Oriana: So I guess to start, do you want to talk a little bit about, like, where you grew up, and what that was like?
Janis: Yeah, sure. So I was born in Fountain Valley, California. I have lived in the same house my entire life, in Irvine. And… Irvine, I think, is officially the largest Asian American plurality in the United States. I’m still uncertain as to what exactly “plurality” means, but I can tell you from experience that there are indeed a lot of Asian American people there. I always say that I think someone should do an ethnography on Irvine because it’s so interesting what kinds of Asian immigrants live there. I don’t think I want to be the person to do that, but I think someone should do it because it would be interesting. But it’s very, um, very upper middle class, mostly East Asian and South Asian immigrant families, it feels very Asian and white, I would say. The schools are very competitive there, it’s very—Irvine is also the first major planned city, I think in California or something at least, so it’s very—it’s kind of an Asian and white suburbia, I think.
O: Yeah, that sounds similar to where I grew up. Yeah. Just on the East Coast. But… so did you, um, attend a public school or a private school, or…?
J: Yeah, so I attended a public school up until high school. So elementary school, middle school, I went to public school, and then in high school I went to a private school in Newport Beach. And my sister actually—my sister is three years younger than me, so she’s a junior now, and she goes to the public school in Irvine. So she didn’t—she didn’t switch over like I did. But yeah, I went private in high school.
O: Was it different? Like the kind of environment and the people you were around?
J: It was very different. And in a weird way because just on an objective level you wouldn’t think it to be incredibly different just because Newport Beach is much wealthier than Irvine, but Irvine is still wealthy enough that you wouldn’t expect as much of a culture shock as I experienced. I think—so I went to a school called Sage Hill, and Sage is very…. I think going there was the first time I experienced, like, extreme wealth, and people who were conscious of the fact that they were wealthy, because… I think in Irvine, from my understanding at least, like, growing up I was never conscious of the fact that my parents had substantial money, I think it was just kind of like, we had enough, but at Sage it was very, oh, oh people here have money and they know it and they spend it. So class-wise I think it was a real culture shock for me.
O: Was it like the same racial composition?
J: It was definitely way more white.
J: Hmm. I think… and we’ve talked about this before, it is like fifty percent people of color, or something like that, but, uh, people of color who maybe wouldn’t consider themselves to be such, or wouldn’t actively identify as such, so yeah.
O: Yeah. Were the teachers different than they were in public school, did they treat you differently?
J: Oh. Um… it’s a small school, so my relationships with teachers were definitely different in the sense that you could get closer to them, like generally speaking, they were usually younger and more invested in their work, I would say. I think my relationships with my teachers were the biggest factor of my high school experience, I would say.
O: Like a positive factor?
J: Yeah, positive. Because at times I hated the school, and I actually… it’s weird to feel so attached to a place that conceptually you kind of hate, but I had really good relationships with my teachers. I credit—I say this all the time, but I credit all of my intellectual upbringing to one high school teacher that I had, whom I am still super super close to, and I totally think I would be a very different person if I hadn’t met the teachers that I had.
O: Mmhmm. What do you mean by, like, intellectual—like do you mean your interests?
J: Yeah, so interests I would say. Like when I was a junior in high school, this teacher, Nisha, she just basically, like, threw books at me, like Asian American books and ethnic studies books, and at the time I don’t think I had the capability of actually understanding what those books were about, but being introduced to them when I was in high school kind of blew my mind in a very visceral way. I wrote my college app essays on how reading these books changed my worldview. Yeah.
O: Yeah. Like was there a reason why she was giving them to you? Did you express interest in the subject? Like, before? Or was it just like, oh, she just gave them to you.
J: Yeah, I think… maybe both? I can’t say that at the time I knew I had an interest, but I’m sure I said things and did things that indicated I might have an interest. I was pretty involved in the, like, multicultural group on campus, so I think I always had interest in, like… But I don’t know I would always say I had interest in ethnic studies. I would say I always had interests in, like, political work, or… organizing, I don’t know.
O: Mmhmm. How about, like, your friend groups? Did you tend to have friends who were people of color who also identified as people of color, or friends who were white, or something else?
J: The first two years, my friend group was entirely, like, East Asian girls, so… and I think you hear this all the time, like Asian people only hang out with each other, that was kind of true. And then my junior year, once I kind of figured out what I was interested in academically and otherwise, I feel like my friend group definitely changed, and I definitely started hanging out with people who were interested in the same things I was, and were also in the, like, social justice group in my high school. So my friend group radically changed from my sophomore year to my junior year. Um… but ethnically I wouldn’t say that it changed, in the sense that, like, my friend group my junior and senior year was me, two Asian girls, a white girl, and a white boy. But we all—a lot of us were queer—well, I wasn’t at the time but now I am [laughs]—and had shared interests in politics, and books, and whatever, so… yeah.
O: And how about in college, has it changed a lot since you’ve gotten here?
J: Yeah, I think it’s funny because whenever I go home I always think about how maybe, like, my friends from high school and my friends from college, like I can’t imagine how they would interact, like what that would look like. And not… mm, not because they’re super different as people, but I think the circles that I’m in are kind of different. I… I feel like a good anecdote is, my best friend from high school, who goes to Stanford, she met my… one of my best friends here, Greg—they actually met up in Singapore, which I think is kind of funny [laughs]. It’s just funny to me because I feel like at Yale, and I think this is an aspect of Yale privilege, perhaps, but I’m so used to talking about like ER&M [Ethnicity, Race, & Migration] classes and kind of theoretical, high-level ethnic studies things with my friends because that’s who my friends are, but I actually forget that kind of knowledge and that kind of conversation isn’t what everyone talks about. And so my best friend Celine was telling me, like, oh it’s so amazing and so cool, like, the kind of work that Greg does, and I had to, like, step back and be like, oh, it actually is amazing and really cool, but because it’s become such a part of my everyday, I forget how awesome it is to be surrounded by people who are doing that, so like yeah. I think I’m very proud of my friends here, which I think is nice.
O: Yeah, definitely. I guess that makes me wonder… So do you feel like the fact that taking these classes and talking about these things even like on a regular basis, with your friend group, do you think that is useful work, if that is not the kind of thinking that can happen in other communities?
O: Do you think that’s kind of an ivory tower sort of… do you ever wonder about that kind of problem?
