Media

The Grace Lee Project

A filmmaker examines the truths and stereotypes associated with her name -- and the thousands of other Asian Americans who share it.
The theme song for "Cheers" famously posits a universal desire for community based on name recognition: "You wanna go where people know, people are all the same/You wanna go where everybody knows your name." But what happens when everybody knows somebody who has the exact same name as you? Would it make you feel cozy and connected, or would it make you question the uniqueness of your own identity?

Filmmaker Grace Lee, whose name is ubiquitous among Asian-Americans, grew up in Missouri as the one Grace Lee she knew. She was, she explains in her funny, smart documentary The Grace Lee Project, "the only Asian girl for miles," and this made her "proud to be an original."

When she left the Midwest, she found that her name was ridiculously common -- and she kept hearing the same stories about her namesakes. Grace Lees, she discovered, were uniformly smart, nice, quiet, and accomplished. They were class valedictorians with advanced degrees whose successes made them poster girls for Asian-Americans as the model minority group. At the same time, their generic names and natures rendered them, as she puts it, simultaneously "impressive and forgettable."

We talked to Lee shortly after she won the Emerging Director Award at the 28th Asian American International Film Festival in New York City. She spoke of the personal obsession that led her to make the film: "There is this stereotype of an overachieving Asian-American that I wanted to explore. I mean, there's an image of myself that I have -- which may not always align with how other people perceive me. I would tell my friends about the film and the Grace Lee stereotype -- really smart, quiet, accomplished -- and then my friends would say, 'Well, you're just describing yourself!' It was this tension that fueled my investigation. Even I had stereotypes of the other Grace Lees until I actually really started to get to know them. That to me was the kernel that kept me going."

The more Lee learned about the other Grace Lees, the more she obsessed about how bad they made her look by comparison. Early in the film, she admits to feeling overwhelmed by having a "name that makes me the one loser in a sorority of super Asians." So she set out to meet as many of them as she could, building a website, to publicize the project and crafting a survey -- eventually filled out by more than 250 Grace Lees from 23 countries -- that included questions about ethnicity (60 percent were Korean), age (50 percent were in their 20s), and years of piano lessons (50 percent had five or more). Most (78 percent) said that they liked their name, but a significant minority (21 percent) said they did not.

The film opens with a montage in which one woman after another identifies herself as Grace Lee, calling into question the idea that there can be only one "real" Grace Lee. Since virtually everyone in the film bears the same name, taglines come in handy. In addition to Filmmaker Grace Lee, we're introduced to News Reporter Grace Lee, Pastor's Kid Grace Lee, and Pastor's Wife Grace Lee, among others. Although a few Caucasian Grace Lees answered the survey, in the film Lee focused on Asian-American women because she feels that the way people talk about "Grace Lee" closely resembles the way they talk about Asian-American females in general. (According to Lee, "the vast majority of Grace Lees [who answered the survey] were given the name by their immigrant parents.")

In an e-mail interview, one of the subjects, a teenage Grace Lee from Cupertino, California, expresses a similar anxiety about being associated with other Grace Lees: "I'm naturally a nonconformist, so having such a stereotypical Asian-American name bothered me…. Not only that, I thought other Grace Lees were quiet and perfect. I should have known better -- that's what people thought of me. As I was watching the movie, the irony of my delusions struck me. It was, frankly, stupid of me to think that my name represented a herd of blank, identity-less girls…. I couldn't believe I fell into the rut of prejudice -- when I myself was Grace Lee and was fighting against being seen as run-of-the-mill."

No doubt there are many people with common names who fight against being perceived as nonentities. The Grace Lee Project, in fact, was preceded by the 2001 film The Sweetest Sound, in which director Alan Berliner rounded up and interviewed a dozen other Alan Berliners from around the world. For Grace Lees, things are even more complicated. Linked with stereotypes about Asian-American females, the name sets up expectations that go beyond that of a colorless, generic person.

Lee particularly hoped to discover the anti-Grace Lee. In the film, she tells of her excitement when she learned of a Grace Lee who set fire to her school, only to be disappointed when she researched the event: Arsonist Grace Lee turned out to be a typical, studious, hardworking Grace Lee, who was trying to prevent a letter on her less-than-perfect schoolwork from going out to her parents. A gay Grace Lee agreed to participate in the film, but out of fear of shaming her family, she appears in pixelated form, a masked phantom rather than a fleshed-out Lesbian Activist Grace Lee.

And then there's Socialist Philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, a black civil rights activist who inadvertently served as the catalyst for the project. Lee first learned about Boggs when she was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri. "I had no consciousness of Grace Lee being a common name at that point," she says. "I just assumed [Boggs] was white, and I assumed 'Lee' was her middle name." Years later, after Lee had learned that Boggs is actually Chinese-American, she had the opportunity to hear her speak at UCLA. "This was when the Grace Lee project was still just in my mind, like an idea…. As soon as I saw her, I knew she would be a great subject because everything about her defied what I had been hearing about other Grace Lees. I waited until the end of the meeting, and I walked up to her and said, 'Hi, my name is Grace Lee, and I'm making a documentary about women named Grace Lee, and I'd love for you to be a part of it.'" The film began at that moment.

In an e-mail interview, Grace Lee from Sacramento, California -- who grew up in an abusive Caucasian household in which her parents refused to admit that she and her Asian brother were adopted -- writes that she saw in the film "a message of hope [for] other women about not allowing what happens in the past [to] define you for the rest of your life."

Of The Grace Lee Project, Lee says, "I always joked and said it's a different kind of identity-crisis film. It's one of those things that constantly nags at you. I feel like maybe I've gotten to the acceptance stage."
Audrey Bilger is a writer in California.
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