By Sonia Tam, AsAmNews Staff Writer
Actress Ashley Park, author Abigail Hing Wen, and Blue’s Clues & You host Josh Dela Cruz joined Act To Change’s second annual Youth Rising Conference on Saturday to discuss the importance of AAPI representation, especially for AAPI children.
The conference opened with a discussion with Ashley Park on her roles in Broadway’s Mean Girls and Netflix’s Emily in Paris.
Park reflected on the impacts of growing up with a lack of AAPI representation and being unable to see herself being successful as an Asian American actor.
“I’ve realized that I had always equated success, especially in the industry or just in general, with being White,” she said. “If I could make them forget I was Asian then that was equated with success for me, and so I realize how complicit I’ve been in that sense.”
She added that she grew up watching and having to relate to TV shows that had all-White casts, stating that it was “very moving” for her to be able to portray her character Mindy Chen on Emily in Paris.
“I just know that if I had seen somebody like Mindy, it would have meant the world to me.”
“It’s something that I’m still digesting,” she added. “I never even considered that I would be a Plastic in Mean Girls.”
Park also spoke on her experiences with being bullied and stereotyped throughout high school. She remembered suppressing parts of herself, such as being able to play the piano, in an attempt to combat being stereotyped by her race.
“Even people who don’t think they’re being bullied, you’re bullying yourself half the time, too.”
Josh Dela Cruz and author Abigail Hing Wen joined the conference later in another discussion about AAPI representation.
Wen spoke about her novel Loveboat, Taipei, which tells the story of a Chinese American girl’s self-discovery and connection with her parents’ culture as she goes on a trip to Taiwan. She drew particular attention to the illustration of the main character on the cover of the book.
“It was really important for Harper-Collins to have her on the cover,” Wen said. “It’s not that common to see that.”
Wen also touched on how AAPI representation has grown over the years and how it was important for her to be able to write a novel that centers the Asian American experience.
“I actually didn’t know that I was allowed to write an Asian American character,” Wen said, citing an incident where another Asian American writer was asked to change an Asian American character to a White character before publishing.
Dela Cruz focused on how his role in Blue’s Clues & You has allowed him to embrace his Filipino American identity as an actor.
“I’ve played Asian characters before, but I’ve never played a Filipino, with the exception of one time, and that, again, maybe three or four years ago,” said Dela Cruz.
“I never really saw myself reflected in the media in which I’m working in, or at least in a way that I identified with. There were a lot of foreigners, and there were a lot of caricatures, but never just somebody that was Filipino.”
The conference showed a preview of an episode of Blue’s Clues & You featuring aspects of Dela Cruz’s Filipino culture. In the clip, Dela Cruz is shown greeting his lola and preparing bibingka, a Filipino rice cake.
“I’ve never seen a lola on American television before,” Dela Cruz said.
He expressed optimism about the impact representation can have on young Filipino American children watching the show.
“That is such a special connection that they’re going to be able to share, and not feel so different,” he added. “We all have grandmothers, we just call them different things.”
Wen also connected with the idea of being able to showcase Asian American experiences that can still be relatable to all readers.
“In some ways having an all-Asian cast like that removes the Asian-ness, and suddenly they’re just people, and that was actually something that was important to me, to showcase these characters just as regular human beings,” said Wen.
Both Wen and Dela Cruz expressed hopes that their contributions to creating positive representations of AAPIs can have a hand in inspiring AAPI youth.
“When I did first start to see more people like me appearing in literature, in media, it meant so much to me, and that’s actually what I’m hearing too with Loveboat, Taipei,” Wen said. “I’ve had so many people tell me how the book makes them feel, and for me that is an incredible privilege.”
“The only reason that I thought that I could have any future in theater was because of Lea Salonga, was because I knew that there were Filipino actors and Asian actors working, making a living,” added Dela Cruz.
“I hope that the show, if nothing else, if there’s a kid a home that’s watching that doesn’t see themselves represented onscreen. . . that they continue that childlike wonder of, ‘yeah, I can be a superhero, I can do that, I can do that,’ because I feel a lot of the time we stop ourselves because we’re too afraid.”
The conference also covered topics such as bullying, promoting anti-racism in schools, and youth activism. Other guests included Fresh Off the Boat‘s Hudson Yang and Queer Eye‘s Tan France.
A full recording of the conference is available here.
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