I always come late to the hype. Music, news, fashion–I get too lazy to join in and relish in the collective awe at the moment. For example, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. came out three weeks ago. His single “HUMBLE.” came out a month ago, and most people I know were freaking out over the song and music video. It was only last week that I got around to listening to both “HUMBLE.” and “DNA.” while sitting in a hospital waiting room. This past weekend, I bought the album on iTunes and thoroughly listened to it, from beginning to end. And yes, the entire thing is just… gotDAMN.
Also last weekend was the eleventh annual New York City Asian American Student Conference (NYCAASC) at NYU Kimmel Center. It was my first time attending, which is criminal on my part; as a (former) student of Asian American Studies, an event like this perfectly coincides with my discipline and prospective career. Now that the event is over, and I have had time to process all that happened, here are my thoughts.
It has been almost two years since I graduated college. Entering a university, as a casual visitor for free events open to the public, now seems like a foreign concept to me. But somehow I manage to blend in, both because I still look like a college student (“Asian don’t raisin’”) and because I can easily interact with other students.
The workshops all had interesting themes that ranged from mental health, digital security, media and representation, youth empowerment, activism and group organizing, improv as confidence building, etc.–all with a focus on the APIA community and its members. It was refreshing to see people of my age group engaging in these important issues and facets through discussion, participation, and open-mindedness.
Because I have been removed from the academic setting for two years, I felt that my attendance was necessary for me to get back into that setting, for the sake of my career aspirations–I intend to become an educator in Asian American Studies. So to spend most of the day surrounded by other like-minded people that are as passionate and interested in AAS helped me to feel that I am heading on the right track. (I have Jonny Sun to thank for his Building Confidence Through Improv workshop because I forgot that I had social anxiety for a few hours…!)
The Headlining Programs
It was relaxing to be an audience member in this conference, having been on the other side at another conference last year. I enjoyed Kim Chinh’s one-woman show, Reclaiming Vietnam, which was like a memoir coming to life on stage. It is rare to see a performance follow the structure of a written work, where you have a present moment shift into a memory, shift into a near-past event, shift into a future-present event, and so on. I enjoyed the way Kim Chinh presented her personal and heartfelt story in such a manner that one could not be lost in the structure, but rather in the emotion of her piece.
Timothy Atlas is becoming my new favorite independent artist. I honestly did not expect to be swayed by his music, which–if I had to describe it without posting links to his songs–sounds like a smooth vanilla frozen yogurt on a warm day while watching a pink and lavender sunset from a backyard deck. (It’s best that you just click on his name to listen to his music for yourself.) I particularly like the song “Compromised” for its lyrics and its melody; personally, it sounds better live. I also recommend “Shame” (sadly, it is not available for download or purchase; I would like to include this in my library~).
Filmmaker Brett Ryoji Kodoma screened his documentary, One-Two-One-Seven, a first-hand account of the Japanese-American
Internment Incarceration Camps. The title of the film refers to the Family ID Number issued to the family of Kodoma’s grandmother, Sharon Shizuko Okazaki Kodama (the subject of this documentary), as they and many Japanese American families were forcibly “relocated” to these camps during the second World War. What I found interesting about the film was its structure. Usually, documentaries will use archival footage and photographers as the main content for the topic and interviews of professionals or eyewitnesses as the supplement, to provide different perspectives that are not written as part of the “official” story. But Kodoma does the inverse in his documentary: his grandmother’s story is the main content, while the archival footage and photos from WWII provided context to her personal account of living in the camps as a three-year-old child. It was refreshing to see one person’s interview as the central focus of a documentary, making the story more personal and intimate for the audience, creating a space of empathy and understanding of what it was like to live in a horrid time that is often erased from the “official” history of the United States.
And finally, the Keynote Speech by Allan Punzalan Isaac (a professor at Rutgers University specialized in American Studies and in English) emphasized and centralized the theme of this year’s conference: Realities. For any member of a marginalized group in the US, we are often asked “Where are you from?” Prof. Isaac pointed out how the question is more of an investigation in one’s “actual” background that suggests “foreign” origin than a general inquiry of current residence. He also discussed the sordid realities of our current political and social climate, which has been tiring to repeat and hear about constantly, especially as most of us are fighting to change things and must remind ourselves why we are fighting in the first place. The speech was meant to help us keep in mind of what we are facing, as young persons of color, and to inspire us to keep striving for better, as we head for an indeterminate yet promising future in this country.
