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.
Back in May, I was invited to be the “Opening Keynote Speech” at the Queer and Asian Conference at UC Berkeley. I was too chicken to do it. So my vagina did the speech for me. She was very well received… ahem.
I’m currently at the Montalvo Center for the Arts in Saratoga, CA! I am an artist-in-residence here until end of August. I just got in late last week and am already finding ways to distract myself from writing my newest show “The Wong Street Journal.” I’ll likely post some updates about what it’s like to be here and how that show’s progressing in the next few weeks!
But I just read it now for the first time in six years and was like… “Yo! This ain’t that bad! Franco doesn’t know what he was talking about!”
So you know what? I’m publishing it here!!!
Commencement Speech Given to UCLA Department of English Graduation–
June 15, 2008
Pauley Pavilion, UCLA
“REWRITE THE NARRATIVE”
By Kristina Wong
note: I know for a fact that I didn’t read all this verbatim and that I made a paper edit the day of, but this is a close approximation based on the document I found on my computer.
(Opening hook for Eminem’s 8 Mile plays through opening greeting)
Good Afternoon! I want to take this moment to give appreciation to the faculty and administrators, parents (Happy Father’s Day dads!), siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, children, lovers, boyfriends and girlfriends, and friends, invited guests and of course, the guests of honor, the graduating class of 2008. Congratulations!
You made it! Give yourself a huge round of applause and a shout.
(Yay! You get to look for jobs next week!)
I’ve been brought in today because apparently, if anyone can tell you how Beowulf will help you make your car payments—it’s me!
The invitation to speak came as both an honor and a surprise. In a world that tends to gauge “success” on commercial factors like net worth, television appearances, and bestsellers…. my own achievements are quite pale in comparison… though I am quite proud of the life I’ve carved out for myself. My shows may play for small theater audiences but they do open up the space for communities to dialogue about taboo issues not talked about on TV. Most of my published writing, can be found in Playgirl magazine, which most people are not exactly buying for the articles, but my articles do disseminate (no pun intended) my feminist thinking and ideas…. But whatever your reason for selecting me… be it a grand practical joke, maybe Amy Tan wasn’t available today… Class of 2008…Thank you for your vision in having me.
What I’d like to impart on you today— is a message about how with enough vision and willpower, you can live life in a way that truly justifies your talents and your energy. Even if the odds are seemingly stacked against you, you have the power to consciously create the world you want to live in.
I am a third generation Chinese American, born to a middle class family. My parents grew up during the civil rights era and as such, they didn’t understand why a woman of color like myself would ever want to challenge the socio-economic odds to pursue the life of a working artist.
That’s why they had lovingly planned my life ahead of time for me. As an embryo, my parents had already determined my life’s path. At birth, they gave me a choice of three careers to pursue….
1. Doctor. 2. Doctor. 3. Physician.
Their pre-written narrative continued like this. After becoming a doctor, I was to marry a Chinese doctor, (who was also a neurosurgeon). And eventually we were to conceive Chinese doctor babies via Immaculate Conception, because god forbid, I actually conceive a child via sexual intercourse. And those Chinese babies, in turn, would marry other Chinese doctors, and birth more 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.
So as you can imagine, when I told my folks that I was majoring in English, with a double degree in World Arts and Cultures and a minor in Asian American studies… and that after graduation, I wouldn’t be pursuing a regular desk job but instead would make my living as a performance artist and defy the status quo… I might as well have announced that I was majoring in pole dancing.
I became an English major because of contemporary writers of color like Lois Ann Yamanaka, Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison and Richard Wright whose characters mirrored my own human alienation and struggles. I was inspired by how these authors created characters that confronted colonization, gender roles, and racial stereotypes.
I adored playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Ntozake Shange, and Ann Jellicoe who wrote female characters with the depth I had never seen of women on primetime TV. The courage of these writers to tell compassionate human stories empowered me to believe, that I too could break the “doctor-doctor-physician” narrative that was pre-scribed for me. That like these writers, I too, could become an artist and inspire audiences by creating narratives that hadn’t been written yet. And that I had the permission to challenge the world around me and write a new ending to my story and the story of my world.
I’m not telling you to follow my eccentric career path (oh god no). Nor am I telling you to rebel against your parents. (I do love my parents by the way… There wasn’t enough time in this speech to talk about how it’s all good and how supportive they are… I love them. They are great.)
What I am encouraging you to do is to constantly rewrite your narrative. I urge you to have the integrity to seek out a life that fulfills you and has meaning for you. While your careers will consume much of your life, it’s important to know that that who you are is not necessarily what you do for a living. (This may be confusing because, in this country we tend to ask people what they do for a living more often than we ask them about their lives.) I cannot tell you what exactly will give your lives meaning and a sense of purpose because that’s all a part of your life’s journey. I can tell you, that when you find that thing that gives your life meaning, to hold onto it and follow it.
I assume you have been reading a lot of books in the last few years, if anything, you’ve been reading a lot of cliff notes on a lot of books… you know how to look at the world critically. You’ve learned to shape you own ideas. And most importantly…You know how write amazing 10 page research papers in one night.
