In the early 2000s, I was a struggling actor in St. Louis. I had just graduated from theater school, and my head was spinning with dreams of becoming another Sarah Michelle Gellar or Natalie Portman.
In my head, I saw very little difference between those stars and myself. But other people saw something else.
No, it wasn’t my crippling lack of audition confidence or my rubber face that channeled Jim Carrey whether I wanted it to or not. It was that I was Asian-American. (I still am.)
As much as I believed that my charisma could open up a big wide world of breakout parts, at that time and place my castability began and ended with my Asianness.
If I wasn’t getting called in for the “Ethnic Professional” or “Young Japanese/Chinese/Ambiguously Asian girl,” people wondered whether they could get away with casting me in a traditionally white role. A director once had the audacity to say to me, “We loved what you did, we just had a hard time seeing the character as an Asian.”
So I ran to the rice field and wept dragon tears for many moons.
This is not to say that the community where I was trying to “plant my star-making seeds” was nasty or racist. Far from it ― I found a home in St. Louis that was kind, welcoming, and supportive. But since there were maybe two Asian-American actors trying to get work in St. Louis, my race was my calling card. And I hated it.
For those of you born while I was still hauling my butt to the campus computer lab to send emails and willing myself to charge my “emergencies only” flip phone, representation for Asian-Americans in media just wasn’t on my radar yet. It probably should have been, with people like Margaret Cho having been fighting the good fight for years and The Joy Luck Club being a BIG DEAL to me and my family. But at the time, all I really wanted was to be viewed by casting agents as racially neutral.
What I didn’t realize was that there was, and is no such thing as “racially neutral” in the biz. And trying to be that unattainable thing wasn’t doing me any favors.
It all came to a head when a local agency was casting a big-deal industrial training video for a national car-rental company you’ve probably heard of, and they needed an Asian-American actress.
Well, enter me and the “other Asian-American actress” in the area, but she was too model-pretty and wasn’t believable as a business professional, take that as you will. Plus, I wore glasses.
So I got the part. The character actually had a name, and her name was Debbie Cho. The gig paid really, really well ― it paid my rent for a year. I got signed by my first agent. I got my first teeny-tiny taste of what it was like to be a “star.”
Despite all that, part of me was still disappointed that this part was just another “Asian” thing.
Nonetheless, the first day of shooting I arrived at the set with weeks worth of scripts memorized. Not just my lines ― everyone else’s lines, too. I was terrified.
It was immediately clear that I was the rookie on-set. The cast and crew were all seasoned local pros who knew the lingo and flow of things. Though everyone was exceedingly kind and patient with me, I learned quickly to keep up and pull my weight.
More than anything, the overwhelming feeling that first week on-set was how delighted everyone was to have a steady job for a while. While I was having an Asian-American identify crisis, people were talking about mortgages and fixing cars and taking care of their kids. This was real life and this was real work. After the end of week one, I felt more than a little humbled.
I also came to realize that some of my fears over being The Resident Asian-American were unfounded. While yes, I was the only Asian-American on-set, it wasn’t a “thing” with anybody. No, I didn’t expect anybody to pull at their eyes or ask me where my noodles were, but I had been afraid that there was going to be this unspoken understanding that I was cast to fill the “Asian quota,” whereas everyone else had been cast because of talent.
But while there is no doubt that my race was a big reason I got the part, to my cast and crewmates I was just Louise the actor who memorized everyone’s lines and didn’t understand what continuity was at first. (I definitely caused half-a-day of re-shoots early on when the color of my purse changed in a couple back-to-back shots and I was too nervous to speak up. That was another Debbie Cho lesson: Ain’t nobody got time for timidity.)
As much as I had resisted being Debbie Cho, Debbie gave me a taste of what I wanted: to be seen as an actor, a person, who existed outside of the confines of race. Ironically, my race had bought me that experience.
And as I spent hours and hours on that set, talking with the cast and crew, my thoughts on being The Asian-American Actor began to change.
