Tom’s performance in Boylston Hall’s Fong Auditorium, coordinated by the Asian American Association (AAA), included portrayals of her parents, grandmother and former self drawn from her show 25 Psychics, and was followed by a question-and-answer session in which she advised a predominantly Asian American audience to be more active in the entertainment industry.
“We need to take a lead from the black community and be more vocal in show business,” Tom said.
Tom said her strategy for breaking into Hollywood was to never turn down a role because it was too stereotypically Asian—within reason.
“I’m not going to do something that says, ‘Oh yeah, we eat our dogs,’” she said. But she was ready to take on almost anything else, and soon reaped the benefits of her ethnicity.
“If I was blond and tall then I would have had 10 times the competition,” she said. “I auditioned steadily and performed for everyone who would hire me. Now I am in a position to pick and choose my roles.”
Now, Tom said, she receives offers to play parts originally written for white women.
Tom credited her family with supporting her in her career.
During a segment of her performance when she assumed the role of her old grandmother—a character she plays hunched over, with thick glasses and a heavy Chinese accent—she recalled a particular phrase that gave her confidence in her ethnic looks.
“Nothing to fix because nothing broken,” Tom said.
Tom said her struggle to find her niche as an Asian American in Hollywood started while she was growing up in a mostly white neighborhood in Illinois. She remembered feeling comfortable with her ethnicity, not realizing that she was different from other children.
“When kids would say ‘Ching Chong Chinaman,’ I thought they were talking to someone behind me,” Tom said. “I used to think I was a white Jewish girl named Rebecca or Rachel.”
When she discovered that she was a target of the teasing, she began to feel self-conscious of her “yellow skin.”
Tom said her worst experience with discrimination occurred in a Los Angeles parking lots, when a woman who she said “looked like a scarecrow on crack” angrily called her a “chink.”
She said that she wanted to yell back but feared her behavior would be “so unladylike, so un-Asian.”
Tom’s inner conflict between her American and Asian identities has driven her to seek spiritual guidance in almost every form—and has inspired the name of her show.