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May 28, 2020

Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI): Honoring Asian Representation On Screen

Every Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is an opportunity to push ourselves to be better inclusive of all Asian cultures and to learn from their rich history to make our society better. This year, we’re acknowledging Asian representation on screen and the progress that’s been made, as well as the work still to be done. To get a snapshot of how our employees felt about it, we asked seven leaders from our Asian Employees at Netflix (AEN) employee resource group (ERG) a few questions about Asian representation on screen and what it means to them.

We’re cognizant that the responses below do not represent all people who identify as Asian-American or Asian Pacific Islander. These ideas are from some of the Asian employees around the world at Netflix, and how they perceive Asian representation on screen.

Asia-Pacific Region

Anna Josephine Takayama Headshot May 2020
Anna Josephine Takayama
Identity: Japanese / American
Job Title: Post Production Coordinator
Netflix Office: Tokyo, Japan
Role with AEN: Co-Lead, Tokyo Chapter

Previously, I worked in Post Production at A24 before I came to Netflix, and the last title I worked on was a film called The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang. I was in tears within the first 10 minutes when you see Billi (main character played by Awkwafina), walking down the streets of New York City, talking to her grandmother in Mandarin. It’s a heartfelt story about Billi, who was born in China and raised in the US, going back to China only to find that her grandmother is dying.

This film really hit me hard because at the time, I was living alone in New York City while my entire family lived in Japan, and I felt so far away. While I was in NYC, my grandfather had passed away and sadly I couldn’t be there in person to say goodbye. The film really captured what it felt like to be alone in the big city, away from family, and having to confront death from a distance. I also felt like every time I went back to Japan, I felt more and more foreign and the film really captured that feeling of being an immigrant, and in a way, being removed and belonging nowhere.

Now, more than ever, the world needs empathy. We need to look for ways we can understand each other better and listen to others more. Acts of violence and hate come from dehumanizing and otherising. The world is full of untold stories and unheard voices. We can solve this problem by telling more diverse stories from people of different backgrounds and experiences, so that we can all reach a better understanding of each other. It’s the only way we can counter the darkness that we’re facing in today’s world.

Looking to the future, I hope that one day, we can all name tons of actors, actresses, directors and producers with backgrounds from every country in Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Keemin Ngiam Headshot May 2020
Keemin Ngiam
Identity: Peranakan Chinese-Singaporean-American
Job Title: Director, Business Development Legal
Netflix Office: Singapore
Role with AEN: Working to launch an AEN Chapter in Singapore

While I’m not even 0.0001% as wealthy (or good-looking) as Nick Young, Crazy Rich Asians was the first time I’d seen someone who didn’t neatly fit into the stereotypical categories that Hollywood assigns to Asians. Here was someone who was comfortably bi-cultural, hailing from Singapore with a strong sense of identity, yet just as comfortable in the US, speaking English with a completely neutral American accent, smoothly transitioning from one world to the next. While there are many others like me who blur cultural boundaries, on-screen portrayals of such nuance are rare.

What we can do now is tell amazing stories that represent all of humankind’s beautiful diversity, so more and more of us see and feel that bond of our common humanity. My four-year old daughter gives me hope that we can do this. As we talked over brunch one day (my daughter, her Caucasian mom, and Chinese dad), I turned to our daughter and asked her if mom and dad looked alike. She paused, looked at each of us, and nodded her head (you know, the way kids do when they think their parents are asking silly questions). To her eyes, our distinct shades of melanin and facial features didn’t matter and didn’t indicate difference; all she saw was what we had in common.

I’d love for us to continue expanding Asian representation. AAPI Heritage Month isn’t recognized outside of the US, and especially in Asia, celebrating Asian-ness can seem somewhat like a fish celebrating water. But I’d love for us to be able to use it as a time to learn about and celebrate other Asian and Pacific-Islander cultures besides our own, so that even in Asia among Asians, we can move beyond otherness.

Europe, Middle East, and Africa Region

Adi Ng Headshot May 2020Adi Ng
Identity: Chinese / Malaysian / Kiwi
Job Title: Production Finance - Original Series, UK
Netflix Office: London, England
Role with AEN: Working to launch an AEN Chapter in London

Being of Chinese descent and growing up in New Zealand (Kiwi) there wasn’t much English content with Asian leads or supporting actors. In the Asian content I watched, I found that I didn’t quite fit in there either. So when I saw To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before a couple of years ago, I fell in love instantly. The film could have starred any girl of any race and still have the same impact. The story itself was about a normal teenager and the fact that she was Asian made me feel represented, probably for the first time in my 30 years.

In a digital era where we are more connected than ever, there is still much of the world that is racially divided. This is in part due to the unknown. Diversity in content helps us have a better understanding of one another and where we come from. To me, Asian representation isn’t just about the face you see on screen. It is also about if the content was directed, written or produced by someone with Asian heritage. We need to also capture the Asian culture -- its heart and passion. In the last three years, Netflix has released multiple titles which were performed, directed or written by someone with Asian heritage. I’m proud of that. The content has given global audiences new insight into a rich tapestry of stories, and a new point of view to focus on.

One day, I hope AAPI Heritage Month will become a celebration of heritage and perhaps become less about our differences and more about our similarities. I believe everyone can relate to the feeling of wanting to belong.

