“There are some things culturally and ancestrally and socially and collaboratively that are—that are deeply Asian.”


This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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

To start out, I would love it if you could tell me about how your identity as multiracial and Asian played a role in your experience growing up in Chicago and then Marin. Did you feel a sense of connection or disconnection with your Asian ancestry? Did you grow up with other Asians or multiracial Asians?

Emily Pilloton-Lam (EPL): Yeah, oh God—this could be the whole hour!

I was born in Chicago. My mother was also born in Chicago, so most of my Asian side of the family is in and around Chicago. But I didn't live there very long. I've been in the Bay Area since I was in kindergarten, so I kind of think about my childhood as mostly a Bay Area resident and interestingly, when I think about Chicago, I do think about my roots. I think about all my Chinese relatives that live there and how they have a very tight-knit community, both within our family and with other parts of the Chinese community.

But in the Bay Area, when my parents moved out here—my father's French and my mother's Chinese, and I grew up in Marin. I'm very grateful to have grown up there—and also, it was incredibly white and very much a non-diverse, non-celebratory space to be anything other than white. And so unfortunately, a lot of my childhood was really defined by a feeling of difference.

I remember going through YM and Seventeen magazines looking for tips to make my nose look skinnier or my eyes less slanty. And as a half-Asian person, I think it's clear that I am Asian, but not—fully Asian, and so I think there was also this ambiguity amongst my peers of “what I was.” People would be like, “Are you Hawaiian? Are you Indian?” People would ask me that. The “What are you?” question was always really tough for me to answer—both to other people and to myself.

I was never ashamed of it, though. I never wanted to be a white girl, but I did want to blend in and feel like I fit in. It makes me sad to say that now because that's so not how I feel now. But then, on the other side of it, I grew up around my mom and my grandmother. My maternal grandfather passed away when I was six and my grandmother moved up from Southern California and lived half a mile from us my entire childhood. And so I grew up at her house, making dumplings and doing Chinese calligraphy and all these things that were really directly connected to my ancestry and heritage. And so having to hold both those things—going to school and feeling one way, and then, like, going to my grandmother's after school and feeling like the things I was trying to hide were now being celebrated. I just remember feeling very confused about it, and I wish that I had a better sense of being able to hold those opposites. And I do feel like I have that now. But that is the dominant narrative of my whole life—I always joke that I feel like a human yin yang, that there's always two conflicting parts that I've been trying my whole life to bring into some sense of peace. That begins with my heritage—I’m half this and half that. But I’m trying to think about it less like half-and-half and more like two wholes, like I’m one hundred percent both.

TSC: Absolutely. I have thought a lot about how back when we were younger, everything was about fitting in. Our childhood was really about wanting to blend in and having no one notice your differences. Now, it feels like it’s the complete opposite, and I'm excited for the young people now who are coming to terms with their own identity—though I’m sure they have different issues to deal with that we didn’t.

You talked about how there was a community of Chinese immigrants in Chicago that your grandparents grew up around. Was that a neighborhood? Was it a network of friends?

EPL: Well, okay, so weirdly that community didn't really come until later. So my grandmother and my grandfather came to the US separately. They met here. They met in the Engineering Library at Notre Dame. So they both came for college. My grandmother was older than my grandfather, and she was working as a librarian at the Notre Dame Engineering Library, and my grandfather was a student there—a grad student. Then they fell in love. When my mother was born, she was born in a very white suburb of Chicago. She has a similar childhood story to me: all her friends were white.

She actually doesn't talk about it in the same way. She doesn't talk about wanting to fit in. She has more of a narrative of like, “I never felt like I was different. It just, you know, it wasn't a thing.” And I always have wanted to push on her and be like, “But how could it notbe? Of course it was.” But, you know, she just—she had a great childhood. But she talks about her father—because both my grandparents went through the whole naturalization process, and it was like years and years and years. My grandfather had to check in with the police department like once a month or something just to verify their naturalization status.

TSC: Oh wow.

EPL: Yeah. It was almost like probation, but not quite. They were under the supervision of the police department, but my mom tells this story like, “Oh, but it wasn't weird. Your grandfather befriended the guy at the police station counter.” I understand why that's the way she tells the story, but when I hear that, it feels like it can’t be the whole story!

Interview Segment: What makes an Asian collaboration?


Emily Pilloton-Lam, she/her

Interview Date:
February 9, 2023

Themes: Asian American identity, hapa identity, multi-racial identity, French identity, names, Spanish language, design-build education, youth education, art school, gender, tradeswomen, community design/build

Chicago, Hong Kong, China, France, Marin, Belize, UC Berkeley, The School of the Art Institute, Stanford

Girls Garage, Habitat for Humanity,  2021 Atlanta spa shootings, A Rift in the Earth (James Reston Jr.), Maya Lin, Vietnam War Memorial


Ancestral Land:
Hong Kong, Shandong/Qingdao, China & France

Ojibwe, Odawa, & Potawatomi Nations (Chicago, IL)

Current Land:
Ohlone (Oakland, CA)

Diaspora Story:
My Chinese grandparents both came to the US independently (they met at Notre Dame) as young adults in the 1930s-40s. My mother was born in Illinois in 1954. My father was born outside of Paris in 1952 and came to the US with his parents in the mid-1950s. I grew up in a predominantly (entirely) white community, but was raised actively by the Chinese matriarchs in my family. I have grappled with being mixed race and Asian as I have come of age and fully into my family’s history.

