I’ve been a fan of the HBO show High Maintenance since their early days as a web series. The show doesn’t subscribe to traditional storytelling but basically paints a series of vignettes riffing on the lives of New Yorkers we meet following a nameless weed delivery guy played by Ben Sinclair. The characters are all over the map from all different walks of life. And the perspective definitely carries a palpable hipster liberal millennial vibe while the tone is mostly comedic sprinkled with moments of drama. As a fellow New Yorker and occasional toker, there’s a lot to like.
The first episode of their second season establishes the backdrop we’re currently living in by casting a light – or shadow, I should say – over this milieu of general outrage, disappointment, and fear as we realize that outside of our cosmopolitan bubble of home brews, artisan coffee, and avocado toast is a world of hate potent enough to elect Trump as our President.
If you didn’t vote for Donald, chances are you believe in things like decency, integrity, journalism, the environment, world peace, human rights, equality…stuff like that. If you did vote for him, well, you’re probably not reading this because I’m an Asian female.
Anyway…as a fan and an actor, I was happy to get cast in their third episode. The material wasn’t a lot, but it was funny. My character was not a main character, but the scene was more or less getting a glimpse of the cracks in the veneer of a seemingly perfect couple. It was enough for me to find it worthwhile and fun.
I watched the episode last night. I woke up this morning feeling annoyed. And then furious. And now instead of playing Uno with my three-year-old, I’m writing this.
Every Asian character in this episode was either a side note or basically background. Including me. Half of the scene I was in got edited out. It could have been to tighten up the footage since an episode can only be so many minutes long or because of sound issues (I do recall the sound guy that day having problems because wardrobe gave me super jingly loud earrings) though 30-40 seconds could have been afforded and there’s always ADR to fix sound problems in post. The bottom line is, all the funny stuff that showed the underpinnings of this perfect couple was nowhere to be seen. Not a huge deal as you watch the show. But here’s why it’s more of a huge deal to me.
I’ve watched many if not all of the episodes of High Maintenance since the beginning and, as I recall, one was a sneaky lying thief – likely inspired by the real life Hipster Grifter – and the others were immigrants who did not speak English. The other three Asians – oh wait, I think there were four. See? Not memorable — in this particular episode are all roommates who don’t communicate with each other resulting in the weed guy having been there three times in the same day. It’s not funny. It’s not dramatic. It’s…uninspired. The only attempt at making any of them remotely interesting was showing one as a crazy skinny dude tickling a girl, who was watching some virtual reality, with a feather. And she does not utter a single word.
I’m not sure what’s more infuriating. Traditional network television that casts a handful of Asians as doctors and immigrants, or shows like High Maintenance or Girls that try so hard to seem cool, young, edgy and hip but are just as exclusionary. Hey guys, there are a ton of Asian Brooklyn hipsters. They’re not all freaks or nerds or sneaky assholes. Just like not all black people are thugs and gangbangers. Just like not all whites are uptight and humorless. Thank you for showing people with less than perfect bodies having hot sex. Thank you for showing lesbians and gays. Thank you for showing women referencing the Women’s March. But I’m really fucking sick of the rest of us being thankful for just being invited to the table. Everyone is clamoring for each guest to be treated equally. To get a chance to eat, so to speak. So where is our plate? And no, I don’t want Chinese food all the time. I’m definitely not saying we should have everyone equally represented at all times in a way that would restrict storytelling. I’m just saying why can’t we depict Asians the way we really are? We’re not all doctors or bodega owners or nerds or side kicks or perfect. There are actually quite a lot of us here. And we’re equally as human, as flawed, as funny, and as interesting as anyone else believe it or not.
Can’t we do better than this?
It’s probably also telling that on that day that I shot this episode, I was mistaken for another actress by one of the producers. He was so complimentary and thankful until as he was gushing, he says, “Oh, I just loved you in—“ and then named a play I never did. He confused me for another Asian actress. I think in the past, I would have graciously saved his embarrassment with a joke or brushed it off to avoid any awkwardness, but this time, I just stood there and let it be awkward and uncomfortable. And he apologized. I mean, I know we tend to all look alike – trust me – I see a tall white guy with glasses and think it’s my husband almost daily. But honestly. It takes 2 seconds to Google on your smart phone. Or maybe don’t gush or pretend to care that much. I know I’m an actor, but I don’t need to be buttered up. If you’re gonna be a show that has this modern, liberal, conscious voice depicting NYC, then please stop perpetuating this narrow view of Asian Americans. I really hope I’m wrong and that we’ll see an Asian with an actual storyline or playing a person with some dimension later on in the season. [And as a side note, this was a great crew of people who were for the most part genuinely happy to be there which made for a positive experience shooting this thing – aside from when a carful of assholes yelled flat-ass Chink at me during lunch, but they were just regular civilian dickheads not at all associated with the show. It’s just the final cut part of this that everyone sees and the tendril-like ramifications on our society that I’m bitching about.]
