When Emily in Paris came out last year, I kept hearing people say things about my character Mindy, like: “I would love to have a friend like that” and “I would feel so supported and comfortable” and “I’d have a great time being around someone like that.” The fact that people were associating those feelings with an Asian face was so important to me.
It’s made me think back about what it took for me to get to where I am in this industry, and over the past few months, I’ve taken the time to really be proud and celebrate being an Asian American and our heritage. It wasn’t until I spoke to my mother recently that I really realized the sacrifices my grandparents made for me when they decided to come to this country.
My grandfather came to the U.S. to study linguistics at UCLA in the ’60s. He had no intention of staying in America, but when he got here, he decided he wanted these kinds of opportunities for his kids. It was like, I’m going to give up everything I have and bring them over and raise them with literally nothing. He was already well-established in Korea. He had gone to the University of Seoul, which is like the Harvard of Korea. All he had in Southern California was this master’s degree in linguistics.
It was hard for him to get linguistics work, especially as a Korean man, so he taught himself computer programming. But they had four kids, so my grandma had to work as well. She started to run businesses—a hamburger shop, Tasty Freeze franchises, a coin laundry place, and a shoe store. By the time I was a toddler, they bought this VHS store. That’s where I got my first VHS of Barney. It was my favorite thing to watch, and watching it was how I first decided I wanted to be a singer and dancer.
Now, I can see how hard my grandparents worked and how much they sacrificed in order to be able to provide for their kids. Like so many immigrants, they wanted their kids to have good educations as a way to be able to take care of themselves. If you’re educated in a traditional profession—like if you’re a doctor or a lawyer—no one can take that away from you. Those jobs have stability. So I can see how it could be so hard for immigrant parents to support their kids who want to go into the arts when they’re looking at TV and stages and don’t see any Asian people there. There’s no way parents can expect that their kids could succeed in that if they don’t see it happening.
That’s what the whole conversation of representation is about. I’m so grateful my parents were supportive of my career. And it comes from my heritage: On my mom’s side, my second cousin, Justin H. Min, is on Umbrella Academy on Netflix. We only met a couple of years ago, but Justin’s dad is the oldest brother of my mom’s dad. It’s just wild, because we are both on these big Netflix shows and we literally came from the same family. I don’t think our relatives would ever have guessed that we would be able to do this.
Being a public figure holds a certain influence and power and responsibility, especially as an Asian American, since we’re not as prevalent as we are in other industries, like I mentioned. We didn’t ask for that visibility or responsibility, but we have it.
If my grandparents could see my life now, they wouldn’t believe it. The fact that they made the sacrifices they did made it possible for me to be on the screen in a way that they’d never seen. It would just be wild for them.
The only time my Grandpa Min got to see me perform live was as a toddler when I performed my Oceanside Dance Academy routine to “Hey Daddy” in a gold sequin outfit. I remember my mom saying she’d never seen him with that kind of pride and joy, witnessing the daughter of his daughter bounce and dance with such passion and energy. I know he felt in that moment that every sacrifice was worth it. And I think that’s the hope of my in-between AAPI generation. We want to show generations before that we are grateful and that it was worth it—and we are also fighting to ensure a place and path for future generations.
Photographer: Erik Melvin; Hair: Clayton Hawkins; Makeup: Melissa Hernandez; Styling: Erin Walsh
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