Trinity Jo-Li Bliss

On finding her own beginnings


Photographer: Emily Sandifer @emilysandiferphoto

Stylist: Cristina Ehrlich @cristinaehrlich

Stylist Assistant: Bridget Blacksten @bridgetblacksten

Hair & Makeup: Stacey Hummell @radmakeup

Where do I begin?

I close my eyes. Feeling like Jake Sully in my own version of a link unit, I’m ready to explore my origins and identity. Want to come along? We’re going in 5-4-3-2-1!

Yes, I used an Avatar reference. I’ve had the honor to bring to life Tuktirey or “Tuk”, the youngest of the Sully children in the Avatar sequels. I was 9 when filming wrapped up and I just turned 13. Tuk has been a huge part of my life. Tuk’s parents are from different planets and my parents are from different continents.

My parents were my beginnings before my beginnings. My mom came to the United States from China as a graduate student pursuing something out of this world (wink wink!)—aerospace engineering!

Although my dad still loves to introduce her as a rocket scientist, my mom eventually switched her studies to statistics and started working at a biotech company where they met. I was born in a suburb of Los Angeles that has many scientists, engineers, and physicians—many of them immigrants like my mom. Around a third of my elementary school class were kids from families like mine with different cultures and backgrounds. My school loved to embrace diversity and teach us all about those different from ourselves. During Chinese New Year, my mom would come and talk about Chinese customs and traditions. For Diwali, my friend Anika’s mom would come and discuss the customs and traditions of India. I was blessed to grow up in a really embracing community.

On a recent Christmas holiday, we visited my grandparents in Charleston, South Carolina. We were walking along the strand and discussing the history of Charleston when my brother suddenly fell silent. He stopped in his tracks and so did we. Puzzled, we turned to look at him. To my shock, a woman was touching my brother’s hair. Then she noticed my mom and tousled her hair too. The woman’s face was full of utter curiosity, mine was full of utter confusion. Then, she said “Huh. So this is what Asian hair feels like.” And she just walked away. We continued our walk and the only talk was the wind's frequent whispers. Everyone laughed it off later, as we walked home, but that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wasn’t sure I understood what that moment meant. For the first time, I felt different. I’ve wondered many times whether I should’ve said something? I don’t know what I would’ve said—“Yeah, I am half Asian.” Or perhaps “We’re American—just like you.” 

top & skirt-PINKO, ring-JENNIFER FISHER, earrings-JENNY BIRD
blazer-DSQUARED, bodysuit-ALAIA, jeans-REDONE, shoes-CONVERSE, ring-JENNY BIRD

Every now and then, my grandparents from China—Lao Lao and Lao Ye—would visit us and stay with us for a few months. They are the kindest and the most hardworking people ever! When they come to visit, all sorts of little miracles occur. We watch as our California garden blossoms with vegetables and fruit. Pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, chives, and much more thrive under their care, and they magically show up on the dinner table! They make friends with other dog walkers in our neighborhood who love to “ooh” and “aww” at the plants blooming in our garden. When it’s harvest time, they deliver baskets of goodies to our neighbors and friends. My Lao Lao loves nature; she will sing with the birds, and we have birds that come to visit her every morning twittering and hooting. She teaches me to appreciate the harmony of life in our garden and all around. Every spring festival with them used to be so much fun, with red envelopes full of cash and steaming dumplings—until the first spring festival during the pandemic.

I remember my dad went outside to hang the hongdeng long (red lantern), fu zi (a Chinese character meaning good fortune and luck) and chun lian (red banners with Chinese characters painted on top) like he always did. Then, I watched Lao Lao frantically request that my dad take them down. In deep silence, she hung the red lantern, carefully placed the fu zi on the stained glass of our oak door, and two beautiful chun lian on either side of it.

Every piece was meticulously set up, but only for us to see. In China, it would be placed on the outside of the door, showing our pride in our heritage, spreading festivity and luck. Here, all anyone would see of our door was the paper backsides of the decorations. Even with the buzzing happiness of the new year, we couldn’t stop the sense of fear penetrating into our once peaceful, blissful world. Since then, for the longest time, Lao Lao and Lao Ye were scared to walk outside by themselves. They’d walk after dark and for extra caution, walk out the side door, in hopes no one would realize our house had Asian residents.  

