This piece, “No Time For Love, Dr. Jones! (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Produced a Reality Show)” was originally written for GeekWeek.com and has been reposted here with permission.
By Mike Le
…And you may think it is a sad thing that most of my life I hated being Asian. But trust me, this is a happy piece: It is apple-green laughter in April clear skies, not the cruelest month, but still mixing memory and desire. It is the scent of home-cooked pho and mint leaves as my mother lingers in the kitchen, sunlit hugs through childhood blinds. It is the sounds of bootlegged Chinese dramas translated into Vietnamese as my parents rooted themselves on the couch while I sprawled on the floor with comic books before me. Sure, some of this is sad, all that stuff about Asian regret, it’s all there coalescing and dancing in the fire place where you can warm your yellow hands against our collective shame and guilt. But in the end, I can’t help but smile because even as long forgotten mortars thumped and helicopters overhead went whoop whoop whoop, my mother continued to dance to the notes of Khanh Ly — a twist, a turn, a flick of her hand — and then we escaped the war in 1975, the Year of the Cat, and found ourselves in the Land of Dreams. Yes, there’s no denying it. This is a happy piece…for it is all true.
The truth comes in a detailed memory of my childhood where there was this piano in my parents’ home in Minnesota, the place we settled in after the war. Like many Asian kids, I was forced to take lessons. I remember one day while I was practicing, the piano was out of tune. Not all of it. Just one of the keys. But just one bad key is all you need to ruin the rest. I was trying to learn Mozart’s “Sonata Alla Turca” but the ping of the out-of-tune E flat kept breaking me out of my concentration. How could I play perfectly when my instrument was not perfect? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he was perfection incarnate. He could have probably made a completely out-of-tune piano sing like heavenly angels. He was a great man. And my parents had hope for me to be like him one day.
In what seemed like her usual Sisyphean way, my mother was in the kitchen cooking (always cooking!), when I informed her about the problem with the out-of-tune piano key. My mother was the most amazing woman I’ve ever met, she passionately multi-tasked as if she invented it. She was the kind of person who didn’t know how to be anybody but herself, no matter the situation given. Nothing tainted her, nothing corrupted her – her soul was so translucent it didn’t know to be colored over time, and that was her endearing charm. Barely looking up from her percolating pot of rice porridge, she screamed for my father who laid down his newspaper and revealed his cherubic face. He instantly came marching in with paper in hand, filling the kitchen doorway with the stoicism of an Edwardian lord. My mother conveyed the situation to him, and he immediately sprang into action: He flipped through the yellow pages and called the piano tuner with the biggest advertisement. They came and fixed it. The piano was perfect again. Perfection was all they expected from me, for they themselves were perfect parents. My Dad was the head supervisor at a metal stamping factory. My Mother was the proud housewife. My Dad made enough money for us to have a perfect house in the middle of the most perfect suburban area, where the grass was green, the skies were blue, and the children played outside. Sometimes when I was in my room drawing, I could hear the children laughing in the distance, and I couldn’t help but to think to myself, “Wow, what a perfect life.” This perfection was important to my parents because it was important how their friends viewed them. They didn’t do anything for their own happiness. They did things to impress others. As long as others thought our family was perfect, then we are perfect. We are happy because we are perfect. We are perfect because we are Asian.
Though I was born in Vietnam, I came to the U.S. when I was just a year old, which means I might as well have been born in America because it was Western culture that I came to fully embrace, a childhood that brimmed with Saturday morning cartoons, THREE’S COMPANY, video game arcades, Albert Brooks on Johnny Carson, STAR WARS, and X-MEN comics. I watched a lot of television and movies, and it was evident to me, even at my young age, there were few people who looked like me in the media. I grew up in a time when David Carradine played an Asian man on TV, Joel Grey played a Chinese master in REMO WILLIAMS, and it wasn’t too long ago when Mickey Rooney buck-toothed his way through an exaggerated Japanese character in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. Every kid wants to be cool. There were no cool Asian people on TV. So why would I want to be Asian?
