This is a set of notes compiled following a D&D satellite event after Vera Chok's provocation: "What do we do about East Asians trapped as portraying the Other?". The original report can be found here. These thoughts aren't all mine, rather they arose in conversation with: Vera Chok, Waylon MaWei, Ming Kam, Anna Masing, Tiffany R Chan, April Lin, Lucy Lan Luo, Kritti Tantas, Jasmine Lin, Rachel Tam Hau-Yu, Yang Ming Ooi, and me.
Some of Vera's thoughts and questions prompting the provocation can be found here. Also, I highly recommended reading Vera's chapter in The Good Immigrant titled, "Yellow".
"How do I go about decolonizing my lifelong Anglicisation without erasing myself entirely?"
I was prompted to ask this question by a long overdue realisation that so much of my core being and imagination is white. White media, white education, white fairy stories, white ways of communicating, white beliefs. Thing is, this white way-of-being comes from and is complicit in cultures that continually tread all over my colonially marked (ethnically Filipino/Malayo-Polynesian + unknown Asian other) body. But if my internalised whiteness is near tantamount to who I am - what am I supposed to do with it? And who would I be without it?
Based on our discussion, the following are a few suggestions on how to start decolonising consciously and sustainably. Responses haven’t been attributed to anyone (I’ve also tried to blank out nationalities and occupations) for the sake of anonymity, but if you did attend the session please (please!) claim your ideas and statements in the comments - fill in blanks about your stories, disagree with and expand on what’s written here!
1. Be cognisant of what has brought you here.
One person shared a story about a university entrance interview where someone on the panel asked: “Why isn’t any of your (creative) work Asian?”. Another expressed how horrible it is to embody a Western fear on stage and screen. Another was asked to consider going “back to China” for work opportunities (the person mentioned a few countries as their ‘home’, China was not one of them). We talked about how East Asian people, our identities and our bodies are packaged and wrapped up for white consumption. We talked about our typecasting as ‘quiet and invisible’ or ‘moneyed and threatening’.
As a result of constant Othering by white society, some of us have experienced or are still experiencing long periods of minimising and erasing our Asianness in a bid to assimilate, Anglicise or ingratiate ourselves to the respective white cultures in which we have grown up. A lot of us expressed a lot of disappointment about this situation - we talked about ‘going back to roots’: learning our parents’ languages, learning about the non-white cultures of our ancestors, travelling to places around the globe which have had some familial significance. But this process has never been a solution to our cultural displacement as people of the East Asian diaspora, constantly living between cultures, seemingly never completely safe or accepted.
One person explained a deep frustration when told: ‘go back to where you came from’ simply because their home no longer exists. Countries can disappear, communities can be destroyed, and at the very least towns and cities will undergo vast socio-political and economic change. We hazarded some ways of labelling or couching our liminal experience: cross-cultural, the diaspora, hybrid - still imperfect approximations, but perhaps an alternative to white-imposed and bureaucratic classifications.
Each of the attendees shared diverse and differing encounters with whiteness and Anglicisation; I think it’s important to trust your own experience when moving forward and to remain aware of its continuing effects.
2. Be specific. Complicate matters.
What even is ‘East Asian’? As far as we're aware, it’s a term specific to the UK/Europe with a specific function, but is it really just code for yellow? Or ‘kinda vaguely Han Chinese-looking-ish’?
One person has made a professional/personal practice of complicating the delineation of East Asian and spoke about the process of celebrating specificity through performance, food, writing, art etc. Complicating our identities and communicating difference and is a joyous way to break down fallacies of an East Asian hegemony. It’s the difference between enjoying “Filipino street food” and Bicol Express.
We also talked about the idea of ‘owning your own English’. No two people speak the same English and yet schools, workplaces, publishers etc still police English and reinforce linguistic uniformity. From pidgin to dialect to accent, inflected by location, migration, colonisation, region, class, education, and generation, if we celebrate the specificities of our own English, street to street, province to province (in a way that white people in this country have been doing for forever), then we’re on our way to dispelling a key element of our colonial objectification - that is, our sameness in the eyes of Western history and culture.
