July 11th, 2014
Colorlines published my graduation speech and video yesterday from the UCLA API Commencement. For those of you who want to watch and read it here on my site– wish granted. THIS IS PROOF I GAVE A SPEECH IN A HARRY POTTER SNUGGIE, THEN STARTED CRYING.
UCLA Asian Pacific Islander Graduation
June 15, 2014
Dickson Court North
Good afternoon Ladies, Gentlemen, and Non Gender Conforming people, parents–Happy Fathers Day Dad, family members, faculty, friends, lovers, partners, and people who just like hanging around commencement ceremonies of people you don’t know, and of course, the guests of honor this afternoon…the Graduating Class of 2014.
Graduates! Here you are. Maybe you are the first person in your family to go to college. Maybe you are not. But it still was a lot of work to get here. Today you join as a community to celebrate this crowning moment of your life and all your hard work by baking your butts off in the sun, while your family scrambles for shade, trapped on this campus for three final hours looking like the Asian cast of Harry Potter. Give yourselves a round of applause!
Speaking of Harry Potter. When the Asian Pacific Coalition told me that they didn’t have a graduation gown for me, this being a student initiated celebration, my friend from high school offered to send me something. I didn’t realize it would be a Harry Potter Snuggie. So not only today do I represent the Class of 2000, but a legacy of wizards.
Sorry, I realize it’s not quite appropriate. So I will just take it off.
(Removes Harry Potter Snuggie to reveal full scale Harry Potter robe with wand.)
Ok, cool. Much more appropriate!
It’s an honor to be here. After several back and forth emails with the staff of the Asian Pacific Coalition, I was informed that absolutely under no circumstances would I be receiving an honorary doctorate degree/Medal of Honor– nor was I allowed to beg for one during my speech. And ok, I can deal with that. But guess what? Nobody at APC forbid me from making a public request to Professor Valerie Matsumoto, to change the grade she gave me in her Asian American Women’s History course. Please Professor Matsumoto, if you are out there…. I am giving the graduation speech at APIG. I think that’s qualification enough for you to retroactively change the B+ you gave me in 1999 to an A-. We can walk over to Murphy Hall right after this ceremony and do this…. Please Professor Matsumoto… For the honor of my family. For the honor of my ancestors.
(someone whispers in Kristina’s ear)
Ok. Seems that Professor Matsumoto is not here today and that I need to just go forward with my speech to be considerate of time. That’s ok, we’ll just tweet at Professor Matsumoto. #GPAjusticeForWong. TREND IT folks!
Ok, where was I? Oh yes. Your future! Yes.
Let me say that this invitation to speak comes as a surprise. Even I admit I’m an unconventional speaker choice. Maybe you invited me because I was easy to access from Koreatown where I live… with my cat…
You could have invited people much more famous than me speak—President Obama, Amy Tan, that Asian guy on Youtube who does a web series with his cat… but you didn’t choose those people… you chose me… a performance artist and writer…
I don’t have mainstream commercial recognition. I don’t own a huge corporation or even a car. I am a person who makes a living oversharing her “dirty laundry” in one-woman theater shows. My performance pranks explode stereotypes about gender and race. I write really radical essays about taboo issues like mental health and race. Basically — I embody every Chinese mother’s worst nightmare about what you might become after you graduate.
I am a third generation Chinese American, born to a middle class family, and raised in the greatest city in the world– San Francisco.
My parents grew up during the civil rights era and witnessed racism and class struggle first hand. My grandparents came to America with very little education and worked in laundries and butcher shops. And as such, my parents didn’t understand why I would ever want to further challenge the socio-economic odds to do something like pursue the unstable life of an artist.
That’s why my parents planned my life ahead of time. At birth, my parents gave me a choice of three careers to pursue….
1. Doctor. 2. Doctor. 3. Physician.
Their pre-written narrative continued like this…. I was to become bilingual in Chinese, a concert pianist, a class valedictorian, win the Miss Chinatown pageant. After becoming a doctor, I was to marry a Chinese doctor (neurosurgeon). And eventually we were to conceive Chinese doctor babies the only way that Chinese people procreate– via Immaculate Conception. And our babies, in turn, would marry other Chinese doctors, and birth more obedient bilingual Chinese doctor babies. This cycle would rinse and repeat for time immemorial, or for as long as my parents were alive to brag to their friends about all the doctors in the family.
The only the part of my parents’ fantasy that came true was the part where I get invited to give the commencement speech at UCLA, years after I graduate in 2014 and tell future graduates about my success.
