Why I Write

I was born, raised, educated, married, and churched in the Midwest, where Asian-American representation is rather sparse, to say the least.

For a long time, I didn’t notice the lack of representation or think that it mattered. Growing up in a Chinese immigrant church, I was surrounded by people who looked and talked like me at least twice a week. My family spoke Mandarin and English at home, and I went to Chinese school on the weekend. I thought that consistently being around Asians was enough to fortify my sense of self.

The first time I remember feeling like an other was when I was six years old and my dad came to school to teach my class about Chinese New Year. All of my Barbies were white and blonde, and none of the “American Girl” dolls looked like me. (I wound up with the blonde Swedish immigrant doll even though I really wanted the rich Victorian heiress doll.)

I loved to read, but there were no Asian characters in any of the books I read until I found The Babysitters’ Club. Even then, I didn’t relate to the artsy Japanese babysitter who wore weird clothes and was bad at math. I wanted to be the pretty blonde diabetic boy-crazy babysitter, which I essentially was, minus the blonde hair and diabetes, so I guess just boy-crazy. Sigh.

In high school, I signed up for theatre classes and auditioned for plays and musicals, only to be relegated to the anonymous chorus. I was, however, once cast as a Welsh spinster in the ONE production that year set in a specifically Anglo time and place. (The one other Asian theatre student was in the same show, so I cry typecasting!) I waited in vain for my school to produce The King and I so I might actually have a chance at a significant role. For some reason, no one could fathom an Asian Cinderella or Dolly Levi.  

The only Asians I saw on TV during my formative years were Connie Chung and a pantheon of Olympic figure skaters. I was obsessed when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out because it was the first mainstream movie I’d ever seen with Asian actors speaking my cradle language. Almost twenty years later, I found myself moved to tears by the inclusion of Asian actors in my favorite movie franchise. (Obviously Star Wars, because there sure aren’t any Asians in Middle Earth!)

I was delighted to see people like me on screen, but I didn’t understand how much the scarcity of that representation affected me until literally two weeks ago.

One of my marketing clients runs a boutique for young professionals. She is a fierce advocate for body positivity and also unapologetically fat. (My Chinese body candor is warring with my American body-shaming “politeness” as I write this…) We designed a T-shirt together and I happened to be working on-site when the samples arrived. She started a live unboxing video and then turned the camera toward me so I could talk about the design process.

I adore this client and am super jazzed about the work I get to do for her. But when I saw the live video replay, I could only cringe at my unmade-up face and weird hand gestures. I left a self-deprecating comment about never letting me be on camera again haha lol jk but srsly.

She immediately texted me to ask if there was something I didn’t like about the video. Embarrassed by my own self-consciousness, I said I just always feel awkward seeing myself on camera. “Oh,” she responded casually,” that’s because we aren’t used to seeing people who look like us on camera and social media.”

I was gutted. Because it’s true. When I go to blogger meetups (at least here in the Midwest), I’m almost always the only person of color and definitely the only Asian. When I scroll through Instagram, none of the famous influencers look like me. When I look at my business and writer groups, they are overwhelmingly white. It’s not just that I don’t wear perfect makeup or polished outfits…there just aren’t very many faces in my line of work that look anything like me.

Then she added, “I feel the same way. Going live is hard for me too, even if it doesn’t seem like it. But for me, it’s important to be visible, because successful fat women are not in the media.”

Successful Asian-American writers and creative entrepreneurs are not in the media either.

That’s why the As I Am project and the PAAC community as a whole are so important to me. That’s why I read and signal-boost books and podcasts and Instagram feeds by Asian-Americans and women of color. That’s why I (finally!) started thinking and talking about my experience as an Asian-American.

And that’s why I write. I hope you will too.


Jennifer Duann Fultz is a Taiwanese-American freelance content writer and digital marketing consultant whose parents probably still don’t quite understand what she does but are proud of her anyway. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and son. In her spare time she enjoys reading, cooking, trying to plan her life in advance and pretending to organize her home. Her website is aminusmama.com.

Things You Should Know about Me

[an exercise in spoken word]

There are some things you should know about me.

