“I’m dreaming of permission. Permission to take into our own hands our narratives. Permission to claim each other. Permission to claim our ancestors that are not blood. ”


This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Tonia Sing Chi (TSC): This is Tonia Sing Chi, and I'm here with Bz Zhang for Storytelling Spaces of Solidarity in the Asian Diaspora.

To start off, I would love it if you would tell me about your experience growing up in New York City in an Asian immigrant family. Why did your parents come to the United States? In what ways did the places that you grew up feel connected or disconnected to your homeland?  

Bz Zhang (BZ): Hmm. Thank you for having me! Thank you for doing this project. I know this recording is for you, but I want to say that on the record.

I'm going to answer it from a recent reflection that I had with a friend and collaborator of mine who is a Taiwanese American musician and performing artist that I grew up with in New York. I recently was speaking to her mother about our childhood because her mother was asking me, “I've been thinking about, you know, Did my two daughters experience racism growing up in New York? So I wanted to put that question on you.” And we talked about it, and I was like, “Well, that's so fascinating, and yes—and we can talk about that. But you're making me realize”—and I'm saying this to her mother—I said, “you're making me realize that I was inoculated in this way that a lot of people didn't have because I always was surrounded by a diversity of specifically Chinese diasporic people in New York. So I always had evidence for a wide range of what it meant to have roots in China in some way.” It just came out. I wasn't planning to say that. And it was just like a really touching conversation.

But, to be specific, some of my friends growing up who had Chinese identity in some way were my Taiwanese friend, whose parents consider themselves běnshěngrén from Taiwan, and then I had two friends whose families were from Shanghai and spoke Shanghainese with their parents, and then my parents came from Anhui and Shandong provinces respectively, and they had met in college. I'm working backwards in your question because my parents both were first-generation urban citizens, first-generation college graduates, first generation in the US. And I’m in awe of how much community they built, basically. And that actually—I use the word inoculate—like actually really bolstered me against kinds of verbal abuses that I experienced because I just had so much overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

And then by the time I was in high school, we moved to the Midwest actually. And it all disappeared. And so now, being in California and now being surrounded again has helped me look back at these two experiences of having a lot of community and not having a lot of community with a new light. But that said, I think because my parents were recent immigrants—they came in the eighties—they always had a lot of connection to their extended family in the mainland.

So, I don't know, when I’m asked a question like this, I actually just have a lot of gratitude. Because it was like having the diversity in a major city metropolitan area, but then also that it was like all over the Sino diaspora, so to speak. But then also having these very specific moments of deeply rooted experience with extended family. So, like on my mom's side of the family, I can trace our family back in place six or seven generations, which I don't even fully know if I know how to feel about that.
TSC: That's incredible. I don't know if a lot of diasporic people could say that about their families.

BZ: I know! Yeah, it's interesting. Maybe even a few years ago, I would have been more like, “Oh my God, it was so alienating growing up,” which, yeah, there was a lot of alienation and this and that and whatever. But I think, as I’m trying to understand my family history more, and also talking with and connecting more with others—including you—on this type of—personal digging? I guess? Yeah. The more I’m just like, “Wow, I'm so full with gratitude.” So many people don’t have these strands.

TSC: That's interesting that your digging into your personal identity can change how you feel like you experienced something. It’s as if your memory of your childhood or your experience growing up changes—almost like you can change your past in your future.
BZ: Mmm—yes! You just named it. You put words to what I said. Thank you. Yeah, I think that's what I was trying to say to my friend's mom.

TSC: That’s really empowering.
It sounds like what you’re doing now, in thinking more about your identity and reflecting on your parents giving you a really strong sense of self maybe bolstered you against any sort of alienation you might have felt or othering, or racism, whatever. But I am curious how and when you became aware of your racialization in this country and also connected to that, when and how were you politicized?

BZ: Okay. Hmm, where do I want to pull at to tell this story—

I hear a lot of people say, Oh, I realized I was racialized at this age, at this time. I'm not sure that I have a memory like that, maybe also because of growing up having young experiences in a major metropolitan area. At the same time as being exposed to a lot of different kinds of Chinese diasporic people or Asian diasporic people, I have very young memories of people doing the pulling the eyes gesture, like three-, four-years-old memories. Then I think my parents, because their immigration story was in relation to surveillance and a deeply anxious dynamic between self and others is how I’ll say it right now—I think my parents played a role in this understanding of, We are Chinese; other people aren't; so there's a way that you're going to—I think there was an instillment of that which I'm tracing as not their reaction to the US, or to New York, where we were specifically, but in relation to their migration in total, or, like, their reasons for it.

In terms of politicization—my mom was part founding a Chinese language school in the New York area, and when my sister and I ask her about it, she's just like, “Yeah, there was a need, and we just did it.” I remember my sister was like, “But English is your second language and you had only been in the country for like less than five, six years, and you just had two kids. Why did you? When did you? Where did you learn how to form a 501c3?” And she was like, “We just had to.” It’s so—it’s so.

TSC: It’s like the story on the back of the cereal box, but, also, incredible.

BZ: Yeah! Well, I think that's part of the first thing we talked about—changing how an experience feels for you because at the time I was very like, “I guess everyone's mom founded a Chinese language school.”

Interview Segment: What am I going to do with all this research?


