Oh Brook, We Love You Soso
...Okay, maybe not love love, but let’s just say I finally relate to Brook Soso after Season 3 of “Orange is the New Black,” which came out last June for all of our Netflix junkie viewing pleasure. I’m not going to lie, instead of eating lunch with my work buddies, I would sneak off to power through an episode. Yes, this post is a little late on the TV front, but one exchange from this season stuck with me. Well, two if you count, “Trust no bitch,” but I’m going to lay out the one that really stuck with me.
The episode I really enjoyed in Season 3 was “Ching Chong Chang,” despite the title, maybe because of the title, I’m on the fence about it since the whole show is a series of stereotypes and no one, not even the white people, get spared. So maybe it gets a pass. Also I was really excited to see Chang get her own episode. But anyway, the exchange that stuck is one that takes place between Chang (Lori Tan Chinn), and her cellmate, Soso (Kimiko Glenn)... I should also mention that both of these actors are pretty phenomenal.
Soso: “You know what sucks? Belonging to a race that doesn’t commit enough low value crimes to be relevant in a place like this. Where’s my big Asian prison family?”
Chang: “You Scottish.”
Soso: “Not to white people I’m not. One drop of ethnic blood and bam I’m basically made in China like you and my toothbrush.”
Chang: “You Scottish.”
I usually try not to laugh out loud when I’ve got headphones on and I’m hiding from my fellow employees during my lunch hour, but this brief conversation made me break my rule about laughing. It was just so unexpected--up until this point in “Orange is the New Black,” the only remarks about Soso have been related to her ethnic and racial ambiguity, how smelly she is, or her “Asian-ness” for lack of a better term. But in this scene, Chang’s rejection of Soso as a fellow Asian is so blunt, matter-of-fact, and complete. Frankly, I was surprised that the writers were insightful enough to throw this issue into the ring. Even briefly.
As a person of mixed Asian and white heritage, I’ve been caught in these sorts of situations. You know, the type where you try to fit in and you feel like you identify with your Asian roots and/or your white roots and then suddenly someone slams the door in your face and essentially tells you, “No, you’re not part of this club.” I’ve heard experiences like this echo over the mixed airwaves both in real life and social media, but this is the first time I’ve seen it done in the mainstream world of film and television.
In fact, Soso might be a first for mainstream media. Because let’s face it--usually, if there is a person of mixed Asian descent in a movie or on TV, their heritage is not a topic of discussion and they’re going to be playing a character who is supposed to be only Asian… Or they’re on the SyFy channel on some show where part Asian people are considered the “future.” Surprise, we’re already here.
Initially it was difficult for me to jump on board the Brook Soso train because I was so excited to finally see a character on TV who might, just might, have a similar background to me and they were even acknowledging that background on the show… And then she turned out to be really annoying. It wasn’t just her overly enthusiastic personality, but her whole schtick about protesting and the fact that she was basically a spoof of twenty-something college-educated kids around my age. You know, the “socially responsible” ones who like to recycle, save the earth, and go to Coachella (no offense). My hopes for a half Asian character who made people think a little harder about ethnic and racial identity were crushed.
But then Season 3 happened. And finally, we see her not just as a caricature or a stereotype, which is how most of the characters on “Orange is the New Black” tend to appear at first glance, but as a person. A person with a deep-seated need to be liked and accepted, so much so that she becomes mired in a pervasive, life threatening depression when no one will befriend her. And though at first glance it doesn’t seem to have to do so much with her ethnic background as it does her personality, I can’t help but feel like the former does play a large role.
The inmates and even the prison’s employees can’t figure out how to categorize her: they expect her to fit into Asian stereotypes, like being quiet and submissive or smart and sneaky. And on the flip side, Chang thinks of Soso as just another white inmate. Soso’s lack of belonging makes it impossible to form any initial connections that might lead to friendships. And it’s heartbreaking. Because I get it.
Just from my own experience of meeting new people, I can’t help but have an underlying feeling of anxiety that sort of goes like this if I were to put it into words: “Are they going to ask me what I am? If I tell them, will they try to make me speak Japanese? Should I not tell them at all? Do I have the energy to defend myself? Do I even want to? What if they’re right?”
We, being people of mixed roots, don’t typically have the luxury of a common cultural background to help us form friendships. Oftentimes, we’re stuck trying to over explain ourselves and failing to get through to anyone. And even if there happened to be a group of mixed people to hang out with, we’re never going to be all the same mix, though it can be easier to find commonalities in our experiences to bond over. But seeing a mixed character like Soso put in a prison where race pretty much defines all of the character’s friendships amplifies the tension that I think a lot of mixed people feel on a daily daily basis.
So where do we belong? I’m going to be honest, I’m still trying to work it out. I think other people are too, and that might be why it’s finally getting a little acknowledgment in mainstream media, like on “Orange is the New Black.” It’s exciting to see that this show has invested time into telling a mixed character’s story and that it’s finally giving her more dimension in this latest season. Brook Soso isn’t the most adeptly written character ever, with her strange last name that sounds sort of Asian but really isn’t and that flashback to her piano playing days with her stereotypical Asian mother (let’s leave those topics for a later date), but I do think she is soso a step in the right direction.