My parents are actually here today. I do love them. If not for their support of my career now, I wouldn’t know what I would do. They made the trip from San Francisco. Or as my mother likes to say. They are spending my inheritance early to be here… Thank you Mom and Dad.
I will be honest about my time at UCLA. It was overwhelming and depressing. If you parents got confused about which lot to park in and how to find this quad and how to spot your kid among this mess of matching gowns and hats? Because today is one of those days when all Asians do look the same… Parents… Imagine what it must be like to navigating college life every day on this campus. With schoolwork… and navigating identity and trying to figure out what you are going to do with the rest of your life.
Theater empowered me to navigate through the confusion of college. The class that changed my life wasn’t an Asian American Studies Class but a Chicano Theater Class with Professor Jose Luis Valenzuela. In his class I learned how theater was a tool used for organizing farm workers. How art could make a revolution both hilarious and poignant. I saw the power of theater to write the narratives of marginalized people into existence. I realized the struggles of all marginalized people were interconnected. We are not free if others are left behind. And if we are empowered to rewrite the narratives we’ve been given about our lives, on our own terms, we can change our potential in the world.
College is when I made the scary realization that I wanted to become an artist. I didn’t want to just be a Hollywood actor living at the mercy of other people’s approval. I didn’t want my value as an artist to be determined by a sexist, racist and capitalist framework. I wanted to make art on my terms that proliferated a value system I could believe in.
I wish I had a Cinderella story about how my life ended up after graduation. I wish I could just tell you all how everything that “fell magically into place.” I wish I could say that at 23 I got courted by a television network that submitted to my every creative whim. That did not happen. I wish I could say how a pre-med major married me and financed my art dreams… And by the way, I am still open to that happening any South campus majors, you can meet my parents after the ceremony… My mom would love a doctor in the family…
What I am saying is that the success I have met in my life happened because I kept showing up. I work my ass off. When I get a rejection, which happens a lot in my field, I moan and groan a little, I move on. When I perform a show, or write an essay that misses the mark, I beat myself up a little but then I pick myself back up, and I try harder.
We have two choices in life… submit to our fears or surprise ourselves by facing them—so there’s no harm in setting goals, and dreaming big…
For me my goals are fairly modest. I want to write a new show to premiere in 2015. I’d love to publish a memoir. And I’d love to have Jeremy Lin’s baby before I run out of eggs in four years. Can anyone here help make that happen?! There’s got to be a Tawainese person who has him as a family friend.
Ok… #MrsJeremyLin-Wong Trend it Folks!
Ok, what was I saying? Oh yes!
Class of 2014, let’s talk about what you are going to do after graduation today… besides summer school…
Let’s address first of all, the emasculation of Asian men and how the media “doesn’t consider Asian men sexy.” Where the hell is the world getting these ideas that Asian men aren’t sexy?! I want to see the young Asian American men of your generation model healthy masculinity that’s not being reflected in mainstream America. I want the future of Asian men to show that what’s sexy is respecting a woman’s boundaries, dismantling patriarchy, fighting for social justice all while coding the heck out of a computer program! That’s what a sexy! Asian American men, are you going to be the new face of sexy?
And my Asian American sisters. Are you out there?
We’ve been depicted as exotic, obedient, docile, quiet, sweet, we’ve been silenced, we don’t get taken seriously when we speak up…You know what the whole world is going to find out about us in the next twenty years? Is that we run the show. We’ve BEEN running the show. We aren’t anybody’s trophy. We are Asian American women. We are smart, funny, sassy and HOT. We inherited some serious skills from our mothers and in the future, I want to see Asian American women running circles around the old guard.
And finally, to my LGBTQ Asians and their queer allies– and by allies, I hope I’m addressing everyone in this quad today. Let me say to my beautiful queer siblings that whatever terminology you choose to embrace your unique identity, whether you are out or not, you’ve faced double marginalization. I imagine a world where your courage to live out and proud inspires your family and friends to fight for equality for everyone, at every level. I see a future, where it is safe to come out. Where nobody has to hide who they are because of the threat of violence, shame, or being ousted from their community. I see a future, where the queer narrative does not go forgotten.
In the future, Class of 2014, when you are making six figures, and South Campus you know I’m addressing you… North Campus, you know this message isn’t for you… (I can make that joke… I was a North Campus person myself!) When you are rich, will you remember the work of your grandparents and your parents? Or will you forget? Will you forget the work of the revolutionaries and activists whose work you benefit from?
