The Color Yellow
Anna Dang on the film industry, Asian identity and life.
Anna Dang’s parents were ten years old when they left Vietnam for the United States. They were first-wave South Vietnamese war refugees, but they were also children — old enough to understand the events unfolding but too young to have any say. In April of 1975, as the city of Saigon descended into violence and the war came to an end, Anna’s parents arrived in the United States. The war was over, two million Vietnamese citizens were dead and 1.6 million Vietnam War
refugees were displaced.
But, in America, these stories lose their individuality. The lives of these immigrants are defined in American terms, becoming whitewashed the instant they leave the victor’s lips. In America, the word Vietnam is nearly synonymous with that of the war.
“When we say Vietnam in America, we aren’t talking about Vietnamese people,” Anna said. “We are talking about the Vietnam War and, really, what we’re talking about is the Americans in Vietnam and the Americans who died in Vietnam— which is of course very, very sad and a tragedy — but we’re not talking about the millions of Vietnamese people that died.”
Anna’s family members have dealt with years of breathing problems following their exposure to Agent Orange — a deadly chemical used for herbicidal warfare — during the Vietnam War. Her parents are still dealing with the after-effects of their experiences as war refugees, both in America and Vietnam,
So is Anna.
Anna’s parents divorced when she was ten years old. Her father moved to Florida, and Anna stayed in Ann Arbor with her mother. But even before that, Anna’s family had never been a particularly traditional American or Asian family. Anna’s parents didn’t speak Vietnamese at home; they rarely cooked Vietnamese food, and had few interactions with Vietnamese people outside of the family. Their lives, and the decisions that they made, were representative of their experiences not only as war refugees but also as Vietnamese immigrants in America. For them, concepts like love, family, and success work differently.
Anna was raised in an upper-middle-class family; her parents were not. They had, at some time in their life, only two to three shirts and pants to call their own. They had lived through and experienced deep poverty and, because of this, became to see wealth and success as synonymous. Anna did not have these experiences. Not only was she not a war refugee, but she was also a born and raised American — one who possessed varying beliefs and values from her first-wave parents.
Before their divorce, much of Anna’s parents’ energy was centralized around her older brother— the eldest male of the family — and, because of this, Anna was given the space to indulge and explore her interests in the arts. But the divorce hit her brother hard: He stopped doing many of the activities he had been doing before and the pressure was transferred to Anna.
Anna’s interests in music and the arts were pushed to the side. For years it had been an accepted fact that no matter how much Anna’s interests wandered, she would eventually end up attending medical school and following in the footsteps of her mother and father — both doctors who had attended medical school at Harvard University and completed training at Johns Hopkins University. Anna’s parents viewed medical school not as a suggestion, but as a necessity. In their minds, it was the most honorable and secure profession for Anna. Medical school meant a steady income; it was a future they could rely on.
Even as Anna’s interests stray further and further from medical studies, he continues to send her medical scholarships on an almost daily basis, the emails stacking up in her inbox with few opened or read.
“He really cares about this idea of success,” Anna said. “He’s very afraid that I won’t be successful and won’t be [able] to carry on this thing that he’s built. [To him,] it’s like success is happiness.”
From the days of elementary school productions to larger middle-school centered theater troupe shows, Anna’s love of theater began at a young age. But, between the years of local productions and her current interests in film and theater, there was a break — one spurred not by Anna herself but by an experience that would forever change the ways in which Anna understood not only theater but also herself.
Thirteen-year-old, brace-faced Anna Dang didn’t know what yellowface was. She didn’t know what it meant, and she certainly didn’t know when to look for it. So when the producers of her show “The King and I,” run by an Ann Arbor-based theater troupe, asked for the white actors of the production to purchase foundation “two dips darker” than their skin tone, all she knew was that it made her uncomfortable.
In Anna’s production of “The King and I”— a show about a white woman who falls in love with a Thai king — the role of the king, as well as his nobles, were given to white actors. Anna, on the other hand, alongside the five to six other Asian actors in the production — a number notably higher than usual — were given parts in the ensemble.
