I am Vietnamese, but I feel Australian. I am Australian, but I feel Vietnamese. I am proud and protective of both cultures. I have no memories of being a refugee. It is a surreal and fascinating part of my identity. I was born at the Pulao Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia, August 15th, 1992. I came to Australia with my parents when I was 14 months old.
Ever since I was a little girl, I have never considered myself different from the other little girls. I haven’t ever felt so different because I grew up in a colourful and multicultural part of Melbourne’s West where white, brown, black and yellow girls were all friends. I thought this was how life worked. You were friends with anyone and everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin. The more mature I have become, the more I have realised that this isn’t how it worked in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, I have always felt a sense of belonging. I have always felt a sense of home. It is this sense strong sense of identity that has given me the fearlessness to pursue my dream of acting.
Being a woman isn’t easy and being a non white woman is another experience in itself. I love the wonderful things that womanhood entails. I really, really do. Yet at the same time, I find it hard to overlook the magnitude of discrimination that can affect Asian women like me. The first time I experienced overt racism was when I was 19. To my horror, a customer told me to speak proper english. She swore, mocked me and said meaningless words in a supposed Chinese accent. It hurt. First of all, I’m not even Chinese. Second of all, I am a university educated and eloquent young woman. Third of all, her abuse was a reflection of her own small mindedness, and it took me a while to forget how hurt and humiliated she made me feel. It is the few experiences like this that motivate me to pursue acting. I am tired of being misunderstood by some and misrepresented by many. Perhaps if ignorant people like this woman saw more interesting and inspiring Asian women in the media, she would be have a more wholesome perception of who we are.
Non white women and Asian women are voiceless and faceless in mainstream media. In rare instances of being seen, Asian women are merely objects used to accessorise and perpetuate ridiculous stereotypes. They are either overly sexualised, work at a nail salons, work at Chinese restaurants or don’t speak english at all. Seriously, we are more than this. Findings from a study by the University of Southern California on diversity in film includes an observation by Nikesh Shukla whose affirmation echoes my sentiments. Nikesh says, “I realized that white people think that people of colour only have ethnic experiences and not universal experiences,”. It seems that white executives are uncomfortable with non stereotypical Asians who are interesting, magnetic and have much more in common with them than they think. The findings itself, analysed international top grossing from 2007 to 2011, concluding that filmmakers have made no progress in portraying people of colour in film. Therefore, I want to act so I can actively liberate women of colour not only from our invisibility but also the the grossly unjustified stereotypes that stigmatise our value as women.
The predominantly white state of film and television contradicts the stark reality of multiculturalism in Australia. The 2011 Census reveals that a quarter of Australia’s population are born overseas and 43.1% of a parent who was born overseas. If women of colour exist, why don’t we see ourselves in the media landscape? Our absence is problematic. Our absence makes me wonder if there is an unintentional or intentional attempt to reduce our significance as women and as human beings. The first black woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress, Viola Davis, exemplifies my ideas in discussion. She said, "It's time for people to see us- people of color — for what we really are: complicated." I sincerely want to believe I am part of a generation of fearless women with complicated, dual identities who yearn to be as visible and as understood in the media, as our white female counterparts.
I want to be an actress to preserve my cultural identity and self worth. I do not carry the belief that the colour of my skin is a limitation to potential to succeed in any area of my life. I want to be an actress to communicate and exhibit the beautifully complicated and diverse stories of Asian women that are never told. For example, my mum lost both her parents by age 12, during the Vietnam War. She was a teacher, she was briefly in prison for attempting to leave the country and spent 5 years at a refugee camp. She is also unbelievably soulful and creative, as she has a beautiful singing voice, draws a lot and is a wonderful, hilarious mother. I have wonderful Asian friends and cousins, who are mothers, sisters, teachers, health practitioners, artists, stylists, lawyers and so much more and again, their stories are never told. You never see an Asian women in film or tv who are memorable. Therefore I want to be an actress so I can empower all the Asian women who have been silenced by the entertainment industry for an awfully long time.
Sometimes my mum would sympathetically remind me, ‘Jill there’s hardly any Asian actors. How can you succeed if there’s no other Asian actresses like you?’ I always say, ‘Mum, that’s why I can’t give up. There needs to be more Asian actresses. I can’t give up and I won’t give up’. More importantly, I believe that being an actress would provide me with the power of art and activism to influence the way Asian women are portrayed. Writer, Jessica Hagedorn reaffirms the inherent misrepresentations, observing that Asian women are unfavourably portrayed and often cast in overtly sexual roles, disposable victim roles or demonised villains. She adds that Western film trivialise and exploit Asian women as people of colour. It’s a joke. I am exhausted by the one dimensional misrepresentations of Asian women in the media.
Strong and beautiful and complex Asian women are invisible in the sphere of entertainment. Growing up, the only two main Asian females who people would constantly compare me to was Lucy Liu and Mulan. One isn’t even real. The mindless comparisons started to make me wonder in my teens, ‘where are all the beautiful asian women that are badass and inspiring and beautiful?’ Being bombarded by predominantly white female role models, really shapes what you consider to be beautiful and superior. The lack of Asian women in the industry highlights problematic exclusivity of the entertainment industry that I didn’t question when I was a little girl. Now that I’m older, I question it all the time. Gina Rodriguez, who is the main star in Jane the Virgin said she didn’t pursue acting to be a millionaire. Instead she stated that, ‘Every role that I’ve chosen has been ones that I think are going to push forward the idea of my culture, of women, of beauty, my idea of liberating young girls, of feeling that they have to look at a specific beauty type. And I wasn’t going to let my introduction to the world be one of a story that I think has been told many times." I strongly support her views and am determined to do the same. As a little girl, it is strange not having a strong and beautiful female role model who shares the same ethnicity as you and as a woman, it still affects you all the same.
There are obviously people in the world I live in who undermine and underestimate women like me, based on the colour of our skin. Nevertheless, the optimist in me truly believes that there are good people who are open minded, supportive and ready for real change to reflect more real women. All I want to see is Asian and coloured women in the media. Actress Viola Davis is obviously one of my heroes because she’s not afraid of who she is. She bravely declared that the only thing that separates women of colour from white women is opportunity. It is that opportunity that I strive for, hope for and live for. I am an Australian Vietnamese woman and I want the world to realise that women of colour deserve the fair, rich and better representation that we truly deserve because we’re human too- incase you forgot.