Mindy Kaling, Daniel Wu, Margaret Cho, Daniel Dae Kim and more open up about the Asian American experience: 'This country has a lot to unpack'

·7 min read

Good Trouble actress and comedian Sherry Cola, who was born in Shanghai and came to the United States at 4, has always felt pressured to tone down her heritage.

"My name on the roll sheets in class was my Chinese name, you know. And my parents gave me my American name, Sherry, so when the teacher would call roll in class, they'd say my Chinese name or really butcher the pronunciation, and I'd say, 'Oh, call me Sherry,'" Cola told Yahoo Entertainment. "So already, from Day One, we're kind of masking our identity to conform to America, which is just so interesting, right? The idea of an American name. My American name should be my Asian name, because that is my name."

Cola is one of more than a dozen Asian American celebrities and creators who spoke to Yahoo Entertainment about their experiences feeling misunderstood or targeted by outright racism, as well as their hopes for the future, in time to mark Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Their words come amid a surge of hate crimes against their community.

As Be Water director Bao Nguyen put it, "Attitudes have to change. People's perceptions of our community have to change. The laws have to change. Everyone, in a way, is on the front lines, pointing out microaggressions, pointing out stereotypes that are negative. I think we all sort of have a voice in that."

Data collected by CSUB show a spike in Asian hate crime incidents from 2019 to 2020. (CSUB)
Data collected by CSUB show a spike in Asian hate crime incidents from 2019 to 2020. (Source: Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism)

The story of how we got here begins with actor George Takei, best known for portraying Sulu on Star Trek, who explained how he witnessed firsthand the country's hostility toward Asian Americans extending back generations. As Takei wrote in his 2019 memoir, They Called Us Enemy, his Japanese American family members were among more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry — most of them American citizens — forced into internment camps following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The United States suspected that they would aid Japan.

GEORGE TAKEI: At 5 years old, I was categorized as "enemy alien." It was absolutely insane. I mean, young Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, who rushed to the recruitment centers to volunteer to serve in the military were categorized as enemy aliens, simply because we looked like this. We looked like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. My mother was born in Sacramento. My father was a San Franciscan. How can they call us alien?

Flash forward more than 60 years, and Asian Americans continued to face discrimination and racism. During President Trump's administration, he openly placed the blame for the spread of COVID-19 on Asians, referring to the coronavirus as the "Chinese virus" and "kung flu." That rhetoric "likely perpetuated racist attitudes," according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in March. The celebs we spoke with were not surprised by the alarming increase in 2020 — 145 percent compared to the previous year, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, Bakersfield — but rather disheartened. The March 16 shootings at Atlanta spas, which left eight dead and has been labeled a hate crime by the prosecutor, were particularly tough.

JAMIE CHUNG, actress (Lovecraft Country): When the administration started to spew rhetoric, I knew violence was going to come.

LEWIS TAN, actor (Mortal Kombat): I hate to say that it's nothing new, but it's nothing new. So when I saw [the violence], obviously it's horrible, and it makes me angry and breaks my heart, and it hurts to look at, because you immediately connect it to your family....

MARGARET CHO, comedian: There's this idea that we somehow are a good scapegoat when negative things are happening in this country and, therefore, like, we’re not allowed to suffer with other Americans. We suffer because we're not American enough, or there's a value put on American-ness that we're somehow not privy to.

DANIEL WU, actor (Into the Badlands): I was doing distance learning with my daughter, and I was sitting next to her, and they were in their music class, and they were singing "This Land Is Your Land," right? "This land is made for you and me." And I, like, almost lost it there, because I was listening to the words, thinking in my head, "This is not true. This song is not true. It's not made for everybody. Look what's happening right now." And the sort of bitterness of that song hit me really hard, and I had to kind of step away, because I was like… you know, I'm like crying here. This country has a lot to unpack before we get on the right road, you know?

