Q: We obviously saw what happened in the aftermath of George Floyd's death. In the same way, it's not as if prejudice against Asian Americans is new. Do you have a sense of what has exacerbated the problem or what has led to an increase in these incidents?
A: This kind of sentiment toward Asian Americans is not new. It’s been baked into our society since Asians first immigrated to the country. You know, there are a couple of milestone events, several milestone events, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the largest lynching of any group in America was of Chinese Americans in Los Angeles in 1871. You know, the killing of Vincent Chin, that incident affected civil rights law permanently. What happened in World War II is a previous chapter to what’s happening now — when there seems to be a problem in Asia, for whatever reason, Asian Americans tend to be scapegoated here and blamed for problems that are occurring a world away. And I think part of it is also complicated by the fact that many of the people who have perpetrated these crimes suffer from mental illness. So when you have politicians who are using hateful rhetoric, there are a lot of people who are susceptible to that rhetoric.
Q: Have you seen a change in the rhetoric since Donald Trump left office?
A: The rhetoric has definitely changed, and I think that’s really important. However, I think now there are a couple of things that continue to exacerbate the situation, and that is the politicization of vaccinations and the disease itself. And so it has become a controversial issue. So attitudes toward Asian Americans remain part of the reality of that. And I think with the economic difficulties that have come along with the lockdown, it’s also created some frustration that’s reminiscent of the ’80s when the Japanese auto industry and the Japanese steel industry started taking market share from the American industry and the aid that went to toward Asian Americans at that time. So, it’s a very complicated situation.
Q: We are around the same age and grew up in the same American culture. And it's very interesting to think about how Asians have been portrayed in film and TV over the years. One of the first things I remember when I was like 15 or 16 is the film "Sixteen Candles." And we remember Long Duk Dong. Every time he appeared, a gong sounded. Older people would remember Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Not a great record. As a kid growing up in America watching these things, how did you respond?
A: When I was 5 or 6 years old watching television, I never really thought about the fact that there was a lack of representation. What I remember was just not seeing anyone that looked like me. And so I did my best to try to identify with the characters I did see. And I don’t think that I’m alone as an Asian American doing this, which is why for a long time, there have been studies done about identification with imagery. Asian Americans have been found to able to identify with people outside of their race more than any other ethnic group in America. And I think it’s a result of the fact that there was an emphasis on us to assimilate, to keep our heads down, to take our place in society as much as they would be willing to give to us. So it wasn’t unusual at the time that I could look at a TV show and think, “Wow, I could be like Captain Kirk or Steve Austin?” It wasn’t until later that I started to realize there was a real dearth of representatives. Then Bruce Lee became popular. And George Takei became popular. And people like that became real role models, along with Daniel Inouye, the senator from Hawaii. In fact, my mom used to used to point him out when he was on television and would say, “That man is making a difference.” So really, my first role model wasn’t someone in the media. It was someone in politics. And when portrayals like Long Duk Dong came around, I won’t lie and say they weren’t hurtful. They were definitely the source of the fuel for some ridicule when I was in high school.
Q: You grew up in a Pennsylvania steel town. I've read stories in which you note that it wasn't all that easy. But you never specifically said what you had to deal with.
A: I’m really glad to be able to have had a core group of friends that I really think understood me. And I do call them true friends. I think for any high-schooler, that’s what’s really important, to have to have your posse that will have your back. By the same token, what I also experienced was a lot of harmful rhetoric. And I did get into a fight or two. I think more than anything, though, it became the phenomenon of otherization. I was pretty athletic as a kid, but I moved actually in the middle of sixth grade. And this was an inflection point in my life, because the kids I had grown up with up until sixth grade didn’t think of me as a foreigner at all because we’d grown up together. And so there was a lot of harmony and diversity in the racial makeup of my friend group when I was younger. But when I moved in sixth grade, it was the first time I was a new kid. And then all of the stereotypes came into play in a way that I’d never experienced. I was picked last for sports that I had always done well in. You know, the assumptions about math and science were there, the stereotypes are there. People asking me if my hands were registered as deadly weapons because of Bruce Lee, but it wasn’t so much the blatant kind of name calling, although that was part of it. It was more the, gosh, I want to use the right word here, the lack of understanding of who I was and the fact that I was actually pretty American. The assumption was always that I was not.
Q: And when you're a kid, you're not there to go, ''Hey, let me educate you." You're there to feel something and try to respond to it and deal with it.
A: That’s a great point, and that is that, when you’re in high school, anything that makes you different can be the source of ridicule. If you have big ears or even a funny last name. So, you know, it’s really not just about race. Everyone goes through that period in high school, or they’re looking for acceptance. And sometimes that need for acceptance becomes manifested in a really awful way. And it just so happens that when you’re someone of a different race, it’s really low hanging fruit for anyone who’s looking to marginalize you.
Q: I want to go back to when you played Jin-Soo Kwon on "Lost," one of the great shows before cable ruled the world. How were you and your castmates told to keep secrets, or did you know what was going to happen?
A: Up until that point in my career, I’d never been a part of a show that was a secret. On ‘Lost,” scripts came out. They were watermarked, which means your name is printed along the background of every page in order to protect it. That’s commonplace now. But when ‘Lost’ started, it was not, especially for television. And we were not allowed to discuss scripts. It was explicitly told to us that everything that we do is confidential, and we were shielded from information about the future of our characters and the future of the show. I think there were a couple of us that knew . . . but nobody knew the full scope of what was about to happen. So whenever we would get a script, all of us would go home and read right away because we wanted to know, A, did we survive as a character, B, what’s going to happen to our characters? C, what’s happening on the show? Because I think it’s fair to say that to a person, all of us were fans of the show, as well as participants. So it was really a treat any time a script came out and we got to read it and then we would all get on the phone and say, “Did you read this? Did you hear this?”
Q: Then you had a successful run on "Hawaii Five-O," but you did something that's incredible to think about. You decided you were going to demand to be paid the same as your White co-stars and they didn't meet your demands. So you left.
A: It was not an easy choice. Plain and simple, it was one of the most difficult I made in my career. That said, I don’t regret it. I think it was the right thing to do for me personally and symbolically. So many of us as Asian Americans, we fight quietly, silently. We are encouraged to not make waves, to keep our heads down and to do our work. And what I’ve learned through my career is that’s not often how you succeed. If those of us in a position where we have a choice don’t make the right choice, then how can we expect those of us who don’t have the luxury of choice to feel like they can do the right thing?
Anying Guo contributed to the production of this story.