I promise I didn’t schedule two Asian actors for the weekend after One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing on purpose. For one thing, I am booked way further in advance on my Saturday and Sunday columns than I got the announcement about what month we were doing this month. For another, I’d never seen One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing before writing about it, and I didn’t realize exactly how awful and racist it is. But it’s interesting to note that Sandra Oh has spent quite a lot of her career playing characters who are Asian because some people are Asian, not because the plot revolves around the characters’ Asian heritage.
In fact, in one of the first places I saw her, Wilby Wonderful (it was really hard to find a still, and there are none that I could find with her and Paul Gross—no clips I could take screenshots from, even), it’s important that she’s from Away, but what kind of Away she’s from doesn’t matter. She’d be just as exotic if she were an American of some sort, because it’s about an insular Canadian community. I haven’t seen the movie in years, but I’m pretty sure it literally doesn’t matter that she’s of Korean ancestry, and it’s entirely possible that the character wasn’t written as Korean.
Not, I would notice, that Oh places a lot of Korean, Korean-American, or Korean-Canadian characters. Probably her best-known character is Dr. Cristina Yang. Yang is a Chinese name. Judging by last name—when her characters get last names, which they don’t always—she mostly plays Chinese characters. I suspect this is because Americans, and presumably Canadians, think a lot more about Chinese people than Korean ones. She has also played characters with last names like Meacham and Magintyre and, yes, French, and goodness only knows what ethnic heritage those characters are supposed to have.
What you get with Oh, therefore, tends to be solid characters who mostly stand on their own terms. She’s particularly good at dry wit and necessary takedowns. I’ll admit I’ve never watched Grey’s Anatomy, but it wouldn’t surprise me to know that it’s basically what she does there. She’s good at it, and it’s fun to watch her do it. I mean, I’m sure she has fun voicing Castaspella—and she’s close enough to my age to only slightly have been out of the original show’s intended demographic. It’s still an unusual role for her.
She’s definitely on my list of people I wish did more things I had an interest in. I like Sandra Oh in everything I’ve seen her in, but any number of the things she’s done have been ones where I never bothered. I wish Ramona and Beezus had done better; I should really have the kids watch that movie, because I think they’d love it. But one movie that she played a relatively minor character in does not make a career where I’ve seen a lot of her stuff.