Bz Zhang, they/them

Interview Date:
January 30, 2023

Chinese identity, mainland Chinese identity, Chinese language school, pro-democracy activism in China, community organizing, bearing witness, Chinatowns, Chinese neighborhoods, art school, shame, permission, authenticity

New York, Midwest, Los Angeles, California, Indianapolis, Anhui, Shandong, China, San Francisco Bay Area

Tiananmen Square Massacre, Chinese Civil War, Communist Revolution, Cultural Revolution, Taiping Rebellion, Journal of Architectural Education Fellowship, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, In Case of Fire Wàn yī huǒzāi, PBS Asian Americans mini-series, Bryan Lee, Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong, Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism, Permission to Come Home, Jenny T. Wang, Akai Gurley, Peter Liang, Design as Protest, Dark Matter U


Ancestral Land:
安徽 Anhui, China (maternal) ; 山东 Shandong, China (paternal)

Lenapehoking (The Bronx, NY and Edgemont, NY)

Current Land:
Tovaangar (Los Angeles, California)

Diaspora Story:
My parents migrated from mainland China to the US in the 1980s, having each been the first in their families to graduate from college coming out of the Cultural Revolution. Our ancestral villages are in the Yellow Mountains (on my mom’s side) and by the Yellow Sea (on my dad’s); my grandparents were the first in their generation to migrate into urban centers. In the US, I grew up with my sister and our parents in Lenapehoking, and since 2019, I live and learn and dream in Tovaangar.

Creative Fields:
Architecture, Visual Art, Spatial Design, Exhibition Design

Racial Justice Affiliations: Dark Matter U, Design As Protest Collective, UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design Alums of Color, Los Angeles Chinatown Community Land Trust, Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy

Favorite Fruit:

Bz Zhang 张迪 is an architect and artist based on unceded Tongva land (so-called Los Angeles). From a young age, their families and communities instilled within them the joyful practice of translating across languages, cultures, mediums, and scales to create meaningful time and space together, sparking a path that has ranged from oil painting to exhibition design to labor organizing and beyond. They are a core organizer with Design As Protest and Dark Matter U, a project manager with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, a 2022 Journal of Architectural Education Fellow and 2021 USC Citizen Architect Fellow, and a licensed architect in California. Their design and research practice wonders aloud about representations of violence and the violence of representations by asking questions both using and about disciplinary tools of art and architecture. Their teaching practice has developed across the University of Southern California, California College of the Arts, University of Michigan, University at Buffalo, University of California, Berkeley, Jefferson University, and Brown University. Bz holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Brown University. In their free time, they look for birds and trash in the Los Angeles River.



TSC: (laughs)

BZ: That’s how I felt about it, you know?

I didn't know, obviously, the word “politicize” at that time. I do think I watched her because she was the principal for the first few years of the language school. I watched her operate diplomatically, which was very fascinating. And it was an organizing effort. And that was part of why I met so many Chinese descendant people from so many places—was because of that.

And then my dad actually was not only a pro-democracy student activist in China prior to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, but then advocated and continued organizing and demonstrating in the US. They first landed in the Midwest, and my dad was part of groups of students organizing against who were at the US Embassy in Chicago. I now fly through Chicago to see them. They now live in West Lafayette, Indiana. But he also drove with other Chinese students on student visas to DC and advocated for an executive order to protect or to extend the visas of Chinese students after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.

I found this out because one day, Nancy Pelosi was on the news, and my dad was just like, “Yeah, I met her.” And I was like, “When?” And he was like, “Oh, in like ‘89,” and I was like, “For what?!” And then he tells me the story—ah!—so even the very nice thing that you said before we started recording where you were saying that I’m someone who does some amount of this work—I think it's because I don't remember being politicized either because I feel like my parents—it's not like, I don't know, it's not the same story. I feel like there's a story—and maybe a cereal box story—that’s like, “They’re out there on the streets and were always at soup kitchens.” I didn't have that per se. That would have been great! But I think that there was an ethic that they didn't name, but it was just always there, or, it was natural.  

I think they were nervous that my sister and I were cultivating a political consciousness that maybe made them feel like, Oh, we hope you still make money and have a stable financial future. I think one time my sister, growing up, was developing an awareness of class stratification and said, “I hate rich people! I don't want to be rich. I want to be poor!” And my parents, who are actually poor, were like, “What are you talking about? What are they telling you at school?”

So I think there were moments of concern, but, ultimately, I didn't get a lot of pushback from them ever that I think other families have about the service part of what I wanted to do. It was more just like, But can you do that as a public defender?

TSC: Do the “Asian” version of the social justice thing you want to do.  

BZ: But it was never a problem—the social justice part.

TSC: I want to talk a little bit more about your work. 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?

BZ: I think that my work—I think I thought it was—what's the phrase—like a flaw? But it's actually the rule that my work is about continuously trying to identify useful tools, or framings, or skill sets, and applying them in ways that are meaningful to many. I rapidly shift through jobs and projects, and I thought that was a flaw for a long time, but it's a feature. It’s not a bug; it's a feature. That’s the phrase I was thinking of. I think the reason is I don't feel very loyal to types of positions or roles, but the thing that is the continuous strand is like, “What's out here? Who's out here? How do we connect a platform that we have, or a new skill set that we have, and the work that needs to happen? What's the gap?”

My mom is someone who I don't think would identify as a community organizer or a political person, but that's what she did. She was like, “There is a gap, and we need to all come together. What is this thing? I need to figure out how to do it. Don't need to complain about it, just to do it.” I think my dad was more obviously like an activist.

But, anyway, I think that's what I do. I think that's what I did. Finally. I think I've struggled. I've been really anxious for a very long time, including the time that we've known each other about, what do I do? For instance, right now, working backwards, I just started a position where I work as a project manager for a land trust in Los Angeles. When I interviewed for the position, one of the ways that the executive director described the job was, “I just need someone who can get it done.” And so that's the job!

