“I was resisting pursuing this kind of work because I didn’t know what it would look like. The more I’m doing it now the more I’m realizing that that’s the whole point.”

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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

I’d love it if you would tell me a little bit about your experience immigrating to the United States from Shanghai. Why did you and your parents come to the United States, and in what ways did you stay connected to your homeland, and what ways did you feel really disconnected?

Xixi Chen (Xx): So I came to the US—we moved to rural Illinois. Well, actually I moved to rural Illinois to join my parents when I was six, and this was in 1995. My dad had already been in the US for two years, and my mom had been here for one. He came for school and obtained a master’s degree. And I think that was also just a way of saying, “Okay, my dad is starting this new life overseas.” His sister tried to do the same with her husband, and my mom’s brother with his wife and children—all in different countries. I actually moved to the US with my mom’s brother. He brought me here, and he came to complete a postdoc at a university, where I coincidentally went to college.

All this is to say that I think on both sides of my parents’ family—there was just a lot of uncertainty about where the country [China] would be headed in the 2000s. We really had no idea what to expect. I think my parents were anticipating a situation that was very similar to what they grew up in, which was like—they were born during, around, and into the Cultural Revolution, and also around when the famine was happening. For them, they thought it would bring us better opportunities. It turned out to be really difficult to stay connected. I don’t really know how to summarize that succinctly, to be honest.

TSC: It doesn’t have to be succinct.

Xx: It was really hard to stay connected.  My family and I, we speak Shanghainese, and I just really struggled with finding other Shanghainese-speaking people in America my whole life. Shout out if anyone happens to be reading this transcript at some point in the near future and they speak Shanghainese—please reach out to me. Anyway, I think that kind of exacerbated this insularity that we already felt geographically living in rural Illinois for two years before moving to the Chicago suburbs. And I think that the language thing was really just something I carried unknowingly growing up. It made it hard to meet and befriend Chinese peers.

When I first moved to the US, I found no Chinese peers. Eventually, there were a few. Then at some point, there was a lot. But nobody really spoke Shanghainese. Everybody spoke Mandarin. Once in a while I would meet people from, like, more southern China and who would speak one of the hundreds of southern dialects. That was also something I knew nothing about.

I think that there were a lot of ways that we would try to stay connected—like I went to Chinese school, where I learned to speak Mandarin and read and write; at the same time I learned English. There was a lot I ambiently absorbed in terms of customs and cultures, I think, just from growing up with my parents. But, for the most part, I felt really disconnected. The other important thing I wanted to mention was that we all came here on visas, and so it was like about ten years before we got our green card. So that was the length of time before we could travel back easily. By that point, Shanghai had just become a completely different city.

TSC: You mentioned going to Chinese school, and I’m curious if this was a space that you felt in community with people. Or were there other spaces that you felt like you saw yourself or your experiences reflected when you were growing up? Or was it just very, very isolating?

Xx: I think Chinese school was, like, an attempt for Chinese community in the Chicago suburbs to be a community. But what I remember from it were all these negative associations that my mom would tell me about. There’s the kind of negative attachments that we have with our cultures like parents using their children—excuse me. Sorry, I just ate dinner. (laughs)

TSC: What did you eat? (laughs)

Xx: That’s going in the recording. Vegetables, rice, seaweed, soy sauce. Pretty good.

TSC: Yum. That sounds delicious.

Xx: Sorry you can’t smell it.

TSC: The burp or the food? (laughs)

Xx: Burp. I was thinking about the burp only. (laughs)

Most of what I heard was through my mom. I say this now because I’d like to be a little bit more critical of it, but I did kind of perceive what she spoke of when it was all happening. You know, like parents just trying to push their children a lot in every which way and kind of gossiping a lot and talking about their kids a lot and their accomplishments. It felt like this competition. I also realized a lot of us came to the US under different circumstances, and so we would encounter families who had a lot more money than we did.  It happened both when I was with my parents and also when I wasn’t with my parents.

I would also encounter other kids who lived on much more modest means, like we did. It just wasn’t really explained to me as it was happening that this really is, like, the real range of who gets to come to America. It wasn’t justsomebody in our circumstances, though these other families might share things in common with us. There were certain jobs they had or slightly different interests, or goals, or ambitions. We were all a little different.

Right now, I’m practicing writing in Chinese again on the phone when I text my family and some new friends I made. I’m honestly just surprised at how quickly it’s coming back to me. Even if my pronunciation is off, even if I can’t remember things that well, I feel pretty happy that certain fundamentals of the Chinese school experience left a good imprint. I was like, Okay, this school did its job. I went there for so long and it really felt like at some times that I wasn’t learning or that I didn’t learn. But, actually, that’s not true. So I’m rediscovering this satisfaction that I had from going there, which has been really great.

TSC: That’s awesome. I wanted to talk a little bit about how you identify, because you said in your questionnaire that you identify as Chinese and Chinese American, and only formally as Asian American. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Interview Segment: What else am I going to talk about?


