I didn’t fully come to terms with my own racial identity until I was 13 or 14. I think for most of my childhood I subconsciously saw myself as white. When people talked about being proud of their ethnicity I never fully understood. To me it was just something I’d been born into and wasn’t something to be especially proud or ashamed of. It was a fact of life, just like having brown eyes or being tall. Why would I be proud of something I had no control of?
I am more white passing than a lot of White-Asians (Wasians) that I know, but I also realised I didn’t look like a lot of people I saw in films or television. This never particularly bothered me; I saw Lucy Liu in 2000’s Charlie’s Angels and Jackie Chan in his various martial arts films but saw them as different from me. Not just because they were Chinese but also because they weren’t relatable to me in the way my favourite book characters (Lyra from His Dark Materials and Nory from The Everlasting Story of Nory) were. On some level I knew they were caricatures but I figured that was how film characters worked. Even in High School when talk of diversity and representation in media really started to take off, I took no notice. Maybe this is self centred but it didn’t really interest me because I could always relate easily to characters who looked nothing like me, so I figured it was the same for everyone.
It wasn’t until I was sixteen or so and I had discovered the presenter, model, designer and all around icon Alexa Chung that I began to actively seek representation and feel genuine joy whenever I found Wasians in popular media. Even though Alexa Chung doesn’t look especially Asian, and she’s mixed Chinese not Korean, I was thrilled to find that someone as gorgeous, funny, genuine and all around cool as her could be Wasian. She encapsulated everything I saw so commonly in people that didn’t look like me and I was in awe of that. She’d dated men I’d idolised (Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys and Matt Hitt of Drowners) and seeing that filled me with so much joy: The two most attractive men I was aware of had dated someone other than the gorgeous, willowy and white women I assume to be in their company. On some level I realised that while Alexa Chung and I do not look alike, there was proof that Wasians could be desirable and dateable after all.
I know that no matter what ethnicity she happened to be, I’d still be fond of her, but the added fact that we share a similar heritage just exacerbates it. It showed me that it clearly hadn’t held her back and I loved that she never made a big deal of her ethnicity, it just was. When she casually mentioned her Asian heritage in a YouTube video I felt a glow of pride at the throwaway comment like nothing I had ever felt before and replayed the clip three or four times to bask in it.
I had a similar awakening when I saw Henry Golding in Last Christmas. A Wasian actor as the love interest? Great! The fact that they made no mention of him being Wasian? Even better. The casual fact of his mixed identity floored me. I didn’t even watch the film critically as I was so delighted by him being on screen, by his mixed self being funny and charming and all the things a romantic lead should be. It was a pleasant surprise to find we could be all those things on screen and gave me some hope for the future of romance films.
These two incidents made me realise what people had been talking about for ages; that representation is important and that while you can easily relate to characters who don’t look like you, it just feels fantastic to see vaguely familiar features on screen, doing their thing, with nobody drawing attention to their differences.