By Christina Meiping Chen
“When I look at you, I don’t even see Asian.
You’re so ambiguous, you could play anything!”
These actual words were spoken to me by a white professor at Northeastern University, where I was earning my undergraduate degree in Theatre. But let’s backtrack a bit. How did I get here? How did I get to this point where this white man felt he could judge how Asian I am?
I was born to a Chinese dad and a white mom in the States, but was raised in Beijing, China for most of my life. I speak both Mandarin and English fluently. I’ve attended public Chinese and private International schools, as well as public and private schools in San Diego, CA. I’ve never quite fit the mold of what people expect me to be, no matter where I am.
Working as a mixed Asian actor in the theatre industry, I’ve received a lot of back-handed compliments like the one my professor tried to give me. “You’re so lucky you’re mixed – that’s so in right now. You can play anything.” or “You’re so pretty for a Chinese girl – your eyes are so big.”
In reality, my experience of “You can play anything” has mostly been “You can play the understudy.”
In the theatre world, we’re big on role identities. You’ll often see it in the form as Role-Slash-Role: “Actor/Singer/Songwriter” or “Director/Writer/Producer”. I used to market myself as an Actor/Singer because that’s where the work for mixed Asians are: musicals with big casts, lots of ensemble roles and understudy tracks. In a conversation with an older mixed Asian actor, he gave me the advice to stick to musicals over plays if I wanted consistent work.
In my college MT class, we had to write down our dream roles. Mine were Dawn in Waitress and Eliza in Hamilton. Here’s the thing – I was not a soprano. I sang tenor parts in group numbers when we didn’t have enough men. I’ve been in musicals, but I love plays. Dawn and Eliza were my dream roles because they were both originated by mixed Asian actors. Instead of using my actual dreams to determine my dream roles, I was limiting myself to what boxes I thought I had to squeeze myself into.
When I first started auditioning in NYC, I would go in for anything. For both Miss Saigon and The King and I, I was called into audition for ensemble tracks who covered both the white and Asian female leads (Gigi/Ellen for MS, and Anna/Tuptim for TKAI). Both despite the fact that I was (still) not a soprano. The racist stereotypes and white savior narratives that live inside both of these musicals deserve a separate article, but also contribute to why I’m dissatisfied with the notion that these two shows made up the majority of by “big auditions” that year.
I may sound ungrateful. I should be thankful I’m able to play not one, but two roles in a musical. I know many Asian actors’ careers started from these shows, and there have been recent improvements with mixed Asian representation on Broadway (still overwhelmingly in understudy/standby roles). But how I really feel is that I’m Asian/white enough to play these roles on a part time basis, but not full time. I’m not really Asian, I’m definitely not white – but I can pass from a distance. This is something I’ve felt my whole life, and having it come up in every career endeavor has made me reflect on when this “othering” of myself began.
When I was 11, I asked my parents if I could change my last name to my white mom’s maiden name so my new classmates in San Diego wouldn’t know I was Chinese. They thought I was Mexican, and I just wanted to stop being called “Ching Chong Chen”. Where I had come from, “Chen” was not a “different” last name.
When I was 7, I asked my parents if I could call my father “Daddy”, instead of “Baba”.
When I was born, my parents selected “other” on my birth certificate, because mixed race and two or more races weren’t yet options. They didn’t want to choose my identity by erasing one part for me. My mere existence has been “othered” since the day I was born.
Now let’s journey back to the time when my white professor made that comment up there in bold. I was playing a doctor in his production of Middletown, featuring 9/12 white actors and an entirely white creative team. During tech, the costume designer asked him what kind of shoes I should wear.
He replied, “Heels, because she’s a short Asian doctor.”
The air left the room. No one said anything.
Not my white scene partner, not the white AD, not the white costume designer, not the white lighting designer, not the white set designer, and not the white stage manager. Did he really just reduce me to a “short Asian”? Did he really just make that racist generalization in front of a room of people? So the jokes were true? He did only cast me because I’m Asian? Then came the worst thought:
Am I overreacting?
I felt my face heat up as a few pairs of eyes shot in my direction, while others buried themselves in their notes, to the floor, not wanting to look at me. I finally breathed, “Wow…”, as the director backpedalled: “Well, you are short – we just want to see you!” Nevermind that I was standing on a 4-foot platformed set piece. Flustered, upset, and honestly not sure what to do, I shrugged, “Whatever…”
I remember hyperventilating while exiting the stage after the scene. I found a castmate and confided in her, partly because she was older, mostly because she was mixed Hispanic/white. She listened, she told me it was wrong, and that my feelings were valid. She assured me what happened was so egregious that he had to apologize.
