Finding Community at the Asia America Art Collective
Sometimes I have moments that seem to validate why I love living, learning, laboring at Oberlin. This weekend was one of those times, with the 3rd Biennial Asia America Art Collective.
Asia America Art Collective is a student-organized event that takes place over a weekend where artists are invited from outside of Oberlin to host workshops, screenings, talks, performances, etc. about their work and how their APID (Asian / Pacific Islander Diaspora) identity ties into what they do. A bunch of my friends organized the event, and started planning all the way back in September (!). It was incredibly rewarding to see that all the hard work that they put into making AAArt Collective happen paid off, because for myself and many of my friends who are also part of the APID, this was a transformative experience.
It often feels at times that the APID community lacks a sense of cohesiveness, perhaps due to a lack of dialogue surrounding APID experiences and issues within the community and outside of it. However, AAArt Collective countered that, and facilitated a beautiful opportunity for the APID community to get together and really feel and empathize with each other, especially around issues like being the children, grandchildren, etc. of immigrants, who often aren't super emotionally open about their experiences coming to this country. For instance, the first event of the weekend, a screening of Kenneth Eng's documentary, My Life in China, had many of us in tears, because the story of his father's immigration from China to America resonated with something about our own family experiences. For me, it was because I was reminded of the sacrifices that my Gong Gong (maternal grandfather) had made for me, for which I will be eternally grateful, even though I never got to meet him.
AAArt Collective's events were also particularly meaningful to me because I recently learned that I'm Māori, in addition to being Chinese. As a result, it's been a deeply emotional journey for me to educate myself on the histories and culture of my ancestors, and understand that I myself am a Māori, after twenty years of wrestling with my own racial and ethnic identity. One thing I've found a lot of conflict in is in the materials that I've been educating myself with, and, in turn, building my identity around, and how those may or may not come from a colonial and/or imperialist past that oppressed my very community. But then a Filipino-Japanese American poet who performed during AAArt Collective, Troy Osaki, performed a poem about indigenous communities who have been exploited by Western imperial powers, and I felt tears of understanding form in my eyes during his performance. I no longer felt alone in my struggle to make sense out of my indigenous heritage, and imagining the effects that British imperialism had on my ancestors, and that continue to affect their descendants today in New Zealand (Māori, like many Native American communities, are of a disproportionately lower socioeconomic status and higher levels of violence). Before I knew I was Māori, I sensed that there was a missing piece of sorts. And so knowing that I am, in fact, more mixed than I thought I was, and hearing the other perspectives of people from the APID, has filled the void in my soul that had been there for many years.
It was also a lot of fun to talk and hang out with the artists themselves, as other Asian Americans in the arts. Being able to trade stories about our experiences and our aspirations for what Asian American art/media will be in the future is something that I've never been able to really do with people from outside of Oberlin, as I feel like there aren't that many opportunities for people/artists of the APID to get together and just chat about this kind of stuff (at least in my experience). Listening and just being "there" for each other created a sense of community and belonging for myself in a way that I've never felt before. I suppose my identity in relation to my work has mostly been discussed with people who aren't artists, so interacting with other Asian American artists gave me the chance to situate myself within that specific subset of our community. I think because, for a lot of us including myself, being artists is an especially risky career path because of how new our families are to this country--which is why my mother became an architect instead of a fine artist. There's something unique about being an AAPI artist that presents its own set of complexities and conflicts that made the experience of hanging out with other AAPI artists give me a sense of hope and comfort about my decision to become a filmmaker.
This weekend has left me with a powerful sense of being uplifted by my own community, and I've experienced a wide array of emotions that I don't tend to feel on any given weekend. Following the My Life in China screening, I headed to the 'Sco with my friends, where we watched Xuan Rong (an Oberlin student who makes great electronic music!) and DJs v1984 and Yaeji play some amazing dance music. It usually takes me forever (or never) to feel comfortable enough to dance in a non-musical theatre setting, but I quickly found myself feeling extraordinarily comfortable with dancing and just feeling the vibe of the music and of the space. I think that my lifelong aversion to dancing outside of theatre or Serious Dance Classes stems from my own discomfort with my body, as a result of not really understanding why I look the way I do, and I felt that all go away when I was with my friends at the 'Sco. It was then liberating to experience the music in the moment without feeling like nails were being dragged across a chalkboard. In a sense, dancing to their music was a moving expression and celebration of our shared identity and different backgrounds within the diaspora.
Additionally, I got to film a Studio B session for Yaeji, which I was absolutely OVER THE MOON about, because I've never filmed a Studio B session before! In case you don't know, Studio B is the recording studio in the classical music vault of WOBC, the radio station which I am a staff member of, and part of Studio B programming is getting touring artists to come in and play a live session that is then recorded and filmed for later internet release. I've watched countless numbers of Live from Studio B videos on Youtube since before I even came to Oberlin, so it felt like a real Spielberg moment to have the camera in MY hands.
I feel immensely proud of everything that the Asia America Art Collective accomplished over the weekend, and of my friends who organized it. Together, we discussed immigration, gentrification of Manhattan's Chinatown (where I have cultural and familial roots), the lives of Filipina nurses who immigrated when they were young women to this country, Bruce Lee, and many other things. I often wonder what it would have been like if I had gone to school on the West Coast, where the AAPI population is much greater, but it's moments and weekends like these that make me feel perfectly happy to be where I am. It isn't easy to be Asian American and Pacific Islander on this campus for a variety of reasons that aren't unique to Oberlin, but in carving out a space for our community to engage with individuals outside of the College and Conservatory, and to use art to promote uplift and release, has created a powerful sense to me that we as AAPIs belong here, and that our community's presence adds layers to the mission and goals of Oberlin College. I feel reenergized as an artist again, after discussing my worries about my work with others, in the knowledge that I have my own place in the APID community of artists.
Here's the list of artists that were part of the Asia America Art Collective this weekend!
- Kenneth Eng, filmmaker
- V1984, DJ
- Yaeji, DJ
- Liz Moy from the Chinatown Art Brigade
- Jenifer K. Wofford, visual artist
- Troy Osaki, spoken word poet