I am going to tell you those things because if I don’t, no one else will.

My father will not.

My mother will not.

My brother might, but he’s not to be trusted.

Brothers are after all, the shadows of our most devious selves.

I am the one that knows my story best.

So I will tell you some of these things.

  1. I hate the taste of papaya.  I only eat papaya in the Philippines.  I only eat papaya in the Philippines because those are the only ones that do not make me vomit.
  2. I find comfort in really good procedurals but am embarrassed by most sitcoms.
  3. Some days I am brown, most days I am a semi-distinct shade of olive.
  4. I was darker when I was a child and spent all of my summer mornings in a swimming pool.  I was very proud of the fact I had a pristine racer-back tan from approximately six different one-piece Speedos I owned in the same style.
  5. I hate direct address.
  6. My mother does not like to be addressed as “ma’am.”  She thinks it’s condescending.
  7. I am an Asian-American, Filipino-English, first-generation hapa.  I live my hyphens. I am constantly stuck living as a transmitter between two worlds that don’t understand each other.  
  8. If you’re wondering what that’s like, it’s like being forced to be a cultural translator when everyone knows you’re not fluent in either.
  9. Shakespeare is for lovers.
  10. I would like to take a pen name—Liz Lorenzana, after my grandmother—but I am afraid of being typed as a Latina artist.
  11. I am not Latina.  I do not speak Spanish—did you think I did because I am brown?  The answer is no.
  12. I have no intention of learning to speak Spanish unless it becomes incumbent upon me due to my job, my research, my love life, or my neighborhood.
  13. Some days I hate white men.
  14. Erasure is my inheritance.  If you cannot understand that—if you cannot at least hold the empty space that makes me sweat in agony—then we can no longer be friends.
  15. Touch is my first love language.
  16. I spend an inordinate amount of my money on handbags and hardly anything on groceries.
  17. I would rather sit through a bad play than a bad sermon because only after one of them is it acceptable to drink.
  18. I have spent my whole life using the same Hitatchi rice cooker that’s older than my parent’s marriage.
  19. I eat rice with my meals sometimes.  Sometimes I just eat bread.
  20. I do not speak Spanish.  No, I will not make you tamales.
  21. Kale belongs in peanut butter smoothies and nowhere else.
  22. Yes, I have eaten balut.
  23. Yes, I enjoyed it.
  24. I also enjoy solitude amongst many.  Locations include cafes, bars, cheese shops, and grocery stores.
  25. I firmly believe one should always be kind to service people.
  26. If I make you breakfast, it does not mean I want to marry you.
  27. Be not inhospitable to strangers.  Instead make them stay for dinner. There’s always more adobo in the refrigerator.
  28. I refuse to go to the gym.
  29. I will not recreate unless strictly housed in a studio class, but I am afraid that makes me a hypocrite for participating in the western industrial yoga complex.
  30. My father is a soft man.
  31. My tears are my most precious gift to self.  I think it is better to cry a little bit every day than to have your soul shrivel from dehydration.
  32. When I want to feel skinny, I sleep on my stomach, but I regret it in the morning.
  33. I spend most of my afternoons searching for the stranger that hides behind my whiteness.  If you ever find me in this state, eyes glazed over with fury and skin crawling with goosebumps, do not, I repeat, do not wrap your arms around me and whisper sweet platitudes.  My goosebumps are all I have, so please, just leave me be.
  34. I do not have a taste in music, though I love music dearly.  My “taste” is but a compilation of everyone else’s “taste,” haphazardly recommended to me on road trips and bad first dates.
  35. Some days I imagine God as a woman.  Some days I call her Venus.
  36. Touch is my first love language, but dance was my first liturgy.
  37. I will cook you adobo, but don’t expect me to pay 12$ for longanisa at that gentrified food stand in Grand Central Market when I can just as easily have it for 2$ when I go home to see my grandmother.

I am an Asian-American, Filipino-English, first-generation hapa.  

I live my hyphens. I am often stuck living as a transmitter between two worlds that don’t understand each other.  

