“Being able to go about doing our work and to do the things we want to do without having to deal with all the minor injustices of microaggressions that prevent us from really moving forward is something that I think about a lot. How do we do this without losing our identity?”

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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

To start out, I would love it if you would tell me a little bit about how your identity as Taiwanese American played a role in your experience growing up in Orange County. Did you grow up around other Taiwanese Americans, Asians, or immigrant families?

Joyce Hwang (JH): Yeah, so when we moved to California when I was three or four years old, there actually weren’t a lot of Taiwanese Americans or even Asian Americans in Orange County at that time. And, in fact, I think the first schools that I went to were private schools. Ultimately, by third grade, I ended up in public school, and there were more Asian Americans. But when we first moved there, I was in private school up until second grade, and I think I was actually the only Asian person in my class. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily felt alienated, though, because I did make friends pretty quickly, but I definitely realized that I was quite different.

And I even realized as early as first grade, for example, that I was saying things differently because I would, of course, as many kids do, emulate the way my parents said stuff. And then when I said the same thing at school, people wouldn’t understand me, or I would get corrected. So, at some point when I was six, I actually remember thinking, Okay, my parents are saying things differently than what I’m hearing at school. I’m going to listen to someone else in the way they say things. So there were certain realizations that kind of came into being. I think when I went to public school, then things changed because actually my public school had a lot more Asian Americans, a lot more minorities in general. I think my public school is something like 30 percent non-white, I believe, something of that nature. It’s hard to say. I’ll leave it at that.

TSC: You said that your parents were pronouncing things differently, and so were they the ones who immigrated from Taiwan?

JH: Yeah. So they came over in 1971. I was born in 1974; so, between 1971, when they were here, and 1974, when I was born, it was just them in New York City. My dad was doing his residency at a hospital because he’s a doctor. And then when I was born in New York, my parents actually were learning English, or they had learned English, but at home—and of course, this is something I don’t really remember because this is me as a two-year-old—we weren’t really speaking English at home because I wasn’t going to school in New York City. And so I guess my mom would say that we were pretty isolated since we were living in Brooklyn in the seventies, and it wasn’t a place where you would walk around with your baby on the street and so on. So, in fact, I actually remember the story about how when my mom did walk out with me that I almost got hit by a car. But, anyway, that’s another little story. (laughs)

TSC: Oh my goodness! I’m so glad you didn’t.

JH: But I didn’t go to school until I was four in California. And, by that point, I was pretty much basically living with my parents speaking Taiwanese. And so, when we started speaking English at school, I think my parents were speaking English with us to help us practice, but that’s when I realized that things were slightly different.

TSC: Did you maintain a connection to Taiwan at all? Did you go back there when you were a child, or did you mostly stay in the US?

JH: Mostly stayed in the US, but we maintained our connection to Taiwan, mostly through family that was visiting the US from Taiwan. So my grandparents came over often, it seemed like—I’m trying to remember, but I think both sets of grandparents had green cards, or eventually got green cards. So there was this one point when my grandparents came over every year for a certain period of time and stayed with us.

My relatives, my cousins—I had cousins in Taiwan—but also cousins in the US, so we were always visiting cousins. We were closer with our cousins in the US, though, who lived in Ohio. And, of course, we were speaking English more at that point. But we did go back to Taiwan a few times. I went once, I think for the first time back when I was in middle school, and then I went again in high school and then again in college. I can’t actually remember exactly when, but we didn’t go back that frequently. It was really just very sporadically. But the more frequent thing was our grandparents would visit us.

TSC: It’s interesting hearing you talk a little bit more about your past because I remember I invited you to a Zoom convening that one of my friends organized after the Atlanta shootings. And I remember during that meeting, you said something along the lines of, “This is really interesting; I’ve never really thought about or talked very much about being Asian before.”

JH: Oh.

TSC: I was wondering if you could reflect on that a little bit. Do you feel neutral about it? Do you feel any discomfort talking about it? Do you think that there are generational differences in how we think or talk about Asian identity between you and your parents and maybe you and some of your students?

JH: I’m trying to remember. That’s a really hard question. I mean, I guess maybe it goes to what you were talking about earlier about your prompt for this whole series of interviews. But I think when I was growing up, one was because I realized so early on that when I was the only Asian person in my class, in private school, there was this kind of moment of shift where it seemed like, okay, we’re in assimilation mode or something. I’m not saying that that’s exactly what I was thinking, but if I were to articulate what my six-year-old self was thinking, it was like, Okay, what other Asians are doing is not right. And I’m going to now follow the lead of what non-Asians are doing, which is speaking English a certain way, you know? So, there was this kind of realization that happened early on, and I think that’s always been something that I never really wanted to talk about. So that’s one thing.

But I think also then later on in high school when I had a lot of Asian friends, then at that point, it never seemed like an issue. So it’s kind of a weird thing because when I got to high school and I had Asian friends, I would say three out of my four best friends were Asian in high school. Wait, was that right? Yeah, three out of my four closest friends were Asian, and it just seemed like we were just hanging out. We weren’t like, Oh, let’s talk about being Asian, or something like that. And, at that point, there’s always been tons of really good Chinese Taiwanese food in Orange County. So it wasn’t like this thing where we’re like, Oh, let’s go get Chinese food. It was more like, Let’s eat food, you know? (laughs)

TSC: (laughs) Right.

JH: And the other thing is that when I was growing up, my mom cooked Chinese and Taiwanese food all the time at home. At that time, she didn’t really know how to make things like spaghetti and meatballs or pizza; so I actually didn’t even eat pizza or spaghetti and meatballs until I went to visit my cousins in Ohio when I was like eight. So there’s this whole chunk of time where even though I was kind of realizing—I don’t know—this doesn’t make sense—but sort of realizing that things that my parents were saying were different and kind of coming to terms myself. At the same time, the norm for me was eating Asian food and not thinking about that as being other or different. Or whatever it was. In fact, I just remember when I ate pizza the first time, I was like, What the heck is this? This is amazing. (laughs)

TSC: (laughs) It is amazing.