Will you become complacent with what privilege you’ve got and deny issues of racism, sexism and poverty? Will you perpetuate the oppression of others to get ahead? Or will you be one of the cool people? Will you develop innovative models of business and community that do not oppress other people? Will you bring up those who are marginalized in your success?
And if you become rich will you give to my Kickstarter campaign?
Class of 2014. Let yours be the generation that doesn’t just whine about the ills of the world. Let yours be the generation that takes activism beyond hashtags into actual compassionate action and visible movements on the ground.
Let yours be the generation that takes the stigma out of mental health issues that plague our community.
Let your generation not buy into the myth of a “post-race American” or a “post-feminist America”—will you confront these issues as difficult as they are?
Let yours be the generation that takes the stigma out of being an undocumented immigrant. A stigma that discourages young undocumented people from applying for deferred action status because it makes them vulnerable to deportation. One out of every eight Asians immigrants is undocumented. I hope you stand up against the deportation. Stand up for keeping families together. Tell the US Government to deport Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber instead!
Finally, this is the last time you’ll gather together like this face to face. Thanks to Facebook, everyday of your life is going to feel like a college reunion. Thanks to social media, you’ll get to watch your classmates get engaged, go on their honeymoons with them, watch them raise their kids, look at the food they eat. And it can make you feel super insecure. Just remember…. nobody is really as hot as they are in their profile photos, so there’s no need to compare your success to someone else’s. Just remember to work on your life, whatever pace you are working at it.
To quote Yuri Kochiyama, a civil rights activist who passed away earlier this month at 93. “Don’t become too narrow. Live fully. Meet all kinds of people. You’ll learn something from everyone. Follow what you feel in your heart.”
Everything in this world exists because people like you imagined it could be possible and worked towards making it exist. Civil Rights. An Asian American Studies program. Candy Crush Saga. This API Graduation was made possible decades ago by API students who decided that the struggles of Asian American students were going unacknowledged by a world that had bought into the Model Minority Myth. That ignored for example, the struggles of Southeast Asian students. And this celebration is to celebrate our diversity, our triumphs and the potential of our community.
It’s been an honor to share in this tradition with you. Thank you so much for having me as your speaker and good luck to you Class of 2014!
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July 10th, 2014
Greetings from Montalvo Arts Center!
I’m currently an artist-in-residence here for two whopping months. This is truly the dream of “A Room of One’s Own” that Virginia Woolf described. I get my own private loft to live in, my own dance studio, I hike in the Redwoods every morning, and a chef makes us a delicious dinner every night. It’s everything my haters groan for.
I am in the midst of pounding out a draft of “The Wong Street Journal”– my new show premiering in 2015. I worked with a microloan organization in Uganda as part of my research for this show. And as a total surprise, while out there, ended up recording a rap album with locals that is still played on the radio in Northern Uganda.
When I proposed the show several years ago, I had no idea specifically what I was going to find. I just knew I was tired of talking about myself and my own mania in my work. My identity, Asian American women’s mental health, cats, living without a car in LA and everything in my past shows– these had long since become myopic topics.
Without completely depersonalizing myself in my art, I needed to take an ambitious shift.
At this stage in an Asian American artist’s career, perhaps the next step would have been to go to China, a country that my grandparents immigrated from but that I myself have never been to. I could have made a show about awkwardly making my way through China’s rapidly changing economy, following my grandparents’ footsteps, coping with my lack of Chinese fluency, and for the finale? A poetic “East meets West” rumination filled with flowery orientalist detail about my ancestors and incense.
Instead, I jumped the shark. I decided to go to Africa where I’d learn about global economics and delve into the ever expansive politics of global poverty. Subjects I never got the chance to study in school but was curious about. And somehow, I’d churn out a show that was informative, poignant, and fun to watch….
Before I left for Uganda, here were some of the questions I was interested in exploring:
- Whereas my past work has always illuminated my own identity as a marginalized person in America, what would happen if I went somewhere, where I was suddenly in a place of privilege? How would my narrative change? How would that lens filter that experience abroad?
- Do microloans work? How do they work if everyone in the area is poor? Do people who receive microloans do better at the expense of people who have not received loans?
- Does ending poverty in developing nations mean abandoning small business/ small farming practice and everyone going corporate?
- How do we end global poverty?
- How much does “performing poverty” a self conscious performance of the poor to the people they seek funds from?
- How do I take the issue of global poverty and filter through my trademark humor without diminishing the depth of the issue?
- How do I find humor in this show that doesn’t come at the expense of mocking African people or poor people? Where does the smarter humor lie?