“And I’m in awe of how much community they built, basically. And that actually—I use the word inoculate—like actually really bolstered me against kinds of verbal abuses that I experienced because I just had so much overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

Interview Segment: Evidence to the contrary

But there are other projects that I’m working on. There’s a big research arm that I’ve shared with you that I think about constantly throughout my week, which is just trying to be a witness to the histories and experiences of Chinese diaspora in the US and the Americas, especially that are still embedded in the built environment or the landscape. In parallel, I recently stopped thinking about it as, I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this research. Do I have to put it in a book? Do I need to try to write a dissertation? Do I need to do this? Do I need to do that? And I’ve been thinking of it more as, the practice isgoing and trying to be a witness. And there might be artifacts that come out of that practice—like a book, or a paper, or whatever it is. But the thing that’s driving me is that I want to go and bear witness.

All of these things—to be blunt—I think all of these things are very Chinese. (laughs)

TSC: Can you say more about that?

BZ: Yes! I would love to.

I think that the bearing witness is not inherently a Chinese thing, but it’s a reaction to my Chinese family’s history. Even when I think about the kinds of world-shattering events that my family members have experienced—and, quite honestly, almost anybody alive today I would apply that to—but when I think about my family and the kinds of, like, Chinese Civil War, Communist Revolution, Cultural Revolution—and before I was just reading about the Taiping Rebellion, which happened in the mid-nineteenth century. Twenty million people is the estimated cost—the loss of life in China. And Anhui province, where the side of my family that I can trace back to the 1800s, was a major part of that conflict, and I've never heard of a single story in my family in Anhui about it. But I know that we were there because I know it. Because I know where the tomb is for my ancestor who was alive at that time. So I just want to see it. See what happened. I think that's the bearing witness part.

But then, I don't think that that's inherently Chinese, like, wanting to bear witness, but it's a reaction to what I think hasn’t been properly seen—either passed down in my family as oral history, or, you know, my parents grew up in Cultural Revolution-era China, and there are moments—there are things that I can tell they just don't want to talk about or are uncomfortable talking about, because it's so—because it's difficult. And then to think about an entire country of people who kind of just—and this is the case across the globe and certainly in the US—and, you know, you just live through that and then the historical moment passes, and then you just have to live with people who may be informed on your family member. How do you do that?

But, of course, being in this country, there are so many parallels here. And then, I forget if I've told you this, but I have family members on my dad's side who are Taiwanese and Korean. But our direct connection, our blood connection is only two generations back. So expanding from the mainland China—I think this is why I’m so curious about the diaspora, because, within my family, I identify as mainland Chinese because my parents were born there and grew up there, but within my family it's already ten different things, just within the last hundred years.

TSC: Yeah. I’m glad you brought up your work that directly addresses Asian identity and themes. I think a lot of artists do this, but not as many architects I know have gone in that direction. Maybe I’m focusing too much on origin or something and how you got to this place and you’ve said, “It was part of me; it was embedded in me and in how I grew up.” But was there something that prompted or inspired you to explore something more personal through your work? Or maybe you feel you answered that question because you were saying within your own family there already is a kind of diaspora—

BZ: Yeah. I’ll answer it. I mean, I like these questions. Well, okay, maybe to close the loop from the last question. Yes, there's this work with Design as Protest, this work with Dark Matter University. I think, especially in the last few years, as a reaction to the toxic and white supremacist cultures in design education that I experienced as a student, and then a little bit as an adjunct, there's this work of finding and cultivating, and then operating or practicing as a collective that has been extremely nourishing and supportive of growth.

I feel really affirmed in the DMU and DAP spaces of, like, a lineage of cross-cultural and interracial solidarity work. There’s growing pains; there's personal anxieties and insecurities and things I need to work on and things other people work on; there's pain points that come up—and then it’s a different pain point. And then, suddenly, it's like, Is the solidarity there? And I think there's no way to learn about that except doing it. So whereas my mom wouldn't necessarily identify as an organizer—but I saw organizing in intra-racial spaces; I've learned a lot myself. It makes sense to me. It follows that that would be standing on her shoulders, so to speak. That that would be a next place.

Okay. But then, to your question about the origin, I can explain it better in retrospect, but it was like pulling teeth getting here. I think I didn't want to look, actually. We've talked about this, but it's like the Cathy Park Hong quote that she writes about in Minor Feelings where she's like, “I didn't want to look and see other people not looking.” So I actually think I didn't want to look. So it's easy for me to be, like, Well, my family, and this and that, and it's like, No, I don't think I wanted to look.

I definitely did a lot of work that was critical of the US, or criticizing white supremacist culture. In undergrad, I trained as a painter, and I did a lot of self-portraiture that was a reaction and criticism of the white male European painters, like Matisse or Picasso, or other folks that we have to learn everything about, even though they appropriated everything, and also objectified women and femme people, and literally also abused and were abusive towards women and femme people. So I did self-portraiture. I remember I was taught to mix oil paint flesh tones, but we are only taught white European flesh tones. And then I had to teach myself how to paint my own skin tone. Those memories that stick with me.

But that it still wasn't about Chinese identity or history. It was just a reaction. If there was a politicization moment, I think it was not one moment, but it was a transition from being reactionary to the harmful thing, which—you’re not balanced when you're just reacting. So moving from that to a more balanced, grounded start-from-myself place that feels more proactive: let me just get ahead of that.

