Tracking the trajectory of Hyphen cover model Ada Wong from average citizen to reality show personality reveals a series of impressive wins and emotional setbacks in a span of about nine months. Since last fall, the 28-year-old third-place finalist on season 10 of NBC's popular weight-loss competition series, The Biggest Loser, has developed from a 259-pound project coordinator to an athlete in training, a People magazine health columnist and a public figure in the health and fitness realm.
Growing up in Gilroy, CA, early childhood trauma and inter-generational conflict with her Chinese-born parents contributed to Wong’s struggle with self-esteem, weight gain and unsuccessful attempts at weight loss. After months of procrastination, Wong mailed an 11-hour Biggest Loser application and got the fated phone call from producers just three days later. During her time on the show, she put an Asian American face to the growing obesity epidemic, which, according to the federal Office of Minority Health, affects 9 percent of the Asian American and Pacific Islander adult population, an increase from 8.1 percent in 2006. Wong shed an astonishing 99 pounds and, through her particularly heartbreaking backstory involving the untimely death of her brother, showed a national audience how complex Asian American family dynamics can be. Memorable moments throughout the season — such as when Wong gave up her considerable lead during a challenge so her unemployed castmate could win a new car for his family — endeared her to Biggest Loser fans and spurred attention from a number of TV, health, lifestyle and Asian American blogs. Yet in person, Wong appears to be the consummate realist, grounded and modest about this new phase of her life. “I'm training for a triathlon now and doing a marathon. Just overall, my confidence level has gone up,” Wong says. “But other than that, nothing's really changed that much.”
Those who followed her on the show saw change aplenty. Wong was initially just a blip on the producers' radar as a quiet powerhouse in the gym, choosing to stay low profile and avoid the risk of being voted off for doing too well. But she was also crippled with self- doubt about her ability to succeed in the game — demonstrated by her extreme discomfort with fielding compliments about her progress — despite consistently dropping more weight than her female competitors, which piqued the interest of the show's staff. ”I didn't say much because I was emotionally shut down and I wasn't open to talking about feelings,” Wong says. "But the producers kept probing because they wanted to get to the bottom of why I felt like I could never be good enough.”
The story that emerged, stemming from past tragedy and un- resolved issues between Wong and her parents, unfolded before America's eyes as the once soft-spoken and insecure contestant forayed where many grown Asian American children fear to tread: the public airing of family dysfunction.
Wong's account of being blamed by her parents for the death of her younger brother — who drowned as a toddler while the two played in a kiddie pool — and its connection to her low self- esteem and weight gain made for bold television. Not only did we see the raw emotion of the Wong family, but we also saw a near-miracle: Ada Wong got her immigrant parents to show up on camera and admit that they had been wrong.
Before her stunning coup with her parents, Wong was apprehensive about going home to prepare for the show's live finale. "I was actually terrified," she says. “I knew that the whole camera crew would be following me back to my hometown. And I told them, ‘Hey, just be prepared. You might get thrown out of the house.’ “ Wong says she was surprised by how receptive her parents were, which she credits largely to a highlight reel sent to them by the show's producers that documented her journey. “I guess when they saw that, they realized that I was more unhappy than I was happy. And because of that, I think they were more open to discussing my issues and why I felt the way that I did.”
That's not to say it was an easy road to family harmony. Wong's candidness inadvertently sparked what she deems as an unfair public reaction to her parents. “I'm not saying what you saw on TV wasn't accurate, but the show only shows a snippet of what really happened,” Wong says. “It's easy for people to jump to conclusions and think they were awful parents, but they weren't.” When episodes began airing, Wong's mother would receive tear- inducing anonymous phone calls harshly criticizing her parenting skills, making it a difficult adjustment for the whole family who had been thrust into the pop cultural sphere.
Now Wong says her relationship with her parents is “a hundred times better than it was before. We communicate a lot more and there's open dialogue.” As she plans future ventures, she's keeping Asian American youth in her sights. “I had a lot of self-esteem issues growing up because of everything that I went through. And if I could help kids overcome that before they get to adulthood, that would be ideal because it's an awful feeling to feel like you are not worthy or nothing that you do is good enough.”
The delicate balance that many Asian American youths must maintain while receiving an Asian upbringing in a Western society is something Wong recognizes. “I think a lot of us are dealing with living in this bicultural society. My parents raised me differently than what I saw from my non-Asian friends. So, that was hard for me because what was happening at home wasn't matching up to what I saw out of the home.” Wong also comments on a need to increase nutrition awareness in the Asian American community and expand notions of a healthy Asian American body beyond a size 0. “I always felt like I never belonged in our community be- cause I was a larger person in a community of really petite, skinny Asians,” she says. “But maybe we can get to a point where you can still be considered healthy if you're a 4, 6 or 8.”
Kelly Nguyen, a San Francisco-based therapist who specializes in helping women create healthy relationships and reconciling intergenerational and cultural conflicts, agrees that body expectations in Asian American communities can be problematic. “It’s a stigma. You’re Asian, you’re skinny … If you’re larger than that “typical Asian,” it becomes another challenge,” Nguyen says. “Ada is really admirable. She's portraying how this ‘positive’ stigma of thinness in Asians is actually very harmful for individuals who do not identify with that type of physique.”
Conversations about this stigma and other body issues are deservedly gaining a larger platform. Actress Lynn Chen (Saving Face, The People I've Slept With) has recently launched Asian American body image blog Thick Dumpling Skin (with Hyphen's publisher Lisa Lee) and advocates for discussions on weight, body, and eating issues in Asian American communities. "It can feel very isolating to confront issues with food -- almost like admitting you are a failure," says Chen. "...we have seen that body image and eating disorders definitely affect our community. Seeing others struggle, hearing that you're not alone, is important in breaking the silence and the root of this myth."
Though Wong is still plotting her next moves, health is definitely on the agenda. Fans keep up with her writing, fitness tips and event appearances through her Facebook page, website and People column. “I don't know what's next, but I want to be able to use this platform to make an impact on people's lives,” Wong says. “I wasn't expecting as many people to reach out to me and say that I was an inspiration. I didn't think that I could be that person.”
Sylvie Kim is a Hyphen blog editor.