J: Yeah. No, I think that’s a really good question. Hmm… I’d say, like, the necessary work for people who are studying this field is to do it in their communities and to organize, and to try to be accessible to the public in a way that the university system isn’t…. And I think that’s something that any kind of academic space will struggle with, especially if it’s academic fields that are invested in radical politics or anything along those lines. I guess that’s like the constant question, so… I don’t have an answer. But yeah I definitely think about it a lot.
O: Yeah. Do you have any idea—like, if you’re comfortable talking about it—what you want to do in the future?
J: Yeah. As of now I would like to go to law school. Well, I… I say my pipe dream is to be an academic, and to like go into academia, but I very much, uh, have a complex about pleasing my parents [laughs]. So my mom wants me to go to law school, so I’ll probably end up going to law school, but in my heart of hearts I want to be academic, so yeah.
O: Yeah. Do you—would you be willing to talk a little about your parents, like where they’re from?
J: Yeah. Yeah, totally. My parents are… So ethnically my family’s Korean, but my parents and their parents were born and raised in China. So during Japanese colonial rule of Korea, my family three generations ago moved from Korea to China. So there’s a substantial population of Korean political refugees who live in Northeastern China, so my parents are both part of that. They grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, which definitely affected their upbringing. But they’re both definitely educated, so, uh, my mom went to Beida, which is, like—
J: [laughs] Yeah, I know, right? Which is, they call it Harvard of China, right, and then my dad—so they immigrated here because my dad came to get his Masters and his PhD in engineering, so post-1965 they came as very professional-class, educated immigrants. And I think, uh, realizing that as I was older helped me contextualize my parents’ story more, because growing up it was like a classic immigrant story of “my parents had nothing and then they came here and they got the American Dream” but actually my parents—they did have nothing when they were growing up, but the conditions through which they immigrated to the States was like, oh, they were, they were educated, and it’s not a pull-yourself-up kind of narrative that I think I thought it was for a long time.
O: Yeah. What do they do, professionally?
J: Oh, yeah. My dad’s an engineer, computer engineer, and my mom’s a realtor.
O: Okay, cool. Did you grow up speaking Chinese, or Korean?
J: I grew up… My parents speak Chinese, Korean, and English—
J: I don’t really speak any of them very well [laughs] but I can speak them, so like. My parents mix the three, like in every sentence basically, so yeah. That’s all three.
O: Yeah. Is it, like, typical within the community they come from, in China?
J: I think it is. Actually, the first time I ever met someone who has the same background as my parents was at Yale. There’s another girl in my year whose parents are from the same area that mine are from, and we had them meet each other, and it was so funny because they both, like—both sets of our parents talked in Chinese and Korean at the same time, and I had never seen my parents do that with anyone else, so that was cool.
O: Wow. Yeah, that’s really cool.
O: Do you have a good relationship with your parents?
J: Yeah. I have—my parents are, like, the most loving and generous parents that I know, I think. I think, though, that it complicates my relationship to them in a kind of way because I definitely feel a burden, that I have to bear a burden for the kind of sacrifice and love that they have shown me. Um. I’m not very close to my parents. I feel like a lot of—er, not to generalize, but I think I know a lot of, like, second gen Asian American kids who say the same, like, I love my parents and I know they love me, but I actually am not that close to them.
O: What do you—what do you define as being close?
J: I feel like my parents don’t actually know that much about me?
O: Uh huh. Like in terms of your interests, or like your friends, or like…?
J: Yeah…. I guess interests…. Well, they know vaguely what I’m interested in, but I don’t know, I don’t talk to my parents about my life… in a way that a lot of other people seem to do. And I don’t know that that’s an Asian American thing, I think it’s probably just a me thing, because I told my therapist that and she was like, Oh that’s interesting, let’s talk more about that, and I was like Oh.
J: I think—yeah. I always have felt like I needed to be kind of like a perfect kid, and actually I have never really experienced disappointing my parents, and I think part of that is, like, I don’t go to my parents when I’m upset, and like, I don’t call my mom when I’m going through something hard, because I would just try to maintain the image of me as like, oh, Janis meets our expectations, and that’s, like, good.
O: Yeah, I feel very much the same towards my parents.
O: Yeah, I think for me I feel like it’s almost a protective instinct. So I won’t tell them about when I’m feeling… upset, or when things are not going well, then it makes it easier for them to not have to worry about it.
J: Yeah. Exactly. Maybe it’s not… specific to Asian American… daughters, children, but perhaps it’s emblematic of that relationship.
O: Yeah… I’m not sure. I feel like of all the friends I have who are Asian American, all of them have pretty… complicated but pretty different relationships with their parents.
O: Yeah. Do you remember—I don’t know if you have thoughts about the whole “tiger mom” stereotype. Like, I remember when that book came out and it caused a huge splash where I lived because of the Asian population, but I don’t know if it had something similar for you.
J: I… I can’t say that I remember specifically when it came out, but… Yeah, it dominates discourse on Asian parenting. My mom is definitely not a tiger mom.
J: Well… yeah, no, I don’t think she is.
O: Did you ever feel like—I guess talking about your parents with friends who are also Asian—that there’s a difference? Or do you feel like it’s the stereotype itself that’s wrong?
J: Hmm. I… I don’t know. I feel like I do know a lot of Asian and Asian American kids who would say their parents are very hard on them, but it seems to me that the whole “tiger mom” stereotype is massively simplifying. I think our parents are hard on us for different reasons that pertain to our different family dynamics, and… people’s relationships to their parents are always complicated. I think the immigrant narrative of family relationships is probably affected by the whole sacrifice thing, or it is for me at least, and I don’t see that as much intentionally incorporated into the tiger mom stuff, so I don’t know.
O: That makes sense. You also mentioned that you have a younger sister?
O: Is she your only sibling?
O: What’s it like being an older sister? Or, like, what’s your relationship like to her?
J: Yeah. Um… we’re not super close, either, but I love my sister immensely, and she loves me too. We’ve been getting closer as we’ve gotten older, which I think tends to happen. For instance, [inaudible].
O: Yeah. Do you feel like you have a different burden to bear with your parents as opposed to the position that she occupies?
