The Impact of EEAAO: Why I gave up acting, and Why Representation Matters.
The Impact of EEAAO: Why I gave up acting, and Why Representation Matters.
This is a story about "Everything, Everywhere, All At Once" redefining Asian American representation. But mostly, it’s a story about a dream.
It’s a fledgling dream, one that never really got to start, one given up a long, long time ago before it had a chance to grow. It’s AAPI month, and this is my story of why I gave up acting, and why EEAAO let me dream again.
I love food, and I love everything to do with food, whether it’s from a Michelin Star restaurant, a greasy spoon, an industrial factory, or the wizened and knowing hands of a grandma in their idyllic cottage home. But when it came to careers, food wasn’t my first choice. My first choice, and the thing I wanted to do but didn’t have the courage to pursue, was acting.
Yeah, I was a theater kid.
Something about me stood out. That should’ve been my first clue. I never really fit in with the theater kids in the way that I’d hoped I would. I joined “late,” having only ventured into drama class in my second year of high school.
Even then, I was scared to join. I claimed to my family that signing up for the class at all was an error in my schedule that was too late to change, making excuses to just stick with it.
See, let me get this out of the way first. I love my parents, and they’re quick learners and fantastically encouraging of everything I do now, including when I dress up in catboy bikini outfits or whatever other crazy concept I’m doing for Vite Ramen. Sure, they might not exactly understand the whys behind it, but still, they do everything they can do to support me.
But things were different, back then. Back then, they followed the lead of every other Asian parent out there, convinced that if everyone else was doing it that way, then it must be the right way. They, too, were a young couple miles away from their native country, thrust into a new, unfamiliar culture, where nothing was the same and they had to take everything day by day. They followed the classic Asian parenting model, because they were so busy fighting to learn and survive that they couldn’t spend the time dissecting the methodologies, psychologies, and other things so fundamental to healthy modern parenting. It was monumentally difficult for them, as first generation immigrants, to uproot their entire lives, leave their families and support networks, and strike out in a foreign, unfamiliar place by themselves.
So, when faced with the decisions of their children, they wanted the best for us, for me and my twin brother Tom. They wanted us to get good grades, to get into a good college, to get a good, solid job. And they reached out with the methods that other Asian parents told them worked-- discipline, both in the rigorous athletic programs we were signed up for and the academic railroading many other Asian Americans are all too familiar with.
I knew that taking a class like drama was seen as a waste of time, something that wouldn’t contribute to the eventual goal of getting a good job and having a good, solid life after the massive risks my parents undertook to get our family to where we were. And yet, I did it anyway. Even in middle school, I’d wanted to act, to express myself, to run about on stage with boisterous wanton abandon like all the other kids. I wondered to myself if one day I could do the same-- when I finally got the chance in high school, I took it.
While it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, it also brought me uncomfortably close to the realization that, for the first time in my life, I was not quite like everyone else. My high school was based in an area that was largely Asian American, and before then, I’d never felt much different from my peers. Drama class was the exception-- many other parents of color had also forbade their children from taking such a frivolous course, and as a result my classmates were a miniature reflection of the pale faces of the Hollywood elite.
Maybe it was because I was a latecomer. Maybe it was because I had trouble expressing myself. Maybe it was because of the simple fact that I was Asian. But I would never, ever quite feel like I fit in.
My classmates were all wonderful people, of course. And to my credit, I learned quickly, and by year 2 was widely considered to be one of the best male actors, able to undertake quite a wide range of roles, from Hamlet to comedic to even adopting a southern drawl to play the same character that Steve Buscemi played in the Laramie Project. But while the other students discussed their potential future in acting school, talked about trying to find gigs and start building up experience and resumes, their chatter just... never quite reached me. I remember discussing my future, about maybe going forwards with acting. The drama teacher favored me, but I remember the lukewarm, half-hearted “mhmms” and “it’d definitely be worth trying” responses that a teacher gives when they don’t want to be the one to let you down.
I acknowledge that I am, by and large, privileged. I am aware of the model minority views. I am aware that there are many others who face much more discrimination, much more awful and terrible things. But at that distinct, unyielding point in time…a young, bright-eyed kid who’d started dreaming of his own path for the first time in his life, who’d started nurturing and believing in a future of maybes and what ifs, saw everything, everywhere, collapse all at once around him.
At that moment, I knew.
On some deep level I didn't want to acknowledge, I’d always known. As I stood in her office feeling more foreign than I ever had before, my mind ran through the list. Asian men didn’t get roles. Asian men didn’t get cast as leads. Asian men were good for martial arts, and for making fun of as the nerd to make the lead cast look better.
Maybe, my teacher said, you could look into being a stuntman. After all, I knew martial arts and did parkour. I’d once performed a poorly executed frontflip on stage, and could do a tornado kick. I smiled and said I’d think about it.
That day, I came up with an absolutely hilarious joke. I told it all the time, anytime anyone asked me why I’d chosen to pursue culinary school instead of acting. I’d never shown any interest in that career before, after all. I’d grin and quip:
“If I tried acting, I’d end up in a restaurant either way. This way I can at least choose if I work in the front or the back!”
Well, I thought it was clever.
Then I buried my dream forever, and threw myself into food.
Last year, in 2022, I turned 30. Last year, I began to appear in front of the camera. Last year, Everything, Everywhere, All At Once came out.
