Tiffany Moon recalls a seminal moment in her life as a six-year old flying from Beijing to New York, her first time on an aeroplane, with no one to accompany her. She was offered a Coca-Cola by a flight attendant, to which she responded by saying she had no money.
Even today, three decades later, she still delights at the memory of being able to have all the soft drinks, snacks and television she wanted on that long journey. “I came from a pretty poor family,” Moon says. “I’d barely been in a car.”
That is a long way, literally and metaphorically, from where she is now. The China-born doctor is the first first-generation Asian-American to appear on the Real Housewives franchise, and made her debut in January of this year on season five of the Dallas-set version of the television series.
She certainly has all the attributes of a typical housewife on the series; a beautiful home, successful husband (Daniel, a lawyer who works within his family’s real estate and hotel business), exquisite wardrobe (she estimates she has between 40 and 50 Hermès handbags and 250 pairs of shoes). She’s an established career woman in her own right, a practising anaesthesiologist.
She is also something of a renegade housewife for other reasons; she considers herself a private person and shies away from conflict, which would seem counter-intuitive given the nature of the show, where profanity-laced quarrels among well-dressed society women are quite the norm.
“I’m not a person who likes to involve myself in conflict,” Moon explains. “If I don’t like someone, I’ll just ghost them. But in this show, that is not the method of conflict resolution . And I can’t pretend that I didn’t know that, that we were all going to sit around nicely and drink tea.”
We meet at an outdoor cafe on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, where she stands out in a fitted hot pink velvet dress, patent pink stilettos, and diamonds that sparkle in the Californian sun. There is a disarming nature to her, a “here-I-am, take-it-or-leave-it” calibre of honesty that may have been what endeared her to the casting executives in the first place.
She says that in initial interviews, they asked her what was off-limits (although any Real Housewives viewer will know that the more salacious the details of the casts’ lives, the better). She had told them that everything was fair game.
“I’m a private person, but when I agreed to do the show, I told them I don’t have any skeletons in the closet. I don’t have anything in my past, no soft-pornos, although who’d want to see those anyway? I stand by everything I’ve ever done or said. There’s nothing you can’t ask me about.”
Moon came to be a reality show star – filming of her season has ended, and no plans have been announced for season six – in a somewhat circuitous way. She’s been friends for a long time with a veteran of the series, D’Andra Simmons. But she’s never been a fan of the show, and had barely watched it. However, being asked to join the cast was an appealing addition to what she felt was a humdrum – if thoroughly comfortable – life.
“I just started to feel, ‘Is this all there is?’,” she says. “I knew that I had more in my life than that little girl sitting on that aeroplane ever even knew existed. But there was something missing, and I didn’t know what it was.” It certainly wasn’t her reality show experience, as enjoyable as parts of that were.
Given the pandemic-related restrictive circumstances around filming, there were no lavish international trips as typically seen on these shows, no fabulous nights out at the hottest restaurants or shopping sprees.
Instead, the Texan housewives stayed home a lot, glammed up in quarantine, although the producers deserve kudos for incorporating everything from snakes, stripper poles and tequila shots into the contrived madness. There were moments of real seriousness, such as Moon tearfully telling her husband that she wanted more for their six-year old twin girls than she ever had, or opening up to her mother about feeling she had always disappointed her.
When Moon was three, her parents left her with her maternal grandparents in Beijing in China so they could pursue their master’s degrees in New York; her father in computer science, her mother in English.
Not long after her parents got to the US, they were involved in a horrific car crash and almost died. Moon thinks that because their lives were saved, she subconsciously, on some level, committed to one day being a doctor.
At six, she was put on that aeroplane and sent to join them. Their reunion was an awkward one.
“It wasn’t like in the movies, cue the soft music,” Moon says. She lived with her parents in a small one-bedroomed flat in “a not great” part of the city, where she slept on a mattress on the floor while her father waited tables at a Chinese restaurant after his classes. She spoke no English and was teased relentlessly in school .
“I dreaded the bus ride home,” she recalls. “I knew there was going to be some prank that someone was going to play on me. There was a sense of impending doom. I was spit on, slapped and punched.”
When she told her parents, they advised her not to make a fuss, to keep her head down and focus on her work. A few years later, her father got a job in Dallas in Texas, so they moved, and it was the first time that Moon remembers having money – or at least not having to worry about money.
“We got a house,” she says. “All of a sudden, we weren’t poor any more.”
She got into a programme that allows exceptionally advanced students to skip the last two years of secondary school, so Moon sat for her SATs (a standardised test for university admissions) at 14, and at 15 left her parent’s home to attend the University of North Texas. At 17, she was at Cornell University in New York, studying towards a degree in neurobiology and then headed to Southwestern University back in Texas for medicine.
She met her Korean husband at a bar; he was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and Moon calls him her “Asian cowboy”. When she got pregnant with twins, her friend quipped, “even your ovaries are over-achievers”. Her family dynamics play out, as they are designed to do, on the show.
But her appearance on it had another, and quite unexpected, consequence. “When I signed up to be a part of the show, I did not know that [the coronavirus pandemic] would happen, or Black Lives Matter , or [anti-Asian sentiment]. I thought I was signing up to be with sassy girlfriends who travelled and drank a lot,” says Moon.
“I didn’t think that I would be talking about race and micro-aggression and immigrating to America. I didn’t think that anyone wanted to hear about what wasn’t fun and fluffy, that people wanted to see a bunch of middle-aged women behave badly so they could feel better about their own lives.”
While there certainly were a lot of those shenanigans, Moon also had screen time to discuss racial issues.
Moon says she still experiences racism – from the overt “go back to China” variety yelled at her by people on the street to the micro-aggression, when people ask her where she’s from, and when she says New York, they say, “no, where are you really from” or when she says her name is Tiffany, they ask her what her “real name” is.
“I think with some of those things, people don’t even mean to hurt your feelings,” she says. “The whole point I was trying to make was you need to listen to other people, to their experiences, to how they feel.”
With filming behind her, a tonne more social media followers and the celebrity that comes with being on a popular reality show, Moon may end up leveraging her new-found fame towards a greater purpose.
“The show has given me a voice and a platform,” says Moon. “Someone said to me today, ‘Thank you for using your platform to talk about Asian-American hate, thank you for sharing that’. People care about what I have to say.
“Growing up, I didn’t have a voice. I was taught to be quiet. And now that I’m speaking up, people are listening.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.