My friend Hope is a musician, educator, and theater-maker. Her ability to hypnotize children with the power of song has been described by some as “Disney Princess-esque”. After sharing a delightful, mid-week brunch (I’m just going to say the words “pork belly” and “fried egg” to you and let your mind paint the picture) I interviewed Hope about growing up Asian American and her current role in the A-Squared Theatre Workshop: My Asian Mom.
So, Hope, what are you all about?
What am I all about! Well, that’s a hard question! I am Korean American. I think that defines me. I have a Christian faith, that’s very important to me. I am a music and piano teacher, who is also acting.
Right, so you’ve been acting in a show called My Asian Mom. Can you tell our readers a little bit about that?
My Asian Mom is made up of separate ten-minute vignettes, all with the theme of… My Asian Mom. Quote unquote!
So it’s all original works? Premieres?
Yeah, original works– world premieres. We have writers from San Francisco, New York, and Chicago who submitted writing just for the show. We also have some previously written work with segments sampled in the show. Mia [Mia Park, who also produced the show] and myself wrote our own monologues, about our own lives, our Asian moms, and living in Chicago.
I’m so excited to see it. So, it’s very culturally specific, then.
Mia is actually from New York originally, but she’s been living in Chicago for over 15 years, so I think she considers Chicago her home.
How do you feel that your cultural background informed your perception of “beauty”?
[laughing] Well…to be honest…
Be honest. Be real.
To be realistic and honest, being a Korean person…it’s very hard on you. Culturally, outer beauty is very important in Korea.
Appearance is important to Koreans.
Generally, yes, because they can really judge. It can be all about how skinny you are, how pretty you are…even guys these days in Korea seem to really care a lot about their appearance. Fortunately, I don’t live in Korea. I am a Korean person who was raised in America, so I try not to be so much a part of that.
Obviously it can be a big part of American culture as well. How do the two intersect for you? Or do they?
They do coincide because…I don’t want to define all Korean people as being shallow, but, at the same time…for example, last time I was in Korea, my relatives were like, “Oh my god. You’re so fat.”
Everywhere I went, and you know, I hadn’t seen them in years…
Of course, and that’s the first thing they say to you.
Yeah, why are you so fat, and why are you not married.
Right, A) Why are you fat and B)…
Why aren’t you married? You’re an old maid! I actually tried to lose weight before I went there, because I know how they are.
Oh my gosh. In preparation for the trip, you did?
I did. And I actually lost weight before I went to Korea, but I was still “fat”.
Still fat to Koreans. That’s just… crazy.
But you know here, my size is considered average. But here, for me personally, I don’t have to think about that. I don’t feel like the culture here makes me think about my weight as much. Here it’s more about me wanting to be healthy. Healthy inside and out.
Did it take you a long time to come to that conclusion? In my own experience, being biracial [Asian and Caucasian], I don’t necessary fit into a lot of “types”. So I didn’t see myself on TV, I didn’t see myself in magazines…and so I didn’t always feel pretty because I didn’t know it was “okay” to look the way that I looked, if that makes sense.
What was it like growing up in an American culture for you, as a Korean American person, as far as how you felt about how you look?
And I do not look anything like Lucy Liu…except maybe the hair color.
The resemblance kind of stops there…I mean it stops there completely.
So I didn’t see anything growing up. I didn’t look up to Asian beauty growing up here. But, you know, I think in high school everyone goes through identity stuff. I kind of wished I was Caucasian. I wished I had blonde hair and blue eyes, and I was wondering why I was Asian. Right now I’m proud to be an Asian American, and now, I embrace my culture more. Growing up I was far away from it, as opposed to my sister, who’s always been like, “K.P.!” which is “Korean Pride.”
Okay so when you were younger, you didn’t really identify too much?
I didn’t really have any Asian friends.
And you wanted to fit in with your peers.
Right…I felt like, why am I Asian? I live in America. I wished to have been born Caucasian.
And do you think, like, if there had been like a sitcom starring a young Korean woman on TV…how would that have made you feel as a young person?
That would’ve been really cool. Well, actually, what’s her name…there’s a Korean stand-up comic–
Yes! She did have a sitcom.
Oh right! She did.