I wish I could say the cause and effect was clearer, and that I watched it when it came out and was inspired, and decided to start again. But life isn’t quite that clear cut. Rather, it started with an increasing dissatisfaction with my work at Vite. Sure, we had done some awesome things, and we made undeniably amazing high protein ramen, but my daily life, my daily work was awful. Spreadsheets upon spreadsheets, meeting after meeting, data and numbers and margins and graphs and charts and stressful decision after stressful decision after stressful decision. I spent all my time putting out fire after fire, desperately attending to one after the other lest they grow to consume the entire company. I no longer made the ramen with my own hands, as I did when the company started. I no longer crafted the flavors from scratch - instead, I’d delegated away the bulk of the process. My energy was devoured by the most aggravating and draining parts of running an ecommerce business, a manufacturing plant, and fulfillment center all at once.
Marketing, previously handled by my brother Tom, who had since left the company to take care of his health, had become an awkward half-step. I’d hired many people, many agencies to assist, but none of them were able to really tell the story of Vite or make anything I was truly happy with. Over and over, they churned out just the basics, the bare minimum, keeping our heads barely above water with the frustratingly mundane.
As I approached 30, I wanted to change that. For my 30th birthday, for the first time in a long time, I started writing my story. I started telling my tale, and started to fall in love again with the part of me that I’d forgotten in the sea of spreadsheets and graphs. More than anything, I wanted to create. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to write, and act, and fight, and laugh, and cry, and love, and crave, and shed this cold, gray world of unfeeling numbers and charts and dockets and reports.
So I put on the bikini maid outfit. I put on the cat ears. And with barely any planning, with barely a thought as to what I was really doing, what I’d use the footage for, or exactly how it would fit into the business plan, I wrote, directed, and filmed the craziest video I’d ever done in my life.
And in the euphoria of that process, I began to glimpse the fleeting outline of my old dream again.
I powered through, edited and put the whole campaign together in a blur of caffeine and haze of overwork within a single day, then pushed it out there.I wish I could say that’s where it ended. I wish I could say that I magically rediscovered my love for acting, and say that you can do anything you put your mind to, and that your dreams never die, and all those happy platitudes that everyone moralizes with in motivational speaking. But, again, life wasn’t that clear-cut.
After the commercial went out, the familiar despair washed over me again, all at once. Shame, guilt, fear, disgust-- my heart twisted, my stomach churned, my throat tightened. I found myself hovering over the delete button, over and over and over again. Even as people gushed about it, sang its praises and laughed and commented and shared, it took everything I had to keep the video up. I hated it, because it reminded me of the paths I’d not taken, the what ifs and the maybes and the person I could’ve been.
I made more videos, because that one had done well. I stood in front of the camera, and hated it every single time. See, I was still unsure. I still am. It felt like, every time, I was dipping my toes somewhere I shouldn’t, doing something I shouldn’t, and it was something I couldn’t readily explain.
I’d watched Crazy Rich Asians, and thought it was cool that people like me were getting more representation. I’d said a lot of good things about it. But it was one of those things that just felt like a drop in an ocean, a little splash that would be soon forgotten, an exception that proved the rule... and yet, that splash, those ripples would inspire others braver than I, who were capable of so much more. Crazy Rich Asians was the movie that inspired Ke Huy Quan to return to acting. He followed the path that I had been so afraid of, and at the age of 50, took his shot again.
The rest is history, with his casting and exceptional performance in EEAAO. When I watched the movie, I was enthralled, absolutely loving the range he portrayed with the various versions of Waymond that existed. While Crazy Rich Asians was fun, Everything Everywhere All At Once was something else entirely-- a deep, rich story filled with enough characters and types that someone like Ke Huy Quan could show off more than their martial arts prowess. He had plenty, of course, but more importantly EEAAO proved that he, an older Asian male, could be so much more than what anyone had allowed Asian men to be on the silver screen.
And then, more than just an Asian man playing this broad range of characters, he was older, too. 50. Far older than I. Crazy Rich Asians was filled with young up-and-comers, the kind of people who would have their shots moving forwards in a world that had finally begun to accept them more. For me, someone who’d just turned 30, someone coming to grips with the path their life had taken...Well, I won’t say it was an epiphany or anything dramatic like that. It wasn’t something, and still isn’t something, that I’ve completely come to terms with. I’m not about to drop everything and suddenly go pursue acting.
But when Ke Huy Quan stood on stage at the Golden Globes and told his story, I felt every word. I felt the despair when he said he wondered if that was it, if it was just luck. I felt the pain when he wondered if he had nothing more to give. And I felt the hope when he spoke of the opportunity he’d been given, and taken, to show the world that he wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot.
That’s why representation matters. Because it tells you that you matter. That you can do it. That someone like you did it too.
Ke Huy Quan was inspired by representation, and dared to dream again. The same representation that invigorated him is the one he brings to others like me-- it inspires hope, rekindles passion, reignites the dreams that might’ve fallen to the wayside a long, long time ago. Because with each new award, with each new recognition that Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh, and everything else EEAAO has achieved, it feels a little more okay to be in front of that camera. It feels more okay to dare to dream. It feels more okay to do a little bit more.
I don’t know what the future holds for me. I don’t know if I’m just going to continue doing silly little skits and silly little ads, or if I’ll try to do a bigger project, or maybe even look outwards.
But for now, I’ve taken the creased, wrinkled, and neglected dream I once had, unfurled it and smoothed it out, and taken a good look at it once more. Maybe it’ll blossom into something else. Maybe it’ll just sit there, of a fond reminder of what once was, and still what once could be. I don’t know.
After all, I’m only 30. And I’m just getting started.
-Tim, CEO/Founder Vite Kitchens