Speakers: Annie Canto, Kimberly Ho, Rebecca Wang
[00:00] KIMBERLY: Food is so many inserts here. It’s a place of comfort, a point of gathering. Making food for others or receiving food that has been made by others– I can’t imagine a better language than food.
[00:12] ANNIE: A lot of people brought recipes into the room from their families, so it was this different kind of making that you don’t always get to engage with when you’re in art school, of this familial knowledge that you’ve sort of in your body already.
[rhythmic electronic theme music starts]
[00:37] REBECCA: Welcome to In Tanglement by Cinevolution, a grassroots, women-led, migrant-driven film and media arts organization situated on the occupied, traditional and ancestral territories of the Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking peoples, including the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam) and other Coast Salish peoples, also known as Richmond, BC.
My name is Rebecca Wang 王晨釔. I am a first-generation Chinese immigrant settler, hosting this podcast from the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations, colonially known as Vancouver.
In Tanglement is a six-episode series on art, culture and race in today’s world. Through intimate conversations with artists, filmmakers, and community organizers, we explore current experiences and perspectives from the Asian diaspora.
Today’s episode is “Bonding Time: Food in Our Homes and Classrooms.” I am delighted to have guest speakers Kimberly Ho 何文蔚 and Annie Canto with me. Kimberly Ho 何文蔚 is an interdisciplinary artist, performer and collaborator, whose work seeks to explore their Hakka diaspora through the physical body and food culture. Annie Canto is an artist and educator whose practice spans socially engaged art, illustration, critical race theory, and engaged pedagogy. We will discuss the multidimensional role food plays in their life and work. Kimberly and Annie will also share their experiences of growing up in immigrant and mixed race families, and talk about topics such intergenerational dialogue, race politics, and language, including body language and cultural language.
[theme music ends]
REBECCA: Kimberly and Annie, Welcome! Would you like to first introduce yourselves a little bit to our listeners?
ANNIE: Yes, hello. [Chuckles] Should I introduce myself first?
KIMBERLY: Sure, yeah.
ANNIE: Okay, this is Annie speaking. I’m an artist and educator. I’m excited to be on this podcast today because we’re gonna talk a lot about food, which is my favorite medium as an artist and a teacher. I’ll talk about my practices of using food like a welcoming agent in different participatory community engaged projects I’ve been working on, but we’ll talk about food in a lot of different ways.
Something about me. I’m also joining today from the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations. I’m really grateful to be living and working here. Currently in my life, I’m walking my dog a lot, I’m making a lot of empanada, I’m teaching at (Sir Matthew) Begbie Elementary. I’m teaching third graders how to make board games. I’m excited that the teaching semester is almost over, and it’s almost summertime. Okay, that’s me for now. I’ll pass it to you, Kimberly.
KIMBERLY: Thank you, Annie. This is Kimberly speaking. So yes, that was a great introduction from Rebecca about me. Yes, I am an artist. I’m a collaborator. I’m a performer. And I’m a first generation Chinese settler, also on the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations. Food is just something that I grew up in a way where I’ve been raised by food as much as a parent as my parents have been. There’s so much to say about food. I think in this podcast episode, we will certainly touch upon just the iceberg of the topic that is food. I’m just so excited, which is why right now I’m finding it hard to describe my own practice. So I’m just gonna leave it at that. I’m excited to be here. [Chuckle]
REBECCA: Excellent. Thank you, both. Yes, we have more time to talk about Kimberly’s practice as we will dive in in today’s conversation with this documentary film To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉, meat as in m-e-a-t meat, made by Kimberly. [Clip from To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉 plays in background] It is the recipient of the Rachel K. Wong Film Fund of Vancouver Asian Film Festival, or VAFF. It premiered at VAFF in November 2021. To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉 is set against the closing down of a Chinese style sausage factory in Vancouver’s Chinatown, at where Kimberly’s Father Peter has worked for decades. [Clip ends]
CLIP FROM To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉:
Rod Fong: Well, I’ve been here 28 years. Mr. Ho has been here longer than me. Mr. Ho has fallen into the role of being the foreman. He is the guy to go to that knows the ins and outs of everything inside this building. He’s an essential part of the family.
Mr. Ho: 榮榮給我很有歸屬感。我們享受在一起的時光，一起生活和工作。
REBECCA: Kimberly, you call this film a love story to honour what your family does through what you do. Can you tell us a bit more on how you came to make this film and how it helped your family understand what you do as an artist?
KIMBERLY: I think that was something I didn’t come in with the goal of, but rather something I discovered in the process of. The goal coming into making this documentary was simply to take this history of a monumental business in the Chinatown’s core, in a way that I felt honoured it. It happened to be a place where my father had worked for his whole life. And it just very organically developed into what became me understanding my father more, and vice versa for my father to know me a little more, beyond just the little kid that grew up in his house that he was feeding, that he was taking care of, but someone who’s out in the world doing their own thing. I think the best things come out of not intending to go that way, but rather going in with an open heart and being able to discover the unexpected. And that’s one of the unexpected that’s come out of the process of making the documentary.
REBECCA: I think you also mentioned before that the timing of the making of this film came– everything came at the right time, the team, the concept and the fund.
KIMBERLY: Yeah, it’s like a concept that I think us Chinese folks often talk about, which is 緣, like everything happens because it fell into place at the right time in the right place and everything. So I do really think that me happened to be having the honour to be able to direct the documentary, the concept of the documentary, everything coming together the way it had in such a short period of time, this all comes back to a theme that also is covered in the documentary itself as well. And also teamwork. I couldn’t have done it for myself. I have a very incredible group of people that I’ve been able to gather to help me in this process to be able to put together what you both have gotten to see.
REBECCA: Mmhmm. Annie, as an artist and educator who often uses food in your classroom and socially engaged artworks. What do you think after watching To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉?
ANNIE: Well, I don’t know how my thoughts I’m about to say connect to what I do as an artist or educator, but on a personal level, there was a couple of moments that I wrote down when I was rewatching the movie today, because they hit me really hard just as a person. I didn’t mention it in my introduction, but I’m a second generation mixed Filipina immigrant. So, my father came over to North America from the Philippines in the late 70s. And this film that you made really highlights this work of your father, and then also highlights and sees different peculiarities and magical moments of your relationship with your father. It just made me think about my father’s place in my life. [Clip from To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉 plays in background] And I wanted to point out especially that there’s this moment at the end where you got your father to give a very short speech about what he thought your intentions were with the film. The whole time I was watching this I was like– and then hearing your question, Rebecca, about how this film allowed Kimberley to– for her family to understand their art practice more. [Clip ends]
I was thinking about how those speeches are such rare occasions in my family. Those speeches where the father is saying really what they mean, saying that they’re proud of you or saying that– just being open and honest. I think those occasions are saved in my family for weddings and funerals and maybe birthdays. [Chuckle] Also, this film seemed like this amazing opportunity to create another moment like that, and work really hard to create that moment so that you can have that shared truth, which is something that we take for granted in an everyday context.
REBECCA: When I was watching the film, I noticed that there is an obvious change in the cinematographic approach, about halfway through it. The first half is very aesthetically clean and pleasing with a lot of still frames. The second half is more intimate. We get more first person perspective, and there are also old home videos. Kimberly, can you walk us through these artistic decisions as the director?
KIMBERLY: Yeah, that’s definitely intentional. Thank you for pointing that out. It’s very much something I wanted to illustrate in the first half– is something that often I think folks like my parents don’t have the chance to be presented in such a grandiose way. I really wanted to take this opportunity to be able to present something that is so ordinary in an extraordinary way. That’s as simple as that. [Soft background music fades in] Of course, it’s a collaboration with my cinematographer to be able to illustrate this directorial approach, and then the transition into the second half of the film, where there’s more of a nostalgic, approachable feeling with how the visuals are no longer as clean as you mentioned, it’s no longer this illusion of a high budget film, falling apart. [Music ends]
CLIP FROM To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉:
Kimberly: This is Wing Wing. Or at least… Yeah this is Wing Wing.
I wanted that because I wanted this to be a film that– though the intention is for this film to be displayed on a big fat theatre screen, that I wanted to melt that space into something where it felt like you were just watching it from home. So it’s my challenging of the space of theatre, and hoping to do that in my film by infusing a lot of the things that are a part of what I’m trying to communicate of my participation in it as well, in why it’s important for me to be the director of this film, not just some other diasporic Chinese folk taking this on, but rather how I’m purposely putting myself in this.
REBECCA: You really made sure to showcase those scenes of the factory and a working class household in the film, didn’t you?
KIMBERLY: I think what I will say is that, from an analytical standpoint, I can see why, like, “Oh, are these important messages that you’ve infused purposely?” But I’m going to tell you from the artist’s perspective is that it rang true to the heart of the film. That’s why I decided that these were important visual motifs. Because this documentary is frankly not just about a Chinese sausage factory, but how I played a part in it. And it was a part of me trying to show a little bit of an intimate moment of myself to the audience. And what better way to do that but home archival footage?
We can of course analyze it from a more political standpoint, like we simply do not see a lot of the working class perspective in such a way. It’s often not displayed. It’s often stories that we share through generations. We do it in casual chats over dinner tables, but never in this way of a documentary, not often at least. So that just happened to be something that happened. It was not necessarily intentional on my part that I wanted to like, “I want to [high pitched voice]…” [Chuckle] It just happened to be. Yeah. I hope that answers the question.
REBECCA: Totally. I think the reason why it is very touching to watch is also because everything doesn’t feel forced. It comes together very organically. Now let’s talk about the role food in general plays in your life and practices, especially growing up in immigrants or mixed culture families. I always joke that I can adapt to many things, but there isn’t much negotiating room for my Chinese stomach. I can’t live without Chinese food for long. So what is your relationship with food like?
ANNIE: Well, the first thing that I wanted to say, back in relationship to To Make Ends Meat is that, when I was watching it, there’s, like you’re saying the beginning, all these like wonderful shots of how the machines work, I suppose. [Clip from To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉 plays in the background] And then some more shots of your father as the caretaker of these amazing machines. I might be mistaken, but there’s a shot where you see the sausages are hanging to dry, maybe right away. When I saw them, I was like, oh my god, I think I’m made of those. [Chuckles]
I think that my relationship with food and in what we’re thinking about this movie is that, man, I ate so much processed meat growing up. I think that’s what my body is made out of. It’s scrambled eggs, white rice, and processed meat. It’s the first thing I learned how to cook by myself. I don’t know how many times I cut up Chinese style sausage, and put it in the microwave to eat [chuckles], just on rice. [Clip ends]
So anyway, I’m just thinking about how the way that I eat has changed a lot, of course, over my lifetime. The most conflicting thing in my relationship with food now is that I’ve been a vegetarian for the last 20 years. So it’s just this really weird partial rejection of who I am in a lot of strange ways. Going back home to the Philippines, I just give up on vegetarianism, because I don’t know how to do it over there. Maybe it’s a different political statement, if I select to be vegetarian in the Philippines. But just looking at those dried sausages hanging on the racks, I was like, “Wow, if only I was still eating that way.” [Chuckles] It’s my pure comfort food.
KIMBERLY: Yeah, I mean, I also– makes sense. I grew up with a lot of Chinese sausages around me [chuckles], because it was simply very accessible. I definitely– it was intentional to focus more on the visuals of the food, ‘cause food is something that nourishes us, we talk about it, and all these things. Then I just think I love to see how it’s made! I think that’s not a process that a lot of people have access to, and it’s important to highlight it in– hopefully the way that I’ve done has done it justice. [Chuckles]
Food is so many inserts here. It really depends on the current state of the mood that I’m in. Is food right now, simply because I’m stressed, a place of comfort, everything else is very stressful, so therefore, just having that moment to myself to be able to have that meal, that’s what food serves me in this moment. Or if I’m hanging out with friends, food is a point of gathering. Food is a way to be able to– sometimes we don’t want to talk about work, and we talk about how great this food is. What a wonderful way to bond. Food is a way to show love. Making food for others or receiving food that has been made by others, I can’t imagine a better language than food. Food is so rich in so many ways. I of course see it from the perspective from my upbringing as a Chinese diasporic person, but I feel enriched to hear other people’s stories of how they relate to food. There’s always an exchange. I’m always learning something new and that’s the beauty of it.
REBECCA: Yes, totally. Kimberly, you also talked about how Asian parents or elders tend to not be very affectionate verbally, but if they are willing to share their recipes with you, it means you’ve won their heart. I think that also speaks to how food can be a wonderful way to show love. And Annie, I think you said before that you had your first quote unquote art critique experience at the dinner table on your cooking from your family. Is that the case?
ANNIE: Sure, yeah. How do I go about talking about this? [Chuckles] I guess I also didn’t mention this, but my main gig now in my life is a foundation year, first year university art teacher. So I spend a lot of time thinking about the critique; and introducing people, who have just blasted themselves into art university, what the critique is for and why it can be very useful even though it’s a scary, high stress and oftentimes very problematic space, that’s weirdly public in a strange way. So one of the ways that I in the classroom make the critique a lot more comfortable is just by bringing food into the space, or asking other people to bring food in space, letting everybody know this is a hosted space, where we’re supposed to feel comfortable enough to really share our opinions and get to know each other through these objects that were that we’re exploring as artists.
I was thinking about how maybe this relationship with food and art critique comes from the idea that the first time I experienced an art critique was at the dinner table growing up, where my mother would cook something like pork adobo for example, and then get a barrage of critiques from my grandfather sitting across the table being like, “Did you put this spice in here? You shouldn’t have done that. Maybe you should just do the meat a little bit longer.” They’re both critiques, but also suggestions to make it better, which is what a critique is for. But never any straight up compliments. Everyone’s eating, you eat everything on the plate. And that’s the one compliment that exists in that moment. So I’m wondering if the family dinner table with multigenerational people who can cook the same dish is where maybe I learned how to do art critique.
KIMBERLY: I think that’s a great space to learn art critique, because I think [chuckle], in some ways, you’re thrown into it, and you’re just inundated by comments from others. That’s just a cultural thing. Whereas often I find when I walk into white spaces, there’s more of this proper structure of how to approach a critique. It’s not to say that’s not something that we should learn, because I think there is something that is very useful to be able to break down the structure of a critique to be able to know how to give it and how to take it. But then there’s also something really lovely to be able to be immersed in these cultural environments of how food can be such a topic where it stirs up the pot for people, like “Oh, this is bad! You didn’t put enough salt in here! What the hell! Did you put it in the boiling pot for way too long? What’s going on here?” Oh my god! There’s something to be said of how that’s just a wonderful source for you as an educator, to be able to tap in that moment of how you were raised with that environment, to be able to infuse that to the next generation of artists to understand critique in, I personally think, a more approachable way.
ANNIE: I want to share just one story to see if anyone else relates to this. I’m thinking too about the critiques that I’ve received from my family for different cooking things, or when I’m learning how to cook with them in the kitchen. Whenever I am making rice or see another person making rice, all of these flags go up in my head, like “Oh my god did you wash it twice? Oh my god did you strain out all the water? Oh my god are you using your finger instead of a measuring cup?” I watch people like my roommates or whoever making rice the wrong way, and all these voices from people in my family just fly into my head. While I live with those voices– it’s kind of an endearing criticism that stays with you for your whole life so that you just make rice correctly.
And another fun analogy for the critique is an ideal scenario that the criticism that you get in those kinds of situations as an art student are things that stick with you, even when you could have done something differently to make it better, but not in a way that filled you with shame. Just like when you think back on it, that you were in this kind of environment where you look back on it sort of in an endearing way or a grateful way that someone pointed that out to you.
KIMBERLY: Yeah, I definitely think it sticks long with you, those words of critique. Whether it is at that moment that you’re quite defensive about it or you accepted it, but I think that’s a long journey to get to that point of being able to accept criticism. Because I think it’s a test to our own humility, our ability to understand it’s not about you, it’s about the food at hand, that is more than just you. So I know those voices very well. I know those voices very well.
REBECCA: I’m wondering if Annie you could give or talk about examples that you employ food in the classroom or in your work [that] it did provide a warm environment for everybody to participate. I think you also said, the quality of humour in food is something that you find interesting too.
ANNIE: Sure, yeah. Maybe I’ll describe a specific project. I have this myriad of projects where food is sort of the theme, whether there’s other things that go on. I’ve had projects called Your Table is Ready. I had a whole project called The Fridge where it was all these art workshops that operated around a mobile fridge that I would move around and fill with different art tools, which were just sort of rotten food honestly. But food is a thing that you make with and a thing that you use to make quick welcoming spaces. It has this amazing ability to rid a lot of people in the room with their social nervousness. When you offer someone something, a piece of food, whether that’s the classroom or weird art gallery spaces, and then you eat with them, all of these social rules get introduced really quickly. I guess we all know, it just makes you more comfortable, to let yourself eat food and receive food from another person, no matter what the space is.
Recently, I’ve been developing some assignments that have to do with making banquets, and the banquet is an art installation. In all the projects that I do personally, I think a lot about collaboration, and how it’s this vital skill that we have to do for all kinds of things in our lives but also so necessary for changing anything about the way that our world works. So making a group installation where we then eat the whole thing is this practice of both collaborating and getting really comfortable with each other right away, and thinking of food as something more than just the back and forth from the grocery store.
So most recently, I did this assignment, I was working up in Yukon University at the School of Visual Arts, where we just did this project called Edible. The assignment was really simple, you just have to bring something edible to our class in this banquet installation. It was taken really broadly like edible wasn’t just something that people could eat, but some people brought food and had to name which living creature could eat the food. So people were really taking into account the space that we were on, like what animals lived there. A lot of people brought recipes into the room from their families, so it was this different kind of making that you don’t always get to engage with when you’re in art school, of this familial knowledge that is sort of in your body already. And suddenly, everyone got to pridefully share these parts of themselves in this education space.
Some people just went with some really wacky ideas. Somebody brought a type of ambrosia salad but included things that you would put in soup, like a potato jello thing with beans. I don’t know, I didn’t consume it. [Chuckles] Someone brought a bunch of jars of milk. So they were going with this monochrome theme of just one color, but all the milks were flavored by something that’s soaked in the milk overnight. I think they’re inspired by this idea of cereal milk, but they went really far with it and were soaking all kinds of strange things in milk. So that’s my relationship with food. I’m still trying to figure out why I keep returning to food. It’s not only the welcomer into space, but I keep trying to figure it out as the medium for making art as well. I just love it. I don’t know.
[28:58] REBECCA: Yeah, I think to me, the act of eating together naturally has an ease to it. It is a necessary life sustaining act. Maybe that is potentially part of the reason people connect, like making foods to other creatures, because it’s a shared behavior. It brings a sense of empathy. And it can also be very ceremonial, not only in the way we attach meaning to it, but also as a routine or marker of time during the day. Thank you for sharing those examples with us.
[rhythmic electronic theme music]
[29:58] Now, let’s segue into our next topic, race and race relations. Kimberly, in our earlier conversation, you said race has to be a topic for racialized folks, but you didn’t have the framework to talk about it when you were young. Can you speak more about how that experience was like and how it impacted you?
KIMBERLY: Yeah, I think a lot of folks can relate to that experience when you’re younger of not quite understanding what race politics is. But when you’re racialized and you visibly look racialized, you are thrown into the deep end, you’re given no instruction book, you’re just there because you live in a very white predominant society. And again, these are words where I wouldn’t be able to describe it in the way that I do now, because I’ve been able to learn more about what racism looks like, what is race, what it means for someone like myself to be in the BIPOC spectrum. These are all things that I now have more of the “know how.” But when you’re younger, you understand it from a more survival point of view.
I guess, sometimes there’s moments where I have internalized racism, where even just the dynamic of being Chinese, that can mean so many different things. For example, my family comes from southern China, specifically from the Guangdong Province. One can say, in this neck of the woods, we often are seen as just a country rather than the specific region that we’re in, the specific ethnic group that we’re from. I’m specifically Hakka, but this is not something that people often ask of me, because all they want to know is “we’re in Asia!”, and it ends there. So this brings me to the point of within the specific Chinese communities, I knew growing up there was a lot of Hong Kong migrants around me. And there was definitely the unsaid bias of folks coming from mainland China were lesser of. So, I, as a kid, learned very quickly that– I thought I wasn’t lying about it. I just thought by process of elimination that people conveniently thought I was from Hong Kong and I just agreed, and therefore that’s not lying.
It’s interesting to think back to why I did that, because I knew at a young age that it was better to be associated to coming from Hong Kong than from mainland China, because there’s already a lot of baggage with being racialized. The work that I do is definitely more of a reclamation of who I am, and trying to really infuse pride in being of Hakka diaspora and the complicated relationship of living here while also being racialized. These are all dynamics that I think are important to speak up about, because I know there are a lot of other folks that either don’t have the framework to talk about it and experience it. That’s how I try to access my work, by asking the questions I’ve always been asking, I guess you can say.
[33:40] REBECCA: It was so interesting and important I think that you brought up this concept of hierarchy among sub-Chinese ethnicities that you felt when you were young, because to me, as a Chinese immigrant, it’s something that I think a lot of us have felt but never acknowledged. It also happens not only in Canada, but personally when I travel abroad. When people try to talk to me and get to know me, there’s always a specific order of Asian countries and places they will go through when asking or guessing your country of origin. And Mainland China always comes the last. And there’s almost a sense of embarrassment, when I admit that I am from mainland China, from them. Maybe I imagined it, but it almost felt like they tried to pay me a compliment by assuming I was Japanese or HongKongese. So yeah, thank you for bringing this up. To me it’s so interesting to hear.
KIMBERLY: Yeah, totally. It’s very interesting to analyze the actions of what our society believes. I do think that what you’ve said– yeah, I’ve also experienced that too. People don’t firstly assume that I’m Chinese, because it’s somehow I’ve understood from the world telling me that it’s one of the lesser races to be associated to, because it’s not as pretty as Koreans or not as– there were all these things that I’ve not taught myself, but others have taught me to believe that that’s the truth. Yeah, I mean, I still think about it. It’s still something that happens on a daily basis, walking out onto the street, now that we’re doing that more, bumping into strangers and whatnot. Those interactions are happening, more like unsolicited conversations.
I actually remember there was a time that I was renewing my driver’s license, and an unsolicited conversation happened with a white man that was standing in front of me. You know, the favourite question always is “Where are you from?” I think we can all in this room relate to that question in some kind of way. It was very interesting how he just went down the list to guess where I was from, and then finally, when he “ding, ding, ding” got it. He then proceeded to, I remember this conversation very distinctively, but he proceeded to tell me, “Do you know anything about the Hong Kong protests, like the Umbrella Movement?” At that moment, I was feeling like a troll, so I was like, “No, please tell me!” So that was very funny. In some ways, I think I was playing a bystander to my own experience, because I just found it to be so humourous, because it happens so often, and you kind of have to find the humour.
And this is why I love sharing these stories with my friends, because my friends could be like, “Oh, my God, I’ve had the same situation happen to me too, but this is what happened.” This is where it’s nice to be able to be surrounded by other BIPOC peers, because it’s so important to not just constantly be in white spaces, because they simply do not have the lived experience to talk about it. There’s more work and labour on us to be able to bring them the joy it brings us to just go to our friends that have the shared experience and be like, “Oh my God, this this this!” and they’ll be like, “Oh my God, yes, that sucks!” [Chuckles]
ANNIE: That makes me think the other day I was explaining to a white person that I trust– like I wanted to explain this to them– why it was bothering me that we had met this new person, also a white person who found that I was Filipino and had spent some time living in the Philippines; so they really wanted to connect with me on that one factor which is great. I love connecting with people about Filipino-ness, it’s awesome. But it felt like an interrogation of like, “Oh, have you eaten dinuguan? Oh, have you been escabeche? Oh, have you eaten menudo?” Like all these things. Yes, I’ve eaten those things, and then they’re like, “Do you know how to cook them?” They’re so excited that they can talk to me about Filipino food.
After this interaction, I was very lightheartedly explaining to another friend why that annoyed me so much after the fact. I was trying to explain this difference between offering that part of yourself and then having someone slowly extract it from you. I feel that’s the difference too between what you’re talking about these BIPOC spaces and then these primarily white spaces, is that in those spaces, even in this conversation, like super cross-cultural, there’s none of that extracting taking place. Ideally in the situations, everyone’s coming with their hands out, like this is what I have, this is where I come from. I know that you have this similar understanding of what it’s like to be standing here with my hands out like this. Whereas in those extracting spaces, it just feels like a chore, like a lecture that you are not getting paid for? [Chuckles]
[39:33] REBECCA: Annie, you also mentioned that race isn’t something that your family talks about a lot at home. But critical race theory is one of the focuses in your research. There was this one time that your father asked for your help in how to talk about race and his experience being an Asian in his workplace for an interview. Can you tell us about that?
ANNIE: Sure. Yeah. I think that’s one of the very few, maybe the only circumstance where– I feel it’s not that we didn’t talk about race in my household growing up, it’s just that we didn’t talk about it with the kinds of languages or the kinds of words you would talk about in critical race theory. There aren’t those kinds of terminologies for– like what is anti-racism? Or what is anti-Asian discrimination? All of those longer form words, we just didn’t have them. One of the reasons why I’ve stuck with being an educator is discovering these different languages that really help explain the world that I live in and connect all these dots about why things are the way that they are, especially in regards to race.
So yes, having critical race theory as part of my research was this little thing that helped my parents realize what I was learning about. When all of these Stop the Asian Hate campaigns were happening all at once recently over the summer, my father was asked to write a letter as one of the few Asian immigrant doctors in his community to talk about how racism has affected him in that profession, specifically in their group. He was totally lost. And my dad has never asked me for help. Let me just put that out there. He’s the type of person that, if I call him, he’s like, “Oh, do you need something?” He’s the helping person. He does not ask people for help. So it’s this surprising moment where he calls me up, and he’s like, “Hey, Annie, I have to write this letter, and I don’t even know where to start.”
It made me realize in order to talk about racism in a way that other people would understand it, in a very direct short form letter, you do need all these phrases that maybe people in our generation or people that have read about it can write about it. But this previous generation that has experienced that type of racism that I bet they shielded me from, don’t have that same kind of language. So just an interesting moment.
REBECCA: Did he find it helpful?
ANNIE: I think so. I mean he didn’t take very much of my advice. He basically had me look at his letter, and I was like, “Dad, did all this stuff happen to you? Why don’t you ever talk about this stuff?” And he’s like, “Oh, it’s not for you to know that that stuff happens. Of course that stuff happens.” But I think he just needed a little confidence boost to know that was really his experience, even if he’s been burying it or trying to protect everybody else from that his whole life.
KIMBERLY: Yeah, I think our generation of parents are definitely of that category of trying to keep us away from the truth. You’re not old enough to know or “Oh, I didn’t want you to know because I wanted you to grow up as this pure, beautiful baby child.” But in reality, we’re going to find out sooner or later, in our own ways. And I think I’ve come to realize why it is that they do that, because they’ve experienced so much harm and hurt, and they believe that since they’ve experienced that, they don’t want the same to happen for us. But I guess what we’re learning in our generation, it’s not so much of shielding the next generation, rather educating and having to give them the tools to know this is what’s happening, this is the framework that we’re working with it, and these are the conversations that we should be having.
So it’s interesting how each and every generation, we’re hopefully undoing our own intergenerational trauma. I think that’s part of the work that we’re doing for sure, on behalf of our parents, and hopefully when our parents reach out that we’re able to infuse them with a little bit of that knowledge that we’ve learned.
[44:18] REBECCA: This reminds me of a scene in To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉. In this home video where, Kimberly, you were maybe five or six at a piano recital and holding a certificate among a group of white kids. In the film, it talks about that your father works very hard to provide a lifestyle that he imagines to be the best for you and his family. You obviously seemed not too happy in that footage. But then it adds depth to the film that you’ve come to understand his stance of providing a life to you in his best.
KIMBERLY: Yeah, I think that’s a journey that a lot of us go through. As kids, we don’t know better, but to take a very surface level for what it is. We throw our tantrums. I was a pretty bratty child. I think some of the footage that was displayed in the film shows you the kind of brat I was. [Chuckles] I think it comes from a really beautiful place. It’s who we are as children are still who we are now. But we’ve just simply been shaped by society to behave a certain way to be more proper, to be more quote unquote adult. And I say quote unquote, because it’s just what has been expected of us.
It’s funny, because as an artist, I often tap back into that childhood self to know what are my simple joys in life, where’s that level of play that I felt when I was just simply amused by a rod in the playground. Whereas now, I think things have gotten really complicated, as we have more responsibilities and have more things on our plate, that is quite different from our reality as a child. It’s a full circle journey is what I’m essentially trying to say, of many of the feelings I felt as a child, they were valid for a reason.
But I also have reflected on them in a way as now, now that I have more knowledge and experience and hopefully some wisdom, that I’m able to see the actions of what my parents have done for me, and how they have given up a lot in their lives to be able to provide what they have provided for me when I was growing up. I think this is the journey for many immigrant parents. And I really cherish it and I still try to carry that honour every day. I think it’s quite important in not only my culture but many cultures to cherish our parents and to be able to– yeah. [Chuckles]
REBECCA: To cherish our culture and our parents and your film is a beautiful testament to that, and the shift of your attitude towards your father’s work in a Chinese sausage factory.
KIMBERLY: Thank you, I appreciate it.
REBECCA: Annie, you had your mic unmuted. Did you want to say something?
ANNIE: [Clip from To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉 plays in background] Yes I did. I guess because we were talking about this moment in To Make Ends Meat when you start talking as the narrator in the film, like addressing directly to your father about how at one time [clip ends] you felt an amount of shame for the fact that’s where he worked in the sausage factory, but that it has transformed into something that you can be very proud of.
I’m connecting it to this thing that maybe I’ve also seen my father– it could be projecting– but I could see my father dealing with as well. And thinking of all these stories that you hear on repeat from your parents about– my parents are always telling the story of how they met because it’s pretty extraordinary circumstances. My mom is a white lady from America and she’s a school teacher in this tiny town in Washington State. My dad was trying to prove that he had a medical degree from the Philippines and had got his first residency in a neighbouring town. So they’re the two single people in the entire county and they got set up cuz my mom burned her hand on a laminator.
This is such an amazing and cute story. I heard this story so many times. I’d been telling all my friends growing up. But then now as I’ve grown older, my dad adds a little detail here and there that showcases this amount of institutional racism that encouraged him to be in that space at that time. Just a little bit more each time he tells the story, either because he knows I can understand all that now or because he realized it’s not something that you should be ashamed of. It was just like, that’s your story. That’s the reality of the fact that the reason why he was in Washington State was ‘cause it was the only one of two states that would recognize his medical degree from the Philippines, even though the Philippines was still a province of the United States. Don’t get me started. It doesn’t make any sense to me. But um, yeah, as you can see this shift from shame to pride happening in that instance, and I’m hoping that’s what it is.
CLIP FROM To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉:
Kimberly: Well I just want to express that when I was younger, my feeling for your job working for Wing Wing Sausage Factory. I felt ashamed because growing up here in a very white society, with a job that was making ethnic sausages, I thought that was a place for me to hide, a place for me to not be proud of. Whereas right now, I reflect on your accomplishments and legacy, that it is something to be very proud of.
Mr. Ho: I know. I see. Probably you saw the parents of your classmates…
KIMBERLY: Yeah, I definitely think so. I think that we feel the shame because there’s so many other factors that we have not acknowledged for ourselves to feel that shame. And I knew that I have, in some ways, in my own way, have overcome the shame, but I felt that it was important in that moment, when I was conducting the interview with my father, that I addressed it directly at hand, because it pertained to the subject matter of the documentary. It felt like it was the right time to share that, because as you mentioned earlier, these big chats don’t happen very often. They come in very rare occasions, and you cherish the ones you can have, because they mean a lot, because I think words are not a currency that’s used very often. When they are used, they mean so much. That’s something that I’ve actually carried with me as a writer, as someone who uses the written word. And I think about how I approach the word for that reason. I tend to be more concise. I tend not to say too much, because I believe that there’s so much that’s in between the lines, things that are expressed in other ways. It all comes into influence. I think so.
REBECCA: Yeah, when these talks don’t happen very often, once they happen– and also they are so rich and bittersweet for the family stories of diasporic communities. And when we talk about diaspora and immigrant perspectives, we can’t avoid talking about language. I think children from immigrant families can all relate to being forced into the role of the translator between worlds, especially on important matters that exceed what children at this age need to understand. Kimberly, do you also have that experience growing up?
KIMBERLY: Yeah, totally. Growing up in a household that spoke predominantly in Cantonese and Hakka, I didn’t even know there was a question “can you be the tran–” No, you’re the translator. It’s a given, especially being the oldest of two younger brothers. I am basically the appointed translator, whether I liked it or not. So it’s interesting to think about having to move between the worlds in this liminal space of nor here or there. Growing up, myself being ESL for a moment until grade four, it’s not like I had a great grasp of the English language to begin with. And then my Cantonese was dwindling as I was entering into the grade school system. It’s interesting, that battle of languages and how it really affects the way we think, and the way we approach how we speak about ourselves. As I struggled to learn the English language, I think I was also struggling to describe who I was. Because I’ve been colonized by the English language, where maybe once upon a time, when I was younger, there was actually some expression of knowing who I was in my mother tongue.
And I think about that, because the way in which the English language has been taught to me, is that I constantly was told that my grammar was wrong, this is how you do the grammar. And that’s very interesting to think about, of how my approach to writing versus some of my friends who grew up not actually ever learning grammar and be thrown into creative writing classes and never be taught the things that I’ve shared with them, that I’ve learnt constantly to a point where I was so aware of that I didn’t want to know it anymore.
I think there’s something very transformative to be able to express something that we simply do not have the answer for, and express it in the way of art. I love it when I have someone else, who’s not a part of the work, be able to look at it and actually provide me the answer. There’s something really lovely about that. And actually, I’m curious for– Annie, you, what is your connection to your own mother tongue and language in general?
ANNIE: Um, so for my connection with Tagalog is that it just doesn’t exist. I think I have some baby language. But what happened with my family and with a lot of immigrant families is that everybody came over one at a time and went to a different city. My family at my father’s side is spread out all across the United States and Canada. So my connection to the Filipino language was just these special instances of going to Filipino parties, when our family would come to visit. It wasn’t spoken in the house. Whenever I hear it, it’s like I can hear Tagalog being spoken blocks away. Suddenly my ears perk up, I’m like, “Oh, that’s like my missing element! I need to go find that. I need to go be with those people.” It’s this constant longing that I have for this language that I never learned.
But I think I’ve had that longing my whole life without appreciating the fact that growing up in English, that’s the whole time and being okay at it. And then, even I teach English writing, I teach art writing now. Having this privilege of the English language, I just didn’t ever appreciate it. Instead, I was just longing for this culture that wasn’t passed down to me. So it’s very confusing. I’m still processing.
But what I was thinking about, in relation to languages spoken at home, and also because we were just talking about respecting and cherishing the parents, I was thinking about how there are phrases in English that I picked up from my family. If they’re spoken by someone else, or they’re spoken by a white person, they might be defensive. They’re caricatures of broken English, but I’ll say “Can you close the light?” or “Can you put this?” I’ll just be referring to anything, like “Can you put this?” to somebody else, assuming that they know what I’m talking about. Because that is how I was always directed. I think that there’s this thing about cherishing your parents, where growing up in my house, one of the ways we cherish our parents is to predict what they would want before they have to say something. So when my grandpa would say, “Can you put this?,” I already know what he’s referring to or what he wants. Shutting the light and closing the bed, all these things that I still say now, again in English, but are weird caricatures of broken English that I picked up over my house. It’s very strange.
REBECCA: Do you think, Annie, that your longing for Tagalog is part of the reason you became very perceptible about body languages across cultures or families, such as how a person eats at a table is indicative of their values?
ANNIE: Thank you for that question. Because I always want to talk about how obsessed I am with observing how people eat. I think that it’s my main topic of conversation at dinner parties, and it makes people very uncomfortable. So I’m just trying to find people that are as interested as watching how people eat. Because yes, it’s super indicative of, not only the food that you were raised with, but the utensils you were raised with, and what family dynamic that you might have had, you can pick up so much from the ways people eat.
Maybe eating as a body language is something that has always been really difficult to parse for me. I think that at my table growing up, we did use some silverware, but everyone’s pretty good at eating with their hands. Everyone’s not afraid of making very raucous mouth sounds, even squeaking, you can hear the chewing, the tongue moving around the mouth.
And also a point of connection. One of the people that I collaborate with on a lot of projects, who Rebecca is now friends with, is my friend Nora Ali. And I don’t know how many conversations– her growing up in a first generation Somali household in London, me growing up in a second generation Filipino household in the United States, how many times we’ve connected on this, different abilities to eat with our hands, the different little things that you do to show that you’re very good at eating with your hands. [Chuckles] So it’s also this really amazing point of cross-cultural connection that you can make, realizing the special abilities of eating that people have.
KIMBERLY: Yeah, I definitely relate to that of body language in any scenario, but the particular interest in people’s eating habits, how they consume their food. I immediately connected to the mention of “I’m so proud of how I use my hands.” This is how I do it with chopsticks. That’s a point of pride for us. We use everything with chopsticks. [Clip from To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉 plays in background] No spoon, no fork, everything is with chopsticks. [Clip ends] I think it’s interesting once I start to share my way of eating in my home with friends that do not come from that culture, they’re like, “Why are you using chopsticks?” I’m like, “Why not?” It’s so versatile. [Chuckles] I beat eggs with it. I don’t need a whisk. That’s another tool that’s taking up space in my drawer. Why do I need that?
I’m also recalling now how my mom for a period of time [chuckles], she was trying to train us more with dinner table manners, like closing your mouth when you chew, ‘cause I think we were about to go to more fancy events. I remember all the boys in my family were like, “What the heck are these lessons? Let me eat. I just need to put nourishment in my body. Let me be!” That was an interesting moment to think back on when it regards to body language, and when you’re imposing rules upon something that should be more, I think something of enjoyment, something in which it’s simply for you to express who you are. Because you can learn so much by just simply looking at someone and how they eat. [Chuckle]
ANNIE: It’s so funny that your mom had that sudden realization like, “Okay, we should have manners.” As a child, I had that actually. I think it was me maybe processing the fact that all my friends were not like me [chuckle], but I became obsessed with dinner table dynamics when I was really young. I remember watching how people would eat in movies all the time. I remember picking up little things from my friend’s houses that they didn’t do purposely, like “I have manners. This is what I do.” This is just something they did like putting a napkin on the lap. I remember I brought that behavior back to my parents house when I was 10 or something. We don’t even have napkins on the table. So I grabbed a paper towel from the kitchen and put it on my lap. And they’re like, “Oh, what? Okay.” Nobody said anything, because I was just being a weird little 10 year old. There’s all these instances where I’m bringing Anglo Saxon table manners to my Filipino household and you just try to assimilate in my own house. It’s weird how that stuff gets into your mind and your body in such an early time and in such a weird way.
KIMBERLY: Totally, that’s so interesting that 10 year old us would do such a thing, because we don’t know any better. We’re just like, “Oh, I saw this somewhere.” I feel like, why not try this out in my own home? Why haven’t we been doing that? Now having me think back to the first time I stepped into a white family’s home to have dinner. It was a very interesting experience because I think I’ve never had my own plate of food. I grew up with shared plates. I thought it was a thing that everyone had. And the whole “pass the salt,” and I was like, “Oh, this is supposed to be fancy!” [Chuckles] I’m watching myself more. I’m like, “Oh, do I chew too much? Do I wipe my mouth too much? Should I be licking the sauce off of this plate?” There’s all these things that are very interesting to think about.
REBECCA: I think we’re coming close to the end of the time we have together here. Before we wrap up, are there any last words you’d like to share with each other, and with the listeners?
ANNIE: I feel like I need to give a culmination speech. [Chuckles] I guess I’ll just say that this has been really fun. We’ve gotten to talk about all the things I love to talk about, which I’m so grateful to be able to be a part of. But also, it’s so awesome to be in a space where we offer all these different parts of yourselves that we often protect in other spaces. So thanks, everybody. [Chuckle]
KIMBERLY: Yeah, I think it’s been echoed by Annie, what my thoughts exactly of having the pleasure to be able to have these fruitful conversations, despite the fact that this is only our second conversation. I can’t wait for the next one and more to be had. I could just imagine we have so many ideas that are flowing about our heads. And I love that we’re able to access something as simple as food to dissect often very academic ideas. Because I think that’s at least my goal in how I approach conversations, and even how I approach my work, I want it to be accessible. I think it’s very important to be able to dilute often big ideas in a way where I’m able to explain it to my two-year old cousin or my– I forget how old my dad is, but 50-something-year old dad. [Chuckles] But yeah, this has been really, really sweet. I’m very grateful to be here with y’all, to be able to talk the big ideas that we have been able to talk, but in a way that has been very fun.
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REBECCA: For more information about In Tanglement, and a list of resources for information mentioned in this episode such as the synopsis of To Make Ends Meat 心頭肉 and a book list on Critical Race Theory, please visit cinevolutionmedia.com/podcast.
In the next episode of In Tanglement, host Yun-Jou Chang speaks with Pushcart Prize nominated poet, interdisciplinary performer and educator Amal Ishaque, multiracial trans writer Candie Tanaka, and Rohingya feminist, author, poet, and social justice activist Yasmin Ullah. They share their poetry and talk about defying cultural erasure, writing speculative futures, and imagining an ethos of care.
This episode is lead produced by me, Rebecca Wang 王晨釔, with assistance from Yun-Jou Chang and Minah Lee. Editing and music by Leiwa. In Tanglement is produced by Cinevolution Media Arts Society and made possible with funding support from the Government of British Columbia. Thank you for listening.
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