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Actress Lauren Tom, best known as Lena in the film The Joy Luck Club and as Ross’ girlfriend Julie on the NBC series “Friends,” dazzled a Harvard crowd of about 100 on Saturday with excerpts from her new one-woman comedy show about her experience growing up as a Chinese-American.
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.
“I’ve been to 25 psychics so far,” Tom said with a laugh. “I’ve even gone to see a woman called ‘the mother’ who just hugs you.”
As she got older, Tom said she gained pride in her culture.
“What if everything I thought was wrong with me was actually right with me?” Tom said. “You have to have the courage to show who you are to the world.”
Tom held the attention throughout her performance, often having to pause to wait for the laughter to die down.
Jia Jia Liu ’05 said she expected a speech from Tom and was pleasantly surprised by her dramatic performance.
Candice Chiu ’04, co-vice president of AAA, praised Tom in her introduction for “developing an Asian American presence and voice” in the entertainment industry.
“We really wanted to bring someone here in pop culture and there are pretty few [Asian American] faces out there,” Chiu said after the performance.
In addition to AAA, the Ann Radcliffe Trust and the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations also sponsored the event.
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