Why Representation Matters

I grew up as a biracial kid in a pretty predominately white suburban town on the outskirts of the fourth largest, most diverse city in the United States. I’m half Chinese and half Hispanic, and throughout my entire life, I have struggled with exactly what that means.

I’ve always felt this sense of having to choose between the two cultures, of trying to find belonging on either side when I can speak neither Spanish nor Cantonese — a decision I feel I subconsciously made because a choice like that? It’s hard. Whenever my family would get together with either side — and through no fault of their own — I always felt like I was in survival mode, treading water and just trying my best to keep my head above it.

Whenever I wasn’t with my family, though, it seemed society deemed itself fit to make the choice for me.

My last name is Wong — meaning there isn’t much room for error there. Before most people meet me, I imagine they’ve already formed an idea of what I’m going to be like, most likely based off of stereotypes portrayed throughout the media (whether they mean to or not, that’s a discussion for another time, but oftentimes the first meeting confirms this). When they see me, I tend to look a little… well, less than their expectations, being that I’m mixed and there’s so much more to me than stereotypes.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked the question, ‘What are you?’ only to politely oblige and be met with either confusion and disbelief, or outright denial.

I’m not kidding, people have literally informed me that I can’t be Hispanic. Sometimes they say it jokingly, other times? It’s an impossible reality that they just can’t wrap their minds around. Either I don’t look like it, I don’t speak Spanish fluently enough for them, or I’ve just tilted their entire worldview on its axis. Whatever the exact cause, I’m not entirely sure. It stings, but I try to distance myself from people who try to tell me who I am or who I’m not based on their “expert” opinions.

And the funny thing is, I don’t look as traditionally Chinese, and I speak neither Cantonese nor Mandarin (I can write one word, but that’s the extent of it) — but I was partially raised by my Spanish-speaking grandmother, and I did take three years of the language throughout school, along with listening to it at family gatherings growing up. In terms of ‘being one more than the other,’ technically I should be ‘more Hispanic’ — but surprise, surprise, literally no one sees it that way.

Like I said, growing up in predominantly white suburbs was easy enough — that is, if I allowed myself to fit into the right boxes. My test began before the standardized exam was even passed out — with the scantron, and having to choose if I was more Asian American or Hispanic/Latino. Other times, it was marked down for me. Because I didn’t quite look Hispanic and my last name was Chinese anyway, I defaulted to Asian American.

(Nowadays, I either decline to answer or rejoice in my ability to check off ‘other/multiracial.’)

Truthfully, it wasn’t so bad (I do take so much pride in being Asian American), though with that came one sort of unspoken, stereotypical expectation in particular; I was meant to be a whiz in math and science, and no matter how much more I enjoyed English and history, I still felt like I’d failed someone somewhere when my classmates in elementary school were whisked away to a special class where they would learn more in depth about fractions or long division — and I wasn’t. I remember qualifying for that class exactly once, during our probability unit in third grade, but even more vividly I remember failing pretty spectacularly while my peers (seasoned by then in how these classes operated) confidently fired off answers.

I never got back into that class, and after that, I almost actively tried to avoid it. After all, no one can really be disappointed in you if you don’t fail in the first place, and once you stop qualifying after a while, the expectations lower themselves.

(As sad as that sounds, there’s at least one upside to it — no one asks me for math help anymore.)

In the seventh grade, I dropped something off at my school’s front office and on my way out, I passed by these two boys sitting together in the empty cafeteria. I remember thinking that was strange, seeing as it was the middle of the day and they weren’t in class. I was almost free, and then one of the boys shouted at me, ‘All babies want to get borned!‘ before the two of them dissolved into laughter. I looked around, but there was no one else they could’ve been addressing. Still, I brushed it off, and returned to my class.

A few months later, I was watching Juno at a friend’s house. That incident was so far from my mind by then — until I heard it. When Ellen Page is walking towards the abortion clinic, debating whether or not she should keep her baby, a slightly crazed Asian girl is seen protesting just beyond the doors of the clinic, chanting those same words that boy had shouted at me.