Creative Fields:
Design/build, design education, architecture, nonprofit youth programming

Racial Justice Affiliations: AAPI Women Lead, Alliance for Girls, Diversity and Equity Committee at CED

Favorite Fruit:

Emily Pilloton-Lam is the Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit Girls Garage. A designer, builder, educator, and author, she has taught thousands of young girls and gender-expansive youth how to use power tools, weld, and build projects for their communities. She has presented her work and ideas on the TED stage, The Colbert Report, CNN, and in the documentary film If You Build It. She is the author of 3 books about the power of community-based architecture. Emily has been a Lecturer in the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley and the Architectural Design program at Stanford University, and lives with her family, human and canine, in Berkeley, California.

︎    girlsgarage.orgemilypillotonlam.com

︎    @_GirlsGarage 

So, anyway, that’s a long way of saying, my mom did grow up in a primarily white community as well but had a very different way of experiencing it and making sense of it now. So it wasn't until my mom and my uncle were a little bit older—and my distant cousins and my great aunts and uncles had all moved to the area—that there was a sense of Chinese family community. Some of them moved into the city. Some of them lived in other suburbs. My uncle in particular was really the one that said, “I’m staying in Chicago for life. I'm going to live in Chinatown.” I'm going to meet up with Uncle Jackson every weekend. We're going to make dumplings. So, yeah, it wasn't immediate. My grandparents didn't have an immediate Chinese community. In fact, I think it’s because of the way that they both left China. They wanted to create a distance. That's an assumption I’m making. But they definitely were not eager to be reminded of the place they left.

But when I go back to Chicago now, there’s all the cousins and everyone gets together. They don't all live in the same neighborhood, but it feels like a much stronger familial network and a lot of those gatherings feel like—to put it bluntly—they feel very Chinese. There's Lunar New Year gatherings, and they're always making Chinese food. That's not a thing I grew up with. My cousins did and part of me wishes—I always wonder if my parents had not left Chicago, if I would have felt differently about my upbringing, because I would have been still connected to that.

TSC: Were any of your cousins also multiracial?

EPL: Yeah. One set no, and the other, the ones that we're closest to, yes. Their mother is my mom's first cousin, and then their father is a white Chicagoan. (laughs)

TSC: (laughs) Did you ever visit China when you were young?

EPL: No—

TSC: Have you visited as an adult?

EPL: I've been to Hong Kong, where I have cousins. Then I went to mainland China in 2015 with my sister. Over the years, I’ve done a bunch of digging through historical records, trying to find records of my grandparents immigrating here. What I found is pretty loose, and no one really knows my grandmother's birthday, and all the documents say that her hometown is somewhere different. So we just don't know.

But my grandfather was from Hong Kong—very much Hong Kong, born and raised, and the cousins that I have that are still there are his cousins. They're also three daughters—or three sisters. I also have two sisters, so, like, that feels kind of cool. They're all unmarried, and they're just—I don't know—they’re so awesome. They're like the Kardashians of Hong Kong—minus all of the glitz and glam. They run art galleries, and they just do really cool stuff. So, yeah, that’s been cool to be connected to them.

TSC: I love how being unmarried gets you cool points. (laughs)

EPL: Yeah! They just hang out together, and go to the spa, and go to dinner, and go back to their art gallery. I think two of them live together.

TSC: Wow, yeah. That does sound great.

I want to talk a little bit about the term “Asian American,” because I know that you did list that as a term that you identify with. What does that identity or that term mean to you? Do you feel like that identity empowers you, or do you feel that it limits you in any way? And as a follow-up question to that, I know that following the rise in anti-Asian hate and violence, you changed your last name to add “Lam” to the end of it. I’m curious what that experience was like. Did it change the way you saw yourself or others saw you?

EPL: It's kind of like a “by default” term for me—I have Asian ancestry, and I was born in America, so I guess that works? If I’m looking at a list, and that term is on the list, I'll choose it, but I actually identify a lot more with the term “hapa” or “multiracial.” But I mean definitely “Asian American” is true. It's also, for me, not the whole story. I haven't thought too deeply about if there is another term that could replace it. But anyway, for now it's, I guess, the best I have.

And then about my name. I remember this so clearly that day that there were the shootings in Atlanta. I remember coming home. It was like six o'clock or six thirty, and it was after I left Girls Garage, and this happened earlier in the morning, and I came home and I turned on CNN thinking it would be, like, the cover story—and it wasn't. They weren't talking about it. And I was like—how? How is it not on the news right now? And I would flip through all the channels, and it wasn't on until the next morning—

“I always joke that I feel like a human yin yang, that there's always two conflicting parts that I've been trying my whole life to bring into some sense of peace. That begins with my heritage—I’m half this and half that. But I’m trying to think about it less like half-and-half and more like two wholes, like I’m one hundred percent both.”

