Transnational film is a body of work that challenges static national identity, as mentioned by Chris Berry in “What is transnational cinema? Thinking from the Chinese situation” in Transnational Cinemas.
It is also the process of how multiple nations are involved in filmmaking and this column recognizes how multiple national cultures can be represented in a filmmaker who does not call only one country home.
James Tang: Transnational Filmmaker
A rare gem in the filmmaking industry is James Tang, an actor and filmmaker who outwardly claims his Third Culture identity in his biography descriptions. Our United States (U.S.)-based readers may recognize him from roles from television shows “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
More may recognize Tang from his appearance in award-wining web series Black Girl in a Big Dress. Tang may be perceived as only Asian American in the U.S. However, familiar to global citizens who know what it means to be a hidden immigrant in one’s own country, Tang reveals his transnational identity as he shares his story and how he approaches his craft.
Myra Dumapias — James, I understand that you identify as a Third Culture actor and filmmaker in some of your bios. Can you tell us about how you came to discover this part of your identity? Where did you grow up?
James Tang — I was born in the U.S. but grew up mostly in Thailand. My family is mostly Chinese culturally, but I went to an international school with a Western-based education system. I can’t fully remember how I stumbled upon the concept of [Third Culture Kids] TCKs. I believe it was in college at some point that I got turned onto “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds” itself. That was what gave a label to the experiences I had growing up and being able to relate to other TCKs in university without having understood the exact name for it.
How does James Tang define home?
JT — Home is more of an idea and a memory for me now. The city I’m most familiar with, Bangkok, is where I feel most at home. Yet it changes as I live away from it. I feel most at home with people that I’ve known for a long time, but sometimes I meet someone with a similar upbringing or a personality that just meshes with mine and it just feels like home.
What helps James Tang feel a sense of belonging ?
JT — Shared experiences help the most, and the deeper they go, the more belonging I feel. I can feel closer to someone I just met that had a similar international student upbringing than someone I’ve known for a few years but who had never really left their home country.
How has being a TCK influenced the interests, dreams and passions currently close to your heart?
JT — Living outside of the U.S. allowed me to see just how wide the reach of their film distribution system was, when I would always see advertisements for local films alongside Hollywood films at the theaters. Being a TCK helped me understand that humans are all essentially the same outside of our superficial differences, and I want to bring that understanding into a larger scope of storytelling.
How has it been to identify yourself as Third Culture in the industry?
JT — Most people I come across don’t fully understand what this is, so I usually try to simplify my explanation of my background. The industry tends to be about presenting things in as simplified a package as possible, mainly in TV, though luckily this seems to be changing.
“Being a TCK helped me understand that humans are all essentially the same outside of our superficial differences, and I want to bring that understanding into a larger scope of storytelling.”
Is there a difference between how actors and filmmakers understand or approach “Third Culture” as an identity or a genre?
JT — I feel like “Third Cultureness” can be so rare in larger populations that most people don’t know about us. It definitely isn’t any sort of genre, and I definitely don’t see any sort of descriptions of acting roles that involve TCK identity, unless it’s specifically written by a TCK, which is also very rare.
Tang has quite a growing list of acting roles, including:
- NCIS: Los Angeles as Passenger in episode “Goodbye, Vietnam” (March 2018),
- Bosch as Officer Vic Ngo in “Devil in the House” (April 2018),
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine as Officer Li in “Ticking Clocks” (April 2019),
- and an Asian American short by Christina Xing, released in April 2020, “This Old Dog” as Matt.
How does it feel to reflect on these opportunities, knowing all the work and, I’m guessing, your share of rejections that led up to them?
“I’m very grateful to be so lucky as to book roles that don’t conform to any sort of Asian male stereotypes.”
JT — I’m very grateful to be so lucky as to book roles that don’t conform to any sort of Asian male stereotypes. It’s always nice to look back at my prior work to see how far I’ve come, but also to see that there’s so much more to be done. I don’t view rejections as any sort of negative situation; they’re simply situations where I wasn’t the right fit and I just focus on the things I can control and on keeping my eye on the larger goal of bigger and more memorable roles that can help improve representation.
Tang has already accomplished some work in writing a screenplay for the short film Batfished (Director Reid Collums, 2019). Batfished can be seen as both as a pilot for a series that attracts audiences from diverse genres and a stand-alone short.
How did you come up with the concept behind Batfished?
JT -— Batfished was a Frankenstein monster of an old project idea that I combined with my growing awareness of myself and the types of roles I can play as an actor. I started focusing on writing projects with myself as the lead lately to try to kill two birds with one stone, so I basically just put a character that would work really well for myself in an old project and retooled it to fit better.
