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As the sun sets on another Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continue to weather a year like no other: one that has seen unprecedented achievements in high-profile arenas like politics and entertainment, coupled with an escalation in violence, hostility and everyday reminders that Americans of AAPI descent are still not universally accepted in their own country. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s Stephanie Hsu, who joined the award-winning Amazon dramedy’s third season as Mei Lin, a Chinese American woman who helps Joel navigate Chinatown and open his own club, shares the personal pain of xenophobia as well as the hope that the work of storytelling can combat animosity and foster a sense of belonging for the AAPIs who call America home.
In February, my partner and I stopped by one of our favorite small town grocery stores on the western slope of Colorado. The shop is nothing fancy; in fact, it kind of looks like a 1980s gas station. At first glance, you might even worry that it’s carpeted (don’t worry, it’s not). The produce is surprisingly fresh, and every time we’re in the area we always go in hopes of finding one of our favorite treats — local watermelon radishes. Masks on, we hopped out of the car and were headed toward the store when two young boys, maybe 11 or 12 years old, walked past me and muttered something along the lines of “Go back to China!” before sprinting off.
I was shocked. Shocked that through all my layers of winter clothing, not to mention my mask, they could tell I was Chinese. And I was shocked that in 2021, two boys — young enough to be shorter than I am — could leave me in such a state of complete paralysis.
Despite my insistence to let it slide, my partner was adamant that we go find them so they could apologize to me. When we rounded the corner to the parking lot, the boys were hiding behind cars, nervous, their preteen prepubescent fear of adults showing. We walked up to them, partially like adults ready to reprimand some naughty children, but mostly like little kids who had mustered up enough courage to confront the playground bullies. They apologized, sincerely, and we walked away. As soon as we turned to head back to the grocery store, I started to cry.
When I tell the story of how I first met Mei of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, it always begins the same:
My first thought was a hard “No.” I hadn’t read the material, and I hadn’t watched the show, but I was deep in the tunnel vision of tech rehearsals for the Broadway musical Be More Chill — spending every waking minute at the theater, humidifier blasting, speaking only when necessary to save my voice. I had zero capacity for any auditions. I knew Maisel had earned every fancy accolade that could ever be accoladed, and that Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino were as brilliant as they in fact are, but I was still scared of the jokes that I might find on the page — slanty eyes, broken English, a dragon lady in a high collar smoking a long cigarette pinched between curled red nails. Yes, my mind went there because I’ve seen every version of that Chinese woman portrayed. And, let’s be honest, you have too. So when I was given a description of Mei — a strong, funny, bilingual Chinese American love interest in 1960s Chinatown — I naturally thought, “Yeah right, no way.”
Then, I read the script.
We finished filming season three of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in September of 2019 and now, almost two years later and not to mention amid a global pandemic, we are almost done filming season four. And it is one of my greatest joys to play Mei.
It’s a confusing time to be Asian. Each success arrives alongside a heartbreak and oftentimes even anger. The joy of seeing truly outstanding Asian-led projects in the spotlight is diffused by headlines and footage of unabashed violence against Asian bodies. There’s Nomadland, but then there’s Atlanta. The young Alan Kim’s legendary acceptance speech and his tear-filled cheek-pinching exclamation, “I hope I’ll be in other movies,” is side-by-side with two 12-year-old boys who somehow managed to make 30-year-old me regurgitate generations of trauma and self-hatred around the color of my skin with a five-minute interaction at the grocery store.
On good days I am hopeful, steadfast, torch ablaze, my Sandra Oh “It’s an honor just to be Asian” T-shirt on. Yes! Other days, I am just sad, still afraid to walk the streets of New York after dark, overwhelmed by both the desire and burden to bust down every barrier left that stands between a person of color and a dream. I get tired of talking about race and I simultaneously can’t stop. And when I feel like giving up on everything I thought this country stands for, I sometimes even wish there was, in fact, another country that I could just “go back to.”
I grew up in America trying to actively forget how to speak Mandarin because I was afraid the kids at school would call me a FOB. My mother told me I could never be an actor because nobody onscreen looked like me. I thought I could never play a love interest for so many reasons that it needs a whole other thinkpiece. On The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, I get to do all three.
Time and time again, art reminds me to reimagine what is possible both for the world and for myself. It feels so good to be back working on our show. It is healing to be back. Having spent a year of pandemic in comfy clothes and walking around in bare feet, I had no idea how much I missed being swathed in layers of girdle underneath the extraordinary fabrics and vision of a Donna Zakowska design. I missed stepping into the tiny vintage shoes of Mei — her sass, her strength and the excuse to flaunt fluency in both Mandarin and English at the pace of Sherman-Palladino banter. Every single person who works on our show is so damn good at what they do. I am constantly inspired, in awe and beyond all, grateful. Whether it’s being on set, in a fitting, at a table read, or just having some good ol’ life-talk with a Teamster, to work on this show is a dream I didn’t even think had room for me.
I am proud to be a Chinese woman that a younger me didn’t see. So much progress has been made and, of course, so much is yet to be done. Sometimes you wake up and you find yourself working on a hit show; other times you go looking for radishes and you leave with a low-key identity crisis. I guess that’s how it goes. I’m sure it will continue to be a lot to process, but I hope we continue to make art that helps us process together, both as witnesses and creators of counter-narratives that shape our future into one that leaves nobody thinking they need to be anywhere but here.
I hope to be a part of telling those stories. I hope Alan Kim is a part of telling those stories. And I hope, somewhere on the western slope of Colorado, those two boys grow up to watch and love them all.
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