J: Hmm. That’s a good question because I feel like I haven’t actually thought about that. I think that as the firstborn, yes. I wonder what my sister would say if I asked her if she feels like she has a burden to bear, or if she feels like she has to live up to their expectations. I think she would say yes. But I think my parents have put more of their expectations on me. I don’t know if that is just because of the firstborn thing or if something else, but… I’ll ask my sister that. It’s a good question.
O: Do you feel like she—does she share similar interests to you, or does she like STEM, or something like that?
J: She likes—she’s not a STEM person, but I think she’s still figuring out what her interests are. Her favorite class in high school was AP Art History, and—yeah, she likes art a lot. She really likes archery, which is a super Korean thing.
O: Wow. Really?
J: Yeah. South Korea is like number one in archery at the Olympics all the time.
O: No way!
J: Yeah! All of her friends are Korean kids from archery. So I think she—like I never felt super attached to a Korean American identity in particular, but I think my sister does, because of that.
O: That’s so interesting. So like, in your community, there’s an archery—there’s like a place where people go to do this?
J: [laughs] There’s like an indoor—it’s like in an office building, but they turned it into an indoor archery practicing space.
O: Uh huh.
J: She’s really good. My sister is like nationally ranked in archery. It’s kind of insane.
O: Oh my god. Yeah, that’s amazing. I had no idea that was something that, like, people did.
J: Yeah, it’s super weird—not weird, but it’s super niche. And it’s super Korean.
O: Are a lot of the people that—is everybody else there Korean, or is it like a mix, and she just happens to do archery?
J: Like my sister’s archery coach speaks primarily Korean.
O: Oh really.
J: I think every single kid is Korean. Or Korean American, yeah.
O: Mmhmm. So it’s like a nexus for the Korean community?
J: I think so. Or at least in Irvine it is.
O: That’s so interesting. So if she’s nationally ranked she must’ve, like, gone to competitions.
O: And seen a lot of other Koreans?
J: I don’t—I’ve actually never been to a competition, so I don’t know what the other, what people from like other states are like, so it’s possible that it’s only a Korean thing because there are already a lot of other Koreans there, so yeah, I have no idea.
O: Interesting. I had no idea that that was something that people did. So going back to what you just said about how your sister identifies as Korean, so do you see yourself as more Asian American, or not—as opposed to being Korean American, or something else, or like a person of color…
J: Yeah. I feel like the term I most actively identify with is “Asian American.” Just because at the AACC [Asian American Cultural Center] that’s what our community is trying to create ourselves around. And like Asian American studies is also pretty broadly focused on a pan-Asian identity as opposed to ethnically specific ones. Um… yeah, I also actively identify as a person of color, woman of color, yeah.
O: Do you feel like… how do you feel like your identity is maybe different from your sister’s, or do you feel like maybe it’s not that different?
J: Yeah. I don’t know if my sister would identify—would call herself, like, I am a woman of color. I think the reason that I started to identify myself as such as early as high school was because I had a teacher who was showing me what that looked like, and I think my sister doesn’t have—well, she should have it in me. I should be the one who is kind of encouraging her, I guess, or sharing my own interests with her. So maybe I should do more of that. [laughs] But I think her spaces are just pretty different. I don’t know that her Korean friends would be like, “I am a person of color, I am an Asian Am”—like I think if you asked her, “Are you Asian American,” it would be like, yeah, duh, “Are you a person of color,” yeah, no shit, but I don’t know that it’s consciously on her mind all the time.
J: I think I’m excited for my sister to go to college and I’m excited to see what kind of spaces she occupies.
O: So… um, I’m trying to figure out how to word this. Do you feel like there is, I guess—how do you feel like identifying based on an ethnic group versus based on a more general—well, not general, but larger kind of group—is significant? Like, is it important politically? Is identifying as Asian American a political identity, or is it, like, just another term that’s different?
J: I think the term “Asian American” itself is a political one. I think because it grew out of the sixties and the student organizing that was happening, especially in California, I think the term itself was birthed out of a political movement, and so it carries that legacy. Um… what was—is it significant to delineate a difference?
J: I think yes because I think investing in the term “Asian American” as opposed to “Korean American” or “Chinese American” is also demonstrating a commitment to the other ethnic groups that fall under that umbrella category, and demonstrating a commitment to eradicating the racial dis—uh, racial… racism that all of those groups face under the “Asian American” label. So for example I would say that when I use the term “Korean American” to identify myself, or “Chinese American,” I am usually relating myself to a specific cause of, like, Korean American identity or whatever, or Chinese American identity. So like… what’s an example? There was—I was following a case, I think in 2016, of a Korean American mother, I think her name was Nan-Hui Jo, facing deportation and had her child taken from her. And I think that movement—I want to say it was in Cali—? I don’t remember—but that movement was very much organized by Korean people and by Korean American organizers, and so my point of entry into that was, "Oh as a Korean American person this is the kind of important work that’s being done for that community." And then for Chinese American I think like the Peter Liang stuff—obviously—that, my point of entry there was, "As a Chinese American person, as someone with parents who are very active on WeChat, like talking about Peter Liang all the time, as someone with a commitment to Chinese American communities, this is where I stand on this." So I think I use—for me, it’s three terms, Asian American, Korean American, Chinese American—I use each one of them depending on what my point of entry or my commitment to an issue is.
O: Yeah. That makes sense. Um… turning to I guess academics, I know that this is also something that we’ve talked about before, but not in this context. Why did you become interested in the humanities and did you ever feel I guess distinct from other people based on the stereotype that “Asians are good at math”?
J: I’m not good at math. [laughs] Well, also… well, I’m very bad at science. I sucked at science in high school. I hated it.
O: [laughs] Science in high school is not real science.
J: That’s true. Yeah. I don’t know.
J: And my dad’s an engineer, so my mom would always be like, “I would think one of you would have your dad’s brain,” but I guess neither of us do.
J: How did I get into the humanities…. I grew up very much a bookworm. My mom would drop me off at the library in the summer and leave me there all day and pick me up in the evening, and I would just sit there and read all the time. I… I don’t, I think it was pretty natural for me, interest-wise. Do I feel different from other—from stereotypes…. I think in high school I took on a kind of public role as this Asian girl who was very into politics that there was no other person like that. Well, there were, but I think I kind of took on this persona of being that girl, or whatever. I think it definitely… it definitely set me apart not only from the STEM Asian students but also from the humanities ones who weren’t as obsessed with their Asian-ness, I guess. Yeah. I don’t know.
