Why it Shouldn’t be Profound to be Asian

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Jully Lee in Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, a co-presentation of East West Players and the Fountain Theatre

Last week at the Ovation Awards in Los Angeles, another commonplace mispronunciation and photo mix-up of an Asian American actress led to the greatest exodus out of the L.A. Stage Alliance (host of the Ovation Awards) seen in recent years or ever. Bravo.

Jully Lee, a Korean American actress, who was nominated for best featured actress in a play, had her name mispronounced and saw another Asian American actress’ picture instead of hers up in lights. At first, Lee herself said she brushed it off because it was such a common occurrence. But from her poignant social media post, it was clear that not only a racial injustice had occurred but a tragic professional one. Being nominated as an Asian American artist is a rare moment. It’s not just another Taylor Swift Grammy spectacle where her seemingly yearly nominations would dilute a Kanye West mishap.

WE’RE CONSTANTLY BATTLING OUR INVISIBILITY. THEATRE IS, AND ALWAYS HAS BEEN, A PREDOMINANTLY WHITE SPACE, AND PEOPLE OF COLOR HAVE BEEN FIGHTING FOR A SEAT AT THE TABLE EVERY. STEP. OF. THE. WAY.

Jully Lee

A Lost Moment

Actress Jully Lee

As Lee emphasizes, conditions simply don’t exist for an Asian American actress nomination to happen frequently: a role, a theater, a green light, funding and critical acceptance all have to come together even for a nomination to be produced. If nominations for white actresses were this rare, you better believe they’d be treated like a Fabregé egg. (That’s my emphasis.)

At the end of her social media post, Lee wrote: Ending this with one of the most profound quotes from one of my favorite actresses. “IT’S AN HONOR JUST TO BE ASIAN.” – Sandra Oh

Oh, Lee and I are Korean American/Canadian. But as a Korean American who’s lived in Korea for over a decade now and seeing my phenotype represented everywhere here, I was jarred by Lee’s statement that Oh’s quote was one of the most profound. It’s not that I disagree nor don’t know where it’s coming from. But, I’m shell-shocked that Asian Americans are still at the point where breathing and existing in predominantly white spaces is a milestone. Still.

Actress Sandra Oh

Don’t take this the wrong way, but Oh shouldn’t even need to have the idea in her head that “It’s an honor just to be Asian”. And people like Lee shouldn’t resonate with that statement as if it were profound. It’s like grown adults finding ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ some fount of esoteric knowledge. The fact that this basic acceptance of Asian bodies (not to mention their identities and spirits) is still a mystery in America means that something is truly broken. The fact that it’s so wanted and longed for makes the dysfunction so much clearer.

Looking at it from Asia

How do you double-blind test this? Ask any person in Asia how they’d respond to “It’s an honor just to be Asian.” You’d get puzzled looks. Or they’d follow up with questions like “Is this ‘Asian’ a CEO or celebrity? Are they Chinese or Korean?” Because, it’s a given that Asian people have a neutral baseline of worth in society here. We’ll fight about everything else, but that basic racial component is not in doubt. That should be the prize for Asian Americans. The freedom to exist. The luxury of eventually having Sandra Oh’s profound statement not make sense anymore. Asian Americans don’t deserve carrying this burden of justifying being present.

Basketball Star Jeremy Lin just cuz he looks hot in Sandra Oh’s shirt

Lest you think this is overblown, and to remind us that we’ve gotten here because of a mispronunciation from a white artistic director of an LA theater company, it’s not. In my life, the greatest American pronunciation police were whites upholding their control of the environment. Nowhere was this clearer in Los Angeles where streets and boroughs still retain full Spanish names. Yet, if you stray any bit off of the agreed upon whitewashed way of saying “Los Feliz” for example, get ready for a smackdown. Some may say there isn’t really one “right” way, but there certainly is the one “right white” way. And that’s what should be profound.

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