High Maintenance.

bmd

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.

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Happy

sunnybunny
Today is my son’s first birthday. Hard to believe it’s already been a year since I became a portal to the world. I’m still amazed at how much we – or I guess, really, I – take for granted…What women go through as mothers.  What parents experience and sacrifice.  And more generally, the hardships people go through that are sometimes too much to share.  In a world where it’s a favorite pastime to complain about slow internet service or bad coffee and publicize it on the internets as though it was somehow newsworthy or meaningful to anyone, when you don’t complain or express your pains, aches, and sorrows, I think we tend to assume you’re moving through life just as mindlessly as we are.  I realize just how profoundly foolish I’ve been.  Thanks, Life, for reminding me of this.  Yet again.

This past week prior to my celebrating one year of keeping another human being alive, we’ve been dealing with a lot of death.  Our sweet dog, Sunny, had a growth in her left lung which didn’t seem to bother her much until a couple months ago.  She is actually so sweet, I wanted to name her Sweetie when we adopted her.  But we agreed it might reveal too much sappiness and sentiment to be heard calling out “Sweetie” in public.  My second choice was my favorite name, “Bud,” but that seemed a bit too masculine for our sweet bitch.  Sunny (often presumed to be “Sonny”) seemed just right.

On Monday, Sunny had a difficult time breathing and we had a difficult time watching her struggle.  On Tuesday, I took her to the vet.  Actually, I tried to take her to the vet.  I strapped the baby on, had the leash in one hand and an umbrella in the other, and made it about halfway through the park on our way to the neighborhood clinic when she decided she couldn’t go any further.  If I could, I would have sat right down beside her and waited as long as she wanted.  But it was raining.  Great thing about dogs is they’re always happy to see you and they love you just because, and they never complain about anything.  But I know Sunny hates the rain.  And I didn’t have her yellow slicker on her.  I was determined not to let her stand in the rain if this was going to be her last day on earth.

After some phone calls along with some begging and pleading, the clinic finally sent someone to help.  He stayed with our dog while I ran back with the baby to get the car.  He felt that Sunny was in no shape to be carried.  After a couple hours at the vet, my husband left work to meet us there.  It’s not easy saying goodbye.  And she was really our first baby.  If you’ve ever had to put a pet to sleep, you know how much that sucks.  I’m tired of saying goodbye.  I couldn’t go through that again.  And I had to take our human baby back home to eat and sleep, so my husband served as the portal this time and shepherded our sweet Sunny back out of the world.

Wednesday, we packed up the car and the baby and headed south to Virginia for my father-in-law’s 80th birthday.  A lot of Leos in the family.  Just a few months ago, we were planning on throwing him a big blowout to celebrate this great milestone.  But plans changed.  We discovered that my father-in-law had been diagnosed with cancer two years ago but he did not share this information until he couldn’t hide it anymore.  He went through chemo and then dialysis and has decided he’s over the accommodations at the hospital.  We got the official word yesterday that there’s nothing more the doctors can do.  It’s time to go home.  We celebrated his birthday with immediate family, an ice cream cake, and an unlit candle.  No open flames near oxygen tanks, of course.  Happy Birthday, Pa P.

On our drive back home late last night, another soul I would have named Sweetie, my cousin – more appropriately named Grace – texted me as she has been, checking in on how my husband’s father is doing.  She’s much younger than I am and an only child.  My brother and I used to change her diapers.  She moved back east from LA to help out her parents.  My aunt is in the hospital up in Boston also fighting cancer with chemo.  Grace has accompanied her mom to every doctor and hospital visit acting as dutiful daughter and translator and primary caregiver and all the roles no young woman should have to shoulder alone.  She sends my kid birthday gifts and wants to make sure I’m okay and offers relentless positivity and optimism when I’ve found myself having none.  Grace, indeed.

There’s a lot of other stupid crap on top of this mountain of crap.  And I’d be lying if I said I’m handling it well.  I try my best to lean on gratitude and recognize that so many people bear a much heavier burden.  I’m not dodging bombs hoping I make it back alive when I walk to the store for eggs.  I’m not trying to figure out where to sleep after a natural disaster has taken my family and home.  I’m not in a prison camp sifting through feces for bits of food being forced to watch loved ones get executed.

And in the midst of all this bullshit, I have this tiny person next to me who smiles and laughs and sticks his toes up his nose with glee. I have friends and family – not many – but they leave me messages or call or send texts and remind me that I’m not floating around in space untethered or drowning in an ocean of doom.  I don’t know why but for some reason just knowing someone sort of gives a shit gives you just enough air to keep trying.  I will be sure to pay it forward.

