What It’s Like To Be Asian In A TV Writers Room
A 2016 study from the Writers' Guild of America West titled "Renaissance in Reverse?" found that, in 2014, Asians made up 2.9% of guild members working in television. Clearly, the number of Asian writers throughout the diaspora is quite low in Hollywood, and the number of Asian actors in front of the camera isn't much better. But that doesn't mean they don't exist. In fact, they've contributed to some of the best things you've watched over the years, and continue to do so today. To celebrate the Asian writers behind some of your favorite television shows, Bustle spoke to a handful of gamechangers rewriting the script in Hollywood right now.
The writers Bustle spoke with come from a range of backgrounds, genres, and experiences. Brian Shin, a Korean American writer working on The Good Doctor, only recently got started in Hollywood. Aseem Batra, a South Asian writer, has been in the writers room since the mid-2000s, with credits including Scrubs, The Cleveland Show, and, most recently, I Feel Bad. Lillian Yu, a Chinese American writer, recently sold a rom-com about Asians to New Line, and wrote for Cinemax's Warrior. Neel Shah, an Indian writer currently working on The Bold Type, and Kai Yu Wu, a Taiwanese American writer who got her start in the writers room on Hannibal before moving to The Flash and Deception, also shared their experiences. And Ray Utarnachitt, a Legends of Tomorrow writer, says he checks the "Asian Pacific Islander" box. Karen Chee, a Korean American comedy writer, and Bowen Yang, a Saturday Night Live writer who identifies as "Chinese by heritage," but says, "I would also love for everyone to know that I got 10% Korean on 23andMe," also spoke to Bustle for the piece. As did Vicky Luu, a Vietnamese and Chinese American writer who recently sold an Asian-led pilot, Like Magic, to NBC, and Teresa Hsiao, a Chinese American writer whose credits include Family Guy and Fresh Off The Boat.
More Than A "Diversity Hire"
A study from the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity published in March 2019 found that 42% of writers surveyed earned their first jobs as a "Diversity Slot" hire, commonly referred to as a "Diversity hire." A "diversity hire" is a position created by studios and networks, who created incentive programs for rooms to hire diverse writers. Networks sometimes cover the salary of these hires, as noted by the New York Times.
Neel Shah: I was actually hired as the "diversity hire," which is a job that is usually given to someone like a person of color. ... On one hand, it's great that you are getting an opportunity that you might not otherwise have gotten. But on the other hand, you can also sometimes be pigeonholed. Because there's maybe the belief that you didn't deserve it.
Teresa Hsiao: I was actually a diversity hire during my first season on Family Guy. ... But, I think... being a diversity hire is actually a great way in. And I know that some people have had issues with being the diversity hire over and over and over again, and so you’re kind of stuck. So, it’s sort of a double-edged sword.
Vicky Luu: You have that fear that [those in positions of power in Hollywood] ingrained in you that standing out could be a good thing, but it could also be a very bad thing. So you're just really toeing the line of: How much do I give [in the writers room], in terms of input that I have might have [as an Asian writer] that other people don't have? And how much do I just kind of go along with it?
Kai Wu: Even though I was the only Asian... in the [Hannibal writers] room, he [executive producer Bryan Fuller] never made me feel that way. I got a script as well. I was able to pitch.
Brian Shin: I think people know you're the diversity hire. I don't know if there's a situation where... somebody identified me that way with a negative connotation. I think that's very much an internal struggle for writers, especially the ones that are coming from the fellowships like I did.
Karen Chee: No one has ever made me feel like less than in any way. ... When I was worried about maybe being a diversity hire for the Globes, because everyone else in the room was so experienced and older and successful... [a friend who is also an Asian American writer] sent me this text message that made me feel very calm. ... 'You don't have to worry about being diversity hire, because racism is alive and well. And if anything, it is harder to get a job because of your race. ... And anyone who tells you otherwise, it's usually a white person who feels bad that they didn't get a certain job.'
The Only Asian In The Writers Room
Many of the writers who spoke to Bustle experienced being the only Asian writer, or person of color, in the room at one point in their careers. And a few mentioned how isolating the experience can be.
Ray Utarnachitt: I would express to my dad specifically, "This is what I want to do. I want to move to LA. I'm going to work in the film industry." And I'll never forget this ... he says, "There's no one. There's no one like us out there. I can't help you if you move to LA." ... It wasn't until I moved to LA and started working in the film industry [that] I really, truly understood what he meant.
Bowen Yang: [My parents] were very worried at the beginning in terms of the intersectional struggle that I would have to go through. Not only being a writer or performer, but also a comic, to address other aspects of my personhood in a way that other people couldn’t ignore. ... I would have to contend with my Asian-ness, and other people would have to as well.
For others, being one of the few writers of color in the room can come with an added pressure to be the best, and to make a good impression so that more writers of color will be hired.
