#FirstTimeISawMe? I’m Still Waiting.

“Representation is important.” You hear this message all the time, just like you do with “Climate change is real” and “gender is fluid”. All of which are equally true, but it sometimes feels like they’ve lost their gravitas, merely being used as buzzwords to keep the message in the zeitgeist.

Thankfully, there are initiatives that come around that remind you that these aren’t just slogans sparking political debate – they’re real issues that greatly effect society now and for future generations to come. In this particular case, one such initiative is the #FirstTimeISawMe campaign, which encourages people to reveal which character first represented them in the media.

The hashtag is a collaboration between Netflix and all-around cool organization Black Girl Nerds. They released this video earlier this month, and hundreds of people took to Twitter to share their own firsts.

Answers ranged from older TV characters:

To those that resonate with a lot of millennials:

To the contemporary:

For a lot of people, coming up with an answer to this is viral hashtag is probably easy. Especially if you’re white. And a male. In which case, you probably haven’t thought beyond your answer to a simple question. But when I decided I should chime in too, I realized (or just became completely mindful of) the fact that there hasn’t truly been one character that I felt fully represented me as a female Filipino-American. I was having a difficult time coming up with an honest answer.

I’ve touched on this before in my Fresh Off The Boat post (why aren’t you watching it yet), but the first time I remember seeing an *Asian woman* on TV was in 1994, when Margaret Cho starred in All-American Girl, a short-lived sitcom that was cancelled after one season.

Fun fact: There was a plot line in Fresh Off the Boat in which Emery and Evan want to become actors, but their reluctant mom Jessica (played by the brilliant Constance Wu) says, “You’re not going to become actors. You think they’re going to put two Chinese boys on TV? Maybe if there’s a nerdy friend or a magical thing where someone wanders into a Chinatown, but no.”

Cut to the end credits when they’re watching an episode of All-American Girl, and Emery quips at his mom, “So, no Asians on TV?”

The show centered on U.S.-born Margaret (Cho) who lives with her Korean-American family in San Francisco. Her much more Westernized POV on life is in stark contrast to the traditional, Eastern values her family has, and of course, comedy ensues. Sure, I too am a first-generation child who has arguably taken up American culture more-so than my parents, but I’m not Korean.

This problem kept coming up anytime I’d try to see myself in any of my favorite TV or movie characters. I speak to my parents in English when they talk to me in Tagalog like Jane does with Abuela in Jane the Virgin, but I’m not Venezuelan. I enjoy hip-hop and grew up obsessing over music like Eddie on Fresh Off the Boat, but I’m not a Taiwanese male. I so hardcore related to Dev’s dynamic with his parents in Master of None, but I’m not an Indian male wannabe actor. If you took Lane Kim’s upbringing in a religious household (and tbh, Lorelai’s hot/cold relationship with her parents and knack for pop culture), you’d be pretty close to representing me – but I continue to not be Korean.

In fact, the only example I could come up with of even seeing Filipinos on TV at all is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – and that show just ended its second season. Overall, the show is superb and speaks to my interests of romance, comedy, tragedy, and musical theater, but moreover, for the first time, I saw a Filipino as a main character. And one that didn’t just ignore the fact that he’s Filipino. Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) isn’t even a goofy sidekick. He’s the hot guy who is the one with the “crazy ex-girlfriend”. His name is literally in every episode title.

I already loved the show as soon as I finished the pilot, but what really turned the tide for me was the 6th episode titled “My First Thanksgiving with Josh”, written by comedy writer/actor and Filipino-American, Rene Gube (he also plays Father Brah). In this ep, Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) manages to get herself invited to Josh’s family Thanksgiving, despite the fact he’s still engaged to Valencia, who the Chans do not like that much. Because of this, Rebecca wants to impress his family as much as she can, which is why she teaches herself some basic Tagolog while cooking a traditional Filipino dish called Dinuguan (a stew with pork blood that I even refuse to eat).

Not sure what I was expecting, but I don’t think I ever expected to see a white actress learning Tagalog while making a Filipino dish on network TV. That is not a thing I ever expected would happen. But then the episode continues, and we meet the rest of his family including his dad, mom (played by Amy Hill, who was also the grandma on All-American Girl), and sisters Jayma and Jastenity (who have perfectly ridiculous Filipino names). Not to mention there’s an entire ROOM full of Filipinos, or Asians that act like they’re Filipino at least, eating a mix of American and Filipino food on Thanksgiving, just like I did growing up.

“I saved you the pork adobo and turkey skin, anak (child/something my parents and aunts and older relatives still call me to this day)” Mama Chan to Josh

Plus there’s the other line that Mrs. Chan says to Rebecca in yet another slight to Valencia, by saying, “We are so thankful God sent you to us”, a precursor for when Mrs. Chan later invites Rebecca to mass that same night. This isn’t a thing that I personally did with my family, but I will say that I grew up going to Filipino Bible Study, was super active in my Protestant church, and went to Catholic school my entire life. So yeah, my parents love the Lord and I understand the Chan’s church on Thanksgiving tradition.