“I recently stopped thinking about it as, I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this research. Do I have to put it in a book? Do I need to try to write a dissertation? Do I need to do this? Do I need to do that? And I’ve been thinking of it more as, the practice is going and trying to be a witness.”

I also think there are other kinds of things that I will just quickly list, but maybe we don't have time to talk about every single thing. But this feeling of an internalized, racist sense of shame of maybe it's not worth looking. Or maybe there's a reason other people aren't looking. That coupled with that squeezing on one side, and then on the other side this unproductive racial guilt of, Well, maybe if I look, I’m taking up—maybe there's not enough looking to go around, and so maybe let's not look. I think those are the two pressures that I and others, I think, feel squeezed between.

All of which to say—I think I've told you this. Let me gather my thoughts. I was fortunate to be awarded an architecture fellowship, the Journal of Architectural Education Fellowship, and I was also moving in and out of these academic spaces where I was being tasked to define a research program. So the program I defined was about sites of extraction, especially in California, in Los Angeles, in the Bay Area, mostly around petrochemical sites of extraction, because that was an interesting way for me to think about our footprint. If there's a refinery in Los Angeles but actually the oil is being drilled and extracted and transported from Ecuador from the Amazon, what's the footprint of me as a person in Los Angeles?

So that was what I defined. One of the places I've been looking in the archives for traces of the oil industry in Los Angeles, which now is very difficult to find, is in Sanborn fire insurance maps, which I think a lot of students and academics are familiar with as a way to look at the snapshot in time of about a hundred to a hundred fifty years ago—or, fifty to a hundred fifty years ago, let's say. And what I started seeing are the words “Chinese laundry.” I just started seeing those words pop up all over, everywhere I looked, and I started actually just keeping a separate file, a separate list, where I would be like, I’m tracking Standard Oil in El Sagundo. I'm tracking parcels of Rancherias under Spanish, Mexico—like I’m tracking this and that, and then, eventually, it was just Chinese laundry, Chinese laundry, Chinese laundry, Chinese laundry. And then I started just doing quick Google searches to try to contextualize that a little bit and be like, What? There's a Chinese laundry in Reno? Why? I don't know that there's a Chinatown in Reno. Oh, it turns out there was, and it was burned down. Two different times. Okay.
And then the pattern, the words that kept emerging and the typologies that kept emerging would be like, “Chinatown,” “burned down,” “rail station” and then—“stadium” or “parking garage.” Like, that's the collection of building types in my head. I don't know why this is the metaphor, because it's also fire related, but it felt like the fuel was just building for a while, and then eventually, when I, last summer, had an opportunity to do an artist residency in Nebraska and I made a decision to drive instead of fly, it all ignited and I got to see these places in person and things started clicking for me where I was again, thinking about growing up in the New York area and then, later, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, like, Oh, there are these Chinatowns and Chinese neighborhoods that have really been home for me, but they're hiding. There's something that's not in plain sight about all of this, and I think there's two major things that are hidden: One is all the other Chinese settlements that were destroyed in acts of racial violence that were really modeled on the existing racial violence of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity. And, secondly, the lengths to which Chinese communities and Asian communities broadly went to in order to have Manhattan Chinatown and San Francisco Chinatown exist the way that they exist, including the histories that we've talked about—hiring white architects, including almost caricaturing our own culture. These are things that made me feel shameful—like, why did we assimilate in that way? Why did we pay a white architect to do something we could have done? But that is the same feeling that I have asking my parents to explain things they don't owe anybody to explain. What do I know about what that felt like to feel the walls closing in around San Francisco Chinatown and have this massive fire that—I've been saying to people in the 1906 earthquake, when most of San Francisco was on fire, somehow Chinatown was more on fire because the fire brigades didn't go to Chinatown to try to help put it out. Somehow, it was even more on fire than the rest.

So, anyway, not to just go on and on about that. So I think that when you're asking about origins like, “Where does this come from? Where does this come from?” That's really helpful. I don’t really talk about shame in my day-to-day because I've been in a lot of therapy. I don't intentionally wallow in shame, but I think there's so many thresholds I had to go through to confidently push this forward, and it was a little bit like pulling teeth because it was like months and months and months of me looking for something else, and almost feeling like somebody was like, “Hello!” You know? Just being like, “Look! Hello! It's here. It's right here. It's right here!”

And so the title of the book project that I did recently about a lot of these sites along the first transcontinental railroad is In Case of Fire. And then I translated the title in Chinese as “Wàn yī huǒzāi,” where “huǒzāi” means a fire disaster, and then, “wàn yī”—I'm not explaining this for you, but for the transcript—is kind of like one ten thousandth, so it's the feeling is probability. So you would say—again, not explaining this for you—but like, “Oh, don't forget your umbrella wàn yī it rains,” right? So there's some sort of colloquialness to that versus “in case of fire.” I meant for it to sound technical, and it's because fire was used in so many cases, not just against Chinese diaspora but against Black and Indigenous communities in the Americas as well. And yet, for some reason, the Sanborn fire insurance map archive is now my favorite archive, because it's the only true archive that I know of that would show you Chinatown in Reno, Nevada, in 1902. I don't know of another drawing that exists, but these fire insurance maps made “in the case of fire” so you can assess an insurance value—anyway. Let me pause there.
TSC: There's so much there to think about. When you made your comment about witnessing and bearing witness, and brought up the Cathy Park Hong quote, you made me think of the New York Times interview with Steven Yeun, where he is quoted saying, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you,” and it just went viral because every Asian person was like, “I relate to this so much!”

