For Asian youth in Baltimore, a journey from embarrassed to empowered
Organizers of an Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Celebration talk about confronting “passive racism” and their own self-doubts
Above: Guest artist Hannah Pangaribuan performs the Pendet Dance, a traditional Balinese dance. (Baltimore School for the Arts)
The student organizers had solid answers ready when asked why, with only a tiny contingent of Asian students at the Baltimore School for the Arts, was it so important to put on an event for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month?
“Yes, there is K-pop and karate, but there’s so much more to Korean culture,” 15-year-old Elliot Bullock said.
It’s a chance to say “we’re here and we’re talented, but we also come with a background of things we grew up with, things that are part of us,” another organizer, Jay Manalansan, replied.
But getting to that place of pride has been a hard journey, the two sophomores explained, discussing the event and, going deeper, the challenges of growing up not only Asian but mixed race in and around Baltimore.
“What are you?” other kids – and sometimes total strangers – will ask them, the rude question that mixed race people know so well.
Manalansan, who is Filipino and white, recalled a time when she would flat-out deny it.
“I would say, ‘Oh,no. No, no, no, I’m white!’ Or ‘I’m Irish!’”
The parentage questions, the demands from the class photo photographer that he open his eyes wider, the nickname “Ling Ling” that he and another Asian student were given in middle school – it was all sometimes too much for Bullock, who is Black, white and Korean.
“I would cry to myself, ‘I wish I was just white or just Asian or just Black. Why do I have to be cursed with this?”
When they were younger, both tried to physically change themselves to fit in.
“I used to try to bleach my skin to be more whiter,” Bullock recalled.
“Me, too,” Manalansan nodded.
So Vast and Beautiful
With the AAPI Heritage Month Celebration they staged last Friday, the Asian students set out to embrace their identities and cultures – honoring their forbears and pointing toward a future that they are still forging for themselves.
There were paintings and drawings scrolling by on a screen, a traditional Hawaiian hula, a Japanese piece performed on the piano, a Thai mantra performed in traditional Thai clothing, a Balinese dance, tari pendet, a poem by one student’s parent about the experience of being a refugee from Vietnam, and much more.
The Korean American Culture Arts Foundation performed a drumming demonstration. The Asian Pasifika Arts Collective performed traditional Filipino dance.
Sage Chng-Lim performed a very Asian American dance – done to K-pop instrumentals with elements of Tae-kwon-do, hip hop, modern and ballet. [View it here.]
In a place like Baltimore, where the Asian population is so small, the organizers said, it seemed important to take a moment to step into the spotlight.
“I feel like, out of everything, Asian culture is the least prominent, and yet Asian culture is so vast and so complex and beautiful,” Bullock said.
(He and Manalansan, who emceed the show, spoke with The Brew during rehearsal earlier in the week.)
The city school system’s demographic data show that the district is less than 5% Asian and that there are less than 30 Asian students at BSA.
As Bullock says with a grin, “Pretty much every single Asian kid in the school is in the showcase, which is like eight people.”
It’s a contrast to the demographic trends elsewhere.
Asians are now the fastest growing of the nation’s four largest racial and ethnic groups. And a growing number of Americans, like Bullock and Manalansan, are identifying as multiracial.
Both say they found conceptualizing and planning the event a profound learning experience.
Manalansan said she gained knowledge about her own culture and those of her classmates, in part through a video she made about traditional historical make-up styles of various Asian cultures.
“The main goal of the film was to empower us and to feel our ancestors from the past and feel their power through us,” the 16-year-old said. “To feel what it was like to be in their shoes or, well, their face.”
Kalyani Srivastava read a poem her mother wrote inspired by Holi, the Hindu spring festival in which people throw brightly colored powders into the air and on each other.
It seemed especially apt, given the issues Manalansan and Bullock say they and many Asian students confront.
“Don’t be afraid of the colors – someone threw them on you with love,” the poem read, in part.
“Don’t get upset. Put colors on them with love,” Srivastava said, reciting each line first in Hindi, then in English.
Hate Crimes a Catalyst
“Passive racism,” as Bullock refers to it – those alienating remarks and casual, clueless questions – is not an issue at their school so much as it is in the region’s wider culture.
“BSA is kind of a bubble” Bullock said. “Here people bond over art, and it has nothing to do with race.”
Beyond that environment, it’s a different story.
Bullock recalls an older woman at a Starbucks once grabbing his arm and telling her friend, “This is the color I like to be when I’m tanning.”
“Here people bond over art, and it has nothing to do with race” – Elliott Bullock.
Manalansan said she resolved to ditch her ambivalence about her Asian-ness during the Covid-19 pandemic, as she watched with alarm the dramatic nationwide spike in anti-Asian violence.
“The hate crimes that happened kind of served as a catalyst for me to get in touch. I think anything that involves death can remake our mindset,” she said. “I looked at that and realized, I really need to get in touch with my culture.”
Preparing the show, she said, “just helped me move that journey forward.”
Bullock agreed, describing the height of the pandemic as “a frightening time” and a turning point for him as well.
“I felt the same way, like this was a time to kind of take my culture back and be like ‘This is who I am and I’m not afraid of being threatened or excluded or told I’m not good enough.’”
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, I’m too Asian to be Snow White, but too white to be Mulan” – Jay Manalansan.
Both talked about something more they had to fight through – a feeling of not fitting in, of not being any one thing.
Not being Asian, white, Black or Korean. Not speaking Tagalog or Korean. At times feeling too assimilated, they shied away from claiming an ethnic identity they perhaps had no right to.
Bullock had that experiences of people tugging on his hair without his permission “because they thought it was a weave,” and yet not feeling “Black enough” to join the Black Student Union.
Manalansan would ask her mother, when she was little, which Disney princess she looked like.
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, I’m too Asian to be Snow White, but too white to be Mulan.”
The performance they helped stage at school, they agreed, was part of a happy discovery that their identity is not fragmented but rich – and their own.
“It’s like realizing there’s nobody that’s gonna come after me, and say like ‘Hey you’re not enough for that,’” Bullock said.
Asked if there’s a message she hoped to convey with the AAPI event, Manalansan said firmly: “Explore other people’s culture as if it were your own.
“It’s good to learn about everybody’s differences. They’re what make us – they’re what make people – so beautiful.”
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