“It feels like this black box of stuff that’s locked away”

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Tonia Sing Chi (TSC): This is Tonia Sing Chi, and I’m here with A.L Hu for storytelling spaces of solidarity in the Asian diaspora.

How has your identity as Asian American played a role in your experience growing up in the East Bay? What was your family’s home like? Did you grow up around other Asians, Taiwanese American families, or immigrant families?

A.L. Hu (AH): I grew up in Hayward, California, in the East Bay, in San Francisco, East Bay. And I feel like I’m really lucky because I went to a school district that was actually in Union City, even though we were in Hayward. And that school district was actually majority Asian, like all different types of Asians. And it was actually a white minority and Black minority. It was a very interesting place to grow up, and I thought that the whole world was kind of like that.

But growing up, I feel like I didn’t really have a lot of Asian friends, though, until maybe middle school and then high school, because that’s when I started to become actually aware of it. Like in elementary school, there’s jokes or teasing or bullying or whatever, but it’s not something that—it’s not like an identity just yet. So when I got to middle school, it became more about, I’m hanging out with people who look like me or are from the same culture as me and kind of celebrate the same things that I do.

And then, kind of similar thing in high school where it was still very multicultural, but my close friend group was more Asian, but it also wasn’t something that we really talked about either because we were in a high school full of Asians. So it was this weird bubble, this little Bay Area, Hayward–Union City bubble that I lived in. And my parents came over from Taiwan in the mid-eighties. My dad’s side of the family immigrated over too, and my mom’s side stayed in Taiwan. So I call myself Taiwanese American, but I’ve only been back to Taiwan once so far. I was eleven and I lost a tooth there. That’s my biggest memory. (laughs)

TSC: Did you save that tooth that you lost in Taiwan?

AH: I was just like, Wow, I don’t want to lose teeth anymore. It probably was like my last one, I was just like, Oh my God. I want to enjoy Taiwan, not lose my teeth.

TSC: You want to be able to eat the food. (laughs)

AH: (laughs) I know, exactly! I’m like, I’m just trying to enjoy the food!

So growing up, my dad’s side of the family would have family reunions every year, usually one at Thanksgiving and one at Christmas, so, Western holidays, but kind of multi-generational, family gathering-type thing. And then we still did Chinese New Year and other Chinese festival things, but just with my immediate family. So it was kind of this interesting mix of we’re going to do the Western stuff, but do it the Chinese way and only eat Chinese food during those family reunion-type things.

And my dad’s English got pretty okay—speaking English. His writing English is not great. My mom knows more English than she lets on, but she’s shy about it. So when I was little, I witnessed a lot of, I guess, racism, microaggressions, just people getting really frustrated with her and just kind of dismissing her because she was at the grocery store, at the bank or something, and not speaking perfect English. So I feel like that kind of shaped my view—that plus the bubble in high school—all kind of shaped my view of being Asian when I was growing up.

TSC: How did that experience of seeing people treat your mom that way affect how you feel about being Asian?

AH: It made me mostly just really mad. I remember writing in my diary—because when I was little, I was constantly writing in my diary—just trying to understand and then being like, I don’t understand. This lady was wrong for being so dismissive. My mom was just being my mom and also just existing in a grocery store, that kind of thing.

I think back to that event a lot actually, because it’s one of those things growing up that just stuck in my mind, and I’m always going over like, Did I feel shame? Did I feel embarrassed or anything? I don’t think I felt embarrassed from my mom. I felt mostly anger of just like, What the hell? Why this is happening?

TSC: I think that’s an experience that a lot of us can relate to.

You mentioned that you call yourself Taiwanese American, even though you have only been there once. Something that I know you’ve been really upfront about is that identities are political, and I’ve thought a lot about identity politics personally with respect to my own relationship to Taiwan and Taiwanese identity. I’ve kind of played around with calling myself Taiwanese American here and there. Can you tell me a little bit more about what being and identifying as Taiwanese means to you?

AH: Yeah, for me I think it is a couple things. One is to kind of break apart that umbrella term of “Asian American”—understanding that there are many Asian places and Asian cultures and Asian countries that people can be from—and that sometimes it’s helpful to get specific. And I think another thing is that I like to get specific about Taiwan versus China because of probably my parents, right? They’re very much like, We are Taiwanese. We are somehow different from Chinese people. I don’t think they’ve ever really explained themselves. I know it has something to do with politics, and I know the history of Taiwan is that people were kind of escaping Chinese rule and going to Taiwan. So it’s kind of in reference to that, even though I don’t know the I know a little more now :P but I’m happy to leave this in because that’s where I was at when we did the interview! full story.1

And it’s kind of a statement of, like, I will stand for those stories even if I’m not fully a part of them. And it’s where I come from. So I kind of have that with me. And I felt like it was important to start saying Taiwanese versus Chinese American or Asian American probably when I was in college, in undergrad, because I think I was trying to somehow differentiate myself as someone who was born in the US, not Chinese, exactly, like Chinese in culture, but a little different. Because in college, I went to UC Berkeley; there were a lot of students who had come from China who were just there for college. And I wanted to somehow be like, I’m different from them.