BZ: Yeah! Did you watch the PBS Asian Americans miniseries?

TSC: I didn’t. Should I?

BZ: Maybe.

TSC: What year was it? Was it recent?

BZ: It was like three years or so ago. My dad watched it and was recommending it. But I don’t have that much to say. Honestly, we’d have to have a different conversation about that because I need to revisit that because I remember there were some things I was like, “Oh good. Yes, good!” and then other things where I was like, “Oh, I wish they didn’t do it this way.” But one of the things that the historians they interviewed in the PBS miniseries connected for me was how much the paper sons legacy and the history of undocumented Chinese people in this country shapes also the lack of looking and lack of talking.

That’s something that I’m starting to become more articulate about. Sometimes it comes off like, depending on who’s saying it, like, “Oh, it’s an inherent Asian flaw that we keep things to ourselves and don’t stand up. We don’t want to air dirty laundry. We want to save face. We want to do this; we want to do that.” And I’m like, Yes, these are cultural attributes. But Bryan Lee has this great way of explaining it: “Culture is nothing other than our ability to handle the traumas that are forced upon us through racialized, sexualized and derived systems.” But I’m like, It’s not an inherent thing. And Steven Yuen is not saying that, but when I think about—oh, okay, this is anachronistic of me to use these words—but, for a second, let’s use a contemporary lens on Chinese American history or Chinese diasporic history and it's like all these people were undocumented migrant workers, and I think the Border Patrol actually traces its lineage to—they were called “Chinese catchers.” There were Chinese people trying to enter California through Mexico during the period of Chinese Exclusion.

“But this feeling of an internalized, racist sense of shame of maybe it's not worth looking. Or maybe there's a reason other people aren't looking.”

I didn't know this until I started looking at all this stuff. There's a parallel—although different history, different contexts—to the slave control lineage of the modern policing structure. The Border Patrol has this lineage as well that is in reaction to undocumented Chinese people. So then if there develops a kind of hybrid, fusion culture in the US of not looking or not speaking out of line, I would strongly argue against that being a purely Asian or Chinese impulse, you know? I mean especially because my family—as a recent immigrant family, I was still socialized in Flushing, Queens, primarily—less so Manhattan, Chinatown, mostly Flushing, Queens—these neighbors that had a much longer history of culture. I'm saying this in a clumsy way, but there’s continuous cultural attributes that link my experience to the experience of undocumented Chinese migrant workers from the 1800s, even if I don't have a blood relation. Because that's what I grew up with. I think the culture persistsin these spaces. And then, even for the first version of myself who was sixteen years old in the middle of Indiana, I'm, like any Asian American culture that I’m consuming on YouTube or whatever, also continuous with that.

That is also a source of weird shame and guilt that I had growing up where I was like, Well, we just got here, so it doesn't count—like, my perspective on any of this. Even though my own family is an example, as I explained to you, of having all these different national identities. My own family is an example of how those time and space boundaries are not the most important thing.

TSC: Thank you for sharing that.

Something you said earlier about looking and how there isn’t enough looking to go around made me think of the scarcity mindset, but, also, specifically how it impacts the experience of Asian Americans working in multiracial solidarity spaces, where there is often this double marginalization: we’re marginalized as people of color, but we’re also marginalized in conversations about race, which has often been historically talked about and seen as a Black-and-white issue. So, I want to talk a bit about solidarity—especially as it is in the title of this project—and what it means to you. First, I loved the mini bio on the narrator questionnaire form of all the racial justice groups you’ve worked with.

BZ: Oh my God! I was like, Is this too much?

TSC: No, it was so good! I just thought, This is somebody who is practiced in writing their CV.

BZ: I did pull up my CV, actually.

TSC: I'm super curious to hear about your experience moving through all of these groups, but given the context of how we met, I wanted to start off by asking what brought you to Design as Protest and Dark Matter U? How did you find out about DAP and DMU and get involved?

BZ: Yeah! Thank you for bringing us to this part. In a not very traumatized way, a lot of what I chose to do for a career, or as a young adult and then now adult, was very much in relation to my family's expectations, and as I said before, my parents were so much concerned about the political work that I was doing, but definitely didn’t want me to be an artist—initially. Now they’re very happy about it. So a lot of my seeking and finding my way to architecture was actually very much in that often one-sided conversation with my parents about what is an acceptable—acceptable meaning, what is going to be a stable and safe profession to be in.

That said, they were open about which profession it was, and I picked architecture ultimately, or I found my way to architecture ultimately, because I thought—yeah. There’s a Zumthur quote that’s like, “You know architecture before you know the word,” or something. Yeah, of course! I also, for what it's worth, explored going into food, like going into agriculture for the same reason which I was like, Oh my God, everybody eats. Everyone needs shelter—like, these are fundamental things where I could cultivate a practice and know every day that I'm making a meaningful impact. That is what I thought. (laughs)

And then my experience of being an architecture graduate student, I think, was a furtherpoliticization within the field. I think I thought that I was going to get an architecture degree, think about buildings a lot, think about urban issues, think about, Is it interesting to get a license or not?—and then continue on my path as an artist and at the time as a builder. I worked for a general contractor who, by the way, was like, “I don't know why you're doing this, but I support you.”

I think the course of my trajectory in architecture was changed literally by the experience of being educated as an architect, where I became exposed to really harmful and white supremacist and settler-colonial and neo-colonial ideas within the design education itself that made me see the field in a new way. Originally, I thought, “How can I get more tools? And then continue the work I was doing outside of this field?” And then I saw—oh my God! So many people who produce the built environment are actually educated in this really, really awful and harmful way. And this is how a lot of really insidious ideas get perpetuated in the built environment.

