My mom is such a diva. To clarify, she’s an opera singer. She became a chorus member of the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976, the year I was born. This was kind of a big deal, not only because it’s like winning the opera jackpot, but also because my mother’s an immigrant from Taiwan. She was blazing trails in a very competitive, very white business. Growing up, I felt immensely proud. From the ages of five to ten, I actually sang on the same stage with her (in the Children’s Chorus) and felt confident that performing was my destiny. It was in our blood, even though there were so few Asian faces on stages, televisions, and the big screen at the time.
My mother worked really hard to fit in. Because Mandarin was her first language, she spent extra hours perfecting her Italian, German, and French. She wanted “the good opera roles”—the ones where she would be front and center, in a corset, usually fawning over some baritone with layers of pancake makeup on his face. She did not want to be relegated to the sidelines, in rags, playing what she called “old lady parts.”
This is the reason I grew up never knowing my mother’s age. She had a fear that I would accidentally reveal this mythical number to someone who would know someone who would know someone at The Met. Because there were no other Asian women in the chorus, her assumption was that everyone would know she was that someone, and therefore, her age. Even after she made the decision to retire, she still kept it a secret from friends and family. To this day, her lack of wrinkles and black dyed hair elicit shock whenever she whips out her ID for a senior citizen discount.
Like my mother, I am also an entertainer who looks a lot younger than her age. Unlike her, I have made a conscious decision not to hide how old I am. Not only because my date of birth is easily Google-able (I'm 43), but because I believe it’s important to take pride in where I’m presently at. I’m pretty sure this has prevented me from getting cast in roles I really wanted, but I learned a long time ago to equate rejection with protection. If I don’t get a part, it was never mine to begin with.
But if I’m being honest, my age acceptance has also come rather easily because I inherited my mom's youthful genes. It’s really easy to say “Love the skin you’re in!” when that skin has always been smooth and line-free. (And if I’m being totally honest, I’ve had Botox injected into my crow’s feet before a few film shoots.)
When I started noticing my gray hair somewhere in my mid 30s I did not welcome them. They, along with my lower back constantly spasming from my “weak core” (my doctor actually wrote me a prescription for Pilates) were my first signs that the fountain of youth was drying up. I had always had a simple relationship with my hair—aside from one very unfortunate Bon Jovi-inspired perm in third grade, we pretty much left one another alone. I washed it with whatever travel size shampoos and conditioners I would hoard on vacation (yes, I’m that person) and allowed it to air dry. I didn’t own a brush, or a blow dryer, and I often modeled for salons in exchange for free haircuts. I never felt the pressure to do anything different to it, because professionals made sure it looked great in front of a camera. They told me: “Your hair is perfect. It’s silky. Healthy. It holds a curl. It behaves.” I was winning the hair game. Why change any of that?
It was actually during filming that I first felt embarrassed by my grays. The hairstylist sighed as they kept unearthing more and more patches to cover. “You really need to go and get these babies colored,” they informed me, touching them up with black powder between every single scene.
The first person I called was my mother. "It’s Chinese," she told me when I asked what brand of dye she used, "Your aunt sends it to me from Taiwan." That didn’t seem to be very practical, so I tried some drugstore box dye, effectively ruined my scalp and wedding registry towels, and wound up at the salon anyway. After spending two hours in a chair (which really took its toll on my weak core) and $80 for my first single process treatment, I stared at my reflection, underwhelmed, in disbelief. All of that time and money to look exactly like I always have? And I would have to do it again next month? And for the rest of my life?
I asked some friends my age for advice. They told me to just accept the grays, to age gracefully. They didn’t make their living on camera, though. They couldn’t possibly understand the pressure of being hired based on your looks, how having a few strands of gray hair on a movie screen is almost as distracting as having a zit smack dab between your eyes. So I asked other Asian actresses. It turned out everyone was fighting their grays the same way. There was no secret; no magic coverup (though there are sprays that work pretty well in a pinch).