A recurring conversation that popped up between takes was how hard it was to get well-paying and consistent work in the area. Everybody was hustling, everybody was taking out-of-town jobs. At some point, I complained that in the last year or so I’d only gotten offers for acting that involved my Asianness.
“But you’re working,” one of my fellow actors pointed out.
“Yes, but it’s not how I want it to be.”
“OK,” she said, “But you’re getting on the stage, in front of the camera. Who cares if being the ‘token Asian’ is doing that for you? Are you getting offensive parts?”
“Then use what you’ve got to do what you want.”
That’s when things became very clear to me. I was complaining about getting work. I was getting all bent out of shape because I was only getting work “as an Asian-American.” Well, guess what Louise?
1. YOU ARE ASIAN-AMERICAN.
2. YOU ARE A WORKING ACTOR.
Literally, two people in St. Louis could say that at the time, and relatively speaking not a whole lot more Asian-American actors in New York or L.A. could.
Somehow, being Asian-American in St. Louis at the right time and the right place opened doors for me. Debbie Cho opened doors for me. She may have shoved me kicking and screaming through those doors, but they opened all the same.
After we wrapped, I went on to do more industrials ― all as Asian-American characters who were doctors, lawyers and trustworthy business professionals. I did a couple commercials. My life between undergrad and graduate school was largely paid for by Debbie Cho-style acting gigs. None of them were glamorous, but all of them were solid, respectable jobs that made my life possible.
I thought about Debbie Cho a lot during those years. She taught me to bust my ass not just for myself but for the team; she taught me to accept the advantages that come my way even if they weren’t what I envisioned; she taught me to be a professional and not stay up all night then show up to work the next day and nod off when the CEO is on-set and the monitor is on me, causing the makeup woman to come over and pretend to fix my face while whispering in my ear, “Girl, all eyes are you, get it together.”
And while Debbie Cho would probably roll her eyes at this ― she was a no-nonsense business professional who took things from “good to excellent,” after all ― she made me see being The Asian-American Actor in a different way.
Before Debbie, I didn’t see why race had to matter. Why couldn’t we all be seen as the same and be equally considered for all the parts?
It’s like I’d never lived in America before.
But I came to Debbie Cho because of my race. I came to Carmen Chang because of my race. I came to Toyo and Lisa Tang and Unnamed Chinese Woman Buying Flowers because of my race. Not all of those roles were big or important ― though a couple actually did say something important about being Asian in America ― but they got an Asian-American woman in front of people’s eyes.
In a community that was pretty much all-white, it mattered that there were Asian-American and Black American and Latinx-American actors squeezing our way onto stages and screens. Getting non-white characters in front of people, in roles that were specific to non-white people mattered. Our representation, even a small role in a grocery store commercial (yep, did one of those) mattered.
I’m not saying that Debbie Cho is on par with Jessica Huang in “Fresh Off the Boat” or Rose Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” but who is to say that in some small way Debbie or Carmen or Toyo didn’t pave the way, at least a little bit? Maybe we changed someone’s mind along the way?
I guess what it all comes down to is that Debbie Cho made me want to be seen as an Asian-American woman. Fighting who I was, who I am, did me no service. It’s not easy, and we still have a long way to go, but to this day I’ve found the most success and creative gratification when I lean into the truth of who I am.
Even more so, Debbie Cho was a wake-up call for me that Asian and Asian-American representation matters in media. I probably wouldn’t have gone through my whole “Debbie Cho Existential Crisis” if I had seen Asian-American people fairly represented in film and television as I was growing up.
I sincerely hope that one day all the young, neurotic Asian-American and Pacific Islander movie star wannabes won’t have to fret over how to “handle” their ethnicity the way I did; that they’ll be able to look to stars they grew up with that look like them.
Often I admit I still feel the old pangs of “Why does it have to be about my race?!” Still, I’d rather take the good things that come with being Asian-American and use them to create some sort of positive momentum rather than avoid them, and my Asianness, in a futile attempt to be someone else.
I have being Debbie Cho to thank for that.