In 1998, the Disney film Mulan came out, about the legendary, eponymous warrior who forsook her home life to serve the Chinese army in her aging father’s place. Her family looked--and acted, in many ways-- like my own, like my mother’s side of the family. I didn’t relate to Mulan’s story of enlisting in order to save her father--I will baldly admit I’m too self-involved to make so great a sacrifice. Regardless, I had to play Mulan, not Belle, in childhood games of pretend because I came to school with weird rice in a Thermos. I was later requested to reprise the role when my college a cappella group dressed up as Disney princesses for Halloween. I was the only mildly East Asian girl. (Yeah, I was in a college a cappella group, it was #aca-awesome.)
I wrote my college essays about the act of choosing. I wrote about standardized tests where I had to check just one box for my ethnicity, about the multiplicity of eating with chopsticks and forks, eating Yorkshire pudding and lo mi fan. I wrote about being proud of my heritage. And I am proud--more than proud--but the issues surrounding my racial identity run deeper than food or government-issued testing or choosing a princess out of a litany of hand-animated women.
For much of my life, I had few role models outside of my own family who were remotely my race. I had Mulan, sure. I had Lucy Liu and Anna May Wong, usually in the role of a dragon lady. I had the women of The Joy Luck Club. Later, I had Michelle Branch, then Maxine Hong Kingston. But that was it. A list of women I could count on my fingers.
And then there are my experiences. A couple years ago, my family and I were on vacation near my father’s hometown in Southern California. It was our annual summer trip: we’d drive down I-5 in the heat of cow manure, get on the 405, and spend a week on the beach. Near the end of this particular trip, we decided to visit my aunt, an ER nurse, in her hospital. She showed us around and introduced us to her staff. One nurse smiled, shook each of our hands, turned to my mother, and asked, “And why are you here?” She did not mean to ask what had brought her to the ER, but to ask what my mother, an Asian woman, was doing with a white guy and three kids who looked Caucasian under the hospital fluorescents. We all laughed, because it was funny and because we had to--that was the only option.
There are more experiences. There are ladies at the barber asking my mom why we were white. (“Karen! You can’t just ask people why they’re white!”) There are kids on the blacktop making fun of my eyes, but only once they learned my ethnicity. (Or being deemed a “half-breed” by other Asian kids.) There’s wondering whether or not to bring up your race on dates, and wondering whether or not the opposite party will inquire. (“What are you?”) (They usually do inquire.) There’s frequently being the only person sort of color in an artistic setting and, as a half-minority, being asked to speak for all minorities. There are more experiences than can reasonably fit on this page, on any page. There was also a revelation as Kelly and I wrote the series. We had the same “What are you?”s thrown at us, the same questions on our standardized tests, and the same haircut on both of our mothers. Beyond that, our experiences as biracial Asian Pacific American women were markedly different. I don’t know why I thought they would be similar, other than the fact that I had never seen a representation of our racial experience.
That’s why I wanted to create this show. The world as the media represents it does not reflect the world around me, and the world around me does not reflect the world I want to see. We are making this show in a tiny attempt to change that, to put out in the world a show about two biracial women valuing their own friendship over all else. We are making this show in the hope that maybe one day little girls won’t have to choose between Disney princesses-- or better yet, that maybe one day little girls will have bigger and better fish to fry.
But we mostly made this show so we could sing Disney showtunes in our musical episode. “Colors of the Wind” is a really good song.