiful and being light are not mutually exclusive, and we can all work toward shattering this belief by viewing and treating every person of every hue equally and calling out other people who promote colorism. Nobody deserves to feel like a foreigner in their own culture.

Erika Lee is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism.  Her column, “Asian Amerikan Heroine,” runs every other Monday. She is the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan.