“Nihao!” a deep voice yelled from across the street. “Nihao!” it said again louder this time. My eyes were fixed on the changing crosswalk sign on the corner of White and Lafayette Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown district, as the blinking, red, open-faced palm massaged the possibility that the guy across the street, was yelling at me. Boots clacking with a shitty, mixed drink running through my bloodstream, I felt my face getting hot. Glancing up in a display of false defiance, the guy across the street had stopped, “I said, Nihao!”, he said now waving at me. I was with a group of friends, friends who had been painted different shades of powder white at birth, made blind by the reflective color of their skin to the privilege it afforded them, one of them muttered, “Oh my god Lindsey, is he talking to you?”
“Oh my god, no, come on let’s go,” I said as the crosswalk sign ahead went from an ignorable blinking to a blatant demand to stop, but I couldn’t. Leaving my friends on the other side of the street I ran across the intersection barely avoiding the oncoming traffic and better yet, their empty stares.
Asian Americans are often referred to as “Bananas,” yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Often deemed the “model-minority”, the stereotypes that reduce the people from the planet’s largest continent to two-dimensional caricatures of themselves are unapologetic and hardly refuted. Type in “Asian American” in a Google search and find that article headlines glazed with the promise of click-baited material detail what is deemed to be the experience of “The Asian-American Awakening” referring to the moment when “you realize you’re not white”. Remembering that Saturday night from two and half years ago while I was still a student at NYU, I now wonder, was that my moment?
Hailing from the land of aloha, where towering palm trees sway in tandem with hula hips and flowers have adorned flowing, ehu hair long before the days of Coachella, race, culture and identity weren’t topics reserved for pillow talk let alone uttered whilst lounging on the beach, drunk on sunshine, skin dusted with salt. I grew up in Hawaii Kai, an affluent suburb adjacent to Honolulu’s south eastern shores, in a family whose roots extended only downwards into the life given to us by this land. As a third generation “kama’aina” (the Hawaiian word for “local”), my connection to Japan and China, the homelands of my ancestors, remain like a shattered mirror. Despite my reflection being visible, I only see what is broken, where the cracks lie and how they distort the very ways in which I perceive myself.
Hawaii is the only state in the country with a majority Asian population, with more than a quarter of its residents being multiracial, I grew up without a chip on my shoulder, tabula rasa to the narrative I was supposedly writing with other Asian Americans “like me.” While there is a deep sense of culture, there are not many avenues for its expression. Bred to embrace simplicity and unexposed to manifestations of difference, Hawaii has its own stereotype devoid of mentions of race or culture. In such a tightly knit community, individuality is silently assailed as the opportunities to explore interests outside of a certain lifestyle or aesthetic are overshadowed by the promise of paradise. Homogenization like seduction breathes continuity down the backs of our necks and asks, why disturb the peace when you can throw a shaka?
Aloha means, “hello” but it also means “goodbye” and I was more than ready to leave Hawaii by the time high-school graduation rolled around. During senior year, my friends had thrown me an intervention party called “Tight and Bright” because I didn’t quite look like an “island-girl” in my black leather and baggy clothes and so I hoped to find my tribe and myself on broader horizons. When I moved to the mainland (what people from Hawaii call the continental United States), I instead was met with a sense of foreignness that docked overnight at the harbor of my undulating identity as people saw me in a way that I had never seen myself, as an Asian-American. I was now the “Asian friend” but did not share the experiences or have the dialogue to interact with the Asian community in a way that felt genuine. What was the Asian-American experience and where and how did I fit in? I would spend my time in college absent-mindedly trying to figure this out.
After finding myself back in New York (I moved home for two years after graduation from NYU) working in the creative industry, I began to seriously ponder the question; because who we are, what we identify with and our understanding of culture impacts not only the work we make but all that we do. To begin to understand what it means to be a person of color working in the creative industry today, and how people of color begin to build communities and spaces specifically for people of color, I spoke to two Asian Americans who come from different backgrounds and area codes: Geremy Campos, a queer, Filipino, Korean, Japanese male from Honolulu, Hawaii who works in marketing at an artist agency and freelances as a photographer and digital strategist; and Adrian Yu, a straight male of Chinese descent from the 626 in Los Angeles. Adrian works as the creative director and founder at Offline Projects, a creative agency that focuses on new media art and experimental music, and a director everywhere else. What follows are their stories, told in their own voices, and in turn, my own.