What work of yours, either as an actor or a filmmaker, do you feel reflects who you are the most?
JT — Currently I’d definitely say the short film mentioned above, “Batfished,” as the best reflection of who I am, as it best captures my type of humor and is one of the longer works I have that showcase my acting in a character that really fits my essence.
In a blogpost on his website, in the piece “About the Paradox of Acting,” Tang writes, “The project couldn’t be brought to life without you, but you are nothing without the words of the writer.”
As both an actor and a screenwriter, how does your experience in acting impact your writing, and vice versa?
JT — As I grew as an actor, I grew as a screenwriter, as I was able to embody the emotional rhythm and beats that a writer tries to inject into the dialogue of a script. As an actor that understands screenwriting, it helps me “get” a script and my role within it relatively quickly, because I would know roughly how my character fits into the story and what purpose he’d serve the story.
“I was able to embody the emotional rhythm and beats that a writer tries to inject into the dialogue of a script.”
What does identifying as a Third Culture actor and filmmaker really mean to you?
JT -— It’s an opportunity for me to bring a look into the experiences we’ve had to the world, to show people that in the end, we’re all human no matter what our cultural backgrounds are because, as we know best, when our identities are such a huge mishmash of cultures, we tend to judge people for who they are, not what we think they represent.
Among those who came before you, who did you relate to and who inspired you before becoming an actor and filmmaker?
JT — I’m inspired by so many filmmakers and actors, but I definitely have to give credit to all the Asian diaspora actors and filmmakers that have helped carve a path through history for me to follow in Hollywood, Bruce Lee of course being one of the biggest trailblazers.
You use your craft to address racism.
Given all that happened in 2020 with the global movement to confront racism and the movement in the US to end excessive force by racist police officers, how does it impact how you approach future roles you may potentially fit or future film-making projects?
JT — There’s definitely been a huge light that’s been shone onto systemic racism and how it is perpetuated, especially in U.S. society. Anti-racism is a journey of growth, and not an on/off switch, so having a better understanding of how to fight it and how to be aware of it is important and something I’ll definitely keep in mind when approaching or creating future projects.
Luckily, there are many other people in this industry that are fighting for this same goal, so we can all work together to keep anti-racism going strong in both the workplace and the stories we tell.
What is on the horizon for you that your fans can watch for?
JT — Nothing I can actually talk about directly, unfortunately. But I will always post about these projects once I can on my social media pages, so anyone that’s interested can give me a follow to stay updated!
- Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, “the most popular gaming influencer in the world” as titled by ESPN, “raided” (or sent over his livestream audience) to James Tang on Twitch, giving him 31,594 viewers.
- See the moment James Tang was NinjaRaided on his YouTube Channel, JamestheTang.
- Discover more of James Tang’s work at his website JamestheTang and follow him at IMDb – Twitter – Instagram – Twitch
I was impressed by James’ opinion that people are the same under their different superficial. It is convincing because James was grown up as a TCK and relatively familiar with the culture of Thailand, China, and the United States. From the aspect of society, it would help address racism and enhance mutual understanding. As an actor, writer, and screenwriter, the works from James can help his audience to know about a different culture. It can make up for the deficiency of TCK works. From the aspect of James, he can learn from different values and abstract the cream of those cultures. the experience as a TCA influenced his definition of “home”–it is not a concrete place, but the sense of emotion. Also, the “friends” are not those who are merely familiar with them for many years. Those who have similar experiences would also be included. All in all, the experience as a TCK helped James open himself to the world.
I’m so glad someone has finally brought attention to the TCK world of acting and filmmaking. As a fellow TCK, I really resonate with home as a “feeling” and found in people rather than a place. We should really be focusing on what people represent instead of who they are or what they look like, and I’m glad this article sheds some light onto the situation.
I admire James’s outlook on humanity and culture, particularly about how TCK actors like himself are creating more awareness and conversation about cultural fluidity. As he said, film and other media tend to simplify people, identities and cultures, but reality is much more complex — particularly for TCK individuals. Overall, I appreciate James’s thoughts on this complex nature of things, from what he defines as home to the intricate, unseen backgrounds of culturally fluid people.
I was excited to read this article because I recognize James Tang from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Tang is a great actor and advocate for third culture adults and kids. I saw a resemblance when he says that he feels most at home with the people he’s known the longest, and feels belonging in shared experiences. That statement is powerful and gives us a glimpse into what it could be like to be a TCK. I also want to gives Tang credit for embracing his culture and infusing it into the work that he does. I’m excited to see what James Tang creates in the future!
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