by Joshua Jiang
How did I end up at Visual Communications?
I’ve had to ask myself recently, how did I end up in Los Angeles, working for an Asian American/Pacific Islander film and media nonprofit?
I’m a mixed race Chinese American Jewish kid. Transience characterizes my story. Spaces and places I occupied were never more than stray branches I clung to, hurtling down the stream of my life. I stumbled through southern suburbia, the Appalachian mountains, and college.
On Sundays mornings in the suburbs, I attended a Jewish Synagogue until lunch, then immediately traveled to Chinese language school. I was unable to articulate it at the time, but I never felt Asian enough to be “Asian” and never white enough to be “white”. My time in the Appalachia made that distinction clear. After moving to Robbinsville, NC (population: 597), teachers called me "ching chong" and peers physically assaulted me because “my dad really did eat dogs”. I lived verbal and emotional abuse because of what I looked like, where I came from, and who my parents were. Trying to maintain my past way of life was like forcing a square peg through a circular hole; I didn’t fit, and I would never fit without violently reshaping my personhood.
In college I claimed my Asianness. After five years of persecution I could finally live in a place I belonged. Unfortunately, the AAPI community was dubious of my presence. The most memorable objections sounded like "You're not even a full Asian! Why do you care so much?". Despite how hard I worked and how much energy I invested, I would never be authentically Asian. My ability to claim self importance from the events I ran, the friends I supported, or the sacrifices I made for the community I loved were always dismissed. I could not pull myself up by my bootstraps because I had no foundation to stand on.
When people call me half-white and half Chinese, they expect me to lead two simultaneous and binary lives. I don’t wake up in the morning and choose to be an Asian American on Mondays and a white person on Tuesday. My mixed identity is one thorough and complete self. In this regard, Visual Communications struck a special chord for me. The Long Sixties forced Asian American and Pacific Islander people to tiptoe between racial lines of black and white. Understanding the stories of the VC founders in their efforts to carve out AAPI identity as a freestanding entity gave me a sense of satisfaction in validating my own struggles.
For my introductory week to Visual Communications I spent most of my time understanding why VC exists. My first task was to watch Arthur Dong’s CLAIMING A VOICE: THE VISUAL COMMUNICATIONS STORY. This hour long film provides a detailed origin story of Visual Communications. Arising in 1970 as a response to the turbulence of the Civil Rights Movements and the emergence of a growing Asian American Movement, VC stood as the very first AAPI art collective.
The film struck me with great power, directly in whatever part of your body makes the tears come out. My personal narrative is characterized by struggles for staking my claim as an individual whose story was never worth hearing. The VC origin story tells of some guys my age who wanted to be more than orientalist tropes in a 1970’s Los Angeles. Eddie Wong, Robert A. Nakamura, Alan Ohashi, and Duane Kubo offered a truly alternative option for ingesting Asian American and Pacific Islander faces. Turning “orientals” and “chinks” on screen into moving breathing humans with struggles, families, projects, and dreams, was a monumental task, and Visual Communications met that need.
After a summer of working here, Visual Communications has etched a special place in my heart. The people here fight the good fight every single day. Surrounding myself with those who share a deep seated love for the community they work for has been a powerful experience and I am eternally grateful for my time here.
Joshua Jiang is studying Computer Science and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He really likes dogs. Connect with him at joshjiang.com