AAPI Heritage Month: Introducing “We Are Not a Monolith” Series with Essay from House Of Founder, Christina Tung

by Christina Tung

It’s no secret that the times in which we live are marred by misrepresentation of minority groups. As a digital media platform,  serving our community multiethnic, multicultural storytelling, All the Pretty Birds is partnering with House Of to celebrate AAPI Heritage Month. One of the most categorically false concepts to adopt with any racial group we call, the “monolith myth”. In the Asian community specifically, we lose the rich depth of cultures represented throughout the Eastern continent. Across our ATPB verticals, every Monday this month spotlights the abundance of creativity, inspiration, and cultural diversity of the Asian community.

Kicking off our ‘We Are Not a Monolith’ series is House Of and SVNR Founder, Christina Tung, a friend of the ATPB family. Read on as Tung shares an intimate essay of anecdotal accounts that piece together her identity as a member of the AAPI community, as well as why she is not a monolith. 

 

 

“5.6% Living In America”: An Anecdotal Essay by Christina Tung

 

As we enter Asian Pacific Heritage Month this year, it’s impossible not to feel a different kind of gravity. A not-so-subtle vertigo grips our communities and extended family of allies that hold us together.

We’re the same as ever, but now everyone is treating us differently, either singling us out with violence or with a suddenly urgent curiosity. Our 5.6% of the US population is no longer under the radar, no longer invisible. We find ourselves thrust under an intense beam of light that focuses on an Asian America under threat.

How long will it last? Is it better to stay silent and hope that people will move on and just leave us alone?  It is dizzying to navigate all the ways we are being seen, yet still somehow remain feeling unseen given the extremely visible violence wrought daily and reflecting back to us in the media. 

While I logically encourage myself to feel the feelings, I can’t help but still feel the residue of a cultural stigma around emotional indulgence, of self-centering. But we must…

 

Particularly now, we must share our individual experiences.

 

In reflecting on the intellectual toughness and silent emotional practicality past generations needed to survive and succeed, I’m looking to understand how we got here. What is the origin of the pride in being the self sufficient overachiever, the model minority, proof of the American Dream? Hard work leads to success.  Don’t complain, just do your work. 

Working in an industry entirely based on how we present and represent, it’s common to treat race aesthetically, transactionally, statistically, conveniently; as another color in the palette, a commodity to be monetized, a quota to fulfill: a monolith with a singular collective set of beliefs.

Ultimately these tensions between being ‘othered’ and ‘self-othering’, identifying within the pan-Asian diaspora community, internalizing collective hardship and externalizing individual traumas in order to heal, all describe that reeling sense of vertigo. 

As we embark this May, my hope is that our broader community of friends, colleagues, neighbors, and especially strangers will actively strive beyond the one-dimensional caricatures or reductive stereotypes so familiar in popular media. My hope is that we all begin to recognize this collective hardship and the individual traumas that make us. We can all appreciate our differences, while treating one another with the solidarity of true community.

 

 

 

A Timeline of The Experiences That Made Me:

 

June 25, 1983: I was the 2nd child to my mom, a dentist and my dad, an ER doctor. 

My mom was born in Shanghai. She went to Catholic school in Hong Kong and instead of becoming a nun like many of her classmates. Eventually, she emigrated to the US, for college and ‘The American Dream’.

My dad was born in New Jersey.  His parents came to the States during the Cultural Revolution, so that makes him first generation. Therefore, I am  1.5th generation.

They met at Boston University and married just after graduation, having my brother, nine and a half years before me. They gave me the Chinese name Jing, after my mom.  It’s a piano-like harpsichord kind of instrument.  I’ve always felt a disconnect with it – I’ve never seen one. 

 

(Pictured: Me, 1985)

 

1983-1987: My grandmother, Naboo, moves in with us to take care of me while my parents are working. 

She doesn’t speak English so neither do I.  She speaks Shanghainese, so that’s what I speak, even though my brother and dad do not.  Naboo and I watch The Young & The Restless and The Price is Right in the afternoons and Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy during dinner.  She makes me all my favorite foods, Maruchen instant ramen, buffalo wings, and peking duck. I eat the leftovers for breakfast with last night’s rice and hot water. 

When I wake up early, I go to her room and jump on her while she meditates and counts her Mala beads.  When I stub my toe on a chair, she yells at the chair leg and when I cry, she encourages me to let it all out.

 

(Pictured: Mom, Brother, and me, 1985)

 

September, 1987: My mom drops me off at my first day of preschool. 

She tells the teacher I don’t speak English, so just speak slow and use hand gestures.  When she comes to pick me up at the end of the day to ask my teacher how it went, to her shock, the teacher tells her I can speak english just fine, and I even know my letters and numbers. 