COOLS: Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Geremy Campos: My name is Geremy Campos. I currently live in Brooklyn, but am originally from Hawai’i. I’ve bounced around in several different career paths typically within the creative circuit, but I currently work in marketing for an artist agency. I’ve been trying to figure out my work-life balance as a struggling 28-year old, so I’m making it a point to be more diligent on expanding my personal work into photography, writing, and other things. You know. Typical Brooklynite.
COOLS: Tell us about your time at home and the culture at home?
Geremy Campos: I was born and raised on the island of O’ahu till I was about 18. My dad is Filipino and my mom is Korean-Japanese (to this day, I haven’t met any other person with the same ethnic background). Growing up, my household felt very much Korean. Our television was always on Channel 4’s Seoul Broadcasting System, we had two refrigerators (Koreans know what this means), and there’s a portrait of myself as a toddler dressed in a hanbok where the background is a futuristic-80s-intergalactic laser show. So yeah, very Korean. Living in Hawai’i also has a very specific local Asian culture; we’re this literal melting pot of Hawaiian-Polynesian-Micronesian-Tongan-Japanese-Korean-Chinese-Taiwanese-Filipino-Portuguese hodgepodge that culminates in amazing food and pidgin*.
During those years, I was a pretty busy kid. Like any “good Asian”, I had a lot of extra-curricular activities outside of school; I was a gymnast for over 10 years, figure skated for 6, took piano lessons, dabbled with tennis, and tried golfing. I would always get home around 9 p.m., have dinner at 9:30, get to bed around 10, and do it all over again the next day. I was a pretty active competitive gymnast, but I ended up having to stop all my training due to CIDP, a chronic neurological illness in which antibodies attack your nervous system. It was a brutal reality check, but it did force me to shift my brain into thinking What can I do after this?
I’m going to fast-forward a bit, but I eventually found myself being interested in fashion design and styling. I had started to intern with a couple of local publications, began building my own styling portfolio, and was fortunately hired by Honolulu Magazine as a contributing editor to style a very small segment in their quarterly issues. I did this for a couple years, but found that I had hit a creative “glass ceiling” in Hawai’i. I distinctly remember contacting and meeting with most of the editors from every local magazine on the island. I had brought my styling portfolio and basically asked them, ‘what can I do better and how do I get to a place to work with your company on a consistent basis?’ No one gave me an answer or even responded to my work. Their responses were very much, ‘we don’t know what to do with this. We can’t help you. There’s not an opportunity for us to work together.’ That was a really discouraging moment for me at the time because I had no way to get out of Hawaii. I had no money and where I wanted to be was New York and I was in a bit of a creative depression. At the time, it felt like what I was doing seemed pointless because it wasn’t acknowledged in the way that I wanted it to be.
A turning point for me was while I was working was when I had an opportunity to interview this woman named Jasmine Takinikos, a brand strategist that works within marketing and creative strategy. She had partnered up with Hawaii-native jewelry designer, Bliss Lau, and they did a workshop about personal positioning and branding…a concept that people in Hawaii don’t talk about, it’s wasn’t apart of their vernacular at the time.
COOLS: Do you think that’s because culturally everyone is homogenous?
Geremy Campos: I hadn’t thought of it that way…Hawai’i’s culture definitely feels homogenized in a way, but thankfully the workshop tackled issues within our current human experience: What’s unique to you? What value are you adding to the community with your work? The way that Jasmine and Bliss presented these questions felt more human. Their workshop was a huge moment for me. It made me confront the problems of feeling creatively stunted, but also…how can I move from that place of negativity and turn it into actionable steps. *Side note: This workshop is now called Brand Human and you can find a workshop at Soho House NY/LA*.
There was another workshop day that I also decided to attend…and I sheepishly brought my styling portfolio with me. I was so nervous because it was a book of work that everybody else on the island seemed not to care for or give a fuck about. I brought it to Jasmine at the end of the seminar and she flipped through it and was like, “what are you doing here? You need to get out of Hawai’i.” Tears rolled down my face because that was one of the first instances where anyone seemed to acknowledge my work as a positive thing. She told me that if I was ever in New York that we would have to meet up and talk about what I wanted to do with my career.
A couple months later, I saved up all my pretty pennies to stay in New York for three weeks in October. I managed to set up a couple meetings with potential companies I wanted to work with, one of them being Aloha Rag. At the time, Aloha Rag was a luxury e-Commerce/brick-and-mortar store that had locations in HI/NY. I saw their company as my “in” and was pretty relentless is getting them to hire me for anything. With the help of Jasmine, I had made a social/digital repositioning deck and pitched it directly to the owner/ceo. Though the meeting went well, there was pretty immediate, radio silence on their end. I didn’t hear any feedback or a follow up for months after and at this time, I was already back home. It had felt like I missed my chance to get out of Hawai’i, but I got a random call in January of 2014 with Aloha Rag offering me a job. I asked when they wanted me to start, they said “we want you to move here to work next week.” I essentially packed my life within that time and moved. I flew in the dead of winter and got there at 7am, dropped off my stuff at a distant calabash cousin’s place and went to work at 10 that morning. On my break, I bought a coat because I didn’t have one and that was the beginning of my New York story. I literally went to work, went home, went to work, went home for 8 months and finally broke down on the M train and cried. That initiation in itself was jarring because I didn’t have time to process anything because you’re inundated with the city itself. I wasn’t processing it in real time and it hit me and it was like, I did move to New York but what was I doing?
I just accepted a job yesterday and in between those moments of career-focused life, I can say that 4 years into New York, I’m focusing on where am I as a person. There was a lot of newness that happened in moving here, namely culture shock, that I haven’t fully processed till now. I read this book called A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation by this author named Tan Hoang Nguyen and it analyzes the sexual, political and social hierarchy of queer, Asian men in predominantly white spaces. Nguyen touches on a variety of subjects, but the sections around sexual identity have been a turning point for me and my own experience. I feel like I’ve always been a part of this intersectional group of supporting the rights of ethnic minorities or marginalized people, but never truly addressing the inequities that I have in supporting the Asian community. Reading that book was affirmed that, for the most part, what I experience as a POC is real, the cultural challenges I face are real, and that I am …real.
COOLS: There’s nothing like a good book, how did you find that book and were you searching for it kind of a thing?
Geremy Campos: I mean living as a queer body and a person of color in white spaces is toxic, no matter where you go…and so, I was looking for something, someone, anything to tell me that the things I’ve been experiencing aren’t arbitrary. I’ve been inundated with specific messaging all my life about how my Asianness isn’t what people want and therefore, I’ve felt that I always need to be doing that much better, dressed that much better, have myself that much more put together JUST to be their average. I think this idea of competition came from my competitive sports upbringing, but still, this concept remains true even when I’m trying to find a job or get a drink at a bar.
Anyway, the book helped me reconnect with finding my own identity as an Asian-American person. Growing up, I never had to analyze representation that crucially because Hawai’i is a very Asian place. It really hit me in the face landing in New York where I would see Asian tourists or foreign exchange students and not feel Asian enough for them. And on the opposite end of that, feeling embarrassed about being too Asian for my white friends. It’s a very weird and unstable middle ground.
COOLS: You were talking about finding and reconnecting with your identity as an Asian person in America, how then did growing up in Hawaii and in the majority effect or inhibit you from understanding that narrative and identity?
Geremy Campos: Being in the majority of Hawai’i’s ethnic makeup is kind of like, looking into a room full of people and knowing with 100% clarity that you’d share many of the same experiences. All of my friends were of mixed ethnic backgrounds, predominantly Asian, but everything from the food, to the way we ate, to the way we were brought up to treat our elders, was basically the same. It felt like everyone was family. Everyone’s mom was your auntie, the old postman was your uncle…we were all family. This is so Lilo & Stitch it’s freaking me out.
But you know, turning on the t.v. was jarring. I never related to anyone on t.v. or ever really saw myself represented anywhere…ever. That lack of representation affected the way I operate in so many parts of my life that I’m still processing the ideas of being good enough for anything. However, there were exceptions to Asian representation in media. Any time that I saw someone who looked remotely like me they were often the nerd, the martial artist, or a hyper-feminized caricature of a person. Even within the Filipino television community, men that are “bakla” can get onto t.v. and be fairly successful, but in being a part of that machine, they’re often comedic relief or used as a punchline. I’d have my relatives laugh at these characters and would use these bakla characters as entertainment, but never be able to acknowledge their gay nephew in the room directly. Watching that version of myself always made me self-conscious of how feminine I could act around certain people.
COOLS: Was that the way you felt and the way your parents treated you?
