November 25th, 2013
Click on the link above of my interview on “Alicia Menendez Tonight”– a cable News show on Fusion. I love that my career in 2000, is now bringing me TV appearances in 2013.
Click on the link above of my interview on “Alicia Menendez Tonight”– a cable News show on Fusion. I love that my career in 2000, is now bringing me TV appearances in 2013.
I’ve been home in America for three weeks, unscathed after my month in Uganda. Despite popular concern (from people who had never been to Africa before), I did not get killed, raped or kidnapped during my trip. But thanks everyone for your concern that the tragic mall bombing in Kenya that happened the week prior to my arrival had somehow affected me in across the border in a totally different country.
It was a month so overwhelming that I could barely compose my thoughts. Thanks to Facebook, I never felt alone or without my critics. There are more details I can offer of my whole trip, but I need to put my energy towards my big presentation at the Annenberg Community Beach House on Tuesday. It will be the first presentation I make to shape my newest solo show “The Wong Street Journal”.
Here are ELEVEN of the many Things That Happened When I Went to Uganda Last Month.
1. I recorded a rap album and you can buy it.
I went to Uganda thinking I *might* meet local artists for future collaboration. I had no idea that I would write and record a multilingual rap album in three weeks with local rappers in Northern Uganda. I met them by accident when looking for street food one night. They still play my songs on the local radio and in the clubs! Yep, I can die now.
Nerio the producer is a great new friend and I promised him I would try to get him the refurbished equipment necessary to start his own music studio and forward him all proceeds from this album. When you buy the album on bandcamp, you will automatically be able to download liner notes designed by Brooklyn’s Chris Yun that tell the story of how I came to become the “Vanilla Ice of Uganda”.
2. I broke my sobriety.
At my hotel in Gulu the second night, I was eating with two Ugandan men from my hotel. They were telling me how in Uganda, I am considered to be a “Mzungu”– a swahili word used to describe a “white person”. There is no Swahili word apparently for “third generation Chinese American”. The men offered to buy me a beer. I refused explaining that I had been sober for almost two years. Jackson (one of the men) said, “In life, there is a start and end to everything.” Then Jackson flies into a story about this white woman he met who was very ungrateful and disrepectful to him. My white guilt was too much for me to handle, and I threw back a brewsky.
3. I gained weight.
Despite all the images we saw in the 80s of starving babies covered in flies with distended bellies, there was no shortage of food around me in Uganda. I wasn’t sure what to expect because the Travel list that WGEF gave me told me to pack peanut butter and Clif Bars. Would there be a protein shortage? Would I go to sleep hungry?! No, not really. There are many places to eat and food is cooked up all over the street. A meal at a local’s restaurant is as low as $1. This is not to say that the poorest of Uganda are not food insecure– because that’s definitely an issue, especially in the urban slums in Kampala. But my theory that I’d somehow lose weight over there was not at all the case because Ugandan food can actually make you big.
4. I had multiple requests for marriage and matchmaking.
I may no longer be a spring chicken in Hollywood, but in Gulu, Uganda I was the hottest thing on the unpaved block. It was like money was glowing off my skin. I’d get asked if I was single or had single friends very quickly after meeting someone. I guess OkCupid just happens in the streets of Uganda. If any of my American lady friends want a Ugandan husband, I got you.
5. I had two chicken dresses made and a matching purse to exert my first world privilege.
If you know me, you know how much I multitask. So having a whole month to research and work on one focused project felt pretty uncharacteristic of how I operate. Hence, why I found myself running a side project of a rap album and spending spare moments getting chicken dresses made for $6! Fabric was about $6 and the matching purse was $3. It felt admittedly good to be a woman of privilege for the custom made chicken dress alone.
6. I smuggled drugs in my butt across the globe.
As an American in a third world country, it is my duty to smuggle cheap pharmaceuticals for my uninsured friends in America. When my good friend was panicking about how pay for her heart medicine, I offered to check local pharmacies and found her medicine for $6/month in Gulu– less than what it would cost me with an insurance co-pay. I bought her a year’s worth.
Being a lousy drug smuggler, I left evidence of how I bought out a pharmacy all over Facebook. A friend who saw the post forwarded me this alarming USA Today article about how drugs in third world countries are counterfeit and filled with poison. That gave us a good scare. I talked to some friends in Uganda who said, “That’s silly, we’d all be dead if these were fake drugs.” I made it through customs, my friend has been taking the pills, and now she can stay healthy without going bankrupt.
