A Conversation on Culture: Margaret Cho, Jeannie Mai, Keiko Agena and Asif Ali on Asian Excellence (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
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With Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month underway, ET gathered four trailblazing Hollywood storytellers and creators -- Margaret Cho, Jeannie Mai, Keiko Agena and Asif Ali -- for a candid, emotional, unfiltered and wide-ranging (virtual) chat earlier this month to discuss what being Asian means to them, how their distinct upbringings informed their career paths, the state of representation of Asian culture in mainstream media (and beyond) and how allies can join the fight against anti-Asian racism.
"It's our resilience. It's our resilience in the face of this adversity," Cho said during ET's "A Conversation of Culture," a platform to amplify and uplift powerful AAPI voices within the community, of what she's proudest of about being Asian, moderated by Denny Directo. "We've been a big part of America since 1849. And yet we have wasted so many eras of anti-Asian American racism, and yet still come back and stay here, stayed with it. I'm really proud of that."
The four Hollywood talents shared personal stories about their childhoods and how their experiences back then shaped how they carved out their own path now.
"There's no story greater than how all of our parents and our parents' parents got here. There's always a story of triumph, of struggle, of some type of exchange of assimilating, of having to become American and have to endure so much more racism that has obviously continued. And when I think about what my parents and my parents' parents have gone through, I feel so privileged today," said Mai, who co-hosts The Real. "I feel so honored because they paved the road for me. I'm not climbing on a boat with 13 other people to get here. I'm not trying to figure out the language to get my citizenship. So truly, my parents allowed me to learn what being fearless is like. And through that, I've really learned what being Vietnamese means for me."
"I'm really proud of Asian Americans, not only in the past, but also at this present moment, I feel like there's an energy and electricity and a need to connect," the Hawaii-born Agena, most known for originating the character of Lane Kim on Gilmore Girls, agreed, "but it is a challenge because we are so different. The Asian American identity is really an umbrella that is over a lot of us, but our individual family experiences are very different. And so this desire to be vulnerable and share our stories and put ourselves out there to connect with other people in the Asian American community is something to be admired. And I admire the people that are doing that now."
Ali, an Indian American comedian-actor who recently starred on WandaVision and next appears in Olivia Wilde's Don't Worry Darling, said it was "the sense of community" that makes being AAPI special. "Sometimes you feel like you have that distance, that sense of community and heritage and understanding of your own privilege and where you are now because of other people's sacrifices. And the continuing progression as a community to try to accomplish more and be more seen and heard and inclusive and representative, I think is what lies ahead [and what] I'm really excited about."
"I never saw Asian American faces or heard their stories on television and so you really feel invisible. When I started in the entertainment industry, it was really kind of starting out wondering if it was even possible," Cho acknowledged. "Asian Americans have now really forged a path and entertainment and we've had to create out of nothing because we didn't exist at all anywhere."
For Mai, it was her mother who pushed her to live her truth throughout her formative years and be outspoken.
"I'm really thankful that Mama Mai really made my identity something to celebrate as part of my personality, whereas some of my other relatives were like, 'Learn to speak English, get to move like them, dress like them. Because if you don't, they're going to continue looking at us like we're weird.' And what they meant was that they'll look at us like foreigners. In the Bay Area, where I'm from, there was a word called 'fob' thrown around and it was a bad thing to be a 'fob.' If you wore flip-flops, if you looked like you didn't speak English, you looked like you didn't get it, you couldn't dance, immediately, you were removed from the cool kids," she recalled, adding later, "Even though I thought being Asian was cool as far as being able to speak another language or looking different because a lot of the kids around my school were either white, Black or Hispanic, I still remember now that I did hide some things because 'Be Asian because you're unique, but don't be too much because you're going to scare people.' And don't show that you've got 15 people living in our house."
"Today I'm thankful because everything about myself is what still makes me unique, but also is what made me so proud to be where I am -- a person who came from the Bay... I built my name on just being Jeannie Mai. And that includes my heritage, my culture and all the things my mom had been telling me when I was young, but I didn't yet embrace it in totality until today," Mai added.
Ali grew up in Arizona and it wasn't until he left home to attend college in the Windy City that he realized how much life he was missing.
"I didn't realize how much I missed out on until I went there. There was a big Asian community and there was a big Indian community there, and it was very much more multicultural and diverse. And I didn't know, 'cause you don't know unless you have experienced the other side," the actor said. "I remember I got freaked out the first time I went to Chicago. I was at a stop sign and I was riding across the street and I felt weird. It was because it was the first time in my life there were 15 Indian people around me that I wasn't related to. It made me realize, 'Oh man, I really missed out on so much.' But it really made me then value and cherish all of those experiences moving forward. In my personal and professional life, I've tried to savor those moments and try to create more of them as much as I can because I really felt like, 'Man, I really missed out on a lot.' It gave me a different perspective on a lot of comedy; it's from people who feel like they're on the outside looking in and I definitely used that as a fuel to work on my craft."
