I bypass the self-serve cereal cart on the patio, the subterranean foam party pulsing with sweaty go-go dancers, the dorm room where dozens of well-dressed bodies repose on a sea of bunk beds, and head straight for the dining hall. A few friends I’m with claim a table in the back. We slurp instant ramen, disposable chopsticks stirring powdered seasoning and hot sauce into our Styrofoam bowls. Also on the menu tonight: chili dogs. It’s MoMA PS1’s annual benefit, time for back to school initiations and rituals, at least for one night, returning the building to its eponymous institutional origins with a back to school themed party.
As an adolescent, the beginning of the school year was always an anxious endeavor. What to wear on the dreaded first day? Who would I sit next to at lunch? My tendencies towards solitude largely defined my place in the hierarchy of the classroom milieu; that is to say, I fell outside of it. A painful loner, I stood at the edge of the playground wondering how to join the others, what knowledge my peers possessed that allowed them access to such inclusivity, to the games and easy intimacy that I witnessed all around me. Until high school, I was a nerd: foggy glasses, awkward countenance, high-water pants… the list goes on. And even in high school, I still retained this identity; it was only that I disguised myself otherwise.
It was not until many years later that I came to realize my differences, not only as an introvert, but also as the child of immigrants whose customs and references were fundamentally disparate from the dominant culture. Yes, there was the shrill Chinese opera blaring from the stereo, the rice (so much of it, all day long), and the red envelopes celebrating the new year—but there were also the alien landscape of small talk at the dinner table when spending the night at friends’ houses, the default passivity relegating me to the back of the line while classmates freely asserted their desires, and the strange amputation of my own history, a result of my family’s reluctance to talk about the past. Watching Chinese soap operas and martial arts films, I plugged myself into these narratives that gave me something Western storytelling couldn’t, as I imagined these stories as mine, attaching them like phantom limbs onto my body.
These Chinese films and television shows gave me a fertile space in which to imagine. Seeing faces that looked like mine, hearing the other language that belongs to me—for my native tongue is doubled—and the ability to locate familiar territory inside the familial dramas that played out on the screen allowed me access to a world in which I often felt excluded from and subjugated by. In school, where I received an education in whiteness and Western culture, we read The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men, texts that still have nothing to do with me. In college, Chinese studies and literature seemed relegated to a niche curriculum. French, American, and western literature in general comprised the majority of the classes available in the English department. Chinese literature classes were few and far between.
Going “back to school” for this event meant seeing a different kind of representation. There were over twenty performances and installations at the event, organized by DIS. Among them were Seung-Min Lee’s Ultimate Global Karaoke Championship hosted by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un with live music by Sameer Kapoor; Maggie Lee’s ghjghghlhjkjhi chill room; a performance by Tin Nguyen and Daniel Chew’s CFGNY; drag queen karaoke performances hosted by the gay Asian collective BUBBLE_T; KICHIN’s inigiri and spam musubi; Tea and Milk’s bubble tea and taro pudding shots; a GLAM party with DeSe; and a fashion show whose participants included designers Nhu Duong.
In the work of these Asian artists, collectives, designers, chefs, and performers, I finally saw something of myself reflected back to me, this time contained within an institutional framework fluent in the language of my doubled tongue.
Rushing up the stairs to the Supreme Leader’s classroom, I slid in to the front row waving a flashing glow stick emblazoned with a rocket and the face of Kim Jong Un that someone handed me. Lee made her entrance in an overstuffed black suit with a fur hat askew atop her head. Using karaoke as the international language of diplomacy, she ordered the audience to rise for the national anthem before belting out a rendition of “Born in the DPRK” with Kapoor obediently tapping out the tune of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” on a keyboard behind her. The only thing better than Lee singing Elton John’s “Rocket Man” was when she closed out with Rage Against the Machine and elicited a call and response from her disciples—Killing in the name of… Kim Jong Un!
Growing up, I often fell asleep in the booth as my mother and her friends sang karaoke hour after hour—until she bought a laser disc player, microphone and stand, at which point the activity migrated to our living room. Every weekend, I fell asleep (this time in my own bed) to the sound of off-tune Chinese love ballads. What can I say? Asians love karaoke.
Down the hall, Asian drag queens vamped down a runway singing karaoke as a lion dance commenced in the BUBBLE_T room. Unmistakable early karaoke graphics were projected on the wall behind the stage. BUBBLE_T operates as an Asian/Pacific/Queer collective hosting regular parties in Brooklyn. “We care about school more than anyone else,” Nicholas Anderson, a member of the collective, says about their participation in the back to school event. Indeed, this sentiment is evidenced by affirmative action, accused of discriminating against Asians who are often denied entry into Ivy League universities because there is a glut of overqualified candidates vying for a limited number of slots.
Roaming the halls, CFGNY’s group of a dozen-plus performers, dressed in early K-Pop aesthetics—white shirts and black bottoms—stood apart from the masses. I instantly recognized the armbands ballooning out from their forearms: sleeves favored by Asians to prevent tanned arms while driving. This sartorial vernacular expresses the ambitions of CFGNY to move beyond the concept of diversity. Instead of a token Asian model or two shoved into the runway queue, these performers migrated en masse throughout the school as a gang, an impenetrable Asian clique whose concerns were not about assimilating into the ruling edict, but about the refusal of it.
