Neuroses of an Asian American writer

I subscribe to The New York Times, but I must confess I often quickly scroll through the daily morning email that arrives in my inbox then delete it. But on this particular day, as I was clearing out my inbox, something caught my eye: near the bottom, a short blurb about The New York Times Magazine cover article featuring Steven Yeun. I guess you could say I’m a fan of Steven Yeun, although I’ve never seen “The Walking Dead.” But I tend to read his interviews because I find him to be particularly articulate and introspective about being a Korean American actor. (While he was born in South Korea and I was born in the Philippines, the experience of growing up in both countries and in primarily white areas in the US is something we have in common.) His answers don’t sound rehearsed; you can sense that he’s trying to figure it out just as we are. What makes “The Many Lives of Steven Yeun” different from other articles I’ve read is how it began, with the writer, Jay Caspian Kang, discussing the neuroses of being a writer or artist in the US who is not white.

“I only want to chart the neuroses that result from realizing that your work will almost certainly be read as an outgrowth of your identity, along with the rage, doubt and ambition this brings on. The problem is that the anxieties never go away. Every capitulation to the “white gaze” comes with shame; every stand you take for authenticity triggers its own questions about what constitutes authenticity. And once you feel comfortable with the integrity of your work, someone says something that flips everything around, and you’re right back staring at your own lying face,” Kang says.

What a punch to the gut. It threw me back to several moments in the past 18 months since I started to work on Yappie: The Musical when I questioned whether I could adequately and authentically capture a voice and experience that was not entirely my own, whether I had a right to, and ultimately, moments of disagreement among the creative team about who exactly I was writing for, which resulted in me writing a rap battle a la “Cabinet Battle #1” from the musical, Hamilton.

As a spoken word poet, my work has always been and continues to be grounded in my own experiences. On occasion I have written poems that tackled issues I cared about like human trafficking, women’s rights, immigration, and more. But I usually did not write in another voice, let alone create characters based on real people or experiences. So, I never really had to ask myself if what I was writing came from an authentic place. Because it most likely always did. Until I started to write the book and lyrics for an original musical.

Kang continues, further ripping apart my chest:

“There’s something I’ve realized over the past decade of writing about race and Asian immigrants. Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement. That presents a problem for writers, artists and filmmakers: Do you take what is in some ways the easiest path and simply cast Asian actors in traditional roles without talking about that choice — a form of colorblindness that merely puts Asian faces on white archetypes? Or do you try your best to document the neuroses because you feel them within yourself — and while you understand that there are certainly worse forms of oppression in this country, there’s some personal or, perhaps, therapeutic value in expressing yourself in front of an audience? But who is the audience? And is there any real value to the narcissistic self-expression of an upwardly mobile immigrant who has nothing else to worry about?”

“Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement.” I listened to Kang say this sentence and I read it over and over. Kang struck at a truth that wanted to escape from my mouth in a conversation with a friend the other day. I was expressing my frustration with the way we talk about race in America, our inability to hold multiple truths at the same time, and the kind of oppression Olympics we seem doomed to repeat. I wasn’t making much sense, but maybe that was the point—to just spill the thoughts out on to the pavement and sort it later.

Then Steven Yeun in this interview said it all: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

Cue the screaming into the void. Decades of it. Of trying to insert yourself into conversations, into positions of power. Of jumping as high as you can, waving your arms in the air, waiting to be noticed so you’ll know you exist, too.

Maybe it’s the isolation talking. And I don’t mean just in the past year. I’ve been isolated from other Asian American writers and artists for a long time now. We’ve also changed as people and I wonder if any of them is questioning who they are in the same way I seem to be. Through my writing, Asian American Studies courses, and relationships with friends, many of whom are Asian American, I figured out my place in the world, how I am perceived, who I am outside of that perception. I had reconciled what it meant to be a daughter of an immigrant and being one, too. I remember thinking once, after writing several poems about mother-daughter relationships that I had no need to write any more of them because there was nothing more to say. I thought the same thing about my racial identity. I spent so many years claiming I belonged here, that this is my home that I never imagined I’d ever feel any different.