As her peers took on “Asian” accents and applied “two-dips darker” foundation to their faces, Anna was overcome by a sense of confusion. Not only was she confused by the production itself but also by the discomfort she felt watching her peers engage in such activities.
In the same way that Anna was never able to explain to her white peers what was wrong with “positive stereotypes,” Anna never knew how to convey her discomfort with being cited, time and time again, as the only Vietnamese person people had ever met. She felt the same way when it came to yellowface.
“When it comes to Asian diversity, I think Asian culture is kind of seen as a landscape and not really [individual] people,” Anna said. “I remember people being like ‘Oh that’s so cool. I’ve never met a Vietnamese person before.’ But I’m obviously not representative of all the socio-economic classes, or anything like that, of Vietnamese people.”
Anna’s only line in “The King and I” was the sentence “You like us?” And yet, even with such a small role and such a short line, Anna was told again and again by her peers that the only reason she had received it was because she was Asian.
In the packed lecture hall of an Asian/Pacific Islander (A/PI) “History of Images” lecture, Anna finally discovered what “two dips darker” really meant; there, she learned the explanation for the years of discomfort that had plagued Anna since her time in “The King and I.”
“[Allowing a production such as ‘The King and I’ to be performed’ says that you can just wear [other people’s] culture, play their culture, and play their experiences without knowing them,” Anna said. “I think a lot of actors don’t take responsibility for their actions, and they need to do.”
Anna didn’t participate in her high school’s theater program. Between her father and her own experiences in “The King and I,” it didn’t feel worth it. Art didn’t seem worth it. So Anna threw herself into her father’s dream, and she began to wear it like her very own.
She binge-watched Grey’s Anatomy, convinced herself she could be heartless like Sandra Oh, and decided that plastic-surgery could be creative. But, in the back of her mind, it never felt right. She couldn’t make her parent’s dream fit her, no matter how hard she tried.
In high school, Anna participated in her school’s Communications, Media, and Public Policy (CMPP) magnet, a program targeted on educating students on specific fields and topics. There, Anna was introduced to things like video production and basic public policy. From there, Anna’s professional interests began to stray further from her parents’ preached future of a big-shot doctor.
It wasn’t until her freshman year at the University of Michigan that Anna took her first film class. It was one of the hardest classes she had ever taken, but it was also her favorite. From there Anna joined a film club and began to attend more and more film related events. At a U of M sponsored career fair, Anna was able to connect with a wide network of film professionals and realize the validity of a career in the film industry.
Film was a way for Anna to share her experiences and also those of her family. It was a culmination of all of her interests in one beautiful, creative focus. She fell in love with film, and the love it gave back to her — in the form of creative freedom and limitless storytelling — allowing her to finally rebel, once and for all, against the things she had been told her entire life. Art was not meaningless. Film was not stupid.
It was through film that Anna was able to first define herself on her own terms, as both Vietnamese and American. It allowed her the creative space to understand the importance of the stories her parents had told her whole life — about the war, their home, and their culture — and share them with others. And it was absolute freedom of expression and sharing that led Anna to major in film studies at the U of M and, beyond that, devote herself to the art of storytelling itself.
“I’ve been told these stories [about my family, people, and culture] my entire childhood, and my entire life,” Anna said. “They’ve kind of been the thing that has kept my culture inside me, because my parents don’t cook Vietnamese food, we don’t speak Vietnamese, [and] there were no Vietnamese people around. Those stories meant a lot to me and, naturally, growing up, I would ask my parents to tell me a story; I got a story every single day — sometimes the same story over again.”
It wasn’t until college that Anna was able to realize the many differences that existed between her family and other Vietnamese families. In joining clubs like the A/PI organization Anna was able to connect with a large network of fellow Vietnamese students. But it was also the first time she had ever felt explicitly different from other Vietnamese youth. The affirming feeling of being able to relate her childhood experiences to that of her peers was overshadowed by a feeling of distance.
“It was weirdly affirming because a lot of things from my childhood were really similar — the biggest thing [being] having divorced parents,” Anna said. “Then, at the same time, I still do feel there’s a lot of things that I don’t have in common with a lot of Vietnamese people here. I don’t speak Vietnamese; I can’t even say my real name.”