Geremy Campos: Kind of. I definitely skew towards the more feminine spectrum because I’m sensitive and my mom raised me in a way to be understanding and empathetic; great feminine qualities I might add. My relationship with my father is strikingly different. He ridiculed the music I liked, called me “faggot” numerous times, and never expressed interest in connecting with me in ways that weren’t hyper-masculine oriented. It’s isolating to not feel free in your own home. It wasn’t all bad though. My mom was always really supportive of the “faggoty” things I wanted to do. I did ballet, figure-skating, gymnastics, and piano for a good portion of my life…so you know, whatever!
Thankfully, I found my own tribe of queer people in Hawai’i and in New York…though both are two separate experiences. Hawai’i has very few black, white, or latinx people and so going to bars or restaurants, you’re not really aware of your Asianness. New York is completely reversed. Whenever I go to a bar, restaurant, anywhere I’m always in a sea of bearded white men that are unaware of the space they occupy. I never truly feel like I have a place in those types of settings, whether they are queer venues or not. I still haven’t gone to Bubble__T yet because of that sinking insecurity of wondering, Can I see and celebrate myself within this Asian Queer community? Can I be free?
COOLS: Right and I feel like you wouldn’t even be having these conversations if you hadn’t moved here so that’s a big step on its own. How are you dealing with that struggle? Obviously it’s reading books and simply having it in your face and immersing yourself in these experiences but the feeling of isolation doesn’t just go away with empathy. In having to acknowledge that hey, I can’t relate to you and I don’t understand, but I don’t want to feel deterred from the conversation, how do you begin to operate in this unique scenario?
Geremy Campos: My circle of friends who are Asian, queer or people of color is very small and a part of that is because I don’t feel a part of other Asian people’s experiences, there’s not a connected line. It’s even hard to relate to Asian immigrants or first-generation Asian-Americans because for one thing I don’t speak Korean or Japanese and so I feel like outwardly that I’m Asian but internally, I’m this hodgepodge of American culture, but Hawaii’s version of that.
The way that I deal with this or to process the struggle of existing in white spaces, is to listen to more stories about Asian/Queer experiences. It’s taken me a long time to even get here, to sit down and speak to you about this. I literally just pitched a story to Banana Magazine and my hands were shaking as I was typing. These feelings are still raw and I feel like the only way to get through them is to just keep digging into the wound until I find the bullet or whatever the fuck it is.
A lot of my anguish in myself has to do with queer, sexual experiences, specifically as an Asian. I don’t know any other gay Asian people, well I do, but we haven’t spoken yet. I’m doing the groundwork now because I need to hear other people’s stories and absorb more.
COOLS: How do you think life and your understanding of identity and culture would’ve been different if you hadn’t grown up in the majority like Adrian?
Geremy Campos: Adrian’s story is completely opposite to mine and I don’t even know how I’d unwrap what that’d be like. Because I am queer, I think adding that layer of feeling further from the norm would send me in an even darker spiral of craziness, haha. So you know, I applaud him for growing through that and how he’s in a place now of leading a new revolution of creative POC.
COOLS: Being an Asian-American there’s a very strong stereotype attached to that narrative and identity, to what extent do you think you relate and feel subject to that stereotype if at all?
Geremy Campos: I’ll tell you about an experiment that I’ve done throughout the last several years on social media, specifically gay dating apps. I’ve put several different photos up that cater to these ideas that are projected onto me, there’s a hyper-feminized one and there’s a more conservative idea where I’m in a blazer. The one that gets the most response is the hyper-feminized, sexualized version of myself which feels so far from where I am as a person and that in itself kills me.
When I try to align myself in a way to what is my authentic story, it’s a combination of everything that people don’t want to see. I tell people all the time that POC’s are seen as two dimensional and we’re really just what people want to see.
I don’t know where I align because I’m very reserved and that’s a part of Asian culture that I’ve carried for so long and it shows when I try to voice an opinion. I listen to the ends of the earth and then a week later I’ll be like, remember that thing we talked about? Here are all the things that I have to say about that. In moving to New York I’ve learned to stand up more for myself but in doing those experiments on social media, as a result I’ve been off it for a really long time because I couldn’t handle it and I can’t win it, there’s no way to win.
COOLS: What does “winning” look like?
Geremy Campos: I don’t know what that means for me yet, but I think feeling more represented in culture would feel much better. I think winning would be for white people to engage in the conversation and not ask, “what do I do?” A lot of white people want to have the answers given to them about what to do to make people of color feel more empowered or supported. It’s like but you also have the access to research and every capability to join in on these conversations and you’re more than welcome to and they don’t do the work.