Chee: I felt like I really needed to have proof that I was good because no one was going to give me the benefit of the doubt. That's what it is. And I think a lot of white people get the benefit of the doubt and get a chance to prove themselves. Whereas I was like, I needed to show up already with those things ready to go.
Hsiao: On Family Guy, there was one other female Asian writer in the room, and then 20 white dudes, so it was kind of strange because we were also the only women on staff.
Luu, who tells Bustle she has never been in a writers room with another Asian female writer, says that being the only Asian in the room can also bring the added burden of feeling like you're representing your race.
Luu: There's something like, "Am I speaking for like an entire culture of people? And who am I to speak for an entire culture of people, whether it is my Asian perspective or my queer perspective? ... I'm here because I'm offering a unique perspective, but are you guys expecting me to speak on behalf of everyone?
The Race Police
Being the only person of color in the room isn't just isolating, it can also create a pressure to be what some writers call "the race police."
Hsiao: You don’t want to be the staff writer who’s constantly raising your hand, saying, "I think that’s offensive," especially in a comedy room. Because you can quickly get ostracized, and then people will stop pitching in front of you; they won’t want you in their room. So, it’s hard, especially as a young writer, to speak up.
Luu: Is it my job to tell my boss, "Hey, maybe that's a little racist?" Not that any of my bosses have been racist, but it's just, that's the implication of, what is my position here?
Luu: And sometimes you're off. Sometimes, what you think is maybe off color, other people will find [offensive.]... I mean you see it in the Asian community, where half of us will be like, "That's really racist," and the other half are like, "No, I think it's funny. I don't think it's racist." So, you encounter that even in yourself.
Utarnachitt: You kind of get used to playing along, and you kind of just get used [to the mentality of], "Oh no, no, it doesn't bother me, it's fine," because you just... play along to get along.
Aseem Batra: Early in my career, we had written a part for specifically a Turkish character, and we cast a Sikh man with a turban to play that character. And viewers were understandably annoyed and upset by that. And I spoke [up] and I said, "We probably shouldn't have even done that. We shouldn't have done that." I didn't know it was happening because writers of that rank are not involved in casting. And I remember one of the writers just turned to me said, "Who gives a sh*t?" It's that mentality — that marginalization, that "who gives a sh*t" mentality — you can find that still.
Not all writers have experienced this pressure, however. Shah tells Bustle he's never felt put in a position where he had to speak up against any casual racism in a writers room. And other writers, like Hsiao, noted that her confidence to speak up has increased as she's gained more experience.
Shah: I've never had a real experience of feeling like, "Oh, that is something that we shouldn't do." Or, "I wouldn't feel comfortable with my name being associated with that," or anything like that. And the show that I'm on now, The Bold Type, is super — for lack of a better word — woke and sensitive to portraying people, authentically and as sincerely as possible.
Hsiao: Now in my career, I’m way more willing to speak up and say, "Hey, that’s not actually something that’s OK to be said on television." Or, "that’s not something that — that’s not reflective of the Asian community."
Writers Can Only Do So Much
How writers experience being the only Asian in the room depends on many factors, but one that is especially important is leadership. It's not enough to just have diversity in the writers room. There needs to be diversity in the producer's office, as showrunners, sitting in executive offices at the networks. The experiences of a diversity hire, for example, are completely dependent on who is hiring writers and organizing the writers room.
Luu: The creative [making the show] can only do so much, and there's the people that are in charge — they'd say "yes" or "no" in terms of projects going forward. They're the ones that have to have faith in the fact that an Asian lead can have a successful show.
Batra: Having the power to be the showrunner on that show and talk about things, or make decisions to not show or portray something in a certain way because I felt like it was negative — that was so empowering because otherwise, I have not always felt comfortable to do that, quite honestly. And that's why I say we need to have a commitment to diverse voices at the top.
Utarnachitt: A lot of it [the push for diversity in the writers room] comes from the showrunner: Who was the showrunner comfortable with? Are they comfortable with diverse voices? ... If we get more diverse people in those positions, that's how you're going to fill those other spots with diverse people.
Change Starts At The Top
Though it seems obvious that more diverse leadership will result in more diverse writers rooms, and thus, hopefully, more diverse content on television, this small amount of progress has come with backlash, often from white peers.
Wu: Hollywood still needs to educate people on diversity, because what happens is a lot of people — straight white guys — think they can't get staffed. [They think] it's so hard for them to be staffed because everyone wants a diverse writer. And that part of the conversation has not been good. There's actually been a little bit of, like, resentment... They think it's easy being diverse, and women.
Hsiao: I’ve had so many white male friends who have said, ‘Oh, it’s so annoying, the things that I’m not getting in my career are because I’m not diverse.’ And that’s super frustrating. ... It’s a little bit of a "sorry, not sorry," because you guys have had this industry for all of time, and now we just want a little bit of a bigger slice.
Luu: As more people of color, as Asians, get into writers rooms, I think we're just speaking for the voice that [previously] wasn't there. We're not bringing something that has never existed before in the world, where things that are racist haven't just suddenly become racist — they've always been racist. You've just never had people in the room to point that out.