 

 

Fall, 1988: In Kindergarten, we’re assigned to draw a picture of what we want to be when we grow up. 

I couldn’t decide and I said I want to be a doctor and a fashion designer. 

My best friend is Emily Lee.  Her family speaks Mandarin.  They’re much fairer-skinned than my family and they eat a lot more vegetables.  Being friends with her helped me understand better what was Chinese and what was just stuff that everyone did.  Chopsticks and Dim Sum were Chinese.  Skiing and chicken were not. Still unclear about noodles. 

One day, while playing “Follow the Leader,” she jumped off the stump.  I followed, but then woke up with so many kids and a teacher standing over me. I was laying on the ground with gravel in my mouth.  We all thought I just fell and Emily walked with me to the nurse. 

I understood later that I had been having Grand Mal seizures for a couple of years, but this was the first time I had one at school, without my mom. 

 

 

1995: Clueless premieres. 

A nation of young girls including myself and my two best friends are obsessed.  We pretend to be each of the characters. I always play Stacey Dash’s character Dionne, because I look the most like her. 

 

 

Fall, 1996: Naboo needs to go to kidney dialysis twice a week. 

I go with her every Tuesday and Thursday night. My mom’s oldest sister comes to live with us to help take care of her.  She doesn’t speak English and I later discovered she felt she was in prison during the time she was in the US, unable to drive or speak the language.   

One night my dad and I are driving Naboo back from the hospital, she’s snoring in the front seat.  We get in the garage and my dad realizes she was seizing the entire time.  He carries her into the house and lays her down on her bed.  I’m told to go to bed. 

 

 

April, 1997: Naboo decides she wants to go back to Shanghai. 

She feels she’s no longer useful, as she’s getting too old to walk up and down the stairs.  Her kidneys are failing and she feels she’s more of a burden to us. We take her to the airport just after an unseasonably late nor’easter.  There’s snow on the ground and the whole sky looks bright white through the large terminal windows. 

 

 

Summer, 1997: We travel to China just after my 14th birthday. 

I’m looking forward to going to Shanghai to visit Naboo for the first time.I look forward to being in the majority; a Chinese girl in a sea of Chinese people, no longer sticking out like a sore thumb. 

Naboo was the youngest in her family of nine, I think.  Born in November, 1911 (or somewhere around then, I never knew exactly because she only knew according to the lunar calendar). 

She was the first girl not to have her feet bound.  Naboo never went to school but taught herself math and how to use the abacus. She was born with an extra thumb that her brother chopped off with a meat cleaver the day she was born, for fear no one would ever marry her. It worked, because the matchmaker set her up with my grandfather when she was 16, by Chinese standards, 14 years old by Western measure. 

My cousins and I go to the mall.  I understand enough Shanghainese to know that the sales associates are talking about how fat I am and could never fit into anything in their shop.  At the time, I only ever spoke to Naboo in Shanghainese and had no clue how to stand up for myself. I told my older cousin from DC, who was 15 at the time, and she marched me right back to the store and laid it on them.  Her words flowed out like ribbons, rippling.  The two ladies were speechless. 

 

The truth was, I did not look like anyone else in Shanghai. 

 

My skin was much darker, my build was stocky.  I didn’t dress like a local, that was obvious.  All my years assimilating to New England surroundings with the J.Crew, Banana Republic, and Adidas sneakers, were betraying me now.  I felt more of an outsider than I ever had growing up in Massachusetts. 

We all went to visit Naboo at my aunt’s house.  Naboo’s older sister came over with her daughters, like different versions of my mom and aunts. Her feet were bound when she was young so she walked with a cane.  When it was time for Naboo’s nap, I was the only one allowed to stay and I napped with her in her bed, like we used to do. 

 

(Pictured, Left to Right: Mom with friends and Naboo, Hong Kong, 1968)

 

 

Fall, 1997: I’m in 9th grade Biology.

My teacher, Mr. Kosciusko* is talking about genes and punnet squares asking if anyone in the room is 100% ethnically “pure.”  Both my parents are 100% Chinese, so I raise my hand.  He tells me that’s impossible because I’m too dark.  I must be mixed with something else. 

It was after dinner when my mom got the call from my aunt.  She started screaming my name and I knew exactly what had happened. I walked around the house while she was looking for me with the phone.  How could I be ready for the news? I didn’t want to hear it yet.  My mom caught up with me to say Naboo had died in her sleep. 

 

 

1998: Mulan opens in movie theaters. 