If you’re wondering what that’s like, it’s like being forced to be a cultural translator when everyone knows you’re not fluent in either.

There are some things you should know about me.

I will tell you those things because no one else will.  

I am the one that knows my story best.

So I will tell you those things.

 

Created by: Lindsey Twigg

About the Author: Lindsey is a playwright, blogger, and lyrical poet based in Santa Barbara, CA.  A born and bred Southern Californian, she is currently living in Manila with extended family working on her first full-length play, Platinum Record.  She writes vigorously about hapa identity, the female body, and the importance of wearing pearls.  You can usually find her belting out showtunes in her car or arguing loudly about sexuality in third wave coffee shops.  She’s a friend of the pod, a hoarder of (coffee table) books, and a connoisseur of very large pants.

You can find her social commentary on Medium or her ramblings about fashion on her lifestyle blog, The Filipino Grigio.

Photo: courtesy of the author.  Her Auntie’s house in Manila.

The Process of Words and Three Generations

I have always loved the humanities. I love and appreciate my parents for supporting my interest in the humanities. I also notice that there are fewer Asian-American people in the humanities than say, math or science.

Sure, I got the occasional joke in my co-op groups as to why I wasn’t great at math. Sitting in Kumon sessions improving my math skills in preparation for the SAT made me painfully aware that I did not possess the stereotypical aptitude of every other kid there who looked like me: deep black or dark brown hair, glasses – head down in concentration.

As a homeschooler, my love for writing, history, art, literature and logic only grew. My sport was forensics! This activity opened up a whole new realm where my interests collided together into something strong, loud and personal. I recall another Asian girl in a different club coming up to me at one tournament. She looked me in the eye and shyly asked  “How did you learn to speak? Asians, we, we are not loud people.” What do you mean? I thought. You’re here, I am here, at a speech and debate tournament! You’re wearing a suit and blouse just like every other student here: if I can speak.You can too! That’s what I thought. What I said instead was a true, but pat answer that my speaking ability was a gift from God which my parents always encouraged me to use. I wish now that I had chosen to respond to both questions: the one about my speaking ability and the other about how being Asian does not mean you have to be a “quiet person.”

Still, the girl’s hesitation echoes what much of society still thinks about us: the quiet Asian.

I look first to my parents to counter this idea. My parents: second generation, Christian Asian-Americans who dated long distance. They love food, fashion, the artsand are not afraid to speak up. When my mother dated my dad, who became a lawyer, and met his family of six: she thought she was having dinner with Italians. My mother worked for Levis after college. I have yet to see her lose in an exchange with a retail customer service associate over whether a sale still applies.

With their support behind me, I began my college journey in elementary education. While studying diversity in the classroom, it occurred to me that I could be a model for the Asian students in my class who are creative and loved to express their thoughts.  Despite their parent’s desire to steer them toward the stable careers afforded in math and science, I could encourage them to explore and express via the humanities and arts.

Yes world, I am a Chinese-American with an English degree! While I don’t aspire to be the next Amy Tan, I’ve started to realize there there is more beyond the primarily European lit canon I was taught.  All kinds of great written work is out there by Asian-Americans that are spreading awesome ideas. They are breaking ground in graphic novels and perhaps coolest of all: translating science fiction from China. You all should check out Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series, Ken Liu’s Paper Menagerie and Invisible Planets as well as Kao Kalia Yang’s poetry. It’s gorgeous. We’re getting there, but there could be more of us.

When I first found PAAC (Progressive Asian American Christians) I was a little hesitant at first. Not having grown up around many Asian-Americans and having a third generation separation from my Asian identity, I wasn’t sure how I would fit in. But, then I started to enjoy what I was learning from the questions, conversations and occasional rants. Soon, I was invited to join the Write On, PAAC writing group. I was in wonder during the first writing workshop we had: there were free verse poems, myth adaptations, memoirs and social critique essays.

I had found Asians who loved the humanities. Asians who loved and pursued their love of writing.

In college, I never had that community. While I felt encouraged and supported in my own writing efforts, I didn’t know what I was missing until I found this community. It still feels uncertain. I worry I don’t have enough critical reflections on my own identity as third-generation Chinese-American Christian. It’s new, but percolating with possibility.