I don’t enjoy adding my screeching voice to the chorus of others right now but I can only continue participating in this fucked up industry if the unspoken rule of being feared into silence is broken. I don’t want to believe this is always intentional on the part of writers and producers. I know it’s not. But how can you know what you’re doing if you’re not aware of how it’s coming across? How could you possibly be aware or sensitive of issues if nobody ever says anything about it?
It’s hard not to feel as though when we’re all on some sinking ship and someone needs to get kicked off, they throw off the people who make the least noise. Makes sense. Easier to toss aside or dismiss someone who’s quiet than someone who puts up a fight kicking and screaming, right? There was a time I took for granted that anyone even needed to scream. Then I felt too tired to scream. Then I had my son.
I was watching some of the speeches in LA during the recent Women’s March as they were celebrating and emboldening the Me Too and Times Up movements. I listened to Constance Wu express her disdain for the fetishization of Asian women and denouncing inequality. I’m so glad she was up there but to be honest, she lost a little power to her punch for me since she’s most widely known for playing a character who speaks with a thick accent on a show called “Fresh Off the Boat.” A talent like her, she could have easily been the lead on a show that did not have to justify her race. Lucy Liu is doing it on Elementary. The more risks we’re willing to take, the more they’ll see what is possible. There was a time the industry didn’t believe there would be an audience for a female driven show. That certainly has changed (See HBO’s Big Little Lies – but also, zero Asians.) It’s changed for African-Americans. It’s changing for Hispanics. There is certainly room for more. And the change is long overdue for Asians. I mean, c’mon. Can we at least pay the few that we’ve got fairly? (See Grace Park, Daniel Dae Kim, Hawaii Five-0.)
I certainly did not pursue acting to go into politics. I really don’t want to talk about this shit or open up to being attacked, but it’s important and I’m fucking pissed. I want to see more Asians being depicted in non-stereotypical ways IN LARGER ROLES because I want us to stop perpetuating these images, to stop perpetuating the tolerance for treating Asians – or anyone – with anything less than equality and not approach us with preconceived expectations or ideas about who we are. Not all of us keep our heads down and work hard. Some of us are lazy fucktards. Not all of us are cut-throat competitive or meek and submissive. Some of us are interesting and surprising. Some of us are terrible at math. Some of us can even be funny without speaking broken English. There’s a whole range from negative to positive just like everyone else. We may come from a culture steeped in hard work, respect, and reservedness (is that even a real word? See, I’m Asian and I don’t know this) but we can be just as hurt, just as angry, just as dangerous as anyone else. And what we have so far in television is great, but it’s not nearly enough. Why do I care about television? Because for better or worse, that’s where most people go for entertainment, and for some, that is a sizable bulk of their education.
So while we’re all clamoring for equal rights, for equal pay, for women to no longer be depicted as victims or seductresses, for Muslims to no longer be depicted as terrorists, for African Americans to no longer be depicted as drug dealers, for gays to no longer be depicted as flamboyant and wounded, yes, there is all that. But there’s so much more too. Let’s do better. More importantly, let’s do better for all of us.
My son is Korean, Italian, and Dutch. When he was born, his first encounters were three women. An African-American, a Filipino, and a Jew. At three years old, he has friends who are black, yellow, brown, white, gay, lesbian, young, old. He’s smarter than I expected and it’s not because I’m doing any Tiger Mom shit. My husband is probably guiltier of that than I am and he’s Dutch-Italian. I don’t want him to treat or be treated differently because anyone seems different. I try my best to teach him to only treat people differently if they’re rude assholes. So I don’t want to be polite anymore. I don’t want to save you from embarrassment. Certainly, if you’re not going to acknowledge our existence, or attempt to even educate yourself to know what that means or what that might even look like, then I’ll go down kicking and screaming. I think our kids deserve better than that. And God help us if we can’t make everyone feel included so that the temptation to elect someone like Trump never happens again.
Let’s not take anything for granted. Let’s be clear. No means no. I don’t want to see your dick. Two people doing the same job deserve equal pay. Status is not a license to be inhumane. If you want to project a belief, then believe it. Murky waters and disrespect are a breeding ground for evil doers. Let’s do better. Keep screaming.