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Myth of the Model Minority: Interview with Julie Zhu & Nahyeon Lee (from bFM)

This interview with Julie Zhu (producer & Co-director) and Nahyeon Lee (Co-director) of the TVNZ ON DEMAND short: Myth of the Model Minority is bought to you be 95bfm. The interview was conducted and produced by Sherry Zhang.

Listen to an audio version of the interivew here.

Julie Zhu (Producer and Co-Director)

Sherry: What is myth of the model minority?

Julie: So Myth of the Model Minority is a collaborative anthology film. Created with a community of writers and actors who all identity as Asian in Auckland. It’s set in a Chinese restaurant on Dominion road, set over one night. And the camera kind of follows different tables, and each table has a different story. And each of those stories have been written by different writers, so a collection of different moments that might all happen at the same time, just to kind of show that those of us who identify as Asian don’t- while we are portrayed very singularly on screen sometimes, we live very complex different lives. Kind of showing a multiplicity of experiences.

Sherry: What the creative process been like so far?

Julie: We wanted our process to be really collaborative, so we did a big call out, we did a community hui even before the project, the process had really been decided, kind of have the community in mind, and to ask other people what they thought the film should be like, and when we did the callout for submissions we got a huge amount of people submitting ideas, and same when we did the callout for auditions. We had a lot of people wanting to be part of it we well, so it’s been very cool seeing all the voices hungry to tell stories.

Sherry: There’s lots of languages flowing in and out and there’s such a great age range as well!

Julie: Yeah we wanted to cover a broad range of experiences. Often a common way of portraying Asian stories is often focusing on like Chinese stories so we really wanted to make sure we had a broad range of Asian identity within this restaurant, even though it is a Chinese restaurant, we have lots of ethnicities, languages, and also like you said age. Just to show that lots of belong to this community and its not a mono-cultural or one perceptive within this community.

Sherry: There’s a lot of diversity, such as sexuality, and so what came across in trying to be reflective of the whole wonderful encapsulating multi-faced identity we all are?

Julie: Yeah, same thing. When we are talking about Asian stories or stories of migrants, the actual story of that is portrayed as cultural clash or being about racism or stereotypes and although those are things we definitely face as a community, we didn’t want the stories to rehash those tropes. We wanted to take it a step further and show that we face a lot of other issues, like sexuality, like our relationships with our grandparents, our parents. All these complex issues that everyone faces, but we face them in a slightly different way because of our cultural background.
Sherry: My favourite scene… was just the scene with the tea. The granddaughter pouring it, I just loved it.

Julie: Yeah, exactly, that’s something you’d get if you had some sort of cultural background to know, which is really cool, although people might take something away from that scene even if they aren’t Chinese, even understanding what that tap on the table means, it gives something more. So it’s cool that we’re able to use this coded language signals to communicate.

Sherry: What are your thoughts on the representation of Asian voices so far in NZ? How is it?

Yeah I mean Asian voices, Asian people have always been in NZ, since the 1800’s, but we haven’t seen that reflected in the mainstream of Aotearoa, for a long time, not even now, and I think when we do see it we see representation of Asian as quite a limited view. So we see ourselves in the news, portrayed in a certain way, usually negative, or when it’s telling stories because we have had such limited representation. Often it’s quite a basic level, where we are just trying to tell people that we aren’t those stereotypes, but hopefully, once we progress past these stories that we aren’t just stereotypes, we can tell complex stories that don’t always revolve around identity, even identity stories are also important.

Sherry: Where do you hope the conversations around the diaspora, around migration heads to? Especially in our current climate…

That’s such a hard one. I think… well I hope that in light of what happened recently with Christchurch that, the wider mainstream middle New Zealand, whatever that is, I hope they are ready to listen to the fact that all of us who have been talking about racism or how we feel about xenophobia or anti-immigration sentiments, like I hope they can see how all these things interlink. I hope there is a genuine want to push, to be anti-racist, and not just not ‘not racist.’ For people to learn that racism isn’t just about being mean to a person, but it’s about how the system and that include the media, oppresses or limits certain groups in society to participate, and I just want more people to be aware of that and be willing kind of dismantle all the systems that do hold all of us back

Sherry: Was there anything else you wanted to add?

Julie: Audiences who do belong to these diaspora communities and heritage, it’s important to look at, reflect on our responsibilities living in Aotearoa. So having that acknowledgement in that just because we faced discrimination, doesn’t mean we automatically can claim like we have a right to be here too but we also are complicit in issues against Tangata Whenua.

