I’m wearing a polyester chong sam, sitting at the entrance to a dingy Chinese restaurant in La Paz, with cameras and crew nearby and a stylist furiously brushing my hair.
Production assistants tape red pieces of paper with random calligraphy to the walls. The director debates whether the fish tank should be visible on the set.
“Don’t you have any other shoes, heels or something?” the costume coordinator asks me, frowning at my leather boots. As if it’s my job as an actress to source my own footwear for the role.
Wait — Did I just call myself an actress?
Unexpected and bordering on the absurd, the story of how I ended up in a Bolivian TV commercial is a great anecdote that also asks some bigger questions about cultural identity.
(Scroll all the way down if you’re impatient to see the commercial. But trust me, you want the whole story.)
Conquering the Chinese
Having struggled to find a Napoleon-seducing Asian femme fatale, the casting agent is pleased and relieved when a mutual friend passes her my number.
“It’s hard to find Asian women for advertising here,” she tells me. “Anyway, it’s a cute story, isn’t it?”
As far as TV commercials go, it is kind of cute. The premise is this: A Bolivian schoolgirl recounts the history of the discovery of the Americas, misinterpreting key details. Napoleon didn’t conquer China, much less a Chinese woman. Neither did Columbus, for that matter — he just thought he’d found Asia when he landed on a Caribbean island.
The entertainment value provided by the schoolgirl’s ignorance draws on some clever wordplay. In Spanish, “conquistar la China” refers to imperial conquest, while the almost identical “conquistar a la china” means to seduce or win the heart of a Chinese girl. The whole commercial as a story turns on this kind of wit.
But it seems to me that this joke ignorance is, unwittingly, indicative of a broader lack of awareness in society about ethnic identity and the world as a multiethnic, multicultural place.
“What kind of Asian are you?”
Even in explaining my role to me, the casting agent offhandedly says I’m supposed to be “some kind of Asian; Chinese or Japanese or whatever, it doesn’t really matter.”
In Ecuador and Bolivia, I’m often asked if I’m Korean — not because I look particularly Korean, but because South Korean soap operas are extremely popular in Latin America (who knew?).
Meanwhile, friends and strangers alike still refer to me as la chinita – literally “the little Chinese woman,” but used as a generic term for any Asian chick, because we all look the same to them.
My friends, knowing I’m an Australian who’s never been to China, often ask me if I find this offensive. I tell them no, because my DNA is Chinese despite my upbringing. Perhaps it would be a different story if I were, say, Japanese or Korean.
For some reason, I don’t have an emotional response to being lumped into the same category with all the other East Asians. Everybody does it. Hell, even I can’t always tell the difference between us, so I don’t blame them.
Is that weird?
Later, in my scene with Napoleon (played by a middle-aged Argentine), I’m asked to purr in Cantonese while he strokes my face with a fake rose.
Talk about awkward.
My limited ability in this language makes it even more ridiculous. I fumble something along the lines of, “What are you doing tonight? What do you want to eat?” It’s the best I can manage in terms of attempting to pick up in Cantonese. Though really, for all intents and purposes, I could whisper “The cat sat on the mat” seductively and no one would be the wiser.
The character I play reinforces the existing sexualization of women in general (and of Asian women, specifically).
As it is, with beauty pageants everywhere and skin-tight clothing the norm, women in Latin America seem to me to be more sexualized even from a young age than women in Australia. The wolf-whistling and stares in the streets take some getting used to, but it helps that it isn’t ever really personal — and, in fact, it’s a normal part of life for many foreigners.
Add to that a clear fascination with Far East culture — such as the aforementioned Korean soap operas — and you can start to see why I might feel exotic on a good day, and fetishised on a bad day.
Orientalism traditionally maintains a view of the passive, even repressed, East Asian female. As one Ecuadorian friend once said to me (referring to her favorite Korean soap opera), “I love how they contain their feelings.”
They love it because it’s so different from the Latin melodrama and the left-right-and-center emoting that they see in their own soap operas.
Now, this image of the submissive Asian woman has evolved into a more dominatrix-type figure, popularly exemplified by Lucy Liu’s biggest roles (think Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill). The role I’m cast in — the Oriental vamp that an old white guy tries to seduce — seems an attempt to straddle these two extremes.
Being Asian-Australian in the Andes
So what about those shoes?
The crew thinks the restaurant owner might have a pair in my size, and they ask me to talk to her because she doesn’t understand Spanish. I speak Spanish but not Cantonese — not really.
Shouldn’t it be the other way around? After all, I am ethnically Chinese.
I manage to make myself understood, and after some toing and froing, we find some footwear for me. This is followed by take after take of me sweeping aside a curtain to make my grand appearance – and of course the fake rose scene.
A few months later and the commercial airs on national TV to the excitement of my friends and colleagues. I end up scoring another advertising role and this time my friends spot me not only on TV, but also in newspapers and a magazine.
The whole thing reminds me that I’m a cultural oddity: A Malaysian-born, Australian-raised, Chinese woman living in Bolivia.
Back home, the concept of an Asian-Australian is so common and normal that I barely ever get asked what my “heritage” is. Political correctness is part of the reason my background isn’t often discussed.
Meanwhile, overseas I’m constantly asked where my parents are from, or where I’m really from.
Here, the dissonance is striking. My tongue doesn’t match my face and my face doesn’t match my passport.
[Tweet “”My tongue doesn’t match my face and my face doesn’t match my passport.””]
And to be honest, I like this.
I like that everyone has to revisit their assumptions when they meet me. You see a Chinese face, hear Spanish spoken from this mouth, and get to know an Australian who’s now lived in a few different places. I like to challenge the stereotypes.
And maybe that’s why this whole TV thing was so bizarre and confronting — it was about playing to the stereotypes, rather than challenging them.