American Girl Doll
When I was a kid, I loved American Girl dolls. They were just expensive dolls, but they were also a defining innovation of my entire upbringing. The historical dolls scene was the best — don’t argue. Felicity was my favorite, but Nellie was pretty cool and Molly was all right. Don’t talk to me about Samantha though. My best friend and I would spend hours at her house poring through magazine pages, picking out the dolls we wanted and the outfits we would put them in. We read all the books together, and made up our own stories once we finished the books. I wanted, more than anything, to have an American Girl doll. And when my best friend got Kit Kittredge, I was so jealous.
But here’s the thing: part of the attraction of American Girl dolls is that the doll looks like you. All the girls in the magazines looked just like their dolls. There were always sections in the back where you could customize your own doll so it really fit — Truly You, or whatever it was called. You could even buy matching clothes and pajama sets, so you know it was real. But my friends and I would sit for ages, leafing through eye colors and hair colors and skin tones but we could never come up with a doll that looked quite like me. A chubby-faced, Chinese-American girl.
That really messed with my head for a while. Especially playing with my friend and Kit Kittredge, with their matching blonde bobs, I wondered why I couldn’t get a doll that looked like me. So I decided I would write a letter to the American Girl organization. I saved all my Christmas money, all my birthday money and all my Chinese New Year hong bao (red packets of Chinese New Year money) for this moment. I had $132.74 in cash and a mission. I wrote to the American Girl organization in Chicago — with my best handwriting, to make it clear I wasn’t fucking around — to ask if they could make a doll that looked like me. A doll with little almond eyes that her classmates sometimes made fun of, and straight black hair that stood out among a sea of brunette. I put all my money into the envelope, figured out how to address an envelope and sealed my letter in tight.
Unfortunately, my grand plan was thwarted by my mom, who thought putting a fat stack of cash into an envelope was not a good idea. And even though I wasn’t happy about it, I was willing to let it go. It was my mom, after all.
Fast-forward to 2007, and American Girl released Ivy Ling. I was shook. Yeah, Ivy was a Best Friend and not a main doll and she was Taiwanese, not mainland Chinese, so I didn’t relate to everything about her. But she looked like me, ate the same kind of food at home and celebrated Chinese New Year, like me. And when I say I begged for that doll, I’m not playing. I swear I almost cried when she arrived in the mail, with her red qipao — traditional Chinese dress — and black bangs. Finally, I had an American Girl Doll that looked just like me. I felt like I belonged.
This is the story of so many Asian-American girls. I spent so much of my childhood, and still spend so much time today, searching for women who look like me in outlets of my life. It’s not something that I would spend a lot of time thinking about, but I think its effects were more pertinent than I recognize. Because whenever I see Asian-American women like Constance Wu, Amy Tan or Judy Chu, it makes me think that I could be them in the future. I can make as much change as they have made. I can be successful, I have a place in America. For all the backlash I have gotten for looking the way I do, seeing Asian-American women in the eye of the public makes me feel as though it doesn’t matter. If they could make it out and keep chasing their dreams, I can too.
Recently, I have also been spending an ungodly amount of time explaining to people why Asian-American representation matters. From Facebook friends, class discussions and our own university president, I hear that Asians are a smaller population anyway. It’s an economic and business choice to use white people. Asians are better off compared to other minorities, and I need to pick my battles. Some Asians don’t care, so why should I? And when I consider those perspectives, it makes sense. Stereotypically, Asians stack paper, keep their mouths shut and fulfill the image of immigrants that is marketed to the rest of the world. But why don’t people think Asian-Americans have problems? Because I know there is unspoken poverty in urban Chinatowns, there are ignored issues among the Hmong population in Detroit, and that Jiansheng Chen, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani were shot unarmed this month and no one really cared. However, I have realized that people are only aware of the Asian-American statistics publicized to the rest of the world. They do not see our issues because, to them, Asian issues don’t exist. All they see are the numbers of Asians getting university degrees, the nerdy Asian sidekicks on the big screens, the Asian fantasy girls in pornography, but that is not the reality of the Asian-American experience. Although Asians are part of the ethnic group that is most likely to receive a college education, there exists a serious lack of Asian-American leadership in industries across the board. That’s not even mentioning that many subcategories of Asian-Americans receive below-average educations — we just don’t talk about it.
So Asian-Americans get degrees, but that doesn’t mean anything when they leave campus if they want to make change in a field. People still want white faces to lead their businesses and institutions. And while it is a huge privilege to be able to receive an education at the university level, Asians still have to combat the notorious bamboo ceiling when they finish college. It all stems back to how Asian-Americans are perceived in this country. Media is a huge outlet for many Americans, and that is why accurate and multifaceted representation matters so much. It’s why Karlie Kloss dressing as a geisha in Vogue’s diversity shoot was offensive, and why Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell” was unacceptable. If you really needed a model for a diversity shoot celebrating Japanese culture, wouldn’t it be a great opportunity to help Japanese models break into the modeling industry? Isn’t it more economical to cast an Asian actress in “Ghost in the Shell,” rather than try digital alterations on Scarlett Johansson’s face to make her look more Asian? Hearing about things like this makes me, as an Asian girl, feel as though I’m not needed in society. That someone can just take a white woman, give her an angled bob and call it about the same. Preferable, even.
I have been taught, through instances like these, that white America doesn’t want actual Asians. They want Becky to squint a little, and that’s more palatable for society. They want me to mispronounce my Rs and say things that don’t make sense, because English can’t possibly be my mother tongue. They want me to stir-fry rice in the corner, and laugh along with their jokes that simply aren’t true. But you want to know a secret? It’s not “ching chong,” it’s Chongqing, and Chongqing is a major Chinese municipal city with over 30 million people. You don’t have yellow fever, Chad, you have a problem with hypersexualizing Asian women. And my eyes might be smaller than yours, but I still somehow see more than you, because you can’t even recognize the ignorance coming out of your own mouth.
When I tutored kindergarteners a few weeks ago, I walked into the classroom and noticed that, while the classroom was quite diverse, there was only one Asian girl in the room. She noticed it, too. When she saw me, her eyes grew so big, they looked like marbles. She ran up to me when activities started, still in disbelief.
“You look like me,” she whispered.
“I do,” I replied.
She stayed by my side for the whole time I helped out in class, playing phonics Go Fish with all the kindergarteners. And when my time was up, her little hand waved goodbye, watching me with those big marble eyes. All I could think about for the rest of the day was the look on her face when she first saw me. It reminded me of my own inexplicable obsession with Selena Gomez when I was younger. I couldn’t put a finger on it at the time, but I later realized it was because she looked vaguely like me. Representation matters. When I see another Asian woman doing important things in society, it gives me so much hope for myself. And this feeling is probably applicable to other groups of people. Diverse representation is a powerful tool that must be harnessed to truly attain an inclusive society. And people will question, degrade, dismiss and push my beliefs aside, but I will not stand down. This is important, and I will push until people understand.
Progress comes slowly, but I am willing to take slow progress if the alternative is none. Ivy Ling was discontinued in 2014, but in February, American Girl released not only a new Korean-American doll, but also a Pacific Islander doll. American Girl dolls might not be the hypest scene for kids anymore, but I hope those who still care can learn more about those cultures, or find a place for them within the context of American Girl Dolls. Because if you are here in America, you deserve to be visible.