Xixi Chen, she/they

Interview Date:
January 25, 2023


Themes: Asian American identity, Chinese identity, Shanghainese, Mandarin, language, Chinatowns, immigrant communities, virtual communities, cultural bereavement

Places: China, Shanghai, the Midwest, Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Athens Chinatown

References: ChinaTownWorld, Oriental Party Line, 2021 Atlanta Spa shootings, 2023 Lunar New Year Shootings in Monterey and Half Moon Bay, Brown Girl Therapy, See Yourself Sensing, Ancient Chinese Hidden Weapons


Ancestral Land:
China: Shanghai, with older lineage from/in Zhejiang Province, Fujian Province, Singapore, and Taiwan

Shanghai, the Midwest (Chicago suburbs), New York City

Current Land:
Tovaangar (Los Angeles, California)

Diaspora Story:
I was six when I moved to America to join my mom and dad, who were already here. Like their parents, who moved to Shanghai from near and far provinces in search of income, my parents and many of their siblings moved overseas to different countries in pursuit of better opportunities.

Creative Fields:
Architecture & design

Racial Justice Affiliations:
NOMA, Oriental Party Line

Favorite Fruit:
Watermelon & persimmon

Min X Chen (Xixi) 陈希旻 (she/they) is an architectural designer, founder of XXS – Xixi Studio, and ½ of the collaborative practice Xixi & Tonia. Born in Shanghai and raised in the Midwest, Xixi is currently based in Tongva Land / Los Angeles. Xixi has worked for design practices in Los Angeles, New York City, and Amsterdam, including Michael Maltzan Architecture and 2x4, on projects situated in global urban, suburban, and exurban geographies and spanning a wide range of scales. Xixi received an MArch from Columbia University, a B.S. in architecture and art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

︎    @chinatownworld

Xx: Yeah! I think a couple years ago I started reading about the history of Asian American solidarity in America. I read about the importance of how the term Asian American was coined and historically why it has been important to unify. I think this is all pretty fluid. So probably a few years from now, or even next year, later this year, things could change. But where I’m at now is that I really am trying to identify as somebody who is distinctly Chinese American. And I think part of that is just kind of where my head space is in terms of the other work that I’m doing. I want to stay as specific and true to my set of experiences. So just having that label helps ground me in some way.

Calling myself Chinese is something I never had great feelings about. It’s something that maybe my parents would assign to me as a kind of claim. And maybe non-Asians would call me that because I look different. Or if I started talking, they would be like, “Oh, you’re American.” I feel like being labeled as just Chinese still feels confusing because I was raised here. But it’s also like, legally, it was who I was up until I was twenty-two and became a US citizen.

TSC: That’s really interesting. Have you heard the term ABCs?

Xx: I heard it, and I liked it. I was like, Oh, it’s so great. But I guess I’m a CBA.

TSC: Chinese-born American, CBA. Does anyone use that term?

Xx: No. I should coin it. I knew about ABCs when I was like maybe nine or ten, at the peak of my Chinese schooling. These things came into my lexicon—also “fob,” you know? Just knowing what all these words meant and how kind of important it was to identify with one of those words. But also, it’s like every label. It’s just used to talk about somebody when they’re not there. (laughs)

TSC: Totally.

Xx: There’s just so much negative connotations with all these things. There’s, like, negative connotations with ABCs, I think. If CBA takes off, I can only imagine how much negative connotation there could be.

TSC: It’s kind of similar to the comment you were making that other day about your friends in China treating you as completely American. I think it’s used to kind of make you feel not Chinese enough. Like, you have an ABC accent; people would use it to degrade you about your abilities to speak the language.

Xx: Now I’m just like, “Okay, I think people just don’t know.” When I say “people,” I include myself too. We’re all just kind of learning how to ask these questions in a way that is more sensitive of where the other person is coming from. Calling someone these labels, you’re entering this space making so many assumptions about their lived experiences. It’s nice that we’re moving beyond a binary vocabulary and we’re coming up with these more nuanced terms to talk about who we are more fully.

TSC: More nuanced and also more specific like you were saying.

Xx: More specific. Definitely.

TSC: I know that you’re at an interesting point in your work and your career. I wanted to know how you would describe your work now, and how has your upbringing and your identity shaped your creative path and also the way that you approach your work?

Xx: I’m glad you brought this up. I’ve been thinking about this the past couple of days trying to mentally prepare myself for this interview. I remember this conversation I had with a friend of mine. He’s a guy actually, who is not Asian American, or Asian, but also an immigrant. We both grew up in the US, and a long time ago—like ten years ago—we were talking about our experiences growing up here. And I was just saying, “What do I have to offer this profession? What do I have to offer architecture? I just went to school for it. I do want to study it more deeply, but I don’t know what I have to offer it. I’m just somebody who was born somewhere else.” I’m paraphrasing myself, but I really talked about it in a way that was diminishing to all these stories about me that I just told you. I was also at a point where I think I had just moved to New York from the Midwest—this was in the 2010s. So I’m just encountering a lot of Asians and Chinese with—just to be blunt—more wealth than I had ever imagined, for the first time. There were so many things about that and living in New York that was a huge cultural shock for me.