While directing my first movie in 2018, I relished being behind the camera. I began to fantasize about a new career, one where I didn’t have to put quite as much thought into how I presented myself all the time. I began announcing that I wanted to enter the hair lightening phase of my life. Go blonde, then pink, then blue? At least for the rest of my 40’s, maybe some of my 50’s, before settling back into my raven roots, allowing myself to go gray, chopping all my hair off, and getting a Golden Girls perm. It took two years of obsessive research before I finally went near a bottle of bleach, opting to get balayage highlights that would partially hide the gray. And, if I was already spending all this time/money in a salon, at least I’d emerge as a more dramatic version of myself. They would grow out gradually, and upkeep wasn’t too bad. This was back in March, right as my directorial debut was set to make its World Premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. I thought changing my hair would be a symbolic way to enter this new phase of my life.
But then, a few weeks later, COVID-19 hit. I had been planning on traveling to film festivals, making public appearances, conducting nonstop interviews, sitting on panels, and taking selfies with audience members. But instead, my life (like everyone else in the world) was confined to a tiny square on Zoom. I could not just let all my hard work quietly fade away (if you think I’ve switched to talking about my movie, rest assured I’m still talking about my hair). I had no choice but to honor my commitment to go blonde, even if no one was there to see it in person.
The two travel-size bottles of shampoo and conditioner that sit in my shower grew a real family—there are purple and silver and blue versions of each. Over in the cabinet, there are hair lightening sprays (which, shockingly, work), hair toners, hydrating masks, and frizz fighters. There is a microfiber hair turban to minimize drying time and two different heat protectant serums. I special-ordered some custom hair dye to cover my roots at home and have done three sessions, with the help of my partner. I bought scissors—even a set of the texturing kind with little comb thingies on them, so I could trim my own hair.
The strangest part of all of this is that aside from my hair, I have given very little thought to my appearance. I pretty much only wear giant T-shirts with holes and stains, no pants, no makeup, no shaving, no jewelry, and no perfume. It’s almost as if my hair color is exciting enough on its own to distract from my lack of polish. Yes I look even younger as a result, but I also feel more youthful because I’m pumped about something that I can actually have control and obsess over. Some people have discovered sourdough, I have discovered my hair. Caring about it isn’t a burden, like I believed it would be. It’s an adventure. I have been auditioning again and wonder if my highlights are distracting to casting directors who have seen me for decades with the same black hair. I am pretty sure nobody has even noticed, which makes me wonder why I waited so long to do this.
On my computer is a YouTube playlist I’ve titled “Cuz I’m a Blonde” that I watch while I do my Pilates exercises. They consist of videos made by mostly young Asian-Americans, who seem to have zero fear of bleach, peroxide, or the consequence of orange hair that I grew up with. They’re not only lightening, toning, and styling their multi-hued locks for millions of viewers, they’re also filming, hosting, and editing these videos themselves. This new generation does not ask permission to express themselves.
Even though I’m no stranger to social media, I still come from the traditional background of storytelling, where there are several departments of people literally having meetings over your “image.” My new teachers are the decision makers, and many of them are young enough to be my daughters. They’ve inspired me to daydream about my next hair phase. What it will be. And when that day comes, will there actually be more deeply developed roles for older women to play on TV and in film? I’m not quite ready to start a YouTube channel for those in their 40s, but I have been actively writing, with the intention of crafting roles for Asian actresses that extend beyond the stereotypes, beyond the limitations of what we are used to seeing. I am currently creating an “old lady part” that anyone would be eager to play—but only someone with gray hair will get to do it.
Until then, I’m still my mother’s daughter. Usually when I FaceTime with her, she holds the phone like a walkie talkie so all I can see is up her nose. I asked her to pull the camera back, so I could see her whole face. Even though she never leaves her apartment anymore, she’s still covering her grays. She’s beautiful and I love that we have that in common.