I didn't know that! So we're getting into DMU and DAP, which I lump together for me because I got involved at the same time in both. That's why. Otherwise, they are sibling organizations and collectives. But, for me, I got involved at about the same in both, although I did join DAP first. That was more in reaction to this historic civil rights moment in 2020 of active mobilization, particularly using social media platforms in these really intentional and strategic ways. So that was how I became exposed to the folks who were initiating Design as Protest and started contributing in the form of administrative work within organizing, starting this document with some other folks called the Anti-racist Design Justice Resources, having a conversation with Bryan Lee and some other folks who were initiating to be like, How do we work together? And then, folding that resource that I was starting to build ultimately into Design as Protest, as we are building, and then becoming involved in other ways.

I think at the time, I would have defined it as, “We just need to do this!” But looking back, I don’t think I planned to become an architect. Actually, I became licensed later. I really was not planning on doing any of this at all until I realized how—how do I say this?—I guess how deep it goes. Like when we look at redlining, when we look at Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, design elements, when we look at hostile architecture, like how deep it goes back. I think I would have thought before architecture school like, Yuck! Let’s not do that. And now I’m like, Well first, how do we go back four hundred years, but also, how do we go back to this particular city planner or this architect’s education and actually have presented a different idea to begin with? So that we don’t ultimately have this big spike in the sidewalk? I think that it expanded my view in time, in a way, and scale. Yeah. I’m pausing for you to talk because I’m just rambling.

TSC: No! This is so interesting. I love the ramble because, well, everything that comes out of your mouth is a gem, so I like to let you ramble a little bit. But I’m curious if you would say that joining Design as Protest—are you crediting that to your licensure? Or are you crediting your licensure to joining Design as Protest?

BZ: Oh! Yes! Yeah, I would love to! I love that. Yeah, I think so. I graduated from my MArch in 2019 and then joined DAP the next year, so I had been working towards licensure but in this very depressive way of just like, I guess before I fully decide one way or the other, let me just log the hours. It was very—

TSC: Like you were going through the motions?

BZ: Going through the motions is a good way to say it. And also, I don’t think I felt a lot of direction. I poured a lot of emotional energy into psychologically surviving architecture school. It sounds dramatic, but then, sometimes I talk to current students and they’re like, no, no that’s what I’m going through right now, so then I’m like, ok, maybe it’s not dramatic. I put so much effort into just getting through the experience in a way that felt true to me, without sacrificing too many of my values that I came out the other end basically like I don’t know what I want to do now. I showed up with a lot of direction and ended with very little direction, just these values. So, I think Design as Protest—both the entity overall and the individuals within the collective—I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I wouldactually credit DAP with motivating me to finish. (laughs)
TSC: I love that! (laughs)

BZ: Yeah! It felt like grad school, in a way, or my exposure to—let's say it's not grad school, but it was exposure to hegemonic ideas in Western architecture—was like being a snow globe shaken up. And then add to that obviously, our collective and individual experiences of the pandemic and 2020 civil rights movement work. It took a while for everything to fall, and for the dust to settle. And when it did, it settled in a much more grounded, rooted way around “what am I trying to do in this discipline?” or “what am I trying to do in this field?” And it became way more about earlier, when I said finding tools to do work with others in meaningful ways.

TSC: Back to the solidarity conversation for a minute. One of the critiques of BIPOC spaces or the term BIPOC is that it flattens a lot of different experiences. It's not unlike Asian (and AAPI, which is a whole other can of worms), where it can be used to be more inclusive and to empower a group of people, to form coalitions, but can also be really limiting. My experience in DMU—and maybe it’s different in DAP—but it seems that we’re more focused on solidarity and that we don't really talk in depth about different racial identities and experiences very much. I’m curious what your experience has been as an East Asian person in DMU and DAP, or other BIPOC spaces that you’ve worked in, and what you think of the role of East Asians in racial solidarity work?

“There's a parallel—although different history, different contexts—to the slave control lineage of the modern policing structure. The Border Patrol has this lineage as well that is in reaction to undocumented Chinese people. So then if there develops a kind of hybrid, fusion culture in the US of not looking or not speaking out of line, I would strongly argue against that being a purely Asian or Chinese impulse, you know?”

BZ: Yeah. As you're speaking, I was reminded that—I was like, “There’s not one moment!”—but another moment of politicization was the police murder of Akai Gurley, and Peter Liang being the killer and a lot of the really frustrating discourse around that. I think the reason that came to mind is you’re helping me connect having a really strong Chinese identity from my family, but then, outside of my family, not really understanding how to identify. And I would say, as a middle school and high school teenager, very clumsily trying to adopt terms like “people of color” or “BIPOC” as an act of solidarity and all the way to this moment, where in this one conversation, I’ve mostly said “Chinese.” I used to actually say “East Asian” more because I would be like, “Let’s disaggregate the data! We don’t need AAPI, or whatever!” And I would say East Asian. But even being in Los Angeles now, with so much Korean American history and Japanese American history, I think that doesn’t even make any fucking sense.

So yeah, you’re helping me see these places and how being in places and being in community with—even within East Asian community, choosing to be more specific—as specific as I can, so that I’m the political organizing scale version of “I” statement, even though within the Chinese, there is so much.