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Interviewees agreed that the way the AAPI community is portrayed in movies and TV shows can affect the way they're perceived. But a study that USC Annenberg's Inclusion Initiative released this month documented that onscreen representation is seriously lacking. Researchers found — among other dismal facts and figures — that Asians and Pacific Islanders are left out altogether of most films. Of the 1,300 top films from 2007 to 2019 researchers examined, just 5.9 percent featured characters of that background.

(Image: Annenberg Inclusion Initiative)
(Source: Annenberg Inclusion Initiative)
(Image: Annenberg Inclusion Initiative)
(Image: Annenberg Inclusion Initiative)

Worse, just 44 total of the films had those actors in what researchers deemed a "lead" or "co-lead" role. Researchers took a closer look at the type of characters those actors portrayed — with terrible results.

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JEANNIE MAI, TV host (The Real): When I was growing up, I had Jackie Chan and Connie Chung, and that's about it.

TAN: I think that it does make a difference, in regards to the way that you're seen on screen because the more that we open up doors and share our stories with people and people are familiar with seeing Asian faces in a cool way and in a culturally positive way. ... I think that it will eventually help.

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Adele Lim, the Malaysian American woman who wrote the 2018 hit movie Crazy Rich Asians, based on the Kevin Kwan novel, worked on one of the few films heavy on Asian representation. She explained to Yahoo Entertainment in 2019 that the job came with a lot of stress, although the movie ended up being a hit.

ADELE LIM: When the movie was green-lit, everyone kept coming up to me saying, "You must be so excited to be able to shoot in your home country, to tell the story," and I was, but really all I felt was the pressure. And just before it came out, I remember just thinking, "Just let it not tank, let it please not tank.' But when it came out, we had such a groundswell of support from, you know, the community, from Asian Americans at large and really from all audiences. So, to this day, I'm still blown away. I can't believe any of this is happening.

Still, Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu pointed out that change is made through small actions, with one big box office draw.

JON M. CHU: It's not the sexy, big movie that's gonna change things. It's not Crazy Rich Asians, sorry. It's a nice headline, I love that. I love it, but it's not that. It's literally, you know, when my friend texts me, like, "Hey, I want to fix this. Tell me the place to donate that will make this better." And I'm like, "Bro, you've made fun of Asians since we were 3 years old ... and I would laugh along. So I think it's those, like, difficult conversations that no one is going to see, no one's going to applaud. You just do it, and you move on with your life. It's uncomfortable … [but] I do believe that those little differences are the only way forward.

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In an effort to help the country do that, Congress has passed and President Biden has signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which was pitched as a way to help communities and law enforcement to deal with these incidents. Lost actor Daniel Dae Kim was an instrumental advocate for the legislation at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the subject in March.

DANIEL DAE KIM [testimony]: What happens right now and over the course of the coming months will send a message for generations to come as to whether we matter; whether the country we call home chooses to erase us or include us, dismiss us or respect us, invisibilize us or see us.

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Meanwhile, change is happening — albeit slowly.

MINDY KALING, actress and producer (Never Have I Ever): When I was growing up, I was the child of Indian immigrants. I kind of think that there was this idea that it's like, "OK, keep your head down. Don't make a big stir. Don't make a big fuss about things," and now, seeing young Asian American people, particularly young Asian American women, using their platforms to show when there's, like, injustice or ways that we can help, I've just been very inspired.

CHUNG: We're looking for long-term change. We're looking for policies to be really harsh on hate crimes. There's still so much work to be done, but we're in a phase where we need to keep this conversation going and talk less about awareness and more about long-term goals.

DAVE BAUTISTA, actor (Guardians of the Galaxy): The people that are hateful, and the people that express bigotry, they're just loud and they're aggressive. We're just not going to let you be louder than us anymore. It's just that we're tired of hearing from you. So we're going to be louder than you, and you're going to realize that there's more of us than there are of you.

— Video produced by Jon San and edited by John Santo

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