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Lost and Found: Amy Hill on Adoption and Identity

In the last two and a half decades, Amy Hill has owned a Hawaiian fruit stand, tried in vain to dissuade her elderly father from becoming a Japanese porn star, and provided scientific aid to a teenage secret agent. Oh, and she’s also an actress.

In addition to the above roles in Lilo and Stitch, Paul Kikuchi’s Wrinkles, and the Disney Channel’s Kim Possible, Hill has appeared on Glee, Law and Order, Frasier, Seinfeld, and General Hospital. Her voice graces a range of animated films and TV shows, from American Dad to Avatar, from King of the Hill to The Cat in the Hat.

She’s been Margaret Cho’s grandmother, acted alongside Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler…she even has a part in upcoming indie film The Crumbles, directed by the Japanese American National Museum’s own Akira Boch.

“My career has surpassed all my expectations as a child,” says Hill, 58, who grew up in Deadwood, South Dakota and Seattle, the Hapa daughter of a Finnish father and Japanese mother.

As a child, “I was always performing in my living room at home or on my front porch for the neighbors…in high school I started [taking acting] classes and doing local community theater. I hoped that one day I could be onstage at Seattle Repertory, and never even dreamed about Broadway.”

Years later, Hill is known for playing characters who are lively, loud, outspoken, and expressive, as embodied by her role as the grandmother on All-American Girl, a mid-nineties sitcom with an all-Asian leading cast. Hill calls this role her favorite. “I often feel some measure of freedom when I do ‘larger-than-life’ characters,” she says. “My mother was one of them.”

Like the All-American grandmother, many of these “larger-than-life” women also speak with thick Asian accents: Korean, Samoan, Japanese…Hill can capture them all with uncanny accuracy. But unlike contentious author Amy Tan, this Amy rarely receives criticism from the Asian American community for her depiction of heavily accented Asian immigrants.

“I understand how it might make some feel uncomfortable,” she admits. “I was horrified by my mother’s thick accent and broken English. She spent much of her working life as head of a hospital kitchen, leading a mostly immigrant group of cooks in putting together a menu that she proudly brought some diversity to. I was amazed how they understood each other in that melting pot of accents but realized that most people see beyond that.

“In not doing an accent, I feel as though I am dismissing those immigrant experiences. For me, I try to bring a fully formed human being to the table, with or without an accent.”

These days, in addition to her film and stage roles, Hill also writes and performs her own solo shows, including the upcoming “Lost and Found: Life as I (K)NEW It,” which hits the Japanese American National Museum this weekend.

Amy and Penelope

In “Lost and Found,” Hill, with humor and sincerity, will discuss how her life has transformed since the adoption of her daughter, 11-year-old Penelope. Like her mother, Penelope is multiracial. “I thought that I could understand the issues of someone who had a multiracial background,” says Hill of her conscious decision to adopt a mixed-race child. “I now realize it also gets complicated with a transracial component.”

In the beginning, “I felt guilty that I couldn’t really offer her what she might have experienced being raised by her birth mom, culturally,” explains Hill. “It wouldn’t be authentic. So I decided that she would be raised in my world, unashamed, going to Obon festivals, dancing, playing taiko, eating rice and seaweed and mochi…and of course exposed to the multiculturalism that is Los Angeles. She can figure out how she wants to identify as she grows older.”

What this means, it turns out, is different “depending on the day and how she wants to operate,” says her mother. “She reminded me she was Latina when she asked for a second piercing in her ear.”

It’s stories like this that the audience may be able to expect from “Lost and Found,” and the spirited Penelope will also make an appearance beside her mother to talk about her own “identity mash-ups.”

“I think [people] will come away [from the show] understanding that what we know as ‘family and identity’ are evolving continuously,” Hill says. “It’s funny and touching. I’m very proud of my 11-year-old daughter for taking the risk to talk about her feelings.”

After all her larger-than-life roles, raising a daughter may turn out to be a wilder adventure than anything she’s done yet. Wilder, even, than meeting her septuagenarian father’s 19-year-old “adult acting partner” in Wrinkles.

“I only hope that she finds a passion in life,” says Hill. “And that she finds happiness and love and experiences true gratitude for all her blessings, leaving behind a legacy of good deeds and generosity. Is that too much to ask?”

Amy and Penelope will be at the Japanese American National Museum this weekend to perform “Lost and Found: Life as I (K)NEW It” at 7 p.m. on Saturday, and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 1, 2011. Admission is $15 for JANM members, students and seniors, $20 for non-members. For tickets, go to http://tinyurl.com/3nc3enl.

For more information, call 213.625.0414 or visit www.janm.org.

© 2011 Mia Nakaji Monnier

actress Amy Hill hapa identity multicultural multiracial