Interview Segment: Some toes need to be stepped on


A.L. Hu, they/them

Interview Date:
April 06, 2023

Themes: Taiwanese American identity, intersectionality, queer, trans, non-binary, language fluency, Chinese language, racial stereotypes, language assimilation, speech and debate

Places: Taiwan; Hayward, California; Harlem, New York City

References: The Architecture Lobby, Rose Fellowship


Ancestral Land:
Taiwan and China

Muwekma Ohlone (Hayward, California/East Bay in the SF Bay Area)

Current Land:
Lenapehoking (New York Metropolitan Area)

Diaspora Story:
My parents moved to California in 1984 after getting married. My father’s family migrated to the US in the 1980’s, while my mother’s family stayed in Taiwan. I was born in Hayward, California, in 1990, went to college at University of California, Berkeley, and attended graduate school at Columbia University. I am on a life-long journey of figuring out who I am and what I want amidst experiences of familial piety, assimilation, and searching for belonging.

Creative Fields:
Architecture, social practice art, graphic design

Racial Justice Affiliations:
Design as Protest, Dark Matter U, local community garden/farm, Queer Liberation March in NYC, Queeries

Favorite Fruit:

A.L. Hu, NOMA, AIA, NCARB, EcoDistricts AP, is a transgenderqueer Taiwanese American architect, organizer, and artist. Their interdisciplinary practice synthesizes organizing for racial, class, and gender justice with design; rethinks the architect’s role in facilitating accessible spaces; and manifests in collaborative work. Hu was a 2019–2021 Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow, and they are currently director of design initiatives at Ascendant Neighborhood Development in East Harlem. They are a core member of Design as Protest and Dark Matter University. Hu provides brainpower and energy for Queeries, an ongoing community-building design-queering initiative for and by LGBTQIA+ architects and designers.

︎    A-l.hu

︎    @acetaminophen

︎    queeries.xyz

︎    @queeries.xyz

TSC: I also kind of relate to this feeling of I don’t really know the whole story. Like you could just ask them, you know? But it just feels like such a big hurdle to get over. (laughs)

That’s interesting that your parents are always like, “We’re Taiwanese.” My family has not been that way, but I think for me it’s also been to signal support of Taiwan as its own independent country. And so, yeah, it’s interesting to hear the experience of that evolving for you over time. And I also agree that the desire to disaggregate this monolith of ”Asians” is becoming increasingly important to the Asian community, Asian American community.

I am curious to hear a little bit more about your work. And to start off, how would you describe your work, and how has your upbringing and identity shaped your creative path and the way that you approach your work?

AH: I’m an architect; I’m a licensed architect, whatever that means. I passed the exams. (laughs)

TSC: (laughs) It’s a fact, actually. That’s what it is. It’s a fact.

AH: It’s a fact. I pay money for this. (laughs)

I’m the I've since been promoted to director of design initiatives! design initiatives manager2 at an affordable-housing nonprofit right now. We’re called Ascendant Neighborhood Development, and we own and maintain and develop affordable housing in East Harlem, in New York City. I got to this job actually through something called the Rose Fellowship, which technically doesn’t exist anymore because the people who convened the fellowship, they got a new CEO and their priorities completely shifted. They’re still doing good stuff, just not the fellowship. And that fellowship put architects with community development corporations—so, like, nonprofits that are really embedded in their neighborhoods, like Ascendant Neighborhood Development—to kind of bridge the gap between design and on-the-ground kind of services and talking to residents. So I almost consider it an architectural education role where instead of talking to, like, university students, I’m talking to residents of the neighborhood to ask them about their apartments, what kind of renovations they would like to see, and then bringing in the designs from the architect and explaining all the details in language that they would understand. And also kind of bringing in some of the architectural stuff too, because these are the terms.

And I got into architecture not really knowing that this kind of job was something that existed. I mean, even when I started studying architecture at UC Berkeley in college, I didn’t realize architecture was a thing. I don’t think I’d ever met an architect before. I had entered college as an Environmental Economics and Policy major, because I was like, Oh, environment stuff. I took one econ class, and I was like, Uh-uh, this isn’t it. This isn’t my major. And then I started taking a lot of different classes to figure out my major, and I took an intro to architecture class and it perfectly melded together art stuff plus being a perfectionist, (laughs) plus history and social issues, and then geometry. And it was just like, This hits all the buttons.

