Yup, I’m Asian.

I’m asian. there’s no denying that. But I used to.

I didn’t know I was different until my first day of kindergarten. My kindergarten teacher mispronounced my name.  It was supposed to be pronounced ‘T’ not ‘thigh’. After correcting my teacher, the kids with names such as David and Joey, still laughed at both pronunciations.  The possibility that someone’s name would be of an inanimate object or of an alphabet letter was apparently funny to everyone but me.  All of a sudden I felt a feeling I had never felt before.  I felt uncomfortable. I felt I didn’t belong.

For a brief moment, I decided to abandon my name for something more common, such as Jennifer.  There were already 3 other Jennifers in the class, I would fit right in.

In hindsight, this was not a quick fix, nor a plausible one.  I didn’t look like the other Jennifers.  I looked like an alien. I was also severely shy in class. Afraid of even approaching the teacher, many assumed that I did not know English.  My mother was a 2nd grade teacher so by the time I was four, I was already reading at 1st grade level.  But because of the way I looked, or the name I had, I was erroneously shepherded into the ESL class.

I was born and raised in america.  But i was born from Vietnamese immigrants.  There was a constant struggle between my two different lives – my Vietnamese roots at home versus my American influences outside.  Growing up, all I wanted was to belong, and it seemed impossible to really belong to both worlds.  I had to make a choice.  Because I watched a lot of tv, the American influence was much more attractive than the traditional Asian route.  So it wasn’t surprising when I chose to affiliate myself with the American side. However, unbeknownst to me, my definition of American automatically equated to a white man.  The predominant images from the media that bombarded me were of white people.  The characters that I related to and aimed to become one day were of white males.  I had a crush on Zach Morris, I wanted Doug Funnie as my best friend and I emulated Harrison Ford.  I was a tom boy, fuck being a girl. I was white (loving mcdonalds, hating fobs), fuck being Asian. I was determined to assimilate as much as I could to the prevalent/powerful image I saw — a white man, essentially denying my Asianness.

And then when I finally decided to commit myself to a career in acting, where physical looks are very much weighed in for the type of roles you could get or will get, it was disconcerting when I quickly noticed that there is barely a demand for asian women. Casting listings have tons of male roles.  It seemed to me that out of 20 roles to be filled, 19 of them would go to males, and only 1 role was for a woman.  And usually it was a call for a Caucasian woman or a star name only.  And IF there was a call for a non Caucasian woman, i.e. an ethnic woman, I would be up against a black woman or a latina.  There are days where I wish I looked anything but an ethnic/Asian woman so that the odds of me succeeding in this business increases even just a little.

And when I wish this, I feel defeated. There’s no demand for me, there’s barely any north stars that I can follow, I should just pack it up and go home.  When I get to this negative, hopeless feeling, I am doing a disservice to myself.  I am literally setting up limitations and paralyzing myself from succeeding.  I am placing a bamboo ceiling in my way.

So I’ve just finished this book called “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling” by Jane Hyun. It points out that there is a disconnect between the assumption that Asian Americans are the “model minority” — that they thrive under pressure and excel in their careers, and the reality — where many Asian Americans enter the professional workforce but rarely do they make it to the corner offices.

Alright, so I’m not trying to make it big in the corporate executive world. But I saw this book as a chance to not only understand why I place certain limitations upon myself, but also to learn how to break this nasty habit!

So first, understanding the problem:

Asian cultural values : collectivism, maintenance of interpersonal harmony, reciprocity, placing others’ needs ahead of one’s own, deference to authority figures, importance of family, avoidance of family shame, educational and occupational achievement, ability to resolve psychological problems, filial piety, conformity to family and social norms, self-effacement, self-control/restraint, respect for elders and ancestors (8).

Mainstream western values: spontaneity/casualness, acceptability of questioning authority, promotion of personal accomplishments, tough/individualistic/authoritative leadership (25).

Reading this book made me even more aware that the problem was not just skin deep. Why am I so against networking? Or self promoting myself, or even speaking up if I have a problem?  Why can’t I express myself effectively to get noticed?  To be remembered? Such qualities are keys to gaining a foothold in Hollywood.  My Asian cultural values that have been ingrained in me since birth were at odds with the mainstream Western values that surround me everyday.

Ok, so what do I do about it?

The key lessons I learned from the book are:

Know yourself and how others see you: understand your skills, strengths, areas of improvement, blind spots, and cultural values. Self-awareness is the first and most important step in breaking your bamboo ceiling.

Understand how Confucian values might present challenges in a socratic world: asian culture tends to emphasize harmony, collectivism, and self-control, while mainstream western culture values individual achievement and questioning authority.