I demanded to understand why and learned the phrase “anti-Asian hate.” What did that even mean and why would anyone hate Asians, people like my Lao Lao and Lao Ye, and people like my mom!? No answer made sense to me. I was so stunned to learn that there is racism towards anyone. Growing up in a town where different cultures and backgrounds are embraced and celebrated made what’s happening in the larger, outside world all the more shocking and incomprehensible. I wanted to see my grandparents happy and feeling safe again. What can I do?! I put my feelings into a journal and they turned into songs called “California Sun” and “We Need Some Love.” “California Sun” is a tribute to the beautiful place my family and I call home and “We Need Some Love” is about no matter where we’re from or what we look like, we need to love each other; this world needs love. I played both songs for my Lao Lao and Lao Ye. Their eyes turned wet and so did mine.

Oh yes, I haven’t mentioned, besides being an actor, songwriting is my way of capturing my feelings and making sense of the things around me and of myself! With parents like my mom and dad, it took a while for them to fully accept that. I am pretty confident that when I was born, my mom imagined I would go to a STEM program at a respectable, nearby university. My dad wanted to help me become an Olympian skater who plays piano very well. Much to their chagrin, I am an outlier. As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved anything that involved performing in front of people. When practicing piano, I’d often find my fingers wandering to their own, improvised tune. I’d even start to sing whatever was on my mind and this habit would often lead to a song. Then, I would play them for any living being! I enjoyed playing Young Nala and Matilda at the local musical theater camps so much, I begged my mom to take me to acting classes. My parents couldn’t be more supportive. All they asked is for me to do half an hour of math every day, no matter how busy I was. Now you know my mom has a tiger side, which my dad says leans more bobcat. Even when I was filming Avatar, no matter how late we came home, I always sat down to finish math. I have myself to thank for being able to pursue my dreams for acting and music because I kept my daily math promise. In fact, I need to do my daily math right after this before I can reach for my guitar.

dress- VALENTINO, jewelry-LULU FROST

Over time, I have learned there are some words often used to describe people like me. While “two-or-more races” and “mixed-race” are the most common words used to describe a family like mine and “Eurasian” is another, on casting websites, “ethnically ambiguous” is the word used to describe my “primary appearance.” I am delighted to carry DNA from both sides of the globe. It is cool to contribute to biodiversity and look like a global citizen. Since Avatar wrapped, I’ve had the opportunity to have a lead role in an independent film, appeared in a number of TV shows, including two series regular roles, and recorded quite a few voice-over projects, completing many auditions and callbacks along the way. There will always be more auditions than roles. Every audition is an opportunity, though, and a chance for me to get better for the next potential role. That’s the math of casting (and evidence that I did learn something in the after-school math class). I love auditions!

One of my favorite books that I read recently is A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. I fell in love with the main character, Pip. A couple of the scenes were like falling into the pages and being part of the scene. I could see Pip walking down Fairview’s foggy streets, laptop in hand, listening to her favorite murder podcast. I could see Ravi and Pip, looking over their notes, two cold cups of coffee between them. The thing is, I wasn’t just there with Pip—I was Pip! The book often referenced her pale face and green eyes. Even so, I could picture myself as her! I became absolutely enthralled with this book and something inside me wondered with excitement whether I could play her one day. I immediately started to research and found out that production was already underway. I remember sitting at my desk, staring at the computer, the book in my hands, watching as tiny puddles formed on the dog-eared pages. As shameful as it feels to admit, I had nothing short of an emotional crisis. My little dog, Levi, looked at me, all puzzled, as I gathered my tissues and carried my soul to the bathroom. One look at that miserable bathroom trash can showed all too well how much I loved the book and the part! The character was way older than me so I wouldn’t even get the chance to audition for her. She also didn’t look like me, she wasn’t mixed-race. 

I’d fallen into the trap I’d been able to avoid so many times before.

A gray cloud was cast upon the rest of the day. Later, though, when singing through these crestfallen feelings with my guitar, words spun out as if they’d been there all along, “I am getting close, so close to the sun, I will burn into flames, but I will rise stronger….All I want to do is start to fly, I wish I could fly...”. Somehow, I started to see things differently. I realized there are so many good books and good roles. I realized I can write and even make books into screenplays too. Most of all, I realized I just need to dare to dream and dare to fly. How I look doesn’t matter, if I’m determined to go for it! I don’t “wish I could fly,” I will fly! I started beaming as my mom came in. She looked at my third pile of tissues, then at me, and said with an amused grin “Hormones?” It definitely wasn’t hormones! Ok, maybe 5% of it was hormones? I guess I am 13 now, wink wink.

I open my eyes, feeling a bit like Jake Sully at the end of Avatar when he abandons his human body and begins his life as a Navi. Beginnings sound dramatic but it’s kinda an everyday thing, isn’t it? Opening your eyes to Pandora, to a new life, in a new body. Ready to fly!