Within the Vietnamese-American community, Anna is relatively privileged. She is the daughter of two successful doctors, she has never had to worry about money, and she has a level of security allowing her to endeavor into as risky of a major as film. But these differences, that in many ways separate her from her fellow Vietnamese-American peers, are often translated into words like “white” or “whitewashed.”
“In the Vietnamese community, we can be problematic,” Anna said. “As you can see [with] my parents not supporting me [and] a lot of people in the Vietnamese community calling my major easy or ‘not as serious.’ I’ve definitely been called white quite a few times, [but] I don’t like the term whitewashed because, to myself, I’m very Vietnamese.”
While Anna has found a community of Vietnamese students within the greater U of M, she is one of few Asian students within the film department and the only Vietnamese film major. While many of her white peers attribute their interests in film to relatives in the industry or a love of childhood movies, Anna’s love of film stems much more from its ability to tell stories. And yet the industry is lacking. While thousands to millions of movies and television are produced yearly, a staggering few of them include Asian representation, and even fewer Vietnamese. When researching the field, it’s hard for Anna to not to feel discouraged, to not feel hopeless. With such a lack of Asian representation, Anna has few role models within the field. But, in a way, this lack of representation also drives Anna. It reminds her of the importance of what she is doing because, the reality is, if Anna doesn’t share her stories — those of her own experiences but also of her family and fellow Asian and Vietnamese peers — who will? More than that, who will hear them? Who will learn from them?
The answer sometimes feels like nobody, like Anna is completely alone in her upward battle for Asian representation. But she isn’t. With films like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, 2018 was a record-making year for Asian representation. From Constance Wu to Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians was a breakout film: the first ever all-Asian romantic comedy to hit big screens. And while Anna loved the film, seeing it six times in theaters, with different groups of friends, and countless times after, the film is not representative of most Asian-Americans, in fact the majority of them. Centralizing on an extremely wealthy Chinese family living in Singapore, Crazy Rich Asians is a niche film, focusing on an exception in the majority fold of Asian-American immigrants.
Anna didn’t grow up with Asian role-models. She didn’t see them in mainstream media and her parents never sought them out for her. Oh was the first Asian character she had ever experienced — a cutting doctor represented as willing to do anything possible to make it within her field — and really one of her only examples when it came to things like romance and relationships.
White love was everywhere. It was plastered across billboards, televisions screens and nearly every multimedia platform accessible by a young teenage girl. When it came to Asian love, there was no clear example for Anna. Even before the divorce, her parents slept in separate beds and fought almost on the daily in the months leading up to their separation. And there certainly weren’t Asian rom-coms for her to watch; there were hardly any Asian actors in the industry.
That was, until 2018.
“After [watching Crazy Rich Asian and To All the Boys I’ve Loved before], I realized [I] don’t like rom-coms because they make me feel like I’m incapable of love. I’m never in them, and I relate to the characters, but they are never truly like me.”
Classified as a “quiet girl,” Condor’s character of Kitty in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before felt relatable to Anna in a way that many movies characters never did. While the film of course mentioned Kitty’s ethnic background — half-Korean and half-white — the film did not centralize around it. It was refreshing in its simplicity: a film about a seemingly ordinary biracial teenager living a seemingly ordinary life. It told an underrepresented story to the masses, a goal which Anna holds central to her film philosophy.
For Anna, film is all about telling stories. And seeing ones similar to her own, especially in the form of film and multimedia, pushes her to remember the significance her own work makes. Being able to see people that look like you, ones with similar backgrounds and experiences, is a norm for many white children. But growing Anna never had those role models to look up to. Years later, while as a film major at the U of M, she is making her own role models and learning to love the expression and understanding film has given her. She is telling her own stories but also the stories of her peers.
“I think film is a lot about stories and narratives, and I have a lot of those that I’ve been told growing up,” Anna said. “So, really finding my purpose has been somethings that drives me. If I don’t tell our stories, or push for it, who will hear them.”