New York University
as Mahasweta Devi
Mahasweta Devi was an Indian Bengali fiction writer and social activist. She spent much of her time researching and interviewing the most neglected (socially, economically, or politically) groups in India, including tribal peoples, Maoist rebels, and women across the country. She wrote over 100 novels, usually fictionalizing the stories she heard while speaking to people in rural villages across India.
I first stumbled upon Mahasweta Devi's work completely by accident. I was writing an essay on breasts, and she had written a triad of short stories (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) called Breast Stories. Naturally, Google brought us together. In Breast Stories, Mahasweta Devi explores the relationship of very different women to their breasts. In the pages of the slim volume, a professional breastfeeder suffers from breast cancer, a Maoist rebel stands up to her rapists, and a male photographer's callousness costs an innocent woman a piece of herself.
What struck me most about the stories is that they were both undeniably feminist and undeniably sad. I had been trapped within an idea of feminism that overemphasized happy endings, in many ways an explicitly Western feminism. But the women in Breast Stories do not always win, do not often triumph, yet their stories are full of dignity and strength. Sadness does not erase the meaning of their lives. Mahasweta Devi taught me that we must respect our tragedies and the tragedies of our mothers in order to respect our joy. She taught me that we must seek out what is ugly, define it, and understand where it came from before we move forward as feminists and activists. She has taught me not to flinch, to love what is impossible to hate, and to reach out to the women around me. I want to write like her one day, diving into the stories that are easier to ignore.
The reason that I chose Ailee as my influencer is firstly, she is a phenomenal singer and truely inspirational. However, beyond her musical talent, her refusal to conform to South Korean beauty stereotypes and to be the ‘typical-really-thin-unrealistically-amazing-bodied woman’ is a refreshing change to see.
In reality, people do not look like the final images we often see in magazines or television. The result of these excessively photoshopped pictures is an internalized discouragement from not feeling pretty enough, thin enough, or fit enough. That is why when I see Ailee boldly rise to her success as an artist while not succumbing to society’s--specifically Korea’s--standards of beauty, I am inspired. It is truly a breath of fresh air.
Teochew Chinese/Mon Thai-American
as Trinh T. Minh-Ha
Being Asian often means we do not get to tell our own stories. Our histories are erased. We are constantly subject to the colonial gaze. Growing up in Bangkok, White tourists would often take pictures of me going about my day without my consent and proceed to talk about me to each other in English. I am treated as an extra in the backdrop of their special emotional journeys in this “exotic” tropical locale. On the streets of New York, I am catcalled. I am called Geisha Girl. China Doll. You love me long time. In the media, Asian people are reduced to stereotypes, which is about dehumanization at its very core. Pacific Islanders and other indigenous peoples are erased completely, a legacy of colonial expropriation. Or, we are whitewashed, not even allowed to be featured in our own narratives. In documentaries, we are a nameless mass of poverty and suffering in the background as a White person narrates their version of our stories. Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh Minh-ha takes control behind the camera, subverting the colonial gaze. Her work is an assertion of postcolonial agency. People are able to speak for themselves, no “standard” American (read: voiceover) included. The validity of our lived experiences should not have to be legitimized by certain vocabularies or levels of education.
Of her identity, Trinh Minh-ha writes, “I certainly do belong to this whole context of Asia whose cultural heritages cut across national borderlines-I don't see my location as being primarily Asian or American.” As someone born in Asia and later came to the United States to pursue a higher education like Trinh Minh-ha, I have found people often want to categorize activism into a geographically specifically fight. As an intersectional feminist, I strongly believe that to be meaningful, our work must be transcend national border lines. Our oppressions are inextricably interlinked, and so is our collective liberation. Although I was not born Asian American, I am racialized into Asian Americana, and I am humbled learning about the ways in which I am situated in a long history of resistance pioneered by AAPI leaders such as Trinh Minh-ha, who are missing from our history lessons. Being Southeast Asian also means being subject to the intermingling imperialisms of the West and East Asia. As a Thai woman, I feel solidarity with the Vietnamese postcolonial struggles Trinh Minh-ha explores in films such as “Surname Viet Given Name Nam.” We must decolonize what it means to call ourselves “Asian American Pacific Islanders,” a colonially constructed term. We cannot have meaningful AAPI coalition building without contending the histories of imperialism and intra-community oppression within our own communities. The road towards freedom is painstaking, with no end in sight. Knowing I am in the footsteps of people like Trinh Minh-ha keeps me going
(최기영; Choi Gie-young) Korean-AMERICAN
I was always a really quiet kid, and am still pretty reserved. Usually, I would rather spend a day listening to music than having to talk to people. Growing up, I never listened to or was exposed to many Asian-American or Asian artists. However, Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead really opened my eyes to this glaring reality of how rare it really is to listen to Asian American artists or to see them on a screen.