But I would say that within Design as Protest and within DMU, it is an area to continue to grow together in. I don’t think that there is enough space and time given to talking about our different experiences of racialization and marginalization and systemic harm. I think there is a lot of work we are depending on each other to do on our own time, where I’m actually like, Well, I would be curious to keep thinking with everyone about how to build that into the time that we have together. I think there’s a parallel here with DMU especially where, because we are often working in academic institutional spaces, there are very material class differences as well. So that’s fascinating to me to keep pushing on. And, in some ways, I think that that becomes more of the thing that needs—not more, but additionally, strongly, needs to be discussed and acknowledged and I do think that people do bring it up.

With Design as Protest—I’m just going to add one more thing, which is that some people have joined Design as Protest with a lotof organizing and direct action experience, and some have none. So why I think I started the conversation with being like, “Wow!”—because I’ve sort of had a minute to take a step back from both these spaces, and I’m just able to be appreciative of going through it together. Whereas, obviously, when you’re in the work, it can be frustrating, taxing, and even overtly harmful, especially when assumptions are made about work that’s been done, or a political understanding that is or is not there between people of different race and gender identities.

Okay. But can I say something hopeful? (laughs)

TSC: Yes!

BZ: Okay, this is kind of—well, I’m just going to say it. My therapist is Korean American, and one time out of several years of working with her and not knowing that much background about her— although I will share that she used to be an architect, which is my funniest thing about this. (laughs) It is very specialized to me as a patient. She one time—it made sense in the moment—just shared with me a personal detail, which was that she had an opportunity in her past to study pretty closely Chinese history in the modern era. She was revealing that she actually knew a little bit more from a particular perspective than I did about what some of my recent ancestors went through. And I think she was sharing that to me because she was also sharing that, “It was a little easier for me to stomach at the time than looking at Korean history.”

Interview Segment: How do I identify outside of my family?

And that really hit. It’s like what you were saying before as well. So I think the hopeful thing for me is actually like, Wow! If we all help each other look, then we’ll see it. All of it. So, whether it is me looking more closely at my own—who I am claiming as my own ancestors, or whether it is my therapist looking at my ancestors’ history, because it was difficult, at that moment, to look at her own ancestors’ history, I think that that is a solidarity-space key ingredient.

And I do think that I see that happening in Design as Protest quite a bit. Specifically in the Rapid Response working group, which I have been in and out of and it sort of overlapped with the space that we in together in DMU around the Atlanta shootings. Those folks overlapped in DAP. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s not only always the same people who are responding to something that is going on. I think the Atlanta shooting was a little different. I think a lot of us felt compelled—a lot of Asian organizers felt moved to participate, but in a lot of other instances, it’s been a wide range of folks who are or are not identifying with those most impacted by the thing that we’re responding to. Does that make sense?

TSC: Mm-hmm!

BZ: Yeah. So I think if we're talking about looking and not under the scarcity of mindset of not enough looking, or like, “Oh, maybe you look in my direction, and I look in your direction,” you know? I think the Rapid Response is a really good example of that. The asterisk I’m going to add to that is that I think we’re trying to move a little bit away from rapidresponse and to not be just reacting, so it’ll shift. It’ll probably have a new name in the future. I think that happens in DMU too, but let me just land the thought.

TSC: That's really beautiful.

I know we're creeping up on our time here, so I did want to ask you what dreams or aspirations you have for Asian or Asian diasporic spaces and the people that are shaping them through design. It's kind of a big question!

BZ: I love this question. I’m just having ten thoughts. I’m also such a history nerd. I’m also trying to not be like, “Okay, so let’s have another history lesson!” (laughs)

TSC: I love that you’re a history nerd!

BZ: Okay. Two things I really wanted to say. One is I, and most people in this country and in the Americas, am so deeply bolstered and influenced by and in relation and in dialog with the work of Black and Indigenous thinkers, communities, scholars, activists, et cetera. Also—I say this in the statement for the book In Case of Fire Wàn yī huǒzāi—not only is my understanding shaped by the movements, theories, narratives, and systems of knowledge of Black diasporas in the Americas and Indigenous resistance in the Americas, but Chinese diaspora would not have come here if not for their resistances.

So there’s this book that I tell everybody about all the time and people are always like, “Oh, yeah! You already told me about that book!” And I’m like, “Just read it!” But Lisa Lowe wrote this book called The Intimacies of Four Continents, where she traces a lot of these intimacies that are not just between bodies but between huge communities and cultures because of systems and structures of settler colonization, in particular. But there are memoranda that Lisa Lowe cites between British officers after the Haitian Revolution, where they’re brainstorming which racialized body can replace the Black laboring body in the Caribbean. And they chose Chinese people and then, in a related strand, South Asian bodies as well.

“If we all help each other look, then we’ll see it. All of it. So, whether it is me looking more closely at my own—who I am claiming as my own ancestors, or whether it is my therapist looking at my ancestors’ history, because it was difficult, at that moment, to look at her own ancestors’ history, I think that that is a solidarity-space key ingredient.”