TSC: It hits the spot.

AH: I just kind of kept with it. And for the longest time in undergrad, even part of grad school, it was like, okay, I want to be an architect. I want to design buildings and build buildings. And then I think through the middle of grad school, it became more like, I don’t know if I want to build buildings—it’s a great skill to have, but that’s not the only way to make a change in the built environment. So, yeah. Does that answer the question?

TSC: I mean, it does! I’m curious if you could elaborate a little bit more on how your identity has shaped that creative path and that approach—or maybe you don’t relate to that? (laughs)

AH: No, I do! (laughs) I just forgot about that part!

TSC: That’s okay. I like that history though. Thank you.

AH: So, really, being Asian, going to college, and selecting a major was, like, a big fucking deal, and I remember being like, Okay, econ is a good major because it’s related to money and maybe I’ll make a lot of money and be totally into that. My parents will be into that. And it’s always the shadow of my parents being like, Is this a good major or not?

And then when I found architecture, I was thinking about my older sister who actually got into Berkeley as well, but ended up leaving—withdrawing and going to art school and my parents being super disappointed because apparently you can’t make money with art. And so I was like, Okay, architecture is related to art, but it’s technical and it’s like engineering, which is what my dad does. So I was like, This should be okay. There are architecture jobs—like, there’s a whole profession and a career field. There’s licensing; this should be fine. So that was also actually part of the calculus. And yeah, I think it was less about, Do I see other Asians in the profession? There was maybe a little bit, but I was actually thinking about my parents and is this a stable job? Will they be not disappointed in me? (laughs)

TSC: Yeah, totally. I think that there are a lot of art-oriented Asians that end up in architecture for very similar reasons, including myself.

So I know a lot of work has directly addressed identity and architecture with respect to being queer, trans, and non-binary. Has any of your work directly addressed Asian-identity history and themes? And if so, can you tell me more about that? And if not, have you ever been interested in pursuing work that does?

AH: It actually has not; my work has not focused a lot on Asian identities at all. And that’s actually come up several times, because I’ll be on a webinar or writing an article or something and it’s focused mostly on being non-binary or genderqueer and trans issues or queer issues. And I’ll inevitably get an email from someone who’s like, “But how does that intersect with your Asian identity?” And I’m like, “I’ve never thought about that.” I probably actively try not to think about that. Because I’m like, Then it gets so complicated. I honestly have not really thought about it. I’m just like, Blinders on. (laughs) I’m really glad you’re doing this project, because it makes me think about it and I’m just like, I don’t know!

TSC: If you could humor me and think and think out loud for a minute about it, what are some thoughts that have come up for you about that question?

AH: Yeah, I think it would come up fairly academic because I think of intersectionality and all the kind of writings about that. And then, when I link it to being Asian, it’s very abstract, I think because partially I have never dealt with that really. My parents and I are kind of—I’ve come out to them as trans before, and they were just worried about me. They’re like, Are you okay? (laughs) And then now we just don’t really talk about it, and they kind of accept it. So it’s not a conversation I’ve ever even had with myself.

TSC: Oh my God, that’s so relatable.

AH: I think it would definitely have something to do with looking at family structures, probably. Because I think one of the big drivers of things like designing a single-family home or something—or if you think of how homes are constructed in other places—a lot of that is based on the family structure. And I just think back to that one time I was in Taiwan and we were at my grandparents’ house and two of my uncles were still living at home. And my aunts were living nearby but would come visit all the time. It’s like, I would want to look at it through some type of family structure, support structure, relationship type of lens. And that’s like a barely baked idea. That’s like the flour in the water.

TSC: Totally. It’s interesting to me because from what I see of the work that you do, it seems to me that you feel like your work as a designer and architect is inseparable from your identity as queer, non-binary, and trans. But it’s interesting to me that some Asians I’ve interviewed have been like, “Yeah, I’ve thought a lot about this and I’m ready to talk about it.” And then some Asians are like, “I’ve never really thought about this.” I just find it interesting that we can operate in this profession without really thinking about our race. Like, what does that say about Asians and our relationship to whiteness or white institutions or our position in this country, or what we’ve had to do for survival? You know, there are so many elements of it that I think are interesting. And sometimes when I ask people this question—people who have not publicly or purposefully talked about it, I get a little nervous.

AH: Like, will they get it?

TSC: Well, not “will they get it?” but more like, Do they want to talk about it? I think that’s the bigger question. Because I'm like, If you don’t, it’s okay; we don’t have to! (laughs)

“So it’s kind of in reference to that, even though I don’t know the full story. And it’s kind of a statement of, I will stand for those stories even if I’m not fully a part of them. And it’s where I come from.”