When I confronted the director about it the next day, my voice shook and I started crying. He insisted he did not cast me because I was Asian. He said he was sorry, “but that’s not how (he) meant it.”
He continued, “When I look at you, I don’t even see Asian. You’re so ambiguous, you could play so many things!”
What I heard is that he didn’t see me. He didn’t see a huge part of me, a part that makes up more than 50%. He genuinely thought he was complimenting me. By telling me I wasn’t Asian in his eyes, I fit in the white narrative he was trying to tell in his white production. He was telling me that although I was cast despite my race, he could still make a joke about it. This was when I realized I was Asian enough to be cast as a stereotype, but not Asian enough for it to be considered offensive. The conversation blurs for me after that point. I only remember him opening up his arms for a hug at the end. Feeling powerless, I reluctantly let him.
Here’s the thing: throughout my entire time in this theatre department, I had always been referred to as “Christie Chen”, never just Christie. I had never been able to escape my Asianness because it was always tied to my name. For this professor to now argue that he “doesn’t even see Asian”, tells me that I’m only Asian when it’s convenient for him. I’m only Asian when he wants to boast how “diverse” the cast is, but not when he’s caught making a racist joke.
I don’t think we should never talk about race in the theatre industry, but I do think we should enter these conversations with care and consent. He could have made a real apology: “I’m so sorry for making that racist joke. It was really reductive. With your permission, I would love to incorporate your racial identity into this character to make it more authentic.” Instead, he insisted that it wasn’t about race, and he could get away with it because I wasn’t “fully” Asian.
I know these conversations can exist because I’ve had them. I’m very grateful to have such a great relationship with my talent rep. From day one, my manager and I were having open conversations about what kind of work I want to do, my comfortability playing Asian roles that are not Chinese, and navigating accent work. I didn’t feel targeted when she asked me these questions – I felt like she actually cared about what I wanted and what felt authentic to me.
I wish I could say that microaggressions only exist in a vacuum, that they only happen because casting is tied so much to how people look. But being mixed is having these microaggressions not only follow you in your career, but into your daily life (as it is for every single person of color). Being mixed means my existence only makes sense when people see me with both parents at the same time, and even then, it’s a curious look. Being mixed is hating my whiteness, but also desperately wishing I was more white. Being mixed is having people tell you “your sister looks more Asian than you do” and say it as a compliment. Being mixed means constantly struggling to fit into a certain box that is defined by other people’s terms.. Being mixed is too complex to describe in under 1500 words.
Every single person on this planet has more depth to them than just their appearance. Asian people are expected to look a certain way because of our rare and often harmful representation in the media. Asian people are expected to have light yellow skin, small eyes, thick black hair, and wide noses. But we’re so much more. Brown Asians exist. Mixed Black Asians exist. Asians with big eyes exist. Asia is a gigantic continent with gigantic countries with people who do not all look alike. Telling someone they “don’t look that Asian” is feeding into colorist mindsets that ignite violence and racism.
Mixed Asians exist in the world, but we don’t exist in the theatre yet. Because of this, I’ve shifted my identity. No longer a fake soprano, I now introduce myself as an Actor/Writer. I cannot scream “Where is the representation?” into the void any longer, not when I have a voice inside that’s begging to be let out on ink to paper. Not when I have lived experiences that are more authentic, joyous, and heartbreaking than any musical written about Asian people by a white man. I don’t want to play just “anything”. I want to play what feels authentic to me. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to play a character that thinks/ acts different than me. It just means I don’t want to play someone of a different race, just because I’m ambiguous enough to pass for it.
When people asked me what my dream roles were, I used to say Dawn in Waitress or Eliza in Hamilton. When people ask me what my dream role is now, I tell them it doesn’t exist yet, because I’m writing it myself.
My current project, HOUSE PARTY, is a coming-of-age drama centering around my senior year at an international school community in Beijing, China. You can bet there are mixed Asian characters in there.
Note: To quote my therapist, my life has been an imperfect experience, so there’s no perfect way to talk about it. This article was hard to write. It was harder than writing any play, poem, or pilot, where I got to write the rules and what the characters look or sound like. I encourage other mixed people to share their stories, so that we may not feel so alone when prompted to write them.
Christina Meiping Chen (she/her/hers) is a Chinese-American actor/writer based in NYC. She is passionate about telling stories that unite people from different communities. Favorite acting credits include VIETGONE and THE WOLVES. Christina is currently adapting her first full length play, HOUSE PARTY, to a tv series in order to make the story more accessible to wider communities. www.ChristinaMeiChen.com