And so even the story of the Gold Rush—like, yes! The Gold Rush, or the railroad. It’s so provincial. You’re missing the whole thing, the whole sweep of it if we’re just like, “Some of the Chinese people wanted to get some gold because they were poor.” That’s missing the whole thing, plus obviously all of the Western Imperialism in China, in Asian and all of that. Okay. I have to establish that to be, like, the dreaming part is—I don’t even understand how we can heal from that, you know? But—I guess the word that comes to mind when you ask about dreaming is permission. I’m having an echo of the lecture we co-authored where we were talking about consent. But it’s permission. I’m dreaming of permission. Permission to take into our own hands our narratives. Permission to claim each other. Permission to claim our ancestors that are not blood. My friend Mel Hsu, the musician who’s Taiwanese, she said to me, “As a Taiwanese American, I realize that not all of my ancestors are my parents ancestors”—her parents are the ones who migrated here. So Mel is talking about, in my understanding, additional ancestors who are not blood ancestors, basically—Taiwanese or not Taiwanese—who play a role here. So, I think, permission to claim those people, claim each other. And—permission to create and be a part of projects like this one, where there’s not an intrinsic cultural expression per se, but there are lineages or shared experience that we come from that are real, and realized, in the design work that we do but is not a shadow of a racist trope. I’ve heard versions of this idea in various Sino diaspora organizing spaces that we need to not let the US government and the Chinese Communist Party have a monopoly on what it means to be Chinese. I think about that a lot, where I’m like, Ah! How do I give permission to all of us to actually define that? Especially when—in Ornamentalism—Anne Anlin Cheng—that book hurts, by the way. I haven’t finished reading it. Have you read it?

TSC: I haven’t read it.

BZ: It hurts me to look, but I have to look. But that’s an example of when you get into the intersection of race and sex and gender, I’m like, “Ouch! I can’t even fucking look.” That was the other thing I kept seeing in the maps was “Chinese female boarding,” which is referencing a place of sex work. So I’m in pain looking at it, you know? But I had to look. And one of the things that Anne Anlin Cheng talks about is how the—okay, oh my God, there’s so much! But one thing I’m thinking of right now is how, even among the East Asians, there are certain kinds of associations with technological futurity that are often associated with Japan or South Korea. But there is this kind of derelict, ancient—I don’t have the words right now, but, you know, this association with the past for Chineseness. And then, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong are places that get caught in between.

But anyway, I guess when I’m dreaming into the future, I want to give us permission to let go of that baggage that has been thrust on us. There’s so much noise. There’s so much noise. And I think because I always had a really strong tie to where my family is from in China, I could just comfortably be like, I’m really mainland Chinese, you know? Like, you all are on your own. But I also can’t because they don’t really claim me, you know what I mean? So, I think, What if part of what we’re here to do is to look and bear witness to each other? Then I’m like, Okay, one of the things that I identify or have identified in my own positionality is that I can look in these two directions quite easily. It’s pretty easy for me. So how do I then take that view and fit that puzzle piece into other people’s puzzle pieces, you know?

Oh my God! That was so long! Sorry.

TSC: No! Not at all. That made me really emotional. There’s something about the word permission. I’m thinking of that psychologist Jenny T. Wang—

BZ: Oh my God, yeah! Her book! I want to read it.

TSC: Yeah, her book, Permission to Come Home. I want to read it too. I remember seeing the title and just crying.

BZ: Yes! Permission to Come Home. Let’s cite her. I think that’s why it came up. She makes me cry all the time.

TSC: I know; she makes me cry all the time too.

One final question: Is there anything else that you want to share or revisit?

BZ: There are so many things, just so you know. But I think one thing that is a message that maybe now that I’m saying it is a message—I need to actually be more intentional about sharing this message—but I think it’s just that cultural production and things that are designed are all made by humans, individuals, and so it can be changed. And we know that. But that really means especially thinking about all of the different Asian diasporas and all of the borders that cross all of the communities on that continent and subcontinent, and in the archipelagos and in the Pacific, like this huge half of the world, with all these borders crossing through all these people.

“I’m dreaming of permission. Permission to take into our own hands our narratives. Permission to claim each other. Permission to claim our ancestors that are not blood.”

I wish for and dream of feeling allowed to make new cultural work together. Because there is so much reliance on authenticity, I guess. “What’s real.” Like, “you’re not a real Asian. You’re not really—you know?” And I’m like, “Who cares?” Like the best food, by the way, like Pad Thai, like the best food, by the way, is just, like, fusion shit between all of us. So that’s fine! (laughs)

I do think this is another very Chinese thing. I don’t know. I was talking to another Korean friend, where we were talking about this thing that happens with East Asians—and other people— where we’re like, Who really invented paper, you know? And I was like, “You know what? It doesn’t matter. I mean, y’all can have it.” And she was like, “Oh my God, we would never do that. We are like, No Koreans made that.” And I was like, “I know, Chinese people are like that too.” And this isn’t at all me having a moral high ground or something like that. I was just sort of like, I’m just tired—like, who cares? And also, China—both in its present incarnation as a nation state and historically as various empires—is a bully, like, stop. I’m like, On behalf of Chinese people, whether they accept this or not—me speaking on their behalf—it’s okay if we didn’t invent everything.

Can we just come up with other, better ideas together? Is that okay? Can we do that?

TSC: I love that. I also love that it’s coming from you because I definitely experience feelings of not being “Chinese” enough around you—not to make you uncomfortable! But this is just to say that hearing that from you, as someone I consider very connected to, in tune with, and accustomed to speaking about and working with your own Chinese identity, is very powerful. I appreciate that.

BZ: Oh! That makes me happy!

TSC: I'm going to stop the recording. Thank you so much.

BZ: It is like therapy.

“I wish for and dream of feeling allowed to make new cultural work together. Because there is so much reliance on authenticity, I guess. “What’s real.” Like, “you’re not a real Asian. You’re not really—you know?” And I’m like, “Who cares?” Like the best food, by the way, like Pad Thai, like the best food, by the way, is just, like, fusion shit between all of us. So that’s fine!”

Posted February 10, 2024