COOLS: It’s weird that when we see Japanese tourists at home, we call them FOBS, while we’re nothing other than local. I don’t have any other sense of continuity with my Asian heritages in a way that I can identify with people from continental Asia. How do you explain that to people and how can we begin to change that conversation? I mean it’s beautiful in the sense where in Hawai’i it doesn’t matter if you’re Chinese, Filipino, or hapa, you’re just a local
Geremy Campos: I think about how I grew up and my own version of heritage, my mom immigrated to Hawaii when she was 14 or 15 and my dad did when he was 4 or 5. Growing up they were treated as the FOB kids, my dad is the most Americanized of his generation and my mom has certain words she slurs or whatever but when I think about identity, that’s so tough and I don’t know how I would explain it to someone who doesn’t have the same background. We all have this understanding of we’re all family.
I think what’s great about being from Hawaii and moving outside to specifically New York is because we have maybe the most diverse population in the country there it affords us to listen more and be more empathetic. Whenever I’m speaking or listening to other marginalized POC’s, it’s always in this way to understand before reacting. There’s a lot of white people who will engage in conversation or respond when they should be listening and I think that’s what’s great about being from Hawaii and feeling universal because you’re not entitled in that same way.
COOLS: In your own experiences in the creative space, how and why do you think diversity breeds better work?
Geremy Campos: When I moved here two years ago, I cold-emailed this photographer that I really loved. He’s an Asian photographer from Hong Kong and we met at a cafe in Williamsburg. I was talking to him about his work and I was super green and I told him I was entering the freelance world and his response was like, “whoa really?” And I was like, “yeah, why? Is it going to be difficult?” And he’s like, “as an Asian person, yes”. I didn’t have the courage enough to ask him why or dig deeper because it may have been sensitive and I let that follow me along ever since then.
I predominantly have worked for white people and I always feel left out of certain conversations or feel that if I don’t outperform to what they think I can do, then I’m going to be gone. When you get into that mentality for years and years it weighs so heavy on you and you get into a creative depression which I feel like I’ve been under for the last couple years. It affects how you operate with people on a daily basis.
COOLS: I think I’m still learning what that means to even have that awareness. Sometimes I just feel that people just see me in a way that I don’t see myself.
Geremy Campos: That’s how I feel all the time, I think what’s different about growing up in Hawaii and living in New York is that you feel like you have agency. There was one day specifically that I had a nervous breakdown and was stressed with my career and my personal life where I felt all of this negative tension. I texted my friend was like, “oh my god, I need to come over, I am going through it.” We were talking through a bunch of different things and I was like whenever I walk into a space I know what my archetype is, gay, gay asian, gay asian male, gay asian cis male, short, skinny, you are put into these very, very, very tight boxes. I know that’s what people think because that’s how people talk to me and I wonder what would take to engage in conversation and for people not to see me in that way?
COOLS: Right and I think that’s why being able to talk to people, to share a dialogue is the best approach we can take, to hear their stories is to understand our own.
Geremy Campos: I was having a discussion with 4 or 5 of my friends over dinner and someone asked me about the Asian American experience and I froze because I couldn’t pull back enough and didn’t have the reference points that an Asian-American growing up in Wyoming would. What I said was: I know that Asian American people aren’t as active in the dialogue and we need to be a part of that conversation and supporting other marginalized groups in implicit ways. I’ve been trying to find answers within my other cultures and looking at Filipino media, that’s westernized, Korean media is also very westernized and so is Japanese media. For me, that is so frustrating when I’m trying to find a version of myself in places where I’m from, where my ancestors are from and having that be diluted by European ideals. It makes me feel icky, it doesn’t feel good and it requires us listening to other people’s stories and that’s probably the most powerful thing to do for me in this moment in time to find that sense of continuity.
COOLS: Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Adrian Yu: I’m a Chinese-American director & creative director – so I split my time on commercial, fashion, and music videos and creative directing for brands, including my own creative agency Offline Projects which focuses on new media art and experimental music.
COOLS: You grew up with creative parents and I feel like according to the stereotype attached to Asian Americans, that’s often a rare experience. I’m wondering how fruitful that was for you and how it helped set you up to be able to start your own company, Offline Projects, at the age of 24-25 basically?
