“My family is Chinese, Malaysian and British. Growing up, my parents were very proud that we were all those things. When you’re a kid, it’s really hard to understand how diaspora works and how other cultures are different. To me, it was never super prominent, it was just kind of always there. It wasn’t until I actually got older when I realized that people weren’t doing these certain things and people didn’t understand the things that I’ve normally done. But I realized there’s something very unique about Asian culture, because as soon as you see an Asian person, you say, “You know those shrimp chips?” and they light up like hell. So, just that, is a whole other experience.
My dad has told me, “We don’t want you to be a lawyer, we don’t want you to be a doctor, you can do whatever you want”. So they’ve never had that pressure on me. But I always had the pressure of needing to go to school and make sure I do all the things I need to do to get a job, and I don’t know why. It might be because our parents are immigrants and they sacrificed a lot to come here. So there’s more pressure on us to do better. Or maybe it’s because of media and stereotypes. You’re already put in this box, and societal pressure makes you be how you think you should be in this society.
It’s also very exhausting to do that to yourself. I think that’s also a reason why there is such a high rate of mental health issues with the Asian community. And I think that’s a huge thing that people don’t even talk about. When I first started art, it was really hard to talk about it because we just don’t have that vocabulary in ourselves. We don’t talk about our culture, we don’t talk about our discrimination, we don’t talk about our historical racism. We don’t talk about any of this stuff. But I think that’s also the reason why we still don’t have a lot of representation.
I was in a drawing class in school and we had to do a diptych self-portrait project. We had to do two different portraits of ourselves and they both had to say something. I was really scared of doing any type of art related to identity or Asianness. Because we never talk about it and never hear about it. But for that reason, I really wanted to do it. So I did a straight face of myself with arrows saying, “You should get a nose job” and the kind of the plastic surgery markings that Asians would get to make themselves look more white.
And then in the next photo, it was me happy. But then instead of the rhinoplasty arrows, it would say “I got my nose from my grandmother”, and things like that. It was more saying you’re proud of the features that you had rather than you wanting to change them. When I was doing that, I had a lot of trouble with my instructor. She didn’t understand and was completely whitewashing the experience. It was a really frustrating experience and I almost broke down in her office. I thought I can’t do this anymore.
So after that, for a year, I didn’t actually make art, but I did an internship and met this couple called Frankie and Sherry, and they’re a Filipino American couple. I got to work with them when I was in Washington, DC, and they are “artivists”. They do a lot of activism in the DC Maryland area for Asians and other issues. Working with them and seeing them kind of lit my fire a little bit because what they were doing was really great. I went to DC to help out at an Asian arts festival. So I was literally in the middle of hundreds of different Asian people doing all these different types of artwork who are super proud of their culture. And I was like, ‘I don’t care anymore, I’m going to do whatever I want.’ Because at the end of the day, I think I know more about myself and my culture than someone who doesn’t.
All photos provided by Jeraldine.