In grade school, I very much disliked the fobs (Fresh Of the Boats) who obnoxiously played tag in the hallways and brought stinky food from home to the cafeteria for lunch. I was embarrassed, ashamed to be associated with them. I separated myself from all the other Asian kids and hung out with the white kids exclusively. I started to not like my mother’s cooking anymore. I wanted to constantly eat out, consume American food. When eating rice every night, I longed for something as exotic as a Big Mac and fries. This thread continued through high school and college, and my Vietnamese tongue begun to slip as I spoke less of it at home. Once fluent in the language, I was reduced to speaking just the fundamentals. I was happy being the token Asian in my group of white friends, as if hanging with non-Asians was this exclusive club that elevated my status. I also didn’t find Asian girls attractive (more about personality than looks), having dated only white girls up to my late-20’s. Occasionally, my parents would attempt to set me up with a “nice Vietnamese girl” who was the daughter of one of their friends. “She comes from a good family,” they would say. “She is well educated, doesn’t party or drink.” There were plenty of awkward moments of being shoved into a room with said girls, forced to make small talk. But small talk was all I needed to know they weren’t my type: shy, quiet, no knowledge of pop culture, lacked a sense of irony, envisioned only small dreams, etc. Plus, they were very fobby and, like I said, fobs were not my thing because they represented everything I didn’t want to be. For me, there’s only been one cool fob, and that’s Short Round from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. But that was a fantasy, where an Asian kid who was exactly my age at the time, gets to chase after magical stones and defeat secret cults with one of the greatest iconic heroes. That would never really happen. Never in real life would you hear the line, “No time for love, Dr. Jones!” Real Asians just weren’t that cool.
I left home at the age of 24. Threw everything in my car and drove to Los Angeles from Florida (where my family eventually relocated to), intoxicated with dreams of working in entertainment. My parents were always supportive, they believed I had a creative soul and channeling it would be the only way I could find happiness. I was very fortunate, for just a few months into being in Los Angeles I landed a job working for Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson. I went on to sell a few scripts, and then ended up running a famous actor’s production company where we set up film projects at studios, published a bestselling comic book, and produced a TV show. But even years into my Los Angeles experience, I still found myself neurotic about being Asian even though I was surrounded by more of them, or perhaps it was because I was surrounded by more of them. When I would go see movies at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, I would get nervous at large packs of Japanese tourists milling about, taking pictures as they sat next to their favorite star on the Walk Of fame. I intentionally distanced myself from them so that nobody else thought I was part of the tour group. I had a few white friends who wanted to go to an all Asian night at a club because they had yellow fever. The thought of going to an Asian night sounded like my worst nightmare. Aside from pho, I wasn’t even really into Asian types of food.
The turning point came about six years ago, when I was driving home from a night club. It was just past 2 AM. I was in the car by myself, a little buzzed, contemplating life over Radiohead. For no discernable reason, I was ruminating about a particular moment from my college days. My recollections took me back to a math class and the woman who sat next to me. I don’t remember her name but she was older and we never spoke a word to each other all semester. But on the last day of class, she turned to me and said hello. This sparked a conversation that eventually led her to ask me about my ethnicity. I explained to her I am Vietnamese. She nodded and flatly stated, “Oh, I see. My husband fought in Vietnam. He’s in a wheelchair now.” I flinched at first, then stared at her blankly while I searched for the proper response. She realized from the look on my face I was a bit lost, so she quickly chimed in with, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I don’t know why I said that, I just wanted to share.” I asked her what happened to her husband in the war? The woman went on to explain, “My husband was in a platoon, and they were making their way through the jungle. They were ambushed by a group of Viet-Congs. Every soldier in the platoon was killed but my husband, so the VC’s decided to torture him. They cut off his hands and his feet. They tied his hands to his legs, and his feet to his arms and left him there to die. He was eventually found and they miraculously saved his hands. But not his feet.” Her tone dropped a bit and so did her face as she finished recanting the story. I was sat stunned, sharing the heavy silence with her.
