“I’m the light every night in your world, hey
You revel in the glory of my beauty You ready to watch me be legendary? ’Cause I’m ultraluminary” -Phillipa Soo (“Ultraluminary” from Over the Moon soundtrack)
My 5-year-old daughter is belting these lyrics as I drive her to daycare. I can’t help but sing along, not only because the song is super catchy, but because it’s a song I never would have heard 30 years ago as a child.
A song sung by a powerful (not subservient) Asian woman in a film with an all (super talented) Asian cast. MIND BLOWN.
Maybe I’m a little too excited about this topic, but it’s been a long time coming. Growing up as a shy, half-Korean girl, I never had many idols to look up to. Most of the Asian women in films were damsels in distress (think Miao Yin in Big Trouble in Little China) or they had small parts that didn’t leave much of an impression.
Slowly throughout the ’90s, Asian women started landing breakout roles. Some of my favorites include Tia Carrere in 1992’s Wayne’s World, all the women in 1993’s The Joy Luck Club and of course, 1998’s Mulan. When Margaret Cho’s sitcom All-American Girl debuted in 1994 on ABC, I had never been more excited for a show in my life. It was a Korean family doing a comedy on primetime television!
And then sadly, it only lasted one season.
As the years continued, I got older, and so did the notion of hoping to see more young Asian women in leading roles. Thankfully, Ang Lee’s 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon showcased some badass Asian women kicking butt. I was satisfied, but craved more. Then actresses like Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Mindy Kaling and others started leaving their mark on Hollywood, and films like Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Always Be My Maybe showed that you don’t have to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed popular cheerleader to have an awesome career or get the cute guy.
I was finally happy. Who knew I would soon be ecstatic?
In 2015 I had a beautiful BLUE-EYED baby girl with streaks of blonde in her hair (obviously from her father’s side). I was always proud of my Korean heritage, but here I had a child who barely looked Asian. I worried since my mom was in another state, I wouldn’t be able to properly teach her to appreciate her Korean heritage. She tried kimchi a few times and didn’t really like it (I will never stop trying to get her to eat it) and I couldn’t find anything Asian-related that was engaging or interesting enough for her to catch onto.
Enter 2020, the year of abbreviations — COVID-19, BLM and POTUS. Oh, and TV.
This past year has sucked in so many ways. The pandemic has killed tens of thousands of people; too many black young men and women were killed; and Trump killed my belief in human decency.
But TV in 2020 (actually, the streaming service Netflix) brought to life so many amazing young Asian leading ladies. They’re all so different and unique, yet they embody a tenacity and spirit that I would love my daughter to develop over time.
The first is a throwback to my childhood: The Baby-Sitters Club! Yes, I was one of those young, awkward girls who read Ann M. Martin’s books religiously and LOVED Claudia Kishi, the Japanese-American girl. She didn’t embody the stereotypical middle school Asian girl: she wasn’t super smart and she wasn’t shy, but she was a main character!
I don’t know of many Asian girls who weren’t pressured by their parents to learn piano and study hard. What’s refreshing about Claudia is that she’s not good at math and she doesn’t like studying. She’s into art and is creative and has an awesome sense of style. She embraces her uniqueness and is unapologetic. As a mom, I think that’s pretty cool for a girl to do.
The next film I watched was The Half of It, a coming-of-age dramedy featuring a Chinese-American teenager named Ellie Chu. She does embody a lot of the stereotypical Asian qualities — she’s shy, doesn’t hang out with anyone and gets paid to do other people’s homework. She’s very much a loner.
The best part of this film is the unexpectedness of what happens. When a football player approaches Ellie to write his crush a love letter, she ends up falling in love with the crush. Yes, you read it right: a crush on a girl! It was so cool to see a plot like this because it’s a taboo subject, especially in Asian culture, and most Asians don’t talk about their emotions. We’re taught to be tough and keep them inside because it’s a sign of weakness. Ellie is bursting with emotions and ideas, and she embodies the idea of “it’s what is inside that matters.” As a mom, I strongly believe in this.
I continued my 2020 quarantine binge-watching fest and came across Dash & Lily on Netflix. Japanese-American Lily is an optimistic, holiday-obsessed young girl who is left to fend for herself on Christmas. She soon starts exchanging a red notebook with a cynical young man named Dash, and they fall in love with each other without even meeting.
There is so much to love about this series because Lily isn’t your typical “dream girl” — she’s awkward and funny and weirdly intriguing. She has a childlike mentality and sense of fashion, but she’s mature enough to get in touch with her feelings. For any young girl who ever thought she wasn’t cool enough or pretty enough to find love (cue many Asian girls like me), the series elicits hope and positivity. As a mom, I want my daughter to be hopeful and positive.
We now come to the 2020 film that has inspired me the most as the parent of a mixed Asian girl: Over the Moon. It’s the story of a young Chinese girl named Fei Fei who loses her mother, and when her father wants to remarry, she becomes determined to prove the moon goddess Chang’e is real and he shouldn’t forget his “true” love. The film is beautifully animated and features an all-Asian cast (including Margaret Cho, Sandra Oh and Ken Jeong).
Phillipa Soo (known for her role in broadway’s Hamilton) gives Chang’e some attitude and has an amazing singing voice. She’s not a sweet and kind goddess: she’s an all-powerful being who wants her gift. And she wants it now. Cathy Ang (a Chinese-Filipina actress and singer) gives Fei Fei a good mix of naivety and determination. I mean, she does actually build a rocket to the moon and isn’t afraid to fly it!
I didn’t think I’d get the reaction out of my daughter when we watched it. Usually when I try to tell her about how someone is “Korean like us” or “shares our same heritage” she goes back to chewing her sleeve, but this time she was completely enamored of the film. So much that we watched it again. And again. And watched the videos on YouTube. And listened to the soundtrack on Spotify. She knows how to pronounce their names. She yearns to watch more films like this. As a mom who is proud of her heritage, and who wants her daughter to feel the same, this is all I could hope for.
So, as much as 2020 has been like “Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad YEAR,” it has produced some great young Asian leading ladies. It gives me hope that my daughter will continue to embrace the culture hidden inside her and not be ashamed to shine like the bright star she is.
“I am the brightest star
Superb, spectacular.” -Phillipa Soo (“Ultraluminary” from Over the Moon soundtrack)