But I was just shocked by that, and that was part of a much larger wave of horrible things happening in and to the Asian community. As those things were happening, I felt sort of personally connected to them—specifically because it was a lot of Asian women. I don't know why I just felt like I wanted to make a personal gesture that showed my allyship with what was going on in the larger culture, but in an authentic way that didn't infringe on anyone else's life. I’ve thought about this before, but, you know, my mother's birth name is Anna Elizabeth Lam. And she spent most of her life as Anna Elizabeth Lam. My grandmother's married name is Margaret Mary Lam—spent most of her life as Margaret Lam. And, you know, when people look at me, they still see an Asian woman, and yet that's not reflected in my name. And so I wanted to take her name—Emily Pilloton-Lam—as, I call it, a “matriarchal hyphenate”—because I think that's also the way the world sees me, and that's also the way I see myself. It was a way for me to feel like that was a more authentic naming of myself. And then also a public way to say, “This is my community.”

TSC: That's really incredible. Did any of your siblings do the same?

EPL: (laughs) Yeah, so it was so funny—this has been my life story: I do something, and then my middle sister gloms onto it, and then my youngest sibling, same thing. It's kind of cute, and depending on what it is, it kind of annoys me. It didn't annoy me in this situation, but my middle sister, Molly, like two weeks later changed her Instagram name to “Molly Pilloton-Lam” and didn't tell me. And I saw it, and I was like, “Oh, okay!” And then we had a conversation about it, and then, same with my other sibling—and we were just kind of like, Well, it actually makes more sense for all of us to do it. But it is interesting: as soon as I did that, and I changed my email signature and all of my online presence, so many people would email me and be like, “Congrats on the marriage!”

TSC: (laughs) That's hilarious!

EPL: Yeah! And then I was like, “Nope, my husband's last name is Diaz.” (laughs)

I understand why that was people's first impression, and when I had to explain it, they'd be like, Oh, that's cooler! That's better! I'm like, “I know! That's what my name was in the beginning.”

The other weird reaction I got to that is actually from my dad. I wrote a short essay about my name, and in it I said something kind of cheeky like “Lam goes second because my mother always gets the last word.” My dad really took offense to that! He's like, “Our marriage has always been a two-way street.” I was like, “It was kind of a joke,” but also—I don't know—my mother was the matriarch of matriarchs. So I do believe that's true.

TSC: (laughs) That is so funny. I feel like not everybody has developed a sense of humor about gender, like—it's only funny because women are the oppressed gender, right? Obviously, if you said this about a man, it would be offensive.

EPL: Yeah, well, it's really inspiring to me that you and then my other friend Christina—there are a couple of women that I know who have had daughters and have given their daughters their last name. I freaking love that. And there are some men that I know that would not be able to handle that.

TSC: Yeah, thank you for saying that. I’m so glad you changed your name because it just seems like so much more you—Emily Pilloton-Lam. It feels like it should have always been there.

EPL: Yeah, and, you know, Pilloton is a weird name. People don't know what it is. They don't know how to say it, and it's French. It means “little pilot,” and people are like, Oh, that's cute, but I don’t really identify strongly as French either. I think of myself as an Asian person way, way more strongly than I do a French woman. I have very strong connections to my French grandparents and the stories of how they came here, but it doesn't feel like a core identity. And so that also felt weird that my name was not representative of a story that even felt true to me.

TSC: I wanted to talk a little bit about your work and how your upbringing and your identity shaped your creative path and the way that you approach your work.

“And so I wanted to take her name—Emily Pilloton-Lam—as, I call it, a “matriarchal hyphenate”—because I think that's also the way the world sees me, and that's also the way I see myself. It was a way for me to feel like that was a more authentic naming of myself. And then also a public way to say, “This is my community.”

EPL: Yeah. I think because I spent so much of my childhood feeling different and wanting to understand and be able to briefly and succinctly say, “This is who I am.” I was like in this constant search for “the thing”: the thing that would light me up and the thing that would define me. And so, in high school, I stumbled upon a number of different organizations, but specifically Habitat for Humanity. And I started a campus chapter at my high school and was part of some volunteer builds, and then, most importantly, got to participate—this is actually a non-Habitat trip—but I got to participate in this traveling service trip to Belize with a bunch of other teenagers, and the entire purpose of the trip was to build a town park. That was the first thing I ever did as a young person where I felt like this is “the thing.” It wasn't like a career aha moment like “I want to be a builder.” Of course, that is where I ended up, but it was more about, like, what it physically felt like to be on a construction site doing something physical, to be quite honest, in a place that was not my hometown, that was with other people of color. I spoke fluent Spanish. Of course, I would never claim I was part of that community, but it felt very different to be outside of Marin and in a community that felt closer to my experience. It felt like I was amongst peers, and I was learning things, and I was building something that would stand for years and years and have an impact.

So I think because of that constant search for meaning and identity, that's how I stumbled into building, and through that, it was just this perfect vehicle for me to feel like I had an identity that was unique, that I had some sense of power, like power became really important to me. Of course, I didn't know that at the time. I'm able to post-rationalize that, but it really was about—I don't mean power in a pedantic way, but like power in the sense of presence, that I was able to contribute something, and to feel like I had something to contribute.

So that was really the beginning of what became a long curiosity and passion about the built environment, about building things with other people, and how building things with other people also resulted in building the type of community I wanted. I think that was the other thing about building and being on that site in Belize. The way in which I was working with people on the construction side felt very democratic. It felt very like, Not everyone has the same skill level, but we're all valued here, and that is neverhow I felt at school. That's not how I felt in my community. So there's something about that dynamic that really spoke to me as the way I always wanted to be treated.

