Yesterday was an amazing experience at the AASLE (African American Student Leadership Experience) conference in DC. I participated in a discussion panel about being an Asian American creative and facilitated a workshop with students from all over the country.
I left feeling so inspired and energized from my students and loved meeting every single one of them.
For those unable to attend, here are my answers to the panel discussion questions:
How do you identify in terms of your race/ethnicity?
I identify as a Filipino-American woman. I also identify as an Asian American woman.
What was it like growing up as an Asian American in your neighborhood?
The entire town I grew up in was upper middle class, super white and politically conservative. My dad was a surgeon, my mom was a nurse and I went to private school from kindergarten until 12th grade where I was one out of maybe like 2 other Asian kids in my class.
I didn’t know the term back then but my upbringing was one of double-consciousness and code-switching. Double consciousness refers to the internal conflict experienced by subordinated groups in an oppressive (white) society. It was coined in W.E.B. DuBois’ seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk.
How did your interest and talent in the arts first manifest? How did your family respond?
Mine started when I was a little kid. My childhood passions were movies, fashion, music and books, in that order. I was mostly drawn to visual arts and media. I was always the type of kid that preferred to stay indoors and draw or write stories or watch movies with my dad, who has seen every movie there is, I swear. We were a media-consuming family, which is where my love and interest in media began.
I was really interested in media because media is active. Media works by shaping what we see and how we see it. That’s always been a big interest to me.
My family was pretty supportive of it all the way through grad school. In undergrad, I was an art major and then I went on to get my Master of Fine Arts in grad school. As a Filipino, I just didn’t have tiger parents. It’s not part of our culture to be like that. Sure, they care a whole lot about getting good grades and getting into college and getting a good job. But it’s not like Ivy League worship and like, shame will fall on your family if you don’t become a doctor or an engineer or you don’t get into Harvard.
A lot of people were really surprised when I started blogging and podcasting, especially those that only knew me from when I was a kid or in high school or college. I wasn’t outspoken then. I was quiet and deferential. I was a good student. I used to hate it when people were mad at me and I would do anything to avoid confrontation or conflict. Not anymore.
I’m a much different person now. You know, if the perks of being a model minority are that you have some security against racial profiling, the downsides are a visceral aversion to rocking the boat. I went through my entire childhood and early adulthood terrified of messing up that identity. Later on I learned how important it is to take risks and how nothing can replace that feeling of taking a risk and it working out in your favor. Nothing exciting happens if you just aim to assimilate into mainstream culture.
When did you decide that your artistic talent was something that you wanted to and needed to pursue?
It was always something I wanted to pursue but honestly, I didn’t know how and I didn’t really start to produce any content until after I had my third kid, which was back in 2014. I was looking for a creative outlet so I started a blog and I started an Instagram account for it and after about two years, it really blew up to what it is today.
I credit the 2016 election to the success of my blog. What I mean by that is, the amount of political discontent with Trump’s election into the presidency. So many people were angry and that, combined with the reckoning of race that our society was going thru, really catapulted voices like mine to the forefront.
Suddenly, my little political fashion blog had an audience. Before, people just thought it was like the rantings of a sociopath. You know. I never wrote about fashion and I never wrote anything that didn’t have a strong slant. People thought I was angry for no reason. After that election and once Trump was inaugurated and it was clear that we were in for a really turbulent ride, things really took off. So a lot of my audience building had to do with timing.
I don’t talk about politics in the Republican vs. Democrat sense. I never endorse any candidates and I very rarely talk about policy, at least not literally. I talk a lot about identity and how institutions affect people. Coming from a fashion blogger, this was something pretty revolutionary back in 2016.
What do you aim to communicate through your art?
The main goal in all of my art is the message of activism. If you follow me on any social media platforms, or you read my articles or you listen to my podcast, I make no bones about which way I lean.
