When detailing the experience of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians in America, harmful experiences around the questions such as “What are you?” encompass the everyday hardships of being a minority in America.
“When we think about the people in our community, we don’t actually get to hear these stories of who we actually are,” said Ryann Louie, director of APIC Spokane, an advocacy group for Asian and Asian Americans. “There’s just really limited ways that people have engaged with our community to build relationships.”
In partnership with Terrain, APIC Spokane’s “Hidden in Plain Sight” exhibition examines the stress of racism on identities and, on May 27, a closing ceremony and panel discussion provided clearer context surrounding identity within the Asian diaspora.
The first exhibition in Terrain’s new gallery on North Monroe Street coincided with the national heritage month celebrating Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.
The gallery featured work from artists Remelisa Cullitan, Frances Grace Mortel and Margaret Albaugh.
Cullitan’s work is about their experience as a Filipinx American, with self portraits in a red dress and then in a cap and gown at their Eastern Washington University graduation ceremony.
Mortel’s work ranged in different mediums, including a short film documentary called “Dear Nanay,” which showed appreciation for her grandmother and the way she passed down Filipino culture down to her.
“Often I remember you, Grandma, and your hands, hoping their resilience is in mine too,” Mortel narrated in the short film.
Along with that tribute, “Diaspora Recipes,” another short film produced by Mortel, discussed the cultural aspect of food within the Asian diaspora.
Filipino baker Joan Pascua and Indian self-taught chef Noreen Hiskey discussed food as a bridge since they live in Spokane.
Hiskey discussed how she educates food connoisseurs at Feast Kitchen, a restaurant where she cooks, by introducing regional Indian cuisines, and her appreciation of the family she’s formed with other chefs around the world.
“I truly, truly enjoy working in a building that is home to immigrants and chefs and walking into the building and working with a different person there,” Hiskey said. “I couldn’t have been more grateful to a business that’s willing to rent their space to me but also holds the values and morals I do.”
“What Are You” was a handwritten photography and zine by Albaugh which featured common racist questions toward Asian communities. Racist COVID-19 jokes, noises mocking languages and dialects and sexual harassment against Asian women were featured throughout the book. It also included a screenshot from Facebook, demanding that former President Donald Trump remove “China virus” or any other iterations from his presidential speeches.
Albaugh’s “Indivisible” project captured people from around the Asian diaspora who live in Spokane, using portraits with mini feature stories about their identity struggles and how racism shaped their lives.
“‘Indivisible’ began as an exploration into the nuances of racism. It can manifest in many ways: microaggressions, gas-lighting, bullying. But as the project evolved, I realized how much racism influenced development and realized this project is as much about identity formation as it is about racism,” Albaugh wrote in a project statement.
Tiffany, a Chinese woman, discussed how dating easily becomes a quest to obtain whiteness and the privilege associated with it in America.
“… I would think, ‘Oh, you landed a white guy! Oh, you’re better! You dated outside our culture, you transcended our culture … you did better,’” she said. “But now, I don’t think that anymore.”
Ben Cabildo, a Filipino elder and entrepreneur, said he reclaimed his identity through activism and community building. Coming to America in the ’60s, he recognized the racism in his environments, even after he served in the Vietnam War.
Everyday people were featured in the “Indivisible” exhibition too, with two young sisters, Janie and Elliotte, discussing their young bouts with identity tension. Elliotte remembers Janie coming home from school, devastated about children teasing their family’s char siu bao, a Cantonese pork-filled bun that she brought for lunch. Janie speaks on the experience as well, innocently holding her favorite chicken while discussing the harmful experience.
Rowena, an older member of Albaugh’s project, discussed how the aftermath of immigration alters parent-child dynamics. She remembers the shifting power dynamic with her father as she pulled from her middle and high school English classes to translate documents to Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. Rowena called herself a member of the “1.5 generation,” those who are born in the native country then emigrate to Western countries.
Food is one of the most popular aspects within the Asian diaspora.
The panel discussion deepened the exhibition’s look into the relationship with food, and how, in most cases, elders chastising children in the name of body image can lead to a complicated relationship with eating.
Cullitan painted a portrait of a wandering person in an open kitchen space in a black one-piece swimsuit, a metaphor to body image, eating habits and its tension with the strong ties to food in Asian cultures.
“I can’t help but think of this back and forth of ‘Oh you have to eat, here’s another plate of food,’ and then turn around and go ‘You probably shouldn’t eat that much, you’re gaining a little weight,’ ” Cullitan said. “So maybe I don’t have a good relationship with food and, now, there’s this weird discussion between loving food but also having to conform to look a certain way.”
Along with the artists, Jade Faletoi served as a special guest and discussed her identity from the perspective of a Samoan woman on the panel. Faletoi’s perspective helped attendees understand how Samoan Americans are affected by current American colonization of their island.
“American Samoa could get better food, fresher and cheaper food from the surrounding island nations, but because of the (U.S. import) law … we have to wait for food to come from the U.S. and since it’s from the U.S. it’s not good food for us,” she said. “… That causes a lot of issues in things like rates for diabetes. Those things are pretty high for us because of the types of food that we get.”
The panel also discussed their journey to healing and reclaiming their identities, including the inspirations of their work and how they build community in Spokane.
“You hear things like, ‘Just be kind to each other, it will go away,’ and I used to live in Oklahoma and there were lots of real kind people but they would never vote for anything in my favor though,” Albaugh said. “There’s this understanding that needs to happen about how to actually approach racism, and I think that these projects for me were the first steps in exploring that.”
Editor’s Note: APIC is an advocacy group for Asian and Asian American communities, not the Pacific Islander and Hawaiians. The name of the “I Am” project is “Indivisible.” Mortel’s documentary is “Dear Nanay” not “Nayna.” Corrections have been made to reflect that.