Once I found my bearings, I told her that I had never gotten a chance to say thank you to a Vietnam veteran for his service. The woman smiled and said, “If you ever want to speak to my husband, I can make that happen.” Sadly, I never did speak to her husband. The semester ended, and I never saw the woman again, and for some reason it was haunting me that night as I drove home from the club. Weighed down by the burden of my own thoughts, I was stopped at a red light at the corner of Franklin and Highland. Approaching my car through the darkness of the night was a hunched homeless man carrying a cardboard sign that read: “Homeless veteran. Please help.” I rolled down the passenger window and called him over with, “Hey, were you in Nam?” He nodded, and through glazed eyes and a dirty beard he muttered, “Radar operator of the 26th Artillery, V Corps.” I reached out my hand and said to him, “I was born in Vietnam and escaped the war in 75’. On behalf of my family, I want to say thank you for your sacrifice.” I will never know what gave him more shell-shock, the impact of a nearby bomb or the words I just spoke to him because he stood there in silent paralysis. Then his eyes welled up with tears as he reached through my window with both hands. He gripped my hand and pressed it to his forehead where I could feel the trembles of his body as he wept, and choked the words, “No one’s ever thanked me.” I was busy wiping my own tears to notice the light was green and cars behind me were honking. I didn’t care. I took out all of the cash in my wallet I had, close to $100. I gave it to the man and said, “Take care of yourself.” I finally drove off, and saw in the rear view mirror the eternally-lasting image of him standing straight and proudly saluting me.
That night I laid in bed, heavy with the tension of what just transpired. I discovered that I hated myself. I hated myself because I realized for my whole life I’ve been nothing but an ungrateful bastard and I didn’t appreciate who I was and my own heritage. Here were these amazing men, from the veteran in the wheelchair to the homeless man, who signed their name on the dotted line and sacrificed their world to protect and save people like me. They sacrificed so my family could thrive and continue their heritage the way that they wanted to within the freedoms of America. How dare I take anything for granted? How dare I get frustrated during a traffic jam, or get mad at the long lines at the DMV, or annoyed when a grocery store doesn’t carry my favorite cereal brand? These are luxuries many cannot enjoy. How dare I see the lack of Asian faces in the media and not do anything about it? How dare I not not appreciate being Asian?
I don’t think it’s possible to make a conscious choice to “be more Asian”, and anybody who does try to intentionally be more Asian is simply fetishizing the culture. It was much deeper for me, like releasing something that laid dormant and its freedom suddenly brought me a new-found sense of clarity. I embraced my heritage not from a set of instructional steps but because I was simply more open to it now. I unplugged my mental and emotional blockage of who I was and things just naturally followed. I started listening to Vietnamese talk radio, absorbing the language that I rarely hear now that I’m not at home anymore. I would drive down to the Westminster area and attend a Buddhist temple just to be around more Asians. I flew back to Florida more often to visit my parents, my brothers, my uncles and cousins, and they’d be surprised at some of the Vietnamese phrases I’d picked up. My first two Asian girlfriends were Korean and collectively they introduced me to the food and culture. Not only would they take me to Koreatown to eat but also to Thai Town, Chinatown, and Little Tokyo. Then I dated a Taiwanese girl who taught me everything else, from K-Pop, to J-Pop, to Canto-Pop, to anime and manga. I became more comfortable around other Asians as I met their families, their friends, and became a part of their circles. To my exes, I was probably just the silly white-washed Asian guy that they shared some good times with, fell in love and then fell out of love with. But of all my relationships, the three Asian girls that I dated were the most enriching, the ones where I learned the most about myself and about life. They are, for the most part, the sum total of who I am today. One day, there will be words invented that would be strong enough, worthy enough for me to use to thank them.