My Instagram is really just a way to underwrite everything. I publish a new article every week on my own blog and I’m a guest contributor on other Asian American centered publications and on my podcast where I discuss pop culture, politics, and current events with other Asian American guests of all walks of life. And sometimes those discussions get really heated.
One of the first movements I joined was #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which was started by Ellen Oh in Bethesda, MD. It exploded into a national movement and it began because of the lack of diversity in children’s literature. Since then, it’s expanded to middle grade and young adult literature. And the Ellen Oh has even authored 4 middle grade books of her own. Middle grade is for ages 8-12, if you’re wondering.
Because of the attention I’ve gotten for book reviews, which I post on my Twitter, I was a guest on Buzzfeed News live morning TV show talking about the importance of Asian authors and I made a point to rep Southeast Asian writers.
I also host a lot of panels at literary festivals. I pick out the topics that have to do with Asian Americans in literature and then I find the panelists -- all Asian as well -- and I moderate the discussions. It’s been really great in getting the literary industry from children’s publishing to contemporary publishing to hear voices and issues that they normally would have no idea even existed. Lately, I’ve been challenging what is considered canon in literature and what’s required reading for elementary, middle school and high school age children. The curriculum is way too white and Eurocentric and it completely ignores the Asian experience. So me, several other literary activists and a group of well known Asian authors have been joining together to bring awareness to this.
This year, I’m launching my book club which is called Decolonize Your Bookshelves. And I’m going to focus on books written by and about Southeast Asians, since they are so underrepresented even within Asian American literature.
I think that my blogging, podcasting and social media presence are direct answers to not being seen or heard. I started doing it because I wanted other people to resist that pull of assimilation. I’m a strong proponent of the preservation of culture. So many people think it’s easier to be silent and to tiptoe around stuff, as opposed to having conversations and confronting and disrupting. I want to show people that it’s actually pretty easy to speak out. It’s easy to begin a conversation.
How does your work comment on current social or political issues?
That’s all I do. My entire body of work is a commentary on current social and political issues. Even if I’m writing about or discussing something non-political or it has nothing to do with Asian Americans, like if I’m talking about some new movie on Netflix, it’s from an Asian American lens, specifically, it’s from a Filipino American lens and I’m still ostensibly taking a political stance on it.
I talk about all kinds of things. I talk about issues in the Asian community, gender and dating issues in the Asian community -- that’s always a hot button topic, media representation, the lack of diversity in journalism, I talk about Filipino specific issues, like the loss of so many of our indigenous languages, decolonization.
Sometimes I write really unpopular opinions about things and the negative reaction is enormous. But someone is listening to you and someone feels the same way and sees it the same way you do. But you know what? One of the stereotypes about Asians is that we’re politically apathetic, that we don’t even care about our own issues, that we’re desperate to conform. So it’s important to have an opinion on something and be passionate about something and go ahead and be loud about it. You’re never going to please everyone anyway.
I’ve seen people criticize me and they’ll write about me being too left-leaning. But I don’t think taking the middle of two extremes is healthy. It just pushes everything to the right. I’ve also been criticized for not being politically correct enough because of some of the things I’ve said. My point is that you’re going to be criticized no matter what so you might as well just take a stance on something and stick with it. Unless you’re a reporter, you don’t need to be balanced in your writing or your podcast.
Who are your biggest influences?
It’s actually really surprising. There weren’t a lot of Asian Americans doing the kind of work I was interested in when I was a teenager and in my twenties so I always looked at black pop culture figures - Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle. I also really loved The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I will admit that there was a time in my life where I got all my news from his show. You know, before social media was the ubiquitous monster that it is today.
