Culture feat. Geremy Campos: A Minority’s Story of Growing-Up in the Majority

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.

Jacket by Scapes NY

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.

Photo courtesy of Geremy Campos

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?

Photo courtesy of Geremy Campos

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.

Photo courtesy of Geremy Campos

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.

Photo courtesy of Geremy Campos

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.


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