It’s interesting to hear you describe it that way, because when I’m doing these interviews, some people are ready to talk about the othering they’ve felt and maybe some of the shame they’ve grown up with. And others are just like, Yeah, I don’t know; I have positive feelings about it. And I have thought about it a little bit here and there, but it’s nothing that I’m going to therapy about.

JH: Right.

TSC: Did you experience microaggressions when you were younger? It’s interesting to hear you say, “I was noticing my parents were saying things incorrectly, and that I was supposed to say them a different way,” because I remember growing up and noticing that as well—and feeling shame. But it sounds like you just noticed and then thought, Okay, here’s how I’m supposed to say it instead.

JH: It’s hard to say. No, I wasn’t feeling shame about that. The other thing is in Orange County, my parents had a lot of Taiwanese American friends, and they grew increasingly over the years. So there were a lot of families that had kids our age that were always hanging out at our house, or we would go visit them. There are plenty of family friends that we visited. So, in those instances, the parents would be talking in Taiwanese or Chinese all the time, and then all the parents would speak English the same way. But that was just how it was. It wasn’t like, Oh my gosh, what is wrong with these people? No, that was just how it was.

TSC: So it was just like, “Mom, Dad, that’s not how you say it.” 

Interview Segment: If I had spent that much time learning Taiwanese


Joyce Hwang, she/her

Interview Date:
March 3, 2023

Themes: Taiwanese American identity, mispronunciation, assimilation, heritage language fluency, familial networks, animal architecture, multispecies design, art, microaggressions, white institutions, gender

Taiwan, Orange County, Ohio, San Francisco, Spain

References: I.M. Pei, Le Corbusier, Terragni, Mies, Aalto, Beyond Patronage, Charles Davis


Ancestral Land:

Tongva and Acjachemen Nations (Orange County, CA)

Current Land:
Seneca Nation (Buffalo, NY)

Diaspora Story:
I was born in New York City. My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the early 1970s for my dad to pursue his medical residency in the US. We moved to Orange County when I was around three years old, my parents driving cross-country with a rice cooker in the car to make meals along the way. I was raised with two younger sisters, Laurice and Alice (notice that all of our names end in “ce”?), and a dog, Pupcake, who was named after one of my favorite characters in the Strawberry Shortcake series.

Creative Fields:
Architecture, design

Racial Justice Affiliations: Dark Matter U, US Architects Declare

Favorite Fruit:
Asian pear, pineapple, blackberries, watermelon

Joyce Hwang is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies of Architecture at the University at Buffalo (UB), State University of New York, and Founder of Ants of the Prairie. She is a recipient of the Exhibit Columbus University Research Design Fellowship (2020–21), the Architectural League Emerging Voices Award (2014), the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship (2013), the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) Independent Project Grant (2013, 2008), and the MacDowell Fellowship (2016, 2011). Her work has been featured by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and exhibited at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Matadero Madrid, the Venice Architecture Biennale, and the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, among other venues. Hwang is on the Steering Committee for US Architects Declare, serves as a Core Organizer for Dark Matter University, and is on the editorial board for the Journal of Architectural Education (JAE). Hwang is a registered architect in New York State and has practiced professionally with offices in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Barcelona.


︎    @jo.hwang | @antsoftheprairie

︎    @prairieant

JH: Yeah! It’s more like this generational difference that you feel with parents in any other way. I would say—I don’t want to say shame, but no—I would actually say that I’ve never felt ashamed of my parents or shameful in any way. I just actually felt proud of them. Because there’s all these stories of how they came to the US on their own and how my dad made it on his own.

So there’s a lot of that stuff where I’m like, Wow, that’s amazing. But I think the kind of generational differences were less about language and more just about values, I guess. So one of the things I remember in junior high school was that one of my friends wanted to hang out by going to a shopping mall. And my mom was like, “Why would you do that?” You know? Like, “That is the dumbest thing that anybody would do. No, you’re not allowed to do that.” And I’d be like, “Mom, how can you not let me go to a shopping mall?” You know? It was more like that kind of thing.

TSC: Right, right. Is that somewhat cultural though? The American shopping mall experience.

JH: Yeah.

TSC: But, also, there are so many Asian malls—as sort of a suburban Asian immigrant community experience.

JH: Yeah, that’s true. I think my mom didn’t see the value of a bunch of girls going to a mall and hanging out as a pastime.

TSC: Yeah.

JH: Which now I totally agree with. But, at that time, I was like, “Oh my God, how can you be so old-fashioned?” You know?

TSC: That’s really funny because I actually have a bit of nostalgia for that era. I think that people associate the nineties, which is when I grew up, and maybe even a little bit before that, with going to the mall and hanging out with your friends. Sometimes I wonder, What do people do now? I don’t know what people do now, but I remember growing up, it seems half the time, we’d go to the mall, walk around, try things on at stores we couldn’t afford, get a slushy or whatever those things were called at the food court.

JH: Yeah. Yeah.

TSC: That’s a cute story though. But, okay, I’ll just poke you one more time about this identity thing. Because you did say that in sixth grade, you subconsciously thought, “Okay, I’m in assimilation mode.” Do you think back on the ways that you have assimilated? Have you ever thought about reversing some of that assimilation? Do you feel like that has been at the cost of your connection to your family or culture?

JH: Yeah. Well, I feel for sure there’s been a cost, because one issue that I feel regret about is that I just don’t speak Taiwanese or Mandarin better. I don’t speak Mandarin at all, which I personally actually don’t care that much about because my parents have been very all about independence for Taiwan. So they were more about speaking Taiwanese anyway. But that’s a whole other thing. But everybody in our family spoke Taiwanese. But that I don’t speak Taiwanese better—I think is something that I feel kind of sorry about.