Maintain the best of your Asian values: don’t be afraid to be yourself.  Seek to keep the richness and depth of your asian heritage, and introduce your knowledge to others – food, culture, family values, respect for authority and traditions – while letting them know how fully american you are.  Don’t let the negatives your cultural values stand in your way of success, but do take pride in your background.  Your ethnicity shapes who you are, and you must lead in a way that is true to yourself. Your unique stamp will enrich workplace interactions (267).

BE YOURSELF. The after school specials fucking knew it all along!!! No shit Thi, be yourself, be loud and proud that I am who I’am today. The author even takes it further and says,

Many Asian Americans’ potential remains untapped in the workplace, and a company that can look past cultural barriers to harness the underlying diverse talents will excel in this increasingly complex and global marketplace.  As an Asian American, it’s your responsibility to take charge of your career, by understanding what you have to offer, determining what skills you need to get ahead, and then learning the skills.  Tooting your own horn, speaking up in meetings, asking for a promotion, questioning business decisions, and making your career aspirations known, all in you own style of relating, are examples of developing new skills in the workplace.  They have nothing to do with undermining your cultural values and everything to do with operating flexibly in a competitive work environment.  … Develop the critical qualities of flexibility and resilience early; they will always serve you well.  Be creative about leveraging your identified strengths, including your cultural assets, so that you can achieve your career and life goals (272).

Hollywood could benefit with my added flavor to the mix.  I just have to have the courage to be myself. I just have to be the fucking change I want to see in the world.

My Personal Brand

Brand: a brand is a mixture of attributes, tangible and intangible, which, if managed properly, creates value and influence. “Value” has different interpretations: from a marketing or public perspective it is “the promise and delivery of me as a consistent experience for others.

So this weekend I took a branding class.  No no, not the cattle branding class, the marketing branding class.  What does branding have to do with acting? Everything! When I say McDonalds or coke, people get an immediate image of that product.  They know immediately what kind of attitude, tone and point of view that company is all about. Well with acting, I am the product, so if people were to hear my name, what is the image I want to pop in their heads in an instant?

My class was taught by my friend and coworker Sylvie Obledo.  She’s awesome! Before coming into this class, I thought I had an idea of what branding was from my marketing and communications classes in college.  I thought it just encompassed a logo, a slogan, and a consistent look.  But with Sylvie, she showed that branding was more about examining your core self and bringing that essence out into a comprehensive and consistent way to create trust for others.  It’s really about being who you are, and showing to people in a clear, succinct way — i.e. your brand.  How genius is that??

Now, this whole thing is a process and it doesn’t happen overnight. But through Sylvie’s class, I discovered what I’m meant to do.  A lot of my friends and family members are going through a transition phase in their lives right now.  I’ve been noticing how a lot of people my age that have been in their jobs since they’ve graduated college, are now desiring to change paths and are reexamining which way to go, what they’re meant to do for the world.

Going to church, I’ve heard on numerous occasions how we’re all blessed with gifts.  Each person has a unique gift design for that one person.  And that gift is a way for that person to serve others and god.

Now, I’ve always known that I’m meant to do acting.  But I’ve never been clear about how it would serve others and god. I was always blinded by what it could bring me.  I kept making it about me, how it could make me famous and rich and beautiful etc.  But through Sylvie’s class, I was able to be crystal clear of how my gift can serve others.

She gave us this huge value list and asked us to pick out our 8 most important core values.  I found myself resonating toward words such as honesty, trust, teamwork, empathy, open-mindedness, and helpfulness. From that, I realized the “why” I am here on the planet.  I am driven to create beautiful things inspired by my background and unique personality to relate to others that are physically different, mentally different and/or are from a different background as me. I want people to relate to each other and be able to empathize with everybody and anybody because we’re all of this earth, we’re all in the same space and we’re all in this together.

When I shared this to the class, someone mentioned the phrase, “what is most personal is most universal“.  This is a Carl Rogers quote. But with that said, something clicked.  I realized that I am an open book, and I’m down to let people in and to share my stories about my family, my career (or lack thereof), my stupid tumultuous love life, and even what I did that day.  And when I do share myself honestly and with raw-ness, I’ve noticed the best reactions from people, the most lively and the most responsive reactions from others.  It’s interesting to note that I’m realizing this now.  Because when I was younger, I didn’t want to be me.  I wanted to be a white Caucasian man.  I mean I grew up wanting to be Harrison Ford.  And when I realized that I could never be a white Caucasian man, it broke my heart.  I thought I could never make it in this world as an actor because I wasn’t blessed looking like a white Caucasian man — that prevalent, dominating look in the media that I grew up with. But as I’m going through this branding/soul searching process, I’m really getting it that to ultimately contribute to this world, is to be me and to share it. To show the world that even though I’m a skinny Asian woman, I can relate to someone like Harrison Ford or Shaq! And they can absolutely relate to me!

My mission statement: to become a successful actor/public figure so that I can show that despite my physical differences from traditional Hollywood, or my unique/niche-y background, I can relate to a lot of people and a lot of people can relate to me.