diaCRITICS has talked about actress Maggie Q in a review about Nikita and reading Nikita as a postfeminist show. Here, Jade Hidle takes up Maggie Q again but instead, Hidle talks about her admiration for Maggie Q, not for her as an actress but more for Maggie Q as a mixed-race Vietnamese American. Reading Jimmy Kimmel’s interview with Maggie Q, Hidle raises questions regarding American narratives of mixed-race Vietnamese/Asian Americans and the complicated histories brought up by the Amerasian identity.
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Maggie Q is my homegirl. It’s not because we grew up together (in fact, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting her). And, though she is a striking on-screen presence, it’s not because I’m necessarily a huge fan of her U.S. film roles as a leg-baring, gun-toting undercover agent in Mission Impossible III or her current job as the sexy yet dangerous eponymous assassin in Nikita. (I must confess that the nerd within me, not buried very deeply, was tickled that she signed on to play a vampire-slaughtering priestess in the 2011 film adaptation of the graphic novel series Priest.)
No, Maggie Q is my homegirl because she is one of the few mainstream American celebrities who proudly claims being Vietnamese AND mixed (Irish and Polish, to be specific). A blend of Vietnamese and Irish myself, I experience relief and pride whenever I see this sister on screen, and I follow her work in hopes that she, along with other hapa and Asian American females, will soon garner increased representation in the media—that is, beyond the supporting roles of exotic action vixen. Maggie Q herself has admitted that she aspires to break these restrictive molds: “Not only do I not want to be stereotyped as this Asian girl who fights–gee, what a wonder–but also I have more to offer than that” (imdb.com). Over the holiday break, I slipped into well-worn sweatpants and caught up on all the pop culture I had missed during the fall semester of teaching and PhDing, and one of the programs I watched (thank you, full episodes online) was Maggie Q’s December 1st appearance on the late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Now, to be clear, Kimmel is no Coco; nevertheless, I usually enjoy his humor and interviews, as they flow much more smoothly than the forced laughter, if not dead air, that creates hiccups in Leno and Letterman’s celebrity interviews. Kimmel’s interview with Maggie Q, however, was downright awkward. What was awkward about it, you ask? The interview questions written by Kimmel and his staff, though brief and tonally casual, bear the weighty subtext that, while Maggie Q’s “exotic” looks render her admirable in the public eye, a mixed-race Vietnamese individual continues to stir anxiety and curiosity about Americans’ memories of the U.S.-Viet Nam War. In particular, mixed-race Vietnamese bodies like Maggie Q’s become legible through narratives that render Vietnamese women as prostitutes. You can watch an excerpt of the interview below and then read on to see what I saw and heard in Kimmel and Maggie Q’s conversation. Use the comments section to let me know if you agree or were reading into their “err”- and “umm”-filled interview in other ways.
Right off the bat, Maggie Q’s ethnic origin is called into question before any discussion of her identity as an actress. When she shares that she was born and raised in Hawaii, Kimmel jokingly greets her with “Buenas dias,” which apparently applies to any “ambiguously raced” person, and this offhand remark is undoubtedly racially and politically charged in light of current immigration debates. Kimmel oddly follows with the questions “How Hawaiian are you? Were your parents born in Hawaii?” as if calling for Maggie Q to provide a birther movement-style measure of her identity, presumably to pin down her level of “Americanness.” This comes off as unintentionally ironic because Hawaii—a complex palimpsest of colonialism and miscegenation—speaks to the fact that American history is no simple yardstick for identity, and far from being something that can be defined in the first ten seconds of an interview. As if in recognition of the audacity of this opening extraterrestrial encounter type of question, “What are you and where did you come from?”, Maggie Q seems taken aback as she stumbles over her answer: “I’m just, I’m not, I was born and raised. But I’m Vietnamese-Irish-Polish.” Kimmel attempts to make a joke about her ethnicity, which he reduces to the silly acronym “V.I.P.”, then proceeds to ask her if she had ever thought of that before. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to reduce an Asian American woman to her ethnicity. Once Kimmel finds out that she is Vietnamese, the conversation really gets awkward, and a bit offensive, as he elliptically probes her for some kind of expected confession that her mother was a prostitute. Let’s review:
Jimmy Kimmel: And how did your parents wind up in Hawaii?
Maggie Q: Um, well, my, my fa—[Sighs] they met in Vietnam.
JK: Oh, wow.
MQ: And then they moved back to the states. I guess he retired from the military in Hawaii.
JK: Oh, okay. So your dad was in the military. And did, did your mom work too?
MQ: Did my mom work? [Raises eyebrows]
JK: Did she have a job?