7. I got an idea of what it’s like to be that white guy in Miss Saigon.
This is going to be hard for a lot of Americans and even activists of color to believe… but when you get to Uganda, you are white. WHITE. Yes, even if you are Latino. Yes, even if you are Asian. Yes, even if you are Middle Eastern. Yes, even if you are “brown” in America, you are white in Uganda. I didn’t get to talk to enough African Americans in Uganda to understand how they were contextualized in Uganda, but my guess from talking to Calvin, who is half Kenyan half Ugandan and says he is treated as an outsider, is that African Americans would definitely not be able to “pass” as locals. I can’t describe it to a T, but being a foreigner in Uganda means you are easy to spot as “an outsider.” And being an outsider who has come to Uganda (of all the places you could travel to) implies you have money and power.
Because of the history of Westerners coming to Uganda to build businesses or give aid, that sense of privilege was given to me, a playwright and volunteer. No joke, by American standards, I am pretty poor right now. But in Uganda, I felt like the most spoiled richest woman as I had dresses made for $6 and ate $5 dinners without blinking an eye.
And with my new found whiteness came a really uncomfortable power. In some situations I would have several children at once run up to hold my hands like I was magical. I had love letters written to me by village children who I had barely interfaced with but who had followed me and figured out where I worked. Even a small number of my own Ugandan friends would ask me out of nowhere to give them my IPad or money or buy them things. I would often feel guilty around the staff of the organization I worked with because the cost of my hotel at $35/night over 3 weeks could easily cover the operational expenses for our organization for a month. I know, because I was reminded frequently of this. And very quickly, I became accustomed to being referred to as a “white person.”
8. I met some truly amazing women.
I went to Uganda to work with Women’s Global Empowerment Fund and learn about the local economy and microfinance. When I got to Gulu, I learned that WGEF is actually a partner organization to VAC-NET, an organization founded in Gulu by Bukenya Muusa, a Ugandan. WGEF and VAC-NET put on a Women4Peace Award dinner and a Women’s Drama Festival– two events that I would assist with. My first day in the office, Bukenya told me that my task was to read all the nomination forms and pick the winner since I was an “outsider” with no bias. It was very humbling to read about one woman Naima Evelyn who had been abducted by the LRA and returned from the bush ten years and four children later to help other women. I read about other women who had created story circles to support women in the aftermath of war, some working with HIV+ mothers in prison. How do you choose a winner?
9. I went rafting off a waterfall on the Nile.
I couldn’t afford to do gorilla trekking (on the travel list of “things to do before you die”) at $1600, but I did do a few less expensive tourist excursions to the natural beauty of Uganda. Trying to do touring things out of Northern Uganda was a bit of a logistical nightmare as it’s not really set up the way Kampala is for tourists. I was happy to be a big dumb tourist and pay $125 for Grade 5 Rafting on the Nile because it meant no negotiating of transport or housing and my food was provided! My back was pretty sore after, but happy to get these experiences in while my body can still do it.
10. I helped the organization I volunteered with by raising money for a generator.
I didn’t realize how frustrating it would be to work with the available technology in Gulu. Many of the computers in the VAC-NET office were infected with viruses, none of them were networked together, and none of the desktop computers could get online. They were also PCs which are so counter intuitive to how my mac head works. To make things worse, the frequent power outages meant that our work would disappear if we didn’t save and we would be sitting on our hands for days waiting for power to go back up. I asked some friends at home to contribute towards a power generator in our office and they responded in force! There was well over $500 raised for the generator and the extra will go towards the fuel and maintenance. Now the office is able to increase their output in all situations.
11. I have a whole different perspective on charity and aid.
You know how people say to not give money to homeless people because it will just encourage them to keep begging? The relationship of Western NGOs (Non-Governmental Orgs/ Charities) to this part of the world has created a similar precedent that has made people become so accustomed to handouts, that when the NGOs leave, people haven’t been motivated to work, and end up needing aid again. Those kids running up to me like I had some magic to give them? That was all residual effects of Western charity. But what I wish people could see is how much pride and willingness there is to work. I think Americans think that donating old clothes or giving food is the end all of poverty, but really, those are very short term solutions. I think it is about giving people the tools to work to their best potential. Education, teaching small farming skills, and giving microloans to start small business is where it’s at.