TSC: Were there other women?

EPL: Yeah! It was a group of teenagers from all over the country, and, actually, most of them were white. But, you know, I was staying with a local family. I was speaking Spanish every day. We were learning from local masons and carpenters who were like twenty-five years old, and it just—it felt so much more like there was a diversity of expertise. It also took the white kids out of the powerful seats, you know, like they were not the ones who knew how to do everything. That felt good to me. I was like, Okay, now you're down here on my level; let’s all work together. Yeah, but it was half young women and some of those people I actually still stay in touch with.

TSC: That's amazing—from high school!

EPL: Yeah! It was after my junior year at Redwood High School in Larkspur.

TSC: That's awesome, and that makes sense that you are focused not only on design-build education, but also on youth, because, for you, that was a moment in your life where that change occurred, and something clicked for you.

EPL: Yeah! And, also, I think there's something about using a physical tool. A drill doesn't care what gender you are. It’s a physical thing that makes you more powerful. That's all a tool is. I think I really liked the physicality of it, and that there was an analog representation of my potential.

TSC: Totally. I love the way you said that. On the other hand, I’ve also thought deeply about the ways in which tools are designed for one gender. I remember taking a class with a female electrician at Yestermorrow a while back, and she was like, “Oh, I use this brand of drill because I can carry it around more easily. It’s lighter—it's not as heavy as the ones that are made with men in mind,” and I was like, Oh, huh! If I’d taken this class from a male electrician, he wouldn't have said that, and I wouldn't have thought about what kind of drill I was using and if I felt like it was too heavy for me.

EPL: I was just teaching my Stanford class yesterday—it's almost all young women, and more than half of them, when I taught drill and driver, were like, “It's that easy?” And I’m like, “Yeah, it's that easy!” And they're like, “Why do they make it look so hard?” I'm like, “It's a conspiracy!” I feel like so many tools really are designed to make you feel like, if you're not a big, burly dude, this isn't for you, and then you use it, and you're like, What was so scary?

TSC: Yes. Demystifying the tools! So much of it is never having access to that knowledge. But, if someone just teaches you, you can be at the same level as everyone else.

You're one of the more focused and directed people that I know, and it's interesting to hear that “the thing” happened for you at such a young age! A lot of designers that I know are still grappling with who they are, what they're doing, what's driving them—definitely throughout their undergrad, and then, also, their grad—and postgrad years. So I think it's so cool that it happened for you when you were in high school!

EPL: Well—but okay. I did go to UC Berkeley, and I did get in for architecture, but my sophomore year I was like this close to switching to astrophysics.

TSC: Oh my gosh!

EPL: Why? I don't know! I had that moment of clarity in Belize, but then there was still that leftover instinct of “But who am I?” which was still alive and well, and I really struggled in college. I think also because as much as I love UC Berkeley and I'm grateful to the caliber of that institution, I struggled to connect my architectural education there with the same type of meaning I felt in Belize. And so it made me question—like, I thought architecture was that, and now I have to read Jacques Derrida all day. In hindsight, I understand it's all part of a spectrum of learning. But, yeah, my undergrad was very difficult for me to maintain that sense of purpose, and then I didn't regain that until I went to grad school in Chicago. Whether or not that's coincidence that I went back to Chicago, I don't know. But at The School of the Art Institute, I think maybe because it's also an art school and my master's was an MFA, it wasn't a professional Master of Architecture; I was making stuff again. I was spending all my time in the woodshop, and I learned how to weld, and then it started to come back like, Okay, now I remember why I fell in love with this, and there was a much, like, bigger universe of what was possible in an architectural career.

TSC: Has any of your work directly addressed multi-racial Asian identity, history, or themes? Or have you ever been interested in engaging with those topics?

EPL: I guess the short answer is no. But I think a big reason for that is because I work with youth, and so I kind of think about my identity as a tool for curating an experience for a group of kids, but not in an overt like, “Now we're doing this thing that's about my identity.” But, secondarily, I think I’m always aware that whatever project I’m working on, especially with kids, it's important that I stay connected to my identity because kids are grappling with the same question.

I'm thinking of this one student in particular, but there have been multiple half-Asian and multiracial students who I've had really deep conversations with about being biracial or multiracial. One of the half-Asian students said, almost verbatim, like everything I said to you about my childhood, and this is in the context of, like, a group discussion. And when she said it, I was like, “Oh, my God! This is such a common experience!” And I said to her and to the whole group that it took me a long time to stop thinking of myself as half this and half that, but that I can be 100% of both things. Then, years later, she came back and told me that conversation completely changed how she thought about herself. And so I’m not, like, taking credit for that, but I think my point is, while my work isn't necessarily overtly addressing the specificity of an Asian experience, I think through young people, my job is more to help lead them to that work, rather than for me to say, We're doing this project, and it is for the Asian Cultural Center.

TSC: That story is so beautiful. And I think that's so true, because you do engage with a lot of young people in discussion, and I’m sure that just seeing you, hearing you, hearing your experience, and seeing themselves reflected in some way may be even more impactful than doing a project directly about Asian identity.