O: Yeah. In terms of books that you read, did you ever find yourself gravitating towards certain books over others?
J: I…. My favorite book when I was a kid was Chinese Cinderella, and I like to tell this story because I think, like, a lot of, I think a lot of Asian American activism is around representation, and I have a personal opinion that representation is not the end goal, or like I don’t actually care if there are more big-name Asian actors who are profiting, like, billions of dollars off of a fucked-up industry, like I don’t actually care about that. But I will say that it’s impossible to deny that representation is important, especially for kids I think. Like I… Chinese Cinderella is by…
O: Adeline Yen Mah.
J: Yeah, Adeline Yen Mah. Like, she, the protagonist lives in China, like is not even in the States for the book, but I felt such a strong attachment to it because it’s like, oh I’m a Chinese girl, this is a Chinese girl, and I don’t read books about Chinese girls. And I read that book like so many damn times, I can’t even tell you how many times. Um. So, yeah, I think, that’s like an anecdote, I think, that representation is actually important, and it isn’t the end goal, I don’t think it is, but it is important still.
O: Yeah. Did you find the book by yourself, or did somebody recommend it to you?
J: I think my mom gave it to me.
O: So it’s like—from that young age you kind of already had an Asian consciousness.
J: Yeah, I guess so.
O: That’s interesting because I feel like when I was young and reading a lot, I honestly did not care what race the characters were. So that’s interesting to me. So… I had another question. Uh… if representation is not the end goal, what do you feel like should be the end goal? [laughs] Big question, but.
J: Um… for racism?
O: [laughs] Yes. Or for, I guess, the race relations. Or whatever representation is… people.
J: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I don’t know why I’m struggling to answer that question. Because it seems like a cop-out for me to say, like, eradication of white supremacy and liberation of people of color, like it’s not that easy, obviously, or we would have figured that out by now.
J: What is the end goal. I’m now thinking about something that I…. So the summer after my senior year of high school I did a short internship at an organization called KIWA [Koreatown Immigrant Workers Association], in LA, which is an immigrant and labor organizing center, and something that the director said that I thought was really striking was that when you work for racial justice it’s not just about creating a ground, or it’s not just about setting a floor, it also has to be about thinking about the sky and what kinds of possibilities you can imagine, so like what kind of world do you want to live in. So like not just what kind of world do you deserve to live in, but what kind of world do you want. And that’s a much harder question, I think. So what is the end goal. The end goal is… people living in communities where how many green parks you have isn’t determined by… what race your community is. How clean your water is isn’t determined by how much money your city government has, which isn’t determined by what color your skin is. Ruth [Wilson] Gilmore has this definition of racism that’s like, vulnerability to premature death is what racism is, and so I guess the end goal is for race not to be a factor that allows some people to live longer and better lives than other people.
O: Yeah. Do you feel like that’s possible, to get there? During the… just like, how deeply entrenched a lot of these issues are?
J: I think we have to believe it’s possible. And I think it is… being done, I think that that work is being done. And in the kinds of communities that are developed around people who are fighting for that, those spaces become sites of possibility for that to happen. Like I was so struck when I was doing this internship that, like, just the space of the people who are—like the lawyers and the organizers who are in that space in that organization, like, things like, you take care of each other’s kids, you give each other rides home, and it’s a kind of thing that I don’t think you can put into words, and I wish I didn’t have to say that because it feels like a cop-out for actually explaining what it feels like, but I really don’t think you can explain it. But it is a kind of, oh, in the act of fighting for something better, in the act of imagining something better, you are actually building it, kind of thing, you are creating a space that feels like what could be in the future.
O: Yeah. That’s beautifully put.
O: Turning, I guess, to the question of those relationships… for you, do you feel like when you’re making friends, or looking for a romantic partner, do you look for person of a certain race, whether that’s conscious or intentional or not?
J: I wouldn’t say that I look for people of a certain race, but I do want to be friends with people who have the same investment in the same—not the same, but have an investment in the kinds of politics that I have. Like I totally think you can be a white person and have an investment in liberation for people of color. And I would be friends with you. If you’re a white person who’s racist and homophobic, then I don’t really want to be friends with you.
J: And there are people of color who are deeply uninvested in racial justice, and I think that’s more complicated. Actually, no it’s not more complicated. I think if you’re someone who is a person of color, and is deeply opposed to, uh, racial justice or the kind of politics that I have then I actually probably don’t want to be friends with you.
O: Right. Do you feel like that opposition comes from… well, I don’t know, I guess this could be anything, but does that opposition come from just, like, ignorance? Like not being aware of the extent of the issues, or being aware of the extent that race impacts their own identity, or does it come from understanding that and then repudiating it?
J: I think it can be both. And… yeah. Being… or reaching out to young communities and talking to them about these things is also really important. So it’s not to say like oh if you’re an Asian person who’s racist I will just shut you out of my life, but I feel committed to you in a different kind of way, it’s like I should want to talk to you more about these things. Instead of like oh yeah let’s be best friends. I was like pro-life when I was in ninth grade, and probably said a lot of racist things, I imagine, and probably was racist, so like everyone starts somewhere, which is obvious, I think, but… I always find it hard to balance when—how long do I need to be generous and be the kind of person who is always forgiving of racist actions and things? And when is it okay to be, like, to hold someone accountable and say that you can’t say that and so I don’t want to interact with you? And I think that comes off as really mean and cold, but I think it also is just like it’s really exhausting to be around that. And if it’s someone that I deeply love and care about, then of course I’ll put in the commitment to talk about things with them and try to get to a place where I can feel like we understand each other. I think parents—a lot of people feel that way about their parents, I do to an extent, too. But it’s hard. Because I don’t know where the line is to be like, I don’t want you in my life because of this, versus like I have to keep trying to get you somewhere else.
O: Right. That makes sense. How about in terms of, like, dating? How do you feel about interracial relationships?
J: I was in an interracial relationship. I’ve only dated one person, really, but I think it’s the same thing, where she also had a, has a commitment to racial justice and anti-racist politics and queer politics, and so it wasn’t—it never felt like a thing.
O: Right. That makes sense. Would you be willing to talk about what it means to be… queer and Asian?