North American Region

Christian Rodriguez Headshot May 2020
Christian Rodriguez
Identity: Filipino-American
Job Title: Learning & Development Manager
Netflix Office: Los Gatos, California
Role with AEN: Los Gatos AEN Chapter Co-Lead

In the fifth grade, I didn't watch Degrassi: The Next Generation much, but there was one episode when Manny Santos (Cassie Steele) was being scolded by her mom in Tagalog. I had never heard Tagalog spoken on TV except on Filipino-specific channels, streamed from the Philippines. Every Filipino-American kid I knew growing up was familiar with the passionate and rhythmic verbal jab from a relative, especially from a grandma, an auntie, or a mom.

Representation is important now, more than ever, to elevate and celebrate identities that didn’t have the chance before. But it’s also important because it can showcase the diversity within identities like being Asian. An example is Netflix's Never Have I Ever, which represents a spectrum of Asian identities without stereotyping. Representation like this humanizes and familiarizes different kinds of Asians to viewers, and builds solidarity in and out of the Asian community.

We’re past the days of stereotypical Asian and Pacific Islander roles. In the future, both AAPI Heritage Month and Asian representation on screen will look like a showcase of the complexities and intersections of the Asian and Pacific Islander identities. Netflix is already doing this by writing complex and nuanced characters for talent of color across the globe. Right now this dynamic is new and exciting, and worth celebration -- but I cannot wait for it to be “normal.”

Akiko Fukuhara Headshot May 2020Akiko Fukuhara
Identity: Japanese
Job Title: Product Metadata Analyst, Kids Teen & Family
Netflix Office: Los Gatos, California
Role with AEN: Los Gatos AEN Chapter Co-Lead

Until recently, I never really understood the meaning of a movie or series that made you feel “seen.” Whenever I was asked this question, I would just shrug because no title came to my mind, and the thought itself was foreign to me. Then came Never Have I Ever. I saw myself in Nalini Vishwakumar (Poorna Jagannathan) who was the first generation Asian immigrant parent with a teenage daughter. Most of the Asian immigrant parents in other movies/shows are usually older and their kids are grown up and not the focus of the story. But in Nalini, I was able to resonate with the perfect dosage of her Aisan-ness and American-ness, and the struggles she goes through between two cultures as a parent.

From my own experience, I learned that it is difficult to truly understand what it feels like to be represented until we felt seen. But once we experience it, we get it. And once we get it, we become more curious about who else we see in the story, and that’s where empathy emerges. That is why I believe representation is important now, more than ever.

My hope for AAPI Heritage Month in the future is that it gets more diverse and unified at the same time. I say diverse because there are many different Asian and Pacific Islander identities. We could be the first generation or the fifth generation, from South Asia or Hawaii, old or young -- the list goes on -- but even when we are different, we still have a lot in common. We should all embrace the diversity within our communities and AAPI Heritage Month gives us that perfect opportunity to do just that.

Kingston Kuo Headshot May 2020 Profile PicKingston Kuo
Identity: American / Taiwanese / Chinese
Job Title: Senior Financial Analyst, Residuals
Netflix Office: Los Angeles, California
Role with AEN: LA AEN Chapter Co-Lead

Growing up in Los Angeles, CA, I didn't feel like I was the only person around who looked like me. I think because of that, the feeling of being seen on screen (or lack thereof) had never crossed my mind until more recently. Reflecting back, I remember Harold and Kumar being one of the only major Hollywood films that featured Asian-American male leads while I was growing up.

Representation matters now more than ever, because we're more connected now than ever. That means a single person or their post online has the ability to hurt or heal scores of people, sometimes without even realizing it. Without representation, the decision makers of the world would be making tough, complex decisions without the required support to see the big picture more clearly. If films and TV have the power to create stereotypes, they inherently have the power to break stereotypes. It's up to all of us to use the power of storytelling wisely and responsibly.

To me, the future looks like people from underrepresented groups in lead roles where their group affiliation has nothing to do with the role. We're seemingly far from that reality, but I feel like we've been taking steps in the right direction here in Hollywood.

Kiren Singh Headshot May 2020Kiren Singh
Identity: Punjabi
Job Title: Risk & Intelligence Specialist, Physical Production
Netflix Office: Los Angeles, California
Role with AEN: AEN Pod Lead, AENgage

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj has been groundbreaking in many ways, but personally it’s been the first time I’ve felt authentically represented and connected to someone on screen. Not only does Hasan go out of his way to ensure people pronounce his name correctly -- something I’m still working on -- but he also weaves in South Asian culture and nuanced jokes seamlessly, normalizing an internal dichotomy that most have struggled to merge. As a child of immigrants, seeing someone share that story, along with a passion for politics and justice, on such a huge platform has been incredible. It’s helped me become more unapologetic about holding all parts of my identity with equal weight and value, including the pieces of me that took some work to learn to love.

Narratives can either affirm or challenge personal beliefs. Knowing this, and knowing the power of storytelling, it’s our responsibility to ensure we represent one another authentically. We have the power to prove that there are more similarities than differences between us, to highlight the negative repercussions of not doing so, and to impact positive, sustainable change by including diverse perspectives at every level of storytelling. If we want to make the world better, we have to hold ourselves accountable to telling better stories.

I think representation on screen, for Asians and beyond, will become more nuanced. More textured. More full. More complex and intricate and confusing. There is beauty in our chaos.

As you’ve heard from a few of our Asian leaders at Netflix, we’re constantly trying to expand what it means to represent various identities on screen. We all deserve to have our lives reflected on screen.

In this clip from Netflix’s very own original, Never Have I Ever, co-creator Mindy Kaling and breakout star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan take us inside the Ganesh Puja episode, explaining the importance and nuances of the Hindu celebration: YouTube - Mindy Kaling & Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Celebrate Ganesh Puja Episode

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