It seems like such a small, trivial thing now, but at the time, I felt it like a punch to the gut. I like to think I’m fairly nice and quiet, and definitely left-leaning, so I couldn’t believe someone had actually connected me to a character I was nothing like — undoubtedly just because we both looked Asian. I’m hardly the first to feel the frustration and humiliation that comes with being picked at for things I can’t change, and I know I’m very fortunate I was given a… gentle introduction to it, so to speak — I can almost laugh about it now — but if you don’t know what that’s like, to work so hard to be quiet and well-behaved only to be made into nothing more than a caricature of someone, it really sucks.

The worst part? They’d laughed about it to my face, and I’d just stared and let them. I remember feeling so incredibly stupid, then trying to explain to my friends what I’d just realized, only to have them brush it off. I still remember who those two boys were, and their faces as they shared a joke at my expense, at my looks and my name, at my culture.

In the eighth grade, I was told by a Hispanic boy who I’d liked a ridiculously embarrassing amount, that I didn’t count as Hispanic. I even argued with him because after that incident the year before, I’d felt emboldened. It didn’t matter what I said, though, and I eventually resigned my side of the argument. (He ended up liking not one, but both of my best friends at the time, whereas neither one of them particularly liked him, so I guess you can say he got his just desserts.)

There was also the time I was ever so helpfully informed by a classmate that my grandfather apparently invented Pokemon, disregarding the fact that I’m not even a little bit Japanese. (All in good fun, I’m sure, but seriously?) And I’m not even mentioning any of the times anyone ever playfully teased me by mocking a language I couldn’t even speak, with the whole ‘ching chang chong’ spiel that is, quite frankly, painfully unoriginal at this point.

As much as it pains me to admit — because it was definitely not without its shortcomings — high school was far better in terms of people actually acknowledging I wasn’t just the Asian kid (because there were maybe a dozen of us, honestly).

Of course, I still had the odd teacher now and then who had high expectations I was dead set on not meeting (elementary school scarred me for life in the math and science departments), but believe it or not, my new friends actually thought it was pretty cool I tried to embrace two separate cultures. Then again, with that newfound acceptance came the opportunity for some new names; Mexicasian, which I honestly didn’t mind since it was one of the more clever plays on words I’d heard, but ones like mutt? (From an instructor, no less.) Half-breed? Chink?

And on one occasion (and most recently), oriental — a dated term that is reminiscent to me of creepy men messaging me on the internet, remarking that I seem foreign or exotic, a term that makes me sound like a rug or a gourmet. While not necessarily a bad word and not offensive to all, I’ve had to explain that I personally don’t want to be called that at least a handful of times by now, to the same person. I’m pretty sure he still doesn’t get it, so I’ve resigned my part again.

A friend put it more eloquently than I could: ‘if you don’t get it, you don’t get it — but just don’t say it.

Some days, I find myself falling more in line with that way of thinking, that thought process of ‘if you don’t understand, it’s not my job to educate you‘ — but the more I see people continue to get it wrong when it comes to people of color (yes, that includes Asians, regardless of whether or not they may look pale at times — we don’t get called ‘yellow’ for nothing), the more I feel compelled to speak out. Otherwise, all of the casual racism I and others have endured feels like it’s been for nothing if it hasn’t been for real experiences to speak out about.

You may be wondering: what exactly is there to speak out about? Racism, microaggressions — of course they’re reprehensible, isn’t that the end of it? Some seeds are just bad, others misguided.

But I firmly believe the root of so many problems in this area lies within the media and its portrayals.

After all, there can be no doubt the sheer impact the media has on our world, seeing as how technology is ever evolving and all-encompassing, how the latest news can be spread with the smallest tap of a finger, and how social media has taken over to the point our current president is more concerned with tweets than actual policies. The influence the media has on us all is honestly staggering to me; I can only pray that those who wield the kind of power that it takes to make waves, use it wisely.

Only more recently have people — like me, like my friends, like my family — begun to scrutinize the role that the media actually plays in how we perceive POC and the LGBTQA community, and moreover, how movies and television shows fit into it.