J: Sure, but I don’t have any answers about what it’s like. [laughs]
O: Oh, you don’t have to have answers.
J: I…. Yeah, do you have a question?
O: I guess what you said about in high school, you weren’t aware that you were queer, and so just like, what was it like coming to terms with that, and I don’t know, are you part of Queer+Asian, the group—
J: Yeah, yeah.
O: —and I don’t know, has it changed the communities that you interact with, anything like that.
J: Yeah, okay. So I… came into my queerness, came out, came somewhere, here, um, over the summer, actually, which is pretty recent. And—I don’t know, I think you know if you’re queer. I think you always know. I think I—I must have been pretty good at denial because I never really made it legible to myself. It hasn’t changed the circles I interact with, I think because I was already mostly hanging out with other queer people. Now I think, now that my own queerness is more legible to me, I think I’m more appreciative of the queer—not culture, but of the queerness of my friend group, and of those spaces. So, like, now, I think when I—when I go home, for example, those spaces now feel very un-queer to me in a way that they hadn’t before. Am I part of Q+A. I go to some of the little events, yeah. Most of my friends here are also queer Asian people, I think.
O: Mmhmm. Yeah. Do you think like your—Asian-ness affects your queer identity, or vice versa?
J: I’m sure that it does. Yeah, it does. I feel like the major intersecting point for queerness and Asian-ness for me is my parents, and like immigrant parents, and having… yeah, having parents who are from a country where queerness is not talked about in the way that it is in the U.S. Yeah.
O: I don’t know, does that make you nervous, uncomfortable?
J: It makes me deeply nervous and deeply uncomfortable. [laughs] But it’s… it’s a thing where I’ve like, I’ve told myself that I just won’t cross that bridge until I have to, so I’m trying to just avoid it for as long as I can. I don’t know, I have no real reading of what my parents would react, actually. I think it’s hard. Because on the one hand they definitely don’t approve of gay people, and of queerness; on the other hand, they are very loving and very understanding, and I can’t imagine—I would hope that they don’t disown me, or anything. But I think it’ll—when it happens, if it happens, it’ll suck, but we’ll see.
O: So identifying as parts of, I guess three groups—Asian, or people of color; queer people, and a woman—do you feel like one of those identities surfaces as the foremost important one, or do you see them all as equal in standing?
J: I think… yeah. Asian American queer woman is just what it is. I don’t think I could feel attached to one more than the other. And I think if you’d asked me that a year ago, I think I might have said, like, I feel most attached to Asian American, but as I’ve spent more time thinking about the other two, it’s become more clear to me that I can’t actually separate them.
O: What do you mean by that? Can you elaborate?
J: Um… I mean, yeah, what you said before, how do they influence each other, how do they affect each other, I think the way I have been able to know and grapple with my own queerness is very influenced by me being a woman and me being Asian American. And so it’s, it’s—like I can’t think how I would approach being queer without the other two things. Yeah. And—and I would say for like all three categories too. Because being an Asian American woman is very different from being an Asian American man. Or being Asian American and nonbinary. Or whatever. Uh… being a white woman is very different from being an Asian American woman. So yeah.
O: Yeah, that makes sense. So I guess to like follow up on that, I don’t know, what do you see as being particular…. Do you feel like there are certain, mmm… I don’t want to say issues, but certain concerns that are especially pertinent, or like certain, like, privileges or anxieties that you have in particular as somebody existing at this intersection?
J: Hmm…. I think these days family seems to come up as the biggest thing on my mind. And I think it is a common thread among queer Asian people, at least kids of immigrants. I think a lot of the conversations I’ve had about how do you come out to your parents with other queer Asian American people has been around feelings of disappointment and not being able to be the child that your parents’ sacrifices to come to the United States are worth. So and yeah, in the most recent part of my life it feels like parents and family and sacrifice and immigration are the most pressing topics, I would say.
O: Yeah. Do you want to talk a little about what you do for the AACC and how and why you got involved?
J: Yeah, sure. So I joined AACC staff my spring semester of my first year, and I joined because I knew people who were working there and I was friends with them, like Yuni, Yuni Chang, LiLi [Johnson], and Courtney [Sato] were working at the AACC, and I kind of just applied, because, you know. You guys love the AACC, so let me apply too. So I joined on staff last year, I’m now Head Coordinator with Dean [Li], and absolutely the biggest part of working there for me and the reason I do it are the people that I work with. LiLi and Courtney especially have been so important for me, I think, especially in my first year, to have two Asian American women to look up to. And they shaped they AACC in such a palpable way. I think everything I experienced about the AACC in my first year was shaped by them. And in the fall semester, too, this year, when they were interim co-directors. So the AACC as a social and community space has been really important to me. My closest friends are all people that I work with at the AACC, and it’s been… it’s been incredibly rewarding to feel like you are shaping, or allowing for the creation of, a community for other Asian American students. I think especially as Head Co, it’s hard sometimes because a lot of our work, like a lot of the things that Dean and I do, I don’t get to do any programming, really. I wish I could do more programming, but a lot of the stuff we do is like, you know, replying to emails from administrators and people who are like, oh we’re interested in learning more about Asian culture at Yale, can you tell us about it? I’m like, I don’t want to respond to this, but it’s my job so I have to. So it’s… it’s hard to, it feels hard sometimes to feel that what we’re doing is incredibly important, but I think when I think about how LiLi and Courtney shaped the AACC for me, that’s exactly what I want to do for other people, and make people feel like they can see the AACC as their own space. And I think we’re working on that. Like, a lot of the concerns we have are around representation, inclusion, so like, what does South Asian representation look like, queer representation, international students also. But I think we’re getting there. I would say that the Center has been moving in the right direction. And I think we have a staff that’s just, like, incredible. It‘s funny because someone asked me, like, “Is there anyone on staff that you don’t like, or that is annoying, or whatever?” And I was with Yuni and we were both just like, nope! Like we can’t think of a single person. Just like everyone is incredible, and I think that’s really rare for a workplace, so I’m definitely grateful for that.
O: How do you see the AACC functioning among or with the other cultural centers?
J: Mm. I… Something I want to do more of is intercultural programming. So it would be nice I think to do more events with the other centers. I think in the past, you know, people—it’s been hard because the AACC, I think our student body of Asian American students is apparently larger than the other three combined.