And my sister has gone back to Taiwan and learned Taiwanese and kind of assimilated herself into Taiwanese culture during this one year when she was—I can’t remember how old she was, but, anyway, it was before she went to graduate school. And I think that was actually amazing. And if I were younger, I would do that. In fact, sometimes, I think I would still do that now.

TSC: You should do it now!

JH: Yeah. (laughs) I know it would be amazing. Right? And so there are things like that that I still kind of wish that I could do, and I feel sorry about. And I think the identity question, though, is like I always prioritize other things. I never prioritized maintaining Taiwanese language, which I feel regret about. It’s not like I’ve been actively not listening to it. Because every time I go back home my parents are speaking it; when my grandparents were alive, they were speaking it, stuff like that. But I never really made any huge effort to really keep a deep connection to my roots.

“I would actually say that I’ve never felt ashamed of my parents or shameful in any way. I just actually felt proud of them. Because there’s all these stories of how they came to the US on their own and how my dad made it on his own.” 

But that’s over other things, like, oh, architecture school or going to countries where there’s supposedly good architecture. It’s saying things like, Oh, Spain is where all the good architecture is, so you need to go to Spain and learn Spanish. I spent so much time learning Spanish, and I think if I had spent that much time learning Taiwanese, it would be awesome! But I actually spent a huge amount of time learning Spanish. I don’t feel regret about that. I feel very happy that I know Spanish, you know? But I definitely feel—thinking about cultural identity—that language is something that’s been lost for sure.

TSC: Definitely. Thank you for riffing on that a little bit more.

JH: Well, you speak Mandarin too.

TSC: Yeah. I speak Mandarin. You know this is where people feel the urge to reverse interview me. (laughs)

I speak Mandarin, but I wish I spoke it better all the time. And now that I have a child, I’m really feeling that pressure to give them that language. Also, my grandparents spoke Taiwanese. So I would hear Mandarin and Taiwanese and English growing up. That’s one thing I really appreciated about Everything Everywhere All at Once, that they were going between three languages like it was nothing. It felt very familiar to me—not with Cantonese, but with Taiwanese.

JH: I love when I randomly hear Taiwanese in movies, because that’s the only thing I really understand. If I hear, say, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taiwanese, I can understand when something is Mandarin versus Cantonese, but I don’t know what people are saying except for a few words in Mandarin. But when I hear Taiwanese, suddenly there’s clarity. It’s like, oh, oh yes, this is what’s happening in the movie!

TSC: That’s awesome. I would love to know what movies you’re watching where there’s Taiwanese spoken! I think a lot of the Taiwan movies go back and forth between the two.

JH: It’s more like Mandarin and Taiwanese. Yeah.

TSC: I want to talk a little bit about your work. How would you describe your work and how has your upbringing or identity shaped your creative path and the way that you approach your work?

JH: Well, I would say that I’m fundamentally an architectural designer, and I work on ecological issues, interests, thinking about designing for non-human species primarily, but I wouldn’t say that it’s exclusively non-human. It’s really looking more at the kind of relationships between humans and non-humans in the way that we develop the built environment. I think, well, how has my upbringing affected that?

TSC: Yeah! Or your identity in any way. It doesn’t have to be about being Asian, but if it is, that’s okay too.

JH: That’s so interesting because I have a tie certainly to certain aspects of my upbringing, but I wouldn’t associate them necessarily with Asianness. They’re more like being raised in Orange County, which is an extremely uber-constructed environment. It’s not like, say, living near hiking trails in Colorado where you’re out in “nature.” Everything is a kind of artificial nature more or less in Orange County. And so everything is always very manicured. There’s lots of lawns, lots of manicured things. And so, for me, it was always super interesting when there was a moment where something defied that. Or like, a couple of times, for example, like even at our house, my parents actually had our bushes trimmed, like topiary, like they were trimmed like circles and stuff.

But one time I remember seeing a bird’s nest being built in the round bush. So it was weird because it deformed it, you know. It was like this groomed-topiary perfect circle that had this weird deformation, and a bird’s nest was in it. And, actually, my sister and I were so enamored that we were hanging out by that circular bush for ages, you know?

So there’s things like that—where those are very special moments where I’m kind of like, Wow, why is this happening? Or, like, why is this interesting? Or why does this feel weird? Or why is this something that’s wrong? You know, when actually this is just a bird building a nest in a bush, you know. Why would people be—or, you know, the gardeners—be so upset about something like this going on? You’re like, What? It’s a bird building a nest in a bush.

TSC: Did they kick out the bird and retrim the perfect circle?

JH: Actually, no. No. I’m trying to remember what happened. I think it just got left there until—well, actually, I don’t even know what happened to it, but I don’t think anybody touched the nest, actually.

TSC: I used to work for a woodworker, and they were really into birds. There was an owl that started living in their woodshop where most of the power tools—like the table saw, jointer, planer, bandsaw—were. And every time the owl was in there, we weren’t allowed to use those tools. So I would be on the clock, and then I’d have to do backflips to do something in a way that didn’t involve the tool we needed, because it would disturb the owl. I’d have to build weird jigs in the other room and use a handheld router versus the table saw, which would’ve made the cut in two seconds. (laughs)

JH: Right. Oh my gosh. (laughs) That’s funny.

But, actually, in terms of the question, now I’m thinking about the Asianness question too. So maybe looking more broadly outside of the animal architecture discussion is how even in architecture, when I was little, since I can remember, even since even before I can remember— because my mom would tell me that this is what I did since I was two years old—or ever since I could pick up a pen—is that I loved drawing. When we were in New York, even before we moved to California, my mom told us stories about how, literally, the way to make me calm down or—or just to keep me busy—was to put me in the high chair and give me a pen and paper, and I would literally just be drawing and scribbling forever and she wouldn’t have to tend to me. That was her story anyway. I don’t know how true that is.

