Oh if I had a dollar for every time I have seen ads promoting me with racist caricatures, fonts or descriptions – I would have many, many, many dollars, flying off me like lettuce leaves that you could roll up some rice and dried shrimp and chili paste in. The first time was when I was about 16 or 17, on a wall of hastily pinned up notices for upcoming shows. My name blazed in big bright letters in the Chop Suey font, pointy, sword shaped lines to create words, familiar from Chinese restaurants and pretty much anything of Asian origin repackaged and sold everywhere that is not Asia.
Under my name, which was tremendously exciting to see in print, way back then, no matter what font it was in, was a small caricature of a coolie, in a rice paddy hat, with bucked teeth and holding chopsticks, rice spilling out everywhere. The futility of rice eaten with chopsticks – this has never made sense to me. It’s very hard to pick up these tiny pieces of food with sticks. I haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. I am not sure I will ever, if I haven’t by now.
The description of the show continued in smaller typeface which still had an ‘Oriental’ flavor, but was not as boldly racist as the Chop Suey font. It said, “proof that that the Chinese are no laughing matter!” and this was wrong for a number of reasons. If we are no laughing matter, then that is not the function of a comedy show, which is ostensibly all about laughing matters. That was the statement that bothered me the most. I would like to be a laughing matter, no matter what.
Also, I am not Chinese, well, not really. I am of Korean descent, and it was recently discovered through very complex DNA testing that I am actually Chinese. But the people who put this ad together would not have known that. I didn’t even know that until about a month ago. All this time I thought I was Korean, but my genealogical profile states that my DNA is Chinese, so this proves that we are all the same inside, we just have different sauces.
There’s the racist caricature, which went beyond the bounds of any kind of reason or taste. He’s a man, not even a woman. He’s got a long braid and glasses. I have neither. His image is taken from the railroad workers who came to America to build the rails in the 1800s, as then he must have looked as mysterious and foreign as anyone could be, in that day and age.
It was all fairly awful, extremely racist and disturbing, but I remember still being pleased. Seeing my name up there took the sting of all the other insults away. The fact that I would be on the stage that particular night, that my performance would contradict and control the messages sent – it made up for it, at least to me. I thought I would correct it in the telling, that the people would come for one thing and leave with something else. The show didn’t turn out like that, as they never are what you think they are going to be. It wasn’t a good night, but early on, there weren’t lots of good nights. Everything is much better now, except for the fonts!
I am doing a show soon at Cornell University, which is exciting, and the advertising for it originally used the chop suey font to spell out my name. I guess I am numb to it, but I don’t feel anything when I see it anymore. I am so used to having things this way, the way it’s always been, accepting and swallowing racism down without argument or splatter. I am not sure what to do when this type of ignorance is fought against. The poster was written on, telling everyone off and circling the sword like letters “this font is not ok”. I appreciate the effort that someone has gone to on my behalf, and for the Asian American students on campus who don’t need to be bombarded with racist imagery. It makes me think that things are changing for the better, and I think that anger is a great tool to make wrongs right. I realize how many times I have let stuff like this go, because it’s happened more than I like to admit. In the constancy of my racial awareness, I have been worn down, the grooves in me low and smooth. I leap into rage whenever women’s bodies are scrutinized negatively but I am slow to defend my ethnicity and my queerness. I am only one person. I cannot fight all these battles myself. I need an army.