This past week, I joined 9 other women of East Asian/Southeast Asian descent in a residency hosted by the East Asian Ticket Club and Hawkwood College (👈 check em’ out).
Although my body stayed in the same studio, I felt myself traveling to different places: back to my childhood in Jakarta, to my grandmother’s days in a cigarette factory in Medan, as we screened Unforgettable Girl I was thrown back to last Autumn and the feeling of creating theatre with the desperation of a viral apocalypse, back to the drill hall where I spent the last days of school.
Throughout the week, Xuanh had written down different things we had said. On the last day, we listened to a recording of her voice saying each of these things back to us, as if they were her own words, in a way that affirmed it and gifted it back to us.
I found this notion of borrowing words incredibly powerful. In fact, I want to invite some people I work with to do this with me—to dive into books that speak saliently and incisively about our civilization’s watershed reckoning with capitalism and imperialism—to pick out passages that resonate with us and to say it as if they were our own.
Because until further notice, I’m done talking about “race”—especially to people who don’t know what it means to look different, to be called names or spat at as you walk down the street in the year 2021, to be treated differently for the way you talk or your accent, people whose ancestors have never been subjugated, exploited, called less-than, enslaved for centuries. It’s exhausting and in my experience, it gets absolutely nowhere. I would like to borrow the words of people with more courage than me, and I would like to listen and for people to listen to me.
It’s like seeing ghosts.
People make jokes about my name. Ho is a funny name. But I rarely say that part of the reason I don’t go by it is because I will protect myself from being laughed at for my name. Most people who do laugh, have never had their family be forced to change their name because Chinese names are illegal (the reason why we initially changed our name from Ho = Gunawan). Most people who do laugh, have not experienced violence or killings for being their “ethnicity.”
So a harmless joke goes by, and you see the ghost of violence in the back. But you learn to ignore the ghosts. Sometimes, if it’s actually funny (a dear friend once made me a yoga class playlist called “HO-ga movement”) and it’s a person you love, you don’t even mind. Nobody ever asks, but why should they know? And at this point, I’m tired of telling people who don’t believe in ghosts.
Another joke flies around about how the Arts Council doesn’t give money to white people anymore. I’m not naive, and I know there are people who must believe that people like me only get grants because we’re not white. Another ghost.
But you know, I want to be a normal person who has “that annoying friend” and let that kind of shit go for the sake of my blood pressure.
You know that game when you suck on a candy in your mouth in class? Keeping it secret so the teacher doesn’t realize? This is the game I play whenever someone speaks a lie too loud and too fast. I suck on the sweet candy of my own blasphemous silence.
I will not feel your shame for you.
Like a comedy, our residency ended with the other group inviting us to join a small gathering on the grass to thank the staff at Hawkwood for welcoming us. A man with long curly blonde hair led us on a Sunday School prayer that ended with namaste and om. When asked how our experience was, we stumbled at an answer, and he answered with an empathic “Yes, that was exactly our experience here.” Right.
I was embarassed for him—his blindness, his vapid remarks, his mistaking our silence for approval of this attempt to bring everyone together. He thought his presence was harmless but it was like a little stain on our afternoon. But I decided that I would not feel his shame for him.
If you’ve noticed, I’ve gotten this far barely saying the word “white.” Because I’m riding the tension of 1) throwing pebbles at its supremacy, and 2) refusing to give it more power by strengthening its oneness as “white.” Even white supremacy is a construct—albeit a powerful one, the same way what brought me together with these nine incredible women is a construct, clunkily wrapped by the words BIPOC/East and Southeast Asian women (personally I prefer ‘bitchez of blazphemy’). I think instead of “white” – what we mean is people who (regardless of how they look) are still running away from the shame of benefitting from capitalist imperialism, who have blood on their hands.
That’s why the guilt, and the self-conscious liberal monologues about being privileged, doesn’t help. That’s why I realize I don’t feel like my body of work is based on my race, not (just) because I’m self-hating like the rest of us, but because I refuse to define myself on my constant conflict against an illusory whiteness. I think as an artist I transform the things I experience and sense in the world—my history and story of being invisible/visible, my movement/migration, diaspora, my relationship to capitalism/power are all a part of it. The fact that many people will see me and first see that I look different from them, is going to be a part of it.
Can we peel the wallpaper of these banal words the home office gives us and go deeper and underneath into the complexity and fragmented reality of our lives?
I realize people will read this, and feel affirmed or affronted or ashamed or awkward. All I ask is for your truthfulness, in this moment, as you read this in your head. Your truthfulness to yourself.
And if butthurt/your heart rate is triggered, keep calm and listen to:
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