In my first two minutes of being on television last Monday, I managed to do the following:
1. Scream like a Price is Right Contestant who just won the Showcase Showdown.
2. Belly Bump the host.
3. Scream, “I’m on TV!”
4. Say, “White people say a lot of stupid shit.”
And of course… my six minutes in heaven only gets more insane. TV is a lot of fun and unlike theater, everyone really is trying to make you look good, and can do all sorts of stuff in pre-interviews and editing to make sure of it.
The same day this aired, xoJane ran my essay on “8 Reasons People Of Color MUST Rally For A Long Overdue White History Month”. (Shocker. White People think I’m ruining their lives.)
I have so many more pictures and thoughts. But I’m trying to stave off a nervous breakdown right now. I am back in LA frantically trying to pound out two grant applications and pack for a five week tour of Africa. I am not prepared at all. Right now I have a pile of hand sanitizer on my dining table and that’s it.
I just booked an Airbnb place in Istabul for my long layover trip. I really hope I pull this off. My shoulder hurts from stress. At least I’m a TV star.
I’m leaving the country in ten days for Africa. I have nothing packed and I keep eating the Clif Bars I am supposed to bring over there. I am doing 2.5 days in Turkey before I get to Uganda. I have two grants, an essay, a shitload of work to do before I go! I hope I can pull this off. It will be a five week trip!
I am flying to NYC on Friday because I am going to be on “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” on FXX next week Monday! That’s right! All that railing about the Asian Fetish dudes got me a TV gig!
If you are in NYC, you can get tickets to see it live!
Two sketches I wrote and had planned to shoot and launch in July are finally up this week in September! One is going viral!
Sketch #1: INSIDE THE BACKGROUND ACTOR’s STUDIO
Sketch #2: HIPSTER IS THE WHITE MAN’s N-WORD
I am very proud of my work. Video is not an easy process, and most of the magic is in pre-production and post-production. The shoot is the easiest part if you’ve planned right. If you don’t like what I made, suck it and try to do it better.
Time to go to bed.
I booked my flight to Uganda and will be there in ALL OF OCTOBER researching a new show on the economy!
Who I’m going to be working with
I’m working with a fantastic NGO out there called the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund. They put on a theater festival for local women in Gulu (a town of about 154K people in Northern Uganda). WGEF only give microloans to women and teach them business skills, so that they can become more financially independent and self-determine their lives. They also produce a theater festival in early October that I am helping them put on. The women write the plays and perform the roles of men. The festival becomes a great source of education and empowerment for the audience and the women performing.
Uganda was in a horrible civil war and now is in recovery mode and rebuilding their economy. They undoubtedly experienced a great deal of trauma, but there is also the desire to move forward. Apparently, there are a lot of Aid workers and volunteers in Gulu.
I really appreciated that Karen, the Executive Director of WGEF has been talking to me one-on-one by Skype in preparation for this trip. She told me within the first ten minutes of meeting by phone that I was required to read “The Challenge For Africa” by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai. She insisted I read books about the African economy not written by white theorists, but instead from someone living in Africa. I am also reading a book called “Poor Economics” by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo.
On the flip side, I’ve also been doing non-required watching of reality tv to see images of the where I’ll be going. I’ve gone through episodes of “No Reservations” and “Bizarre Foods” (worst, most racist name for a travel TV show ever, btw) to get an idea of what I’m in store for. It’s very difficult for any US city to boast the culinary variety of Los Angeles, so I’m already gorging myself locally on food that I won’t have access to for my month in Africa (Asian food and anything with cheese). I’m excited to try Matooke (the plaintain staple food) and taste the organically grown produce (many of which are sold by the clients of WGEF).
I’m Going to Say Something Unpopular: Missionaries Freak Me Out
I have been watching whatever videos I could find about Gulu on Youtube. And I found one really disturbing video from a white Christian missionary who did work there. I’m not knocking my Christian friends and what good has come in their faith, but I must ask… what “service” is it that Christian Missionaries in Africa provide? Because all I witnessed them do from this video is them talking about the local people in problematic god-complex colonizing ways. For example: “I see myself as a mother figure, and I want to love on these kids so much. Their lives are so hard and I am here to give them the love they aren’t getting.”
Ugh, it just further proliferates the image of African people as dependent, starving and helpless and in need of religious solutions like Jesus instead of education, vaccines and clean water.