Throughout the conference, I felt that we were being “spoilt” with everything the organizers had to offer. From the food (Vietnamese, Indian, vegetarian, mini bagels, free snacks, MATCHA BUBBLE TEA??) to the performances, the NYCAASC team ensured that students would have a good experience, in a space that allowed for honest and engaging discussion with regards to Asian Americana.
The DAMN. Narrative and the APIA Community
After the stage performance and documentary screening in the auditorium, we were making our way to the next workshops. As we filed out, “HUMBLE.” started playing from the speakers. No doubt someone still had their laptop connected to the sound system, for the film presentation, and decided to play Kendrick Lamar. The song had been stuck in my head for several days, but it was not until that moment of walking out of the room that connections were forming in my mind.
No doubt, Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest rappers of our time. He is also one of the few artists that can construct a fluid narrative through music. “HUMBLE.” can stand out as a single, but it is also an essential part of a grand narrative that describes the artist’s journey of the self. The compilation of tracks includes religious references, samples of a news segment criticizing the song “Alright”, and personal anecdotes about family and life in Compton. DAMN. is a personal narrative of the artist reflecting on his life experiences and demanding that we acknowledge his struggles, inner thoughts, and contemplations at the personal level, not at the “public figure” level.
I believe that is also what we of the APIA community want with our narrative. We struggle with telling our stories from our perspectives because other voices are given more privilege to tell stories that may not belong to them. That is, the APIA narrative often falls into the hands of those that have not experienced our life, but rely on stereotypes and caricatures to tell our stories, thinking that that is how we have lived and are living. There is also the erasure of our true stories, whenever we try to tell the stories ourselves; our voices threaten to disprove certain stories told by non-APIA, hence why we feel frustrated when our opportunities are taken away from us. We of the APIA community try to find avenues into telling our stories, which is why some of us turn to the arts and the humanities.
By using theatre, film, music, or writing as a medium to tell our personal narratives, we are creating spaces for ourselves. With these spaces, we determine who is allowed to enter them and what rules are set up for those wish to enter. Normally, we hope that those who enter are open and willing to listen to what we have to say. We expect to be honored and respected for sharing our internal selves, often regarded as being humble or vulnerable to let down our metaphorical guards. Even with Kendrick Lamar’s killer verses and vocal bravado, he still shows his vulnerability in his work–if you can take the time to listen to the lyrics carefully and consider the layers of thought he put into each track. That is what we of the APIA community also strive for, when we show our work. We demand to have our identities acknowledged and recognized with respect and honor. Our work is not just a representation of the community we belong to, but it is also a representation of our individual selves. We want to be seen as both individual persons and members of a rising community.
Thanks to NYCAASC and to DAMN., I decided to reactivate my Facebook account. Months ago, I swore off social media for the sake of my mental and emotional well-being. Many reasons included the influx of social justice callings, to overwhelming posts of people living much better lives than I did, to feelings of guilt and jealousy because of these things.
But the conference reminded me of who I am, as an Asian American, a Filipina-American, a writer of color, and a student of liberal arts. I deeply care about Asian American Studies and how it is incredibly interdisciplinary, allowing students and educators to bring together their areas of study and create new avenues for themselves. The conference also inspired my focus for graduate studies and for career, as I am interested in narratives forms that allow for excavation into ‘the personal’ and ‘the collective’. NYCAASC influenced me to get back on track, to stay in touch with people that will help me on my journey, and to return to the fight for social justice and for the APIA community.
But I must also ‘be humble’ about my activities and my intentions. At this stage, I am still building up my credit as a writer. My ego needs to be in check, but my ambitions need to remain high so that I am motivated to do work. It is through a small thing like going back to social media as my avenue for communication and sharing my work, that teaches me to know myself and be ready to defend my position as an individual and as a member of my community. Even as I rise up again, as an Activista, I must also sit down and think carefully of my next step.