Adrian Yu: They’ve always supported me since I was starting off, as a kid and everything. It’s almost against the stereotype of having Asian parents and they are very strict in a way. I’m full chinese, my parents grew up in Hong Kong and they have that sort of thing where you have to number one. My dad always tells me, “you can’t just be good, you have to be great.” For better or for worse, I’ve internalized that and it’s both helped and hurt me.
For example, when I was 8 I had this science report and you had to make those three panel boards for science fair or whatever. I made it and the content was great, fine, whatever, and my dad was like, “Adrian you gotta redo it, those headlines, the kerning is all wrong.” I’m like, “what are you talking about?” I’m like 8 and like, what is a kerning? [laughs] He was like, “no, you gotta redo it, it looks terrible.”
It’s a really unique thing for Asian Americans to have both parents be artists or creative types. Most of my friends who are Asian are a bit more logical and it comes with the culture too. With Asian cultures we tend to reward and treasure more logical and pragmatic things and I think it’s rethinking what is pragmatic in today’s culture.
COOLS: My natural response wants to be like they came here from Hong Kong and those jobs that can provide security are indeed the most pragmatic. There is such a huge stereotype around the Asian American experience and for you, to what extent do you think you’ve lived that stereotype if at all?
Adrian Yu: That stereotype is interesting because at my previous agency, it’s all these microaggressions. I’ve kind of experienced that when a creative director, who I really respect, was talking to someone else and that someone else was like, “why do you hire so many Asians on your team?” He was like, “yeah they’re great workers and they’re diligent.” It’s a good stereotype.
COOLS: But it’s super two-dimensional
Adrian Yu: Yeah and if you want to hire someone because they’re diligent but they’re in a box, that’s also strange. There’s this impression that we’re always hard working and we want to push ourselves but then that allows us to be taken advantage of sometimes. The stereotype holds that Asian men are really hardworking but emasculated and Asian women are hyper-sexualized, obedient and reserved. My personal goal is to become a really great Asian male role model because I feel like as an Asian male, there’s different issues and challenges that we face than an Asian female would.
Growing up in LA, my neighborhood was predominantly Asian. I don’t know if it’s just my particular area of 626 but basically there are two types of groups there, there were the Asians who are more nationalistic, who go to the Asian restaurants and do the things that are perceived to be Asian, like going to boba tea places; and then you have this other group, which was my group of friends, where we want to be more white, more americanized. We would try to dress differently, avoid speaking cantonese and go to American restaurants and do white things.
There was always this presumption that a lot of people of color are where they’re situated because the white man is pushing us down but a lot of the time it’s really just our own peers and people within our communities who want to be more of “the other” or “the norm”. They put this pressure on to become less othered and so that’s what I felt.
COOLS: Yeah and the easy way to feel accepted is to do this other thing, be this other thing
Adrian Yu: Yeah it’s acceptance by a certain type of person. I didn’t want to hang out with kids that I saw as “too Asian” and it’s weird because I didn’t have that many white friends but there were groups that felt white.
COOLS: Right and I was doing a bit of reading about the “Asian American Experience” and one of the things that came up was an article on the “Asian American Awakening” which basically was the moment you’d realize that you weren’t white. I found that very intriguing and also then began to think about how Asians are portrayed in the media, or for a lack of a better way to put it, how we’re notportrayed in the media
Adrian Yu: I think Asians as a whole should step up and in the past 30-40 years, we came onto this situation. Right before WW2, they repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and yellow peril was a real thing and as a product of that, they had all these films where they painted Asians as villains or as emasculated versions of ourselves. Being Asian became a parody of who we really are and it’s like we’ve been okay with it?
COOLS: Why do you think we’ve let ourselves be parodied and haven’t taken more control over these narratives?
Adrian Yu: There’s a really great article from Atlas Obscura about this Japanese actor in the 1920s who was this dashing, Japanese man who played leading roles as handsome seductive men. But as the World War Two came along, he was reduced to supporting roles or losing them to yellowfaced actors in an sociocultural effort to emasculate East Asian men.
I think it’s kind of a product of acceptance, it’s a product of our culture and traditionally the saying is that: the nail that sticks up gets slammed down. We don’t want to stick out and we want to be accepted and the stereotypes on a surface level aren’t bad, it’s like you’re the wealthy immigrant class, funny, hard working.Then over time we realize that these stereotypes really affect how we think about ourselves and others. I think it’s also a product of society not sympathizing or empathizing about our plight and it’s kind of written out in the history books, none of the stuff we went through like the internment camps or the exclusion act, is talked about. I always see things on social media and it’s always some kind of off handed Asian joke and most of the comments are like: “haha” and it’s like one guy who’s like:“no, this is bad.”
