Asian American artists are creating amazing work in Minnesota, but they often feel that no one knows about it.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a group of artists to talk about the challenges they face within their own communities, and the stories and ideas they wish they heard on mainstream media.
Kurt Kwan as Sam Shikaze and Sara Ochs as Nancy Wing in Mu Performing Arts’ recent production of “Yellow Fever”
Photo by Michal Daniel
Bao Phi pointed to lingering media stereotypes of Asian Americans, which tend to lump them together despite the diversity of their cultural backgrounds — Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Hmong and Vietnamese.
“In Minnesota particularly we have such an amazing opportunity. We had at one point the only urban Native American area in the continent United States – Phillips, where I grew up, had Little Earth, and then there’s influx of Vietnamese refugees like my parents and then southeast Asian Hmong folks. There are adopted Koreans who complicate the immigrant narrative completely, and there’s people like Wang Ping who is an immigrant but who is a very successful author in the English language. So there’s a lot of really interesting positives and there are some negatives too… there are obviously tensions between those who are newer and folks who have been here a while.
I feel like America’s narrative talking about race and all of these things – gender, sexuality – is becoming more and more complicated, for the better. And I’d like to see media coverage embracing the complications and the contradictions, rather than figuring out what stories fit into preexisting narratives and paradigms.”
Bao Phi is the author of “Song I Sing,” a collection of poetry that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, among others.
Photo by Charissa Uemura
But sometimes diversity becomes its own obstacle. Some panelists complained of a bifurcation between different Asian American ethnic groups. A play about a Hmong family will draw a Hmong audience, but wont attract Korean Americans, for example, even if the story has universal ramifications. Poet and English professor Wang Ping says it’s important to not get complacent.
“If we only pay attention to our own community – Asian American, Native American, African American – that’s important, but we also need alliances across these communities, to connect with one another, and with Caucasians as well. It’s extremely important to have our voices linked, and to have that network in place.”
For Randy Reyes, the incoming Artistic Director of Mu Performing Arts, presenting strong Asian American role models is key.
“I remember the first time I saw an Asian person on stage,” said Reyes. “It wasn’t even Filipino. Just an Asian person on stage – not in a movie or on TV where they’re doing Kung Fu or being the butt of a joke, or being silly in a commercial. This was a person on stage that looked like me. And the experience opened my mind to a world of possibilities. And I would like to have the young people of the Asian American community see themselves represented on stage and in the media in a positive way, where we’re the heroes… so that they can see themselves as heroes. To have the exposure, to have the voice, to have a platform to show who we are is so key in our development.”
AMC TV’s “The Walking Dead” featured one of the few – perhaps only – sex scenes featuring an Asian man in American media.
For Kurt Kwan, it’s frustrating to see how Asian American men are desexualized in mainstream media.
“A friend of mine and I were talking and he said “have you seen The Walking Dead?” and I said no, I don’t like zombie movies. “Oh, there’s this Asian character and he has this sex scene…. have you ever seen an Asian guy have sex in a film?” And we thought about it and no we haven’t – in foreign films, yes, but here that doesn’t exist – it’s a punchline or something.”
Pao Her talked at the gathering about the tension between older and younger Hmong generations, and said she has struggled with her own parents’ lack of appreciation for the arts. Her, who is gaining recognition for her work documenting her community, recently had a solo show open at Franklin Art Works in Minneapolis.
“I think about my parents crying when I told them I was going to go to graduate school to get an MFA in the arts. My mom cried because I got accepted to the U of M. It was either the U of M or Yale and I decided I was going to go to Yale. She didn’t understand why I didn’t want to stay home and go to the U of M,” said Her.
“So I think about arts within the Hmong community and the idea that art is not practical, and that because we come from nothing, the career that we choose should be a practical a career, a career that yields money. Because art is something that is almost non-existent within the Hmong community – my parents don’t understand it, and I think at some point I stopped trying to make them understand what it is that I do or what it is that my photographs do.”
Pao Her took this self-portrait in a traditional pose as part of a series of photographs exploring different forms of desire.
Spoken word artist and activist Linda Her says she struggles to find a community that embraces both her ethnic identity and her sexuality.
“My experience as a Hmong American queer woman and performer has been that when I’m invited to a LGBT specific event it’s filled with all white folks, and then when I’m invited to a Hmong space to perform it’s filled with majority straight folks. I would love to have a space that is inclusive of all your selves, your identities. For example, how is the notion of marriage equality different for couples in which at least one person is an immigrant? How can we include those experiences?”
Despite the ongoing challenges facing Asian Americans today, Bao Phi points out that the opportunities for cultural expression have changed dramatically over the years.
“Back when I was in high school, when I was looking for other Asian American writers, the only ones I could find were Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, and now twenty years later, I’m sitting on a panel of Asian American artists from Minnesota who all have vastly different stories from mine, but whose stories I respect and whose art inspires me – and that’s amazing. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Each of us comes from different communities where there are a multitude of stories and wonderful art being created. And I’m really proud to be from this community – I’m really proud to be from the Minnesota Asian American artists community – I know it’s great – I just want the rest of the world to know it’s great, too.”
What a great note on which to end a conversation! Many thanks to all the participants for sharing their thoughts.