Month: September 2015

New Series Highlights Transgender Stories, Introduces ‘Ladies of AsiaSF’

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – September 29, 2015

The five ladies of the upcoming show Transcendent Featured on the Right Nya and LA Photo Credit Fuse

Some people have a hard time remembering anniversaries and birthdays, but for Lorne Anthony, July 13, 2014, is a date she has no trouble remembering.

She and her girlfriends were singing and dancing to a Christina Aguilera song when they began a heart-to-heart discussion about hormone therapy. It was also the day one of her friends encouraged her to apply a patch on her arm, officially marking the start of Anthony’s journey as LA.

“I felt free, I felt liberated. I was so happy in my head,” LA, an Asian-American transgender woman, told NBC News. “I felt like it was a new start and beginning for me. The moment [my friend] slapped that patch I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, am I getting more feminine?'”

At 26, LA is one of the youngest of five transgender women starring in the upcoming Fuse docu-series, “Transcendent.” Filmed at the popular restaurant and nightclub AsiaSF, the show will highlight LA’s story, as well as the stories of some of the Ladies of AsiaSF–Bambiana, Bionka, Nya, and Xristina–as they share their heartbreaks, struggles, and career-defining moments as transgender women.


The show, premiering Sept. 30, will also focus on LA’s journey to becoming one of the Ladies of AsiaSF, as well as her recent transition story and struggle to decide whether or not to open up to her parents about her transition.

LA grew up in the Philippines, and moved to San Francisco seven years ago, where she found her niche at AsiaSF. She’d often hang out backstage in between skits and cabaret musical numbers with the Ladies of AsiaSF, supporting them as they owned the glamorous red dragon runway.

“I’ve always lived my life as a woman but I identified as gay. But when I started to get exposed to the community and being more aware, that’s when I realized I am transgender,” LA said.

For LA, transitioning was a gradual, but life-altering, experience. “I think that every transgender woman–every girl–needs to not rush it because you have to find yourself first before doing that next step because there’s no turning back,” she said.

Earlier this year, LA decided to ditch the loafers, jeans, and buttoned-down shirts in exchange for pumps and tight dresses to better align with her true identity–the identity that is now reflected internally and externally.

“It was scary for me because the most feminine in the Philippines [for me] was skinny jeans and a woman’s T-shirt. I didn’t wear heels. No one has seen me in a dress or makeup [until now],” she said.

LA says she is still in the beginning stages of her transition, whereas some of her other “Transcendent” cast members transitioned many years ago. LA hopes that her perspective will shed light on some of the raw, awkward stages and struggles she’s gone through. She also hopes that sharing her own journey on television will give others the courage and confidence to start their own journey.

“We have five different stories and five different lives and people don’t know us. We’re not celebrities or public figures, so people are going to say these are normal lives of five proud transgender women,” she said. “It’s so important for any girl who is starting or just has been transitioned to have that support. I hope they realize that they’re not alone and they have me…they have the ‘Transcendent’ girls.”

“Transcendent” premieres September 30, 2015. From left to right: LA, Bambiana, Bionka, Nya, Xristina Aldo Chacon / Fuse

‘Transcendent’ Joins San Francisco’s API LGBT Story

In San Francisco, where “Transcendent” takes place, the API transgender community has a history of strong leadership, “folks who are really elders in the community,” Kris Hayashi, executive director at the Transgender Law Center, told NBC News, referring to activist Tita Aida, who has been educating the community about HIV and AIDS through her involvement with the Filipino Task Force on AIDS in the early ’90s.

Tita Aida, a transgender Asian-American woman whose name is a reference to AIDS, told NBC News that it was difficult to define being transgender “because it practically didn’t exist” while she was growing up in the Philippines.

“If you were born or assigned male at birth and you acted feminine, you were gay. That’s how you were labeled. If you were assigned female and you acted butch or manly, you were a lesbian. There was nothing in between,” she said.

Since 1999, Aida has been at the forefront of recruiting talent and mentoring some of the Ladies of AsiaSF. She also performs regularly at the restaurant.

