Internalised Racism: Transcript

Oscen
With internalised racism, it’s very interesting because I’ve met people that just wholly reject their culture but they don’t know how to reconcile this hatred that they’ve had for so long. For you three, how have you found that experience if you’ve had that experience? How do you try to reconcile the guilt but also try to make an active solution to it? I guess this show is like an answer to it, right?

Chye-Ling
It’s definitely a lot of processing through art. As artists, you’re naturally going to flow towards that side of things anyway. I think it takes a certain special kind of courage to be able to do that. I think that it’s interesting the yarn between “what is Asian stories?” and “what is Asian art?” and do you just want to be an artist that’s just making stories that are unbranded in the Asianness but you can’t really avoid it. If it’s part of you, which it is, there’s always going to be that struggle that’s always going to come through your work. So I guess for me, reconciling those things began with my first original work called ‘The Sparrows’ as well, which was developed on the same tour as Nikita when we first met on this tour we did together. That was a fantastical world that I’d created that was from the memories and mythologies I’d been told and experienced through the eyes of an eight-year-old going back to Malaysia for the first time. That exploded into its own massive narrative to try and marry those two—what I’d learned in my training in drama school and what I’d known about stories with a modern mask that was created just for that specific world of the in-between, and meshing all those identities.

But it’s ongoing. It’s still always in my work. ‘Orientation’, my last work, was about sexual stereotypes and my own internalised journey from accepting my race into my love life, I suppose, and deconstructing my own internalised prejudice towards Asian men because there’s always that inevitable thing where people are like, “You’re going to gravitate towards men who are like your dad” but then when you’re an Asian diaspora and your dad’s Chinese, you’re very aware that that’s the trope but you’re trying to avoid that but at the same time you’re like, “Now I’m only dating all white dudes, and this is also problematic. How do I reconcile that?”

I think it’s just the knowledge that Asian experiences and Asian stories are so nuanced and so layered and everything’s on a spectrum, and that’s just a comforting way to look at it for me. There’s always going to be part of my own culture that are patriarchal in nature, like my family’s history is so stained with interesting politics internally and decisions that were made that actively fucked up the females of my family but not the males, et cetera. That’s stuff to carry that’s not so nice, but the choices that we make now learning from that can change things and help bring a reconciliation. And it’s nice to be making a show that’s essentially a feminist piece of work. It’s cultural feminism, I guess. And I think it’s not really marketed as such because it can come across as quite a lyrical piece. But really at the core it’s cultural feminism. That’s how I like to look at it anyway.

Marianne
I think it’s just so universal, the things we’re touching on. It’s so stylised in a way that opens up so many conversations in terms of patriarchal traditions, the feminism, and can you actually embrace who you are. Not even just talking about the cultural identity stuff, but just the things that you do and that you want to be involved in as a person without complicating it with all the other layers of who you are. For me, in terms of the internalised racism, I’m on the same boat of I’m still processing, it’s constantly a journey I go through everyday.

Mine’s shaped quite differently because I fully grew up in the Philippines as a young child until 11, so I already had an idea that I’d never had the thing of “I’m so ashamed to be a Filipino” or anything like that. I’ve always been proud—if anything, too proud, I reckon. But then to be proud to be Filipino and also to be proud to be Kiwi, you’re juggling so many balls all at once. And I’m also really into Te Reo Māori and I speak two different dialects in the Philippines—so many things going on. But I had a switch that happened for me when I was twelve. It was a whole year into being in New Zealand when I saw someone bullying my sister in the playground. She doesn’t know this. If she finds out about this, she’ll be shocked. Someone had told her to go back to where she came from, and at the time I was same height as everyone else so I was a bit more intimidating physically. And I was on the student council in intermediate. I picked up this six-year-old kid—who, to his own accord, didn’t know what he was saying—but I said, “You apologise now.” And at the time I still had my Filipino-American accent, and I reflected on this last year when I was writing my own work—all our reflections happen through writing—and someone asked me why I didn’t have a Filipino-American accent but my family does. Because I had that switch that told me that I had to not stick out so I could stand up for my sister. We went to the same school. It’s very close to home.

It’s the same thing when I to go to a movie with my Papa. I would never dare take my Papa to a movie that didn’t have action in it or physicality in it because I would sit through that whole show or movie trying to explain. I took my Papa to Les Mis! Les Misérables is my favourite musical so when the movie came out I took my dad to it. I was like Yeah it’s French Revolution, there’s gonna be guns and war, and literally the whole time Papa just stared blank. He looked at me and said, “Don’t do that again.” Fair enough. But he just didn’t understand. So even now I find that even just to not have that conflict of the language barrier, to also not make my Papa feel uncomfortable, I only invite them to shows that he will understand outside of the language context.

So it’s nice to be able to do work that I’m like, “Yes, come”, and they did go see it in Wellington and they loved it. Everyone was like, “Did it mean this? Was this happening?” It’s so funny—other people’s different conceptions from where they also come from and how they’ve come to be who they are. It’s really great. I’m really happy to promote the show as non-verbal, like, “Come! Haere mai! Come along!” And Basement is also wheelchair access, so everyone please. But also aware that it’s not for everyone, and for me personally I am not interested in pleasing everyone because you can’t, otherwise you’ll be miserable for the rest of your life if that’s your mission.

Nikita
On that topic, the internal racism thing, I still remember when Ling and I first met. Some of our conversations were—I think Ling was one of the first Asian friends I’ve had since—I can’t even remember. Basically when I was growing up all my friends were Pākehā. I didn’t want to be associated with a group of people that couldn’t speak English. There was this inner pride that was like, “I can speak English.” So I did everything I could to be separate from people that were considered, that couldn’t speak English. I don’t know what it was—but just wanting to fit in. My dad’s Pākehā but he’d call me my Chinese name in public and I’d find it the most infuriating thing. But when I first met Ling, I’d never met an Asian so proud of being Asian. Seriously! It’s so apt that the company’s called ‘Proudly Asian’. I was like, Shit, this girl is so proud. Man! And I was so ashamed. It was like meeting the complete opposite.

I remember I would do the thing in high school where I’d give myself shit before anyone else could. Self-deprecating racist humour. And even recently, talking about this inner racism thing, it’s still going on. I had this conversation with my sister, and I was like, “Yeah that’s what I used to do in high school.” And I was like, I can’t believe I’ve never had this conversation with my sister. And she was like, “Wow, that’s like the complete opposite to what I did. I used to hate people like you that would put yourselves down because then everyone would laugh at the rest of us. No, my approach was: don’t say anything and maybe they won’t notice we’re Asian.” Do you know? So there’s different levels of this fear, and it sucks. The other day, I caught up with some Asian family friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. We went out for coffee. And even then, there would’ve been a time when I was scared to do this because I wanted people to know I could speak English. This is an ongoing thing. But being really aware and pushing and reconciling and going, “No, this is who I am” is all good. Especially if you’ve been doing it for so long.

Chye-Ling
There’s a lot of unlearning.

Nikita
Oh man, it’s huge.

Marianne
I also find that I realised much later on, you know when you start being a parent to your parents? When you get so defensive before there’s even anything to be defensive about? Whenever I go to the supermarket or anything with my parents, I’d speak for them because I don’t want my Papa to stress out or my Mama to stress out because there’s the language conflict thing, while I’m the one who can speak English and I didn’t have an accent and instantly there wasn’t any reason for anyone to discriminate me other than seeing I’m brown. And subconsciously I just realised I did that. And only recently I was like, “No, my Papa’s talking to this person. I’m gonna let him talk to this person in the way he wants to talk to that person.”

Chye-Ling
And it’s up to that person to deal with it.

Marianne
Yeah! I don’t want to make it easier for that person to understand and actually connect with my Papa. But at the end of the day, I’m like, “If you eff with my Papa, I’m right here, Pa. Come get me.” And also my sister and I had the same conversation. She called me a white Filipino. I don’t know if I told you about that. I was just like, “Am I supposed to be offended?” Because I don’t feel offended but I feel like I should be because I feel like I ‘white-out’ myself, whatever the term is. That’s a bigger conversation and I wrote a play about it.

Chye-Ling
That’s what really surprises me when you say I was really proud of being Chinese. I definitely wasn’t always that way and I think there’s something to being biracial, Pākehā-Chinese. I was raised pretty white. And my dad assimilated when he came over—he was 18. And he did that thing of self-deprecating humour. He was the class clown, the funny guy. He would always put himself down first and put everyone at ease, and they’d be like, “Ah, cool. He’s like a cool, fun Asian guy.” Really different from the rest of his family. Very non-stereotypical Asian, which I think is a game to warm people up. But I think because he gave me a very Chinese name, I think that has influenced every single aspect of my life. If I’d been named ‘Becky’—

Marianne
‘Emma’, ‘Beth’—

Chye-Ling
Yeah, or like ‘Victoria’, things would be really different. I feel like I can be white-passing, like some people don’t notice or they give me that shifty look of “I’m trying to figure this out” but they don’t immediately go, “Oh, cool! Are you Chinese? Because I’m Chinese, blah blah blah.” Because I have this name, Chye-Ling Huang, it’s such a flag. Every time I have a conversation with somebody or every time I get picked up in an Uber, it’s always like, “What is this? What’s going on?” So I feel like I really had to accept and learn to articulate and learn to be comfortable with almost defending my Chineseness and proving my Chineseness because it’s the opposite for me.

Whereas, for someone who has a different face that is very obviously Asian—for me, because I’m mixed race with someone who is white, my mum is white, it was always the defence of like, “Yes I am Asian enough. Yes this is a part of me. Don’t tell me I’m not Asian enough for this situation or what you think an Asian person should be.” It’s ironic in that way. Even though you probably were raised more Asian or had more of those influences and are more obviously presenting as an Asian person, you were less confident and less likely to be waving the flag. I think it’s just a defence mechanism in a way for me because I constantly have to justify why my face didn’t match my name.

Nikita
So your name is Chye-Ling Huang. My name is Nikita Tu-Bryant. But then in recent, very very recent years, I put my Chinese name into—so my artist page on Facebook is my full name, English and Chinese. But that took a lot of courage. And it’s taken me so long to get here. It’s gonna keep going.

Marianne
I never use my full name in anything. It’s very long.

Oscen
What’s your full name, out of curiosity?

Marianne
Well, here’s the thing. When people ask me, it’s like: Do you want it with the accent or without?

Everyone
With!

Marianne
But I feel like people need to know it in context without the accent. So with the accent, it’s Marianne Therese Nunag Infante. But when I don’t say it like that, when I’m like, “Marianne Infante”, it’s definitely washed my name away from any sort of essence of my Spanish-Filipino heritage and all of that. It’s so fascinating. Like ‘Asian enough’—that’s something that really took a hit for me when I left uni. I was always the Latino roles or the sexy blah-blah-blah. I was like, I’m fuckin’ Asian! I can do that and be sassy and be full-on and be vulnerable and whatever.

Chye-Ling
I can be sassy in my own ethnicity, sassy as a person.

Marianne
Sassy Filipino! They exist! Because I subconsciously stripped myself away from the accent—this is my comfortable way of speaking [Kiwi accent]—I was like, “How do I become ‘Filipino enough’?” And again that has sparked up anything I’m doing now, essentially. I did everything I could to become attached to Proudly Asian Theatre. I’m proud too!