“I am Wonder Woman” by Joylyn Chai11 min read

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Illustration by Katya Roxas

The first television my parents bought was a big box with four elegantly tapered legs. For many years we didn’t have cable, but by turning a stiff knob on the front of the box, we could sometimes tune into two stations. Many of my most cherished childhood memories are of watching television–even after it was turned off. Older television screens didn’t turn black immediately after their power was cut. The moving images would become an erratic pattern of visual static. Then a mesmerizing little dot would appear in the centre of the dark glass and it would slowly fade away like a falling star burning out of the night sky.

Even before I was enrolled in school, I watched a lot of television. Every morning, I watched Mr. Dressup and Sesame Street. Mr. Dressup starred a friendly, white, Canadian man, Ernie Coombs. He kept a surprising selection of unusual costumes in a colourful “tickle trunk” and talked to cheerful puppets who lived in a treehouse. Mr. Dressup had a gentle disposition and seemed exceptionally understanding when the puppets, Casey and Finnigan, were experiencing a little problem. Poor Casey would be filled with worry and hold their little puppet hands against their hard puppet head, and Mr. Dressup, often adorned in a silly costume, would listen carefully before offering sympathy and sensible suggestions. At a very early age, I adored Mr. Dressup because he was the only grown-up whose presence, albeit behind a glass screen, made me feel comfortable.

Often, I wished my father could be more like Mr. Dressup. My father didn’t have any patience for children’s playfulness, much less their problems. He never spoke to me in the same attentive way Mr. Dressup spoke to his puppets. And never once did I see my father in costume, not even a tissue-paper crown from a New Year’s Eve cracker. My Chinese-Jamaican father who was quick to insult, scold, and ridicule, was the least playful person I knew. He would have thought Mr. Dressup was a fool.

Nevertheless, my father did possess some similarities with my television idol. They both wore the same kind of clothes: neutral slacks and cardigans. They both had thick-rimmed glasses and black hair. My father was a civil engineer and I remember his drafting tools spread out on the dining room table as he meticulously measured and planned bridges and roads. If I squinted, my vision would blur and I could see my father as Mr. Dressup in my very own house.


Mid-way through elementary school, my parents finally invested in a new television. It was a mammoth piece of furniture that came with a remote control and cable. I remember turning it on for the first time, unable to settle on one program. I loved the weight of the remote control in my hands and the clicking sound the hard, black buttons made when I pressed them. Channels scrolled by in a kaleidoscope of colour and noise. Before, I couldn’t have imagined so many people doing so many different things.

The first time I saw Lynda Carter on television, her hair was in a tight bun and she wore a pair of black stylish glasses. She struck a commanding silhouette in a chic, army-issued outfit. The character she played, Diana Prince, was working hard to help her friend, Major Steve Trevor, in an effort to protect the United States against an enemy attack during WWII. Prince seemed to be respected for her keen intelligence and even disposition, all of which are very important when gathering intelligence and managing life-threatening situations. The storyline of the show builds toward a moment of grave danger that is impossible for a mere human to resolve. Watching the suspenseful events unfold, I remember feeling desperate and uneasy, knowing nothing could be done to help the doomed. When there seemed little hope left, Diana Prince removed herself to a quiet corner and elegantly spun around. To my astonishment, a small atomic explosion ignited and Prince transformed into a glamourous badass to save the day. Thank goodness we had a colour television by then. Her golden headband shone. Her red and blue satin bustier shimmered. Her bullet-deflecting wristbands sparkled. No other show in the history of my television viewing excited me as much as Wonder Woman did.

I like watching television by myself. This way, I am free of any responsibility to ensure the viewing pleasure of another person. Without the company of others, I do not have to listen to any analytical or flippant commentary that may be derisive or condemning. This preference comes out of a habit formed from when I was a very young child. No one watched television with me. My parents took very little interest in what I was watching and even less in talking about it. They thought most of the stuff on TV was pointless junk. Neither of them grew up with television in Jamaica, so they never got into watching shows with make-believe characters living through funny or fantastical storylines. Where the ordinary person would chuckle at the Fonz or the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, my father would scoff. My mother would simply shrug her shoulders.

So after watching a daily fix of something like Mork and Mindy or The Facts of Life, I would hide in my room and talk for hours in front of a full length mirror. I had plenty of conversations about many television shows–but only with myself. In my beautiful, childhood mind, inaccurate conclusions came easily and went uncontested. My thoughts became the truth. It took less than five minutes of watching Wonder Woman for me to understand that the actress playing her was Asian. Just like how I imagined that Ernie Coombs could be a wonderful surrogate father to me, I decided that Lynda Carter must be Chinese. With her slim build and dark locks, she looked a lot more like my father’s charismatic cousin, Winnie, than any of our white neighbours. Once I made up my mind about this, I had a role model who was out of this world.