COOLS: For me, my experiences where I’ve actually felt like an Asian American and have been aware of the fact that the situation was altered because of my racial profile are coming to a climax. For you, when was that moment that you realized you were Asian and had your own “Asian-American awakening”, owning up to who you were?
Adrian Yu: I think the realization came pretty late to me like in college. Up until then I was so ashamed of being Asian and then it become obvious that I could see these things; you know how in the last couple years people are just way more sensitive about this stuff? — which is great and it seemed like as a whole, Asians started talking about this and having a dialogue and I heard it. I think it’s been a big wake up call for everyone.
I think the sensitivity is great and furthers the dialogue, but then hypersensitivity isn’t great because we’re losing sight of the big goal which is equality. It’s great we talk about these things but it’s causing the people who are in power to become weary of this conversation and then they don’t want to hear about it.
COOLS: Yeah and you mentioned that at Offline everyone is of a diverse culture or race and if you can kind of talk about how diversity breeds a better work environment or better work in general?
Adrian Yu: If you’re working in a very diverse environment, people call you out on things and in general you’re not just talking to a wall. It produces better work that is more sensitive, for example with the whole Kendall Jenner/Pepsi thing, they did it from their internal agency and didn’t have another agency to bounce the idea off of. The people in power were all white and no one was like that’s a little weird. In working with Offline, we generally want to book artists that are of different backgrounds
COOLS: Right and that’s another thing I wanted to touch on is whether or not those decisions you make are always conscious? At Offline, you’re creating experiences but it’s also more like you’re telling a story in a shared space
Adrian Yu: There’s a huge conversation right now within the music industry especially in the electronic world where a lot of dj’s are saying there aren’t enough women being booked, there aren’t enough POC’s being booked and you see so many white men doing these shows and parties and it’s boring. Everyone at Offline is super vocal and for example, we were going to book this party and the talent was comprised of POC’s but they were all men and Sienna, one of my partners, was like, “maybe we need some ladies in there?” And we were like, “you’re probably right.” A lot of people are only concerned with if the party will sell and they don’t think about who’s behind the desk and performing. Diversity isn’t just great on a moral level, it’s also great for business because when you book an artist, you bring the people who enjoy that artist. In mixing diverse cultures and worlds, we find that our crowds are in turn so diverse.
There’s a barrier within the underground scene and it kind of sucks because a lot of people who can pay for these parties and spaces, a lot of them are going to be white, and that’s a product of their well being. We’re trying to figure out ways to keep the barrier low and to book dj’s who respect the diversity and who speak inclusivity. It’s one thing to be like, “we have a black model as our poster girl” but if you think about the social economic scale of it, a lot of people who are marginalized can’t afford these things.
COOLS: Is that what you guys are really trying to do and provide at Offline, an opportunity to get in on the ground level and learn about the underground music scenes and new media art or whatever it is? I know you mentioned you folks are moving towards more of a path of social justice and educational route
Adrian Yu: Yeah we’ve done a lot of that stuff before and we’ve done a lot of free parties, like the ones that are benefits and this past summer we got a grant from the city to do this series of LGBTQ workshops for youth and it was called, Interlude. It was a six week program and every Saturday we had pretty big artists come in and teach the kids things within art and music and they’re all pretty interactive with really unique takes and spins. We had Dev Hynes come in and he did a workshop on dance and happiness and it was entirely free. Everyone there was aged 13-24 and a lot of them were a part of the center.
These workshops are hands on and with Dev, we designed the space to feel inviting and open, there weren’t seats and no barrier between the artist and the audience. We bought a ton of astroturf and the kids were laying down and listening to him talk and it was inspiring to hear them have this intimate conversation with him, talking about what their own ambitions are and how they’re taking steps to surviving as a queer artists
COOLS: What does cross cultural appropriation and appreciation looks ideally like?
Adrian Yu: You need appropriation for culture to spread. We’re afraid to talk about culture and the origins of culture because cultural appropriation isn’t necessarily an evil, but it becomes an evil when the entity that is borrowing is creating oppressive situations for the ones that they’re borrowing from. Yet when there’s a mutual appreciation and respect and they both benefit, then it’s great.
