My Acting Experience Thus Far: Asian American Version
My favorite place in the world is onstage. Every year, I played the lead role in my Chinese school’s Chinese New Year show, and begged my parents to take me to auditions for Annie Jr. at my local community theater (I ended up playing a servant with one line, but I still absolutely loved it). My mom often tells the story of when I cried for three hours after being moved back one row for a singing performance in elementary school.
Every single second spent in this solemn space is an honor as well as a challenge, where I must hold the attention of hundreds of audience members with nothing but a story. Onstage, you can’t hide anything - there is no safety net. And while that is scary, it is also freeing.
However, my love for the stage wasn’t shared by many others in my community. Many people simply laughed when I told them that I wanted to become an actress. I felt like a social outcast at school as the only “theater kid”. Furthermore, the opportunities to be onstage in Novi were few. Even after finding every single opportunity I could to perform, I still felt unsatisfied with the amount of time I could spend acting.
That is when I found out about Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, the #1 arts high school in the US. I instantly knew that it was the place for me - working alongside other students dedicated to our craft, spending half of my day solely focused on honing my acting skills, and most importantly, performing onstage for an audience every month - it was a place where I would belong.
After begging my parents, I was able to fly across the country for one weekend to attend auditions, and from there I began to wait in a constant state of anxiety. Every single morning, I would check our mailbox. Finally, on March 1st, 2019, a letter addressed to the parents of Emily Lee Liao and sealed with a bright yellow LACHSA stamp arrived. I opened the envelope, and began to cry with pure joy as I read the first word: “Congratulations”.
I was the most excited I had ever been in my life after my parents agreed to move so that I could attend my dream school. I believed with my whole heart that now, nothing could stop me from pursuing my dreams onstage. I was going to be in the best possible environment to nurture my creativity and passion for acting. There was no way that anyone could mess this up.
(Me, circa 2019, after auditioning for LACHSA! Also no one is allowed to judge me for this photo, I was in 8th grade going through my adolescent identity crisis.)
Little did I know, my vision of this perfect place to learn would come crashing down, all because of one small factor that I could not control. As I stepped onto the LACHSA campus, I noticed that there were no other students who looked like me. I became part of the minuscule percentage of Asian American students in LACHSA theater.
In my professional career, I experienced for the first time the blatant and brutal race-based discrimination behind the stage. In almost every audition I went out for, I was often shut down by casting directors because my "outward appearance" didn't fit what they had envisioned of the character, while they complimented my acting abilities. This left me wondering what exactly it was about my outside appearance that was just not working for me. Was it that my hair was too long, or that I had a slight double chin, or that my eyelashes were really short?
I realize now that for many of these opportunities, casting directors just simply weren't looking for an Asian face to play the role. It may be conceited of me to say that race is a main reason many actors are or are not casted, but I firmly believe that it is one of the defining qualities of a character, which makes casting all the more aware the impacts of making a character a different race.
An Asian main character will appeal to a slightly different audience than a white main character will, or a Black main character will.
After realizing that, I became very pessimistic about my chances of being cast in anything, from school plays to professional jobs. I just didn't have the heart to believe that there were actually casting directors I would be able to find who specifically were looking for an Asian character. I kept thinking, if only I wasn't Asian, if only I was white, how many more roles might I have been able to get?
But as this internal hatred continued to build up inside me, I ended up realizing how absolutely awful it was to think this way, even if, worst case scenario, it ended up being true.
Allowing constraints that you simply cannot control to control you is a trap that you should never put yourself through.
In other words, don't let society's perception of you define you. Because of your unique identity, you are prescribed by society a statistic for your probability of success.
As an Asian American woman aspiring to become an actress, my probability of success according to societal standards probably isn't all that high. But am I going to let that stop me from trying? Absolutely not.
That is the golden key to persistence, to motivation, to all these other necessities for reaching success: having this belief that no matter what odds are against you, you still have the possibility to triumph them and reach your goals.
Furthermore, you can empower yourself and become even stronger if you start to root yourself more in your unique identity. I found strength and joy in my own identity as an Asian American, something that felt impossible to do during my first year in LA.
On the stage that is my life, I am constantly facing the challenge of being unafraid of my identity. But instead of trying to change who I am to fit in, I proudly march onstage entirely as myself, and encourage others, waiting backstage for their turn to shine, to do the same.
And as I encourage you all to do the same. I hope that you will face today's stage with the hope that nothing is impossible. And as always, I write this