But I definitely remember from elementary school I was really into art. My parents enrolled me in an oil painting class when I was like six or seven or eight. Anyway, at a pretty young age, I was oil painting. And I took art classes every year in high school. And they let me join art club, and also the thing of majoring in architecture. I mean, relative to other Asian parents, like my aunts and uncles or my other relatives, my parents were actually pretty flexible with me in terms of not insisting that I go into pre-med or something else. I’m not sure if this is just totally generalizing, but I feel like a lot of the Asian Americans in my high school but also my relatives are all like, We’re all on this pre-med track—went to med school or became a lawyer or something like that. And I think my parents were just totally okay with me going to architecture school. So sometimes I think to back to that: I’m like, Wow, they were so Asian, but they were also so not Asian. I don’t know.

TSC: Do you know why that is?

JH: I don’t know. I think they just thought that letting us do what we wanted to is better. I think they had certain limits, though. They were like, Please go to architecture school instead of art school. They were saying things like that, but it was relative to the kinds of things that my cousins were doing. It was very different. I don’t know how your parents were about stuff like that.

TSC: I was going to say, when you started telling the story about drawing, I thought it was going to go the direction—which is kind of how I would describe why I’m in architecture—which is that I wanted to do art. And my parents were like, No. And then I was like, “Okay, architecture.” And they were like, Maybe. I think a lot of Asians do end up in architecture because it’s seen as a slightly more practical or math-y form of art.

JH: I would say there’s a grain of truth in that. I think I was kind of on the fence. I actually wanted to go into art first. And then when I visited architecture schools, I was like, Oh, I want to do architecture. This was another random thing. So my parents just let me fly to visit schools when I was sixteen by myself. They weren’t even with me. So I was traveling around the east coast by myself to visit Cornell and RISD and others. I was looking at all these different schools.

TSC: Wow. Did you rent the car from the airport?

JH: No, I was taking trains and buses around, which I had never taken before. So it was a real adventure for me. And, yeah, for some reason, they were just too busy, and they couldn’t come with me. I don’t know if people would even allow that these days to let a sixteen-year-old go wander around and take buses and trains by themselves.

TSC: I don’t know. But I love that!

JH: And then—so when I saw architecture school, I was like, Oh, yes, this is what I want to be doing. But, before that, I was definitely like, Yeah, I want to go to art school. And my parents were like, Well, think about that again. You know, so there was definitely a bit of that.

TSC: Do you feel like you faced challenges as an Asian designer, architect, or educator?

JH: In my professional life or in school?

TSC: In your professional life or in any part of your life.

JH: Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, the biggest hurdle was when I was much younger and I was working in a professional office, a professional in a more or less corporate firm doing large projects and so on. The most obvious kind of challenge, I would say, is people looking at me and not thinking that I had the experience or knowledge to kind of handle whatever situation I was in, or second-guessing everything I said or—and that’s happening less these days—but I would say that there’s still a lot of microaggressions and that kind of thing that still happens, but I feel like I’m so used to it right now that it’s just like whatever. I’m just used to being second-guessed all the time, which is kind of horrible.

But I just feel like that happens as you go into administration too, if you’re, like, in a leadership position anywhere. But I think the most shocking thing for me was after finishing undergrad and being in an office and working in a situation where there was one moment where I suddenly became a project manager because my supervisor was moving to a different office. And so, at that point, I had been working on the project for quite some time. And so she was like, “Okay, well, Joyce can take over because she’s been the kind of second person on this project. So she’ll take the kind of manager position.” And so I started doing CA (Construction Administration). I was basically the representative from my office doing CA on a kind of large project.

And the first months of directing those CA meetings was just the contractor—I don’t want to say making fun of me—but basically like, Well, what do you know? It was really hard to actually get anything done. And then, at some point, I just realized I really just have to go and have drinks with these people. I don’t know—this sounds really dumb, right?

TSC: No, it doesn’t! It doesn’t.

JH: I was like, I have to go and have some whiskey shots with these contractors or with the developers and stuff, so they somehow feel more trust in me or something like that. But it was kind of weird when that whole thing first started. So that’s the most obvious thing I would say is having to deal with all these kinds of—I don’t even know what I would call this—but sort of beyond microaggressions and second-guessing in professional situations.

TSC: Yeah. I guess you could call it racism or sexism. (laughs)

JH: Yes. (laughs) You could call it that.

TSC:   Actually, the drink thing is something that people have talked about and written about, especially in the context of women in the workplace, where there’s always this club of guys and they all go out drinking and then they develop a rapport, and they don’t invite the women. And then the women aren’t trusted—it’s a really big trust-building aspect of workplaces. So I think your intuition about that was totally right. And it’s unfortunate you had to feel that way.

Although I have a feeling that you actually really like whiskey, right?

JH: I do! But that developed during that time period. (laughs)

TSC: Oh, okay. (laughs) Okay. It was for survival.

JH: Well, it was happening in parallel with me moving to San Francisco, leaving undergrad, advancing from cheap beer to other kinds of drinks, and also hanging out with older architects who were really into Scotch. So there was some positive mentoring in that aspect, as well. But all of that was happening simultaneously.

TSC: You are adding to my very intense image of you in my head. I talked to Shandana, who I think went to school with you at Princeton.

JH: Oh yeah!

TSC: She was like, “Oh my gosh, she drank so much coffee!” So I just imagine you downing eight cups a day, running a marathon, and then taking whiskey shots. (laughs)

JH: (laughs) That’s hilarious. Oh my gosh. How did she even remember the whole coffee situation? Oh, that’s hilarious.

TSC: I don’t know! I think I was like, “Do you know Joyce?” Because I was talking about your work. And she’s like, “Oh yeah, we went to school together. She drank so much coffee!” I think we all just remember weird things about people. Something will just stick in our minds.

JH: I did drink a lot of coffee. That’s true.

TSC: It’s not the worst thing to be remembered for.