It’s, like, something that I never learned about, you know? And I’m like, Okay, literally, what do I have to offer? I feel like I’m interested in design but I’m also too critical of it, where I can’t just make shit look good. That’s not what I want to do ultimately with my career. What I really liked about going to undergrad was that I also studied art history, which really taught me how to look at visual things critically and to argue about what matters when making a thing. I thought that was so—before you started recording, you were talking about how there is a certain representation of Asians and Asian Americans in the design profession that’s being elevated right now. And it’s predominantly centered on people who are just extremely talented designers who can make, create beautiful spaces—(pause) I got a little overwhelmed for a minute.

TSC: That’s okay.

“But where I’m at now is that I really am trying to identify as somebody who is distinctly Chinese American. And I think part of that is just kind of where my head space is in terms of the other work that I’m doing. I want to stay as specific and true to my set of experiences. So just having that label helps ground me in some way.”

Xx: I just wanted to see if there was something more I could do to move away from that because I knew that after I had kind of had these new lenses—turned on these new lenses of looking at the world, I was like, Okay, just doing pure design is not something I think I would find ultimately meaningful with my life. I just want to go back to what my friend said. He was like, “Don’t diminish your own story. That has a lot of meaning.” Neither of us knew how to do it at the time, but it really stuck with me. That was probably one of the earliest conversations I’ve had where somebody directly told me that about me. And it was a friend, you know? It wasn’t a teacher, because I didn’t have any teachers in college who were immigrants like me.

TSC: So, through studying art history, you learned that you could kind of bring a specific lens to something as an approach. And then you were thinking that instead of just kind of beating white people at their own game—which is kind of how immigrants are taught to behave—

Xx: Yeah. But there’s no way I could do that. I was like, There’s no way. I don’t have the financial resources. I don’t have the immediate connections to generate capital. I could if I hustled really hard, but it’s not really what I’m interested in. There’s just a lot of talent out there, and honestly, they’re doing a really good job. Then it’s like, Okay. What? There’s—and I’m also just like, There’s so much beautiful things getting made already. There’s so much beauty and objects without meaning. And there’s also, like, so much ugly objects without meaning. Can we just step back for a minute and see if we can have both the beauty and the meaning? Or maybe the ugly too. I’m okay with ugly. (laughs)

TSC: At that time though, did you think that that lens you were going to bring was directly connected to your identity—or, more specifically, your racial identity? Or were you just thinking, What is something that I can bring? I know it’s not just making pretty objects.

Xx: It’s exactly what you’re saying. I had no idea. To my friend, I’m like, “What are you talking about? What is that?” He’s like, “I don’t know.” Neither of us knew. And he was like, “But it’s not unimportant—you can’t diminish it.” I’m like, “Okay. Okay.”

I think something I learned slowly in grad school, and a little bit working after grad school, is that we can reevaluate. We should just learn to do a thing. That’s why grad school’s good in some ways—at least for me it was. It’s like, Okay, you just really have to do a thing. Like, there’s a deadline, and if you don’t have something to show, that’s really bad. So I was like, Okay, I just need to do something. I think that was kind of one big takeaway that I had from me. And then the other takeaway I had from that is, like, how to use that to refine questions. I think also learning how to look at my work holistically. If you keep doing and asking yourself questions and refining, maybe you’ll actually start to get at the right question. I think I’m just starting to get at the right question to be honest.

TSC: I’m curious if you ever thought about how being Asian influences the work that you do?

Xx: Are you talking about, like, my job, like my day-to-day, or like the projects I’m ultimately interested in pursuing? Or both?

TSC: I think either one that you feel is relevant, but also—I’m curious about the waythat you work. Maybe not necessarily the actual content of the work that you’re doing, but more how you work, how you engage with people, how you design, how you think. Have you ever thought about the impact it has on you?

Xx: I think that honestly—I don’t know if I can. This is difficult to fully answer. The only thing that I’ve learned that I kind of know immediately is that I just run hot. I run anxious, and that’s something that I feel like I’ve gotten from my parents—like my family. It’s a driver of how I work. It’s not something I necessarily appreciate, but it is something that I picked up on. I did like a—I’m blanking.