Agena had a similar story, recalling how her parents' support of her desire to act as young child protected her from the realities of opportunities afforded to underrepresented communities in the entertainment and theater industries.
"I was completely comfortable and thought I could play any role because that's the way it was growing up in the theater scene there, until I got to college. That's when I had the rude awakening of 'You don't get to play just anything now.' I was auditioning for something, I forget the name of the play, but it was three British women in the 1800s. And it wasn't until I was standing in front of the callback board and my name wasn't on it, that it then dawned on me at age 18 that it might possibly be because I'm Asian," Agena shared. "That was a whole transition to bring my naivete in line with reality."
Cho and Mai, natives of the Bay Area, also addressed the rise of violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in the United States. Cho put it bluntly, "It's really terrible. I think it's really scary. It doesn't seem to be abating. Actually, it seems to be accelerating. And it's just terrifying. I don't understand it anymore, but I can feel that the community has really come together to help people. What's sad is they're really targeting elders, which is really very painful and really hard to take. Hopefully there'll be an end to it. But at least we are coming together and trying to stop it."
Added Mai: "I agree with you, especially since, Margaret, the Bay is truly an example of a melting pot. There's not one overall race. There's an area where Indian people just be killing it out there. Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Black, Puerto Rican, Dominican. It's everything, and you can see it in the kids. When you walk through the Bay, no kid is just one race. There's a lot of mixed race kids and it's really beautiful."
"How many times have you sat there reading the script, saying 'Stop AAPI [Hate],' raising money for GoFundMe... I've done it all," she said. "The crimes are continuing. President Biden already addressed this, as we know, almost a month ago now. The flag was lowered, half mast, nothing ceased, nothing has stopped. It has only gotten worse. So I'm throwing this out there to you guys, my friends. I don't know what we can do. What is left to do?"
The answer, the panelists conclude, may not be a simple one. But first, allies can join the fight to combat anti-Asian sentiment by simply using their voices and platforms.
"It's getting up and talking about it. It's getting up and talking about it," Cho emphasized. "Whether it's the Atlanta shootings, whether it's the shootings in Indiana at FedEx... all of these crimes are hate crimes. And to acknowledge that this has to stop... The world has to get in the middle of it."
"Everybody has to roll their sleeves up and get into this. People who have the ability to showcase our stories, let our stories be heard," Mai added. "Consequences need to take place. This is where legislation has to change. This is where we have to take control of our voting power in order to get in there and fill in those positions of power with more faces of color and then activate your vote to make sure that you're voting in the right places."
Agena expressed that because of the renewed energy over bringing to the forefront AAPI voices, it's reinvigorated her outlook on the types of projects and roles she pursues now.
"The need is happening right now. I used to think, 'It would be nice when we can have leads and three-dimensional characters and whole families of Asian descent for the general public. It's not a 'nice to have.' It's a 'must to have,'" she said. "It feels very present right now. There's a rawness. All of that energy is pushing me to feel more and demand more and expect more for myself from what we write, how we support each other, what we demand from the people that we work with and what we want to see."
As for the type of work from within the AAPI community they're inspired by, they all agree there's a lot to get excited for with the future of Asian talent.
"There's definitely a few people who I see as everyday heroes. Lisa Ling is one of them constantly turning up people's stories. She works tirelessly to make sure they're amplified. Daniel Dae Kim...in going in front of Congress. We've got a group chat where he's day in, day out, in between movies and stuff, but he's always checking in to make sure, what are we all doing on the ground to make sure that we have our support?" Mai said. "Gold House is another great place that has just recently recognized their A100 and they put out a beautiful video about what Asian Americans have done to contribute to society."
"What gets me really excited is how much more control we seem to be taking as a community. Instead of waiting around and seeing what is being given to us, in these past few years, it's become more imperative for us to have that confidence to be like, 'You know what, instead of waiting for that thing to be made, I'm going to go make it myself. And I'm going to demand that you take this out of the script and here's why, or this is what you guys should do,'" Ali said. "Taking more ownership and more proactive, in any aspect of what we're doing. As a collective, I think we're really moving in a good direction."
"Now we are doing it ourselves. Once you start writing, producing, then you have more control and that's what I think is so wonderful about you three," Agena directed to Cho, Mai and Ali. "You're writers, you're comedians, you're telling your own story. I'm getting chills because that's so important. As an actor, I say other people's words, but even me, I'm saying, 'No, I have to say my own words too now and start to put myself out there.' So I'm really happy to be on this panel with you. I'm happy to see what's coming in the future."
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which celebrates the contributions and influences of the Asian community. To capture the current state of representation in entertainment, ET Online will be spotlighting Asian performers and projects all month long.
For more AAPI Heritage Month content, watch below.