A particularly jaded producer once described making an Asian American movie to me as resigning yourself to the Asian ghetto. He cautioned that it was a waste of time and more work than it was worth.
Though I was skeptical of his assertion, I was a little nervous when, after quitting my corporate Hollywood gig to pursue writing full-time, the story that kept popping into my head was Love Arcadia, a tale of an Asian American boy and his bubble tea shop in East LA.
Knowing the challenge of turning this script into a movie, I tried, but I just couldn’t shake the story about a kid that was lost because he didn’t quite belong from my mind. Then I realized it was probably because, once upon a time, I was that kid.
I grew up in the Atlanta suburbs in the 90s. Though the area now boasts one of the U.S.’s fastest growing Asian populations, during those formative years, there weren’t that many of us around, so my childhood was peppered with slanty-eye, ching-chong-erific school rhymes and inquiries regarding my family’s interest in the neighborhood dogs. I was usually able to shrug off the comments, but the feeling of otherness stuck with me and made me question why I was such an oddity in my own hometown.
Turning on the TV only made things worse. I wanted to find someone that looked like me on screen, but the occurrences were rare, and the roles seemed to all fall between dragon lady and kung fu master, leaving much to be desired.
A few years later, I became active in my high school theatre department, emboldened with the mission to increase the presence of Asian Americans in the arts. Then came the auditions for Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare was (and still is) my literary idol. I was excited by the prospect of performing his glorious lines on stage– that is, until I came to a miserable conclusion. There were no Asians in Elizabethan England. Read: there was no room for me.
It wasn’t that the director of the play couldn’t see me in any roles; I couldn’t see myself. I had internalized what I had observed on TV. I had typecast myself. I decided there was no way I would ever get a part, so when audition time came, I couldn’t bring myself to open the door and give it a shot.
Images from media influence us although we might not readily admit it. Visual imprints are stored, and, for better or worse, we act accordingly. Had my bullies or I turned on the TV to find more diverse portrayals of Asian Americans, maybe my early life would have been different. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone.
Love Arcadia is the movie I wish existed when I was young. It’s a love letter to my youth and my chance to make things better, if not right.
Maybe I’m asking for a spot in the Asian ghetto, but I know it won’t exist forever. Chinatown used to be the only place in town to get fried rice, and now there’s a Chinese restaurant around every corner. People can change. The world can change. We can get there. But not without opening the door first. Won’t you join me?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Theresa Chiu is the writer/producer of Love Arcadia, an independent feature film currently in pre-production. A graduate of Duke University, Theresa worked at the Endeavor Talent Agency and CBS Television in Los Angeles before moving to San Francisco, where she currently runs the Educational Media Distribution Department at the Center for Asian American Media. Love Arcadia’s Kickstarter campaign ends at 5 PM PT on 1/1/14, so please visit http://bit.ly/lovearcadiafilm and consider pledging today.