The following is an email conversation between Chinese-American film editor and Pitt alumna Amy Cheng and Asian Studies Center Global Ambassador Anthony Gavazzi. To raise awareness about Screenshot: Asia, Pitt’s new Asian and Asian-American film series, and its fundraising campaign, ASC interns are interviewing Pitt film alumni of Asian-American backgrounds to learn about the university’s impact on their careers. For more, visit engage.pitt.edu/screenshotasia.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I graduated from Pitt in April 2018. I grew up just north of Pittsburgh and went to Pitt to study science. I was a biology major on the premed track for two years, but two weeks before my junior year, I completely changed my schedule and switched to a film and media major. I knew from the beginning that I had an urge to explore film and express my creative energy somehow, but it took me two years to realize that I wanted to pursue something film-related professionally.
I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2018 without a job to begin a career in the industry, specifically in post-production. I was an intern for the American Cinema Editors Internship in 2018, which has provided me with a valuable network of professionals in Los Angeles so far. A year later, I still think it is the best decision I’ve ever made. The program brought me many unexpected encounters, industry knowledge, valuable work and life experiences, spontaneous adventures, and the desire to make a living with something I genuinely enjoy!
What was it like being Chinese-American in Pittsburgh and at the University?
Growing up, our family had a circle of Chinese family friends. I went to Chinese language school every Sunday, and my parents spoke Chinese to my brothers and me. Over the years, I lost touch with the language and grew further away from the culture. I found out that I did not relate to the Asian kids I grew up with and unconsciously developed a contempt for my own culture. I desperately wanted to assimilate with the white majority of my school, but I eventually began to feel like I couldn’t relate to the kids I wanted to be like either. There was always an uncertainty about where I belonged throughout my childhood, and I didn’t understand at the time that this dissonance was associated with my racial identity.
At Pitt, I joined the Chinese American Students Association (CASA) and Asian Students Alliance (ASA) to regain a familiarity with Asian culture, but both didn’t really give me the peace of mind that I had hoped for. Now, because I am no longer passively existing in Pittsburgh, I am slowly gaining the ability to see myself as Asian-American, respect the cultural roots that have been laid for me, and actively understand the potential impact that I can exert through my hyphenated identity.
Did any Pitt classes, professors, or students help you explore or think about Asian and Asian-American identity?
There was one experience at Pitt that made me think about my Asian-American identity. I made a last-minute decision to go on a study abroad program senior year, the Pitt in London Film Program. The people I met in London often asked me where I was from, which I would respond confidently, “America!” They would then always follow up with, “But where are you originally from?” as if my first answer was not acceptable.
It was there that I had truly felt two separate identities. I was American, but I was also Chinese. Until then, I had thought of myself as just one singular identity: Chinese-American. I never bothered to separate the two because there was never a context in which I needed to. It made me wonder: Why couldn’t I just exist as me? I’m still navigating what it means to be American and Asian, what it means to both, and what I can do to uncover the Chinese heritage lost over all these years.
How did your time at Pitt lead you to your current career?
I don’t view my first two undergraduate years studying science as wasted time. If anything, those experiences led me to discover that I was drawn towards film, media, and digital arts. A professor I worked for during my first summer in the research lab actually encouraged me to explore film classes and said that she didn’t think molecular research was something that I actually wanted to do. Being young and naive, I brushed it off and tried to prove her wrong even though she was right.
Pitt’s film department provided me with ample opportunities to learn film theory and access the tools necessary to get hands-on experience with set equipment. Carl Kurlander, one of the professors, was also instrumental in helping connect me to Pitt alum working in the industry. He’s a great resource to obtain insight on how the industry operates and connect Pitt students to those now working in the field.
How do you feel about Pitt launching an Asian-American and Asian film festival?
I’m really glad to see Pitt expanding its film courses and opportunities for students to get more production experience. This film festival will be a great way for the University to showcase Asian voices and stories since they are generally underrepresented in popular media and at Pitt. It’s important to tell these stories to bring attention to the nuances of Eastern culture and to validate the shared experiences of minority groups. I hope the festival can be a space to celebrate local Asian filmmakers, bring awareness to the importance of cultural identity, and provide opportunities for students from all backgrounds to participate in every facet of the festival process.
What projects have you been working on lately?
When I first got to L.A., I didn’t know anyone here or anything about the city. Through networking events and cold e-mailing, I managed to get my first job in the industry as a post-production assistant on a Fox Searchlight feature film, Antlers. The project ended this summer, but I am extremely blessed I had the opportunity to work alongside talented editors and studio assistant editors, as well as learn the intricate post-process for Hollywood films.
After that, I worked temporarily at Blumhouse Productions, a horror production company, as a post-production assistant. Now, I’m freelancing on the side and working on becoming an assistant editor and eventually an editor for television and film projects.