Culture Intro: An Awakening

“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.

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