My youngest sister, Allison, arrived home for winter break on Friday, so I spent the weekend in San Jose with the family. On Saturday night, we went downtown to hear my old friend Vudoo Soul sing at Home for the Holla’days II, a benefit for Aid to Children Without Parents (last year, Holla’Days raised $7K to help young victims of sex trafficking). Also on the lineup were hip-hop group Magnetic North, MC Taiyo Na, and saxophonist Jonathan Lee. The event helped children in Southeast Asia; nearly all the performers were Asian American, and the same went for the audience.
It was a really good show with warm energy and an easy, we’re-all-family-it’s-the-holidays vibe. Ruth Cho and Sam Geunjin Kang started the night off before Vudoo rocked the house with his amazing voice (it’s only gotten so much better over the years!). I loved that the band and all the singers did backup for every song; that way, it was always an ensemble event, never just a showcase for a single artist’s talents. By the end of the evening, everyone in the theater was on their feet, dancing, clapping, and bopping, and plenty were singing along too.
During the tail end of the last song, right when it became clear that this was the big finish and everyone started cheering and screaming, I got hit with a burst of happiness and pride, and had to wrestle my journal out of my bag so I could write what was going through me. It felt so right: sitting in a historic theater in my hometown, after this year of creative discovery and VONA, listening to people just about my age trying to do with their music what I’m trying to do on the page, and doing it so powerfully to such a big, receptive audience. I was proud to see them, and inspired.
Years ago — I can’t even remember the context now — I found an essay by actor Joel de la Fuente, “An (Asian American) Actor’s Life,” which made such an impression on me I’ve never forgotten it. De la Fuente wrote not only of the difficulty of being an Asian American actor, but of his frustration with feeling he had to represent his people in each new role. Since there were so few Asian American actors in the public consciousness, he felt as if every role he chose was some reflection upon Asian Americans as a whole. He longed for three-dimensional, non-stereotypical characters to inhabit, and yet, when he got one who was a villain, he worried that the character’s traits would reinforce existing negative stereotypes about Asians.
Thankfully, the landscape has changed somewhat since De la Fuente’s essay was written, but the burden he describes is still a familiar one. His conclusion — which I share — is that the only possible relief from this responsibility of representation comes from multiplicity: from more voices, covering the spectrum, until there are so many voices out there from every possible group that no one person has to worry about being misunderstood as a representative of their people. In the case of actors, he also advocated more Asians behind the scenes, producing, writing, directing, so that it’s not just interpreters but creators who are influencing these stories.
I think Chimamanda Adichie explains this most eloquently in her TED Talk (video is almost 20 minutes long, but it’s shattering): “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” This is why I love VONA so much, and why it makes me so happy to see people like the Holla’Days performers doing their thing. According to the single story about Asians, we are supposed to be nerdy engineers or academics, not MCs and musicians, not artists, not loud eventgoers who holler (holla!) and rock out. And heck, on a totally personal level, I doubt a single story about me would include hip-hop concerts with my youngest sister.
I’m not expressing this as clearly as I would like, but all of this is why I feel that for me to make art is a political action, and for me to be fully myself is also a political choice. I’m most aware of this because I’m a young Asian American woman, but it’s the same for everyone (otherwise how could the Raging Grannies make the news?). By breaking down others’ stories about me, and not doing only what I’m expected to, I damage the credibility of my single story and other single stories about any group I belong to: girls, Chinese Americans, Bay Area natives, my generation, my family, whatever. And by damaging these single stories, I damage the credibility of all single stories, and in so doing, pave the way for more peace and compassion for everyone. Is that a stretch? Maybe, but I dare us all to try it.