The Question of Authentic Representation

For my performance studies class, I performed Alex Dang’s slam poetry piece What Kind of Asian Are You?  for my non-fictional unit. While preparing for my performance of his poem, I reflected on my Northwestern experience as an Asian American and incorporated that mindset into my rendition of Dang’s poem. Through auto-ethnographically drawing on specific racist anecdotes targeted towards him, Dang presents his political commentary on the hegemonic beliefs of the model minority myth and on the absurdity of Asian Americans trying to justify their cultural citizenship.

In the opening sequence, the questioner establishes distance between the interrogator and “you” in terms of race, ethnicity, and social status. The subject in question has two parts to his identity: being American and having cultural influences from his Chinese parents. However by asking a question like “what kind of Asian are you?”, the interrogator denies the subject’s cultural citizenship in America and simultaneously lumps different ethnic groups together as the same entity of “Asians.” The only differentiating factor is due to stereotypes, in which Dang later highlights primarily through examples of primarily classical orientalism. Dang also brings awareness to how the stereotypes of Asians perpetuated by mass culture dangerously normalize the questioning of cultural citizenship.

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Because I wanted to recreate the slam poetry setting, I needed to have an elevated sense of what I was going to perform, and performing slam poetry is taking on a character. When Alex Dang performs, he creates a space for an exchange of ideas and expression: he convinces you that cultural citizenship should not be based on which ethnicity one is and subtextually addresses the absurdity of the race question to an audience who also has an elevated sense of the status quo. In struggling to interpret how I should gesture, I mainly remembered the racism I experienced on campus. During Wildcat Welcome, my academic program hosted a lunch party where faculty and students could mingle the day before our freshman sequence started. I specifically waited to be alone, so that I could grab some pizza and leave when a Jewish girl had the audacity to come up to me and said to me, “I’m the only white girl here!” What do you expect me to say? “I feel you” as a female in a predominantly male program/major/career field? Or “This has been my entire Wildcat Welcome” except… I’m also Asian. But we lose so much nuance when you only talk about Asian Americans without attention to any of the other identities people told. Disparities are often wider when you look at Asian Americans with multiple marginalized identities, and somehow this person had the audacity to ignore many structural forces other than gender which act on target groups. Your remark is not intersectional: your gender doesn’t erase your white or class privilege.

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In the same performance class, someone asked “can anyone do a good accent of any sort?” and there were eyes beckoning my Asian classmates and their “Asian-ness” to come through and present a show of some Ken Jeong. But out of embarrassment, one classmate said, “I mean I could do it, but it’s not the authentic or respectful version of it” because we weren’t given the space or time to address the issue that our parents didn’t escape a war-torn country and raise us to be made fun of their accent. Between both of these mentioned incidents and more in between, I carried my feelings of uncomfortableness, shock, and irresolution to my performance and incorporated these into the paralinguistic features of my performance. For instance, I used false starts and fillers to emulate the actual shock and hesitation I felt when encountered with racism . I also had a voiced pause towards the end of the line (I am the foremost expert on all things Asian) to show the audience how much ridiculous it was to expect me to know “everything Asian.” Besides keeping my rendition faithful to the original, I also kept Dang’s pronouns and race unchanged when I perform. While I am Cantonese, I chose not to switch out Dang’s ethnicity because I would have agreed with the hegemonic belief that all Asians are the same instead of respecting Alex Dang’s Vietnamese nationality. On a similar tangent, I also chose to not change the gender pronouns.

Going into the performance, I also placed my high school self as part of the audience. Three years ago when I first watched Dang’s performance on YouTube, I cringed inside from his gesturing and foolishly misunderstood his loudness for angry venting. But now studying it from a performance lenses and being able to relate to the same passion Dang had during his performance, I’ve come to appreciate and understand it better because unlike other platforms, slam poetry is not a typical show of yielding and compromising your racial identity to the paternalistic gaze of mass culture. So by placing my high school persona in the audience, I had to convince with my performance that if I did yell at some moments, it was out of the stupidity I felt when justifying my identity and not out of some daily cathartic cleanse.

Maybe it is through Disney and other different forms of visibility in hegemonically dominated mediums, Asian have many platforms to talk to Americans and have their average audience understand what Asians are trying to say. But by presenting in a slam poetry setting — an independent platform where a performer has no attachments to political economy — the performer presents to an audience with a more elevated knowledge than, for instance, one in a movie theater for Marvel’s Doctor Strange. In doing so, the performer has complete agency in genuinely voicing his feelings in reaction to the blatant forms of racism based on “visible” representations in mass culture. While it is true that Asian American performers and artists gain visibility through film, TV shows, YouTube, and other platforms and represent their cultural background, Dang’s poem extends the notion of performance to authenticity: he criticizes the hegemonic group by listing how Asian Americans have been oppressed into stories that shaped and fostered “Far East stereotypes” and one-dimensional aspects of the model minority myth. Performers should not only fully understand the content they present but also grapple with their ability to genuinely represent their ethnic identity instead of continuing to perpetuate harmful representations of Asians.

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