When I first was introduced to Dumbfoundead, I remember being inspired just by the fact that he was a Korean-American who was being recognized. However, when he released his song, “Safe” where he raps about the model minority punching bag that Asian-Americans are, he really became someone iconic for me. Throughout “Safe” Dumbfoundead says, “Seems so safe, till one day things go cray. I swear if things don’t change, my actions can’t be blamed.” Those lines really captured my own bundled up emotions on the model minority stereotype that I am associated with everyday. Dumbfoundead’s work made me break free from society’s generalizations, helping me realize that being Asian-American doesn’t mean that I have to possess a quiet or submissive identity. We are all capable of standing up to be more.
(宋家綺; song jia qi) Taiwanese American
as Noodle from Gorillaz
Although I consider being Asian American to be a salient identity today, it really wasn't until college when I fleshed out and developed a better sense of this very identity. In fact, I didn't have many leaders or icons to follow or be inspired by to begin with. I chose Noodle because she was one of the very few figures who I really latched onto for her ethnicity--the other being Knives Chau from Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Both Noodle and Knives can be problematic as role models for the young Asian American; Noodle is a caricature of Japan created by a white person for a digital age. However, she's still kick ass and cool, and more importantly at the time, she was really all I had.
(김혀진; Kim Hyunjin) Korean-AMERICAN
as Sung Kim
Born in South Korea, Sung Kim moved to the United States in the 1970s and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1980. He grew up in Los Angeles and began his career in public service as a public prosecutor at the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, eventually to become the first Korean American ambassador to the Republic of Korea in November 2011.
Ambassador Kim's upbringing is not much different from that of many immigrants. My family and I immigrated from South Korea to the U.S. in 1996, touching ground in Los Angeles. I spent a majority of my youth in the U.S. and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2010. Like Ambassador Kim, I hope to one day serve the country that has provided me and my family the opportunity to succeed. Yet, to be Asian American does not mean to shy away from where we come from or ignore the history we carry.
I am overwhelmingly a second-generation immigrant and an example of assimilation into American society. Growing up, I used to think that I had to choose between my nationality and my ethnicity--that the fulfillment of the American Dream depended on my abdication of race in exchange for the color-blind pursuit of perceived success. How do I acknowledge who I am while at the same time becoming a part of a new country? Asian American public servants like Ambassador Kim show me that I do not have to choose either or, but can thrive by embracing both. I can proudly serve this nation, whether it be through the government or military, and take pride in the way I look, the food I eat, and the language I speak.
In 2014, near the end of Ambassador Kim's assignment in Korea, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon named Kim a honorary citizen of Seoul. In response, Kim said, "It is after all my city of birth and the place I have always considered to be my second home." I'm encouraged by the fact that if others have been able to reconcile the rift that comes with hyphenated identity and Americanization, I can do justice to both my Korean and American self.
(오나현; Oh Nah-hyun) korean-American
as Angela Dumlao
I've chosen Angela Dumlao (founder of the Facebook Page "Call Me They") as my Asian-American inspiration. Angela is a queer transgender non-binary Filipinx and an activist fighting for greater inclusion and diversity within traditional activist circles. "Call Me They" was recently featured in NBC Asian America's "A to Z" project and their kindness and resilience in the face of constant invalidation is frankly inspiring.
While tentative recognition of binary-identifying transgender individuals has just entered mainstream conversation, non-binary transgender individuals still have even further to go in terms of such recognition. Angela is out there doing the work, centering black, queer, and/or transgender individuals in their activism. Their genderqueer fashion featured is super cool and is my personal menswear inspiration. Check them out @menswearselfcare on Instagram!
(邵逸美; shào yì měi) cHINESE-AMERICAN
as Helen Zia
Helen Zia is a Chinese-American journalist and activist for Asian American, LGBTQ, and workers' rights. Her legacy spans back to the 1970s, during when she was a part of the anti-war, anti-imperialist movement and contributed to the creation of the Asian American Students Association at Princeton University. In the 1980s, her journalism and work as a labor organizer played a crucial role in galvanizing and activating a pan-Asian American coalition to demand justice for Vincent Chin.
Although she has since done so much more for our community, Helen Zia's contribution to the Vincent Chin case is why I want to pay homage to her today. Her work in Detroit shows us how important it is for marginalized communities to have control over their own narratives and how their stories are told. The Vincent Chin case makes it clear that our narratives are not derivative but rather foundational to our struggle for equal justice.
As a queer Chinese-American student organizer, feminist, and aspiring writer, Helen Zia is my movement mother. Her work has nurtured me, her spirit exists within me, and I hope that I might someday make her proud.
Young Woo Son
(선영우; son young-woo) Korean-American
as Kisik Lee
Prior to high school, I never felt the urge to really be proud of my Asian-American heritage. Certainly, there was a chain that bound me to certain values and activities, but it was weightless and weak. If you would have asked me then, I would not have needed a hyphen to tell you my ethnicity. I was American.
It was after taking an interest in archery that I encountered Kisik Lee, the National Head Coach of the U.S. Olympic Archery Team and the former coach of the Korean and Australian teams. Throughout my four years of close training with him, I became familiar with many things about him like his visor hats, cargo shorts, rare jokes, and great coaching. But above of all these things, he was unapologetically Korean and it showed. He often instructed us in Korean (since we were a group of Korean-American youth), joked with our Korean parents, and taught us Korean techniques. He showed his Korean heritage in everyday interactions and regardless of what team he coached for, he still loved being Korean.
Coach Kisik Lee may not be an outspoken activist or leader for the Asian-American community, or even that widely popular. However, he is Korean to the core and unashamed of it. I hope that I will be as proud as he is of his roots.
(하쥬니; Ha Ju-ney) Korean-American
as Awkwafina (Nora Lum)
Awkwafina is the quintessential Asian-American female rapper of my generation. Born and raised in Queens, Awkwafina is the reason I made New York City my home--inspiring confidence in myself and pride in my heritage. In tackling issues such as race, sexuality, and negative stereotypes through the nuances that only an Asian-American female in NYC can pinpoint, she has helped me and so many other Asian-American females with their coming-of-age.
Awkwafina, along with other Asian-American rappers like the OG Dumbfoundead and the more recent stars like Rich Chigga, has also paved a niche within American culture and more specifically, rap culture. The contributions of Asian-American rappers to music are less about flow and more about the symbolic nature of their presence and credibility in the music industry. Traditionally, Asian-Americans did not have a place in mainstream rap culture and therefore, did not have a place in this important medium of social and political commentary. Growing up, I identified with rappers who preached from the outskirts of society--rappers and artists who were not accepted in the mainstream narrative of culture. I felt that I was neither accepted in the suburban white culture that I was raised in nor the Korean culture that I came home to every day. I did not realize that I craved a message coming from someone who looked like me and shared my experiences until I heard Awkwafina's first solo album, Yellow Ranger. It was funny, cool, real, and most importantly for me, allowed an Asian-American to be involved in politics.
Asian-Americans have a complicated history with politics and for myself, it was never a priority. As I grew up, leaders in my Korean-American community perpetuated the sentiment that American politics do not pertain to our culture, our family, and our lives; so, we did not have to get involved. Because I never learned about many prominent Asian-Americans in politics at the time, I internalized and truely believed that domestic politics should not matter and my role was simply to stay out of it. However, hearing Awkwafina and Dumbfoundead talk about Korean-Americans issues really hit home for me, espcially in songs like "Mayor Bloomberg" and "Green Tea" by Awkwafina, and "Safe" by Dumbfounded.
The way these artists fashioned their lyrics, style, attitude, and status as cultural icons was truely eye-opening. They are successful counter-culturalists with tattoos and live lives that reject the model minority myth. They do drugs, rap using an innovative mix of Korean and English, and openly mock the American white-collar dream (or the "American Dream") while promoting a more authentic and original way of living. That is not to say everyone should go get tattoos and start smoking, but seeing this contrast to my parents' dream of their children becoming a lawyer-doctor-engineer was so refreshing. The more I learned about artists like Awkwafina, the more I was able to dream and gain the agency and capacity to be successful in my own way. It helped me accept my identity as a Korean-American instead of rejecting my culture in order to be more Americanized. My heritage is inherent in my identity as an American and to a degree is mine to decide.