Hedy Wong stars as the title character, Tera, in Take Out Girl, which is released May 18 by 1091 Pictures. Take Out Girl is her first feature film screenplay. She was born and raised in the Bay Area, Northern California. She moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and had since then booked national commercial campaigns such as Dove and Best Buy. She also appeared in music videos alongside Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, Tyga, A$AP Rocky and Tory Lanez. In her spare time, she enjoys writing and creating music.
Take Out Girl, which I co-wrote and star in, has been playing on the festival circuit over the past year and it is always refreshing and touching to hear other people’s interpretation of the title character, Tera. Audience members typically begin saying that Tera, a young college dropout working at her family’s Chinese restaurant, helping her single mother with food deliveries, is strong and courageous, a dutiful daughter and caring sister. But usually at the end, they also timidly admit she is a tad flawed, as the movie revolves around Tera’s decision to deliver more than just Chinese food, by making side income working for a local drug lord.
As the creator of Take Out Girl, I have been hesitant to voice my own opinion of who Tera is. I’ve worried my own (harsher) opinions of her might ruin other people’s viewing pleasure. I see Tera as a young, headstrong girl with a discerning mind, but also naïve and emotionally stunted. Just like anyone else, she is someone plagued by a multitude of concerns dictated by her environment, class and race.
Steven Yeun, the first Asian-American nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, said in a recent interview, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” Asian-Americans only make up about 5.6 percent of the U.S. population and we are typically seen as perpetual foreigners in our own country. At worst, we are targets of racism and hate crimes, and attacks on Asian Americans have increased precipitously during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet this isn’t entirely new for most of us. Growing up, we witnessed our immigrant parents stoically accept being treated as less than human, a seeming condition for their being able to live here and provide a better future for us, their children. In less turbulent times, we are, at best, invisible. Sharon Kwon, a psychotherapist who specializes in racial trauma and identity, recently wrote, “Our world minimizes us and we minimize ourselves. …We are used to minimizing our own pain because we don’t want to rock the boat.” Neither condition is desirable, because invisibility feeds into dehumanization. But in Take Out Girl, Tera turns the lemon of Asian-American invisibility into lemonade. She banks on the majority of the population dismissing her as she makes her business moves in the streets. Her insignificance in the community is her cloak. At the end of the day, Tera thinks money can perhaps ease her ever-diminishing sense of self-worth. She understands that you don’t get brownie points for wanting to be better — results are the benchmark.
Though I used to plead the Fifth on this one before, I have to admit that Tera is a younger version of me. I drew heavily from my own upbringing, such as growing up in the Chinatown community of the Bay Area (yes, my parents owned a Hong Kong cuisine restaurant there) and from my many years living in Los Angeles, and the mistakes I made there. Some story influences also came from the lives of family members and friends. (One example: my good friend Lorin Ly, who plays Tera’s big brother Saren in Take Out Girl, really did grow up in the east side of South Central L.A. in a neighborhood named the Pueblos, where Tera’s family live in the film.) Back when I started writing the screenplay, I thought maybe I could let go of some of my bottled-up emotions by putting my story down on paper and reflecting on what I’d learned about life so far. (As the late great Nipsey Hussle rapped on Bigger Than Life, “Shout out to the pain that gave me understanding.”) The film was also intended as an indirect letter to my mom — saying I was sorry for not becoming what she wanted me to be. My parents came from a Third World country ravaged by a revolution, so they wanted me to have more practical pursuits. Before I got to this point with Take Out Girl, many people back home saw me as a foolish dreamer chasing pipe dreams.
When I watch my alter ego Tera on screen now, I see a young, well-intended but short-sighted girl whose decisions incrementally lead her situation to first get better, and then worse. Although I understand what it means to be the product of one’s environment and its heavy role in setting certain sociopolitical forces in motion, I also believe in self-determination. Take Out Girl’s director Hisonni Mustafa saw Tera almost like a superhero (with a baseball cap instead of the proverbial cape) navigating the trickier aspects of her environment, and he also made her more of a proactive character — her decisions are autonomous. Therefore, the consequences of her actions are entirely her own, and she ultimately can’t blame anybody but herself for the things she did. Growing up, my mom often told me, “It is one thing if you do something dumb and hurt yourself. When your mistakes hurt somebody else, though, it is completely tragic and wrong.” But isn’t that the way life is — even when we wish with all our hearts that it were otherwise? All Tera wanted was to be her mom’s knight in shining armor. Ultimately, though, we must recognize the salient difference between intent and outcome. If not, then it is simply our ego talking.
To me, Tera is not special or a hero, but an average, everyday person trying to rise above her circumstances. Her good intentions and her mistakes are clear on the screen. But when I see audience members talk about Tera with sympathy, I am moved and those emotions momentarily frighten me. Somehow those people are able to be kinder toward Tera than I am. And if they can look at Tera with compassion, maybe I can too. Their reactions in some ways chip away part of the self-hate I have towards myself for not being “good enough.” Now that I am more mature, I also recognize how being a member of a marginalized community played a role in me internalizing certain feelings of inadequacy as a child. But it also seems to me that whether one is a minority or the majority, heterosexual or LGBTQ+, our society has a strange way of making many of us dislike ourselves for one reason or another.
Usually when we sympathize with movie characters, it is because we see ourselves in them. So the final thing I hope viewers take away is this: If you are able to be kind to Tera despite her mistakes, I hope you can be just as kind to yourself. Being overly self-critical is one of the most harmful things we can do to ourselves. Especially now, there is an immense pressure to “fit in” and appear blameless, but there are also many good souls who have been hurt for imperfectly learning as they move through life. Until our final breath, we are all a work in progress. Forgive yourself.