Counting the Stars on One Hand

It’s the first time I’m watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Adrenaline and excitement rush through my veins—it’s a new Star Wars film for the first time in over a decade, and I’m seeing a woman and a cast of faces of color in the limelight. The final climactic aerial battle begins and Poe Dameron barks commands at his team and suddenly, unexpectedly, in the middle of the action… she appears, in a Rebel helmet. I sit bolt upright.

“I got one on me, you see it?”

“Yeah, I’m on it,” she says. A thrill like lightning races down my spine, and I gasp out loud. Reaching to my side, I grab my friend’s arm. Our eyes meet for a split second before they’re drawn back to the screen.

“Is that…?” I whisper-shriek, twining my fingers through hers.

Is that a woman, piloting that X-wing?

Is she Asian?

“Yes,” she whisper-shrieks back, as my breath hitches. Who is she? What’s her name? Will she die? Please don’t let her die. Please don’t let her die. Please don’t let her die.

My friend squeezes my hand as I begin to cry.

I don’t remember much about the first time I watched Star Wars, except that I was really young and my dad wanted to show me all the Cool Special Effects. I mostly wanted to watch my favorite Disney movies, but I stayed with him as these adventures in space unfolded on our old television.

Then, in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, I remember sitting straight up.

“There’s… too many of them,” the man on the screen says, panic unfolding on his face.

“Dad,” I said, tugging on his sleeve, “Dad, he’s Asian!” The character was the first one I’d noticed who had lines, and though he was killed two seconds later, it was still enthralling.

Star Wars was the first of the space movies I watched with my dad, films like The Fifth Element and Lost in Space (both the original television series and the remake with Joey from Friends), Starship Troopers and Alien. I didn’t really seek them out on my own, but I was happy to watch them with my dad, even if my dreams were plagued with giant space bugs or aliens bursting out of stomachs for weeks afterward.

I grew up in Southern California, in a cluster of cities outside of Los Angeles with huge Asian populations. The demographics at my schools were split fairly evenly between mostly first generation Asian American kids like me and white kids, so most of my childhood friends were kids who “looked like me.” We joked about our Asian parents, who made us do things like take piano or go to after-school Chinese and math programs—it was common ground among us, whether we were first- or fifth- generation. We were all, for the most part, in the same boat.

Yet, we were also very aware that being “too Asian” wasn’t cool. We all wanted to wear American name brands, eat Lunchables and PB-and-J sandwiches instead of leftovers from dinner the night before, and we definitely didn’t want to speak with an accent. Girls wanted to play Kimberly from the Power Rangers, Jean Grey or Rogue, not Trini or Jubilee. It wasn’t a compliment when you were made to be those characters—a symbol of your status on the playground that you were the less-cool side character with less to do.

The movies and books I consumed reinforced this strange subconscious rejection of who I was. Growing up, the sci-fi and fantasy to which I was exposed was very white, and certainly not Asian. The protagonists were white, and so was most everyone else, except the occasional person of color, except for the occasional math geek or ninja or “insert stereotype here,” except for Cho Chang, Parvati and Padma Patil. I noticed that I hardly saw people who looked like me, enough to count how many I saw in any given TV show or movie, but I never questioned it. Of course everybody in The Lord of the Rings was white. Of course the main characters in Harry Potter were white. Of course all my favorite space fantasies—Star Wars, The Fifth Element, Lost in Space—were focused mostly on white people. Why would it be any other way?

Then I discovered Firefly. It had just been put on Netflix, and it was about space cowboys and was a space western and really attractive men and women in very tight pants—I was in from the beginning. The Mandarin cursing on the show sounded exactly like the jumbled, toneless syllables I encountered when well-meaning white people earnestly asked, “Can you teach me Chinese?” so I laughed it off as well-meaning white people. But I didn’t count any Asian characters. There weren’t any to count, and I didn’t even think about that until I stumbled onto a blog post on Livejournal where the writer asked, “If this is a universe in which English and Chinese cultures merge, where are all the Chinese people?” I read the post, and my gut clenched. My entire body flushed, and I looked up the cast and they were right. Where were all the Chinese people? Why weren’t there any involved? And, more importantly, how could I not have noticed?

I realized that somewhere along the way, I’d stopped noticing enough to count and tacitly accepted that I simply didn’t exist in the space fantasies that I loved so much. This happened at the same time I stopped being surprised to find myself in rooms where I was the only non-white person, when people asked me “Where are you really from?” or when people were surprised at how well I spoke English. I do, after all, live in a society that says “American” when it so often means “white,” and everything else is exotic.

As an Asian-American woman who works in media and focuses on Hollywood, it’s frustrating to have these conversations about “diversity” or about why whitewashing is bad over and over again. After a certain point, there’s not much else that I, and those like me, can say without simply repeating ourselves ad infinitum. So I try not to rehash those conversations and, instead, focus on highlighting the writers, directors, and actors who are working to change things from the inside, who are telling the stories of marginalized people and identities across all genres. It isn’t enough to ask Hollywood for “diversity” anymore—we need to demand nuanced and complex inclusion because Hollywood, as a cultural institution, is far reaching and highly influential. It has the power to disseminate and spread ideas—for better or worse. The white faces and the white stories that it chooses to serve to the erasure of all else, the lack of Asian people except as foreigners or as stereotypes, only further entrench the idea that an Asian face can never really be American (or the science fiction equivalent). For many white Americans, their main exposure to Asian faces and names is through the media and entertainment they consume. When that entertainment tells them that “Asian” is shorthand for someone who isn’t “from here” or who don’t belong except as window dressings or background decoration, it becomes all the easier to dismiss us or exotify us. It becomes easier to see us as foreigners instead of as Americans, easier to view Asian Americans as a “them” instead of as part of the “us.”

Representation isn’t the only issue that Asian Americans face in this country, nor is it the most important, but it does affect both our understanding and the understanding of others of our place in this country. Representation says that the stories and histories of people of color are just as worthy of existence and documentation as the stories and histories of white people. It’s the reason I cried when I saw Jessica Henwick as Jess Pava, or when Kelly Marie Tran was cast as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, or when I saw her standing alongside Finn and Poe—included as a hero. For me, these women and their characters are who I’ve been hoping and waiting to see since the first time I watched a Star Wars movie: a first step toward the acknowledgement that we exist in this universe in all our myriad complexities. That I belong in the space fantasy I love most of all—as a pilot, a mechanic, a friend, a fan.

Mallory Yu

Mallory Yu is a producer, editor, and director for NPR’s All Things Considered. In addition to working on daily news stories, she’s doing her best to bring her love of nerdy pop culture and science fiction/fantasy to the show, through creator interviews on the show or her own reporting. As a queer Chinese-American, she’s especially interested in exploring the intersection of identity, race, and pop culture and can often be found ranting about the lack of nuanced representation of POC in all forms of media. In her spare time, she’s reading comics, working on her next cosplay, and dreaming about upcoming travels. Her Twitter handle is @mallory_yu.

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