Within the API LGBT community, Aida hopes to see more leaders take ownership and serve as a resource. Having that kind of leadership can also work toward eliminating stereotypes about LGBT APIs and empowering the community, Aida said.

Although there’s been a recent increase in visibility for the transgender community in terms of celebrity appearances and shows like “I Am Cait,” the daily struggles of many still remain under the radar.

“We are definitely in a moment of crisis, though it’s not necessarily a new crisis,” Hayashi said.

Hayashi, a transgender man, has been involved in advancing the rights of transgender and gender nonconforming people through policy, advocacy, and community engagement. He explained that despite growing representation, there’s still much to be concerned about, such as the fact that nearly 20 transgender women in the U.S. were murdered this year alone; countless others go unreported. The majority of the women killed, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), were women of color.

“I think though that the reality for the majority of transgender–particularly for people of color–is that the majority of folks are really struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis. It’s about folks that do not have access to healthcare, housing, education–all of the things we all need to survive,” Hayashi said.

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 14 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander (API) transgender and gender non-conforming people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives–nearly twice the rate of the general population. Additionally, 18 percent of API transgender and gender non-conforming people have been refused medical care due to bias, according to the survey.

The report also finds that API transgender and gender non-conforming people are less likely to have accessed counseling and mental health services, and 56 percent have reportedly attempted suicide due to discrimination.

Hayashi hopes shows like “Transcendent” will highlight the resilience and strength of the transgender community, capture the “real, day-to-day struggles and crises that the majority of people face,” and show the community in a way that isn’t one-dimensional.

“I think it’s really critical for people to see transgender people as people: as people with people with friends, with family, in a community, who have different struggles…that it really represents the lived reality of the transgender people in the show,” Hayashi said.

‘We Have Transcended and We Are Who We Are’

When Nya was a teenager, her mom would often hide curling irons, hair straighteners, and makeup from the bedroom vanity. But hiding these items only made things worse for Nya. Without a job or a support system, Nya resorted to stealing beauty products to express what she was feeling on the inside.

“Being a Filipino American, of course it was a little bit hard for my family at first to accept my transition,” Nya told NBC News.

Nya has been working at AsiaSF since the age of 19. Courtesy Fuse

Her mom, a devout Catholic, eventually found out about Nya’s stealing habits. She didn’t want Nya to end up in jail for stealing items, so she ended up buying the items instead.

“It was not so much that she didn’t approve of me being who I am, but she was trying to shelter me from all the bad things in life like bullying,” Nya said.

She recalls a childhood filled with threats from classmates who wanted to beat her up, and said she never let it faze her because she knew who she was. “At the time I didn’t know what a transgender woman was, but I knew I was a woman, that I was a girl. It didn’t affect me,” she said.

Performing at AsiaSF, Nya said, was the first time in her life when she was introduced to a world she wanted so desperately to be a part of: a sisterhood where she could connect with other transgender women like her.

“It felt like all these transgender women on that stage were being celebrated and having an amazing time. I loved the fact that all of these people were not judging anybody,” said Nya, who started working as one of the Ladies of AsiaSF when she was 19 years old.

Today, Nya is 31 and looking forward to another chapter at AsiaSF: after 12 years, she will be introduced to the management team–a journey that “Transcendent” will focus on too.

“There were just a lot of people that thought we had interesting stories to tell and that we’re all vibrant individuals,” Nya said, adding that the concept for the show had been in development for seven years, but, “It’s taken a long time to get it going. The world wasn’t ready for it seven years ago.”

For Nya, “Transcendent” means transcending beyond stereotypes and struggles. “We are five transgender women who have had to overcome heartache and struggles, but we have transcended and we are who we are and we celebrate who we are,” she said. “We get to be our authentic selves every day and we are loving it.”


Adoptees’ Search for Self Leads to Love, Marriage, and a Family Reunion

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – September 18, 2015

A family portrait Left to right Lee and Whitney Fritz, older brother Seong bae omma appa and brother Hyun bae Photo Credit Kim Song-Shik Photo taken in Hongdae, Seoul, S. Korea 2014 Photo Permission Whitney Fritz

It’ll be five years this October since Whitney Fritz reunited with her omma, appa, and birth siblings in Korea.