Instead of clear cut answers to any of these questions, I returned from Uganda realizing:
- America has a fucked up way of looking at Africa. Period. For starters, we keep referring to any of the 54 countries as “Africa” as if it’s a monolithic whole of orphans, chaos, starving children, warlords, and HIV. Like any place on earth, there’s a lot more going on than what we see on TV.
- America has a fucked up idea of charity. We associate alleviating poverty with giving food and clothes to “needy” people, rather than look at investing in education and small business, and invest in the power of poor people to self direct their own lives. (There are a great deal of Ugandan people who are working hard to improve their lives. There are organizations founded by Ugandan people to improve the lives of their communities. We never get to see Uganda being their own saviors, instead, we only see their suffering and see ourselves as their saviors.)
- In Uganda, I’m considered a “Mzungu” or white person. There is no instant solidarity they have with me as a fellow person of color– that’s an American construct.
- Even in my best attempts to be culturally sensitive, I was very guilty of being being a bad American. In re-reading my own documentation of the start of my trip, I managed to offend myself!
- With my new found whiteness came a lot of expectations, and a lot of assumptions about what I had to offer. Did I mention I am in the process of opening a music studio in Uganda with the rappers I met?
- America sustains the same poverty it attempts to alleviate.
- I have no idea how to contextualize this experience without it sounding “problematic” in some way. If I set a full context, I risk being mistaken for an amateur ethnographer of Uganda. If I don’t explain enough, my American audiences bring their context for what they think I experienced with them and leave with simplistic conclusions.
- With Activist “Call-out culture” being the mob mentality it is across social media, there’s no way I’m not getting micromanaged and slighted for how I present my truth. I went to Uganda naive, and while I didn’t learn everything, I’m more informed now than when I got there. But the soldiers of call-out culture will fire at me. I will be critiqued for my naiveness. I will be held responsible for every white audience member that leaves my shows not understanding the depth of what I did or did not present. I already anticipate being labeled as “antiblack,” “white apologist,” and the good old fashioned– “racist.” The only way to avoid call-out culture, is to join the mob and call out others for their internalized misogyny, racism, privilege. For some reason, if you are the one calling-out others, it makes you exempt from fault. And since I’m not interested in spending my time antagonizing activists, looks like I have no choice but to use humor to try to shed light on an extremely complicated situation most Americans ignore.
Who else is dealing with this material?
I asked Facebook a few months ago if anybody knew of a memoir written by a person of color, who was not black, who had traveled through Sub-Saharan Africa. Essentially, I was wondering if there was a story about someone navigating Asian American identity, not via life in America or in Asia, but in Africa. The few suggestions I got were of Indian writers. One was Stringer written by a reporter in the Congo. While his writing was rich, it was mostly journalistic with not too much reflections of his own identity. The other was In An Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh, set in Egypt. I haven’t read it yet but am not sure how much help it will be.
I know I’m not the only Asian American writer to write about traveling in East Africa. But I can’t help but wonder if the reason why I have not received memoir suggestions of Asian Americans in East Africa is because the Asian Americans who’ve been there don’t want to be subjected to a firing squad of critics when they write honestly about their own moments of naivete, and the moments they had to unlearn privilege they didn’t realize they had.
Every one person show is different. Some I’ve created on my feet in front a director. Others I’ve scripted then rehearsed.
Earlier this year I did several “Notes-in-Process” shows around the country just to get my arms around the material. I did an improved “Show-and-Tell” Powerpoints of my experiences. Some had super hilarious moments. An hour was not enough time to even get through my time in Gulu.
Now, I’m writing from top to bottom, a memoir style recollection of everything that happened. It’s been 3 straight days of writing and I haven’t even gotten to the part where I leave for Uganda. Writing is just so tedious sometimes. How do novelists do it?
I have different artist friends visiting me up here in my process. My friend Greg from LA (who has “Wong” tattooed on his leg) is a choreographer who will come up for 2 days and get me on my feet a little since I’m mostly writing. Other solo artists, scholars and presenters are coming through to hear me read. And at the end of the residency Emily Mendelsohn, a theater director and former Fulbright fellow in Uganda, will come up to dramaturg and get me ready to preview 30 minutes of this for the Out Of Bounds Festival in Austin, TX on August 30!
I have to keep returning to my artist statement: I want to challenge myself to make the impossible. It’s easier to destroy than create. Easier to incite misery than find joy. My job is not to “fix” the wrongs of the world with easy answers, but instead, to further complicate the question by making the invisible—visible, and hopefully, creating some space for public discourse.
I also know I’m totally procrastinating because I wrote this long process blog and picked out pre-show music for a show not scripted yet.
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