Well, I could talk about the design aspect of it, which I think that there’s—I haven’t thought about how being Asian informs my actual working method. But I think that, yeah, maybe you will get to do this interview again, or I get to be interviewed again in general. Maybe like five years from now, I’ll probably have a better answer for that. I think that the other answers that I could give are just like stuff we might’ve been already aware of, which is like, Yes, of course it impacts how I see myself in the workplace, and always, like, to detriment. I’m like, Oh God, this didn’t happen. It’s because I’m Asian. It’s because I was too loud. I should have just kept quiet. It’s like, Oh, damn it. You were really loud again today. What did you do? (laughs) I mean, it doesn’t usually sound like that, but I had to have these moments where I’m like, Oh, damn it. Things like that that I’m really just trying to move away from because it’s not helpful. There should be space for both. (laughs)

TSC: So just like being more comfortable. You’re less comfortable taking up space because you don’t want attention brought upon you because it doesn’t make you feel safe, or—?

Xx: It’s like I can’t help it. I’m going to take up space anyway.

TSC: Right. I do feel that about you in a really positive way.

Xx: I’m like, Okay. I really have to just be comfortable with that and think every day is just a good opportunity for me to keep trying at that. Like, today’s the day I’m going to be loud and proud.

TSC: Definitely. Okay. You were just talking about this a little bit, but my next question is about what challenges you’ve faced as a Chinese American designer. Do you think you can elaborate on some of the things you’ve started saying?

“He was like, ‘Don’t diminish your own story. That has a lot of meaning.’ Neither of us knew how to do it at the time, but it really stuck with me. That was probably one of the earliest conversations I’ve had where somebody directly told me that about me.”

Xx: I think that somewhere down the line I’m going to be seen as—that one criticism I’m going to get is that people are going to see a picture of me online or something and be like, Oh, that’s the person who did all that work on cultural bereavement, all that work on creating space, physical space for cultural bereavement. That’s what she’s about. Like, Could she be any more Chinese or Asian or whatever? I just think that’s the same criticism that women artists get too. It’s like, Oh, the work is always about them and their experiences. Why is that? It’s such a useless criticism because it’s like, “Well, what other experiences am I going to talk about?”

TSC: Actually, I’m glad you brought that up because I feel like there is this tendency for architecture to focus on the importance of being this neutral figure—aka cis white male. But we don’t name that. We just talk about it as if that is some sort of objective, superior way of working—and it makes people afraid to humanize their practice and bring themselves to their work. I think that is a huge barrier, honestly. Not only in that people will judge you by how you look without you speaking or designing anything, but also in that people will not take anything you do that references your experience in some way as seriously.

Xx: I think so too. Honestly, when I’m saying this, I just think about a lot of the negative feedback that I heard always from men in grad school. It’s always about the woman, you know? It’s always like, Why do we have to give so much space to what these women want to do, or what they’re doing? I don’t think that those criticisms are going to ever go away in our lifetime. They might diminish a little bit over time, or who knows what. Maybe the gender ratio is really going to get flipped, who knows? But I’m aware that this is going to follow me down the line somehow.

TSC: That’s interesting. Also though, kind of in contrast, I think people assume Asians are the ones who are there to crank out drawings or do all the super technical stuff. And I’m not that Asian (laughs)

Xx: Yeah, that too. (laughs)

TSC: I’m just like, Nope. Sorry. (laughs)

Xx: That also does happen to me though too in the workplace. Like, Oh shit, we need something really fast. Min can do it. She’s really fast at it. When it happens, I don’t complain, not because I don’t want to complain, but I look at it as an opportunity. I’m like, Okay, you know what? If it’s really about timing for you, I will play a game with myself and see how quickly I can get this done. I’m also fortunate where I’m not stuck doing the same rote set of tasks all the time, so it is a little bit more interesting. I recently became aware that that’s still happening to people who look like us in the profession; they get stuck doing the exact same task for different projects with no ability to move upwards, and that’s very unsettling to me. I definitely think I shattered the office’s expectation, even though I am pigeonholed into that role.

TSC: You think you’ve proven yourself in other areas?

Xx: Yeah! Like, I’m not just the go-to person who can just crank out these things really fast.

TSC: You’re like, I can do that, but I can also do all these otheramazing things.

Xx: Hopefully.

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

Xx: Definitely. (pause)

When I think about that, I also think about how it came about because of an expectation that I was going to fit a certain set of expectations. It’s uncomfortable for me to think about, Oh, I’m going to get a chance to do this thing by this person. But I think that they’re giving it to me because of what I look like or who I am, you know, my credentials. It sets a tone for how I’m expected to behave. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, yes, I do think being Asian privileges me in a way like—I never wanted to say this during the interview—but like model minority expectation. I never want to shake that hand.

In other ways it does too. I think I’m in this bubble. I live in Los Angeles, but I’m in this bubble—like, this city has many different sides to it. I think that in general I’m afforded a lot of luxury and privilege based on just, like, what I look like. I bike to work a few days a week, and I see people on the streets, and they always look a certain type of way. I hardly see unhoused individuals who look Asian. I lived downtown for most of 2020. So I was working from downtown remotely into my office and I got more intimate with it in a way I never wanted to. Whenever I would go downstairs to the street from the apartment building, I would just see all these people on the streets, and they never looked like me. It was very upsetting and unsettling—and it’s still unsettling to think about.