AH: Totally. It feels like this black box of stuff that’s locked away that I just haven’t even thought about. And I feel like it definitely has something to do with trying to assimilate into whiteness for sure. Because I feel like that started for me in high school. I was on the speech and debate team—okay, if you can believe it, in high school and before high school, I was extremely shy and I hatedtalking. It wasn’t until I was in that speech and debate class and learned how to, I don’t know, speak English better or whatever that I felt like speaking up was okay. And to me that speech and debate process of learning how to speak good felt like kind of this assimilation into, like, Oh, you have to talk a certain way. You have to use certain words; you have to present yourself a certain way. Especially because you’re at this high school that’s, like, majority people are of color and you’re in these debate competitions with private schools that are, like, all white people. So it was very much like I learned that from being very young, and then it was just kind of in me, and I haven’t looked at it.

TSC: You learn how to code-switch, and then you’re like, Okay, this is how I get my foot in the door, by saying all the right words.

AH: Right. And now I don’t know how to switch back. (laughs)

TSC: Totally. (laughs) Your switch is stuck on.

So maybe you haven’t thought super deeply about Asian identity in the context of your work, but do you feel that you’ve experienced challenges from being Asian American in architecture? And how has that influenced how you operate in the field if it has?

AH: I do feel like I’ve experienced challenges for sure. I feel like there’s always a struggle of being seen as someone who can make decisions—or can argue in compelling ways. I’m non-binary now, but when I was a woman, or when I was presenting as a woman, it was very easy to be dismissed or ignored and to feel like, Oh, I’m just this fly on the wall right now. I’m not really in this room, not really part of this meeting or part of this project. So there’s a lot of figuring out how to be assertive and then figuring out how to be assertive without stepping on anyone’s toes. Although I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I’m just like, It doesn’t matter if I stepped on some toes! Some toes need to be stepped on right now. (laughs)

TSC: Toes will heal. (laughs)

AH: Yeah. The toes will heal. And there’s also a perception, I think, of Asian people as being very good at math or very good at the technical stuff. And that’s a nice thing to think about Asians, but it’s a stereotype that’s not completely true. And then can also kind of pigeonhole people into like, Oh, you can do the drawings, or you can do the really technical stuff—but we’re going to talk about design. I’ve definitely experienced that before in grad school and, like, working at different firms where it was just like, I also have opinions about the bigger picture and the concept. I don’t just want to be the person who’s moving lines around in AutoCAD, you know?

And yeah, I think the rest of it is more maybe just being a child of immigrants, in general. Not having grown up having a huge social network or knowing that architecture was a profession. And having to explain to all your family members what that is and how it’s different from engineering and it’s also different from art. It’s this totally other thing that exists! And yeah, I guess that’s in terms of familial support that other people might have, but I don’t know how much that has actually hurt me, so I’m just like, It’s a thing.

TSC: Yeah. I mean, it’s an experience that you’ve had. It’s interesting you said earlier that when you were presenting as a woman, you felt this way—dismissed and ignored. Do you feel like now as a non-binary person, you are less so stereotyped as being passive?

AH: I think the stereotypes still exist, but I’m much more kind of outright about, “Hi, I’m A.L. My pronouns are they and them,” and if people don’t get it, I’ll be like, “I identify as non-binary. It’s different. You have to listen to me now.”

“...if you can believe it, in high school and before high school, I was extremely shy and I hated talking. It wasn’t until I was in that speech and debate class and learned how to, I don’t know, speak English better or whatever that I felt like speaking up was okay.”

Interview Segment: It feels like this black box of stuff that’s locked away

In a way, coming out and being really out about it in the workplace especially has been an empowering thing for me at least, where I’m just like, I’m here; it is happening. There’s no shying away; there’s no becoming the fly on the wall. That’s just not happening this time.

TSC: It launches you into a position of more visibility just by the nature of your being upfront about it.

Have you ever felt that being Asian benefited or privileged you in any way?

AH: Yes. I have. I think as an Asian person, definitely in school, I felt like for me personally, it was very easy to convince teachers, Oh yeah, I can do that. It’s possible for me to, for example—if there was an assignment that asked for a certain type of model, but I wanted to do it differently somehow, I could point to, I don’t know—I was more believable in some way where I could be like, I just want to do it this way. And it’s different from the other way, but I just want to do it this way. I feel like being Asian lended me some type of credibility of, like, Oh, okay, they can do it. They’re good at math; they can do it. (laughs) That’s the flip side of that coin.