JH: Right. (laughs)

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

JH: Well, I mean, I guess if you think about the kind of challenges that one faces as a minority in general, I wouldn’t say this is like a privilege, but I do feel that I’ve kind of almost by—what word am I looking for?—sometimes in being in survival mode, maybe that I’ve almost disciplined myself to an extent where, because I always assume that people are going to think that I’m doing something wrong, I overcompensate a lot of times for things, and that’s become this kind of self-disciplining thing, which I think ultimately has actually been really helpful. I wouldn’t say that that’s necessarily the kind of answer you’re thinking about.

“It’s saying things like, Oh, Spain is where all the good architecture is, so you need to go to Spain and learn Spanish. I spent so much time learning Spanish, and I think if I had spent that much time learning Taiwanese, it would be awesome!” 

But I think family structure is—and again, I don’t know if this is necessarily an Asian thing or just—or something else—but I feel like—within my extended family anyway—it’s like, even though we don’t live close together with many Asians or families that have immigrated from Asia, there’s family members all over the place, right? There’s people in California; there’s people in Ohio, New Jersey, and Texas; there’s people in Taiwan. Even though everyone’s spread apart, there’s this ability to kind of still stay close and connected and to still maintain networks of support.

So my parents, for example, would never leave me hanging. And that’s something that I’ve always known, and so I’ve never felt like, you know, that I was ever going to really be in real trouble. I always felt like there was a security blanket in some way. I wasn’t expecting that they were going to support me all the time, but I knew they weren’t going to let me just kind of starve. And this is because a lot of my family is kind of—like when my grandparents and my aunt were sick, and my aunt had cancer and my grandparents were pretty much aging quite rapidly. And because of my grandmother’s dementia, my mom decided to quit her job and basically just take care of my family. And with that decision came a lot of support from other family members. Like my aunt and uncle from Ohio were basically supporting my mom and my aunt, who is her sister, the one who eventually died from cancer. So when things like that happen, you see the whole network of support kick in. And I think something like that is quite nice when you can rely on family like that.

TSC: Thank you for telling that story. On a micro scale, I have thought about how some families make their kids pay rent when they keep living in their house after age eighteen. I’m just like, Asian families don’t do that; this is what we call intergenerational living.

JH: Right. Yes, exactly.

TSC: But, yeah, the way that you described it with the whole network—I’ve experienced that with my family too. Just the whole family network kicking in, and it’s almost like, we’re all in this together, and we’re here to take care of each other.

JH: Right. Exactly And that happens at so many scales. You’re right. It’s like everything from family always wanting to pay for dinners for each other, to not allowing you to pay rent, to never kicking you out of the house.

TSC: Given the context of how we met, which is through Dark Matter U, I wanted to ask you what personal history or experience brought you to Dark Matter U. How did you find out about it and get involved?

JH: Oh, well, it was after the murder of George Floyd, and during this time when—in 2020 when everybody was just kind of both stuck at home and also just kind of mourning and angry, I was just angrily scrolling through Instagram, and I had heard of Design as Protest, but I wasn’t super familiar with how one would join or anything. It wasn’t anything that I had actually thought very actively about. I was just like, Oh, I’m familiar with this group; they do good work. But I saw them posting on Instagram all these messages of town hall-style meetings.

And, at that point, because I really felt like I needed to vent somewhere—or not vent, but just listen to people who shared similar feelings of anger and to feel solidarity with people—I was like, Okay, I’m going to join this meeting. And, at this point, I was actually associate chair of the department too. So, on the work end of things, all this stuff was happening at school, where we're dealing with COVID, we're dealing with the racial injustice, students are angry, and I'm trying to deal with all this in an administrative way. And I was just like, I don't even know what I'm doing right now. I feel like I can't even talk to anybody about anything if all I'm doing is trying to deal with COVID and administration, you know?

And so, then I joined one of the Zoom town halls or whatever it was for Design as Protest, I think. And somehow, during that meeting, there was—I don’t know if it was one of those things where everybody’s, like, putting links in the chat, where it’s like, sign up for this, sign up for that. And I think I clicked on one of the links, and it led to “What are you more interested in?” Is it, like, direct action, university, student organizing, whatever, whatever. And I think I clicked “university organizing” because that’s the world I’m in.

And, after that, I got an email from somebody—I don’t remember the exact history, so this could be wrong—but I do remember getting an email communication from Justin and him saying something like, “Come to the DMU meeting; if you’re into university organizing, join DMU.” And so I was like, Oh, okay. I wasn’t actually aware of DMU as a separate entity because I knew at that point it was still kind of coming out of Design as Protest’s—what was it—ninth point?

TSC: Which demand it was? I don’t remember which demand either. But yeah.

JH: Anyway, one of the demands. So, yeah, it was through one of these Zoom meetings where links were pasted in the chat, and I suddenly got an email.

TSC: So it started with angry scrolling through Instagram, right? (laughs)

JH: Right, right. (laughs)

JH: How about you?

TSC: It was actually similar. I think I was scrolling through—I might’ve even seen it on Facebook—I can’t remember. And that’s how I ended up showing up to one of the meetings. I was feeling pretty isolated working at a large firm. I wanted to connect with other people who felt the same way and who understood—who shared the same values that I did around what was happening.

Something else that I’m curious about with you—had you worked in BIPOC solidarity-driven spaces before? Or had you mostly worked within institutions?

JH: Mostly in institutions. Yeah. I mean, for example, I feel like this was like a turning point for me and also one of the reasons why I stepped down from being associate chair too. I have been at the university here now for eighteen years. And so, like, I think since I started at UB, it being a predominantly white institution, there were certain things I started noticing. UB at the time when I started seemed, like, extremely male and extremely white.

And it was something that I was uneasy with when I first started, but after being here a few years, I started doing things like working with one of the graduate advisors, trying to form working groups or focus groups for students. See, at that point, it was a weird thing because we didn’t really have a real diversity officer at that time either. So it wasn’t even a thing that people talked about. And this is—I’m thinking now—this is like around 2009 or so. In fact, I worked with one of the advisors to kind of create these focus groups for women and minorities, but a lot of the discussions among the students were like, Oh, there’s no problem here. Why are we being singled out? You know? It was this kind of thing where there was almost pushback.

