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Irene Chan


Photo courtesy of the artist

                                                 Asian American? Project is featured in the Of Color exhibit.

 Interview conducted by Sahana Mehta, Scripps College '20.


The format, style, and colors you use throughout Asian American? Project seem to be very intentional. How did you use these as tools in conveying different aspects of the racism and sexism you have experienced?

Yes, the colors, format, and design are intentional. The card’s design elements are there to support the text of the card. And the text is my way to answer intended or unintended racist and sexist comments and questions.

How does your specific ethnic identity influence your understanding and portrayal of "Asian Americanness"?

Since my work is largely autobiographical, it shares my specific experiences of being an Asian American woman in this time frame. I don’t claim to know what it means for all Asian Americans to be Asian American. I am portraying my perspective.

Who is your intended audience? Do you see Asian American? Project being more engaging and impactful for those who identify as Asian American, or for those who do not?

To answer this question, I need to tell you how Asian American ? Project came about. I was at the train station, tired and hungry from my trip and decided to stop at the food court and eat something before going home. A man came up, sat down uninvited, and started to grill me with questions and comments based on my look of Asianness. Most of the comments and questions were insulting and based on old 19th-century stereotypes and 20th-century and current popular film and television stereotypes. When I told him that I preferred to eat my dinner alone, he got very agitated and said that he would not leave. He seemed to be on the edge of becoming violent. I felt frightened and powerless.

When I got home, I realized that for every week since I was 12 years old, a stranger has come up to me and asked at least one question based on my look of Asianness. I found this appalling. Even though I was very tired from my trip and this encounter, I could not sleep that night. I had to come up with a way to get my power back and more importantly, to be heard.

I stayed up that night and the next several nights to write and design Asian American ? Project. These are a set of cards the same size as business cards to be handed out directly when needed. When a person says something offensive, I find the card with the appropriate response and hand it to the person. The person gets momentarily distracted, and I CAN GET AWAY. In addition to gaining the power to leave, I hope the card in the person’s possession has a better lasting impression then when I answer orally.

My intended audience is directly the person who said the comment. This is why all the cards are answers. Other marginalized people, women, Asian American men, and other people of color tell me stories about how these cards influence them and that they can identify with the experience.

Your piece reflects much of the xenophobia, orientalism, racism, and racialized sexism that many Asian American women face today in an accessible way. Was it created for an audience that does not necessarily understand such systems of injustice on an intellectual nor experiential level?

Yes, it was created for a clueless audience that goes around and spreads their racist views. However, some people are more ignorant than intentionally racist. The hope is that maybe the direct interaction of this performative piece will make more of an impression and therefore an impact. But at the very least, the cards give me an option of saying what I want to say if I don’t feel like having a conversation or providing a ‘teaching moment’.

What is your understanding of the "model minority myth"? How does it influence your life? How did it influence your piece?

Since I started making personal work, I have been told that there is no prejudice against Asian Americans. Some people say that they were not the least bit interested in going to see my work or my performances that speak about the Asian American woman experience because they do not believe there are any struggles. I think that the ‘model minority’ myth gives some the excuse to not recognize and deal with this type of racism.

There is a card in the project that addresses being regarded of being a ‘model minority’ but not being included in news stories. Often, Asian Americans are left out of statistics about minorities or people of color. It can lead to being silenced and invisible and then forgotten. 

On the first card in the series, you define "Asian American" as "an American of Asian descent". This definition places Americanness before, and maybe even above, Asianness. Was this your intention? How does your understanding of the relationship between nationality and ethnicity play into this? How does your understanding of Americanness factor in?

This project is about being American in America. But since I am Asian, I am treated like a perpetual tourist. The ones who ask “Where are you from?” do not stop asking and are not satisfied until they hear the name of a place in Asia. In my case, I am a native-born American but to their eyes, I have to be ‘from’ an Asian country. This project is about that. I am not putting Americanness above Asianness. This is what I am choosing to concentrate on in this project: an Asian American is also an American.

While some of the cards you have crafted are relatable for me, as a South Asian American woman, I notice that this piece seems to target an East Asian American identity. Was this consideration part of your process? If so, how did it impact and change your trajectory?

The project is from an East Asian perspective because it is from my honest autobiographical perspective as a Chinese American. There is no change in trajectory. It is straight and direct.

What does the question mark in the title Asian American? Project seek to convey? Do you perceive a tension between the Asian and American identities? What creates this tension? What is the role of white supremacy?

Very good questions! I prefer to let the question mark in the title open up more questions. Does it ask ‘Asian?’ Or ‘American?’ Or ‘Asian American?’ Does it question whether there needs to even be a term ‘Asian American’ when ‘American’ is American’? Is there a tension between Asian and American identities like you ask? Is the ‘?’ there to indicate overall confusion? Is the ‘?’ more about the questioning than about the answer?! 

The word "microaggression" is not featured in your artist statement, nor in the piece itself. Was the choice to exclude this word intentional? If so, why did you make this decision?

Microaggression can be one way to interpret the tone of the cards. I do not want to state that definitively. I prefer to allow the viewer or audience to react without influence from me writing about what they may experience.

Have you handed these cards out in public interactions before? What reactions and responses have you received? From whom?

Yes, I have handed these cards out at public encounters that are relevant. Usually the recipient is surprised and delighted to be getting a card, but then confusion sets in when they read it. I do not know what happens afterwards because I leave and there is no contact information on the card.