And I think maybe culturally, it’s helped me. I don’t even know how to phrase this. I feel like throughout my life, like growing up, there’s just been such a heavy focus on studying and doing the right thing and getting the license, you know? Like following things all the way through. Well, now I have that license. It definitely was a struggle, but it felt kind of just like, It’s happening. That’s just what I have to do. And I just need to put my head down and study for it. And I think definitely—this is in more recent years—understanding the political connotations of Asian American identity in the United States has been helpful because I feel like it’s put me in this invisible support network. There have been people before me who have also struggled for slightly different reasons and in different ways, but that’s a strength that I can lean on a little bit, even though it’s kind of abstract.

And then, remember when I was saying that I would call myself Taiwanese American to differentiate myself from Chinese international students? I honestly loved that Columbia grad school was full of Chinese people because it felt like even though I was this American, I was like, Oh, I feel like I’m back in high school or something! Where it’s like, People look like me, and I’m like, I feel more comfortable than usual, than if I were at, say, a regular architecture firm or something like that. There’s a comfort in being in that kind of space.

“In a way, coming out and being really out about it in the workplace especially has been an empowering thing for me at least, where I’m just like, I’m here; it is happening. There’s no shying away; there’s no becoming the fly on the wall because that’s just not happening this time.”

TSC: I’d like to talk a little bit about solidarity and especially in the context of how you and I currently work—near each other. (laughs) I was going to say “work together”—well, we do work together, but back to the us never having had a one-on-one conversation thing.

AH: (laughs) Right.

TSC: I’m curious what personal history or experience brought you to Dark Matter U and Design as Protest, how you found out about it, and how you got involved?

AH: So I got involved with Design as Protest because I was really angry at The Architecture Lobby. After grad school I was organizing a lot a lot with The Architecture Lobby and doing lots of kind of interesting work about organizing unions within professional settings and talking to different unions and kind of getting the ball rolling on the work that’s starting to come to fruition today. And to me it was rewarding work. It was very interesting. It felt very academic and very, Oh, we’re kind of just talking to ourselves a little bit. But then there were also other moments where it was like, Oh, this is kind of fun. I’m throwing a fundraiser party, and we’re doing something about the #MeToo stuff that was happening in 2018.

But then I think it was the end of 2019, beginning of 2020, I began to be—for whatever reason—way more aware of being Asian in those spaces actually. Like being one of the only people of color. I think I had just been in that organization for too long and was starting to see how the sausage was made a little bit, and I was just like, “Oh no, this isn’t good.” And then I remember trying to run for a leadership position. I think I was trying to become national organizer, which in hindsight was a terrible idea. But I remember having this platform of, like, we need to diversify, or we need to make sure everyvoice is heard in The Architecture Lobby. And people were like, We hear you, but there wasn’t any action in it.

And then June 2020 hit, and I was like, “Oh, shit. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit in these rooms and just talk and talk and talk and not really do anything.” What really drew me to Design as Protest was one of their main tenets, or community agreements, is “bias toward action.” I love that. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We know that we have to take action sooner or later. Let’s figure out what we’re doing and take the action sooner. And not study it to death or debate it to death. And I also loved that because DAP was people of color and led by Black designers, everyone was kind of on the same page about things already versus in The Architecture Lobby, there was a lot of weird infighting and weird, Oh, we want to do it this way. Whereas at DAP it was like, If you want to do it that way, do it, but we’re also going to do it this way. And the collective is going to be working on this together. So it’s like, Either you’re in or not.

It was just a really affirming space too. It was very comfortable to be in because it felt like a safe space to just exist as a person of color and then to also feel like we were doing good work together. And then Dark Matter U, I don’t remember exactly how I was pulled in but the funny thing is—it’s funny, I don’t identify as an academic, or a teacher or whatever, even though I teach classes now, and I was like, I can help on the backend. I like doing network diagrams and stuff. I don’t know if I’ll ever teach. I think I knew a lot of the people who were part of DMU from the start, so I just kind of got looped into it.

And then the more that we talked, the more that DMU had conversations with each other and the more that we were kind of working together towards something, the more it made sense that I was like, Okay, I’m here—I care about education, and design school needs to be anti-racist. Otherwise, we’re just spinning our wheels and upholding structures that we’re trying to fight. So yeah, that’s how I got into it. I don’t know, I enjoyed working with all the people who are in DAP and DMU and even when there were points where I was burning out and I was like, I need to take a step back, I felt like I was supported or just kind of like, It’s okay—we’ll kind of take over things; and then I feel like I’m able to do that for other people too. And I feel like—I mean, we shouldn’t be burning out to begin with, but the next best thing is that when you are burning out, you’re able to step back and people can kind of support.

