Samantha Wan finds the state of Asian representation in media "disheartening".
On the line from Toronto, the Canadian actor and writer says, for instance, she was aghast when she read columns arguing how stories like the live-action film version of Mulan don't need to be kept Asian.
"I'm shocked that's even a discussion," she said of the controversy, in which white actors were being considered for lead roles in Mulan instead of Asian stars. "We have #MakeMulanRight and #StarringJohnCho because there's still so much battle for equality, or not even equality—even stories that were originally Asian, Chinese, to be kept that way."
On the other hand, Wan feels encouraged by something unprecedented that's happening in the North American TV industry right now—something which she is a part of.
There's Kim's Convenience, a new CBC sitcom about a Korean Canadian family. There's Blood and Water, a multilingual OMNI TV series starring Steph Song as a detective investigating cases in Vancouver's Chinese Canadian community.
And, premiering on October 27, there's Second Jen, the new City TV series that Wan co-created, co-wrote, and co-stars in with Amanda Joy.
The coming-of-age comedy follows best friends Chinese Canadian Jennifer "Jen" Wu (Wan) and Filipina Canadian Jennifer "Mo" Monteloyola (Joy), who move out on their own for the first time. As second-generation, twentysomething Canadians, they're caught within culture clashes and generation gaps that are part and parcel of many immigrant family experiences.
Interestingly, Wan says she didn't become as aware of her identity as Chinese as much as she did when she moved to Toronto (after attending Montreal's National Theatre School of Canada).
Growing up in Port Moody (where her family settled although she was born in Kitchener, Ontario), she says the majority of her peers were Asian Canadian and she was unaware of being an "other".
Yet while she now admires stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Michelle Yeoh (particularly after her 2015 kung-fu comedy-drama TV series Sudden Master), she didn't have any Asian role models growing up ("which is why I always thought being blond and blue-eyed was beautiful").
However, she sees increasing diversity on television as a solution to breaking through predictability and creating fresh perspectives.
"We're honestly looking for new stories to hear and see and right now, one of the easiest ways to find a new light or colour or detail in a story is to put people we haven't seen on television before," she says. "It's so simple."
In fact, she says she and Joy, who became friends after meeting on film sets and auditions in Toronto, created the show to represent the people they know.
For instance, she says her show reflects her experience of feeling caught in-between things on multiple levels, including being second-generation Canadian ("I’m not Chinese enough for the Chinese. I'm not white enough for the Caucasian people. I'm stuck in the middle.") and being in your twenties ("You're not in high school or college or university anymore but you haven't figured out your career and you haven't settled yet.")
Meanwhile, Jen is also contending with an overprotective, clingy mother (played by Janet Lo) who doesn't want her to move out, which Wan says she's observed in many Asian families.
"When an immigrant family comes over here and their child is like, 'No, I'm going out on my own,' and they're like, 'What are you talking about? You're supposed to stay with us. We take care of each other,' " she says. "But the North American way of living is very different. And that's such a hard adjustment for the immigrating culture coming in."
While Jen and Mo are Asian Canadian characters, Wan says the show will focus more on intergenerational relationships and people of various identities.
"I'm aware of the duty that we hold in trying to keep it open to casting…people of different backgrounds and colours and shapes and sizes hopefully as well," she says.
The diverse cast includes two guys in a neighbouring apartment, the slick chatterbox Lewis Dajani (Al Mukadam) and the nerdy cutie Nate Kelly (Munro Chambers), as well as Jen's hip lesbian cousin Naomi (Melissa O'Neil).
As a second-generation Canadian, Wan says she also feels it's her job to do what the first generation did not have the opportunity to do.
"When our families immigrated here, they were too busy trying to survive and make a living and settle into the country but they didn't have time to tell their own stories," she says. "So now us, as the second generation, inherit that responsibility because we're lucky enough that we actually have the time now that our parents have given us this foundation here."
Although she says she went through an incredibly steep learning curve "in a great way" while working on this project, she hopes she has another opportunity to do even better the next time around.
"Overall, I'm generally just very happy that the show got made because I think it's important that shows like this get made. Do I think we did it perfectly? No, it's our first time. But do I think there are significant things and significant messages in the episodes? Yes, I do," she says. "I really hope feel at least somewhat seen and heard through our show."