There’s a certain familiar energy that emanates from Jake Choi, and minutes into our conversation, I understand why.
Choi, who’s Korean American, is experiencing his come-up as a series regular on the sitcom “Single Parents” and as bad-boy older brother Daniel Bae in the film “The Sun Is Almost A Star.” Covered in tattoos, with earnestness detectable in his voice, the actor stands out in his profession, in part because of his background.
Choi is the son of working-class Korean immigrants who made Queens, New York, their home. When he was 10 years old, his father left, leaving his mother to support the family.
His background might seem surprising, given the prevalent stereotype that Asian Americans are financially well-off. But Choi is Asian America ― the part we see all around us but that’s rarely acknowledged in any medium, much less on the big screen.
Choi notes that he “grew up with a whole bunch of friends who had single parents,” many of whom were from immigrant and blue-collar families. He’s not really a rarity at all. Choi and other Asians who’ve grown up underprivileged make up a significant portion of the racial group.
In Choi’s hometown, more than 75 percent of Asian Americans are immigrants, according to the 2011 American Community Survey. In New York City, Asians as a group have the second-highest percentage of adults with no high school diploma. Almost 50 percent of Queens’ Asian population is unable to speak English “very well.” And more than 90 percent of New York City’s Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese-speaking senior citizen populations has limited English skills.
Conversations about representation remain fairly surface-level in Hollywood, focusing on whether Asian Americans are leads or if Asian stories are being whitewashed. It’s all critical. It’s necessary. And we’ve gone far too long without these debates.
However, mainstream media hasn’t yet broached the topic of working-class Asian Americans in the industry and their challenges in accessing roles. The topic left Choi deep in thought ― so much so that he took it upon himself to call me days after the interview to continue the conversation.
Confronted with issues like language barriers, a yearning for the stability they perhaps weren’t afforded themselves, and experience with discrimination, it’s no wonder immigrant parents trying to establish themselves do not push their kids into the entertainment industry, Choi said.
“Asian immigrant parents, because they don’t see people who look like them and their kids on TV and film as often, and they don’t see a sense of financial stability, it’s hard to be 100% supportive of their kids entering the performing arts,” Choi explained.
As Choi sees it, survival is a priority for many working-class Asian immigrant parents whose own experiences color their fears for their kids.
“It comes out of protection for their kids,” he said of many immigrant families’ lack of enthusiasm for careers in the arts. “A lot of Asian immigrant parents see education, respect and money as a huge buffer against racism because they went through racism.”
The actor admits the field is difficult to persist in. On top of holding down odd jobs, spending money on acting classes and headshots, among other expenses, Asian Americans in the industry have to deal with racism.
“As Asian Americans, we’re fighting multiple battles here,” he said.
Choi is one of the few people with his background to make it, and perhaps that’s why he’s particularly introspective about his place in the industry. But he’s also extremely outspoken about the need for Asian representation in Hollywood despite the barriers to entry.
Growing up without faces and stories onscreen that mirrored his own, the actor said he’s had to contend with confusion about what it actually means to be Asian American. He’s faced the illusion that Asian identity is at odds with American identity ― the myth of mutual exclusivity.
“For me personally, it’s something that I struggled with well into my 20s,” Choi said. “There are times when I’d be like, ‘That’s such an American thing,’ and I wouldn’t do that because I was raised by my Korean parents. And then I come back home and see my parents say something or do something and I’d be like ‘That’s so Korean and traditional and I don’t vibe with that.’”
Added to those anxieties was the issue of Asian men’s emasculation in mainstream Western society, which is thoroughly reflected in media. Choi admits he was deeply affected by the perception that Asian men are not desirable sexual partners. He says he felt “less than” men of other races who were depicted as love interests.
“In a way, growing up, you take certain measures to make up for [feeling inferior and less masculine] and compensate, whether it’s to try harder to attract partners or maybe you step your game up in other ways ― either way, the impact wasn’t positive,” Choi said. “There’s a lot of things that I feel personally I need to unlearn because of the conditioning over time.”
The actor acknowledges that because of the industry’s faulty portrayal of Asian men, he’s had to check himself. Oftentimes he’ll find himself second-guessing his own worth and value, he shared.
“When someone tells me, ‘This person is into you or attracted to you,’ my first thought is ‘Why?’” he said. “It doesn’t mean I wake up in the morning and I hate myself or I hate my physical features, but it’s just something that’s very inherent because of the brainwashing.”
Choi also got candid about how a toxic concept of masculinity — predicated on the misogynistic idea of “dominating the girl” — influenced his own behavior.
“You have to assert your dominance over the woman, and there’s no other way. That’s what makes you ‘a man,’” he said. “You’re not supposed to show emotion. You’re not supposed to talk about mental health. You’re not supposed to show moments of weakness or vulnerability or feminine energy.”
Growing up surrounded by these standards and without the example of Asian men as romantic leads, Choi admitted he “saw women as a thing to conquer to assure my own masculinity.”
“That’s toxic masculinity,” he definitively said.
The actor explained that it’s taken time for him to understand how the complexities of his heritage and background “give me layers as a person,” but he’s making inroads. And the increase in Asian American visibility is certainly helping.
This isn’t to say sufficient progress has been made, he noted. There are still problems with casting, and industry execs have yet to understand that taking risks on lesser-known names is necessary to move the culture forward.
“There are more Asian actors than just John Cho. John Cho can’t play every role,” he said. “There are people out there who can carry a movie. You have to give them the opportunity.”
Choi added that the success he’s personally experienced in the industry is partly due to the mentors he’s had. White actors can more swiftly find people to help them “get to the next level in the business. With Asian artists, it’s hard to even have that,” he said.
Citing people like his manager Ran Aubrey Frazier, a person of color who understands the challenges Choi is up against, the actor said he was lucky enough to meet people who saw something in him.
“A lot of Asian American actors who don’t come from connections or money, it’s hard to make it because there’s not a lot of people they can find mentors in,” he said. “I had a lot of help. I felt like I needed to ask questions and be a sponge, so I went out of my way to seek help in people, especially working actors and teachers, and went out of my way to pick peoples’ brains. It took a while, but it helped a lot.”
By the time I wrapped up my conversation with Choi, we’d spent about two hours talking about the state of Asian Americans in entertainment. Though some may argue that the craft should remain uninfluenced by politics, social justice and concerns about underrepresented communities, the actor disagreed.
“It’s important be well-informed about your own community,” he said. “I know you can’t know everything … but I think being an artist, you have to tell stories that reflect what’s going on in the world.”
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