"I wish you could see the surgery I am watching. It is a train wreck." Those were the first words I heard you say and I immediately fell in love. For days and days back in the summer of 2011, I was stuck in a YouTube coma in Seattle Grace Hospital. I pored over episodes -- skipping scenes to see those unadulterated moments featuring you. After a blurry week, I realized I'd just finished seven straight seasons!
When I discovered you were portrayed by actress Sandra Oh, it was hard to deny myself the rare opportunity to see an Asian-American actress actually... acting.
You were not a minor character, the nurse or a temporary patient with broken English, but a main character. I didn't mind the cheesy voice-overs and the weird sultry theme song. You became the character I intrinsically rooted for. Every bit of disapproval I had of your actions subsided into easy tolerance and soon, adamant defense. You, Yang, were essentially, "MY person," and I was willing to fight your friend Meredith for you.
I thought it was all because you were Korean. I latched onto you. Seeing someone with the familiar flat nose, narrow eyes and jet-black hair on the TV screen, kissing a renowned African-American heart surgeon or yelling at her Caucasian boss, was invigorating, something I'd never seen. I was pulled in immediately. There is something unmistakably piercing in seeing someone who looks like you do things you've never done.
Before finding you, I'd only known Asian characters within the over-the-top, distastefully written storylines of Korean TV dramas like Boys Over Flowers. These rarely span more than 16 episodes and follow the same storyline archetypes: the love square, the evil stepmother or mother-in-law (choose one), the hate-then-love relationship, and someone always ends up with either amnesia or cancer. The characters talk to themselves in front of the mirror saying things like, "I am going to get my revenge," or freak out when the opposite sex touches their hand.
Prior to Grey's, I bored through each drama. Although I had to constantly fix my eyes on the English subtitles on the bottom of the screen, there was a certain connection between these characters and me, made concrete by the same language and similar facial features. You and I can't easily find this in Hollywood.
But Cristina Yang is the complete opposite. You hook up with random guys, can be blunt and scathing and never talk about revenge to yourself in the bathroom. Seeing you cry and dance at the same time in an extremely vulnerable state after many shots of alcohol, made me realize what I'd seen in these Korean dramas was an empty manifestation of fantasy, one in which cardboard figure characters who looked like me were easily able to get what they wanted.
When I first discovered you, I was a sophomore at Hunter College High School in New York City. The only Asians around Hollywood were actresses like Lucy Liu, portrayed as "dragon ladies" or "ninja warriors" exotic and unreadable -- unrealistic images of Asian-American women. You're admittedly not very far from the ballpark. A doctor, really?
It eventually occurred to me that in you, Shonda Rhimes created a character that fit into the stereotype of Asian ethnicity. You're work-driven, goal-oriented, a graduate of Stanford medical school, unable to express emotion, calculating, often socially inept -- in sum, a full-blown stereotype. I still loved you. You made me sincerely believe you were stepping over boundaries.
What began as simply attachment bridged by the same skin tone morphed into genuine respect and reasons why you were my character. I looked past your ethnicity. The more I loved your character, the more I connected to you and found that you were slowly undermining these stereotypes. I learned you're far from a robot. You can let yourself break, and you fear failure and vulnerability. You desire to be held, to be accepted unconditionally.
But by understanding you, I was able to confront your flaws as well. No longer could I just pass over that you are sometimes utterly selfish. You believe that only your opinion matters, as if your actions hold no consequences. And it's hard for you to understand why people make sacrifices. Yet the most beautiful thing about you is your ability to realize and to struggle with your flaws. I see you thrive not because of your difficulties, but because you're truly engaging in your decisions, debating what is right or wrong.
You lose sleep knowing you could be wrong. You have to sometimes be told what you're doing wrong and how you're hurting others. Yet in the end you're always humbled. You know you're not worthless, even if you're not infallible. This is what makes you human, my most relatable character in TV history.
I'm graduating high school this year, just as you're graduating Seattle Grace Hospital. I still can't imagine myself doing something different than what I've been doing for four years. And I'm not sure you can imagine Grey's without you either.
But you've shown me it's okay to waver in front of an amorphous future. If our lives were always mapped out, there'd be no point in trying.
So thank you, Yang, for showing me that I should never feel bound by the way I look. You've shown me there's no need to be limited by stereotypes, but also no need to avoid and disprove each expectation. Thank you for showing me that I should never feel as if I have the potential to be certain things, but not other things, and that I should never feel less than capable. You will always be my person.