Along the way, her own journey inspired her to launch a collaboration with her husband, Lee. Their mission was to document the ongoing challenges of navigating a sometimes confusing and exhilarating adoptee journey.

“There are these stories out there that I feel like people aren’t telling,” Whitney told NBC News. “So if there’s any way that we can be open and help other people be open and create this community of shared experience, that would be ultimately helpful.”

The collaboration – a joint husband-wife blog called We The Lees – captures their shared experiences as Korean adoptees, and was inspired by the first and middle names Lee and Whitney’s adoptive families had coincidentally given them.

“For the first time since we’ve been married, I’ve realized our story was a little bit unique, and there’s a possibility that other adoptees might be interested in it — the dynamic of married adoptees,” said Whitney.

Lee and Whitney during Christmas 2014 at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, TN Sara Rayman/Courtesy Whitney Fritz

After a difficult time mobilizing and finding a strong adoptee community in Nashville, Tennessee, the couple turned to blogging as a means to reach a larger audience.

“As far as Nashville, we’ve tried to seek out adoptee communities here, and it’s so much harder than if we lived in California or New York, or other places that tend to have larger adoptee communities,” said Whitney.

Related: Twin Adoptees Reunite in ‘Twinsters’ Documentary, Debuting this Summer

Inspired by vloggers and Korean American adoptees and filmmakers like Zeke Anders, and actress Samantha Futerman from the documentary, “Twinsters,” the couple also hopes the blog will serve as an open community platform for other adoptees to share their experiences, fears, and stories.

Whitney’s Story

Whitney was adopted at six months by the Casey family. She has three brothers and one sister, and is the only one adopted into the family. Growing up comfortably-assimilated into Nashville life, she says there were times when she would somehow forget that she was Korean American. But there were also subtle reminders that she was different — like the time she went into Kmart and a 5-year-old girl pointed to her, saying, “Mom, it’s Mulan.”

“It was never spiteful or anything, but people would notice that I look different,” Whitney recalled. “Sometimes you can forget that you look different. Sometimes you’re surprised when you look in the mirror and don’t look like the rest of the family.”

Whitney says, growing up, she was never interested in searching for her birth family. It wasn’t until 2010, when a struggling U.S. economy prompted her to travel overseas in search of work. She happened to accept a job in Korea, just an hour south of Seoul, teaching conversational English to students. Still, she never intended to find her birth parents.

“The only reason I went to Korea was for the paycheck, I really had no thoughts of birth family or anything related to my adoption,” she said. “My job just happened to be in Korea.”

But her adoptive family persisted, urging her to open up her file and get a hold of the adoption agency. Nine months into her teaching contract, Whitney mustered the courage to schedule an appointment with a case worker.

She was told to expect an update within a month. The case worker was able to track down Whitney’s family in less than 48 hours. Whitney was told her birth family wanted to meet her the following day. She calls those few days “an ‘out of body experience,'” something that she can still hardly believe happened.

Whitney (left) with appa and omma and her two brothers during the first weekend of their birth family reunion October 2010 in Cheonan, S. Korea Courtesy Lee and Whitney Fritz

“The thing that sticks out the most to me is that it was the opposite of what anybody would expect,” she recalled. “It’s not the way people envision it, or the way Hollywood would portray it in a movie.”

The next day, Whitney walked into a conference room with a translator to meet her birth family – the Jeons. Her omma (mother) and appa (father) were waiting for her.

“Oh my goodness,” her omma gasped. “You look just like your brother.”

They sat and talked for an hour. Whitney told them about her adoptive family, her siblings, and work. She asked them why they put her up for adoption. There were no tears, Whitney recalls, just relief and gratitude for the time they could spend together. The anxiety and nervousness slowly simmered off as her omma and appa had a heart-to-heart conversation with Whitney about the first few days she was born.

Omma explained how she and her husband – a factory worker – were barely making ends meet when she had their first child, a boy – Whitney’s older brother, Seong-bae.