That possibility is what made me want to be a part of As I Am which grew out of the PAAC Writer’s Collaborative.  Here were wonderful people who want to adapt their cultural myths and legends into plays.  People who want to examine their faith graciously in its complexity. People who want to explore their questions and doubts with beauty and clarity through the written word. It is a space to not only examine what stories we have believed to be true about ourselves, but also a space for redemption.

Stories are powerful and the story we write together is equally important.

This feels like a new chapter for me as a writer. Finding PAACs who love humanity and the humanities is exciting, like learning something new for the first time. We started As I Am to give voice and platform for those who have witty words, searing satire and smart social think-pieces to hurl at the idea that we will ever only be scientists, doctors or people who work with numbers. We do those too (many of us do). We write to show how wondrous and multi-faceted the image of God is. We put our words on the page and say: here am I, as I am. See, read, know and be known.

 

Created by: Katherine Kwong

About the author: Born and raised in Southern California, Katherine is currently an intern with The Moth, an organization dedicated to the art and craft of live storytelling. There, she helps with numerous kinds of back-end work while trying her best to draft stories she thinks of quickly, but writes slowly. You can find her listening to podcasts while cooking, watercoloring or trying to make a little corner of Brooklyn feel like home.

Picture: Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, fifty-one channel video installation (including one closed-circuit television feed), custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood; color, sound, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Nam June Paik Estate, Gift of the artist, 2002.23

Who We Are: Moving Beyond the In-Between

On behalf of the editors and our entire team of writers, I’d like to welcome you to As I Am: A PAAC Writers’ Collaborative. The honor has fallen on me to launch and introduce this special collaboration, and so, true to its name and spirit, allow me to begin with a personal story.

I was born in Garden Grove, California in 1984. In 2004, I visited South Korea—my ethnic homeland—for the first time as an adult. The plan was for my mother, younger sister, and I to visit all the major destinations—Seoul, Busan, and Jeju Island. But the area I was most excited to see was my mother’s childhood home in Seosan, which is in Chungcheongnam-do, a province in the western part of the country.

I can’t really describe in words what it meant for me at the time to make this visit. I wanted to know what it felt like to be surrounded by people who looked like me, had hair like mine, who ate the food I loved. I wanted to be wrapped in the warm glow of bright, neon signs with Korean lettering, and I wanted to breathe Seosan’s air, which my mother said smelled of seaweed and freshly caught fish.

My high school years had been rough. I attended an all-boys Catholic high school with a student population mostly comprised of white and Latino students and very few Asians. The few of us who did attend banded together and cloistered ourselves away, but we were still mocked and bullied on a near weekly basis. I often wondered what it would be like for Asians to be in the majority. Would we treat other racial groups this way? I was eager to know what it felt like to be among my people.

In preparation for my trip, I enrolled in Korean language classes at UCLA. I did understand most of the language at the time, but my speech was broken. I took the classes so that I could have meaningful conversations with my relatives and other local Koreans.

To say my time there was dispiriting would be an understatement. On our very first taxi ride, I was accosted by the driver for saying the wrong word in Korean. “What kind of a Korean can’t speak the language?” In marketplace after marketplace, shopkeepers would take one look at me and ignore me, presumably to have a better chance at making a sale with real Korean shoppers. My clothes marked me as a clumsy, boorish American, a bumbling fool in cargo shorts and Reebok sneakers.

I resorted to my high school tactics. I closed myself off and I didn’t engage. Even when I was in the safety of my extended family’s home in Seosan, I withdrew into a shell, terrified to say the wrong thing and embarrass myself. I left Korea feeling utterly rejected by its culture.

After that trip, I wanted nothing to do with Korea. My identity underwent a subtle, yet profound shift. I went from being a Korean who happened to be born in America to an American who happened to be Korean. It would take me years to learn what it meant to be Korean American.