TSC: What you were just describing about DAP versus The Architecture Lobby reminds me of the concept of high-context versus low-context cultures. And so, a lot of Western cultures are low-context cultures where you have to say or describe a lot of things to understand each other. Where there are some other cultures, like some Asian cultures, Indigenous cultures, other cultures, that are high-context cultures where there’s just a baseline understanding or assumption of what’s happening. And you don’t have to say a lot to get on the same page. You’re just kind of on the same page, and you don’t have to explain things as much. But what you just said made me think about that, and I thought, That’s such a cool way to describe the experience of DAP and DMU. It’s like we are just on the same page. It just somehow flows that way.

AH: Yeah, or it’s like, we’ll still debate about stuff, but of course it’s not like, I don’t know. It’s less about the small things, more about the fundamental. It’s a bigger picture, it’s more consequential, like, what are we doing? That kind of thing.

TSC: Totally.

AH: But I also don’t really know how to explain it.

TSC: I think that’s an interesting way to share that experience though. How did you find out about Design as Protest?

AH: That’s a really good question. It must’ve been Instagram? I think Bryan C. Lee Jr. must’ve posted something either through Colloqate—or, I don’t know, especially during that time in 2020, I was on Instagram a lot. (laughs)

TSC: Like many of us.

AH: I was on Instagram, and I was like, Oh, like, this is something that a group of architects and designers are doing. This seems like the right thing to do. And I think during that time, kind of the early days of the pandemic, I was also involved with a group called Mutual Aid NYC, which was also very academic and a lot of people talking to each other. And we meant well—like, we supported each other, but we’re not sure we practiced any mutual aid to anyone else, besides whoever was on the Zoom call. (laughs)

So I was actively looking for, like, is there a way I can connect with people who are in my community better or like in a way that’s more connected to what I do. And like, I was like, Design—as Protest! Yes! Amazing!

TSC: That’s awesome. So I guess you had the experience of going from The Architecture Lobby, where it was a predominantly white space it sounds like, to going to Design as Protest and DMU, which is Black-led and a BIPOC space. I’m curious what you see as your role in BIPOC solidarity spaces and whether you feel like it’s tied to your racial identity. And if you have thoughts on the role of Asians or Asian Americans in BIPOC solidarity spaces.

AH: Mm-hmm. That’s a really good question. And I think my answer is going to be probably very personal. I don’t know if I can extrapolate anything about all Asians or even some Asians.

TSC: Oh no, no need to extrapolate!

“...understanding the political connotations of Asian American identity in the United States has been helpful because I feel like it’s put me in this invisible support network.”

AH: For me it’s like—how do I say this? Sorry, I’m trying to find the right words. In solidarity spaces and especially in BIPOC spaces, I feel like my role is to support a larger vision. And that vision is something that gets created collectively and agreed upon collectively. And I personally don’t think there’s any job or contribution or support method that’s better than any other—it’s where you are at the moment. So, back in 2020, I was really into making network maps and I just got to work in Miro—diagramming, you know, figuring out the flows and how are we working together, what are our relationships, that kind of thing. And trying to understand the bigger picture in terms of relationships and networks and connections so that we could make that solidarity bigger and grow the movement.

Sometimes I feel like a preacher a little bit when I’m talking about DAP and DMU, because I’m like, “You should join. Everyone should join this.” I feel like that’s part of my role of spreading the word a little bit of like, This is an amazing space. I feel like I have so many friends in architecture and in architectural education who are like, I feel so isolated where I am, and I’m like, “This place exists! This place of non-isolation and collectivity and joy does exist! It just exists on Zoom, and we’re going to have a retreat and stuff like that, but right now, that’s the way that we connect.” And so I feel like that’s part of my role, trying to connect people into the network and being like, “The future is here; the future is now.” That kind of thing.

TSC: Yeah. We need the brochure! The door-to-door brochure. (laughs)

AH: Yeah, exactly! (laughs) We’re like standing on the corner of the street, just like, “Have you heard the good news?”

TSC: I love that image.

Your initiative Queeries is inspiring to me considering what I hope to achieve with SSSAD. Can you tell me a little bit about your motivation behind that project? What has it been like engaging with and hearing from other LGBTQIA+ designers about queerness in architecture?

AH: That project came out of grad school actually. So I came out as non-binary in grad school and I had an amazing group of queer friends who were very, very supportive, which I am learning is not necessarily the norm in grad school, especially grad architecture school. And so I was like, How do we keep that network going? How do we stay friends? How do we keep in touch? How do we help each other later, either professionally or personally, even? How do we just stay in touch?

And I was like, Okay, I’m graduating from grad school. This is going to suck because everyone’s moving away and we’re all going to be super focused on our jobs and stuff. So it was originally conceived as like, We’re going to have happy hours together, and we’re going to put on events. And then I think once I graduated though, it was just a whirlwind of like, oh my God, working, barely sleeping, studying for exams. It was just like, Oh my God, there are so many things, and I didn’t really work on Queeries until the pandemic hit, when I was in front of the computer all the time and being like, Wow! I would really just love to meet with some queer people right now. It’s great being really safe in my apartment with my cat and my partner, but this is a little too much.

