By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Over her career, Sandra Oh tended to play roles that didn’t fully let her sink into a racialized identity. I’m not at all saying that’s her fault. I’m saying that she probably auditioned for and nailed roles that weren’t written with an Asian American in mind.
In her career, there have been so many times when her character didn’t even have a last name, like the time she played a woman named Stephanie in “Sideways,” one of her breakout roles. In her most famous role at the moment, “Killing Eve,” Oh plays a character named Eve Polastri, and while I am an avid fan of the show, off the top of my head, I can’t remember a moment when Eve’s identity was racialized other than this one time she was being hunted down and a serial killer had to describe her features to a rando. Something about Eve’s magnificent hair and the fact that she is an Asian woman.
I know, some of you are probably like: Why does this even matter? More and more Asians are on TV. It’s fine!
Because representation on-screen isn’t enough. We don’t have enough API writers on staff. We don’t have enough API showrunners. There aren’t enough famous and influential API American filmmakers.
Sandra Oh rocks in “The Chair,” a Netflix comedy-drama with a tight six-episode run (in this first season, at least), about a woman (played by Oh) who is the first woman and woman of color to be English department chair at a stodgy university. All of her colleagues are old and white, save for one young talented Black professor (Nana Mensah) who is constantly under threat of GTFOing because she’s getting choked by all of the white BS going on at the school.
Oh’s character, Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, speaks American English with an American accent but has a super Korean name, which made me go, “Finally!” probably in the first five minutes of the show because I am so sick of Oh playing characters named like, ‘Jane Halvorsen.’
Ji-Yoon has some legit Asian-y problems in her life, too. She’s going through growing pains with her young daughter, who is adopted and Latinx, who is rebellious and challenging to her often-absent and busy mom. Ju Ju (the daughter, played by Everly Carganilla) punishes her mom for not being around enough by throwing the belief that Ji-Yoon doesn’t care enough about Ju Ju’s ethnic heritage.
And Ji-Yoon is like, legit hurt and pissed about that and retorts back about it.
One of Ju Ju’s primary caregivers is her grandfather, Ji-Yoon’s dad, who is played by Ji Lee. This dude speaks Korean pretty much the entire series, even though it’s stated he knows how to speak at least some English. But he insists on speaking Korean, probably because it’s comforting and easier for him.
He laments about his inability to communicate with his granddaughter, and he feels put-upon often by his daughter. So he criticizes her a lot. He is fascinating himself, more than just a supportive dad and grandpa.
“The Chair” is super racialized—and it’s nuanced in how it portrays all of these identities under the large and looming veil of whiteness and white supremacy culture and white institution—and also patriarchy—in academia.
“The Chair” is also funny! Oh has always been a really awesome comedic actor, but I think that’s been tamped down a little bit in recent years because Oh was busy challenging herself and showing us her dramatic chops. It’s really nice, though, to see her in a more mundane role as a college professor (versus an MI6 agent chasing a serial killer). Being a college professor allows Oh to mine the humor of everyday life.
A word of caution: The episodes are just half an hour long and there are only six episodes. Take your time watching this. Don’t plow through it over three hours like I did! I finished it all too quickly and then got sad about it. Learn from my mistake and savor it!
The first season of “The Chair” is now available for streaming on Netflix.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If this writer had actually seen Killing Eve, they’d know that there are lots of references to Sandra Oh’s race. It’s just a lot more subtle.