J: So like La Casa [Latino Cultural Center], NACC [Native American Cultural Center], and AfAm [Afro-American Cultural Center]. I think this is what Sheraz [Iqbal, the Assistant Director of the AACC] said. Is that like the AACC’s student body is larger than the three of those. Which makes sense, maybe, because the AACC—er, Asian students comprise the largest minority. I… I have learned a lot from the other cultural centers and from the way that they do programming, and I think I’ve tried to incorporate it more into how I want the AACC to feel. So I think, for example the NACC is such a tight-knit community, and I think that’s, like, something that the AACC lacks. And maybe in some way it’s impossible to get that out of the AACC just because of size and scope, but I think in terms of what kind of feeling we want the house to have, I very much look to friends I have at the NACC and at La Casa to think about how do you create a more intimate community setting. So like La Casa does Cena a Las Seis, which is the Senior Dinners, and Dean and I are trying to do something similar for the spring semester to bring more people into the house and do more community-building events. So… yeah. I also just really love the leadership of all the other cultural centers. All the deans and assistant deans I think are fantastic and I like them a lot, and so… yeah. I think for the AACC because we’ve been in a period of transition, we have a lot that we can do right now, in terms of coming up with new ideas and new ways to work with the other centers, and new ways to learn from the other centers, so that’s something we’ll continue to do. And I’m excited to see how the space becomes when we have a full professional staff. So when Dean [Joliana] Yee [Director of the AACC starting January 2018] and Sheraz are working together, I think it’ll, like, give us some more stable ground to work with.
O: Yeah. That’s exciting.
O: Um… I guess do you see a certain subset of students who come to the AACC, out of the Asian population at Yale? Like do you feel like there are certain people that the Center doesn’t really reach right now?
J: Yeah. I think from feedback we’ve gotten, it’s like international students and South Asian students seem to be the demographic groups that are least represented, or least comfortable at the AACC or at the AACC. Um… I… it seems like the students who are coming are ones who are already thinking about questions of Asian American identity and culture and politics, and it is a problem that people who aren’t actively thinking about those things don’t come to the Center, because they’re obviously a part of the community. Yeah.
O: Yeah. Well, that’s something for the future, I guess. Do you f…. I don’t know, is there anything else that you’re hoping to do at Yale before you graduate when you’re done with the AACC, or do you feel like that’s kind of what you really want to do, what you really want to continue with?
J: Yeah, that’s a good question. I feel like this year…. Yeah, for example, this year, I literally do nothing—well, I work at the Writing Center, but you know. I literally do nothing else. Like the AACC is my life. Which I love, but it’s like what will I do if I don’t have the AACC. What else do I want to do? Oh. I think if I weren’t Head Co of the AACC I would be in YSO [Yale Symphony Orchestra]. Or I would want to be in YSO.
O: Yeah. What do you play?
J: I play French horn.
J: And music was like a very big part of my high school experience, and playing in an orchestra, so I—yeah, I think that’s something I’ll think about. What else. I don’t know, I would say I’m pretty focused on… not school, but like my academic stuff, and like classes. I’d like to—I’m applying for the Mellon Mays Fellowship, so I think it would be really fun to do more research. I haven’t written my proposal yet so I can’t tell you what I’d want to research, but broadly, something related to Asian American literature, probably. Um… yeah. I don’t know.
O: Yeah, I mean that sounds good. I have questions about both parts of that. So for orchestra—I don’t know, I also used to play in an orchestra.
J: What did you play?
O: I played violin. I also played piano—which honestly, I liked more as an instrument, but I couldn’t give up violin because I enjoyed orchestra so much.
O: So… but what pieces have been some of the ones you’ve enjoyed playing?
J: My favorite piece of all time is Shostakovich Symphony Number 5.
O: Nice. I think we played… I think we played Shosty… 10. Yeah. But what did you like about it?
J: I… hmm. The politics of that piece is very compelling to me. So like the last… I’m trying to remember this now, but like when it premiered the next day in the newspaper.… I can’t remember the exact language now, and I’m angry with myself that I can’t, but someone basically called Shostakovich like trash, or something. And then he was like exiled. And because the… why can’t I remember any of this. The piece is supposed to be a heralding of the Soviet Union. And it’s supposed to be a kind of nationalist piece that Stalin would have enjoyed. But there are theories about how in actuality Shostakovich knew that he… he was not going to compose such a piece, and so he put subliminal political messages. Apparently when it premiered, during movement 3, which is the really sad movement, the entire audience wept because it, like, brought up feelings and memories of family members being taken to gulags and very traumatic and violating experiences that you would only know if you could tap into, like, reading the symphony as not a nationalist piece.
J: I feel like I’m explaining this very poorly. But my favorite movement in that piece is at the very end, at the finale. It’s this very triumphant, very intense brass—like the whole orchestra is playing, it’s just a lot. And the last chord, at the very end, Shostakovich changes one of the—the first trumpet, I think, to play a B flat instead of a B, I think, and so the chord changes into a minor key, and that moment is supposed to be—according to like music theorists—is supposed to be like a hidden message of like oh, this piece is not the kind of nationalist Soviet Union piece that everyone thinks it is. It actually has a very oppositional and radical politic to it that’s referenced—that’s subtly indexed in this reference to a minor key. So I always—I was so fascinated with that piece in high school. I haven’t listened to it in a while. But yeah. I just liked it a lot.
O: Yeah. Why did you pick French horn over any other instrument?
J: I picked trumpet when I was in fifth grade because it was the loudest.
J: And then in high school I… was always curious, because it’s very easy to switch from trumpet to horn, and I knew people who did it, so I was like oh, I bet I could try it and see how it is. And then I really liked playing horn. It’s very challenging. Like they say it’s the hardest instrument because the intervals are so small that it’s very easy to miss notes, but I think it sounds very nice. It’s like… yeah, I don’t know, I like the horn a lot.
O: Did you take private lessons?
J: Yeah, in high school.
O: Did you like your teacher?
J: Yeah, I did. She was great. Her name’s Stephanie.
O: Are you still in touch with her?
J: Not really. Sorry, Stephanie.
J: But she was great.
O: Yeah. Cool. Did you have a lot of—I’m assuming you didn’t play Shostakovich in your high school orchestra.