Later in the season, we’re introduced to Josh’s aunt, played by Queen of the Philippines Lea Salonga, and we get to see even more of the Filipino culture when Josh’s sister Jayma gets married. The men, including Jayma’s Jewish husband, all wear traditional shirts called Barong Tagalog, which are lightweight and embroidered and worn at formal gatherings. Again, never in my life have I seen so many barongs on American TV. I never could have imagined this.

So all this to say, that’s what I tweeted. I said I’m still waiting for the one person in media that I can relate to wholeheartedly, but the Chans are the closest thing I got. And lo and behold, they responded:

Vinny also tweeted back and I unexpectedly started a Twitter convo between the Chan family. #FangirlGoals, amirite?

But through my own delve into how Filipinos/Asians/Females are represented in the media and seeing all the responses from other POCs on Twitter, it’s just a reminder that we still have so far to go. There are so many more stories to be told, especially in America, where not only are we a melting pot, but minorities are lit’rally taking over the country. According to a 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report, by 2020, “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group.” By 2060, the minority population is expected to rise to 56%, while the foreign-born population will reach 19% (that stat was 13% in 2014). Plus,  the population of bi-racial, or “two or more races” is projected to be the fastest-growing in the next four decades.

If this is the direction the U.S. is heading, doesn’t it just make sense for the media we consume to reflect the diverse makeup of this country? The more we see POCs in the media, the less likely we as a nation are to be culturally insensitive and racist. Just look at the LGBTQ community. Over the past two decades, the mere presence of characters like Willow and Ellen and Will Truman and Jack McFarland, Cam and Mitchell, have become part of pop culture history and “normalized gays” for those in the South or midwest or any area in the U.S. where being gay is considered against God’s will.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s the accurate portrayals of this community that have helped society embrace the real life gays and lesbians and transgendered folks we meet at work or in the grocery store. The same goes for all the POCs listed above – Brandy proved that she, too, could be a Disney princess in Cinderella (and get the handsome Filipino prince), America Ferrera inspired Latinas in both Gotta Kick It Up! and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants as a smart, confident young lady, and Regina King showed in American Crime that wearing a hijab might just be a superpower to become a badass who never gives up on seeking justice. These characters don’t fall into negative stereotypes that have long been shown in film and TV, which can subsequently give viewers a false sense of these minority groups. If you’re a white woman living in a small town in Alabama where the population is 95% white and all you see are black people on TV who are gangsters and drug dealers, I’m going to assume there’s at least a small part of you (if not whole) that believes this stereotype to be true of all black folks. Whether you realize it or not, the negative portrayal of minorities leads to invisible (and possibly outright) racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., which is why we need to keep having conversations like #FirstTimeISawMe.

Not only do we get to see others’ personal experiences with representation in media, but it’s a reminder that when you forget about skin color for just one moment, these are people just like the people in your bubble, who are going through similar trials and tribulations. That’s not to say we should be completely colorblind, but rather encourage the acceptance and appreciation of all cultures, no matter how different they are from our own.

I’m grateful that I live in a time where I can see Filipinos (and minorities as a whole) being portrayed in an accurate light on screen, and it gives me positive reinforcement that we aren’t an afterthought. That we, too, have a place in this society, despite what the horrible actions and hate crimes of other Americans may say. It provides an intangible sense of belonging that no travel ban or affirmative action law can change. It gives us the ability to open up the dialogue and insist that there is always room for representation of all people on TV and film. Despite knowing all this, we can always do better. We have to do better. And we have the power to do so.  If you’re a storyteller, tell your unique story to the masses. Pen a script. Direct a movie. Write a blog post. Yeah, Representation Is Important. And who better to represent us than, well, us?

More Than #StarringJohnCho

You’ve seen #OscarsSoWhite. Last week it was #TonysSoDiverse. This week it’s #StarringJohnCho. Diversity in entertainment has been an even bigger topic than ever over the past couple of years, mainly because people are starting to speak up about how there isn’t any.

Recently, there was a lot of hullabaloo about whitewashing in two upcoming movies, with Tilda Swinton playing The Ancient One in Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson as the Major in Ghost in the Shell, both characters that were Asian in the original comic books. And you may remember that horrible film Aloha, in which she played Chinese-Hawaiian soldier Allison Ng. If you weren’t aware – all these ladies are white.

In response, a social media project called #StarringJohnCho was started, in an attempt to prove that Asian-Americans can be lead actors in movies too. The movement places John, arguably one of the biggest Asian actors who could actually carry a film (see: all the Star Treks), Photoshopped into other blockbuster movie posters.