TSC: Yeah. I wanted to talk about Oriental Party Line and why you started it and how you started it.

“It’s like, Oh, the work is always about them and their experiences. Why is that? It’s such a useless criticism because it’s like, “Well, what other experiences am I going to talk about?”

Interview Segment: What else am I going to talk about?

Xx: Oriental Party Line was formerly Asian American Women in Design, which, very quickly, the group outgrew that term. But the group members, my friends—our friends—have stuck with me where we’re still chatting and I’m like, You need to come up with a new name for it. So I went through a few iterations, and, currently, I’m at Oriental Party Line, which I feel pretty happy about. I started doing it before the Atlanta shootings. I realized I had nobody—I didn’t really have a cohesive core group of friends that I could comfortably talk to about the experiences of growing up Chinese American, Asian American. The more I started reaching out to individuals, the more I realized how there were so many of us who were on this gradient of being very uncomfortable in talking about it but also wanting to talk about it at the same time.

Then, after the Atlanta shootings in 2021, I was like, Oh my God, now I really want to talk. I can’t just keep texting all of my friends separately. I would really like for us all to get together and to talk about these experiences that we’ve all had which are different, but that have somehow led us to having these same sets of feelings. Like, what’s that about? It’s evolving now. I’m at a very new, interesting point as of this week actually, where I’m starting to think about how men fit into this group, or maybe don’t fit or could fit. And this is thinking way down the line. But I’m thinking about the isolation and social stigma that isolates a lot of older men, period. And, particularly, Asian men in America. That was a big driver in the shootings that happened this past week. It’s something that has been on my radar for some time although, of course, I never expected it to result in this extremely antisocial, violent outcome.

I have noticed though on my social feed that people I know, like Chinese American men I know, have feelings about what’s going on too. Thinking about them, worried that because they’re men and they might be even less attached to talking about their feelings than women. So I’m starting to think about how Oriental Party Line can evolve one day to include Asian, Asian American men who are also interested in sharing their individual experiences in this space. I’m not really sure what the space is ultimately going to take shape in. I’m just kind of making it up on the fly. It was like the Zoom series in 2021, and then fell off for a bit when I had a lot of things going on with my family. Then I’m like, Wait, I never wanted this to go away, especially because we’re all geographically apart.

The more people I continue reaching out to, the more worldwide it becomes, which is amazing. So it’s this tiny WhatsApp group, which makes the most sense. But yeah, it’s like ChinaTownWorld. It’s just beginning, which I feel really happy about saying because I was really worried at the end of 2021 and for most of 2022 that it had ended, and I didn’t really want it to. But I guess I didn’t really directly answer your question. It’s just a space for friends, people who feel safe and comfortable to talk to one another about, I think, issues related to cultural bereavement. We’re all connected in a different way, which is that we’re all creative individuals who think critically about who we are when we want to make stuff.

TSC: That’s awesome. I hadn’t heard about your interest in including men down the line—

Xx: Down the line, yeah. I don’t know how to do it.

TSC: You can just invite one very trustworthy man. (laughs)

Xx: (laughs) That’s also too crazy, you know, because then he’s, like, the one guy. I know people do put out, like, a—see this is—it’s hard now with social media because everything must be done through social media channels. But if we were still in the blog heyday, this could be a joint effort where there could be multiple contributors. So then gender wouldn’t be as big a stigma because you were just invited to contribute to this thing. Now with the platforms that we use, it’s a little bit different. So that’s why I’m like, “Somewhere down the line, I’ll figure it out.”

TSC: I forgot about the blogging thing where you could have multiple people contribute. And then you would see who the author was.

Xx: Yeah.

TSC: Does Medium do that?

Xx: I don’t know. But nobody uses Medium.

TSC: People do, I think. Anyway, I don’t really know.

Xx: Maybe I should use Medium.

TSC: I’m not sure. I am not the authority on anything related to what media people use. (laughs)

A big part of this project is talking about solidarity either amongst Asians or with other people of color. I’m curious what solidarity means to you and what you think is the role of Chinese Americans or Asian Americans in racial solidarity work.

“The more I started reaching out to individuals, the more I realized how there were so many of us who were on this gradient of being very uncomfortable in talking about it but also wanting to talk about it at the same time.”

Xx: I think that the deeper I go into the work that I’m already doing, the more that I’m seeing that there’s just so much work that still needs to be done to better educate ourselves and people who look like us. Right now is a particularly weird point because what I’m seeing is a little bit less interracial solidarity than I feel like I did maybe a couple years ago. I’m seeing a lot of criticisms from people on the internet who are not Asian. I’m perceiving a lot of indifference to what’s happening. Maybe I’m looking at the wrong corners. But I feel pretty sad about it because I think that it’s just not a productive way to talk about these things. It feels like this bad game of tug of war slash Oppression Olympics where, if we’re talking about inter-community solidarity, it’s like, Oh no, yougo first, or no, you go first. Oh, but you said that wrong. Or, like, you made this assumption.