I used to hate reality TV. I was a snob who couldn’t stand these aimless people willing to put themselves through a lifetime of regret simply for 15 minutes of fame. Celebrity used to be a cool club, with card-carrying members like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and Meryl Streep. But then I realized the nature of celebrity changed not only because of reality TV, but with the advent of social networking, blogging, youtube, etc. Everybody who has a Facebook profile, a Twitter account, posts entries on Blogspot, or upload videos of themselves are one some level a “reality star”, broadcasting to the world daily updates and inner thoughts of vulnerability for mass consumption. Whether I liked it or not, time and tide waits for no man and the nature of fame and celebrity was quickly evolving. You make money by getting ahead of a trend, and you lose money by getting behind a trend. As someone working in entertainment, if I did not get-in-step with the zeitgeist, I was in danger of committing the greatest sin of all in our business, becoming irrelevant. So I started watching reality TV and studied hours upon hours of it. The standard cliché description of a reality show is that it’s a “train wreck” waiting to happen, shallowly equating it to the morbid curiosity of rubbernecking as you slowly drive by a car accident scene. Perhaps this is true on a superficial level, but after closely observing an endless cavalcade of reality programming, I discovered something much deeper and interesting. Unlike movies, scripted TV, novels, and other traditional forms of storytelling that hinges on the audience relating to a narrative’s characters (connecting through universal truths), there’s a unique dynamic with reality TV that not only brings the audience to relate to the characters (celebrating our commonality) but also simultaneously allows the audience the ability to distinguish themselves from them (celebrating our differences). And since reality is more apt to celebrate our differences than in the scripted realm, reality TV has become fertile ground for cultural social experiments like JERSEY SHORE. A light bulb went off in my head.
It is no secret that reality TV is not really about reality. In fact, very little filtered through a prism of media is about true reality. Not even an Oscar-winning documentary by Barbara Kopple, a critically-acclaimed series by Ken Burns, or the landmark works of Robert Flaherty offers true reality, for those come produced, directed, and edited so the viewer’s perspective is guided through a process of deliberate aesthetics and a delineation of selected information. French filmmakers like Jean Rouch, who first coined the term “cinema verite” (i.e. ‘truth in cinema’) and North American filmmakers who developed “direct cinema”, sought to capture and represent reality truthfully, but could never escape the paradox of the inherent prejudice of a director’s eye. The only true reality that exist in media has to be boiled down to static security footage and/or when Andy Warhol films the Empire State Building for a single 8 hours take. But how much fun is that?
Though reality TV never truly reflects reality (the set-up may be manipulated and the casts coached) a good reality production crew operates like storm-chasers, constantly staying in the moment to capture the moments. Yes, throwing eight strangers into a house is a manufactured reality, but when Jemmye from this season’s New Orleans THE REAL WORLD has a drunken, tearful meltdown where she wrestles with dark demons from a past abusive relationship, that moment comes from a place of truth, the sort of gut-wrenching vulnerability that fiction could never offer. It is during those moments, when a cameraman just points and shoots, that reality TV shines. Nothing can suppress true human nature, not even with cameras and lights in your face. Context can be manipulated (that is the value of entertainment), but truth at its core is absolute, and like my mother (the most real person I’ve ever known), some of us just can’t help but be ourselves.
In 2009, I produced a reality show for BET. It was called FIRST IN and the show followed the daily lives of the Compton Fire Department, which has the distinction of being the busiest department and is headed by the youngest battalion chief in the country. BET ordered a 10 episode first season, which did well in North America and also premiered in the U.K. The production experience on FIRST IN was intense and extremely satisfying. I’d gotten the reality bug and started thinking about the next project: K-TOWN. If Aaron Sorkin’s thesis of THE SOCIAL NETWORK was that Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook as a way to reinvent himself, then that was what K-TOWN was to become for me.
Through some mutual friends, I met Eddie Kim at a dinner. I found out that Eddie had done various entertainment projects through his production company. Many of his projects have a far reach into the Asian-American community, specifically the Korean community. So I asked him, “Have you seen JERSEY SHORE? I’ve been brewing this idea of something similar in format, but with Asian-Americans.” Eddie’s eyes lit up. Apparently, not only has he been watching JERSEY SHORE, but it was only a couple days prior he had been brainstorming this exact same idea with his friend Eugene Choi. Both Eddie and Eugene are Korean, and between the two of them they know everyone in Koreatown. They were exactly the missing piece needed to bring this project together.