J: I played in like a regional orchestra called Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra, and we played it—no, wait. Yeah, we did. Yeah, we played it there. And then I was deep in the orchestra world. So I did All-Southern, All-State. I was very much an orchestra kid.
O: All-State in California must be insane.
J: Yeah, yeah it was a lot. It was really fun. I miss playing in an orchestra a lot.
O: Yeah. What did you—what did you like about it so much?
J: I feel like…. Uh, playing in an orchestra is such a unique thing because you, the effort you put in to perfecting the piece is all on your own, and it’s—it’s just all these people playing their instruments, and the relationship there is just like you and your instrument. But communally when you’re in a room with all of these people, just like sweating and blowing and stringing their instruments, it’s like… I feel like you can’t talk about music-making in a way that’s not cheesy, so I’m just going to do it. Where like you—your individual relationship to your music is nothing without the people around you, and your conductor. Yeah. And I don’t know. It’s just so beautiful and so nice.
O: Yeah, absolutely. It’s just such a feeling of wholeness, I think.
O: To be part of the noise and to know that you’re part of it.
J: Yeah. And like the kind—I used to get such a rush before performances, and like my hands would sweat before solos and stuff, and I feel like I miss the—wow, if I can only get a thrill from playing in an orchestra then maybe I need to find a new kind of life, but yeah, I miss the kind of thrill of it.
O: [laughs] No, I think it is very thrilling, and just a very beautiful experience.
O: Yeah. I think honestly—I think playing in an orchestra is more… more and more for the performers more than it is for the audience. Which is kind of a tragedy, but.
J: Wait, did you play in anything here?
O: I played in—I was too afraid—I had an audition for YSO, I had signed up for an audition, and then at the last minute I was too panicked and backed out of it. So then I played in BCO [Berkeley College Orchestra] for like about a year? And it was nice, but it wasn’t the same just because the level of commitment wasn’t the same. And just—I feel like sometimes the thrill of it comes from like the challenge of the piece? And the pieces were like, you know, I didn’t really have to practice on my own, so.
J: Yeah. When I did All-State, part of the thrill is like the intensity. So you rehearse like literally all day. I remember my lips would bleed, and it was… it’s like insane the amount of work that you put into it, and then it just turns into this beautiful music, and it’s so nice.
O: Yeah. And then my other question was, so this is kind of stemming from a personal question, but in terms of Asian American literature, what have you read that you’ve really enjoyed, and, um, I also have a question more specific to the New Yorker article that you shared about, uh, like an Asian American first person voice.
O: That Sunny was quoted in.
O: Yeah. But first.
J: Books that I’ve read that I enjoyed… Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is a very formative book for me. So it’s about… what is it even about? It’s not a novel, and it’s not a collection of poems. It’s kind of a collection of prose… I guess you could describe it as. But it is about a Korean woman, Korean American woman, and she writes to her mother and as her mother, and…. Oh, you—I—no one can explain this, you just have to look it up.
O: I’ve heard about it from a lot of different people.
J: And it took on a kind of… a role in the Asian American lit canon in the 90s, I think, once Asian American studies scholars started writing about it, precisely because there is no one narrative voice in the text, and it’s impossible to extract a self, or a narrator. And so people took it up as an example of… the… multiple voices and multiplicities in an Asian American voice. And… what is…? Oh, hybridity is a word that I think Lisa Lowe uses when she talks about Dictee, so it’s very much like a—it’s impossible to extract anything from this book, and that’s precisely what Asian American voice is. Like hybridity, difference, and inscrutability.
J: Other things that I like…. I think the most formative, like, academic text that I’ve read for Asian American cultural studies is Immigrant Acts by Lisa Lowe.
O: Mmhmm. That’s the one in which she talks about heterogeneity.
J: Yes, exactly. I also really like Anne [Anlin] Cheng.
O: She came to give a talk last year.
J: Yes, yeah! Yeah, yeah. I’m excited for her—that project to become a book.
O: Yeah, ornamentalism.
J: Yeah. But The Melancholy of Race is also something that is pretty formative for me.
O: Interesting. So yeah, you kind of already started answering, but yeah I am kind of interested in this question of, like, what is the Asian American voice? I’ve had this discussion with other people, including one of my best friends from high school who goes to Harvard now, just like what does it mean to write with an Asian American subjectivity, and what is so particular about—you know, what is so particular about that voice? Because I almost feel like a lot of the… Asian American writing, and particularly a lot of writing that I see, fiction, particularly fiction, from people who are, like, our age, tends to have assumed a kind of white subjectivity in the writing? And so I’m not really sure what it means to write with an Asian American subjectivity, and so I was wondering if you had thoughts. Especially in relation to that New Yorker article, which I thought was interesting because detachment is, I guess, peculiarly, I guess particular to a lot of Asian American works that I’ve read. But I don’t know if that’s a product of how we tend to understand what Asian American people are, as like kind of detached foreign bodies, and so we project that onto this voice we see, or something else.
J: Hmm. So I’m interested in… Something that you said is that Asian American voices take on, like, something similar to a white subjectivity, and I don’t know if it’s a white subjectivity, or just a subjectivity where race is not made legible. And… yeah, I agree, it seems like unless there’s a concerted effort to make, to make content about Asian America, then it’s difficult to extract an Asian American voice from a narrator. What does it mean to write with an Asian American voice. I think… I don’t know. I think there is something about detachment, especially like locating Asian bodies in proximity to a kind of technocapitalist machinery is also something that’s taken up a kind of place in literature, I think. I think… I haven’t read enough on what it means to write with an Asian voice to actually give you a good answer. I think Sunny—er, Professor Xiang, when she writes in that New Yorker article, does she talk about silence as a…?
O: I don’t remember.
J: Well, her academic work and her project is invested in silence as another kind of political possibility for the Asian American voice, and I think that’s really interesting, and she…. Because in that article she talks about the inscrutability, and it’s precisely the inability to make legible Asian Americanness that makes Asian Americanness? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer because voice is something that’s different from content, for example, and I don’t… I don’t know what the mechanics of making voice speak or making voice legible are. Because it’s like—it’s like an affective presence. It’s affect, it’s not, like, it’s not plot.