The space that these performances created for themselves at the PS1 benefit reminds me of what my 104-year-old grandmother (who escaped a life with bound feet to attend Beijing University, and who fled to Taiwan in the late ‘40s) said to me when I saw her last summer. What she had learned, above all, was the importance of responsibility, both to the people around us as well as ourselves. Waiting for a lull in the conversation before speaking, for a place assigned to us by others, isn’t taking responsibility. As speaking bodies with agency and power, we are responsible to ourselves, and just as importantly, to each other.
On a flight from Los Angeles, where I had visited my grandmother, back to New York, I finally caved in and watched an episode of Fresh off the Boat, a sitcom formerly on CBS about a Chinese-American family living in Florida. My reticence about watching the show was shared by many of my friends. The odds were not in our favor with the heavy history of freaks, incels, prostitutes, horny floozies, and geeks on television shows and in movies. And then, where is the line between the portrayal of culture and its fetishization in exoticism? Who is allowed to reclaim the language of oppression? These are questions that recurred in the landscape of my thoughts as I read about a new restaurant opening inside Whole Foods in Long Beach, California called Yellow Fever, owned by Kelly Kim, a Korean-American woman. Both the television show and the restaurant were conceived by Asian Americans. The title of chef and writer Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh off the Boat, leapt from the private vernacular of what I had experienced in my life as something only Asians said to one another, something of a reclaimed slur.
I’m not sure which website I’d visited that unleashed a flood of Sexy Asian Sluts and Asian Pussy Porn ads in my browser, but for a short time, I endured the onslaught of what felt like a personal attack on me via the omniscient unconscious of the internet. Yellow Fever is a viral disease spread by infected female mosquitos that causes, among other symptoms, yellow skin as a result of liver damage. It is also an accusatory phrase labeling white men who have a fetish for Asian women. The implications are clear. Disease. Pestilence. Bloodsucking infected female. Walking down the street in Brooklyn on one of the last days of summer, a man shouted to me, Me love you long time. The reaction I have to these not-infrequent racial slurs is always irresolute—I’m angry with the verbal assailant but perhaps more so, I’m angry with myself for being so affected. One word, one phrase, one short sentence quoted from a movie about the Vietnam war spoken by an Asian prostitute to a white marine, Me so horny… me love you long time, is enough to relegate me to a debased object begging to be bought, used, and thrown in the garbage as easily and as unremarkably as a wad of toilet paper.
Friends who are not people of color are always shocked. In New York? At an art opening? Sitting in the audience at a Columbia lecture? There is no locale traversing any of the socioeconomic categories that is exempt from the inherent potential of racism and degradation in this country. That the language of subjugation, violence, and hatred has been authorized for wide public usage by an Asian-American in the form of a restaurant at a grocery store owned by Amazon is an obscene limerick where the speaker is also the punch line of her own joke. Representation in culture can be a dangerous wish, I realize.
And where does it leave us when the speaking body sitting next to us is allowed to speak for us, overwriting our own speech? Too many times have I heard that my insert-ethnic-identity friend says insert-racial-epithet all the time, or that insert-racial-epithet is used in songs all the time, and spoken in my favorite movies (so by way of proxy as a viewer who is exposed to this language, they too claim ownership and license of this language). Widely used or colloquial speech risks the desensitization as well as the (re-)colonization of language. Beware of deploying what can be taken from and then used against you.
In high school, I balked at the Asian Club and at the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean kids who only hung out with each other and drove rice rockets to the billiards halls on weekends. Instead, I hung out with skaters and druggies. We were all mixed, not racially defined but defined by style and ideology (or so we thought in our ignorant aspirations towards anarchy). I didn’t want to be defined by race, I wanted to transcend it. This desire was resultant of being too defined by race growing up. From discovering a blog my boyfriend wrote naming me as his nameless “Asian girlfriend” to being called on by the algebra teacher because he knew I would have the answer, I yearned to be like anyone else. Or rather, like my white friends, interesting or funny or witty only by virtue of my personality.
Countering an identity formed outside of myself, which was liable to shift in the capricious winds of culture depending on whether Asians were currently nerdy or suddenly cool in some misogynistic way, became a part of me, unconsciously or otherwise. Even disidentifying with the dominant cultural stigmatization was a way for the unwanted distinction to inhabit me and become the navel from which I pivoted. The neutered-yet-lecherous Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, Cassandra in Wayne’s World, which launched at least a decade of schwing! accompanied by jubilant boners for large-breasted Asian women, and Ling Woo played by Lucy Liu on Ally McBeal, the cold bitch with imported sexual skills liable to kill a helpless man—each of these characters became a part of me, came to define me, by opposition or by refusal. Even if I wasn’t, I was. It was in me, inhabiting me, making me who I was.
Leaving the party at PS1 at the end of the night, each step I took down the stairs, my stomach full of ramen and boba tea, the ground littered with pizza crusts and cigarette butts, formed an ambivalence in me. The sheer presence I had just witnessed and acted as participant to was double in nature; its counterpart was the spectre of my adolescence. Though, this time, going back to school allowed me to see my place in culture, and a language native to my own, I acknowledge its relegation to the insular bubble of the art world and its inhabitants. Telescoping out to consider the scope of culture and representation in the world at large yields a more difficult truth: There’s a long way to go.
SARAH WANG has written for BOMB, n+1, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Joyland, Catapult, Conjunctions, Stonecutter Journal, Story Magazine, The Third Rail, Ugly Duckling Presse, semiotext(e)’s Animal Shelter, Black Clock, Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon, and The Last Newspaper at the New Museum, among other publications. She has an essay forthcoming in The Shanghai Literary Review as well as a short story in the anthology Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder. Photo credit: Tobias Madison.