So then I had been in a bunch of different conversations about queer people in architecture being a minority or, like, voices not being heard. And I thought that one way to really amplify queer voices was to create a survey. And I was thinking, like, the standard kind of demographic survey or questions that they ask on a form that’s like, What’s your gender? What’s your race? What’s this and that? But they don’t ever ask about, How do you identify your gender identity or your sexuality?

So it was like, in order to exist at that level, we had to be counted in some way. And so, I was like, “Here is the survey that starts to count them.” Yeah—and starts to look at the data in a way that’s not just, like, charts and graphs, but is also focusing on stories because you learn so much more about someone’s experience that way versus 30 percent of people identify as this—like, okay, what does that mean? What’s the story behind that? So it was this huge, long survey that I made. I was like, "I’m going to ask all the questions." I don’t know, probably the length of the survey was a barrier for a lot of people, but over a hundred people responded from around the country. And there were even some international, non-US respondents. And I was like, Whoa, how’d that get over there?

And then sharing it out on Instagram was a decision because it was 2020. I was on Instagram personally, and I was also like, How can we represent survey responses in a way that’s accessible to people and isn’t just this report that you could download the PDF, comb through a bunch of text, and then find a graph? How can we make it fun and engaging and interesting but still get the information out and still get people talking about it and thinking about it in a different way?

And then there were a few meetups on Zoom where we did discuss the results a little bit. Those didn’t get super deep. Those were kind of in the middle of 2020, so, like, getting into late summer, early fall. And I think we were all just like, Wow! We’re in a room full of queers right now. This is amazing. And then like—it’d be an hour, and we would be like, Okay, bye.

TSC: It was the happy hour!

AH: Yeah, exactly. It was the happy hour. It was the event. And then Queeries is kind of start and stop for me because I’m just doing it in my free time whenever I feel compelled to basically. I’ve been trying to evolve it into something that’s less of a diversity-and-inclusion type of thing because I just find that even the survey, even the numbers to me are just too much hard data. It’s not revealing enough; it’s not convincing enough to me just to have that collated and sent out. So I’m trying to turn it into something that’s definitely design related and something that’s more story based. And where that ends up, I have no idea, but that’s where it’s gone.

TSC: I’m excited. I can’t wait.

I’m curious what dreams and aspirations you have for Asians, Asian diasporic spaces, and the people who are shaping them through design?

AH: I would love for things like this project to really start conversations, like high-profile, public conversations about being Asian in architecture. Because I can’t be the only one who’s, like, never really thought about it. (laughs)

TSC: You are not.

“In solidarity spaces and especially in BIPOC spaces, I feel like my role is to support a larger vision. And that vision is something that gets created collectively and agreed upon collectively. And I personally don’t think there’s any job or contribution or support method that’s better than any other—it’s where you are at the moment.”

Interview Segment: Growing the movement

AH: I’m counting on you! But also—I dream for a time when Asian people are really grounded in our identities and are able to use our identities as a source of power and strength. Instead of, at least for me, this locked-away black box of I’m Asian, but, how? I don’t know. It was genetic. (laughs)

And for there to be a greater sense of community and support, I think, within the community of Asian architects and designers, because I feel like it’s that thing about code-switching and then just having the switch on. At least for me, it’s just like, Okay, great. Now I’m here; I’m not sure how to move forward or backward or anything, and it’s like I can see that I have that switch on, but what do I do?

TSC: Totally. I love the black-box analogy that you keep bringing up. I had a therapist say to me once that there are parts of the experience of being Asian that are like a basement door that you just never open. The door is always there. You could just open it and walk in, yet you never do. It’s just understood that no one goes down there, you know?

Also thank you for expressing enthusiasm for this project. An important component of this initiative is to create resources that are useful for other Asian and Asian-identifying designers and creatives. What resources would you love to see for other Asian designers, or maybe what would you have loved to have had access to or known about as a younger designer?

AH: Okay, these are going to sound really weird. Partially because I’m like, “I need this now.” I wish that there was a dictionary that translated into Asian languages. Like, how do you say “architecture”? How do you say “architect”? How do you say “design”? I’ve definitely asked my parents that before, and they’re like, This is how you say “architect”; that’s what you are, and I’m like, “It’s not sticking.” I don’t think I’ve said the word out loud to anybody. And when I try to interact with a lot of Chinese-speaking senior residents and they’re always like, What do you do? Why are you talking to us? And I’m always like, “I don’t know how to say it.” And I always default with something like, “I just want to hear your stories, and we’re going to use it later to change the backyard or something, or change this room.” And it’s like there’s no mention of design or architecture or anything like that. So I would love to see some type of dictionary. I’m sure we can crowdsource that. That sounds really fun.