You might be thinking, ok, that’s great and all, but John Cho’s not a “movie star”. Well, a recent study from USC shows that only 1% of lead roles in Hollywood films go to Asians, while 1 out of 20 speaking roles go to Asians. Statistics for John to even get a chance to be a bonafide movie star are slim.

One of my favorite quotes regarding diversity in entertainment comes from Viola Davis’ Emmys speech last year, when she straight up spit the truth in front of all of Hollywood.

“In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.” That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. Hollywood execs are refusing to even consider POC, because the only color they really see is green. “We can’t cast Harry Shum Jr. in the lead role because he doesn’t have a successful box office track record.” Studio execs need only look at the numbers yet again – for example, the Fast and Furious movies (while albeit a bit tedious), feature a diverse cast AND crew, and its seven movies have grossed nearly $4 billion globally. Moreover, a UCLA study even noted that films with diverse leads not only result in higher box office numbers but also higher returns of investment for studios and producers.

Not to mention the mere impact casting POC would have culturally – I talked about it when I wrote about Fresh Off The Boat, but growing up, it was slim pickings when it came to idolizing Asian-American actresses. White ladies? Sure, I can name you minimum 240. Not so much with the Asians.

ALL THIS TO SAY is that Asian actors just need to be given the chance to be in the lead. It’s not just #StarringJohnCho, it’s #StarringINSERTANYOTHERASIANACTORHERE. So in the spirit of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (yes, that’s a real thing every May), here are just a few picks for younger actors and actresses who deserve to be in the lead just as much as any white person.

Constance Wu

If you’re not watching Fresh Off The Boat, what is wrong with you? Like, legit what kind of ailment is prohibiting you from watching one of the best, well-written, funniest, culturally important programs on the air right now? Here is just one reason why you should watch it – the matriarch of the family, Jessica Huang played by Constance Wu. Constance plays Jessica as a bit of a tiger mom, but one who also truly cares for her kids and can sit and play Mario Kart with them. This clip is just a fraction of Constance’s brilliance on the show.

Conrad Ricamora

Conrad be representing for my fellow Filipinos! He’s best known for his work in theater, including Imelda Marcos musical Here Lies Love and is currently on Broadway in the revival of The King and I. However, you might know him best as a member of Shondaland in How to Get Away With Murder. He’s only half of the best couple on the show, #Coliver. Honestly, they’re the best. Anyways, Conrad is super talented (as seen above) and has leading man good looks, so what more can you ask for?

Kimiko Glenn

You probs know Kimiko as Brooke Soso from Orange Is The New Black or her current stint on Broadway’s Waitress. However, I know her from being a creep. Fact: I saw the first national tour of Spring Awakening years ago in Boston and saw it thrice during its entire run in the city (I’ve mentioned this before but it doesn’t make it any less true). I became slightly obsessed with the show and music, of course, but also weirdly followed the touring cast on social media? It’s fine. Anyways, Kimiko was part of that cast, and during their stops across the country, the cast would hold benefit concerts, usually covering popular songs. Here’s one of those concerts and one in which Kimiko covers Jason Mraz. I’ve listened to this too many times to mention over the past few years.

Phillipa Soo

If you’re a member of Hamiltrash, I don’t even have to explain why Phillipa needs to continue being a leading lady. If you haven’t seen this precious cinnamon roll sing Copland in this Ham4Ham, drop everything you’re doing and watch it now.

Utkarsh Ambudkar

Yes, this is the dude from Pitch Perfect. However, he’s also Mindy’s brother Rishi on The Mindy Project, a role I think he’s perfectly cast in. Every time he comes on screen, I can’t wait to see what ridiculous thing he’ll say and it’s Utk’s delivery is always spot on. Also as a bonus, he’s BFFZ with Lin-Manuel Miranda since they used to do Freestyle Love Surpreme (improv rap group) together. *sigh*

Ki Hong Lee

Dong!!! Ki is probs one of the millennial-era actors who’s the closest to leading man role, having not only starred in Kimmy Schmidt but also in all The Maze Runner films. And if you’re wondering, his real accent is American.

Albert Tsai

Next to Happy Endings, Trophy Wife will always go down as one of the most tragic cancellations in TV history. We were big fans of it here, and one of the main reasons was the nugget, Bert, played by Albert Tsai. He’s a natural comedian and has potential for greatness in the future. He’s already got a role on Ken Jeong’s Dr. Ken, so hopefully there’s nowhere to go but up.

Keiko Agena

Ah Lane Kim. If you’re only familiar with her work on Gilmore Girls, check out her other work in shows like Scandal and Shameless. Keiko also has a podcast called Drunk Monk, in which she and her co-host Will discuss episodes of Monk – you guessed it – while drunk. Also, she does a lot of improv in LA at Upright Citizens Brigade and is really good at it. I’m not just saying that. My friend and I accidentally saw her do improv at UCB on a total whim. And she was fantastic.