Seeing someone who looks like you reflected in popular culture is a powerful thing. It can make you feel less alone, push your horizons, expand the landscape of your hopes and dreams–or all three. In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, this May we asked Ad Council employees who identify as Asian to answer the question, “Who was the first Asian-American author, journalist, filmmaker, etc. who’s work you read or watched? How did it impact you?” Check out their answers below!
Shirley Yeung, Director, PR & Social Media
Although I was born in NYC, English was not my first language. My parents are immigrants from Hong Kong, so I grew up speaking Cantonese and mostly watching TVB dramas and Stephen Chow movies. The few opportunities I had to watch American TV shows (like re-runs of Three’s Company), I never saw a face that looked like mine or understood the jokes but somehow knew, even at four-years-old, that I would just have to go along with it (like laughing when the laugh tracked cued me). It wasn’t until I saw Connie Chung anchoring the news that I found a familiar face. Even though I didn’t understand the stories that she was reporting on, it was comforting to see someone who looked like my mom and aunts on American TV. It wasn’t until much later that I learned Connie Chung was the first Asian and the second woman to anchor one of America’s major network newscasts.
Rachelle Reeder, Director, Strategy & Evaluation
As a half-Japanese, half-white kid going to a very white elementary school, I was always searching for Asian Americans in pop culture. I wanted to ice skate simply because of Kristi Yamaguchi. And when I learned Keanu Reeves is a quarter Asian, I claimed him too. When I found the writing of Amy Tan, I was an easily-made fan. Even though the subject matter was a little adult for me at the time, I devoured the Joy Luck Club and Bonesetter’s Daughter. I read and re-read The Joy Luck Club in particular, and when I found out the book was popular enough to also be a movie, I begged my mom to see it (but it’s rated R, so that was a hard no). Amy Tan showed me that stories about Asian American women could appeal to everyone – not just other Asian Americans. I still credit her with being the first mainstream artist to show me that.
Catherine Chao, Director, Strategy & Evaluation
In 1993, the film Joy Luck Club (based on the novel by Amy Tan) came out. It was the first time I saw Asian American actors and stories represented in richly complex and nuanced ways, which was contrary to the stereotypical representations in media at the time. While there were many beautiful explorations in the film, I particularly was drawn to the characters who struggled with their identity growing up in American culture. I grew up trying to find my place between two cultures, as many children of immigrants do. But seeing these stories play out on the big screen helped me feel more connected to those with shared experiences and understand the importance of having diverse stories told.
Ariba Jahan, Director, Innovation Digital Product Management
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I was that six-year-old girl wrapped up in my mom’s sari practicing Bollywood choreography, but I stopped when I was old enough to feel exhausted by Bollywood’s strong preference for casting lighter skinned actresses and the media’s preference to only highlight them. This color obsession goes beyond Bollywood, it extends to growth in every industry, our cultural norms where lighter skin tone equals beauty and influences the opportunities made accessible (especially overseas). Even after opting out of Bollywood, I couldn’t relate to anyone on FRIENDS, Sex and the City, E.R and definitely didn’t love watching Desi actors casted for the comedic relief of an accent.
The first time I saw Mindy Kaling on a prime time TV show as a lead, without her character or voiced defined by her ethnicity (aka the Indian girl on the show), I was like “F*** YES, here we are.” Now we have women like Priyanka Chopra (actress), Lilly Singh (social influencer, author, TV show host), Padma Lakshmi (Top Chef host), Rupi Kaur (poet), Ayush Kerjiwal (designer), and so many more stepping into their power, without being commoditized by their ethnicity nor limited by skin color. I’d love to see more of this acceptance of all colors and all genders in our culture.
Naomi Woolfenden, Assistant Manager, PR & Social Media
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As a half-Japanese tomboy enthralled by ice hockey, I can remember Asian-American role models being few and far between growing up. Seeing professional ice hockey players Paul Kariya and Julie Chu on television for the first time are moments that stand out. Aside from that, reading the work of journalist and author Mary H.K. Choi for the first time was a revelation. I read her New York Times letter of recommendation for LaCroix in 2015 and was floored by how funny it was. Not until after finishing the article did I notice her name in the byline. More than any writer I had read before, her words were quick, snappy and unapologetic.