***

In Dictee, avant-garde artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who was born in Korea but relocated to the United States when she was eleven, described her experience of returning to Korea for the first time since she moved away:

You return and you are not one of them, they treat you with indifference. All the time you understand what they are saying. But the papers give you away. Every ten feet. They ask you identity. They comment upon your inability or ability to speak. Whether you are telling the truth or not about your nationality. They say you look other than you say. As if you didn’t know who you were. You say who you are but you begin to doubt.

Cha’s reflections resonate with my own return-to-the-homeland experience. But in the past year, in this noxious post-2016 political climate we find ourselves in, I find it striking how the sentiments contained in this passage might also be felt by immigrant families in the United States. Many if not all of us, know what it feels like to be othered in this country—to be mocked, caricatured, reduced, fetishized, emasculated, and/or sidelined. These experiences, which some of us may have been content to ignore in the past, have taken on new salience and relevance in light of the current anti-immigrant mood.

The fault lines that cut across our body politic are many, but lately, I’ve been attuned, in particular, to the emerging split between those who fundamentally see immigrants and people of color as guests of a white nation and those who are fighting for an expanded imagination of what America can and should be. The ways in which we express our identities matter a great deal to this struggle. Otherwise, the stereotypes and myths that others have constructed for us will endure in the nation’s consciousness.

Within this broader context, we launch As I Am to articulate a positive, front-facing expression of Asian/Pacific Islander American identity. We are, of course, indebted to countless luminaries who have done the hard work of forging the space we need for our stories to be told. Resonant themes of loss, liminality, tension, and belonging have sprouted from this fertile soul, speaking authentically to APIA’s often fraught experiences of navigating vastly different cultures on a daily basis.

And while it remains important for us to continue this interrogation, new questions have emerged to propel us forward. What would it take to move beyond this feeling of in-between? What does true belonging mean for API Americans? What are the unique aspects of our identity that need to be spoken into the world?

On this final question, I believe that creatives will show us the way. What is our art, our poetry, our music, our food, our film, our voice, our stories that we want to share with the rest of the world? Toward this mighty endeavor, we thankfully do not stand alone. As I Am joins a chorus of API creatives—too many to list here—who are busy answering these questions through a variety of means and mediums.

They light the way.

***

Every Tuesday, one of our writers will share something. New rules or adjustments might be added as we go along, but at the start of this project, sharing something every Tuesday is about all we can promise. Though our writers will be writing loosely around different monthly themes, cohesion is not our aim. Would you describe API America as cohesive?

Instead, expect our styles, content, and editorial direction to vary from post to post, month to month, reflecting the wild diversity that is API America.

The common thread that binds us are the four distinct identities that our writers have rallied around: 1. Progressive 2. Asian 3. American 4. Christian. We may write implicitly or explicitly about these identities, but our overriding goal is to write authentically as individuals who embody the various complexities these identities entail. To write simply as we are.

At the end of our project, whenever that may be, we hope to look back and find a vivid tableau of thoughts, expressions, poetry, and stories.

On that day, we hope to be able to say, “Look, this is who we are.”


Created by: Christopher Paek

About the author: Originally from Orange County, home of Disneyland, aka the happiest place on Earth (unless you’re homeless). Fled in 2009 and I’ve been wandering, not traveling, the world ever since.

Website

 

 

AS I AM LAUNCHES TOMORROW

AS I AM LAUNCHES TOMORRROW AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH.

(We hope you’ll join us!)

Christian

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds”

–Hebrews 10:24, NRSV

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

–Galatians 6:2, NRSV

“Commit to finding the true nature of art. Go for that thing no one can teach you. Go for that communion, that real communion with your soul, and the discipline of expressing that communion with others. That doesn’t come from competition. That comes from being one with what you are doing.”

–Anna Deveare Smith, Letters to a Young Artist

Our intention: that through our communion with our writing we might also find communion with one another. That we might speak the truth powerfully, starting with our identities at their fullest, and most abundant. That we might commit to listening to the suffering, illuminating the voices of the oppressed (be that ourselves or other marginalized voices around us), and expressing at all times the Love Greater Than Us.

See you on the other side.

 

With Eternal Love and Excitement,

The Editors