COOLS: And appreciation and appropriation become oddly one in the same
Adrian Yu: Yeah I think it’s going to take a while, it should be that and respect and appropriation shouldn’t be two unrelated things.
COOLS: Right and it’s like knowing what each ethnicity can bring to the table in terms of inspiration or architectural styles or whatever it is. Do you feel more responsible to put on for your people especially now that you’ve owned your identity as a POC that gears you towards activism?
Adrian Yu: It’s definitely like now that I’ve become aware, I definitely am much more responsible or I try to act how I’m supposed to act.
COOLS: Right and there’s a vein of pain where this conversation comes from because it’s like I wasn’t okay with who I was and that’s not an easy conversation to have
Adrian Yu: Going back to the thing with my dad, he’s like one of the few Asian Americans within Hollywood that does what he does and at that level too. He’s a motion graphic designer and it’s interesting because when I go with him to these meetings and seeing the respect he gets is really inspiring and really beautiful.
For me, my idea of responsibility is what he was saying before you know like you don’t have to be good, you have to be great; and for me greatness isn’t just like me, myself being great, but as a collective, as a whole, as a culture, we should all be great. Through doing more work in this field, even if it’s not directly tied to some Asian American or POC empowerment, but doing something that is respected and gets my work out there that’s by an Asian American, that’s empowering. I think within in the next twenty years, Asians and POC’s in general will be in a way better place.
COOLS: Geremy expressed a similar narrative but he was saying that he always needed to be great just to be the white man’s average, was that a part of what you’re thinking too or not necessarily?
Adrian Yu: Not necessarily, I think before when I was younger I was like I wanted to be great in their eyes, whatever that meant, but now in my work and everything I do, you can see the Asian influence. Doing great things is always going to be the move, I really don’t need the affirmation from the white man.
COOLS: Do you think the key or solution to misrepresentation for you and POC’s like you is to take more ownership of that narrative instead instead of having an archetype slapped on you?
Adrian Yu: Yeah I think it’s just taking the experiences of you and your own culture and creating good work out of it. An artist I really respect is Andrew Thomas Huang. He’s a director that did a lot of Bjork stuff and most of the new album covers and videos were done by him, that new Kelela video was him too. In his work you can kind of see hints and elements of his Taiwanese or Chinese culture, he’s Asian and queer and the colors and the overall opulence and elegance in his work are subtle. These cultural references don’t have to be super obvious but you’re still able to have people identify that as his work and his work is part of his culture
COOLS: Right and it’s like you yourself were able to see those references in his work because you are a part of that culture making it so much more meaningful to you. For you, where does your culture come through in your work?
Adrian Yu: I used to do a lot more installation work and it all had to do with water. It’s a really high level thing but feng shui means wind water. It’s proven that we’re attracted to water and our inner wind flows towards water. I worked on this installation at Pier57 with projection mapping on cargo crates, and we found that when we opened up the back gates to reveal the Hudson River, our foot traffic increased with more people flowing in. I have this other piece from a while ago where I had this metal frame filled it with water and I projected onto it with this looping video of a little girl in a desert, staring at a black cloaked figure across from her. The water would distort the image and create prisms with the light as a suggestion of the fluidity of life, death, and overall existence.
COOLS: How do you identify and differentiate between identity and culture?
Adrian Yu: I think that with identity and how it shapes culture is creating who you are and understanding where you fit in within the bigger picture. Culture is a collective identity and includes the compounding history of all these identities, it’s asking yourself how do I use myself to shape that macro narrative within my own micro narrative and as a whole I think it’s just stepping up.
COOLS: How do you think life and your understanding of identity and culture would’ve been different if you had grown up in the majority like Geremy?
Adrian Yu: I believe childhood environments shape exactly the man or woman you’ll become, and your outlook of the world around you. If I’d grown up in a different headspace, I wouldn’t have been as aware of my current place in culture – and what I’d need to do to make the changes I’d like to see. Judging myself based on “how yellow I am” via the lens of a self-imposed Western apparatus, I feel that if I’d not become aware of this prior to coming of age in my late young adulthood – I wouldn’t have began taking steps to rectify it. A person of color shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are or who they’ve become; rather, they should embrace what has shaped them and use it to push & evolve their own culture forward.
COOLS: Are you a proud Asian now?
Adrian Yu: Yeah [laughs] def a proud Asian now.