When I was a kid, only a handful of other kids in my school looked like me. And, growing up in the Midwest, the numbers never rose much higher. So I was just used to going to the movies or watching TV and seeing no one who looked like me staring back. That was just how things were. Then, while still in gradeschool, “The Karate Kid, Part II” came out. I make no apologies for the rampant stereotypes the film perpetuated. The concept of honor. The Far East exoticism. That all Asians know karate. That we would ever condone the use of cheesy Peter Cetera music. But I didn’t care about any of that. I cared that Tamlyn Tomita kind of looked like me. And there she was with her amazing hair and her almond eyes playing Ralph Macchio's love interest Kumiko for everyone to see.
After the movie came out, a schoolmate told me I looked like “that girl from Karate Kid” and I’m not sure if my feet touched the ground for the rest of the day I was so proud. We actually don’t, not really. She’s Japanese; I’m Korean. We don’t all look alike, you know. But she was beautiful and Asian and the star of a major motion picture. That was enough for me. Through the years, it has always given me an inexplicable thrill each time I’ve seen her in another role, from “The Joy Luck Club” to “The Day After Tomorrow” to a guest spot this season on “The Mentalist.” And, yesterday, while writing about Disney’s first-ever black princess film, “The Princess and the Frog,” it finally dawned on me why. Whether we admit it or not, we all need role models who reflect our realities back to us larger than life. Tamlyn did that for me, all those years ago. She made me feel a little less alone in a world that looked nothing like what I saw in the mirror each day. Also, seriously, how awesome was her hair? Happy weekend, all.