I’m 15 so I was trying to seem too cool, too grown to be excited about finally having a Disney princess that looked like me. My mom told me we come from a lineage of strong women.  We were descendants of a famous female general from Chinese folklore, Mu Guiying  Similar to Mulan, Mu Guiying upheld her family’s honor by fighting, and capturing, a young invading warrior and then fell in love with him.  

My mom is an entrepreneur with multiple successful dental offices.  She has a knack for business and managing people.  Naboo always instilled in her that education was the most important thing a young girl could have, because it was key to financial independence, and therefore true freedom. 

 

(Pictured: Cinderella and me, Disneyworld, 1989)

 

 

Summer 2001: My eldest cousin, dou gege, is getting married.

My mom and I fly to Shanghai a week early to help my aunt prepare.  We go to the tailor to get some chi pao dresses made.  I’m so acutely aware of their facial expressions as they take my measurements.   

We meet dou gege’s fiance’s family.  At this point my Shanghainese is even further degraded, but I can tell they refer to me as shou huh gu niang, or “little black girl”.  It’s meant to be derogatory, as they value fair skin as more beautiful. Personally, it didn’t mean anything to me, but I can tell my mom is upset. 

 

(Pictured: Senior Prom, 2001)

 

Summer 2005: After college, I moved to New York City to work in Fashion PR.

The subway stations are so alive with music of the city, rhythms of the commuters, soundtracked by cover singers, bucket percussionists, old men playing esoteric instruments from the old country. 

 While walking on Central Park East, a woman approached me, desperately needing to tell me something.  Definitely a scam, but I remembered a story my mom told me about my grandmother when she was pregnant with her first child in Shanghai.

A fortune teller approached her at the market, telling her she would outlive most of her children if she didn’t do what she was told. My grandmother was so frightened and ignored her.  Four of her seven children died untimely deaths; complications from meningitis, car accidents. 

My mom told me that if ever someone seemed to have an urgent need to tell me something, I should listen.  So I did.  The woman in Central Park told me I was unlucky in love because someone who was jealous of my mom had cast a curse on her and it had passed down to me. 

 

2012: The president of the company I worked for was my direct boss and mentor. 

She was a Meryl Streep, Devil Wears Prada type who always looked impeccable with a modern aristocratic tan and short dirty blonde coiff.  Her bright lipstick was always perfectly applied and as were her nails manicured flawlessly.

It’s not an exaggeration to say nearly everyone in the company feared her, but I benefited from being teacher’s pet, (until I wasn’t, but that day had not yet come).  She would allude to inviting me to her Fire Island house or that I should go to dinner with her kids who were my age.  That, of course, never happened, but made me feel like she maybe almost saw me in the same class as her, almost worthy enough to fraternize with her own. 

One day, she called me into her office, and even though I was her right-hand, and everyone would tell me she adored me, I would still sweat nervously when I sat down in front of her desk. 

This time, when I got there, she excused herself.  There was a video on her phone for me to watch, I suppose to entertain me.  She had never done this before so I felt it was an attempt at camaraderie.  She wanted to share something with me that she found funny. 

As I watched the video, I began to feel…embarrassed.  It was a routine from a stand up comedienne.  She was Asian.  She was impersonating Vietnamese manicurists at a salon, with a caricaturist accent.  The video finished.  I sat there speechless and just waited. She returned a minute later. “Hilarious, right?  The first time I watched that I was howling!”

 

 

Spring 2015: I am let go from my job due to “restructuring.”

I unintentionally found myself in a yoga certification program in Rishikesh, India, the birthplace of yoga. It is considered one of the most holy places in India.  It was one of the hardest things I did, physically and mentally.  We were in classes, 6 days a week from 7am to 9pm for 4 weeks. 

On our Sundays off, we swim in the Ganges. We visit the ashram where the Beatles wrote and composed “The White album.” At some point we take a field trip to a tiny cave to meditate 3 at a time, believed to be a place Jesus had spent time, due to its strong vibrations.  

From there, I was swept up and ended up in Dharamshala, where the Tibetan government is in exile.  Even in my aimless backpacking, I needed structure. I led English conversation every afternoon at a local school for Tibetan refugees, many of whom were Buddhist monks and nuns. 

Everywhere I went, people looked at my face and tried to place me.  The Tibetans spoke to me in their native tongue. The shop owner from Bhutan was convinced I was Bhutanese.  My Kashmiri neighbors offered to adopt me. 

 

(Pictured: My teacher and me in Rishikish on Graduation Day, 2015)

 

I had heard of the complexion connection, – feeling an affinity for those with a similar coloring- but this felt more than skin deep.  I was home. 

 

Every day feels serendipitous, synchronous; thinking of a friend and running into them or timing activities perfectly without a watch or alarm, even arriving on the very morning the Dalai Lama had returned from a months long trip abroad.