Nahyeon Lee (Co-Director)

Sherry: Who is the model minority?

Nahyeon: The model minority is this term given to an Asian demographics, where they are seen as the ideal minority group, with higher socioeconomic class, but that comes with all these implications that aren’t talked about, it’s implied that they’re more obedient or more submissive to a system. Or maybe it’s implied they don’t live lives that deserved to get talked about. And then at the same time, it comes with all these can of worms, where it’s used to pit minorities against each other, used to say why aren’t you doing as good as this model minority, why aren’t you just picking yourself up by the bootstraps, like this model minority. So I called my film myth of the model minority because I find that term incredible dehumanising to actual Asian people. And it’s really insulting to other minority groups. And it’s a complete myth.

And the film itself was designed to be a collaborative community piece. The idea started when I was sort of thinking of representation of Asian people in short films and tv shows I’d watched and I was like I don’t see myself in there. You know, you see this kind of homogenous yea product-

Sherry: I just think of the spray and walk away thirty seconds guy.

Nahyeon: Oh no. [That’s] so upsetting. So I thinking about that. Thinking of my own pursuits as a filmmaker, how I had so much agency and power in being able to tell my own story, and how I’d like to give other people that power.

And in addition to that, I was thinking about how I had a specific lived experience, and I couldn’t write on behalf of other people. So it was a big collaborate project where we asked the community, we did a public call out if they wanted to write for it. With the intention that each table in this Chinese restaurant was gonna be one writer’s story, um we would cast these stories, and it was all going to happen… and we ended up with fourteen writers and forty plus actors! It was a big feat.

Sherry: I love how diverse it’s…

Nahyeon: It was really interesting. Even though Julie and I work in advocating and championing people of colour… Asian stories, we also had to consider our own implicit biases when we were deciding who we wanted to uplift, so we thought very struggling about our east Asian bias as well, cuz Julie is Chinese and I’m Korean. And Asian is not an umbrella term that means everybody, i haven’t heard Filipino stories, the south Asian voice often gets lost, so it was important for us to consider all those other voices in the community under the umbrella of Asian.

And we…also Julie and I are specific age demographics, and we considered younger and older people, and we made sure we had a wide swath- of like an actual reflection of what Auckland is like.

Sherry: Do you have any thoughts on how Asians are currently being represented… in Auckland?

Nahyeon: Hmm, Hmm, Lemme thinks… the first question is, are they?

Sherry: I should’ve [asked that first] hahaha I jumped the gun there. Are we?

Nahyeon: Hmm, I feel like I haven’t watched much that seems like I’m seeing Asian representation. Particularly in film and television because it feels like there is a bit of gatekeeping process and it’s quite difficult for Asian practitioner or Asian creatives, to move up to that level. And I don’t think that’s me saying there aren’t young Asian people who don’t want to get to that level but it seems like it’s a bit of struggle. To answer your question… I suppose

It’s happening and it’s happening slowly. And I think we are in a position where the tide is tipping. But there definitely just needs to be more, needs to more opportunity, to give young Asian creatives the opportunity to reach the level, needs to be more support there.
That didn’t answer your question. ..

Sherry: Nah nah you did… I’m just thinking back to high school where I went to drama camp…

Nahyeon: Oh my god…

Sherry: In Napier. Well, it was a room full of white people. and so it’s… I guess I am the token minority but then you also have your feelings and thoughts…

Nahyeon: That’s something I was really conscious about when I was making myth [of the model minority] I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were the token ‘that person,’ I wanted them to feel like this is a story I hold very closely to my heart and I want to be given a small sliver in the film to be able to tell it. And in a similar way I didn’t want to pretend to have a consultant from another culture help me write this story and they were the token advisor, And it’s a difficult place to be, being an Asian person in the arts as well, you often are unsure whether you are the token diversity pick or not. And I think it’s quite conflicting like do you lean into that, take advantage of that, or do you fight against it. Rather than feel like you are ticking a box in their list of strategies.

We just need to normalise them so much that they don’t have to tick a box. That it’s normal for you everybody’s voices to contribute. To be honest that will just make the industry stronger. That’s just going to make the product stronger as well because you have a range of opinions. From smart people…

Sherry: What made you want to set in a Chinese restaurant… All the events happen in one night?