Each of our identities are so dependent on specific circumstances: where we are and who we are with at any given time, and upon all sorts of other non-ethnic intersections. To start honouring those specificities and intersections, keep it complicated … even if it runs the risk of being momentarily confusing or obfuscating.
3. Create and participate in spaces that are nourishing to you.
When momentum fades away and mainstream politics carries on in the same way, how do you respond to the frustration and dejection that follows?
One person expressed frustration with movements ‘fizzling out’ in the saturated whiteness of their home country. We discussed factors surrounding this, including the nature of the East Asian diaspora - that communities in Europe were dispersed and disparate compared with the parts of the US and Australia. In areas where real community cohesion exists, East Asian people might not be confronted by their peculiarity or ‘Otherness’ until travelling to Europe. The same was said of the experience of being and growing up East Asian in East Asia.
From this person's account (the East Asian growing up in East Asia), I can only imagine that this is how white people must feel being and growing up white in majority white countries - without fear for your safety due to your appearance, accent or passport, without constant reminders of your Otherness in mainstream politics and media, without the need to create your ‘own’ space, without fear of discrimination.
How then do we go about creating this experience of safety for ourselves here and now? And should this experience be consciously reactive or consciously non-reactive to whiteness? Do we create new spaces in order to be seen by the mainstream? Or is the mainstream mostly noise, and should we be more concerned with generating spaces regardless.
Here are some ideas about what these new spaces, movements, gatherings or situations could look like:
New spaces don’t need to have labels
New spaces can be consciously interruptive or disruptive of Western/white narratives, or they can arise from within your community with another focus.
New spaces are temporally specific. In the same way that ‘home’ is time-locked, so are new spaces.
New spaces are also fleeting. They can be organised or come about organically, either way it’s important to take stock of what happens, when they happen, and who was there when it happened.
New spaces can be entirely non-pressured - it could be tea or coffee with friends a Sunday, it could be working together on a train, it could be sitting on a communal stairwell.
New spaces can be created simply with a view to celebrating each member of the group. These spaces may not have any action plans or agendas.
Where on one hand there’s a big pressure to overturn, overthrow, and overpower that which holds us back, there is something entirely radical, discourse-shifting, and nourishing about meeting with and celebrating people who may otherwise be marginalised in other parts of their lives. But in so doing, I think a few of us in the group would encourage you to acknowledge the multiplicity of ways in which East Asian people might create, convene and act whether that be in protest, art, research, philanthropy, communing and conversation etc. Plurality is both the means and the objective.
4. Practise self-care.
The process of self-decolonisation is long, and of little use if it’s unsustainable. Here are tips I’ve collated from the session:
Try not to blame yourself for participating in cultures and practices that are historically white and colonial. Your whiteness is not your fault and might be a big part of who you are.
Think about ‘what makes you sing’ and do it. Give yourself permission to enjoy what it is you enjoy (I would add: so long as you’re mindful of its function and history). Some otherwise terrific spaces, groups and activities might be inexplicably uncomfortable; try not to pressure yourself to connect with everyone and everything.
Think about who you’re connecting with, who you’re intending to connect with and consider how you’re best able to sustain that relationship (this includes teacher/student, writer/reader, artist/audience and other more public relationships)
Celebrate small breakthroughs, moments of impact either within yourself or with others.
Celebrate each other. Find your people and affirm them, continually.
Some attendees are now planning to convene in a casual, non-pressured way/environment as a next step. Apologies, this isn’t everything that was said. To those who were there, claim statements, add comments, dispute and disagree and thank you for creating something special for a short hour during a D&D.
(I also welcome any questions, thoughts or suggestions you may have for me, personally. Please don't hesitate to get in touch.)