The act of projecting representation became a habit and is so ingrained in me that I do it even today. After Wonder Woman, it was Betty Rubble from The Flintstones. I was convinced that Barney and Betty had a mixed-race marriage. They must have been perfectly open-minded to raise Bam Bam, a child with gleeful Herculean strength. Joanie Cunningham from Happy Days was Asian but with a perm. There was Rizo from Grease, and when I got older, it was Brenda Walsh from Beverly Hills, 90210. I was in my twenties when I was introduced to Monica Geller from Friends. To me, they are all Asian.

Apart from their looks, there’s something in these characters I admire. I love that Joanie defies her father and dates the Fonz’s cousin, Chachi (spurring a lousy, short-lived sitcom with the unoriginal name, Joanie Loves Chachi.) Even after so many decades, Rizo maintains her über cool swag, being both a bully and branded a fallen woman. She’s so much more complex and alluring than prissy and mercurial Sandy and her goofy Pink Lady peers. While navigating the prickly in and outs of West Beverly High, Brenda snags a handsome, brooding bad boy, Dylan. Their good looks and turbulent relationship is the stuff that makes their coupledom iconic. Finally, there’s Monica. She’s an adorable, obsessive perfectionist whose parents’ off-handed remarks do nothing to hide their low expectations of her. When I think of these women all together, they are an amalgamation of a single, fascinating Asian composite. Since I have never shared this skewed perception with anyone, my racialized projection onto these white women has never been questioned or corrected.


Living in the age of streaming services, the floodgates for binge-watching have busted wide open. My viewing addiction ushers me through family-sized bags of potato chips and bottles of affordable sauvignon blanc. Most of the shows I watch have zero Asian representation. I’m watching the one about the single mother who’s an aspiring stand-up comic and the one about French celebrities and their quirky agents. Let’s not forget the sexy one with the time-travelling doctor trapped in 18th century Scotland with a hunky Highlander.

These successful and critically acclaimed productions have almost all white casts. Still, I’ll watch episode after episode, putting aside my feelings of racialized FOMO, until I’ve blown through a whole season in just a few sittings. Sleep deprived and intoxicated from screen overload, I will begin to adopt the mannerisms and intonation of my favourite characters from these shows. I pay close attention to what they’re wearing, what they’re eating, and where they’re going. Thereupon I emulate the minutiae of who they are while performing mundane activities in my own daily life. In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, women are immaculately groomed while doing calisthenics. I started wearing lipstick to my Zumba class. In Outlander, Clare Fraser looks great in an ankle-length, neutral frock. I scour the racks of thrift stores looking for flowing linen skirts. It’s quite possible that this kind of behaviour may result in racial erasure. Over time, the consumption of white culture will deprioritize my Asianness as whiteness becomes aspirational, albeit impossible.

Nevertheless, these characters have invited me to experiment with different ways of being in the world. Influenced by the television I’ve watched, I spend countless hours by myself pretending to be different versions of myself. I talk to imaginary people who are keenly interested in my thoughts and experiences. In these private moments of improv, no imaginary interviewer has ever asked me what it was like to be Chinese-Jamaican growing up in Canada or what it means to be an Asian-Canadian role model. This is largely due to the fact that I view myself as someone who has many other charming and funny things to say about life. If I was a mega superstar, the possibilities of what would make me Asian and dazzling would be infinite.


How is it that as a naive child, I could imagine an idealized world that is open to real diversity and inclusion? When I presumed that Wonder Woman could be related to me, my racial connection to her happened instantly. She did not have to work at a convenience store or Chinese restaurant. She was not a doctor or the best friend of a white woman. She did not do kung-fu. She had an invisible plane and a magic lasso and these are the things I wanted. These are the things I still want. So, why isn’t Wonder Woman Asian? What are we waiting for? There is no reason to stick to the old adage that progress comes slowly or that things don’t change overnight. Following a child’s simple logic should be fairly easy to do and should take no time at all.

Years ago, someone asked me who my favourite movie star was. At the time, I had just seen Funny Face starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. I was enchanted by Hepburn. I explained that I sometimes pin my hair back, put on a black turtleneck, capri pants, and ballet flats just so I can look like her. A hand was held up to my face to stop me from talking. Snorting with disgust, she flatly told me that I would never ever look like or be anything like Audrey Hepburn. Something must be very wrong with me if I thought otherwise. I was taken aback, but did not respond for fear of revealing myself. Little did she know, I am just in disguise, always ready and waiting until the world needs a superhero like me, like Wonder Woman.


Joylyn Chai‘s writing has appeared in This Magazine, The Fiddlehead, The Cincinnati Review, The Ex-Puritan, and elsewhere. Published in The Under Review, “Gridiron and The High Seas,” her essay about the NFL, the Spanish Armada, and motherhood, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Joylyn is Chinese-Jamaican Canadian and teaches English to adult learners and newcomers in Tkaronto.

Katya Roxas is a Communications and Design Strategist at the University of British Columbia. Katya has experience with branding, content creation and social media and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Multimedia Arts, specializing in graphic design and illustration, and a Diploma in Digital Marketing and Communications. Born and raised in the Philippines, Katya is well-versed with the sacrifices and opportunities that come with being an immigrant. Through her experiences, she strives to break the barriers of cultural misrepresentation by creating honest and inclusive visual expressions.

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