So who better than you to transform the world?
It’s not news that we live in Orwellian times. Our environment is in peril. We are mired in an unjust war that most of us didn’t want to happen in the first place. Every time you turn on your television, there seems to be some kind of new crisis. It’s gotten so bad that we aren’t just sick of our President, we are actually sick of getting sick of him.
On the bright side. We live in times where the old guard is changing as are the rules about who creates culture, and who will run the world. College drop-outs are becoming dot-com millionaires, bloggers get book deals, and this year we will witness Barack Obama become the first African American man to run for President under a major political party.
So these are exciting times for us, because we all have a stake in making the world better.
Who knows where you’ll be next week…. Traveling…. Job hunting… maybe you’ll be back here next week for summer school…. Wherever you are for the rest of your life… know that your value in life and to this planet cannot be assessed just by awards, or by your salary, or by your airtime.
Your value in life can also be measured by what ethics you believe in and share, in how you vote, in how you choose to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, and in the peace and goodwill that you spread through your life actions
No matter how many assets you accumulate in life… the fact is… You can’t take them with you when it’s all over… you can only leave them behind. And that’s when you have to ask yourself… what is it you want to leave behind? Are you going to leave this place in better shape than you found it?
And if you happen to leave a lot of money behind, would you consider giving it to me?
Maybe some of you are sick of writing right now but sometime this week, I want you to sit down and do one last exercise. Are you ready for this? I want you to write your obituary. I know… I know… this is a very goth thing to do in June
Write down how you want to be remembered, the impact you want your life to have on the world, maybe the number of Facebook friends who will survive you. And when you this, dream big. Keep this it in a safe place. Revise it often, refer to it. Then work towards it. A lot of dreams don’t happen overnight. I myself, am still trying to find someone who will sell me a house in Malibu for $500. But don’t ever give up.
Class of 2008, let yours be the generation that doesn’t just criticize what is wrong, but has the vision to make it is right. Let yours be the generation that has the courage to create rather than destroy. Let yours be the generation to wake up from the slumber of the last eight years and re-envision a story where we march bravely towards being the change.
Good luck to you on your journeys. If you are stuck, call me. My number is 310-***-****. That is my landline. I’d love to know how you are doing. I expect to hear great things from you and congratulations again class of 2008!
I was at UC Irvine earlier this week giving a talk about my work. But before that classroom talk, I was on a panel with Al Jazeera!
If you know about freelancing, you know how crippling depression is to the workflow. Well, depression is crippling to everything. But the self-structured schedule of a freelancer can break a lot faster to depression. And when you are depressed, picking up the gigs to give your life meaning feels impossible. It’s a cycle that feeds itself.
I am happy to report that I am the happiest and most productive I’ve ever been in my life. After a decade of not figuring it out, I figured out the work-life balance thing and I wish I was here sooner. I’m glad life really started to kick up in my direction, because I almost gave up and started having kids!
And how am I spending this happiest year of my life? Talking about the years I was depressed! OH THE IRONY.
THINGS THAT UN-DEPRESS ME THIS MONTH!
1. Writing about misery for xoJane and finding a new audience!
A for-profit health website asked me to write an essay for no money about mental health for Mental Health Awareness Month. Because of my show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I have literally been dragging this dead horse around for for seven years. I resent being “Kristina Wong, who does the depression show”. I have other work and other identities, but none more in demand than “depressed Kristina”. The persona that everyone feels should be giving her time away for free– to fulfill the absence of “diversity” in the mental health dialogue. I’m tired of it. It takes a long time for me to write essays. I have bills just like everyone else.
After hours of excruciating writing, I asked the editor of that health website, “Can you give me $1 at least for this work?” The editor responded with, “No, but we get a of hits and we would love for you to fill the gap in Asian American voices on our site.” I was pissed that not only was I not worth $1, but that they tried to guilt me to fill their “diversity gap” for them for free. So I sold the essay to xoJane.com instead. I am also happy to report that Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-the Film is now a film that you can STILL buy!
2. Writing about being a “Trashy Reality TV star” for CNN!
On Al Jazeera earlier this week The Stream talking about the “Model Minority Myth.”
Al Jazeera sent a private car to my house to get me to the UCI campus and back because my talk at UC Irvine was an hour after this talk show. It was kind of awesome to step out of a town car onto the campus wearing a backpack!
4. Getting really badass mentions by other writers in their essays!
5. I’m giving a the graduation speech at UCLA in a few weeks!
In 2008, I was invited by the Department of English to be their commencement speaker. James Franco was in the graduating class, and well… the rest is tabloid history. I just got another invitation to give the graduation speech at UCLA June 15. This time it will be for the Asian Pacific Islander Graduation Ceremony on June 15! I’m feeling older and wiser and ready! And I’m so honored that people who will be making way more than I have made in my life as an artist, understand the value I might bring to their table.
6. My episode of “I am Asian American and…” is the most watched of the series!
According to MYX TV, my episode of “I’m Asian American and…” is the most watched of all the episodes!