Representations and “Bigger Issues”
I used to think very little of representation. So you don’t see yourself in the TV shows you watch. Big deal. Shouldn’t you be worrying about bigger issues?
And then I became a media student. I became more aware of how the media texts we consume and produce directly affect the so-called “bigger issues.” They help shape how we perceive ourselves and others. They shape public opinion. They dictate how to think about things and what to think about in the first place. They affect issues of nationalism, racism, policies–the so-called “bigger issues.”
Prosthetics and Dolls
I saw a moving video that best sums up why representation is important. 10-year-old Emma lives with a prosthetic leg. Her family surprised her with a doll which has a prosthetic leg, too!
The doll came from A Step Ahead. In an interview with Buzzfeed, Daniel Klepner, the spokesperson for A Step Ahead, wrote, “We fabricate each doll prosthetics here in our shop alongside the ‘real’ prosthetics that we make for our patients, and we paint each one by hand.” He said the company’s philosophy is that the customized dolls “can have a profound effect on the self-esteem and sense of inclusion” of kids with limb loss.” (Source)
Emma was so happy with the doll. She screamed, cried, and hugged the doll throughout the video.
Emma’s mom wrote about how she knew Emma would love the doll, but she didn’t know how much Emma really needed it.
I saw this story on my Facebook timeline, and the most liked comment on the story surprised me. Kristen Kris Rodgers wrote,
“And people wonder why we say representation is important. ALL representation. Remember this the next time someone questions why we need to see more of anything that isn’t just the everyday majority able bodied white people.
Many comments were about how touching it was to see Emma shouting, “It’s got a leg like mine!” and “Thank you for making a doll just like me!”
Out of all the academics readings I’ve had to study about on representation, this brief homemade video was the simplest way to explain the importance of representation. Seeing the impact it made on such a micro level, on the eyes of a little girl, was so touching to witness.
My Thesis: Chinese in the Philippines
Ironically, despite how I first viewed representation, my undergraduate thesis became all about representation.
I studied the representation of Chinese-Filipinos in the media. As I became more immersed with the media texts, I also became more aware of the tangible effects these representations had in my life. There were funny misconceptions like my non-existent abilities in Math, or ala-Mano Po questions on my non-existent love life.
But there were more serious encounters like boing told to “go back to China.” (I’ve never been to China.) Or hearing people say that Chinoys are underserving to receive a UP education. That we are not “true Filipinos.”
These encounters slowly made me realize that representation isn’t about ego or vanity. It’s not about being so full of yourself that you want to see yourself or the group you belong to on TV.
Representation is about asserting identities, belongingness, positions.
I guess this is why Crazy Rich Asians instantly became one of my favorite books.
I love how this book positions itself as a powerful movement against whitewashing. I appreciate the emphasis on just representation of Asians in the media without ever soudning preachy or whiney.
I used one credit on Audible to listen to the Crazy Rich Asians audiobook. It was confusing in the beginning to identify how all these character were related. (But that’s how it often is with big Asian families!) I appreciate how the characters were written. This book reminds me of a quote I saw before, “There are no shallow characters. Just shallowly written ones.”
While this book has its fair share of antagonists, I think these antagonists were still likable at best and entertaining at worst. The whole narrative poked fun at their idiosyncrasies and the collective myopia that plagued most of those who had expansive, unimaginable wealth. But being with these characters wasn’t alienating, because the narration felt like being with a witty and down to earth tour guide. (Even some of the footnotes were funny!)
One important thing I realized as I refined my arguments for this thesis is the issue on identity. In some ways, we unintentionally see the world through binary oppositions. I declare I am a Filipino, because I am not Chinese. I have never been to China. I do not identify at all with the people in China.
However, there is a need to clarify what “Chinese means.” I may not identify with the Mainland Chinese, but I do identify with the Overseas Chinese.
This was a huge realization from me, thanks to reading Crazy Rich Asians. In one of the early chapters, the characters had a conversation about the two kinds of Chinese:
“How is it possible that these Chinese have been rich for generations? I thought they were all penniless Communists in drab little Mao uniforms not too long ago.”
“Well, first of all, you must understand that there are two kinds of Chinese. There are the Chinese from Mainland China, who made their fortunes in the past decade like all the Russians, but then there are the Overseas Chinese. These are the ones who left China long before the Communists came in, in many cases hundreds of years ago, and spread throughout the rest of Asia, quietly amassing great fortunes over time. If you look at all the countries in Southeast Asia—especially Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia—you’ll see that virtually all the commerce is controlled by the Overseas Chinese. Like the Liems in Indonesia, the Tans in the Philippines…”
The characters of those books are mostly overseas Chinese families who are based in Singapore, and they jetset across America, London, and Australia. There were no Chinese-Filipino main characters, yet I was struck with how there were so similarities between their culture and the Chinese-Filipino culture: the curse words, expressions, food, idiosyncrasies, erratic and judgmental aunts, traditions, gender roles, and complex politics behind weddings.
This led me to analyze that while I, as a Chinese-Filipino, may not identify with the Mainland Chinese culture, I still identify with the Overseas Chinese culture. Therefore, when I say I am a Filipino, it is not enough to justify that claim by saying “because I am not Chinese.” My Chinese-ness is not limited to my ethnicity only, because my culture is highly influenced by that of the Overseas Chinese and many other cultures.
However, that should not make me any less of a Filipino.
This book has all the elements of an irresistible chick lit. For some, this might be a relaxing read by the beach over the break. But for me, it’s the kind of book that changes how you position yourself in the world around you.
Photos by Zeus Martinez Photography
HMU by Gela Martinez