Validating my cultural uncertainty with Diane Nguyen
I wasn’t expecting anything in particular when I sent my DNA collection kit to 23andme, but I was still faced with a confusing ambivalence when I got my results a few weeks later. Before I found myself staring at a pie chart filled with a single color and its accompanying “100% Chinese and Southeast Asian” label, I had never thought of my ethnicity except in abstract terms.
The circumstances of my birth are completely unknown to me. As far as I know, my life started when I was about two months old, but even that is just a guess. I was informed by my mother, who was informed by the orphanage from which I was adopted, that I was found as a baby of about two months in front of a high school in the center of China. The folks at the orphanage (a faceless, disembodied monolith that only exists in my vague, infrequent references) gave me a birthday — January 1st, a rough guess — and a name that’s still legally mine. even in my adopted country, but which I never use and haven’t spoken out loud in years.
Growing up, my family speculated that I might be half-white, an idea I wholeheartedly accepted. In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that this idea is extremely problematic, especially coming from my white adoptive family, especially since it was based almost entirely on superficial and mature observations of my physical characteristics. I have a natural double eyelid, something a lot of Asian women experience plastic surgery get, and I have relatively fair skin, which managed to be a point in favor of this theory, even though many Chinese people have lighter skin than mine. For years I touted this idea as if it somehow made me more interesting, but all it really did was expose my desperation to claim whiteness personally.
It was probably the remnants of that desperation and the deeper internalized racial biases it exposed that admittedly led to the disappointment of discovering that I was unquestionably, unequivocally, 100% Chinese, but upon further introspection , I realized that there was something else contributing to my ambivalence.
I’ve spent most of my life feeling like an impostor in my own skin. There has always been a dissociation between me and my ethnicity, created by my physical and intellectual distance from the culture I was born into and exacerbated by interactions with people who thought they could make a final judgment on my Asianness ( or, in most cases, my lack of it), even and sometimes, especially, in spaces intended to educate me and encourage my Asianness.
Even though that was just confirming something about me that was always more likely to be true than some half-baked theory about having a white parent, I thought having categorical proof that I was arguably, unequivocally, 100% Chinese might solve something about my identity for me, make me feel more comfortable claiming that part of myself even if others doubted it — but it didn’t solve anything. This indeterminacy, this entanglement of identity, internalized racism and “absence of culture” is something with which I have come to a kind of restless and uncertain peace. Usually I like finding answers, I like resolutions, but this is something that – not for lack of trying – I realized I may never be able to fully reconcile.
I turned to other aspects of my identity – namely, my homosexuality – to find validation and belonging and, above all, representation. As a voracious art consumer, someone who sees art as an inherently connective and empathetic medium, I generally seek out queer stories in order to feel understood or seen. Because of the fundamental disconnect between me and my ethnicity, my connections to other queer people – fictional or otherwise – have always been easier for me to hold on to and feel comfortable asserting.
The most significant exception to this rule, however, is Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie, “Community”) of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” a Vietnamese American writer hired to pen Bojack’s memoir in the show’s first season. . Diane and I have a lot in common; I haven’t been able to draw as many straight lines between myself and another fictional character as I can with her. I can see the way I love reflected in the way she loves; I can see that my desperation for my job means something that is reflected in his. The tenacity that often makes her unsympathetic, her reluctance to settle down, even the way she copes with her anxiety – all of these things I feel or do the same way. It all adds up to the fact that we look incredibly alike.
It’s telling that my connection to Diane throughout the first four seasons of “Bojack” has little to do with our shared Asianness. A Few Scenes With Her Completely Assimilated Masshole family revealed that Diane was unrelated to her Vietnamese heritage, but that was kind of a non-issue throughout these seasons. My relationship with her was based solely on our shared personality traits until the second episode of the fifth season, “The Dog Days Are Over”, in which Diane travels to Vietnam after her divorce, hoping to connect with its roots (and to run away from its problems). For a little while, she can take comfort in the fact that she sees her name everywhere and is surrounded by people who look like her. This quickly dissipates, however, and she finds herself in front of a mirror wearing a ao dai and not feeling different from the way she always does. “It looks like a costume,” she says.
Throughout the episode, she oscillates between running into a language barrier with the people of Hanoi and being mistaken for a local by other visiting Americans, some of whom refuse to accept that she knows the language. English. It’s a kind of incredibly frustrating void that I know intimately – the failure to fully belong or be accepted in either of the cultures that we look like or feel like we should be able to claim. When I was younger I wore a qipao at school on thematic cultural days and it would look like a costume. I rummaged through short Mandarin sentences and finally gave up on learning the language altogether. I haven’t been back to mainland China since I was two, but even family trips to Chinese-speaking places like Hong Kong and Taiwan were just something we did for fun.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the show’s portrayal of Diane and her cultural experience is flawed on two fronts: the character is voiced by Alison Brie, a white actress who has since voiced regret for taking the role, and the episode was written by Joanna Calo (“Hacks”), who is Latina. However, it still managed to touch a certain part of my experience that I never thought would be reflected in art, and it made me realize that I might have sought validation of my identity. in the wrong places.
What this episode of “Bojack” does for me is validate my uncertainty. It shows me that someone else, even if they’re fictional, understands the limbo I’m in, because she lives there too. When Diane returns to California, she is virtually unchanged. She did not discover a deep, inherent connection to her culture. She feels neither more nor less Vietnamese; she still feels like a fraud in her own skin. She’s still confused – maybe she always will be – but she has to live with it, just like me.
Katrina Stebbins, Arts Editor, can be reached at [email protected].