EPL: If I ever had my own practice, I would absolutely be following that instinct and that identity in a way more focused way. I just think when you're not the principal designer and you're really just trying to, like, create the conditions in which other people can make stuff, I almost don't feel like that's appropriate.

TSC: Totally, or if you have a different kind of practice. It depends on how you see your practice, whether it’s more an exploration of something individual or from within you, or whether you see yourself as more of a facilitator or organizer of an experience.

EPL: Although I will say it's not an accident that Hye is Korean and I co-teach the Protest and Print class with her, and that is theclass where we talk the most about identity and community and activism. So that's not an accident. There's also a lot of Asian students that sign up for that class. So, yeah, it's kind of subtle, but it's definitely always there.

TSC: What do you mean by “it's not an accident that Hye is Korean”?

EPL: I mean, I didn't say, like, “I need to hire another Asian instructor,” but when I first talked to her, and the way she thought about her work—she’s a printmaker; she's more of a fine artist—the way that she talks about her art and work as connected to her identity, I was like, This is the person I want to teach this art class with. And so, you know, whether that's because she's Korean/Asian, I don't know, but I just felt this really close affinity with her, and the way she thinks. She is also an immigrant that came to this country and struggled and grew up in a super white community, as well. So these are all things that when we're teaching that class together—I think we're just able to hear what students are saying, and then relay back our experience and create a bigger space for them to air some of these things out.

TSC: Yeah, like you and your experiences create the vessel that can hold all of these stories from your students who may have experienced some sort of conflict or some sort of tension in their identity growing up.

“I think because I spent so much of my childhood feeling different and wanting to understand and be able to briefly and succinctly say, ‘This is who I am.’ I was like in this constant search for ‘the thing’: the thing that would light me up and the thing that would define me.”

EPL: I think going to art school, too—Hye reminds me of this all the time—that the art mentality often starts with “This is who I am, and therefore this is what I make,” and, like, designers and architects don't really do that as naturally, I think, because there's always a client, and there's always a context, and who we are is not where we start the process. But some of the best designers and architects actually do do that in a non-egotistical way. That’s what I got out of art school, and that's what I get out of collaborations with people like Hye. It's just so clear that having a sense of who you are makes your work better, and it makes your work more inviting and inclusive to other people.

TSC: That's such a good point. I think that with architecture we’re often taught to be more like, "Here’s my brilliant vision and my objective (aka cis white male) perspective on something.” And we're kind of told to leave anything that doesn't fit into that objective position outside of our work. I have never trained in an art school, but I have heard from other artists—and you're confirming this right now—that it's more about exploring and expressing your personal identity or positionality.

I’m sure you’ve reflected a lot on what challenges you face as a woman in design and building. But I’m curious if you feel like some of those challenges are related to being Asian or being an Asian woman and having the intersection of those identities.

EPL: Yeah, I do. It's a little bit hard for me to—well, it's very easy for me to say, “These are the experiences I've had as a woman and here's why many of them were bullshit.” I think it's harder for me to separate out what is because I am Asian or multiracial and what is because I’m female. It's probably all the same, honestly—like when I walk into a room, I don't know whether people are responding to my race or to my gender, or to both. But I think the times where it has been a barrier for me, it's been because I've been in a room where people see me in a diminutive way. I'm also five foot four. I'm forty-one years old, but there's something about me. I don’t know why. I mean, I think I look forty-one, but people think I’m younger, and maybe because of the way I talk too. They don't think of me as, like, an “academic.” So I think there's always a diminutive reaction. People do not look at me like, This is a peer who's here with this incredible résumé and who's written three books or whatever. And I’m certain that there's a Venn diagram of gender and race, and they're responding to what's right in the middle of it. So I think this is actually more a mindset for me that I need to change—that when I tell the stories of what barriers I've had, I talk about it as being female, but it's actually not separate from being an Asian woman.

I don't want to get too much into stereotypes. But I've seen this with my mother too. My mother is—I mean, you know my mom—she's a force of nature, but people kind of have the same reaction to her when she walks into a room. She's very slender; she's pretty petite. She's an older Asian woman, and people just really underestimate who she is and what she's done. So I think that's the phrase that comes to mind: a deep underestimation.

If I have a chip on my shoulder about anything over the course of my life, it’s how much I've been underestimated in situations. I have to sometimes come in and lay the hammer down, and I hate having to do that. I wish people would just be like, This is a capable person until proven otherwise, and just assume that I’m capable.

TSC: Absolutely. I mean, what you described is exactly the experience intersectionality touches on. You don't know where the sexism ends and the racism begins, right? It's all kind of one experience.

You're also reminding me of an interesting moment with a male colleague of mine. We were all writing our bios for a lecture we were giving. He was the only one of us that didn’t identify as either female or non-binary. When he wrote his bio for the event, it was like, “So-and-So likes to like hike—” and it was pretty quirky. And then the rest of ours were like, “So-and-So went to Harvard University Graduate School of Design and So-and-So is a licensed architect.” I know his intention was to be anti-institutional and he probably hated bragging about himself, but it didn’t come off that way in this context. And I just said (to this male colleague), "You should probably write your bio to include someof the qualifications that you have, like: you're a professor, you have a PhD, et cetera.” Because, you know, women and non-binary people don't have the luxury of having a quirky bio while being given baseline respect, right?