From what I remember there were some creative differences on the show…like she wanted it to be one way, executives wanted another.
There are a lot of sitcoms about Latino-American families and African-American families, and white families…obviously, it would have been great to see one for Asian-American families. Margaret Cho tried it and it didn’t work. I mean, ratings were too low.
She has some jokes about this in her stand-up too, because she always wanted to perform and be an actress, but when she was younger she didn’t have many role models. So she has this joke where she’s like “Maybe, someday, I could be an extra on M*A*S*H!”
[laughing] Even as an aspiring actress in Chicago, it’s been hard because if I don’t do shows with my theater company or another Asian American theater company, it’s hard to get cast. Because they don’t blind cast as much. There are limited roles, and I didn’t realize there are so many Asian actresses in Chicago!
Right, so you’re competing with them.
Exactly, so it’s difficult to get cast. But you know, I’m in my thirties now, and I’ve done some growing up. I’m proud of my ethnicity.
You’re comfortable with who you are. So, does the kind of thing we’re talking about appear in the My Asian Mom show at all?
Actually, no! There’s nothing about beauty– maybe I should write a monologue about my mom calling me fat.
I’m surprised by that. I ask, because I would assume there would be. I mean, you grow up American, but your family has this other ideal…I feel like this is a big issue for a lot of first-generation American women.
You know, I used to be really skinny and then I gained weight in high school. And my mom said (and still talks about it today) that I should have listened to her and worn tighter clothes back then and I wouldn’t be fat.
So, I used to be a cheerleader and I would wear these shorts with elastic bands. So, she said that I got fat because I would wear these comfortable shorts and pants and I didn’t realize I was gaining weight.
Also that I ate too much cheese.
Like Americans eat too much cheese, and cheese is bad for you because it makes you big. Yet, even while she complained that I was fat, she would still make me a really good Korean meal, more like a feast, when I came home from school, back in college. Oh, Moms…
See, this is why I’m surprised that this isn’t in the show, because I feel like I’ve had this exact same conversation with every Asian woman I’ve ever met. Like, how does your mom feel about you? Oh, she thinks I’m fat.
We did not cover that somehow…there are so many other topics to cover….Moms.
Well, yeah, it’s definitely a rich subject matter.
But, if I was having a one-woman-show…I would definitely put that in. I mean she’s still talking about this.
Even though you’re a comfortable, confident woman in your thirties!
When she sees me, she’s like, if you had only listened to me back in high school, you wouldn’t have work so hard now to lose weight.
Why do you think that’s such a value for Asian women? To be small.
I don’t know why that is. I mean, when I go to Korea I can’t find clothes that fit me. I would probably wear like a “large”. I mean, here I’m average, but there I feel like a large woman. I don’t know why they think thin is so beautiful but– I mean, all over, there’s the “modeling world”…and that’s what’s most beautiful to them, right?
Yeah, it’s definitely not isolated to Asia, the idea that thin is the best.
No, and you know, Korea is really fashion forward. Like, probably six months ahead of us in terms of fashion. Almost neck and neck with France. I think that has something to do with it. Even guys there like to be really thin– with the tight pants that are in right now and everything.
Do you watch any Korean television or Korean movies?
I don’t watch much, my parents do. They have like ten Korean channels, so I’ll watch when I’m with them, in the kitchen or whatever.
I wonder, do you see a lot of diverse female characters in Korea media? Or is it similar to American TV, where female roles can be somewhat narrow?
So Korean dramas are really like…dramas…
Soapy, it’s all dramatic and about revenge and rivalry. They do have powerful women; for Korean women to rise in their careers, it’s acceptable. I see that in the dramas that my parents watch. But then there are a lot of roles for women who are like, staying home to cook. I don’t think that perspective has completely gone away.
Do you have any closing thoughts for us?
Everyone is beautiful in their own unique way and what makes a person beautiful is their uniqueness. You are special and beautiful because God made you that way. We really need to remember that beauty is not only what we see on the outside but what is inside. (Not to sound too cliché!) Be confident, happy and healthy!
My Asian Mom is closing this weekend at The Den Theatre in Chicago! Get your tickets here, or show up at the door with your student ID for the student rate. Please enjoy these parting words from Margaret Cho: