You cannot functionally be out there and not out there at the same time.
Love Letter Day 12.
Give me one second.
Did I ever end up telling you about the time I was publicly humiliated at a speaking engagement? Probably not. This was many months ago. I had been invited to something like sixty talks about how to hashtag Stop Asian Hate but this particular invitation was just a little more clever, prestigious, lucrative. I had no appetite for the discursive on sorrows and violence in “my community,” but this was a chance for me to rewrite the Asian race story using my peculiar trail of artifacts from market theories, photography and musicology (TL;DR: I talked about cultural expropriation in pop music, jazz, and plastic surgery).
Racist trolls in the chat were shoveled up to the open panel. This made me furious but not for the reasons you think. I did not feel anger toward the racists but embarrassment for myself that I was ever on this panel. I was afraid you might have been watching the program, and if you had, would have realized I am not an artist at all but a lowly “public figure”—someone who franchises in didactic triage at the expense of beauty. If you thought I was interesting before, this would surely prevent any further curiosity. I mean, think of how disappointed we are when rock stars start in on political opining. Kill your idols.
On pop music: My obsession with it was surely a deflection of the shame of failing at becoming a musician. I had always wanted to be one. But on any occasion I alluded to my practice, my father would say flatly, “you should go into journalism or something that doesn’t require talent because at least then you will be rewarded for hard work. Trust me, you don’t have it.” I did in fact join the school paper. Today, I honestly believe he was trying to protect me from a life of…public humiliation. Like when a child doesn’t phase out of an interest in dinosaurs. “Do you really want to be a paleontologist, Junior?”
I went to college with a music scholarship to prove to my father I could love dinosaurs forever but it troubled me. And well, like I’ve said here before, bad things happened that year. I set my hand on fire, and skipped my performance finals, failed all the music classes, reinvented myself as a writer.
Now I find myself wondering: what happens when art touches you personally and universally at the same time, actually? Is it just me, or might people not actually want this? Is it possible? And of course yes it’s possible but I did not think I would ever believe it, and that’s why I find myself frequently in the public conversation about the Asian American experience. It’s exactly the same reason I obsessed over pop music while abstaining from playing anything. It’s why I constantly find myself back in this rabbit hole of representation politics. It’s why I’ve been holding the mantle of “BIPOC savant baby leader.”
In each iteration of this job that I have performed since I turned 18, I wonder out loud for all of us: are we allowed to have a personal experience that touches the whole world? How could I possibly talk about my own experience, untethered to identity, while making my identity exactly what the audience finds in the art? And how could anyone possibly understand why any of this matters, if it isn’t done with heart rending beauty? Why not trust the sublimation and the representation of emotions in headless sound? I do not need to create atmosphere. I can just smell it.
Each time cool things happen for us as a people, we drown ourselves testing a litmus for artistic acumen. Blockbusters that could’ve been simple victories instead complicate popularity with shame. It’s taken me this year of playing music to realize the fault in my thinking about representation, though. I thought I needed to avoid identity in order to fulfill the platonic ideal of art. To denude myself from what I do. What I failed to see was that making art is a brazen risk and being a public spectacle begets courage. You cannot functionally be out there and not be out there at the same time and also: be out there.
As memories of my formative years separate at the bone, get processed and extruded back into my sausage casing of a persona, in the current season of Real BIPOCs I realize with crystalline clarity that self-discovery is happening through you, yes you, whether I like it or not. Knowing why I have become prepossessed with you makes being famished all the more palatable, turns hunger into fast. And that’s why: love letters. I wonder if you even read this. I know you don’t.
You speak universally to me. The moral of every fantasy has cosmic implications. But I know how to distinguish between metaphors and realities (i.e. Baby BIPOC Ribs). This is an event in the universe that falls with pinpoint precision on the softest part of my heart without ever touching. We are safe. This is simply an act of courage. Seen and not heard. Could I be you for one second.
Post-script: read Crush by Larissa Pham (2021) if you haven’t already.