I’m hoping that we’re just going backwards a little bit before we can go forward again. But just ending 2022 and entering 2023, that was predominantly what I saw online. I feel very sad about that. What I see are a lot of Asians on the internet are quick to speak up about Black and brown lives mattering. And I guess what I’m also saying is that I’m not seeing the inverse of that happening as much, you know? What I perceive as, like, an outsider is that there’s this notion that, like, Well, your people never treated our people well, so why should we care? I perceive those attitudes in individuals with big platforms who think out loud critically. I think that there’s still a lot of work to be done for different POC groups to feel comfortable in truly being vulnerable with one another.

TSC: It just makes me think that there’s just so much intercommunity healing that needs to happen. I do find my first reaction is surprise when I see anyone who isn’t Asian speak up for Asian people.

Xx: That also makes me sad too. I was like, “Why is no one saying anything?”

TSC: Are you actively part of any intentionally “BIPOC spaces”?

Xx: I tried. I think I wrote that in your survey. I tried. One, it wasn’t accommodating to my schedule, and two, I just felt like I was walking into a huge pool and I didn’t know where to start. That was another reason why I started Oriental Party Line. I was like, Okay, this is what works for me. This is most comfortable for me. And, currently, it’s like the most bandwidth I can afford. I haven’t been in any BIPOC spaces for too long, I would say.

TSC: Do you identify with that word and how do you feel in those types of spaces?

Xx: I don’t know. I mean, it kind of sucks, you know. I’ve said this before—to white people we’re their ally, which is like, No thanks. And, to, like, Black and brown people, we’re not BIPOC enough, which is also like, Come on. (laughs) It’s touchy. I like POC a little bit more, but it’s the same shit. I see a lot on the internet being addressed as “non-Black POC,” and I take that personally. I’m like, Oh, they’re tone policing us.

TSC: Yeah. Non-black POC often is often meant for Asians, and especially East Asians. I completely get where that’s coming from because there is a lot of racism in our own communities. And a lot of that racism comes from deeper systemic issues, but I do feel very called out and I know a lot of times they’re talking to people who look like you and me when I see that.

Have you experienced any resistance in doing racial justice work or solidarity work? I’m thinking a little bit about your experiences in your workplace, but also maybe you have had other experiences.

Xx: Yes, I’ve experienced it in the workplace. And also, I wasn’t thinking about the interview when I thought about this earlier, but I was thinking about, like, when I first started Oriental Party Line—so back when it was AAWD—there were so many people that I reached out to. You’d be surprised because some of them have stayed who were very like, “Oh, no thanks, I don’t have time for that right now, or I’m not interested. But maybe you can try asking So-and-So.” I was thinking about that today not in, like, the, “I hate that person.” But I was like, “You know what? That doesn’t really matter to me anymore. I’m just going to keep asking. I’ll just keep asking and putting my energy into where I think it’s worthwhile.” And, right now, the workplace is not necessarily the most worthwhile for me. But it was worth it for me for a time to try and to see where it could go. I guess what I’m saying is, yeah, I’ve experienced resistance in all kinds of ways. I’ve experienced my own resistance to any of these things. Really what got me starting these projects was like, Okay, if I don’t do it, no one’s going to do it. I just really need to do it. But I was resistant to it for so long. Like, can’t somebody just please do it for me? I’m learning to be okay with that now.

TSC: What dreams and aspirations do you have for Asian, Asian-American, or Asian diasporic spaces, and also the people who are shaping them through design?

Xx: I don’t really know what those spaces look like yet, and I really want to find out. I think that’s kind of one goal that I have with ChinaTownWorld. So that’s more about space making in an abstract but also in an architectural sense. I really don’t know what that kind of space looks like yet. If I could go back to the question that my one friend asked me when we were having our conversation ten years ago about whether or not my upbringing had any meaning or impact on my life, I didn’t want to do it then. I was afraid. I was resisting pursuing this kind of work because I didn’t know what it would look like. The more I’m doing it now the more I’m realizing that that’s the whole point.

TSC: That’s awesome.

Xx: Like, if I went into this with a vision already, it’s like we’re in grad school. It’s like, “Oh, I already know what my space looks like.” And it never works that way.

TSC: Totally. I feel like that about this project because I’m just starting it. I have no idea where it’s going to end up, but I’m like, But if I did know, then it wouldn’t be a project.

Xx: Exactly.

TSC: So, speaking of this project, an important component of the project is to create resources that’ll be useful for Asian-identifying, Asian diasporic designers and creatives. And I’m curious what resources you would love to see for other Chinese or Asian designers, or what would you have loved to see or be part of or know about as a younger designer?

Xx: I started following that Instagram account Brown Girl Therapy last year, and I would love to see a resource like that, but just a little bit more tailored for creative individuals. I think what that woman is doing is so cool. I found it really helpful to go through her posts and write general responses to her online prompts. I would really love to see something like that get made, but in the context of this work that you’re trying to do.