That’s not a diss on Asian Americans. Actually, you know what? It is. The reason I didn’t have any Asian American influences growing up was because all of them really let me down. I was really disappointed in how apolitical they were. And how they all wanted to be so “raceless.” You know, in the late 90s, Lucy Liu was one of the biggest Asian American movie stars. And what did she do? She constantly disregarded any allusion to her race or ethnicity. She was one of those people who would be like, “I don’t want people to think of me as a Chinese American actress. I want people to think of me as an actress.” It made me so angry. I was like, “what is so wrong with acknowledging your ethnicity? Is it wrong to be Chinese? Is it bad? It’s like she absolutely refused to acknowledge that she obviously had something else going for her that 99% of Hollywood actresses didn’t have.” I wanted her to own her Asianness. Be proud of it. Make people see it and celebrate it. And that’s what we have now with the new crop of Asian media personalities. But growing up, that kind of pride in who you were, if you weren’t the default white person, it was unheard of.
Anyway, back to the original question. Yeah, I was really influenced and I really listened to a lot of black comedians. They were so ahead of their time. Comedy has always been about cultural criticism. But it’s evolved in our lifetime from slapstick humor and gags to the kind of political humor that we’re used to seeing on late-night talk shows like The Daily Show and Jimmy Kimmel. In fact, if you DON’T take a political stance, like Jimmy Fallon, who tends to stay in the middle, then you get fiercely criticized for it. It's because comedy is now seen as a vehicle for social justice. So if you don't participate, you are seen as complicit with the status quo and there are too many people out there who are dissatisfied with the status quo. And a lot of people who are hurt by the status quo.
I have Asian American influences today. I really love Wesley Yang, who actually has a book out right now called The Souls of Yellow Folk. I also really love what Hasan Minhaj is doing with Patriot Act. And Kristina Wong, who is a comedian and the producer of a new kids show called Radical Cram School, which has been described as Sesame Street for the Resistance. And of course, I can’t forget all the Asian American chefs out there. When you talk to them, they really get it. They understand the problems with assimilation and cultural appropriation and issues with colonialism. Through the lens of food. They know their history and they are spreading our culture through our work and on their own terms.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue their art, but is concerned about financial stability, what people might think, or has other hesitations?
People are hungry for Asian American voices. The more unique you are, the better. And honestly, the less white you are, there is a market out there that is being catered just for you. Yes, people are looking to capitalize on people who center their ethnicity or race in their work. But you know what? Take advantage of it. If you don’t take advantage of it, you might not get the chance again.
I think we need more Asians who are loud, rebellious, sometimes profane, so we can watch people’s assumptions about us blown up completely to bits. And at that moment of cognitive dissonance, when their stereotypes are proven wrong, then more people will see that we don’t live in a post-racial society, not by a long shot.
Is there anything you would like to share that you did not have the chance to?
I want to say that when it comes to Asian creatives, there is always so much focus on media representation at the Hollywood level and Asians in politics and if you wait for it to happen there, it’s already too late for you. Think about it. White children are surrounded by all kinds of cultural cues that tell them they are valued and acknowledged starting from infancy. The toys they play with. The children’s books they read. The children’s programming they watch. Even when they get to preschool. How many Asian preschool teachers and elementary school teachers do you see? No, when Asian Americans go into teaching, they almost always aim for academia. They aim for PhDs and they want to be college professors. I’m saying they need to think broader and they need to think about pre-socialized representation.
The centering of whiteness starting in infancy will have already caused a lot of issues from social conditioning that leads to internalized oppression and it’s already going to start to show in early adulthood. I would really urge a lot of young people to think about the next generation of Asian kids, like little kids, and think about how you can make a difference in their lives.
It's a lot easier to normalize something than it is to deprogram internalized oppression, colorism, classism, misogyny, and racism. As Asian Americans, we are so vulnerable to these because we are so overlooked. So let’s make sure we don’t overlook entire groups of people in our own communities.
It’s important to pay attention to who is creating the media you’re looking at. This means looking for media that is being created by people who are traditionally erased or underrepresented. What can you do to help support, share and amplify those voices? Your power as a viewer is just as strong as our power as creators. You are helping voices get heard. You’re helping underrepresented groups get seen. Every little bit counts.