It was naïve to think I wouldn’t come back to these questions again, that my answers would not waver. Right now, I don’t know where home is. I don’t know if any of my writing will matter apart from being an act of self-preservation and survival. I feel like I know myself and yet not well enough. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently. Maybe the same. Maybe we’re bound to question everything and know nothing. What I know right now is that I don’t want to feel like I have to start from zero. I’ve spent too many years building up my confidence to have to do it all again because I can’t make sense of these changing, conflicting thoughts and emotions about writing, purpose, identity, and belonging. Making the decision to quit my job 2.5 years ago without a job lined up so I could start graduate school and pivot my career and life direction was already starting from zero. It was yet another reinvention. Maybe that’s it: I’m tired of reinvention.

10 years later: Tracing remnants of an artist life

The first Sulu DC show. Basement of St. Stephen’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, Washington DC.
November 21, 2009.

Two weeks ago I was part of the 10 Year Tribute + Retrospective of the AAPI Community of the DMV presented by DC APA Film via YouTube live. Christian Oh, President of the Board of DC APA Film and co-founder and former Executive Director of Kollaboration DC, reached out to me in August about recording a video for the event. (At the time, Kollaboration DC was the DC branch of the Asian American talent competition.)

We’ve known each other for 10 years now, first meeting in person at a restaurant near George Washington University’s campus. I was co-director of Sulu DC at the time and he had just started Kollaboration DC. Both organizations had similar missions and visions—to nurture artistic growth and to increase the visibility of Asian American artists. One was a talent show competition, the other a monthly showcase of artists in a variety of artistic disciplines. Cousins, you could say. Our audiences went to their shows—I even performed in the first one as a guest performer along with spoken word poets, Gowri K and Alex Cena, who is also a Sulu DC co-founder. Quite a few performers from the competition eventually featured at Sulu DC shows.

That period of time from 2009-2013 was truly extraordinary. You could sense the urgency and the hunger for spaces in which we could bring our whole selves, build community, and just have a grand old time. For many DC transplants, especially those from the West Coast, Sulu DC was a little bit of home. For those from the rest of the US, Sulu DC was a home they didn’t realize they had been searching for.

I’ve been reflecting on these years a lot in the past year. First, when I was writing my application essay for graduate school (MA Arts Administration), and then in leadership class my first semester. There are times I am weary of always thinking about it because it’s been so long since I was immersed in it and let’s be honest now, memory can’t be trusted completely. Even in this post I get the sense that I’m romanticizing that time.

One particular night stands out in my memory. It’s not from a show, but a year or so after I left the organization. I was drinking wine outside a bar with a friend in Fells Point. I shared what I had been thinking for a while but didn’t want to admit: I don’t want the best of what I have to offer to be behind me. The fear that I wouldn’t somehow do bigger and better things after Sulu DC consumed me for a while. It’s part of why I didn’t write and perform for years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I tuned into the live stream. Within a few minutes I found myself squealing in my room at remembering certain performances from the first Kollaboration DC competition. We were all so young. We believed we could make a career as artists. The world felt so open and endless then.

Prior to writing this post I took a look at my twitter account, which I last updated in 2015. Aside from photos and Facebook statuses, it’s the only evidence of my life back then. I stopped writing in a journal during that time and I lost all the blog posts when I discontinued my website (I know, I’m still very sad about it). What a busy little bee I was! In DC 2-3 times a week, a Sulu DC show here, a college show in Georgetown, rehearsals and meetings, hosting open mics. (Oh, and I was terrible at twitter. It was a bunch of tweets about “en route to the city” like anyone was that interested in where I’d be next. Who did I think I was? A rock star?) I was living that artist and artist manager life. I wasn’t tired yet, just eager to share my poetry and do whatever needed to be done to produce our shows. I certainly had the heart, the drive, leadership instincts, and some skills. Even more important, I was surrounded by such a supportive network, who were still there even after I left.

Now 10 years later, I am a lot more intentional, more self-assured, more forgiving especially of myself, and still angry. In the video above you’ll hear my response to what I hope to see in the next 10 years for AAPI communities. Here’s what I didn’t say but I’m saying it now. That we never have to hear the question, “Where are you from?” ever again.

“Where Are You From” written and performed by Alex Cena, Gowri K, and Jenny C. Lares. 2010.