I think going through any one of these things is unpleasant and stressful.  Going through all of these things at the same time while trying to raise a baby in NYC living as an artist?  I’m not sure I’m capable enough or as strong or as smart as I thought.  No, I am sure.  I’m not.  I miss the days when my biggest dilemmas and complaints were bad coffee and what to wear.  But these days, it’s amazing how much happiness you can glean from someone holding the door or just time spent with a friend or watching a little human discover what it’s like to hold a soft teddy bear for the very first time.  It’s hard to believe there was a time I actually cried every day for two months straight because I couldn’t believe how happy and lucky I felt.  I know I am lucky still.  I can walk.  I can communicate.  I have a bed to sleep in and food to eat.  I’m just really tired.  And I feel really sad.

Dear Life,

You’ve beaten me down.  You’ve made your point.  I get it.  You’re hard.  And you will go on with or without us.  I don’t take you for granted.  I hope to have more compassion for others and never assume someone is not struggling or in pain.  I’m really tired of witnessing suffering.  I’m not cut out for feelings and emotions.  I hope I don’t need any more reminders of what’s really important and what happiness really is.  You win.  I lose.  And thank you for my kid.  Because without him, I couldn’t do any of this.

Liu-Yeleavemeinthedark

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

 

Racism, Sexism, and Hannibal: Eat The Rude

headshotimdb_
I’m an American actress and I play Beverly Katz on NBC’s HANNIBAL created by Bryan Fuller. (Spoiler Alert coming right now!!!) And she dies in episode 4 of Season 2. That episode got a lot of positive reviews, but it also incited an on-line storm of vitriol directed to Fuller himself for killing off Katz, or more specifically, for being racist and sexist. I caught wind of this myself via Twitter from our beloved Fannibals. And I thought maybe it’d be productive to talk about rather than ignore it.

Fuller cast me in a role that I didn’t think I had a chance in hell of getting. I rarely if ever see minorities, women, minority women, let alone Asian women, get to play characters like Beverly Katz. I rarely if ever see characters like Beverly Katz period. And her last name is Katz for Christ’s sake. Pretty open-minded, non-racist, pro-feminine writing and casting in my opinion.
As far as “fridging” (killing her off for the sake of advancing the plot or creating “manpain”)… HANNIBAL is based on the Thomas Harris novels and it centers on the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham – two dudes, so that’s where the focus will be and will likely remain. (My guess is that now that their relationship has been well established, there will be opportunity to further develop female characters. One can hope.)
With good writing, every event happens in order to advance the plot and raise the stakes for the characters in the story, so I’m not sure how any character getting killed off is a bad or avoidable thing, especially on a show about a guy who eats people.
Yes, Fuller could’ve kept me on for longer and if he had, my character would’ve probably remained in the background processing crime scenes regurgitating technical exposition. Instead – albeit not for very long – he wrote enough for Katz to make people get to know her a little better, actually identify with her, and like her enough to care when she gets killed. If people can identify with this character regardless of the color of her skin, or like her regardless of her sex without her having to play the qualities we usually see chicks play, then that’s a good thing in my opinion. If you are upset about not believing Katz would be so careless, I agree, though part of the fun of the show is its homage to the horror genre. And finding the writing unrealistic may not be enough damning evidence of racism or sexism.
And let’s take Bella Crawford. She’s a great presence in the story as Jack’s wife despite being a peripheral character, played beautifully and poignantly with great strength by Gina Torres in some of the most moving scenes of the series. Her storyline and possible demise ain’t cheap either. (And she landed a nice solid slap to Hannibal’s mug.)

In addition, what you may not know is that, though Fuller is the creator/writer, supremely respected and highly regarded, there are many other cooks in this kitchen, AKA the producers. Even though Bryan crafted Katz’s death from the get-go for the sake of storytelling – not to gleefully off a minority female – he wanted me to stay on for longer. I wanted to stay on for longer. But we’re not the only ones who have a say about that. And with the other actresses on the show who have left or may be leaving soon, they have other commitments to other projects, so scheduling and availability are other major factors. And don’t forget about the constraints of Father Time and the Almighty Budget. (You’d be shocked to know how amazing this show looks for how little money they put into it.)

Believe me, I would’ve preferred having Katz go down with a fight, but when I brought it up, I was told there was concern around showing Hannibal beating up a woman. I can see why they would be concerned. They were being sensitive not to overdo the violence against women in a story that inherently deals with violence. On the other hand, I also felt like that was sort of akin to relegating a female cop to a desk job rather than sending her out into the field. Isn’t that sort of perpetuating the notion that women are the weaker sex? So I suggested to a couple producers that they mitigate their concerns by having Katz get a good solid shot at him before dying, maybe a kick in the balls or wounding him somehow. But then that poses more issues and problems with maintaining integrity and making sure Hannibal doesn’t get caught too soon, which of course can’t happen, otherwise there’s no show. To be fair, I don’t believe they didn’t listen to me because I’m an Asian or a female. I think they didn’t listen to me because I’m an actor.