O: Right, exactly. Yeah. I guess part of my concern is that if the way we define it is through attachment, is something lost? Just, just, I don’t know, thinking about some of the Asian communities that I’ve been a part of, detachment or distance doesn’t necessarily encompass some of the warmth that exists in those spaces. And I wonder if the creation of a detached or distanced voice is going to become a cultural phenomenon the same way the immigrant narrative became a cultural phenomenon, and like a marketing phenomenon in the publishing world, not because it is the most… not because it is correct—mm, correctness is…. Not because it is right, or it feels right, but because it is what is done and is seen to be done. If that makes sense.
J: Yeah. I think voice is so hard to think about for me, because I’m thinking what would you say an American voice is.
J: Like if we want to take Asian American voice and also apply it to other disciplines, like African American literature, what exactly does an African American literary voice sound like?
J: And I don’t know that there’s an answer to that question either.
O: Yeah. But I almost feel like you can pull out so many examples. Like Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, as like…
J: As authors.
O: Yeah, as authors. But there is a certain… I don’t know, it almost feels like there is a distinct… web? Underlying that?
J: I think there is a distinct canon of AfAm literature. For good reason. And I think what you’re right about is there isn’t a canon for Asian American literature in the same way. But I think the question of voice is different from, like, authorship or canonical institutionalization. I think we’re starting to have a canon of Asian American lit. I think Viet Thanh Nguyen is being taken up as an immigrant refugee writer in a way that I don’t know if we’ve seen before. But voice versus… I feel like people don’t really study or pay attention to voice in the same way that they pay attention to like narrative. So immigrant narrative, like you said, is very popular, and people know what that is. And… yeah. And I don’t know that the question of voice is the same as the one of what stories are being told. It’s like what stories are being told versus what is the affect of the narrator who’s speaking when they tell that story. And I don’t—yeah, I don’t know.
O: Yeah. That makes sense.
J: So detachment then… I think an interesting question that that leads us into is will detachment become an Asian literary narrative?
J: And I don’t know. I don’t know that I know of a lot of books who would present detachment as a narrative state—or a narrative presence. I can’t really think of anything.
O: Mmhmm. I don’t know. It seemed to be what the New Yorker article was suggesting. That it would become the new… the new commonality. That’s taking over now that the immigrant narrative has kind of faded.
J: Yeah. I…. There was a—someone came for a TD [Timothy Dwight] talk last year, she wrote a book called The Wangs vs the World.
O: Oh—uh. She came for a talk? I had no idea. I know who you’re talking about, but I don’t remember her name.
J: I can’t remember her name. [The writer’s name is Jade Chang.] But I remember when she was talking about her book, she said, “Oh I want to write against the immigrant narrative. I don’t want this to be a traditional immigrant narrative.”
J: And if the traditional immigrant narrative is now falling out of what’s popular, yeah it is a good question, what will become the new popular narrative.
J: I feel like now with books like Crazy Rich Asians and The Wangs vs the World, maybe what we’re being pointed toward is like a kind of glamorous life that like Asian Americans can live in the U.S., once they’ve accumulated capital here. Also Silicon Valley being like a hotspot for Asian American whatever. Yeah. And that also falls kind of in line with the way… huh. Now my question is how do we relate that to model minority narratives, because though it is placing itself in opposition to the “good immigrant” kind of thing, the wealth aspect of it is still kind of tied to the model minority stuff, so that doesn’t go away, actually. Like are there novels about working class Asian family and protagonists?
O: I almost feel—well, Jenny Zhang’s new book, Sour Heart?
J: Oh, I haven’t read that.
O: It’s a collection of short stories. And a lot of them are about… when she and her parents came to the U.S. She lived in China for a period with her parents. I mean with her grandparents because her parents were too poor. But they lived in Chinatown and experienced pretty extreme poverty which she writes about in several of the stories in her collection.
J: Okay. That’s cool.
O: But yeah. I don’t know. I guess it stems from my personal investment in that question.
J: I think detachment and like technology being taken up as emblematic of Asian American voice could be problematic for the way it prioritizes certain ex… not like certain experiences of Asian Americanness, but where does that come from? It comes from rich Asians from Silicon Valley narratives, and also from effects of globalization where you have like Seoul and Tokyo being heralded as technologically advanced. And all of that is tied to—all of that is about people who have been beneficiaries of global capitalism. Not about people who have been hurt by it.
J: So if we make Asian American voice about those who have benefited from the, um, accumulation of capital and wealth that has happened, then what about people who don’t have proximity to that? Because I don’t think you would say, like, poor working class Asian Americans are connected to this idea of detachment and technology and mechanization in the same way you would say of, like, Silicon Valley. I keep going back to Silicon Valley. Or Irvine, actually. Being able to locate yourself alongside and intertwined with capital is a privilege of class, and of—yeah, of class. And I don’t know what that means.
O: Yeah. I don’t know either. And—I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess also the people who end up being able to tell those stories.
J: Yeah. I also now…. Something that I would like to think more about is how Asian places are figured in a literary imagination.
J: Now because we’ve been talking about technology and things, I’m like oh Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore. Are these like, are taken as these very capitalist, very industrialized spaces, but then it’s like oh, you still have, like, rural China, Indonesia, Tibet. Places that aren’t taken as Asian in the same way.
O: Yeah. And also just how—have you read Cloud Atlas, by any chance?
O: It’s this crazy book by David Mitchell that kind of works as a set of nesting dolls, almost. He starts like six stories, and all except for the sixth get cut off halfway through, and then they finish on the other side. But one of them—and they move through time, so I think the first one starts in the 1800s, and the last one is way in the future, like post-apocalypse. But one of the future stories takes place in Neo-Seoul, and so I don’t know, it’s also just interesting thinking about how Asia features in these futurist narratives.
O: Which is my thesis.
J: Oh really?
O: I think so. [laughs]
J: Dang. That’s super—I bet that’ll be a very good thesis, because I mean like… People think Asia is the future, totally. Why?
O: Yeah! I don’t know. And I feel like a lot of Asian writers, Asian and Asian American writers, take on that narrative as well. Just in terms of like sci-fi.
J: Yeah. Oh, good point.
O: And also in like film. Like Ghost in the Shell.
J: Yeah. Huh.
O: So. Yeah. I’m out of questions, but was there anything else that you wanted to mention?
J: Nope. I’m pretty good.
O: Okay. Cool. Thank you.