Unbelonging

Why Does No One Look Like Me?

I consumed all visual American media. I rarely experienced connecting with a version of myself. During my childhood and early adolescence, the only two faces that looked like mine on television were Trini Kwan played by Thuy Trang (the Yellow Power Ranger), and Margaret Cho, from “All American Girl.” I spent my formative years in the Philippines, where my nanny and maids strictly adhered to my mother’s instructions to limit my screen time. Of course, at the time the only screen time available to me was the television, and I was able to watch girls and women who looked like me in shows. When we moved to the United States, my only exposure to people who looked like me was my family. The media I consumed didn’t belong to me, yet it dictated my standards – perceptions of beauty, artifactual communication, and acceptable social norms.

American media has failed to reflect America as an amalgamation of cultures and shades of people. Whenever I saw a black person on TV or in movies, the character was one of two or a few tokens who almost always died. Rare was an almond-eyed, golden-skinned, and raven-haired character who made me feel seen.

When I was 15, I dyed my hair a light caramel and I wore light violet contacts. I wanted to look like my blonde-haired, blue-eyed peers. I didn’t want to stand out anymore. I had constantly been singled out due to my ethnicity and the attention made me anxious. What I would’ve given to have had the option of watching a show like Fresh Off the Boat, Pen15, Kim’s Convenience, or a movie like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Lana Condor leading the cast gives me all the feels.

Exclusion and Erasure

I’m certain that I wouldn’t have been so determined to water down my Filipino identity or to run away from my Asian aesthetics had I been shown that being these things were completely acceptable. Such is the burden of unseen people. Hell, even Nico Santos’ character on Superstore, Mateo Fernando Aquino Liwanag would have made me feel seen. The four-part moniker, the walking pressure cooker of guilt and pursuit of perfection, and his appearance are elements I so deeply connect with and cling to today.

The practically nonexistent Filipinas in media had a direct correlation to my self-worth and self esteem. Who was I? No one who belonged on TV or movies, apparently.

Misinterpretation

Conversely, the lack of representation for Asians in American culture has perpetuated sense of otherism. I’ll never forget the scene in Fresh Off the Boat when Eddie was at lunch during his first day at school and then this happened:

I felt Eddie’s embarrassment when his white classmate called him a racial slur over his food. I had a friend who bashed my mom’s cooking when she came over to our house because it was different. Children’s exposure to other cultures and cuisines would have curbed these unnecessary interactions.

A terrible misinterpretation of culture was brought to my attention regarding a psuedo-Chinese restaurant recently opened by a Caucasian couple, one of whom is a well-known Certified Holistic Health Coach (like myself). Except, I would *never* do this to any culture’s food. Perhaps misinterpretation is too generous a word: these people legit hijacked Chinese food and implied it’s unclean through their emphasis on “clean” ingredients and their cringe-worthy marketing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the marketing campaign for Lucky Lee’s wasn’t racist. The comments on their Instagram page reads like a beckoning for a crisis comms campaign. This is not how to honor a culture outside of your own. The owner is actively deleting comments that clash with her desire to exploit-while-bashing the Chinese culture. This ain’t it, Boo.

What’s one situation or emotions that stands out to you regarding your cultural experience?

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