Celebrating Asian Pacific American
Coming of Age: A Personal Tale
By Christine Toy Johnson
It is one of my lifes great ironies that I can look to January 2001 as the month I came of age as an Asian American, because at the time, I was in Hong Kong.
I was born and raised as an All American Girl in Westchester County, New York, in a suburb of New York City. I was a straight A student, officer of some sort at any given moment for my class and/or the student council, cheerleader, band member, chorus singer, drama club member, community theatre player, ballet student, voice student, classic overachiever. That was in my spare time. Mostly, I dreamed of being in a Broadway musical, and raptly attended as many as my parents very generously took me to see.
In the midst of all of this overachieving, I realize now that like many of us who have chosen to be Actors, a part of me was perhaps trying to overcompensate for the distinct feeling that something was wrong with me. I was not accepted as the All American Girl that I believed I was; my black hair and brown eyes seemed to betray me. And maybe because, as a teenager, I didnt quite understand the ramifications, I accepted the rationalization that a boy I liked gave for not dating me: I would, but shes Asian. How this would come to haunt me in the years to come, working and somehow thriving in show business, an industry that places so much value on face value has come blindingly, yet ever so clearly, to light.
What I experienced in Hong Kong has changed my life. For the first time I understood what it was like to be in the majority! I walked around the streets of the city in an odd state of euphoria: all the ads were targeted to me! The television characters were Chinese! Madame Tussauds starred Chinese actors Jackie Chan and Michele Yeoh! Then I became emotional, moved to tears to understand what was so obvious: there are billions of people who look like me in the world, and there is, indeed, nothing wrong with all of us. We are, to the contrary, a vibrant, vital, beautiful part of our worlds population.
Taught societys message that assimilation equals acceptance and success, I, like others, had heeded the unspoken ramification: I was secretly ashamed of being different, cursing my looks for standing in the way of my success. Not fitting the traditional media stereotypes, when the opportunities arose, I gladly bounded into non-traditional casting, celebrating the human nature we share in spite of the labels we are given to categorize us. Now an even larger canvas of realization has been reinforced to me in floods of emotion, freedom and glory. We must defy the messages and take pride, not shame, in our differences as well as our similarities. For no matter where our ancestors journeyed from, we must remember that our cultural heritage is as beautiful as the country we love to call home is and if it is placed hand in hand with our contemporary existence and national pride, we can have the best of both worlds.
In celebrating Asian American Heritage Month, we celebrate the accomplishments of Asian America and the roads that led us here. Among other things, we honor the railroad workers, acknowledge the lessons we learned from the Exclusion Acts, vow never again to accept the blight of discrimination that was endured by the Japanese Americans during World War II. We pay homage to all of the men and women who have contributed to the industry and culture that have helped make America prosper. And we learn from their triumphs as well as the many obstacles they overcame, so that we are able to thrive as Americans today.
Clearly, including all of our complex cultures into one conglomeration is what makes this country gorgeous. And we are each our own melting pot of all of the generations that brought us to where we stand today, and all of the generations to come, carrying the gift of heritage from our ancestors as well as the legacy of courage that accompanied them on their journeys. I raise a glass to toast this divine recipe that makes each one of us, All American men and women, unique and rich beyond belief.