“They were barely getting by,” Whitney said, “and they were having a hard time feeding mouths.”

When Whitney was born, she had serious health problems. Her birth parents took her to different doctors in the city, many of whom suggested a series of surgeries the family knew they couldn’t afford. To give Whitney a better life, better health, and a chance at financial stability, they decided to put her up for adoption.

“They wanted me to have a family who could provide and take care of me and give me the medical attention I needed,” Whitney said. She went into foster care for six months before she was adopted by the Casey family in Nashville.

Whitney Fritz (right) and her two siblings go out to eat in Seoul, South Korea in February 2011. Courtesy Lee and Whitney Fritz

Though Whitney had learned earlier she had a little brother in Korea, the reunion was the first time she learned about her older brother – a shock she detailed in her three-part series, “Birth Siblings.” The news of her existence also came as a shock to her birth siblings, who knew nothing about Whitney until the reunion.

Most of the time, Whitney was worried about damaging the strong relationship her brothers had with her birth parents. Whitney worried whether her brothers would react in a negative way since her parents kept Whitney a secret from them all these years.

“I didn’t know if they would hate me for coming back and disturbing the peace. I didn’t want to disrupt the boys’ relationship with their parents, and I didn’t want to damage any years they had of them.”

But that fear quickly went away once Whitney frequently visited them, bonding over a shared love of K-Pop and pizza. The boys were happy to reunite with their sister after years of living without one.

“I went through a coping process, but everything’s fine now,” she said. “I’m so glad that it went smoothly.”

Lee’s Story

Lee grew up in Pennsylvania and later moved to the South, after studying economics and finance, and later, meeting and marrying Whitney. His origin story bear similarities to his wife’s, but also distinct differences.

Born in Busan, Korea, Lee was put up for adoption at four months. Growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, his parents exposed Lee to Korean-American culture and were always transparent about his adoption. Every year, the Fritz family would go to an annual neighborhood Christmas dinner hosted by a Korean-American family.

“I remember as a child, being forced to go there and being forced to eat food all this Korean food I had no idea what it was,” said Lee. “But as years went by and as I got older, I realized how much I looked forward to the dinner and getting together with other Koreans.”

His parents, Lee recalls, were always “open books” about his adoption. So he never gave it much thought.

“I was just their son, and the adoption was important in our household to understand, ‘Hey, this is where I came from, Korea,” said Lee. “They did the best they could to let us fit in with anyone else.”

After Whitney’s reunion with her birth family, Lee met them as well, and says he appreciates the memories he’s built with his Korean in-laws. While he hasn’t started the search for his own birth family, he’s a witness to his wife’s five-year journey. He wrote about his experience meeting the Jeons for the first time.

“Meeting them was eye-opening because as an adoptee, I’ve never done my family search yet, so getting to see Whitney and her family – whether it’s her brothers, grandmothers, or parents, it’s something that maybe down the road, I’ll look into,” said Lee.

We The Lees – A Love Story

It was, in the end, their shared origin that brought together Lee and Whitney for the first time. They met at a Korean-American adoptee conference in Albany, New York, in the summer of 2012. Whitney had been writing regularly as a contributor for Adoption Voices Magazine. Lee’s eyes immediately gravitated toward Whitney, who happened to be sitting in the front row of an early morning panel Lee had hesitated to attend.

“Whitney has always been the good student – the person who always sits in the front row and raises her arm,” joked Lee. “I’m kind of the slacker who slips in through the back door after the bell has rung.”

After the session ended, Lee nervously walked over to the front row and introduced himself. They ended up having coffee and started dating.

“I think it’s interesting we have this thing that doesn’t need to be spoken between us that we know sometimes the feelings are hard and things can be complicated, but we can just have an understanding between us,” said Lee.

Whitney and Lee Fritz on a trip to South Korea to visit Lee’s in-laws in June 2014. Courtesy Whitney and Lee Fritz

5 Years Later

After her birth family reunion in 2010, Whitney stayed an additional four months in Korea where she studied the Korean language. She spent her nights glued to books, determined to become fluent. And even today, the biggest challenge is the distance — being nearly 8,000 miles apart from a family she just started getting to know.