Another thing I think would be some type of book or directory or encyclopedia of interesting Asian designers, right? They don‘t even have to be architects or anything like that. They don‘t have to be licensed. I feel like that would‘ve been helpful as a young person trying to figure out their major and figure out their identity in general, and not being super connected to being Asian. If I had come across that book, I’d be like, Oh, this is another dimension I hadn’t thought about. And maybe that black box would’ve been unlocked by now.

TSC: I’m going to work on the first thing you said because I talked about it with somebody else in these interviews and she was like, “Yeah, I was just in Chinatown talking to all these residents,” and she was like, “I just need the words. I don’t know what the words are.” And she went, “Let’s start it now.” And she started this Google doc. It's something that I’ve been building on my own too. I started meeting with a tutor once a week to improve my ability to speak Mandarin for my current day-to-day life, not my six-year-old life. (laughs)

AH: Yeah, yeah, yeah! (laughs)

TSC: And so I have a little document of architecture and design words. The crowdsourcing idea is also a really good idea because I’ve seen a previous professor of mine crowdsource something like that before where he was trying to crowdsource Chinese words about energy modeling. And he just made a post that said, “Here are the words, and please edit this document.” It was awesome because there are also so many Asian languages and communities and even within the Chinese diaspora, there are so many different ways that language is written and spoken.

AH: And I imagine there’s slang too. I actually added Chinese onto my Duolingo. Also, sort of the tutor thing. I just need to feel confident speaking Chinese to my parents. Not even my day-to-day. Just like, when I decide to call my parents, I want to speak a little less Chinglish. And I’m in the unit that’s talking about internet slang, and I’m like, This is crazy. Like, these are words I’ve never learned!

TSC: Oh wow! Oh, I don’t know about the internet. That’s so interesting. I want to learn that. Do you have to get to a certain passing level to get to the internet slang level?

AH: Probably, yeah. Because when I started the Chinese Duolingo, I was like, “Oh, I already know some Chinese; I’m going to test out of a bunch of the units.” And then it landed me somewhere slightly advanced, maybe intermediate, and then now I’m at the unit that’s like, “Learn some internet slang.”

TSC: That’s hilarious.

AH: I’m like, I’m going to use this with my parents.

TSC: Also though, I can imagine that being really awkward because if somebody put together internet slang in English, I can imagine that going really wrong. Like if you don’t check in with somebody who’s in the right age group. (laughs)

AH: Exactly. (laughs)

TSC: But that is hilarious. Probably endearing. That was my motivation for getting a real live person. So I could be like, “Does this sound dumb? Do people actuallysay this?” (laughs)

AH: Duolingo can’t check that for you. (laughs)

TSC: It can’t check that for you!

Just to close out here, is there anything else that you would like to share or revisit?

AH: Probably when I start reading through the transcript, things will come to me, but I just want to thank you for all of these really thought-provoking questions and important questions and documenting them, because I feel like I’ve definitely had informal conversations about these topics before, but it doesn’t stick. It is not something that I think about all the time.

TSC: Thank you. And if you have any feedback about this—as somebody else who’s doing a storytelling, documentation, identity-based project—about anything that I’m doing—would love to hear it. I love feedback. I need the feedback. So if you have any thoughts, please share.

And then also I just want to say thanks for adding names and suggestions to the form! I am interested in seeing if this project can sort of build on itself. I really want to try to interview people that I know at least a little bit. And I like the idea of having people who I am interviewing interview somebody else, so it has this compound effect. So if you are interested, I might be in touch with you at some point. I’m moving very slowly as well, kind of similar to how you describe your progress on Queeries—sometimes when I'm compelled and sometimes because I do have a grant that I need to fulfill.

AH: There are milestones.

TSC: There are some milestones that I have to be aware of, and more just like when I get stressed about the fact that I haven’t made progress.

AH: You’re like, “The deadline is here!”

TSC: I mean its half inspired and then half stressed. But I would love to reach out to you about that if you are still interested. And then the other thing, too, is with DMU; I’m planning on doing a series of office hours where I just get together the Asians to talk about certain topics. So again, that timeline is to be finalized, but look out for it and I hope you’ll participate in that as well.

AH: All the things that you’re saying are in progress sound great. And I totally understand that. Like, “Oh my God, I’m not worried about it.” And then “Oh my God, I’m worried about it. I need to do it now.”

TSC: Totally. In spurts.

“But also—I dream for a time when Asian people are really grounded in our identities and are able to use our identities as a source of power and strength. Instead of, at least for me, this locked-away black box of I’m Asian, but, how?”

Posted March 13, 2024