Having said all that, I don’t for one second discount or dismiss people’s upset or frustration. There’s a lot of pain out there. First of all, dealing with death, particularly of someone you know (or feel like you know in this instance), is difficult. That’s why we love great TV shows and film and theater and art. We can actually feel our emotions, laugh, cry, and feel connected to one another, right? Secondly, dealing with racism or sexism sucks. I’ve come face-to-face with my fair share of racism AND sexism, especially in this industry. It’s disgusting. It’s humiliating, infuriating, deeply disappointing, and it fucking hurts. When you feel marginalized by the world at large, there’s great comfort and empowerment in seeing someone you can identify with on the screen who isn’t subject to clichés or stereotypes. When that gets taken away, you can feel like you’ve been fucked over once again. And unless you’ve ever been hurt merely due to the color of your skin, what’s between your legs, or who sleeps next to you at night, you probably don’t understand that kind of pain. And anger is usually our first defense against pain. And these are things you can’t physically touch or pin down or throw away or kick the shit out of, arrest and put in jail, so when any form of it might be tangible – like the white, male writer/creator of HANNIBAL – he will become the unfortunate punching bag for a lot of people’s pain.

And if you are one of those people doing the punching, I ask you to consider this: What if he’s on our side? Don’t forget this is network television, not cable. In order to sell those advertising dollars and survive, they want to appeal to the masses of Middle America. Fuller didn’t have to have any women on the show. He didn’t have to have any strong women on the show. He didn’t have to have any diversity on the show. And HANNIBAL is trying to change the antiquated model of television programming, and they’re doing it. Yes, prominent women and diversity should be a bare minimum for all shows, I agree. But one person can’t change the entire industry or the establishment overnight. Certainly there are plenty of white male writers who may have their own agendas, or may not even realize the frame through which they view the world is biased. But I wouldn’t underestimate Bryan Fuller. His entire body of work alone shows that he’s far from ignorant. And I understand some people were upset with his AV Club interview regarding that episode, but don’t mistake his passion for the creative process of writing fiction with any lack of compassion he has in real life.

Now I’m definitely not suggesting any of these issues get dismissed or that anyone should be silenced, or even that Fuller isn’t secretly the most intelligent psychopath of all. I actually don’t really know. But no one of us can change the world or the industry and eradicate racism, sexism, or homophobia alone. And while I don’t think anyone honestly believes a TV show bears the burden of social justice, I do think audiences appreciate seeing a realistic representation of the population. And it is becoming more and more obvious that it’s economically viable and necessary to do so. It’s vitally important to speak your truth, voice your opinions, express your concerns and upset, and more importantly support and praise the things you like and love. And the people who are the decision makers – the network, producers, writers – they will be forced to listen. And if you’re loud enough, they will hear you, and things will change. Though it’s always more effective to do so without getting nasty or disrespectful about it because that only pushes people further away. I’m not sure the people who are directing their anger at Fuller or HANNIBAL aren’t really angry at the old-fashioned ideas cultivated by our society about women and people of color. Let’s talk about it with civility and dignity. I don’t see how attacking anyone to the point where nobody wants to listen to any possibly valid points you’re making is going to lead to any solutions. And at least for me, I just end up feeling even worse.

I’d rather focus on the positive stuff. I got to play this amazing woman who didn’t have to sleep with anyone (not that I would have minded) or act dumb and girlie or fawn all over some guy or be a conniving bitch to get people to notice or respect me, and she didn’t speak broken English or karate chop anyone (not that I would have minded). Nobody called her “dragon lady” or “exotic.” She could shoot a gun and drive that FBI SUV like a champ. And all with the extra added bonus of being Jewish. And when I get messages and thank yous from viewers who dig that or are inspired by that, well, that’s what makes any of this worthwhile or mean anything to me. So thank you for that. I love Beverly Katz. And I loved playing her.

I tend to be forgiving of human imperfection as well as give people the benefit of the doubt. I believe in Bryan Fuller. I believe he’s on our side. And I think it’s pretty awesome that the people who watch HANNIBAL are invested and passionate and intelligent enough to bring these issues to light and make some noise. Maybe this was his design all along. You never know.
PS…I don’t wish to become the target of the vitriol, but I’m probably more guilty of racism and sexism than HANNIBAL or Bryan Fuller. I admit I unabashedly tried to point my ass towards the camera every chance I could get, and I begged them to turn me into an eggroll. Neither attempts were successful.
#GirlPower #YellowFever #RIPBevKatz #FANNIBALSruletheworld #EmbraceYourStrengthsLaughatEachOthersWeaknesses