Ming-Na Wen, like the title character she voiced in Disney’s Mulan, is a woman who refuses to see limits on what she can achieve. “I see myself as somebody who is driven,” says Wen. “I have always believed if I set my mind on something, I can achieve it. I could build a house if that was something I desired to do. To be an Asian woman in Hollywood is not an easy task and I feel so fortunate and lucky that I’ve had all these opportunities, but all along I was dreaming them and manifesting them.”
Ming-Na Wen has been one of the most recognized Chinese-Americans of all time on the big and small screen — playing roles that have both celebrated her Asian ancestry but also transcended it. Well known for her role on the hit series ER, and as June in the big screen adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, she is now known as the “badass” Melinda May on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC — a role she’s excited about for many reasons, a big one being that her kids, ages 12 and 8, emphatically love the show.
How does Wen juggle such a demanding career with motherhood? She says she owes a lot to her husband, Eric Michael Zee.
“My kids have the most amazing father and male role model,” says Wen. “My husband Eric is the consummate dad, and because I work so much, he’s more or less the stay-at-home dad. He is able to work out of the house.”
Wen describes her husband as a “true modern dad.” She and Eric have always shared parenting responsibilities like changing diapers and driving kids to activities. Most importantly, she says Eric “is there to support them.”
Wen herself had a great father figure growing up. “My parents divorced when I was very young, and my mother brought me [from China] when I was really young, to the States. My stepfather was my father figure.”
She says her stepfather was “just kind of a blue collar guy. He owned a restaurant and worked every day. He was a guy that everybody liked. He had amazing skills as a cook and definitely passed a love of cooking on to me.”
Wen says food is a great point of connection for her family now, as it was when she was growing up. “When you smell the aroma of love permeating through the house, it’s nurturing. It’s the one thing my kids miss more than anything when I work long hours — me cooking a good meal.”
What’s her kids’ favorite dish? “It’s called Lion’s Head,” says Wen. “It’s comfort food, Chinese style.” Lion’s Head is a soup made with a large meatball and stewed Napa cabbage.
Ming has been credited over the years with and without her surname Wen. She explains that she dropped Wen, which was her birth father’s name, for a time in part due to her stepfather’s passing. “As an adult I always wondered if my stepfather ever felt a disconnect that I never adopted his last name, Yee.”
She says the two sides of her family now sound like a Dr. Seuss story — the Yee’s and the Zee’s. After she dropped Wen, she didn’t take on either Yee or Zee, but went simply by Ming-Na. “At that time, I didn’t feel Wen belonged in my life.”
“Then I reconnected with my birth father, and came to a real understanding about what happened between him and my mother. I decided to honor that part of my life and that part of my history. I brought the name Wen back into my world. It’s the name I was born with.”
She says she sees the subject of last names as a modern dilemma, one that women make various choices about, including sometimes using a different last name professionally and personally. “The important thing is your name should make you feel whole when it is called,” she adds, “and Wen is truly me. It makes me feel whole.”