TV. Photo by エン バルドマン.

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The Stars in My Eyes

For Bruce, Miyoshi, and Anna May


When I was in elementary school in the 1970s, there were no Asian American movie stars. Bruce Lee had died before he’d become famous; he was dead before I even knew he existed. He came to me and my brother posthumously like an avenging ghost via the after-school movies on channel 7. While he fought bullies and racists and British imperialists on the TV screen, we’d prance around the floor of our family room in our socks, sliding on the linoleum, waving our hands in the air while making the Bruce Lee howl, “Heeee!” “EEEEEEEE!” “Aaaaaiiieeeee!” For every racist taunt, for every ching-chong-chinaman chant we’d endured on the playground, for every kid who’d pulled back the skin of their eyes, we kicked, kicked, kicked.

In the same vein we’d watch Godzilla week. It was fun to see Godzilla lay waste to Tokyo and the Japanese businessmen who looked like our father running down the streets in their impeccable three-piece suits while shouting in panic. The films were dubbed, poorly, and we imitated how the men’s lips would move out of sync with their overly enunciated white-people voices. We’d practice to see whose lips could move the most independent of the sounds. And then, bored, we’d run back and forth across the linoleum, shouting and looking over our shoulders pretending Godzilla was coming to chase us.

When I was sick enough to stay home from school, my mother let my brother stay home from school too, and the two of us would watch TV in the family room while our mother did whatever she did at home during the day in the other rooms of the house. Daytime TV was the absolute worst TV, but it was better than school and a novelty, since we watched it so rarely. I hated the soaps, with their boring adults talking about their problems, with the poor lighting and hideous sound, but occasionally I’d catch reruns of the black-and-white series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. The show had been cancelled years earlier before I found it when I was six. There was a Japanese American woman on the show, Mrs. Livingston (Miyoshi Umeki), who played the housekeeper to Eddie’s father (Bill Bixby). Miyoshi Umeki was beautiful, her black hair teased into a shellacked beehive that shone in the light. I tuned in hoping she would finally get something interesting to do.

Eddie’s mother had died, off-camera, and the premise of the show was that everyone was trying to get Eddie’s father re-married. He never considered Mrs. Livingston, perhaps because she was already married, which I’d never realized since viewers never saw her husband, but most likely because she was Japanese and he was white and TV shows didn’t show such mixed-race couples. My parents were a mixed-race couple, my father Chinese, my mother white, but I never saw any couples like my parents on TV in those days (or these days, for that matter).

I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for Eddie’s father to fall in love with Mrs. Livingston, since she was already taking care of Eddie. But apart from a few lines here and there, she never had much to do, on camera. During the boring parts when she was not present, which was most of the show, I imagined her in the world outside the show, cleaning her own immaculate house, cooking her own impeccable meals, and living her own life. Did she get together with her family on the weekend as we did? Did they argue around the dinner table? Did they talk of wars and missing relatives, like the family fights I witnessed between my grandparents? Or maybe she only wanted to focus on the positive and share her beauty tips, how she got her hair to shine so brightly.

When I was ten, I saw Anna May Wong for the first time when PBS broadcast Shanghai Express one night. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Such a glamorous woman! She was dressed to kill in long slinky silk qipaos; she had the perfect British accent and wasn’t required to speak in broken English like Mrs. Livingston or out of sync like the Japanese businessmen from Godzilla. Anna May Wong played cards like a badass and made sarcastic remarks to the racist white woman who accused her of something untoward. She even stabbed a man, an evil warlord. He was played by a white man in yellowface. I didn’t realize he was supposed to be a Chinese man until years later, until I was an adult looking back. The man spoke in a strange European accent with broken English and in facial prosthetics that made him seem sinister and inhuman.

I watched the film to the end, hoping to catch another glimpse of Anna May Wong, but after she kills the racist white warlord and saves the trainload of people, she simply disappears, like the best kind of assassin, deadly and undetained.

When I was twelve, we moved for my father’s job from New Jersey to a rural community in South Dakota. I don’t have strong recollections of seeing any Asians on TV during this period in the 1980s. After school, the local TV channels broadcast old episodes of Leave It to Beaver or Iowa high school basketball games. My mother soon put me to work full-time, and I no longer had leisure to watch television. The movies of the era featured Asian characters as jokes or as villains, as the enemy soldiers in movies about the Vietnam War or as voiceless victims to be saved by American GIs. I didn’t go to see these films.

In our new community, my family was now under attack. Unlike the old black-and-white movies, there was no giant lizard but vicious white men driving by shooting at our house. They shot our dogs when my brother and I were at school, left the bodies for us to find when we came home. White men yelled slurs at us on the street. White women and girls told me to my face all the things they found wrong with my body, my face, my hair. They asked if I was adopted. They asked me where I came from, where I really came from. Was this the message they’d received from every Hollywood Asian they’d ever seen? That people like me didn’t belong? Not in this country, not in this community.

Long after I’d moved away, long after my parents and brother had left South Dakota, I went to visit my family at their new home. It was sunny and warm in my memory, probably during a break from my grad school classes. The television happened to be on in the kitchen, probably tuned to cable news, but what caught my eye was a commercial for toothpaste. In the background was a tall East Asian–looking man brushing his teeth. He wasn’t the enemy, he wasn’t the joke, he was polishing his molars, like everyone else, nodding along to the song extolling fresh breath and whiter enamel.

My heart leaped. It’s funny to recall now how much it meant to me to see this Asian man doing something banal and recognizably human on TV. Immediately, I ran into the next room. “Come quick!” I shouted to my parents, to my brother. “There’s an Asian man on TV.” They followed me back to the kitchen to see what the fuss was about. “Look!” I pointed at the man brushing, brushing, brushing.