EPL: Yeah, you have to state all the things!

TSC: You have to state all the things! I have to say I’m a licensed architect and that I went to Columbia University. I have to do that because people don’t respect me otherwise. So I was like, "If you want to advance gender equity, then it's actually beneficial for you operate on the same ground as the rest of us, right? And take the bio seriously like the rest of us haveto and not come off as the fun guy with the quirky bio (because people already assume you’re capable).” And he was like, “Thank you for telling me that.”

EPL: That's so true.

TSC: But, yeah, with other women, other non-binary folks, I'm always like, “Yes, say your qualifications!” It's not about you being like, “I am impressive, let me brag about myself.” It’s more like, yeah, you have to because no one's going to take you seriously otherwise, right?

EPL: That's right. I talk to kids about that all the time. They're like, “Well, it sounds braggy,” and I'm like, “It's not bragging if you're just stating facts. Like, these are things that are true. You're just saying all the true things.”

TSC: Yeah, right, exactly.

On the flip side, do you feel like being Asian has benefited or privileged you in any way?

EPL: Definitely. I don't know if I would feel differently about my “Asianness” in my career if I was in a different career, like if I were a doctor. I don't know—like, maybe the cultural expectation of Asian kids is, like, you're going to be a doctor, so maybe as a doctor, I would feel like none of that were true anymore. Like, I would feel like, of course, I belong in that room. Are there a lot of Asian families that want their kids to grow up and be designers and architects? I don't know. I think it's really dangerous to think about racial experiences in a ranked or competitive way, but I think absolutely. I also grew up in a very privileged community. I'm fully aware that I went to a great school. I've gone to great schools, you know. I don't sound academic, but I am able to speak in rooms in a certain way—I think I can fake that I belong in a lot of places even if I don't naturally belong there. And then growing up where I grew up there was a lot of opportunity, and that's not necessarily connected to being Asian. But I know when I got to high school, there were only a handful of Latinx and Black students, and their experience was somuch different (worse) than mine. And so, you know, again, I don't like to do the comparative thing, but I think there are definitely some spaces where being Asian is almost synonymous with being white, and in those spaces—and as a half-Asian person—it’s probably even more so. So, yes, absolutely.

TSC: Yeah. And yes, good point that you're bringing up that it's not about the “Oppression Olympics,” right? But I think it's more just about reflecting, As someone who's racialized Asian operating in this world that has structural inequities, have you experienced privileges from that, right? Which is not about you and you being like, “I had better or worse experiences than one person or the other.”

“It's just so clear that having a sense of who you are makes your work better, and it makes your work more inviting and inclusive to other people.”

EPL: There is a weird relationship, too, between Asian women and white men in powerful positions, and I definitely have felt like there are rooms that I walk into where I’m surrounded by powerful white men, and it is like they'll give me the benefit of the doubt. But for the wrong reasons, so—and it's not a straight sexualization thing or a fetishization, but there's something about that specific dynamic that I know is giving me a slight advantage, even though I don't want that particular type of advantage for the reasons I’m getting them. I don't want to be treated like— tokenized as the cute geisha in the corner, but that is how it has felt. Especially when I lived in the South. I remember being in rooms with Southern white men and being treated like a doll, kind of doted on and propped up but in a condescending way. And so, in one way, you could call that privilege; you could call that access. Even though it's rooted in the same type of racism and discrimination, the result is a little different.

TSC: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, some of this is what you're talking about—being the cute geisha, but also some of it is like, I identify you as somebody who will further our goals.

EPL: Yeah, like, I’m someone who can be manipulated easily.

TSC: Right, exactly to sort of fit what I want to do. I think if you are savvy about that (and because people will underestimate us), you can use that access as a privilege in ways that they may not expect. So I've thought about that a lot too—like, In what ways has my access to those people or those spaces allowed me to benefit others in some way?

EPL: Yeah. Have you read A Rift in the Earth?

TSC: No, should I?

EPL: Oh yes! It’s non-fiction. It's about Maya Lin and how she won the commission for the Vietnam War Memorial and all of the politicians—Ross Perot among them—just, like, made her life miserable. But it's super interesting because it talks a lot about her kind of shunning and stepping away from her race and but then also leaning into it in certain ways. It’s a really interesting story of how she navigated her own identity within that project, and also she's Chinese, not Vietnamese, which some people had a problem with. And then all these white men, like, trying to just push and pull her for their own purposes. It's such a good book. And, yeah, also, just like an interesting history of that memorial.

TSC: Wow. I’m definitely going to read it! Thank you for that recommendation.

EPL: Yeah! It’s pretty short. It’s well-written. I actually want to re-read it.

TSC: We touched upon this a little bit, but I want to talk about solidarity. In my point of view, a lot of your work engages with racial solidarity as a component of gender equity. You kind of always have that lens, though you may be more vocal about gender equity. You also mentioned a lot of groups that you engage with that do racial equity work on the questionnaire, including AAPI Women Lead (who I also love), Diversity and Equity Committee at CED, and Alliance for Girls. And so I’m curious what racial solidarity means to you as an Asian identifying person. Or what ways have you thought about or engaged in racial solidarity in your own work?