But, at the same time, we are also realizing this is an issue because in two thousand, I’m thinking, eleven—I can’t believe this is that late, because 2011 seems like not that long ago. But I think around 2011, I was teaching a studio of sixteen people, a graduate studio where there was literally only one woman, literally one woman. And I think there was one minority. Like, there was one Black guy, and I think that was it. I can’t even remember. And so we definitely had a problem at that time. And our administration was going about it in this way of like, okay, well, let’s try to create events for women.

And so, in 2012, they asked me to create a women’s event—and so, this is different than the BIPOC question, but it’s all, of course, like all these kinds of questions are kind of rolled into one. But they asked me to kind of create a women’s speakers’ event. And I was like, Well, if I’m trying to create focus groups for women and minorities, and then people are saying it’s not needed, how is creating a women’s event going to actually attract everybody? You know, it’s just going to be like, this is something that’s for a kind of niche or whatever. So, actually, that’s when I, along with my colleague Martha Baum—we developed a symposium which we called “Beyond Patronage: Reconsidering Models of Practice.”

And that was actually almost like a Trojan horse way of getting to the issue—is that we were like, Okay, we’re going to talk about different models of practice, but we’re only going to invite women and minorities to speak, you know? So, anyway, I’ve always been trying to do this thing through the institution. And when I got to speaking with DMU folks, it really felt like this kind of amazing breath of fresh air where everybody was talking about things freely and it felt like change was possible in a kind of radical way.

The conversations you have in institutions is always something like, Okay, so what are the strategies where we can hire one more person of color? You know, it’s always like this kind of incremental, like, Oh, how do we increase the percentage of women in this class from 48 to 50 percent. It just—it feels very incremental. And then you’re like, Well, how are you really going to enact change when all it is, is this kind of metric-driven sort of number crunching, you know, adding one person here or there kind of tactic. Sorry, that might be a little long-winded.

TSC: No, that was great! I think you are an example of the ways in which partnering DMU with an institution has been super successful because you are actually in the institution with a position of influence, and you’ve really pushed DMU to really be very present at Buffalo, which is pretty exciting.

JH: It is exciting.

TSC: I wanted to hear a little bit more about what your motivations were behind that. I think it’s interesting to hear just some of the struggles you’ve been through, but then also how the framework that DMU presented felt easier to engage and move things forward in a way that was actually influential and not just tokenistic.

JH: I think it’s a twofold thought here: One is that we do have a lot of people here who are working on social justice issues in both architecture and planning. And, at the time, although he’s not here, we had Charles Davis. But I think that at the time when I was doing more of the coordinating of both the undergraduate and graduate curriculum—now I’m only working on graduate curriculum—I saw a lot of gaps in there where it just seemed like it would be really low-hanging fruit just to be able to get a fresh course in there. And DMU at that time—well, it still is—presenting a very innovative model.

So I think it just seemed like, given the way that DMU was structuring the classes, and because everybody was also on Zoom, it did not seem that it would be that difficult to propose that. And because I was already basically assigning teaching assignments anyway, we were actually in need of people. There was a lot of demand as well from upper administration about including more people of color on our teaching roster. So it wasn’t like it was actually that difficult at that time.

I think, of course, there’s a lot of logistics to work through that ultimately do make things a little bit more difficult. And especially now that we’re more in person, it’s harder to get that sort of collective network together. But I think because we did see how amazing the kind of response was to that type of class, we’re definitely interested in continuing to pursue some kind of collaborative class through DMU in some kind of refined or in a revised way. So yeah. And I think—wait, what was the second part of that question?

TSC: I don’t think it was a question. I was just reflecting, but oh, was there a second part?

JH: Oh! There was a second part of my thinking. One was that I just felt like it was a really fresh way to teach, and that it was definitely possible. It didn’t seem logistically that difficult to kind of get DMU into the roster. So I thought it would be a good opportunity to try it out, especially when school is in a mode of trying to think about bigger questions and so on.

But the other thing that I just find exciting about DMU is that there are all these people in the network like yourself and so many others who are just really hungry for change and very passionate about what they do, and working on things in interesting ways that I was kind of like, If you can bring all these people together in one class, that’s amazing, you know? Or if you can have people who are really sort of passionate about teaching topics on racial, social justice and it’s really at the core of what they’re thinking, and they’re also young and emerging, that’s amazing.

Because it does feel like it’s not only just people teaching, but it’s like a network of people who’ve become friends. And it really feels good to support the network, in the way that you might support any other network. The way that we’re always joking around about things like—as I’m sure you’re aware too, but when people are from different schools, you’re like, Oh, did that person go to Cornell too? Oh, let’s bring in more of the Cornell Mafia or something! It’s really just nice to know that there’s this network of people who are doing amazing things and to support them. So that’s the other second part. Yeah.

TSC: Totally. Have you thought about the role specifically of Asians in BIPOC solidarity spaces, especially ones like DMU? And what do you think that role is?

JH: Well, I mean, I think it depends on, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any one role. I think everybody is so individual, as everyone operates individually. But one of the things that I definitely am very kind of cognizant of is that disproportionately Black and Indigenous people have really had a much more difficult time. And in ways that we as Asians—like we feel solidarity, but there are certain things that I would never be able to, like, fully understand, maybe approach an understanding. But they’ve suffered the kinds of injustices and losses that I don’t think that I have.

I feel actually quite privileged in the position that I’ve been in. I mean, I’ve certainly suffered all of the kinds of discrimination, but I don’t think I’ve been in a situation where I was afraid to talk to a police officer or something like that. So I think when in this context, I do feel like, at least me—and I’m not saying that this should be the case for every Asian at all—but I certainly feel like me being a kind of a person with a bit more privilege personally—I feel like my role is to be a bit more supportive and to kind of elevate others, if that makes sense. I don’t know.

