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An ode to Michelle Yeoh

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MARCO MANNA | CREATIVE COMMONS

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MARCH 15, 2023

The period when “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was released and everyone was obsessed with it was an incredibly surreal experience for me. This is an ode to Michelle Yeoh, to her bravery, her success in her field and the way she makes me feel.

Michelle Yeoh has had a phenomenal run through the critic’s awards this season, taking home the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress — the first Asian American woman to snag a Screen Actors Guild Award for best actress and more with an anticipated and exciting Oscar nomination. Along with her cast, it has been a heart-warming and inspiring thing to see all these Asian Americans taking up space in the male and white-dominated realm of film.

But Michelle Yeoh was always a winner to me. My mantel in my childhood home has three framed photos on it: my parents at their wedding, my little brother and I when we were kids and some kind of scene grab of Michelle Yeoh in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” I don’t even know where my mom got it, but I grew up thinking Yeoh was this distant relative that I never got to meet. Once I was old enough to watch scenes of people fighting without wanting to replicate it, my parents let me watch their beloved movie with them (I also went through the emotional turmoil of realizing I was not related to Michelle Yeoh).

I grew up with very reserved parents, so to see them with such enthusiasm and excitement watching this movie they’ve seen so many times was a special moment for me. They always used the actress as a way to make me strive for more, as well as feel proud in my skin. They told me if I studied more I could be smart and famous like Yeoh, and it is okay that I was one of the very few Asian kids in our Marin suburb because I looked the most like Michelle Yeoh compared to the other white kids. I definitely grew up and found that I look nothing like her, but it was a comforting thing to a seven-year-old, darker girl with black hair that she might grow up and look like a movie star. It was hard growing up without many figures to look up to because I felt like I couldn’t resonate with them, but Yeoh looked like me, and she was able to do all these things despite and because of it. 

“Crazy Rich Asians” was sort of a turning point for me. As I continued to grow older, my mom’s overbearing attempts to make me smarter and more confident only fueled my resentment of my skin when kids were crueler, and I was looking more different. I didn’t want to be Michelle Yeoh anymore. I wanted to be Emma Stone and Anne Hathaway. I always lived with this lingering sense that if I could be funny enough to be around and buy all my clothes from Brandy Melville, I could cross this threshold to be in my white friends’ world and pretend well enough to be one of them. I felt like it worked when we left to go to college together.

Then, in 2018, “Crazy Rich Asians” came out in theaters — a real movie that people want to pay money for and go see. I always felt like movies in the theaters were the ones people were anticipating and eager to see, so it was almost jarring to see “Crazy Rich Asians” on the same pedestal as “white” movies. I was amazed at this willingness of Americans to watch a movie with an entirely Asian cast, I had never seen this before.

So, we went and it was an incredibly moving experience. It was less that it was an amazing film, although it remains in my top five. It was this beautifully created piece of art with the production that I had only seen in “white” movies. I grew up watching “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” on this CD disc with grainy and poorly lit visuals, and now I’m watching the same Michelle Yeoh in this packed movie theater with beautiful production from a studio as renowned as Warner Brothers. I realized that Asian-ness was something the American public cared about and saw as worthy to invest their time and money into. I realized we were important, and we were making space for ourselves.

I then went through the turbulent first years of my college experience, deciphering my identity with this newly found pride with the emotional guilt of ever trying to conceal and replace it. I wouldn’t be so naive to say that Yeoh completely transformed my Asian-American existence but like she did when I was younger, her success and confidence made me feel important and worthy. I feel like she made white people care about Asian people.

Whether it’s taking the time to hear her story of discrimination and struggle or just enjoying one of her movies, her art is changing the way white people view the Asian community. Her impressive and moving performances allowed Asian people to be spoken about in terms of pure talent. She’s not a good actress for an Asian woman in Asian movies; she is simply a good actress. I want to be a good writer. Not a good one in terms of other Asian writers about Asian things, but beyond that, a good writer of all the things I find important in addition to, but not limited by, my own Asian experience.

Contact Mary Huynh at 

LAST UPDATED

MARCH 15, 2023