MQ: Yes, my mom, she was a bartender for many years. [Laughs]
Maggie Q’s telling sigh evinces her awareness that revealing her parents’ introduction in Viet Nam inevitably conjures popular American memory of the war as some sort of Full Metal Jacket-style rendezvous between good ol’ U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese whores, just as we hear Kimmel’s awed “Oh, wow.” Accordingly, Maggie Q is clearly taken aback by the implication of the question of whether or not her mother worked; she repeats it with eyebrows raised, elongating the inquiry as if to prompt Kimmel to say what he really means, “Was your mother a prostitute? Did she meet your father while she was ‘working’ the corners?” I’ve confronted similar queries, both here and in Viet Nam, when people scrutinize my face to determine if I’m old enough to be a war-time baby and then ask, “Was your father a solider?” To this, I could reply with the epic, quixotic, passionate, heart-pounding, romantic tale of how my parents met at a post office in Huntington Beach, California (sorry, Mom and Dad, but that’s just plain boring compared to the bombs-exploding-in-the-jungle story that people thirst), but why should I have to answer that question, even if to shatter the inquisitor’s presumptions? And why should Maggie Q have to do the same? Why must we put our family’s history on display to provide strangers with an artificial sense of “knowledge” about Viet Nam and the U.S.-Viet Nam War?
After Maggie Q reveals that her mother was a bartender, she quickly follows up with glowing compliments of her mother and notes that she, in model-minority fashion, just bought her mom a Rolex, to turn the conversation, and her family’s history, into something positive—not the “dark spot” in U.S. history that the war and prostitution would invoke. Maggie Q’s seemingly purposeful redirecting of the conversation, along with her jovial energy (she laughs wholeheartedly at all of Kimmel’s jokes, no matter how lackluster they are) speaks to me as the game that mixed-race Vietnamese Americans are forced to play: we must always clarify and adapt who we are to make others feel more comfortable about their history. This enforced malleability is demonstrated later in the interview when Kimmel inquires as to the origin of her last name, “Q”:
JK: How did you get the last name “Q”, which is just the letter “Q”?
MQ: I was working in Asia for many years. My last name is really Iri—I have a really sort of white name. My last name is Quigley and nobody could pronounce it there so they, uh—
JK: How would they pronounce it?
MQ: [Laughs] Somebody had asked me, “Are you upset that they changed their name for you?” And I was like, had you lived there when I lived there and heard them try to say Quigley, you’d probably be pleased with “Q.”
At this point, I was grateful that Maggie Q refrained from performing the mimicry that Kimmel is asking of her. But that feeling didn’t last too long.
JK: So who decided on the “Q”?
MQ: It was the newspaper one day that printed it and I had gone through different incarnations–“quickly,” somebody said to me [Speaks with a Chinese accent], “Maggie, is it you are very quickly because you are quickly?” [Does a running motion with arms, makes confused face, and the audience laughs] Somebody said that to me in Hong Kong. No, not it in any way, because my last name is not “quickly.”
Even though I don’t necessarily blame Maggie Q for giving in to doing the accent (not proudly, I have made fun of Asians in order to feel, however fleetingly, that I fit in with other groups), I cringed when the audience guffawed in response. Yet, as if to mirror the ambivalence I was feeling while watching, Maggie Q follows with comments that speak to the identity issues wrapped up in being Asian American:
MQ: I think they [the Asians who first referred to her as “Q”] wanted to capitalize off the Asian side too, which I think is very sweet. They just wanted to be like, “You’re just Asian and you’re just ours.”
JK: I see.
MQ: You know, and so the Irish bit gone. Yeah, yeah, the white side. [Makes a thumbs down motion]
JK: So in Ireland maybe you’ll be O’Quigley.
As the interview came to a close on these notes, I heard echoes of the esteemed Asian American historian and professor Ronald Takaki who, in his examination of Japanese American citizenship during and after WWII, stated how Asian Americans are asked to choose identification with either Asia OR America. Yet, in watching this interview, I was reminded that this choice is not always ours. Our bodies continue to be read through lenses informed by skeletal histories. These are narratives that do not account for stories transcending the borders of the silver screen, for identities and kinships shaped by cultural citizenships, for shifting terrains of self. This one is for all my homegirls.
Jade Hidle received her BA (2006) and MFA (2008) in creative writing from California State University, Long Beach, and is currently a PhD student in the Department of Literature at UC San Diego. Her academic work focuses on how contemporary Vietnamese American cultural productions, including comic books and hip-hop music, present marginalized bodies—veterans, refugees, transgendered individuals, prostitutes, and mixed-race children—as a means by which the history of the Viet Nam War can be re-remembered. On the creative front, she is working on a collection of non-fiction essays about growing up a mixed-race Vietnamese in Los Angeles. Her writing has been featured in Ethnic Studies Review, Watermark, Spot Literary Magazine, Word River, and Beside the City of Angels: An Anthology of Long Beach Poetry.
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