Writing For An Asian Character
The importance of leadership is even more apparent when looking at the rare experience of Asian writers actually getting to write for Asian characters they believe in. For example, Batra tells Bustle that though she was able to write for good Asian characters early in her career, it wasn't until she created her own show 13 years in, I Feel Bad, that she was able to write for an Asian lead.
Batra: My, experience getting to write for Asian characters has been good. But I will say we're mostly sidekicks and guest stars. And it really wasn't until my show [I Feel Bad] that I got to write for an Asian character in a lead part.
Hsiao: An Asian character that wasn’t totally offensive and a cartoon? It was for Fresh Off the Boat. [That was] the first time I could talk to my parents and ask them things that were helpful to my job. And I thought, "Wow, this is something that I’ve never experienced before in all my years writing for TV, where I can include my family in what I’m doing."
Some writers, like Shah and Chee, who got one of her first major jobs writing jokes for the 2018 Golden Globes co-hosted by Sandra Oh, had more luck. One of Shah's first jobs, working as a writer on the short lived sitcom Whitney, included writing for an Asian character, also named Neel.
Shah: Growing up, there weren't a ton of examples of Indian people on TV, other than from the Simpsons. So, I feel like I got to Los Angeles at an inflection point when you started to see that there was a real burgeoning pool of, not just Indian actors, but also Indian writers and Indian stand-ups. And so I think on Whitney, it was also a case that Neel didn't necessarily feel super Indian. He still just felt like, at least initially, a kind of white person. And so, it then became incumbent on the writers in the room to try to make them feel a little bit more specific. And being part of that is cool.
Chee: I remember walking in [to the Golden Globes writers room] and being like, "Oh, I feel very needed and I feel very good about being here" because Sandra Oh was hosting. ... To know that the host of the show, the person we were writing for, was Asian, made me feel very valid and legit in existing in that room and taking up space.
Pushing Back On Stereotypes
When writers do get the opportunity to write for Asian characters, they can end up boxed in by common stereotypes. But actively working against them can be difficult.
Hsiao: When you are Asian and you have the ability to create characters, you kind of want to debunk every stereotype in the beginning, and then you realize, if you debunk every stereotype, sometimes people are just the way they are, and so you don’t want it to be too moralistic or pedantic and not have the characters be real.
Shin: The lens by which I would like to show Asian Americans and fight back the stereotype of not... [seeing] us as fathers or boyfriends.
Lillian Yu: I think a lot of shows have historically kind of just assigned like race — like Chinese, or Indian or whatever ... — [as] a primary trait of the character's personality, and it's not. I think that's a mistake. With the characters I create who are Asian or people of color, it's just a tiny part of what informed who they are and how they act.
Looking toward the future, everyone Bustle spoke with agreed that there is hope for greater representation in front of and behind the camera. The trick is not letting the success of Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off The Boat be taken for granted, or somehow viewed as the only reflection of the Asian experience.
Yu: I hope that Asians aren't treated as a monolith along with all the other ethnicities out there. I hope that we're appreciated for who we are and what we are and what we bring to the table.
Yang: The best feeling that I get is when I walk into a situation creatively where I don’t have to second guess my contribution to the writers room. I don’t have to pull back on cultural references, and [explain] what mochi is. ... I hope we get to a place where we can all just make references to specific Asian or cultural elements that aren’t seen as solely unusual.
Wu: [We need to] make an agenda. We're so far behind in progress that it's OK to say, 'Yeah, I do want that staff job to go to an Asian person. I do want that story to be [about] an Asian person.'
Shah: I still think in terms of diversity initiatives, it does feel like the representation of Asian in general ... [has] lagged behind a little.
Luu: There's this weird blind spot thinking that there's not that many [Asian writers]... which is completely not true. There are many Asian writers and they just haven't been getting the same push and exposure as other writers have been getting.
Batra: It's a slow change, and I think Asian Americans still deal with this feeling of otherness. [Audiences] immediately see Asian American characters and it's like, "Oh, this is a foreign." ... So I wouldn't say things have rapidly changed and we're all great now. This is an ongoing struggle. I just see that there's been lightly more opportunity, and I hope that we can build on that.
Chee: I think, maybe because I'm still very new, it doesn't feel [like a burden to be the only Asian in these Hollywood spaces.] And right now, it feels like an immense privilege to have the job and access I have right now. And it feels like an incredible privilege to be able to try and let other people in and help people get to where they want to go.
Utarnachitt: We're lucky now, thanks to things like Jane the Virgin and Crazy Rich Asians, where I do feel very positive about being able to tell stories that people were afraid of even three or four years ago. ... I really feel like if I wanted a pitch an Asian American story, my family story or whatever, I think there will be people there to finally listen. Whereas, even a few years ago, I think it would be impossible to get anyone to listen to that.