Days later, I met with Eddie again where he formally introduced me to Eugene, who turned out to be just as smart and saavy as Eddie. We spent hours talking about our specific visions for the show, with Eddie and Eugene explaining every texture and cultural nuance of K-town, from the practice of booking to the five stages of partying. I’ve been to K-Town numerous times before because of my ex-Asian girlfriends, but only to eat. Eddie and Eugene took me around to a number of bars, clubs, cafes, restaurants, and karaoke spots, introducing me to a colorful gallery of owners and managers, all of whom were extremely accommodating. It became clearer to me that K-Town was alive, exotic, sexy, and an interesting character itself.
The most important thing about these reality shows are the characters, so we decided to instantly jump into casting. Our original intentions were to quietly cast the show, shoot the pilot, and then pitch it around town to the networks. We did two initial casting sessions where we auditioned hopefuls that were friends of friends or personal referrals. From those sessions, only two people stood out, Young Lee and Steve Kim. Our goal was to find 8 cast members total, 4 girls and 4 guys. It became clear that it was going to be a difficult search, so we decided to broaden our net with an open casting call. We placed the ad on Craigslist, where it simply read: “Looking for interesting, attractive, colorful Asian-Americans to cast in a reality show similar to ‘Jersey Shore,’ ‘Real World,’ ‘The Hills,’ etc. . .We need attractive Asian-Americans with lively, strong and unique personalities between the ages of 18 to 30 with equally interesting life stories and perspectives to share, especially individuals who know about and/or experienced the Koreatown life.”
Within days, The New York Post and LA Weekly picked up our ad and ran an article on it. Chelsea Lately spoke about it on her show that same week. Then we were placed on the pop culture map that weekend when I got a tweet from a friend on the east coast saying, “Congrats on the shout-out from SNL!” On the west coast, we were still less than two hours away from Saturday Night Live’s showing. I instantly called Eddie and Eugene and told them to watch or Tivo tonight’s episode. My Taiwanese girlfriend and I left a party early to go home and watch. Planted on the couch, we turned on SNL, hosted by Tina Fey with musical guest Justin Bieber (the highest rated episode of that season). We watched and waited… And there it was, Seth Myers mentioned our show in their Weekend Update segment. To be frank, we were not expecting or ready for the media blitz that followed. Suddenly, our show K-TOWN was lighting up the internet on fire, with word about our casting spreading across the blogosphere like a virus.
We received thousands of emails from people all over the world wanting to be on our show. On the day of the open casting call, hundreds showed up and lined the street in front of our production offices. They flew in from New York, Colorado, Florida, and drove in from Texas, Las Vegas, and the Bay Area. We saw every type of Asian across the spectrum: shy, out-going, reserved, free-spirited, charming, obnoxious, humble, narcissistic, sober, drunk, uptight, chill. Their occupations ranged from struggling students, to successful business types, to those unemployed and living out of their cars. Some of them danced, some of them sang, some of them did back-flips, some stood there with nothing interesting to say, but they all waited for hours to audition for less than 5 minutes. We shifted through the thousands of applications that was sent through email and the hundreds of auditions we saw in person and narrowed it down to our top 20. We asked our top 20 to submit an audition tape no longer than 5 minutes, and they had a week to do it. In their video they had to express to us why we should pick them for the show and they had complete freedom as to how they expressed it. After reviewing all 20 tapes, we chose our final eight cast members: Violet Kim, Peter Le, Jennifer Field, Joe Cha, Scarlet Chan, Young Lee, Jasmine Chang, and Steve Kim. I’ve come to love my cast a great deal. Some of my fondest memories and wildest nights have been with them. They are easily the most fascinating and complicated group of Asians ever, and they all come from interesting backgrounds and have unique stories that transcend race and reach out through universal truths.