TSC: That makes a lot of sense.

JH: And I also recognize in a group like DMU where it’s a lot of emerging designers and young people, and me being a tenured person, I’m definitely not like, Oh, I’m going to sit here and be this kind of center point of this whole organization. I feel like I really prefer to be in the role of uplifting others. So yeah.

TSC: And you definitely do that. So thank you.

JH: Sure.

TSC: Do you have a little bit of time still?

JH: Yeah.

TSC: I know we are close to the end. But we started late, so I’m hoping to go a little bit longer.

JH: Okay. Yeah, no problem. Actually, I’m trying to figure out what I’m even doing. So I’m looking at my calendar. Actually, you’re the last thing I have of the day. I could go as long as you want!

TSC: Perfect. I won’t hold you hostage, but I do want to keep you a little bit longer because I want to talk a little bit about the future. What dreams and aspirations do you have for Asian diasporic spaces and the people who are shaping them through design?

JH: Hm. What dreams and futures do I have for Asian and Asian diasporic spaces and the people who are shaping them through design, right?

TSC: Dreams and aspirations. Or what do you dream of for other Asians in the future?

JH: I feel like that’s such a big question!

TSC: It is a big question. The answer can be small.

JH: It’s interesting because a lot of the first things that come to mind do feel—because if you’re talking about, like, hopes and dreams for—in a kind of broader way, I’m like, Wow, okay. If I say something really petty, it seems like it’s a kind of minor thing; it’ll feel pretty petty.

TSC: I want to hear about the petty thing.

JH: Well, I think if we can get to a point where we’re not ever feeling the kinds of injustices in the micro—I would say, like, Asians probably experience more microaggressions than we even admit. And a lot of that, I think, incrementally has an impact on what we do. It’s not like there’s any one thing where, say, for example, our family member experiences violence due to race, although I would say no, actually that’s not true. Because there’s been a lot of anti-Asian violence too. So I’m not going to say that there hasn’t been violence committed upon our Asians and Asian Americans, but because there has been certainly a lot of it for sure.

“Even though everyone’s spread apart, there’s this ability to kind of still stay close and connected and to still maintain networks of support.”

But I would say that being able to go about doing our work and to do the things we want to do without having to deal with all the minor injustices of microaggressions that prevent us from really moving forward is something that I think about a lot. How do we do this without losing our identity? How do we do this without having to basically assimilate completely?

It’s like the thing that I was mentioning about drinking with contractors, or, I mean, that might just be like one small example; but a lot of times you do feel like you have to sort of always explain yourself or always kind of step back and say, Okay, well that might be how it is, or having to apologize for wanting to do something. That’s the other thing. That feels almost like a norm. And now I’m even thinking beyond architecture, right?

TSC: What things have you apologized for doing?

JH:   Like, for example, and this is by no means an issue. This is not about saying that anybody’s wrong or whatever, but having to say things like, “Oh, I’m sorry—I’d rather not eat this because it’s Lunar New Year, and I want to eat fish.” You know, or having to explain something, which of course I understand this happens with cultural differences all the time. So it’s not just about being Asian, but yeah, I don’t know. And maybe that’s also the thing about growing up in Orange County too—is I felt like a lot of that stuff you didn’t really have to explain. It wasn’t really until I went to Cornell or to the East Coast, I was suddenly like, Oh, wait, I have to explain everything that I’m thinking. Or I have to always preface like, Okay, well, I prefer to do this, because whereas in other places you just don’t have to even explain it at all.

TSC: Those are really good aspirations to have. I mean, I think what you’re describing as all the microaggressions, like the things that come to mind obviously are the Cathy Park Hong book Minor Feelings.

JH: Right, exactly.

TSC: And the expression “death by a thousand cuts.” I do agree with you that many like us don’t experience the injustices on a systemic level to the degree that people with darker skin or people who are Black and Indigenous have experienced in this country. I think that a lot of it is that we’re also not educated about what those things are that we have experienced, though we’re still treated a certain way as a result of them. And also, with anti-Asian violence, one thing to point out is that an act of violence committed by an individual is different than by the police, by state-sanctioned violence. So all of the things that you’re saying resonate with me. And I hope those things too for us.

JH: But as designers, I mean, I guess, I don’t know, was your question also about Asian, Asian diaspora designers and what our hopes would be?

TSC: Yeah—people who are shaping spaces through design, Asian designers. I think not having to explain yourself relates to that a bit. Maybe if there’s something about your methodology or your way of thinking that influences you, or maybe you want to riff off that a little bit more.

JH: You know, I think these questions are also always intersectional too. Because half the time I’m wondering like, Wait, is this an issue because I’m an—because I’m Asian? Or is this an issue because I’m a woman, you know? So, I mean, I think this is a combination of being Asian and woman is like not having—and again, this is also a microaggression too—but, in our field, it’s like not having to explain that you work alone and not with your husband.

TSC: Oh, that you are a solo practitioner. Yeah. That there’s no man in charge.

JH: Right. Right. Or that if your husband is an architect, that you don’t work together. (laughs) You know how many times I’ve had to explain that when I was married to Sergio? I was like, “Sergio and I do not work together.”

TSC: He’s not secretly doing all of the work that I do or something. 

“But I would say that being able to go about doing our work and to do the things we want to do without having to deal with all the minor injustices of microaggressions that prevent us from really moving forward is something that I think about a lot. How do we do this without losing our identity? How do we do this without having to basically assimilate completely?”

Interview Segment: Petty dreams and aspirations

JH: Right. Right. I think one of my hopes also is to get to a point where—and I feel like we are seeing this a lot in some parts of, you know, as, for example, certainly in Japan. But one of my hopes for Taiwan is that we get to this point where the architecture that’s happening there is not about idolizing European architecture, or idolizing stars from, say, Switzerland or the Netherlands.

