By Julia Tong, AsAmNews Staff Writer
Growing up with a half-Ashkenazi Jewish, half-Japanese American heritage, actor Alex Chester-Iwata had trouble finding a community where she belonged. At the time, her hometown in Orange County, California was predominantly White, and Chester-Iwata was the only Asian—not to mention mixed Asian—person in her school and community.
“I didn’t know any other mixed Asians until my early 20s,” she recalls. “And even then, there wasn’t really that sense of community. We didn’t have the language around it.”
Chester-Iwata only found a group of mixed Asian people she connected with after moving to New York City. Inspired by her experiences, she founded Mixed Asian Media, a digital media outlet that provides space for mixed Asian people to share their experiences and find community.
However, the magazine is not exclusively virtual: on September 16-18, the magazine is bringing together creatives and community for its first in person Mixed Asian Media Fest (MAM Fest). Tickets are available for the festival, which will be held at NYC’s Prime Produce Coop.
As an actor, Chester-Iwata has experienced firsthand how the stories of mixed race people are often ignored. The entertainment industry boxes people into discrete racial classifications. However, this leaves mixed race people, who fall outside of those categories, in a difficult position.
Chester-Iwata notes the vast majority of her roles are racially ambiguous characters with undefined racial backgrounds, rather than her mixed Asian heritage. This invisibility, she says, results in the specific stories and experiences of mixed Asian people being ignored.
“I think we should be able to tell our stories too,” she says. “So I wanted a media outlet where we could do so.”
In 2017, Chester-Iwata gathered a group of close friends and founded Hapa Mag, which would later be renamed Mixed Asian Media. Alongside entertainment and pop culture coverage, the magazine features articles from writers across the entire Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora. Topics range from op-eds on current events or politics, insights on navigating an intersectional identity, and lifestyle tips and recipes.
The goal, Chester-Iwata stresses, is a more complex, nuanced portrayal of the mixed Asian experience. She hopes to “level up” from the typical narrative of belonging to neither culture that is frequently used to describe mixed identity.
“After a while, I was like, ‘Great, okay. But now what? What’s next? Why don’t you belong? How are you fixing that? How are you addressing that? How are you unpacking that trauma? How are you healing from that?’ Those are the top conversations that I want to start to have,” she says.
“I definitely believe there’s a culture to the mixed API perspective, and I think it’s important that we showcase all those stories.”
MAM Fest, which specifically programs work created by mixed Asian creatives, is an especially important in platforming those stories. This year, the festival features screenings of films such as Jessica Henwick’s Bus Girl and Crystal Kwok’s documentary Blurring the Color Line, as well as live performances such as a reading of Scott C. Sickles’s play Marianas Trench. And it provides significant reach to those stories: The first virtual festival in 2021 featured over 100 speakers, 40 films, and 60 exhibitions, and a reach of 1.1 million people.
However, the festival’s importance extends beyond its reach. As Chester-Iwata stresses, the MAM Fest team are “community builders,” bringing together artists, audiences, and allies alike from all backgrounds.
When actor and writer Angela Wong Carbone met Chester-Iwata for the first time, she immediately felt a sense of home. The two instantly connected over their mixed Asian heritage and became close friends. Wong Carbone became involved in Mixed Asian Media, contributing recipes and articles to the site.
MAM Fest, she says, has opened a much-needed space for mixed Asian creatives like her to share their unique stories.
“We are a very excited, boisterous and culturally relevant community, but I think we often don’t get opportunities to stand alone, to really distinguish ourselves,” Wong Carbone says. “And [Chester-Iwata] has really created this festival as a way to spotlight our stories and our experiences, and I feel really grateful that she’s involved me in it.”
In 2021, Wong Carbone submitted the script for an episode of her podcast Minor Legends to the first MAM Fest. She describes the podcast as a mashup of Subtle Asian Traits and Drunk History. The show features 5 friends who discuss the Asian American experience in NYC over a lively dinner, and is filled with bombastic comedy and colorful characters.
Minor Legends won the Best New Media award at the 2021 MAM Fest. Now, this year’s festival features a live recording of an episode of the podcast, which explores the immigration story of Wong Carbone’s Chinese mother. Wong Carbone hopes to continue the success she’s found at the festival as she records the rest of the podcast’s first season this year.
Having a group invested in her journey and narrative gave her a sense of “solace.” Chester-Iwata, too, has found healing from the past traumas of her experience being mixed Asian through Mixed Asian Media.
That sense of inclusivity and community cuts to the heart of what Mixed Asian Media is about, she believes.
“Just having a space where you can just be authentically yourself— without having to code switch, without having to prove your Asianness or prove your whiteness or blackness or whatever your other half is— that in itself is healing,” she says.
“And that’s something that I hope we’re really providing.”
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