I was born in Vietnam, escaped on a boat with my parents, ended up in Indonesia, then a refugee camp in Singapore for a couple weeks, and then was ultimately sponsored to the US. We were flown to San Francisco, then to North Carolina where we were sponsored to a town called Kinston. This was around 1979/1980.
In North Carolina, there were some other Vietnamese refugees in a nearby town, but otherwise it was very white bread. When we moved to Maryland, we had to drive about an hour to Northern Virginia before seeing any other Asians at all. Southern Maryland is extremely white.
I was very often bullied for being Asian when I was in middle school and in high school in Maryland. I do not remember being treated that badly in North Carolina. I remember as a very small kid wanting to blend in, wishing I had light eyes and light hair. We were in a time coming off the 70s Breck girl ideal. I’m so glad that we’re not like that anymore in the US — we’re bridging to an era where all kinds of people are getting more appreciated.
My parents spoke Vietnamese at home and sent me to classes to learn how to read and write in Vietnamese. I was lucky to grow up around all the good homemade Vietnamese food, which has spoiled me. The funny thing is I’m not good with chopsticks and I don’t like fish sauce.
I’m fortunate — some things I go out for and get chosen. I’m always on the lookout for great opportunities!
I have always been a writer since I can remember, like creating a book about a fish in elementary school. It got worse from there — I started writing political essays with titles like “Of Ducks & Democrats” because I read too much Dave Barry and The Washington Post as a kid too. I also started a PhD in Rhetoric which is why I began publishing academically. Alas, I am not Dr. Nguyen — long story. I took poetry writing in undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Once upon a time I had a great experience being a writers’/executive producers’ assistant to two wonderful men: Evan Charnov and Vy Vincent Ngo. This was for Bruckheimer Television/Warner Brothers Television. Sadly the show got cancelled.
I never aimed to be a screenwriter or knew that I could even write that much long-form. I wrote my first screenplay on Microsoft Word, hitting the spacebar to format everything — insanity. I somehow got to page 90 and entered it into a contest and did ok in it, so I kept going from there. Then I went to school for screenwriting. I had a great time at UCLA, but at Cal State, I noticed discrepancies in the way screenwriting is taught and how the emphasis was on male students and male stories at the cost of women’s voices and dialogue. It was then that I saw a Feminist Frequency video about how many films that were in the running for the Academy Awards actually pass The Bechdel Test: 1) it has to have at least two women in it 2) who talk to each other 3) about something besides a man. Yes, it is that easy, yet so many stories fail this. Then I thought, why wait until films are made to call out this dearth? Why not find screenplays that already pass this low-barred test and that exemplify how women are in real life?
I choose to write what I want to watch — that which I can’t find out there. I choose to write about topics that I didn’t see being covered. I began to be proud to offer my point of view that no one else can see. As for photography, it’s also something I’ve always done, from pinhole camera classes very early in life to 35mm classes and developing film to finally adopting digital photography. I think you can see via my Instagram feed that my visual pre-occupations often lend to my writing, as I call it my catalog of visual story notes. From me looking at my own collection of pictures, I think the recurring themes convey satisfaction in solitude and cultural criticism, from advertising to politics and beyond.
I keep making things and writing because I was a pain in the butt kid with a constant dissatisfaction in what I was offered. If I don’t love it, I have to make something better for myself.
I was called a “Chinese bitch” at my locker in seventh grade by a mini-white supremacist girl. I think that’s the first time it really struck me. I never did anything to her. I had to just ignore her and take it, much like I’ve had take other bitter pills when it comes to blatant discrimination.
An Asian male classmate called me and a couple other women “The Bitch Pack,” so yes, I took it and expanded it and am pretty darn satisfied with what it is today: a way for people who want better in the world to relate to one another online and in person.
The Bitch Pack is pretty much just me on Twitter. It started with me recruiting a couple classmates, but they became less engaged with it after a while. Luckily, over the years it’s become a collection of writers and believers, mostly in Los Angeles but also from all over, who know they literally have the power in their hands to create characters that will show humans how to be better to each other, characters who believe in equality. For me, I’ve really enjoyed getting to sit down with like-minded creators that I’ve met from The Bitch List.
Each year we release The Bitch List, a list of scripts that pass The Bechdel-Wallace Test, determined by people who read scripts in the entertainment industry sending in votes. All I do is keep a tally of the votes. I put up a web page telling people the very easy way to send votes. I do not read scripts. I only count the opinions of professionals. I post a link to the instruction page on Twitter and on various tracking boards online and wait. When the deadline comes up, I post the approximately top 15 vote-getters and make another webpage with the details of these projects.
I do enjoy seeing thematically how the list changes from year to year, seeing what is on writers’ minds and what commonalities there might be. Certain years there are definitely trends when it comes to subject matters — an overall psyche you could say — it’s fascinating.
Honestly, I keep pinching myself when I see Asian woman leads. This is actually happening in my lifetime. I still watch some movies where the whole world in a major city is white white white which is so unrealistic to me. People who only hang out with other white people and make movies about that — weird.
Also, I hate to say it but in any “minority” group there is still too much jealousy and strife. Even though women are the majority in the world, we still are not helping each other enough because there’s still a lot of petty shit happening. Women can still learn how to handle stepping on each other’s toes better. Women and people of all kinds of races can treat each other better too. I went to Essence Fest this past year in New Orleans and one of the talks was about how Black women can treat other Black women better. I have personally been outspoken since I was a child. Still, people are shocked when an Asian person is heard and not just seen — it’s remarkable. People have this stereotype that Asians/Asian-Americans are agreeable and completely malleable, so when someone who looks like me speaks up, often people often try to hammer us down more.
Look Asian women, we can do this too. There is room for everyone. It’s terrible, but we do have to admit when Asian women look down upon each other because of this perceived idea there is only room for “x” amount and that if we have some similar traits, we cannot exist in the same spaces. Seriously, some Asian women have to put others down over the silliest things: attention, clothes, white boys, having the same, having less. There are divides we need to get over to further ourselves and each other. Asian and Asian-American women do not need to be each other’s rivals. There’s enough of that going on when we’re written as sexual and professional rivals to white women in broadcast television all the time like in YOUNGER, THE BOLD TYPE, and in movies like WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS with characters like “Chonger.” I write Asian-American women who are friends with each other and actually help each other advance. I like the hashtags #GoldHold (by Nina Jacobson) and now #AsianAutumn (that I first saw on Jeff Yang @originalspin’s Twitter feed). #Slaysian is another great one. I think we do need these ways of finding and supporting each other. And of course publications like Project Yellow Dress make a huge difference.
I do love TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE — shout-out to Jenny Han for being a fellow UNC-Chapel Hill grad. If this film had existed when I was growing up, I feel like I’d probably have been treated more like a human being than an object or an object of weird expectations and/or ridicule. There were no examples of an Asian-American teens just being teens.
Entertainment and politics are inextricably linked. Entertainment without a point of view or a message isn’t compelling to me. We can look at something and call it “pretty” or “ugly” but without meaning underneath the surface, it can only hold our attention for so long. Creative writing is persuasive writing. Film and television is visual rhetoric. We are sending messages of how we view the world and how we want it to be. Storytelling is lessons of what we learn about human nature.
Being that I grew up right outside of Washington, DC and majored in Public Policy Analysis, I’ve always been curious in what makes the world run, of what lies beneath all kinds of stories. There’s always more to the eye to everything—simple or seemingly complex.
I think that we can use comedy and complexity to shine a light on serious matters like racism, sexism, classism, and more. I am extremely fond of satire and that is my preferred way of writing. I have been working on being more literal over the years ;)