“It’s really hard because they’re our family and they’re part of our everyday lives,” said Whitney. “We communicate all the time.”

The couple has found time to visit Whitney’s birth family too, adjusting their lives and routines overseas to remain in line with Korean customs and traditions.

“My mom is a tiger mom. When I’m there, they want me to be Korean. She always wants me to eat a Korean breakfast: rice, kimchi, at 7 a.m.,” said Whitney.

Lee and Whitney are now planning to visit Korea in December to attend Whitney’s older brother’s wedding where they’ll have the chance to reconnect with aunts, uncles, cousins, and extended family.

In the near future, the couple hopes to grow their blog’s readership and eventually partner with other adoption agencies to support AAPI adoptee communities and participate in related conferences.

“We like to make sure adoptees are aware of the Pandora’s box they open when they walk through that door,” said Whitney. “It’s difficult to change your mind if you decide later in the process that you don’t want to go through with it.”

Another family portrait from left to right Whitney’s younger brother father older brother mother Whitney and Lee Kim Song-Shik/Courtesy Whitney Fritz

Disney’s ‘Jungle Book’ Gets Sinister Makeover in New Film Trailer

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – September 15, 2016

Disney released a new teaser trailer on Tuesday for the upcoming live-action film “The Jungle Book,” starring 10-year-old Neel Sethi as the lead character Mowgli.

The trailer begins with Mowgli deep in the jungle, leaping from tree to tree to escape the wrath of wild animals such as as python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), who uses her soothing and seductive voice to get the young boy to trust her through his perilous journey.
The film’s cast includes the voices of Idris Elba as tiger Shere Khan, Bill Murray as bear Baloo, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Christopher Walken as King Louie, Lupita Nyong’o as mother wolf Raksha, and Giancarlo Esposito in the voice of wolf Akela.

The film is a mix of live-action shots with CGI animals and environments,according to Disney.

“The animals and environment are actually photorealistic computer-generate imagery, merged together with performance capture and footage shot of the cast, particularly Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli,” reports the Verge.

In an interview with IGN, Sethi said he and Mowgli share similar characteristics, despite Mowgli having been raised by a pack of wolves.

“Me and Mowgli are kind of the same: Stubborn, energetic, and are full of confidence,” the young actor told IGN.

Director Jon Favreau and Neel Sethi led a Q&A session on Twitter on Tuesday about the film through the hashtag, #AskJungleBook.

The film, based on a collection of classic stories by Rudyard Kipling and directed by Favreau, is scheduled to be released in theaters on April 15, 2016.

‘Big Bang’ Star Kunal Nayyar Wants You to Know His Accent is Real

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – September 14, 2015

Kunal Nayyar wants you to know his Indian accent is real.

That’s part of the “Big Bang Theory” actor’s revelations in his new book “Yes, My Accent is Real: And Some Other Things I Haven’t Told You,” which will be released Tuesday, Sept. 15.

“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to tell people that my pure Delhi, St Columba’s School accent is the real deal, not something I consciously practice to sound more ‘Indian’ or to make fun of Indian accents — like, say, the Apu character in ‘The Simpsons,'” Nayyar told the Times of India.

In a series of honest and tongue-in-cheek personal essays, Nayyar highlights everything from awkward first kisses to his first exposure to booze at a college party in Portland, to marrying former Miss India, and listening to his “James Bond-loving, mustachioed father” when it comes to the use of spreadsheets.

The book cover–revealed in August–shows Nayyar in a dapper blue suit and a pair of traditional gold-brown juttis.

Raised in New Delhi, Nayyar’s debut book explores his journey from receiving an MFA at Temple University to juggling random gigs before landing the role of astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali on “The Big Bang Theory” back in 2007.

RELATED: Mindy Kaling Explores Life, Love in New Book

“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why are you writing a memoir? You’re only thirty-three.’ This is not a memoir. I’m not a president, or an astronaut, or a Kardashian. This is a collection of stories from my life,” Nayyar writes.