As Asians

Before coming to America, I didn’t have too much thought about what it means to be ‘Asian’. Born in Hong Kong, studying in Beijing under a westernized curriculum, I was still identifying completely as Asian. I had a number of mixed races friends, who we call ‘halfies’, and they seem to be identifying themselves as they like.

My best friend, who possesses the heritage of British and Tibetan blood, has lived in Beijing since age 2. Although she embraces both cultures and in addition the American pop culture, she agrees that large parts of her are very ‘Asian’. She speaks perfect Mandarin, Spanish and American-accented English.

Now immersed in the Seattle community, I understand that such ‘Asian Identification’ can be very complicated outside our ‘international school bubble’. And that in America, identifying as Asian American/Asian/halfies, may have different connotations depending on your location.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a university event hosted by the Asian Student Association on campus. I went light-heartedly simply because my besties are hosting and there was free food (Hong Kong style pork buns, Vietnamese Spring rolls and Cupcakes from Royal).

One guest speaker touched upon identifying themselves using percentages. 70% Chinese, 30% Orange County or 50% Vietnamese 50% Seattle. For her it is not a portion of culture. For her, it is 100% of all heritage. Such identification is not exclusively defined by the languages you speak, your blood, your environment and most certainly not the parameters of the society. But ultimately what you believe in, what you process based on your own experience. It is your take.

What if he is a 2nd generation Japanese American who doesn’t speak Japanese? Who are we to judge?

What if she is a Chinese American who was raised in Sichuan and doesn’t speak American-accented English? Who are we to call her ‘Fresh off the boat’?

It is interesting. Most of the time, people can’t guess where I am from. The most frequent guess is the U.S. since I do have a heavy American accent, but I’ve also received guesses of Japan, China, Korea, South Africa, Taiwan, U.K, and of all places, Russia. And when asked where I identify the most, I often stumble.

My introduction usually goes like this:

“Hi, I’m Coco. I’m from Hong Kong, but I was raised in Beijing. No, I wasn’t born in the States. My dad is Malaysian but I don’t speak Malay. My grandma is Taiwanese but I didn’t grow up there. I speak Japanese because I like it. And I have a Dutch ancestor, that’s why I have freckles. Yes, they are natural.”

Just kidding, I usually stop after the Beijing part.

After years of trying, I gave up on identifying to one place. Yes, judging from heritage and appearances, I am from Hong Kong, but I can’t throw away all the cultural pieces that make me who I am. So my rule of thumb is introducing where I’m born and where I studied, all details come after I have a couple glasses of wine.

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Tabaimo & Portrayals of Women

There were several open bathroom stalls on the left. The doors were painted rustic orange with stains. The central panel had a tiny window overlooking the sunset while the right panel featured several sinks and bathroom mirrors. A half naked girl, predictively enrolled in primary school judging from the red rectangular backpack she has on her shoulders, was rinsing her face and hair. She was clothed in a mere pair of white ankle socks and white underpants, with hair neatly braided in two tails.

All the while, another woman was washing her hands at a nearby sink. Though the woman was quietly rinsing, her reflections started to rattle the mirror with a heavy duty hammer, smashing the glass and smearing her own blood all over the floor. The woman, though still washing her hands at the sink, started to bleed silently. She left the sink nonchalantly and wrapped herself in gauze, holding dear to her wound and disappeared into a nearby stall.

public-convenience
Public conVENience, 2006, Tabaimo, Video Installation; Cred: SAAM

This is Tabaimo’s video installation piece: public conVENience. The piece had recently appeared as a part of the Japanese artist’s Utsutsushi utsushi exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

In this installation, the artist showed highly provocative and bizarre images in a seemingly public setting. The artist found it quite interesting that although public bathrooms are public spaces, each stall becomes a private space with the division of thin walls. The artist also claimed that the piece was a metaphor for “the virtual space on the internet nowadays” in which people anonymously leave awful and bizarre comments in a somewhat public setting.

For me, what provoked my senses were the portrayals of women. The naked school girl reminded me immediately of child pornography, a popular theme in the Japanese entertainment industry. Often featured in anime and movies, young girls are subjected to the eyes of male obsessors, sometimes coined as Loli-con in Japanese, as sexual goddesses. The fact that the girl in the installation was continuously washing her hair and face, was almost a ritual in hopes of rinsing the impure and the contaminated minds of people.

The injured woman led my mind to the issue of domestic violence. Though there was no men in sight, and the injury was inflicted by the woman’s own mirror reflection, the eerie sense of silence and tolerability in the situation reminds me very much of the DV nature. Most cases of DV are not reported. In some, the wives even deny the abuse and sought to protect their husbands reputation instead of seeking help for themselves. I wonder if Tabaimo was also using her piece to reference the home as a private space, in which outsiders cannot even detect the slight bit of darkness within an abusive household.

Besides the two women, there was another woman who gave birth to a baby through her nose in a bathroom stall. She then deliberately put the newborn on a turtle’s back and flushed it down the toilet, watching it disappear with the roiling waters.

Midway through the video installation, four Japanese kanji characters appeared: 公衆便女 (ko. syu. ben. jyo). Direct translation: public bathroom girls. It is all the more interesting because the final character “女” (jyo) meaning ‘girl’ has the same pronunciation as “所” (jyo), which is the original character that makes up the phrase ‘public bathroom’.

Here, Tabaimo had substitute the character with ‘girl’, making it even more convincing that the artist was referring to the many denouncing and hell-like portrayals of women in society.


More on Tabaimo:

Utsutsushi utsushi Interview, 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_9eRLibjI8

Interview 2009: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiA3fOEBVi4

Artist Bio: http://www.jamescohan.com/artists/tabaimo/