This is the thing that’s happening a lot in Taiwan, which—or I guess this happens everywhere too—but it’s like the OMA building happening there or something like that. It’s like, if we can get to a point where there are enough Asians, Asian Americans doing work in architecture that’s being accepted as exceptional work, and that it doesn’t have to be like, Oh, well, now here’s, like, a really good design from Europe. Something like that I think would be a kind of disciplinary dream.

TSC: I love that.

JH: Or to be accepted as an Asian American doing work in Asia. Yeah. But I don’t know.

TSC: And I think, I mean, of course we were all educated in the US, but I think another narrative is, Oh, So-and-So was educated in the US or in Germany and then went back and did all this amazing design work because their mind was trained in the Western ways.

JH: Right, right, right.

TSC: And look at the combination of these two and how amazing it can be. But why can’t we just take the knowledge that comes from that place and respect it for what it is, and why does it have to go through this kind of lens of Western knowledge? I think about that a lot.

Were you going to say more?

JH: No, I was just thinking about your question. That’s a good question. I haven’t thought about that. I don’t know. I mean, it’s got to be really different for you also, because, like, I think if I had a kid, I would definitely be thinking about a lot of these questions, like with a lot more attention maybe. Because I do think about things like, How do you educate younger generations? That’s something I think about. And if I had a kid, I would be thinking about that all the time. But I think being in the position that I’m in right now, there’s just a lot of things I don’t explicitly think about all the time, and I don’t verbalize. And a lot of times, there’s probably, I’m sure, some repression going on that I still have to kind of get over.

“One of my hopes for Taiwan is that we get to this point where the architecture that’s happening there is not about idolizing European architecture, or idolizing stars from, say, Switzerland or the Netherlands.”

But it’s hard to—it’s not like I’m sitting here thinking, Oh, I really need to kind of get out of this funk because I’ve been repressing this feeling of this and that, but it’s possible that because I’ve been facing so many of these microaggressions for so many years that it just becomes a norm. And that to me feels sad, but then I don’t think about it too much, you know?

TSC: I wonder about that too, because I do think that the more you think about it, the more feelings surface about it, and the more you feel like you need to do something about it.

JH: That’s true!

TSC: I feel I started to think about it a little bit later because I didn’t feel the opportunity to earlier on—I was also in assimilation mode. But I think at least some of the people who are closer to the Gen Z age range have been processing their identity more openly. I also hear about people talking about their parents, where they’re just like, Oh, my mom said she had a great life—she didn’t think about it at all; she says she was very happy. And I’m like, Well, which one is better?

JH: That’s funny. Well, Gen Z, I mean, I am at this point where I would be the mother of a Gen Z person. One of my colleagues’ moms is my age, which is crazy, but I’m just thinking, Okay, if I had a kid who was in their twenties right now, how different would that be? I don’t know.

TSC: Yeah. That’s interesting. I think Xenia is Gen Alpha. I have no idea what problems they’re going to be going through, but I’ll find out, I’m sure.

JH: That’s funny.

TSC: My last question is: An important component of this project is creating resources that will be useful for Asian American designers and creatives. What resources would you love to see for other Asian designers? Or is there something you would’ve loved to see as a younger designer?

JH: Oh, that’s a really good question—as a younger designer—well, one thing I would’ve loved to see as a younger designer is more references to other Asian Americans and Asians, people of color in general as architects and designers. It’s like I. M. Pei is the Frank Lloyd Wright of Asia, right? When I was like, "Oh, I’m going to architecture school,” everyone’s like, Oh, well, do you know I. M. Pei? (laughs)

TSC: Yeah, including my dad actually! (laughs)

JH: You know, so there was this period of time where I was like, Okay, I’m just looking at this I. M. Pei book. (laughs)

TSC: (laughs) This is it.

JH: Right. And then when I went to architecture school, it was like, No, don’t look at I.M. Pei; the only people you’re looking at are Le Corbusier, Terragni, Mies, and Aalto. Those were the only people we studied in freshman year. So I was like, What?

So having just more access to other Asian American or Asian designers early on would’ve been helpful. I think having some kind practical resource for how to even go about being an architect or applying to architecture school. Because—this is a huge generalization too—but, at least among my family, everybody knew everything about medical school. Nobody knew anything about design school.

So it was like, Oh, the best places to go to medical school are this. The residencies that you’d want to do is this. But like—but there isn’t the knowledge and experience from having a liberal arts background or being educated in the United States or, you know, all that kind of background knowledge that a lot of, let’s say, non-immigrant parents have that they share with their kids.

I think, earlier on, that type of thing would’ve been super helpful for me. I definitely felt like there was a bit of a struggle when I first started at Cornell. Freshman year I almost dropped out of architecture. Well, I didn’t do super well the first semester, but I was really struggling with just the change of culture, how to go about doing things differently. I used to be so strict about doing homework that I would give the same amount of time for every homework assignment. So that didn’t work freshman year studio, where I was giving the same amount of time to doing Italian as to doing studio, you know? (laughs)

TSC: (laughs) You quickly learn that the ratio is 99 percent to 1 percent.

JH: Right. Yeah, I don’t know. That sounds kind of lame.

TSC: No, not lame at all! Thank you! Is there anything else you want to share or revisit before we close out?

JH: I don’t know. I can’t really think of anything off the top of my head. You asked some really good questions. At some point, I’d love to hear your answers to all of them too. I’m sure you probably asked yourself them.

TSC: I should ask myself them. I thought about them as I was writing them, but I don’t know what would happen if someone asked me and I just started riffing. I feel like, with off the cuff, sometimes things come out that you don’t expect.  

“It’s not like I’m sitting here thinking, Oh, I really need to kind of get out of this funk because I’ve been repressing this feeling of this and that, but it’s possible that because I’ve been facing so many of these microaggressions for so many years that it just becomes a norm. And that to me feels sad, but then I don’t think about it too much, you know?” 

Posted February 18, 2024