I much prefer the work I’ll be doing in economic development that does not see the local people as “pitiable” or “suffering.” I do not believe I am there to “save” anybody. I prefer to offer my time to aid the empowerment, self-reliance, and self-determination of people who are consistently given charity over the tools to succeed. I want to work for an organization that encourages equity between men and women. And I believe that all marginalized people will be liberated when given the tools to lead themselves towards their own liberation.
How I Decided to go to Uganda
A few months ago, I had no idea where in Africa I was going to go. I only knew “I’m going to Africa to research a show!” And believe me, I knew how dumb this sounded. Like when people from other countries find out that I live in Los Angeles, and ask if I know their friend “so-and-so who lives in Texas.”
Africa is made up of 54 vastly different countries. It’s 3 times the land mass of the United States. And unlike what most of America believes from the news– not African politicians are corrupt. There is a middle class. There are not animals roaming freely. Not everyone is starving. You don’t get kidnapped or contract HIV just walking around.
I was introduced to WGEF through a play called “Cooking Oil” that was produced with actors from Uganda and Rwanda, and presented in Los Angeles a few months ago. I was asked to be on the panel after as a community based artist. Just meeting Ugandan people working as full time actors in their country, seeing how their economic issues explored through that play, was myth-busting alone.
Working independently of a university, it was tricky to figure out “the best way into Africa.” I kept staring at a map and reading up trying to figure out how to go in. I started to treat different people to dinner from the Cooking Oil production and explain what I wanted to do. “I want to better understand the global poverty and the global economy by doing research in Africa.” A few introductions later, I met WGEF and was booking a flight to Uganda.
So far, this has been a great and educational challenge
Nothing will get you reading about the politics, conditions, and economy of the other side of the world like the prospect of having to live there.
When I told my mother about this trip, I thought I needed to clean out my ears because she said something I never thought I’d hear from her: “I am so proud of you.”
What?! Is this the same woman who told me during the middle of my Southeast Asia trip to cut my trip short and come home?
I am really nervous about this trip. The instability of the region (as compared to the US) does worry me. At this stage in my life, I have no choice but to take risks. Creatively and as a human being. I don’t really have much holding me back (just money… but isn’t it always money?). No kids. No spouse. No desk job. A few years ago when I was climbing the ruins of Angkor Wat and barely catching my breath getting my legs up the steep steps, I realized, I was not going to wait to see the world when I hit retirement age, but I was going to ENGAGE the world now, while I still have my health.
After being a self-help reading junkie for many years, I realized, I needed to just stop wishing my life would be more creative, ambitious and adventurous, and just start stepping in that direction. If you’ve read my blog the last few years, you may know how much I would complain that arts administration sucks all the joy of making the art. I complained about how hard it was to tour the same show again and again.
So I let go of all the things that emotionally tied me down. Even the theater shows I once loved so much. It’s incredibly freeing and has given me a lot of perspective on how lucky I have been to have this life.
$$ So far this has been a very expensive challenge $$
No, I’m not a trust fund kid and while I’m a self-supporting artist who is decently good at money, I was not prepared for how expensive it would be to go to a very poor country. Because things like cars or western style hotel accommodations are so difficult to find, they are also very expensive.
Here’s a peak at the expenses so far…
*$2000 Accommodations, Volunteer fee (most NGOs in Africa will charge them), and ground transport to Gulu for 3 weeks
*Flight would have been $1300 but a friend helped me figure out how to do a combo of buying Airline miles, and then using my credit card miles to cover most of that expense. So flight was more like $400.
*5 weeks of no income in the US.
I have yet to account for things like the costs of living for 2 more weeks in Africa, layover stays, lunch and dinner, stuff I have to pack to survive, and tourist things.
I was fortunate to receive a small playwright commission and some very generous donations last year towards this journey. I’ve also been saving for this trip. But I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do with my time and money than something so far from what I’ve known.
Bonus! I’m going to Istanbul!
It’s a 25+ hour journey in each direction. Three flights to get over there. And on the way over I will stop 2.5 days in Istanbul! It’s so exciting because I never thought I’d get to see Turkey out of this! I had the option of stopping in Ethiopia, Cairo, London, or New York City on the way back. I really wanted to stop in Cairo, and thought I could skirt around the multiple travel advisories that said to not go there… and after conferring with people who do live there… guess the pyramids will have to wait. I’ve heard mixed things about traveling alone in Ethiopia, so I think I will get this initial Uganda trip down and grow braver to see other parts of Africa in the future. I decided, I probably would be too exhausted (and mostly, too broke) to make any more stopover trips after this big one.
And then… this could happen