EPL: I thought so much about that question on the questionnaire, and it made me feel like, “Oh my God, I don't do this in an overt way!” So two answers to this question: One, I think this is like a point of growth for me. Because it's called Girls Garage, right? Like, so much of the core of what I do is about inclusion along a gender spectrum. And I think the reason I don't think about or, like, outwardly, overtly talk about race through Girls Garage is because when kids walk in the door, and I’m like, Oh, this is a perfect twenty-five, twenty-five, twenty-five mix. It's there already. And so I feel like when students are able to work together and build a bus stop or a parade float in this beautifully diverse group, for me it's almost like that is a great example of racial solidarity within a space that was created for girls and non-binary youth.

So I think, just because I see it happening, there's a part of me that feels like that work doesn’t need to be overt. But I know it also should be. And, like, this is a thing that I've struggled with over the past few years: how to do both. Because as an organization called Girls Garage, and as a leader of an organization called Girls Garage, it's very clear what our first priority is. And I’m now thinking a lot more about like, Okay, but our secondary priority has to also be racial equity. And while I think we do that really well, we're not overt about it; it’s not the first thing out of our mouths. So it's more just like we know it because we can see it, but it's not well codified. We don't have stated values about it. I think we should, though, and, especially as we partner with more organizations, like Peoples Programs or Feed Black Futures, whose core missions are about racial equity, we have to make clearer statements that equity to us is not just about gender but intersectionality and race.

So, yeah, I think this is a really big growth opportunity both for me as a leader and for the whole organization, because, like you said, everything is intersectional. So I can't just say Girls Garage. And even though the vast majority of our students are students of color—they identify deeply as students of color, as multiracial—we don't tell that story as much, and I think we should, and we aren't as proactive about asking students, How do you identify, and which groups would you like to work with that would help you understand your identity better?

TSC: Totally. Yeah, I love that you said that, and I hope that question didn’t give you too much anxiety! But I’m glad that we're having this conversation. I was talking to somebody else that I was interviewing, and they were talking about the term “women of color” and how Black women invented that word. And I actually don't know a lot about the history of that term, and it makes me want to look into that a little bit more. But I know, at least for me, I wouldn't say that I identify as a woman, but I do identify more with the term “woman of color.” So I think that there is something interesting about that because people have pointed out how harmful it is when feminism is focused exclusively on white women. And so just the fact that you're leading Girls Garage and you're a woman of color, I think, is itself powerful.

Have you had ideas about how you might want to engage that more? Or is it just kind of more of a sprout?

EPL: Yeah, I mean, so for a long time I wondered if we should have even more specific affinity cohorts. I would love to have a cohort of youth that do identify as Asian or Asian American and do a project with AAPI Women Lead and just be hyperspecific about it. But then I also have this feeling—okay, here's an example: So Betti Ono, the gallery and the art space that's almost entirely Black-lead—they’re such a rad organization. We’ve partnered with them on various things, and most recently they asked us if we wanted to partner with them on this exhibition, and one of their rules is that if we have youth contributing, they will not accept work from white students and I 1,000 percent understand why that's their rule—like, I get it. That is a space for artists of color. That is their commitment and mission. But when you map that over, like, a youth community, I don't feel comfortable saying to an existing group of students, “Hey, we're doing this really rad art project, but you three white kids can't do it.”

So I want to have even smaller, safer spaces for affinity groups within Girls Garage, but I also don't want it to change the dynamic of how special and inclusive our cohorts are right now, and I don't think it's a bad thing when there's three white girls in the room alongside 20 students of color, you know? That's like the balance. It's like I can have an opinion as an individual, but as a nonprofit organization, I have to put all of my own values through a different filter that is not just about me. So that's where I really struggle—is like the things that I, in my heart, I’m like, This is what we need to do, and then like, Who does that alienate within our existing community? But then, also, who would it bring in who isn't here already? So I’m thinking about that too.

TSC: Yeah, totally, totally. You're already addressing a group of people that are marginalized, which is women and non-binary people, but also like when you have “everyone” spaces, then oftentimes those “everyone” spaces feel exclusive to people who don't identify with the dominant narrative of that “everyone” group, right? So, yes, I think that's super tricky, and I’m glad that you're really thoughtful about these things. I think that all of the Girls Garage students are just lucky to have you be their leader. But, yeah, I don't know the answer either. And I think about that a lot too.

EPL: But this is also where I think we have to lean on each other. I obviously don't have the answer, and so this is where our partnerships are really important. We only work with nonprofits that have BIPOC leaders. So I think being overt about that and saying to students like, “We're building stuff for our community. And here's who in our community we are building things for.” It's sort of like a sly way to do it, but I think kids also get it. Like, we're not building desks for the United Way, right? (laughs)

TSC: (laughs) Yeah, I think they get it. 

I want to talk a little bit about the future. I’m curious what dreams and aspirations you have for Asians, for Asian diaspora spaces, and for people who are shaping them?

EPL: Oh my God!

TSC: It can be a small or big!

EPL: I think what you’re doing is a really inspiring—like, maybe seems small but is actually a really important example of what we need to do more of. When people say “sharing stories,” we're like, Yeah, obviously, but doing it in a really intentional way, collecting and documenting stories, having conversations across Asian identities. Like, “I identify as hapa, and maybe someone doesn't identify hapa but identifies as Asian American or Pacific Islander”—like, I'm interested in the larger conversation across the AAPI spectrum.