TSC: Brown Girl Therapy but make it spatial. (laughs)

Xx: (laughs) Yes. Brown Girl Therapy but make it spatial. Exactly.

TSC: Sorry, keep going.

Xx: No, no. I think that’s also the experiment of Oriental Party Line—is to see kind of—because I really can’t see it die. We’re going to keep living, unless something really tragic happens to all of us at the same time. But we’re going to keep living and these things are going to stay with us, so it’s only going to keep evolving. So, eventually, we can figure out with the tools that we have how to be a part of resource making or to make our own resources.

TSC: I like that. I know you were mentioning to me about partnering with mental health professionals, which I also love. I feel like that really works its way back into this idea of the potential of spaces being healing. I know that I keep wanting to bring it back to architecture and space in some way because I think that there are a lot of people in other fields out there doing incredible work with Asian communities—less so in architecture and design—and you were just saying you wanted something that’s more geared towards creatives. A lot of designers who also engage in social justice work can tend towards urban design or other fields—and even then, there is more energy and focus on other BIPOC communities. So, I’ve been thinking about this and curious what other Asian people would want to see.

Xx: Take my podcast idea!

TSC: I know, right.

Xx: That’s a really simple resource.

TSC: I like podcasts. And I like the podcast idea, but back to the whole recording a conversation thing, and why I like mediation through a transcript. But I think somebodyshould do a podcast.

Xx: Somebody should!

TSC: But I do love podcasts because as a listener you actually feel like you have an intimate connection with the hosts, and as a host, you can actually disseminate ideas to more people, which I think is a really powerful combination.

Xx: Maybe somebody’s already making a podcast; I have no idea. But I wouldlove to see a podcast come out of this eventually.

TSC: Maybe I should find a really good host, and I could partner with that person.

Xx: It could be rotating, you know. So that’s the benefit of something like Oriental Party Line—is that there’s, like, a cast—it’s ultimately a large cast of members.

TSC: Yes, I like that. That’s kind of also why in my questionnaire I also asked, “Is there anyone you want to interview?” Because I’m hoping that I’m not always the one mediating the conversation.

Xx: I’d have to think about that. I guess I would like to interview you. I realize nobody’s interviewing you, so I’m like, “Wait a minute. That doesn’t add up.” (laughs)

TSC: (laughs) It’s weird being a practitioner who actually just kind of wants to be a researcher because I’m like, I’m studying Asian designers, but also it’s my design practice. (laughs)

I wanted to ask you more about the projects and initiatives that you’re working on that you’re excited about. Do you want to say more about ChinaTownWorld?

Xx: Yeah, sure. I’ll say a little bit more about—I’ll give ChinaTownWorld a plug. Actually, I’ll give you a story within a story. So today I went to Trader Joe’s. I work across the street from Trader Joe’s, and so I go there several times a week. I’ve been doing that since 2019, so it has been quite a while. There are definitely staff members there who remember me as a very frequent regular. One of them, we started talking very early way back when just on and off. At some point last year, we started asking each other more interesting questions. Today, he was my cashier and ChinaTownWorld came up because he was telling me about how he likes the early shifts because he gets to do martial arts practice after.

“I think that the deeper I go into the work that I’m already doing, the more that I’m seeing that there’s just so much work that still needs to be done to better educate ourselves and people who look like us.”

I told him that I bought a book recently, which I have here for the video, which no one’s going to see when they read the transcript: Ancient Chinese Hidden Weapons. Somebody posted this on my Instagram feed as kind of a joke like, “Oh my God, look at this funny book.” I’m like, Wait, no, I want that book! This is really interesting to me because it talks about the body. I told my Trader Joe’s friend that. He was like, “Why do you have this book?” And I was like, “I’m doing this research on the body.” And he was like, “What is that about?” And I was like, “Well, it’s a project within a project, but right now I’m doing this research.” I told him like I’m telling you, “It’s long-term research.” But I want to make visible the feelings that we have attached to—I want to makephysical the feelings that we have attached to cultural bereavement.

And I was telling him—I’m like, “The cultural bereavement, not everybody’s familiar with that. Most of us don’t have the vocabulary to describe those feelings.” I bought the Ancient Chinese Hidden Weapons along with this other book, See Yourself Sensing, that was written by a woman I used to TA for, Madeline Schwartzman, who I think her whole body of work and her research is about making body mechanism visual. It’s more artistic projects than it is science, although it is, of course, very science adjacent. But it’s about making physical how we humans perceive things with our senses. That’s what the title evokes.

