Once in college, I was asked, "You're Asian, right?"
"Yeah," I replied.
Then, my Vietnamese co-worker retorted, "But you're Filipino. You're not a real Asian." I'm not sure if she was joking or serious.
I kept thinking "What the fuck does she mean by that? Is it because I'm darker than she is? Is it because we don't eat with chopsticks? Is it because we're so Spanish? (Damn you, Magellan!) How am I supposed to be a real Asian?"
It seems as if I'm never Asian enough for East and other Southeast Asians, but I'm also not Asian enough for non-Asians. Growing up a Filipino immigrant in the U.S., I didn't fit in anywhere and apparently no one knew where the Philippines was. "So are you Mexican? You're from Asia? But you speak Spanish." ("No, I don't, bruh.") Even now as an adult, I constantly feel as if I have to explain to non-Filipinos what it means to be Filipino. It's especially a burden when I interact with other Asians. With them, I find myself actually defending my Asian-ness.
So, it's no surprise to me now, as a Filipino actor, that there aren't a lot of Asian roles I truly fit. It's not just because I'm an atypical Asian. There's an appalling lack of variety when it comes to Asian roles that exist in our industry. Most characters for which I end up auditioning are of Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese descent. Every time I audition for one of these characters, I end up feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I want to be cast as something. On the other, I've been reminded repeatedly throughout my life that I'm “not a real Asian” that now I don’t want to play an Asian who isn’t Filipino. Honestly . . . I hate playing other Asians.
"But you're Filipino. You're not a real Asian."
Photo by Human Being Productions
That being said, roles I have had the wonderful opportunity to play include a Chinese teenager, a Chinese woman, a Chinese tourist, a Chinese clubber (are we starting to see a pattern here?), a Japanese courtesan and varying other characters who were "Any Ethnicity". In ten years, I've only ever had the opportunity to audition for three Filipino roles. Just three. Do you want to know how many times I've actually played a Filipino? Zero. Never. Nada. Not ever. What's worse is when I watched the only three Filipino roles I've ever auditioned for go to Asian actresses who were not Filipino. The closest I’ve ever gotten to playing a Filipino character is when I get cast as those damned "Any Ethnicity" roles and it feels a little desperate plugging in my heritage where it isn't required.
It was frustrating growing up Filipino in the States, but it's even more aggravating to be a Filipino pursuing a lucrative acting career. The problem isn't that Filipinos are unlike other Asians or that we’re casting any Asian to play “Any Asian”. The problem is that popular culture is determined to categorize everyone at any cost. "Are you this or that?" If you don't fit all of the preconceived criteria, then you don't fit anywhere. What we fail to realize is that we’ve gotten all the criteria wrong. Identity is complicated and when your identity is as complicated, misunderstood and underrepresented as Filipino identity, checking a simple box like "Asian" or “Other” can feel more overwhelming than it needs to feel.
As an industry, we reflect our culture's need to categorize. We scrap identity altogether and replace it with over-saturated groups for casting purposes. Then, we focus on just a few, call it “diversity” and pat ourselves on the back as if we've done something phenomenal. But we haven't. People don't belong in categories at all, especially not the broad, all-inclusive ones we've created for Asians.
The truth is that we don't make enough concerted efforts to produce work in which communities, like the Filipino community, can represent themselves fully and honestly. When a company does produce something that centers on our culture and heritage, producers and artistic directors don't take the time to cast appropriately or even to search for the right actors. They cast without understanding how rare it is for us to see ourselves reflected in any sort of production and how much we look forward to watching characters who are represented accurately. Those are serious problems.
To put it bluntly: We want you to at least try to get it right. Yes you, executive producers and artistic directors. When you produce anything that features characters of our heritage, then you have a responsibility to us to get it right. Why? Because at the end of the day, it's not the perception of your identity that's on the line - It's ours. What you produce represents (or misrepresents) entire communities, whether you choose to own up to it or not.
If you're going to have the audacity to tell our stories, then you need to have the decency to listen to us and understand who we actually are first. The best way to do that is to include us in the conversation. Make us integral to the pre-production and production processes. Ask us if you actually did get it right and be willing to hear that you didn't. Better yet, commission us to write, direct and produce our own stories. Reach out to us; we're reaching out to you. Yes, representation matters. How we represent matters more.
Perhaps if there were more opportunities to play Filipino characters, I'd feel more excitement when playing ones who weren't. After all, that’s what acting is supposed to be about, right? Portraying someone you're not? Unfortunately, we're not there yet. I am proud of the Filipinos who have begun breaking down some huge barriers. But I'm done trying to feel content every time only one of us succeeds every fifteen years. And I'm done waiting.
We have to go beyond our impulse to label people based on overall look or general origin and strive for something more authentic. This industry has the capacity to reach audiences across borders with whatever content it produces. That sort of reach should not be approached flippantly. We can be so much more than a mere reflection of our culture's gross misperceptions about humanity. So I’m challenging us to be more.
At sa aking kapwa Pilipino: Tell your stories. Keep telling your stories until they listen. Knock down those fucking barriers and show the world what it means to be a Real Asian. Mabuhay at Magmahal!