Nahyeon: So I just kinda love, okay I have such a soft spot of the shops on dominion road, they just don’t give any fucks. They have terrible service, I hope this isn’t [mean]… they have terrible service. Amazing food, and the decor… the lighting is always too harsh and there is weird stuff on the walls like ten different interior designs styles and it’s such an affectionate spot because it’s also the spot that doesn’t close. And it’s the spot that people of colour feel comfortable hanging out, with the food of their comfort. So it kinda came from when I would hang out with my mates late at night inside dominion rd restaurants. And u know a dominion rd restaurant is good when it has a b rating

Sherry: Hmm yes my dad taught me the lower the grade the better the food.

Nahyeon: Yes! When it’s only got a B rating and there are only Asian people there you know it’s good.

And that couples with the idea of eavesdropping, I was really interested in, because when you eavesdrop on someone you kinda get to be part of their life. For a really brief second. And it’s so interesting because it gives u a window into a life you would have never ever considered. And then they leave your life forever, to continue on w their life. So I kind of loved this idea of eavesdropping and late night bants at a dominion rd restaurant. And you just sit at a restaurant and look at every single table and think about all the intersecting lives in that location

Sherry: How has it been working with so many different writers and actors?

Everyone has been supers amazing, but administratively it was very difficult because there were so many people to wrangle but that’s just the nature of the beast. But I think the incredible privilege of the process was to give people who wouldn’t necessarily had have the opportunity to tell their story, or a fictitious version of a story

So the start of myth is actually news clippings that are smooshed together in a montage and I felt like it was a bit of an aggressive way to start but I also wanted to set this frame really early. That this rhetoric that exists in our media currently, or this rhetoric from people who aren’t Asian talking about Asian people is actually really weaponised.

And that’s the frame we are entering initially when we think about the representation of Asian people. And I really wanted to start the film with outside voices speaking in, and then have people inside: people within the community… and I thought it was really important to start the film with talking about how real life institutions talk about Asian people. And like how that is a particular … it’s a jargon. It’s a type of language it’s way more aggressive than (anything else).

Sherry: What conversation do you think we need, moving forward, given the events that have happened, given the growing alt right white supremacy, we’re having a lot of dialogue around that and your piece is speaking towards migrants, the diaspora, what do we need to talk about now? What needs to happen?

Nahyeon: It’s a big question. I think, we just need to have a little more empathy. And even for people who don’t look like us, who sound like us, or live the same life as us. And I know it’s a really simple answer.

But I think when we lose the humanity of people it leads to this division. And I might naively think that film can create this empathy for you because you understand people’s perspective, you understand their lives, but it also feels so lofty. It’s just like empathy, but I truly believe that just understanding people’s perspectives and their lives, their pain… all the joys of their life, and once we understand each other and different communities, it’s hard to dehumanise people. And there is naivety… the power in art to bring people together.

Sherry: How would you say your own relationship with your identity been growing up in NZ?

Nahyeon: I had this hybrid identity, I had this… I’m not entirely part of like my Korean and I feel like I’m an Asian New Zealander but it’s really hard because I’m physically outward facing I look Korean, one hundred percent Korean, and that’s not something I can reconcile, I think it’s hard…

Sherry: Have you ever got the question wow you speak kiwi so well?

Nahyeon: I think I got it a lot when I was younger, I got it a lot when I wasn’t in Auckland, I think to be honest it’s becoming more normal in Auckland or becoming less overt about asking. Just logging it straight to their brain okay this is how she speaks…Have you?

Sherry: Yeah I always get where are you from Sherry? But you sound so kiwi tho like and it’s like shut the fuck, I speak so well and I have the privilege to have a particular accent because I learn from a young age that’s what I need to get bullied.

Nahyeon: Fuck I was exactly the same! It’s like really interesting because my parents moved here like when I was a couple of months old, literally when I was a baby so technically my first language… and maybe yours.?

Sherry: Yeah, same same…

Nahyeon: My first language would have been my mother tongue. It was korean korean korean, until I was five. I was like fuck, my defence mechanism, I don’t speak like these people I need to learn English so fast, and then I began to prioritise English and it’s a bit of a shame because my Korean has completed deteriorated. It’s really really sad to lose that aspect of your parent’s identity, as well as something that is part of my identity that I’ve pushed away for so long because to be honest, I was so ashamed of it. I didn’t want to be picked on, I didn’t want to be different and now like people are like great, you speak so well. But it’s attitudes like that which resulted in me losing my language I think.

One thought on “Myth of the Model Minority: Interview with Julie Zhu & Nahyeon Lee (from bFM)

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