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Arden Cho

On her own terms


Talent: Arden Cho @arden_cho

Photos: Jeremy Choh @jeremychohphoto

Fashion: Benjamin Holtrop @benjaminholtrop

Fashion Assist: Emily Johnson @emilykejohnson

Makeup: Kathy Jeung @kathyjeung

Hair: Derek Yuen @dereksyuen

Photo Assist: Dante Velasquez @dantevelasquezjr

Digi: Sharon Reza @sharonreza

Video: Francisgum @francisgum

Ingrid Yun, the lead role on the Netflix legal drama Partner Track played by Arden Cho, adds some much needed positive Asian American representation to a continuously growing but still lacking list. “I think we're learning that the media really is quite powerful,” Cho tells Timid. “Families have reached out and said how much the show has meant for them, for their teenage daughters, or even women, to feel seen.”

Principal photography for the show began in September 2021. Just earlier that year, Stop Asian Hate was born out of the escalating racist attacks against Asians and Asian Americans that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. For Cho, this movement felt doubly traumatic, bringing back memories of the racial discrimination and violence she experienced in her youth.

Cho’s family immigrated to the United States from Korea in the eighties. She was born in Texas, where she spent most of her formative years before moving to Minnesota in high school. “I think growing up in America, for a lot of my life I felt very alienated, I felt like I didn’t belong,” she recalls. “I didn't look like the other kids at school, and I had a lot of teachers that were very racist but I didn't understand why they were ‘mean’ to me. I thought they just didn't like me, and I didn't realize that it was something specific to the color of my skin or the way that I look.”

It wasn’t until recently that Cho began to unpack these experiences with her mom to get some form of closure. “When I was 11, I got kicked unconscious, over and over, on my face, to the point that I was hospitalized for a month. My teeth fell out; my face was scraped off. And so when I saw some of these Stop Asian Hate videos, it was really triggering.” Her mom, however, wasn’t receptive to the conversation at first, immediately trying to shut it down: ‘No, we moved past that. We don't talk about that. Forget about it now, you're doing great.’

It was through that talk that Cho learned that her parents still carried a lot of guilt about not protecting their child more during that time in their lives. “I realized that it's not that they didn't fight for me because they didn't want to fight for me—they were scared too,” she explains. “They didn't know how to hire lawyers, didn't know what to tell the police when the police came to the hospital. It was all scary. They were in a new country, speaking a second language. All of it sounded scary and all they were thinking at that moment was, ‘Thank God Arden is alive, she opened her eyes. She's okay, let's move on, let's forget about this. We don't want to go to court, we don't want to sit through this again and relive it.’”

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Coming to terms with the events of her youth helped her move forward and empowered her to speak up for herself and for others. “So much of my life I grew up thinking I didn't deserve justice, that I didn't deserve for someone to fight for me, but I realize that that's not true. I want to fight for me. I want to fight for my family. I want to fight for all the Asian Americans who are being attacked because people see us as weak, or as people who won't fight back or speak up.”

Cho recalls that it wasn’t until she attended college at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that her passion for advocacy on behalf of her community and identity was born. The more diverse population allowed her to meet many other Asian Americans and to take classes in Asian American studies and history. It was there that she had the space and resources to learn and talk—and simply just get excited—about her culture.

It was also there that she continued to nurture her ever-present love for performing, even pursuing a minor in Theatre. “I didn't think that it was a realistic dream,” she says. “I didn't think that it was possible for someone who looked like me. I didn't see many people that looked like me in TV or movies, and I felt like it was an impossible dream.” But after graduation, she found herself at a crossroads. “For so much of my life I had done what I was supposed to. I studied hard, I was in orchestra, I went to church—I felt like I did everything that my parents wanted me to do. And I was a good daughter. But I also felt like I didn't really know what I wanted to do.”

Fortunately, she had a couple of good mentors that inspired her to pursue her dreams, so she decided to book a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. “You know, I think at that time, I was just hoping to be on TV once or twice, just to say that I tried, to say I made a small dent,” she confesses. “I felt like either I could sit on the sidelines and complain that Asian Americans are never seen, or that if we are seen, it feels demeaning and sort of like the butt of the joke. Or I could try to be a part of that change.”

It wasn’t easy. Cho describes the first ten years of her acting career as “incredibly difficult and discouraging”. It was only fairly recently that the Asian American community celebrated a lot of firsts—first Asian American sitcom in 20 years (Fresh Off the Boat, 2015-2020), first majority Asian cast in a major Hollywood film (Crazy Rich Asians, 2018), first Asian American Oscar nominee for Best Actor (Steven Yeun, Minari, 2021). In the midst of this, Asian and Asian American actors have had to deal with being passed over for Asian roles, from Mira Killian in Ghost in the Shell (2017) to Allison Ng in Aloha (2015). We’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go. “There were roles that I just couldn't get myself to do or didn't want to do because I felt like it was taking us ten steps back,” Cho says. “And then there are roles I wanted, but I wasn't the right kind of Asian or I wasn't Asian enough, or I just wasn't what they wanted.”

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She found success through YouTube in the earlier years of her career. “There were very few opportunities for us, but YouTube was a creative outlet where creators who look like us—Asian American creators—could write their own stories and make opportunities for themselves.”

East Asian women depicted by Hollywood have traditionally fallen into either the “China doll” or “Dragon Lady” trope, the latter of which was seen in Lucy Liu’s portrayal of American lawyer Ling Woo on Ally McBeal. On Partner Track, Ingrid Yun is neither. “I feel that Ingrid is quite empowering,” Cho tells us, “because even though she makes mistakes, and she's flawed, she is really breaking all those minority stereotypes. Yes, in some ways, she does a lot of the grunt work and she keeps her head down and she works hard. But we get to see her break out of that—Ingrid doesn't have to be timid and shy and insecure and weak and serving. We get to see her fight. And I think that journey is really important because seeing her experience a lot of the painful moments is where I find most of the viewers relate.” Cho adds, “The audience may not be happy with the choices she makes, but how refreshing is it to see an Asian woman have choices, to see an Asian woman making moves, to see an Asian woman being the hero?”

Still, it is important to note—as Cho also readily points out—that her character doesn't define all Asian women. “In season one we see, you know, some growth—not as much as I think we'd like to see for our characters, but we see the beginning of that journey. And I think that’s so important because there’s a pressure that we're expected to always be perfect, to be that model minority. But I think people forget that this is TV, and this is drama—don't we want some drama?”

This is a sentiment shared by other Asian American actors. “We always say that it feels a bit unfair—not only do we have such a small amount of opportunities; on top of that, we have this immense amount of pressure to represent our community at all times.” As we see more and more Asians and Asian Americans in a variety of roles—as they become “anothers” instead of “firsts”—it is Cho’s hope that every new role or opportunity comes with more artistic freedom and less expectations on what it means for the Asian community. “We're still just performers. Artists. We want to tell stories and hopefully allow the audience to have a good time or to feel something.”

Looking ahead, Cho is excited about what the future has in store for her. “I feel like my career is just beginning even though oddly enough I've been in it for about twenty years. You know, a lot of my life, people told me I was starting acting too late, or that it had been too long before I got anything really great. And for women in general, we are given this timeline. But I'm not afraid of that anymore. I feel like I'm younger than ever. I have more opportunities now than ever. And I also feel like all of the experiences I've had in my life—the good and the bad—have shaped me to tell better stories today.”

Partner Track premiered on Netflix on August 26, 2022. Cho’s next role is on Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is also set to premiere on Netflix. No release date has been announced.

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