I’m borrowing what I learned from that and kind of invoking it into this new project research. He just kind of gave me this stunned look that was like, Oh my—he was like, “Whoa, that’s really cool.” He was like, “So what’s the actual project?” And I told him. I was like, “Well, it’s ChinaTownWorld.” Actually, I didn’t tell him it’s ChinaTownWorld. I was like, “I want to research the Chinatowns of our world but not study them in this kind of anthropological way like I see an anthropology white person goes to Egypt. Or archeological. But I want to study it in this way where it’s this space where I approach Chinatowns as this in-between space, in-between culture space. I want to kind of document and record that and re-represent it in a way that is spatial. So I want to emphasize that in-betweenness aspect of it by making it kind of come alive on a page or, like, in something more physical or tangible.” I was telling him this and he was like, “Oh my God. That’s really cool.” It was just so nice! (laughs)

It was the first time I gave this work like an elevator pitch. This is essentially what I was doing. He was really interested, and he was like, “I’m from Chinatown. I grew up in LA Chinatown.” This is somebody that I’ve seen for like four years. And he’s like, “I’m from there. My grandmother, she still lives there.” I could tell from his reactions he was so proud and protective but also felt scared for it too because it’s such a vulnerable space. I just couldn’t believe that this was all coming out from somebody that I would just see and shake hands with like once a week. We were talking so long that this old guy comes up to the cash register and was ready to check out. And I’m like, Shit, I really got to go. I’ve been taking up way too much space.

He was like, “How did you come up with this?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” And I was like, “I was in Athens and I was in the Chinatown and I’m like this is so crazy that I’m in Athens Chinatown while there’s a Covid lockdown in China. Goods are still moving freely in and out of China because they’re here in Athens, but Chinese people aren’t—I’m not.” It snowballed from there.

He was like, “Oh, I was there too!” This was the best thing that he told me. Well, the two best things were just kind of doing the emotional read on his face. And then what he told me, which is, “Every time I travel”—and I know he travels around the world. I think he works to save up money so he can see the world. He was like, “Every time I travel, anywhere I go, I always go to Chinatown. I’ve been to the Athens Chinatown. You know what has a really cool Chinatown? Bangkok.” And I was like, “Really?”

TSC: That’s so cool.

Xx: Yeah. I’m telling you this like it’s not a day old yet, but I know that this little interaction is going to stick with me for some time. I just want to go back to—I was saying, “I would really love to talk to you about, like, your growing up here.” And he was like, “What? Who’s asking?” And I was like, “Me! Are you gatekeeping from me?” And he was like, “No, no, no, no.” And I realized—I was like, “Oh, he’s not trying to gatekeep. I think he’s actually just really protective of it.” There’s a lot of emotional attachments to it too that I have no idea what they might be. But I was like, “Yeah. I moved here; I’m not from here, so I don’t really know any locals. So if this comes up again, I would love to talk to you about it because you would really be the first person I’m actually talking to who was born and raised in LA’s Chinatown.” Anyway, I hope you’ll take me at my word that I’m doing it out of good intentions. (laughs) But yeah, that’s the latest and greatest in ChinaTownWorld.

TSC: I love that story. (laughs)

Xx: Thank you! (laughs) I wanted to call and tell you about it, so I’m really glad it came up in this interview.

TSC: I’m glad I asked you even though we talked a little about it before. The project is so cool. I’m really excited about it.

Xx: Thank you.

TSC: Yeah! What a cool idea to look at the Chinatowns all over the world side by side and talk about the in-between space of that Chinatown and the culture it’s existing in.

Xx: Yeah. I’m like, “I have no idea what it looks like,” and I was really scared about that. My teacher, mentor friend was just like, “Oh, isn’t that the point?” I’m like, “Okay, okay. I’ll keep doing it; I’ll keep writing.”

TSC: That’s what the Instagram account can be for—this stream of consciousness to help you evolve your project.

Xx: Yes! I’m seeing the benefits of that now as a tool.

TSC: Yeah, super cool. Okay, well, we’re over an hour.

Xx: So sorry! (laughs)

TSC: No, no, no, it’s fine! Just to close out, I just want to ask, Is there anything else that you want to share or revisit that we talked about?

Xx: No, this was great! This really took a wind out of me, in a good way. I think I will sleep very well tonight. Again, while we are still recording, I would love somehow for you to be interviewed, Tonia. I think that would be very vital, or maybe when you make a book about this, nudge, nudge, you can write a great heartfelt introduction, which I would love to read.

Again, and on the record, this is the first time anyone has ever asked me just to answer all these questions about myself and then say, “I will give you a small sum of money,” which is really like—no one has really ever asked me to do that. You can’t even go on TV to do that. I have no idea what to expect from this, but I’m really touched that you asked me. And I really think it’s just an interesting time to be having these conversations.

TSC: Thank you. Aww, I’m going to cry! (laughs)

Xx: Me too.

TSC: Okay, I’m going to stop recording, and I know the minute I stop recording, someone’s going to say something really juicy. (laughs)

Xx: Nothing juicy. I don’t have it in me anymore! (laughs)

“But I want to make visible the feelings that we have attached to—I want to make physical the feelings that we have attached to cultural bereavement.”

Posted April 26, 2024