It makes me trust in the universe, let things unfold without force, with the choice to be the co-architect of my own destiny. Despite inclement weather, living alongside wild animals, schedule changes, missed flights, I had never felt more in sync with a grander consciousness.

 

 

Summer 2015: I return to New York with dreams of becoming a Buddhist nun. Instead, I launch a fashion PR agency.

House Of would be a new, unorthodox communications collective. I promise myself to approach it with my own sense of calm and authenticity, with the objective of helping creatives realize their dreams. My work is my nature, my clients are my friends. 

 

(Pictured: Recent portrait, 2020)

 

 

Summer 2015: I ask my mom for 23&Me kit for my birthday.

Both my parents say it’s silly because I’m 100% Chinese.  I receive my test results back-  99.98% Chinese. They weren’t wrong. 

 

Fall 2015: My dad moved to Hawaii.  My mom stayed in Massachusetts. 

I suggested we all go to therapy, which was met with oscillating apathy to denial. “Yes, that might not be a bad idea” to “I’m not crazy, you’re crazy. You should go talk to a shrink.” 

I browsed for therapists on a website, which could be filtered by location, specialty, but also religion and language.  I decide I want a Buddhist therapist.  There were only three in my area, and none are taking new clients.  I put it off and continue to go to my weekly Dharmapunx meditation sessions.

 

(Pictured: Family in the late 70’s)

 

 

Summer 2016: While binge-watching “Transparent”, I come across an episode discussing epigenetics.

I learn about the soft science around inherited trauma, particularly through the matriarchal lineage. 

Apparently as our grandmothers are pregnant with our mothers, the fetuses are developing the eggs from which we will be eventually conceived and born.  We are born from an egg that was in our mother’s fetus in our grandmother’s belly.  We are present for what our grandmothers experienced during their pregnancy, be it joy or trauma.

The conversation on the show is around the Holocaust survivor grandparents and the age-old nature versus nurture argument for how and why we are the way we are. 

 

Summer 2018: I never meant to launch a jewelry line.

On a rainy Memorial Day weekend, I put my lonely boredom to use and take apart some old jewelry; a broken necklace, a bracelet I had outgrown.  I wire-wrap some earrings for my friend, Emily who posts a photo on her instagram. 

Immediately she receives DMs from her friends, who happen to be buyers at Saks, Bird, and more.  I take some photos on my iPhone and send them out to my entire editor list, just in case anyone needs some jewelry for photo shoots.  Within 5 minutes, the News Editor at Vogue emails me asking about an exclusive.

I decide I should start a brand and call it SVNR, for souvenir, a small unpretentious gift reminiscent of a place and time; to remember, in French. I didn’t think it was possible to be a designer since I was five years old. 

 

Summer 2020: Quarantine hits and I reach out to the guy who leads the Dharmapunx meditation sessions. 

 I have not been to one since pre-Covid, but as he provides counseling sessions, I ask if he’s taking on new… patients? Clients? He doesn’t charge a rate, but instead, takes donations.  He refers to himself as a Buddhist pastor and those counseled as his friends.

 

 

February 2021: AAPI violence is coming to a boiling point. 

The elderly are being attacked and assaulted in broad daylight. I don’t leave my house.

 I wonder if someone will see my mom or my aunties as a threat, as a target. There are tearful, futile conversations with my clients, close friends, and reconnect with some whom I haven’t talked to in months, years, even.  I send an open letter to my press contacts about thoughtful media coverage, just weeks before the Atlanta massacre.

I’ve always had a diverse designer roster at House Of, but I’ve never taken a census. For the first time, I looked at all the Asian and AAPI designers I work with and they account for more than half our full client list.  I feel an unfamiliar sense of pride at the organic representation.  

As I write this, I search for images of the Chinese string instrument for which I’m named.  I find the full name is Fuxi Guqin.  When I see it, I realize I’ve seen it before, being played by an elderly man at Canal Street station years ago.

The sound was indelible, from Naboo’s Chinese movies, so beautiful and sad, haunting and nostalgic for a time I never knew. I am its namesake.

 

 

Editor’s Note: Names have been changed* in this piece to honor the identity of those mentioned. We are so grateful to Christina for not only sharing her story, but serving as an outspoken voice in the fashion community. Tung moderates an IG Live conversation series, 5.6: Living in Asian America, with guests from the AAPI community and Asian diaspora to discuss assimilation, colonialist mentality, American Dream, and model minority. Tune in for even more rich conversation  to self educate and unlearn during this period of AAPI Heritage celebration. We look forward to providing you with valuable content every Monday for our, “We Are Not a Monolith” Series. Until next time, Pretty Birds!

 

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