We decided to shoot the pilot last summer in July over several locations in K-Town. Just a few days after the shoot, word got out about the pilot and several on-set photos from my Facebook page got leaked. Channel APA was the first to break the story and revealed the cast for the first time publicly. This ignited the media buzz and once again we found ourselves in the news cycle with mentions on The View, The George Lopez show, MTV, TMZ, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Salon.com, The Daily Beast, OK! Magazine, VH1 Best Week Ever, The Examiner, just to name a few. While the mainstream media celebrated the potential of our show and cast, a raging debate within the Asian-American community exploded across the web and college campuses across the country. Is this show good for Asian-Americans? Will it set the Asian agenda back? Will it bring shame to our culture? Some influential Asian-Americans have come to our defense, like Guy Aoki, Asian-American publication Hyphen Magazine, and even Margaret Cho was on the JOY BEHAR show talking about how K-TOWN would be great for Asian-Americans’ inclusion in media. But others continued to criticize in a vacuum, believing K-TOWN will bring a negative representation of Asian-Americans by showing them partying, drinking, and having casual hook-ups. I always find it interesting when people bring in the quasi-quantitative oppositions of negative versus positive in a debate about race, because they usually presuppose what is negative and positive as if they were absolutes. Parmenides attempted this in the sixth century when he theorized the universe is divided by pairs of opposites: warm/cold, light/darkness, high/low, fineness/coarseness, being/non-being, etc. Thinkers over ages have argued this point due to its inherent conundrum: which is absolutely positive and which is absolutely negative? This is applicable to the K-TOWN debate. If the Asian-American image in mainstream media is boiled to its opposites: The shy, academic IT nerd/the martial arts master/the Long Duk Dongs/the William Hungs versus the stylish, free-spirited, no-nonsense, hard-partying, sexually liberated Asian — which is negative, which is positive? Some have said all of what I just listed off is negative and some have said the former is an established negative media image that needs to be shattered and the only way to do that is to establish the later. Others have said we need to aim for somewhere in the middle. But often we can’t find the middle without first seeing the two separated points of extreme. Will K-TOWN be extreme? Perhaps for some, but that is the nature of entertainment. Even showing just the extreme has a point of marginal return. Highlighting nothing but an endless parade of partying, hooking-up, drinking and fighting becomes tedious, redundant, and just plain false in its representation of the world we’re trying to explore. The themes and stories of our show will be just as complicated and varied as our wonderful cast.
Last weekend, I found myself at a drinking establishment in Koreatown, in a booth surrounded by Korean-American guys I didn’t know. I was led there by a girl who was connected to all of them. This particular girl was born and raised in Koreatown, so whenever I’m out with her she’s constantly being stopped by someone to say hello. It’s what it must have been like to walk through a party in the Hamptons with George Plimpton. That’s the interesting thing about Koreans in Los Angeles, they are all connected by few degrees. It’s a very tight community and one would be hard-pressed to find two Koreans who didn’t know each other, knew of each other, shared mutual friends, dated each other, went to church together, worked together, went to school together, or partied together. As for me, I’m the outsider. I’m the Vietnamese guy nobody knows but yet they’ve heard is sneaking in and out of Koreatown producing a reality show about their home turf which they feel overly-protective of. So that night, over shots of whiskey, these Korean guys opened up with their negative feelings about what little they knew of my show. I was ready because these were the same comments and complaints I’ve been reading about on message boards and answering in interviews for the last several months. “It’s not a fair representation of us Koreans,” one of them would say. I explained to him that the show was never exclusively about Koreans, and that from day one it had always been envisioned as a microscopic look at a group of people who reflected the Asian-American experience set against the vibrant landscape of K-Town. And why not K-Town? It’s a lot sexier than the Jersey Shore and more mysterious than Laguna Beach. “The show will bring too much attention to Koreatown and open the flood gates for non-Koreans,” another one of the guys declared. I promptly asked them to look around the bar. They did. Then I pointed out at how it’s half empty on a Friday night. Koreatown has become the largest concentration of night life in all of California, from the clubs, the bars, the restaurants, the after hours karaoke spots and the 24 hour cafes – there is so much to do in one area and it’s not a sustainable business to simply cater to one race. The K-Town establishment owners want us to shoot in their bars and clubs because they know the awareness will bring in more traffic. “K-Town is home to you guys, right?” I asked them. “And you think of everybody you know in K-Town as family, right?” They all nodded. “Then aren’t you being a little selfish?” I pointed out, “Isn’t the Asian thing to do for your family is to sacrifice a little? So what happens if this show is a hit? A few more non-Koreans are in the same room with you having a couple drinks, keeping your favorite haunts alive. Are you really against that?” That muzzled them a bit. Another shot of whiskey before last call. “The show will expose stuff about Asian-Americans that we don’t want other people to know about,” a third guy chimed in, “It will bring shame to our culture.” Ah, now we’re getting to the core of it. I’ve been waiting for this moment.