“And so, in one way, you could call that privilege; you could call that access. Even though it's rooted in the same type of racism and discrimination, the result is a little different.”

And, within architecture, like you and Hallie and Hye—I don't know how to say this, but, if the four of us all did a project together, it would kick ass, and I can't say exactly why, but I do think some of it is because we all identify as Asian, and so I'm interested in having a better way of articulating why that is, and then, helping to curate groups of Asian artists and designers to work together in ways that feel safe and exciting and groundbreaking—I mean, are there collectives of Asian women and architects that do rad shit together? I don't know. I don't think so.

TSC: I don't know, but there should be! Maybe we should be that.

EPL: Yeah, I mean, I know it's a little bit of a divisive opinion to say affinity groups solve everything. I don't know. I just feel like anytime you can have a small group of people who have some shared identifying factors and a safe space to do work without all of the outside bullshit, magical things happen, and I think the work resulting from those kinds of collaborations is the type of work that changes the conversation about what architecture is.

TSC: Totally.

EPL: And this is the same way I feel when teenagers build a bus stop—like: Now there's a bus stop in the world that was dreamed up by sixteen-year-olds. What would the world look like if there were structures and spaces that were entirely dreamed up by a group of Asian women or Asian-identifying people—like, that’s such an exciting idea to me, and I don't think there's the infrastructure for that to happen.

TSC: I love that. Part of the motivation for this project is inspired by conversations around Black futures and Indigenous futures. It really made me think, What about Asian futures? What does that look like? What does that mean? We don't really talk about that, you know.

But this is leading into my next question which is that a really important part of this project is creating resources that will be useful or inspiring to other Asian-identifying designers and creatives. What resources would you love to see for other Asian designers? Or what would you love to have seen or have access to as a younger designer?

EPL: Hmm. Well, as a younger designer, I would love to have access to mentors who looked like me. Even now, that's kind of true; I mean, I definitely have peers that I look up to. But, yeah, it's pretty slim pickings. I wish Maya Lin would be my mentor, but she doesn’t return my calls. I think also, like, gatherings. Physical gatherings.

“I don't know how to say this, but, if the four of us all did a project together, it would kick ass, and I can't say exactly why, but I do think some of it is because we all identify as Asian, and so I'm interested in having a better way of articulating why that is, and then, helping to curate groups of Asian artists and designers to work together in ways that feel safe and exciting and groundbreaking—”

More critical writing. I would love for someone to answer the question: Is there even an Asian architecture? I don't mean architecture in Asia; I mean if you put together a group of Asian designers and architects, would there be some unique characteristic that would make that work Asian? I don't know. This is a really good question. I'm thinking about this with my Stanford class that I've been putting together a whole cornucopia of examples of rad work that female architects have produced. And I've never seen that presentation for Asian architects. I would love to see that.

TSC: Totally. I love that. Those are all exciting ideas and also things that I've thought about, as well, and things that I wish for, as well—especially answering the question: Is there such a thing as Asian American or Asian diasporic architecture? I am really curious about that. And I love the way that you put it where you're like, “If we all did this project together, it would be awesome, and I don't know how to describe it, but I just have a feeling.” What is that feeling? I want to poke at that feeling a little bit.

EPL: I don't think there would be aesthetic things that you could point to and be like, “Asians made that decision.” I think it's more about how space gets made and the way that we—I'm thinking of you, me, Hye, and Hallie—how we would communicate with each other, and what we would consider, and what types of spaces we would value over others. How we would think about cultural inclusion and public space and equity. Like all the invisible, non-structural things. So that's really interesting to me, like, less from, like, a product or aesthetic perspective, but what makes an Asian collaboration? There are some things culturally and ancestrally and socially and collaboratively that are—that are deeply Asian.

TSC: I love the way you said that—talking about what we would notice as a less visible, more invisible, more overlooked group of people. If we were the ones making decisions, what would we look at? What would we make visible, right? I think that’s a really valuable way to think about it.

I guess we're nearing our hour. And so one final thing: Is there anything else that you would like to share or revisit that we talked about?

EPL: Oh my gosh. I want to know how I can hear all the other interviews you are doing! That’s the resource I want!

TSC: Yeah, absolutely! Yes. And that's one thing that I want to make available. I want to make sure that people feel comfortable with what I'm sharing about them, and that people feel represented in a way that makes them feel uplifted, which is why I’m doing the recordings as private, as I’ve explained. And also people are more candid this way. Even just the record button turns alarms on for people. It does for me! But I’m definitely planning on making the edited transcripts available (and we’ll go through this process together) and into some sort of public archive, and then—and then maybe clips of the conversations. But, yeah, absolutely, I want this to be a resource, because I feel like the whole point of this is sharing the stories, right? It's not just about me. I'm just trying to facilitate the sharing, but I want to share it with everybody, because these are the voices that I want to see taking up space in my world! So, yeah, I’ll let you know! (laughs)

EPL: Yay! That’s awesome!

“I would love for someone to answer the question: Is there even an Asian architecture? I don't mean architecture in Asia; I mean if you put together a group of Asian designers and architects, would there be some unique characteristic that would make that work Asian?”

Posted January 12, 2024