An All-American girl hashes out the joys and doubts of writing for an Asian-themed sitcom.
by Rita Hsiao

"I'm a good voice because I'm sensitive to ethnic groups, especially if their food is good."
t's 2 a.m. on Monday and I'm sitting in a room with eleven other writers trying to come up with a crucial scene for Margaret Cho. The show is All-American Girl -- the first Asian American sitcom. It's the half-hour comedy that is supposed to revolutionize TV and bring all of mankind together in one happy "it's a small world" lovefest. Okay, so maybe I'm getting a little carried away, but it's late so I can be punchy.
     Anyway, we're trying to decide what Margaret would do if her parents came down on her for corrupting her brother's fiancee. The room is silent, and that's when I -- one of the two Asian writers on the show -- turn to the group and say, "Naturally, since she's Asian, she would chain herself to her bed and go on a hunger strike." Everyone stares at me. "Trust me," I say, "Asians do that when they're mad. It's a cultural truth."
     And just like that, the Executive Producer has Margaret locking herself in her room and fasting. I secretly stifle a grin and repeat my mantra: "Ah... the power I wield."
     Okay, so maybe that's not exactly what happened; maybe it's just me who can't eat when I'm pissed off and likes to be chained to a bed, but there's this sort of perverse trip going on knowing that as an Asian writer, I'm representing an entire ethnic group. That I'm THE VOICE, the WATCHDOG, and that whatever I say will be heard by someone. Which brings up the question -- what the hell makes me qualified to be THE VOICE? After all, I'm not even Corean. I don't even get mistaken for being Corean by strangers playing "guess her ethnicity" with me in airports and restaurants. I am, however, Chinese American, so there's that Asian link. Plus, whenever I need to make sure something's authentic I check with my Corean friend in New York who's more than happy to answer my questions as long as I don't call during Melrose Place. And finally, I'm a good VOICE because I'm sensitive to ethnic groups, especially if their food is good.
     When I first met with Executive Producer Gary Jacobs for a writing job on the show, I told him I was very concerned with accurate portrayals of Asians. In fact, the image of the sex-starved Asian exchange student who fell from a tree in Sixteen Candles still haunts me. (Everyone knows he should have been wearing a pocket protector...) Anyway, I told Gary that I thought it was great that he was doing a show about Asians and I hoped the show wouldn't be perpetuating any bad stereotypes. Also, I told him I could really relate to Margaret's character 'cause we're both young Asian women, we're both opinionated, and we both really like boys. Who could argue with that? I was hired.
     But the real test still lay ahead. What would the Asian community think of the show? The day after the pilot premiered I called my mom to see how swhe liked it (after all, she's Asian). "Hi, Mom," I said, "So what did you think of our show last -- no, I don't want to call back after your Chinese soaps -- you've got them on tape! Press pause! ...So what did you think?"

     "It was good," she said, "but those parents seemed very liberal. They were going to let their daughter move in with a boy?!?" I explained that not all families are conservative and maybe it's not such a bad idea to be open-minded. After all, if two people really loved each other -- no, wait, I had to get back to the subject at hand. I told her how happy I've been working on the show, how we've been written up in major magazines and newspapers, and how proud I hoped she was that I was part of something truly special: making sure that Asians came across as funny and as smart as all the other families on TV. She said that was nice, then proceeded to tell me about Janet Sun's wedding last weekend -- "She married a PhD from Harvard, you know. Are there any single men on your show?"
     It's 3 a.m. and we're still trying to decide how Margaret will deal with her angry parents. A non-Asian writer finally decides to have Margaret and her parents talk things out so that they're one big happy family at the end. And that's when I lean over to Elizabeth, the other Asian writer, and whisper, "Do we do that?" She nods, and I tell her, "Just checking."


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