When so much could destroy you - what made you?
Updated: Jul 25
I have recently discovered Kim's Convenience - a fabulous Canadian sitcom about the Korean Kim family in Toronto, where any race-based humour is used to explore depth in a situation not a driving force and the show itself an opportunity to showcase some truly fine and hugely versatile performances from its 6 leads.
Maybe if this had been around earlier I might have continued to pursue acting...
But - do we need to see it to believe it can happen?
Of course I’ve been heretofore “under-represented” in Media. When I was watching TV, all I saw – if anything at all – were East and South East Asian stereotypes – usually in historical garb, or the dvd or fish and chip seller, or the “model minority” trope of accountant, or doctor in a “nerd” role. There was no second thought to yellowface for roles such Bloody Mary in South Pacific (outrageously, there still isn't…along with the most terrible accents imaginable – admittedly I specifically refer to an amateur production I saw a few years ago; but more recently – some productions of Avenue Q should also be ashamed!); and of course there would be no East/SE Asian romantic lead in a US/UK styled film for a long time to come. After being asked to play the Princess in Aladdin 3 times in one year (at least they were trying) I started to produce my own community theatre – through which I’ve played a multitude of leads (colourblind) – because I’m good enough
(and ballsy enough), at least in am dram, to cast myself. …and as I settle down to watch Awkwafina rock it in Oceans 8, Smile at Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians, ask my husband to hold my purse following Ali Wong's Always Be My Maybe, and binge-watch Lucy Liu in Elementary, I can see how things have changed.
But saying that, while I wasn’t represented, I still find myself now – the author of 2 (shortly 3) books with Pearson’s publishing house, the Resident Psychologist on
Sky’s Chrissy B show, and most recently hosting my own show on psychology in leadership with Disruptive TV - and I’m pretty sure I’ve done OK. Adding to that a husband who didn’t come along to “white saviour” me, friends who actually use my name ("Just be 'Audrey'") as an adjective to describe my identity, closely followed by "individual" before “South East Asian” gets a look in, and as far as I can tell, work success achieved on merit not positive discrimination or tokenism, I’m not an actress, but I'm more than OK. I'm also sort of glad I didn't have an acting role model, as while I'm good for an amateur, I'm not anywhere near as great as any of those pictured or mentioned above.
Movements such as Black Lives Matters are essential. Movements to progress any under-represented or discriminated against group are essential. And, an opportunity to voice a lifetime of repressed pain and anger is also essential. I cannot begin to understand how horrible some of my friends’ experiences have been…as much as I still bear a small sting from “ching chong” remarks – I still know if I need help from the authorities I’m going to get it.
But while there is – and must be – time and space for anger, I am also interested in fortitude.
If I was under-represented and I found my way – what got you through?
The power of books
Perhaps it is no surprise that I became an author first and a presenter second...and I secretly suspect I would have moved to producing had acting happened for me. I have always liked to read, and I have always taken every opportunity to perform…and created opportunities for the latter for over 30 years! It is perhaps more of a surprise that the “shy” girl (the word was used in every school report aged 11-16), and one who was in many ways brought up to “keep her head down”, ”not rock the boat” …and largely “save face” – learned to stand up for herself when things weren’t right (I left 2 jobs making those circumstances abundantly clear), divorced the man who looked good on paper and married the one who at first may have given “cause for concern” (he’s 13 years my junior) but is good all around, and continues to say – it’ll happen once you find the way.
But where did that come from?
There was no “Frozen” or “Brave” or “Moana” when I was growing up – my princesses were cooking, cleaning and marrying. I’ve already said what I saw on TV was barely inspirational. And I know my family mainly hoped I’d fit in.
For me, my drive came from books. ...and it was drive. It was traits, it was fortitude, it was grit. It wasn't necessarily career ideas, or looks - it was knowledge that "I can and I will" - in whatever area I want.
I read voraciously. Mainly non-fiction – I loved learning, even about random things such as castles and clouds, but boot sales and charity shops meant I got books such as “Be Glad You’re Neurotic” – which first piqued my interest in Psychology, and the horror “Audrey Rose” – made me feel at least my name (which people made fun of for being old fashioned, and then made fun of because it was English and therefore “unusual” on me) – was still one that others had, and “Are You There God It’s Me Margaret” taught me so much more than PSHE ever did! I had four books shelves full of books – all of which I’d read by the time I was 9, and my mum used to like telling the tale of how I’d “read every book in the library” too, and even now if I enjoy a film, I’ll buy the book if I don’t already have it (even bought "Kim's Convenience" the play).
But my playbook – criticized by some for its “…spoilt, unlikeable heroine” loved by others for the strong “…uninhibited woman who unexpectedly discovers that her talent for life is matched by a hunger to succeed” (both sentiments still ring true...I'm ambitious and not always popular) – was (and probably still is) Judith Krantz’s “I’ll Take Manhattan”. Helped in part by the character being described as having black hair, and of less than average height the first page alone helped me accept my more holistically “unacceptable” traits:
“Maxi Amberville, with characteristic impatience and a life-long disregard for regulations…She would have been riveting in a room full of beautiful women, for she made mere beauty seem not only irrelevant, but uninteresting.”
…and the mini-series with Maxime performed by the compellingly watchable Valerie Bertinelli gave me everything I needed to know about dressing in the 80s (and today!)
People today are quick to comment if I say I’ve struggled with conventional beauty (...and to my mind even Instagram filters seem more forgiving on blondes). Perhaps we always want what we don’t have, and yes, I’ve always secretly wished to look like the darlings of my time Cameron Dias, Michelle Pfeiffer, or Heather Locklear…and am just grateful that Wonder Woman had black hair as a moment of respite! But I’ve worked on “striking” rather than “pretty”…especially in the face of the criticism I got after winning “Miss Hastings” in 1993 – where they firmly declared it a “personality contest”!...and I’m sort of glad people want my brain over my boobs – but it helps me see the problem with media - that even I - as a psychologist - am susceptible to.
I actually don’t think we DO need to see it on TV to believe it can happen. We need people to support us – my teachers were wonderful; we need people to pick us up – my friends – some as old as my playbook are amazing; we need opportunity - and I constantly appreciate the Chrissy B Show, Pearson and now Disruptive TV for being open in offering it; and we need to know we can innovate – my migrant parents showed me anything is possible. …and a book which focused on determination, drive, and the ability to learn gave me faith that I would be ok.
We also need to spend less time on "career paths" (there is no "job for life", success can come late as well as early, and staying there is as important as making it) and outward appearance (although mass media may suggest one thing - beauty is of course about what's inside, I just wish we saw more of that!), and we must focus on traits, skills and strengths for success - especially in the face of adversity. We need role models for resilience and determination - whatever the job. Don't just show what can be done - tell us how you did it. I know what wasn’t there – but look at what WAS, and while there is always a space to vent; clear a space to inspire too. So much could have destroyed you – I ask what made you?
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt