I used to be an apathetic Asian American.
– Abigail Licad, Editor in Chief, Hyphen Magazine (Hyphen Magazine – Fall 2014)
I’m sitting in my cousin’s house in Union City, just outside of San Francisco, where I am waiting to attend my aunt’s funeral, when I read these words. I’ve just returned from meeting Abigail in person for the first time, after a number of years of reading Hyphen magazine on-line. The magazine, the byline of which is “Asian America unabridged”, is one of the many inspirations for Peril’s work, and an award winning not-for-profit print and online magazine founded in 2002 in the San Francisco Bay area. Check it out if you haven’t already. You won’t regret it.
Sadly, one thing that I do regret, is that I know what Abigail is talking about.
Although our lived experiences are different and our contexts disparate, I can admit that I used to be an apathetic Asian Australian too. In fact, only a few years ago, I don’t think that I would even have attended the Yum Chat event, about which we are now going to share an entire edition, a networking event for creative professionals who identify as Asian Australians or have links to and interest in Asia, or care about Asia and Australia, or Asians in Australia. Or just maybe free food. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have called myself creative. Five years ago, I might not have bothered with the Asian.
The Yum Chat event has run the past few years (see our previous review) as a part of the Brisbane City Council’s BrisAsia Festival, a yearly, month-long celebration of traditional and contemporary Asian culture based in the capital of Queensland. According to the 2011 census, approximately 8% of Brisbane’s population identifies with Asian heritage, as compared to the 18% in Sydney and Melbourne. For Brisbane, which has strongly identified itself as a “new world city” in recent years, the festival contributes to the city’s brand identity by providing opportunities to showcase and promote creative endeavours through iconic events and projects.
Running over the course of the month, the event includes one-off and long-running events designed to engage the broader community, and highlight the contribution of Asians in the greater Brisbane area. This year, for Yum Chat, the council brought together Regurgitator frontman, Quan Yeomans; actor, Merlynn Tong; filmmaker, Audrey Lam; motion designer, Joyce Ho; MC, Michelle Law and myself, Eleanor Jackson, for several hours of informal networking and structured conversations and presentations around creative endeavours and personal cultural experiences.
Held at the iconic Metro Arts, the event featured live music, street food, informal drinks, and roving performance, designed to allow audiences members multiple modes of interaction with both the invited presenters and each other. As Quan Yeoman’s took to the stage to give the keynote address he quipped:
[Yum Chat] may be more Asians than I’ve ever seen in one room in this country outside my favourite Szechuan restaurant.
But I’m not sure that that’s what everyone saw – surely someone “creative” attended the recent AFC Asian Cup Final. To test that, we were interested in asking a range of other people just what it was that they saw at Yum Chat, asking them questions of perspective and context, of relativity and comparison. If, as the Anais Nin quote suggests, we do not see the world as it is, but as we are, how do Asian Australians interact with the iconic events in their new world city?
Calling on a number of individuals who were scheduled to be in attendance at the event, Peril asked them to not only attend the event, but to participate as a live tweeter (you can see some of their reflections in the Storify above), but to turn their particular attention to the event in relation to their own experiences and provide their creative reflections – either as an Asian Australian; or a person who might have an interest in Asia or Australia; being Asian in Australia; Australia in relationship to Asia, or just free food. We called this the “me-view” as opposed to “review”. If a “review” is a written text that (theoretically) seeks to stand outside or above the work in neutrality, and somehow assess the art or the experience as having value or worth, then the “me-view” is a kind of written reflection that seeks to acknowledge the person and their situated reality, to honestly share of the experience and its impact through an openly subjective lens. We wanted to know what this kind of the event looks like to “you”.
Together with some contextualising reflections from the panel participants, this edition consists of these “me-views” from the Yum Chat events, which we have originally termed as our Yum Chattier edition. Gathering together a graphic designer, social researcher, photographer and academic, performance writer, community development practitioner and a nine year old student might seem like an unlikely grouping. But one of the clearest messages of the Yum Chat event was that it is difficult to generalise about a region that encompasses some 40+ countries and an almost uncountable number of languages and cultures. So why bother? Why not just accept the categories as limiting and useful, as purposeful and irrational, as wonderful and horrible? Then play with them – or play to them as best we can manage?
What has emerged from that inquiry, is a beautiful showcase of the diversity of experience. Ostensibly, over a few hours, a group of people experienced the same thing – mainly another group of people talking in a darkened room. Yet no one is really looking at the same thing.
Whether they are questioning multiple defined identities, as Naida Roberts does; exploding their brains and their footwear options like Archie Reyes; or a conjuring a dreamy halfie with fish sauce in his veins like Deborah Emmanuel, each of our participants and respondents bring their unique reflexive lens through which to see the world, not as it is but as they are. Where Joyce Ho grapples with aspects of cultural production in a rapidly changing digital age, Sarah Irannejad navigates photography and painting in ways that “diasporic identities are those repetitively producing and reproducing themselves through transformation and difference”. I hope that you will love Michelle Dang’s call for structural and intersectional analysis of privilege, especially when set against Merlynn Tong’s “ritual [sic] she had to undergo” – namely, attempting to be intimate with her first non-Asian lover. If Audrey Lam is making film that thinks about “something shared, in many ways, but not necessarily generic or universal”, will this be enough for Sol’s hope for “a good story”, no matter the ethnic or gender make up of the story’s character?
The event itself was short (on the global scale of events but perhaps not so for poor Sol’s sleepy post-bedtime tweets!), but the after effects of the conversation have been long, especially over the last few days with my family. Then, as now, I am reminded just how difficult/delightful/fantastic/heartbreaking/nourishing it has been to code switch between my Filipino and Australian cultural identities; how much and how little I have reconciled between those identities and my gender, my sexuality, my politics, my preferences, my choices, my experiences, my hopes and my dreams. Against the complexity of reality, it’s hard to be apathetic.
We hope that your reading the contributors’ work in Yum Chattier will provide just another layer to those fractured and refracted identities and experiences – whether you are apathetic, part-time, notional, token, revolutionary, beleaguered, generous, celebratory or nonchalant in your own cultural experiences, or just looking for a good story as a creative – I hope that you’ll add your voices to the conversation.
As always, we welcome your thoughts, comments, feedback and reflections, whether here, on our Facebook or via Twitter.