I will admit, I wrote a similar blog post to this one several months ago, around the time Marvel’s Doctor Strange hit theaters. However, it was a piece with much more vitriol than this one; now I feel almost at peace while writing, rather than up-in-arms about a type of miscasting that will probably continue on for years to come (whitewashing, that is, if you’ve been living under a rock). It was an issue another friend of mine had taken up with the film, and rightfully so — but still, I caved and bought a ticket to see it. I was upset for a time, but after a point, I resigned myself like all the other times before.

Ultimately, I didn’t particularly enjoy the movie, though not because the Ancient One was a white woman as opposed to a Tibetan man (and for the record, I’m all for genderbending). That was all the closure that I’d needed there.

There was even more bitterness as around that time, the seventh season of The Walking Dead had also premiered, and in it (spoiler alert — also, you late) Glenn had his skull caved in à la Negan’s baseball bat. I felt especially attacked by this, being that Glenn is one of the few realistic Asian characters on television these days (so many feel like shallow, undeveloped caricatures), but then I thought: why do I feel so attacked? It’s a strong word, and it isn’t like my brains are outside of my skull. I realized, I loved Glenn’s character then — and I still love him now. Of course I knew it’d happened in the comics, and I’d hoped real life would be different, but that didn’t change how he impacted me.

Better yet, how he impacted everyone who loved him, Asian or not. I’m pretty sure his death even trended on all social media for at least a week and a half afterward (which is a fairly big deal, considering all of our attention spans nowadays).

If anything, it drove the whole point of the show home in a way no other death really has for me before, and it was Glenn who did that. He meant something to the characters and the viewers, while he was around and even long after. (Also, RIP Abraham because I feel a little guilty focusing in more on just the one death of two.)

I do remember trying to end on a higher note than that, however, trailing off into how Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has made me extremely hopeful in terms of both Asian and Latino representation. My two most favorite examples? Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez, a Colombian Inhuman with superhuman speed, and Daisy “Quake” Johnson, a half Chinese, half Caucasian Inhuman who, long story short, can make things shake.

I find I’m oddly protective over Daisy’s character specifically — for that reason, probably. Don’t get me wrong, I love when others show her the respect and admiration she deserves, but it’s so important to me on a personal level, that as a biracial woman her heritage isn’t erased either. The actress, Chloe Bennet, recently wrote a touching post about why certain celebrities shouldn’t make fun of others’ appearances — to which I’d like to add, especially when they profit off of appropriating those cultures in photos — only to receive comments invalidating her experiences as a child, telling her she hardly looked Asian enough to ever have been made fun of for it.

When I see people write her and her character off like that, I only get more protective because in some way, protecting what little representation we have, seeing it through — it’s cathartic.

Someday I’ll write a better post about what it means to finally see someone who looks like me, whose heritage is the closest to my own that I’ve ever seen in a show that I love, portray a seasons-long origin story leading up to her becoming a superhero in her own right. The first super powered woman in the MCU, by the way — sorry, Scarlet Witch, but facts are facts are facts.

It’s taken some time to get here, because I haven’t always been so sure of my identity. Some days, I’m still not. Some days I still feel like I have to choose. Some days, I feel like everyone looks at me like I’m a fake, and then I look to the changes that are slowly taking place around me, the fight that we’ve sparked — and I feel proud to not only get to be part of two rich cultures, but to get to embrace them, too.

Because that’s all we’re asking for as POC, and members of the LGBTQA and disabled communities: important stories that don’t diminish us based on our race or ethnicity, but rather ones which celebrate it and represent different cultures by showing kids like me, like my friends, that we can be heroes and leads too.

We’re not just the best friends, we’re not just the villains, we’re not just extras, we’re not just unnecessary casualties to move your story forward.

We’re not just stereotypes, we’re not just tropes, we’re not just caricatures.

The more people see different colors, different identities, different sexualities and just different people on big or small screens — the more normal we become. The more the world accepts us and sees us and acknowledges us, and the less any kid has to deal with expectations or jokes made at their expense, and that I will happily laugh for.

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