I leaned forward, looked them all in the eye and said, “One of the biggest things I deplore about our culture, Asian culture, is this need to be perfect. It comes from a place of arrogance to think we’re perfect because that means we believe we’re better than everybody else. We will always be looked at through a filter of one dimensional positivity and never as multi-dimensional humans. It’s because of this insidious need to be perceived as perfect that, as a culture, we rarely ever directly address topics of taboo and dysfunction. We deal in avoidance, suppress emotions, turn away from confrontation, only to let it fester like a cancer so it eventually expresses itself in ugly ways. I’m not saying we’ll all become like the Virginia Tech guy, but life is about degrees and these dark emotions that we refuse to process manifest themselves as misery and unhappiness, and instead of honestly dealing with it we become stoic. We come off as uptight and asexual, and that’s reflected back at us through the media. The reason why I’m producing this K-TOWN show is because I want to celebrate being Asian and all the wonderful baggage that comes with it! Yes, we Asians are smart, play the piano, work hard, but at the same time we’re sexy, stylish, have swagger, and we can party and fuck up just like everybody else. It would be completely disingenuous of me to produce this show without showing the bad as well as the good. I’ve read the blogs and there are plenty of people out there complaining about how our show is going to create new stereo-types for us, when the truth is what we’re trying to show is that there is no type. Maybe bringing us a little shame could be a good thing?” I don’t know how long I spoke but I kept going uninterrupted, and it felt like my John Galt moment. I didn’t even get a chance to register whether my words sunk in with them as the bar quickly closed. We then relocated to an after-hours karaoke place on Olympic Blvd. There we continued drinking soju served in plastic cups and shared singing and dancing. By the end of it, the guys shook my hand and wished me luck with the show, and even said they can’t wait to watch it when it airs.
Recently, I flew back to Florida for a weekend to visit my parents. I finally sat down with them at the kitchen table and explained to them everything that was going on with the K-TOWN show. With English being their second language, it was difficult for them to fully appreciate what it meant to develop a project and pitch it around to the networks. All they care about is what channel will it be on so they can tell their friends. Hopefully soon, I said to them. I went on to recant to them every detail of my journey that you have just read here, and whether K-TOWN eventually gets picked up or not (and God knows I want nothing more than that), in the end, shepherding this show up to this point has helped me find myself, and that alone has been the greatest reward of an amazing journey that, I believe, has only just begun.
After my kitchen table chat with the parents, I got up and stepped into the next room where the piano from my childhood still rest. I sat down at the bench and opened the top of the piano. Through the doorway I could see my parents at the kitchen table, their backs turned to me and engaged in a private conversation. I started to play Mozart’s “Sonata Alla Turca” from memory, admittedly a bit rusty, a bit out of rhythm. While I played, I couldn’t help but ruminate about everything revolving around the show, from the cast, to the other producers, my memories and thoughts danced along with each note the piano sang. Then I thought about all the pitch meetings we have scheduled and are about to embark on, and how we’ve worked so hard to get to this point and all the amazing media coverage that has helped carry us. I thought about how incredible it would be to see this show on the air, so that there would be more Asian faces on TV –- cool Asians! I smiled at the thought of this, but suddenly, I noticed the ping of an out-of-tune piano key I pressed. I stopped playing, glanced up to see my parents turning to look at me. They also heard the out-of-tune key, but it was okay with them as they smiled, shrugged it off, and went back to their conversation. My fingers danced along the keys as I continued to play the song in all of its imperfect glory, and that too, was okay with me.
*Dedicated to Cammy Chung.