WHAT NEVER SEEING MYSELF ON SCREEN TAUGHT ME ABOUT MYSELF
Feature photo courtesy of insider.com
Piecing together my identity through my relationship with film and Lady Bird
Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I felt as if I was constantly going back and forth between two worlds. At school, I learned about the American Dream and its exceptional promise of freedom. I snacked on Goldfish and Lunchables. At home, my parents would speak to me in Chinese and expect me to reply in Chinese. They told me that my version of the American dream had to start with me working twice as hard as everyone else. And as I watched Chinese reality TV shows, I snacked on dumplings.
This dichotomy is one that many Asian Americans resonate with, especially those with immigrant parents who came to America not to leave behind their culture, but to embrace it simply in a new context of diversity and opportunity. Yet, for a large part of my life, I was unable to appreciate it. I thought that I had to choose one culture— that is, American culture—to be accepted and “cool.” None of the popular girls in my school were Asian, and there were very few Asian girls in the shows and movies I grew up watching. Thus, I came to the conclusion that I needed to erase or at least tone down as much of my Asian identity as possible.
As part of Gen Z, media has always been a large part of my life. And for a while, the media I consumed left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. I would see characters like Keiko from Gilmore Girls, who were portrayed as quiet, studious, nerdy girls. It seemed that society was telling me how they saw me and who I was supposed to be.
However, as I kept consuming media, I realized that my desire to see my exact story reproduced and represented in popular culture was too idealistic and unrealistic. Especially in the early 2010s of my adolescence, there was simply no room for my story to be told on a big screen. While this was extremely painful to realize, it at the same time fueled something in me. I could take control of my relationship with the media and its effects on my identity. The simplified narrative is that not seeing characters reflective of one’s own experiences can cause doubt, insecurity about the validity of an underrepresented life. But the more dynamic version of the story allows us to have agency over our relationship with popular media. I reframed my perspective, realizing that in not being able to find a singular character to relate to, I could appreciate bits and parts of different characters on-screen and have an even wider scope of relatability, finding similarities in all kinds of characters. The outsider’s perspective is the ultimate lesson in radical empathy. And ultimately, observing other peoples’ experiences on films and TV helped me better understand and explore my girlhood—to help me, an Asian girl coming-of-age in the American suburbs, find myself beyond superficial signals of relatability
The movie that has forever resonated with my identity the most is Lady Bird. Lady Bird is a graduating senior in Sacramento, sick of her town with its monotony and habitual rejection of anyone considered different. While Lady Bird herself is white, like all of the other characters in her town, she experiences her uniqueness through her economic status— namely, growing up poor amongst wealthy private school students. Her pink hair and rebellious attitude further her identity as an outcast and solidify her ultimate goal to escape to NYC, where there is understandably more diversity and, to her, life.
In Lady Bird, I felt moved by how much my experiences paralleled the protagonist’s. Growing up in a suburban town, I, too, was itching to leave, to be able to express myself in ways that weren’t going to be scrutinized by my peers, to not feel like my identity was inferior and wrong. I thought being able to go to a city like New York would help me find more people like me, who, too, felt frustrated with the settings of their upbringings.
While my move to New York proved to help me successfully achieve my goal, Lady Bird taught me more than just escaping the past and subverting conformity: it showed me the magnitude and ambivalence of home. After Lady Bird successfully escapes and moves to NYC, I sat face-to-face with her, tears streaming down both of our cheeks as she called her mom, reminiscing the Sacramento landscapes she would drive by. In this call, I finally woke up to the love I felt for my home. Because while it was the suburban town I grew up in that made me feel like I had to erase my parts of my identity, it at the same time gave me my very identity.
Home was all the things I mentioned: it was creating a wide palate that appreciated both Lunchables and dumplings, it was where I could laugh at Clueless with my friends and the show Happy Camp with my parents. Being able to have the best of two worlds was a unique blessing whether or not I accepted it at the time. Looking back to my roots, as Lady Bird did upon moving to NYC, I am able to appreciate not what turned me away, but what keeps me coming back. And yes, that often takes the form of my parents’ homemade pork dumplings.
The mistake I made was trying to sever the Chinese off of American. My identity as American and Chinese may have been experienced separately, but the way they converged and formed my identity is very much connected.
I am still waiting to see a movie about someone like me, a Chinese-American girl who grew up angstily in the suburbs, blinded to the hybrid culture I had been blessed with, only to realize and truly appreciate it later. Yet, I am no longer relying on such a Hollywood version of that narrative to feel understood. Instead, I have my own story to tell, my own life to cherish.