Identity and Alienation

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Part of what makes artists love their job is the ability to express a wide range of emotions, ideas, and conflicts. Sometimes we keep it simple, sometimes we go deep to a difficult personal experience. In burlesque, we very much have the freedom to do whatever is on our minds and in our hearts. I think that is what draws us in from so many other forms of art, be it theatre (yes, I am using the nerdy, old school spelling here) or dance or music or other artistic avenues.

Last night, I debuted a brand new act that was so close to my heart it has been a part of me since birth. The gist of the act is identity and alienation. Those concepts are relatable to a good number of people, if not almost all in some form. For me, it has to do with my race. Certainly a highly charged subject of late between current events and politics. I am biracial. My mother is white, my father is Filipino. My whole life I have struggled to understand what that makes me. As an 80s child, this was still a pretty difficult family make up for others to understand when I was a kid, especially in the Mid-west where I was born, and then later in Boston as a teenager. One of my first memories as a kid was a woman approaching my mother and asking if she would be interested in the adoption agency she represented. My mother politely declined, saying that she intended to have several of her own children. The woman looked down at me and pointed, saying with a look of confusion and annoyance “Well, what about her?” My mother refrained from smacking the woman and said “She is my biological child,” and we walked away. I was just old enough to understand what had happened and for it to make me feel uncomfortable and upset. I think adoption is one of the most selfless things you can do, but the fact that she couldn’t fathom that I would be my mother’s kid was really upsetting. This was only the beginning of a lifetime of “seemingly harmless” questions that people ask me, or my family and friends, that made self-identity one of the hardest concepts for me to grasp.

It is very human to feel the need to categorize and label everything. And having a sense of pride in your heritage is understandable and admirable. But I never knew what I should identify as. I also never knew that I didn’t have to identify as anything. The thing is, when you are asked that question almost every other day of your life you suddenly feel like it is not only important, it could make or break if you are acceptable in current company. Or the thing that I learned later in life, whether or not the person you are speaking to will choose to fetishize you. That’s a whole other side to this. I don’t think I have all my thoughts together on that one to really go into all that, so I’ll just leave that there.

On my father’s side, I am technically first generation to be born in America. On my mother’s side, I’m the random brown girl with my brown dad in a family portrait of white. (Well, there is my sister as well, but she is ever so slightly more passable as just white.) As a kid, I tried really hard to relate to both sides of the family to understand my culture. What was my background? What was my heritage? What did it mean to be half Filipino and half German-American? I wish I could tell you I have the answers. I wish I could say that I get it now and that it is deeply personal and makes me feel like a unique snowflake, blah blah blah. The truth is, I have no better idea now than I did when I was a child. There is no magic answer. But what I can tell you is, it DOESN’T MATTER. Not to say that I don’t care about my family or the mix of races that make up my background. No. What I mean is, it has nothing to do with my worth as a human being or an artist or even is anyone else’s goddamn business. I spent my entire life feeling lost and alienated because I didn’t know why people needed to know what my race was. And anyone who knows anything about Filipino history will also know that being Filipino can mean a lot of different things as well. If you don’t know, I highly recommend some research. It’s fascinating and horrifying all at once. All I have to say is, a lot of countries took liberties. But I digress…

There have been a few acts of cultural appropriation in performances that I won’t go into, but there have also been exploitations of one’s own culture by others. I like to think I slide somewhere in the middle with a very purposeful “combine all the cultures into one essence but it’s not really about any of them.” I think it was my artistic middle finger to all those who ask me “Where are you from?” but really mean “What are you?” (I tend to play dumb and say Massachusetts.) My act is basically to further confuse those kinds of people even more and also say that it doesn’t matter. Why do you want to know anyway? Why ask it that way as if I were some alien species? If it’s to fetishize me, fuck off. If it’s to relate to me, why do you need that to be our connection to talk to me? My race, for me, is not my defining feature. You can have pride in your family background without it being the only way to identify you. It is an influence and an inspiration, but I am not a label. I don’t even really like using the term biracial anymore. I am a human. My family is mine, and I am proud of them and their history. But I don’t need you to make judgements on who I am based on where my family is from.

Last night I was painfully sleep deprived when I performed. Not the best condition to perform an act that makes you feel very vulnerable. I forgot a bit of choreography, had a few costume issues, generally just felt low energy. I walked off stage feeling like I didn’t do what I set out to do. It felt off performance wise, but also I didn’t know how to take the audience vibe afterwards.  I felt like I had alienated the majority of the audience. It bothered me and I tried to brush it off. It took until I got home to realize that maybe that’s what I wanted to happen. That maybe for once, I wanted to alienate someone from my side of things and have them feel what I feel. But the message that I hope also got across is that we are all, as the Garbage song I use says, extraordinary people. We all have the potential to look beyond the surface.

 

“Not Your Kind Of People” by Garbage

We are not your kind of people.

You seem kind of phoney.

Everything’s a lie.

We are not your kind of people.

Something in your makeup.

Don’t see eye to eye.

We are not your kind of people.

Don’t want to be like you.

Ever in our lives.

We are not your kind of people.

We fight when you start talking.

There’s nothing but white noise

Ahhh…. Ahhh…. Ahhh…. Ahhh….

Running around trying to fit in,

Wanting to be loved.

It doesn’t take much.

For someone to shut you down.

When you build a shell,

Build an army in your mind.

You can’t sit still.

And you don’t like hanging round the crowd.

They don’t understand

You dropped by as I was sleeping.

You came to see the whole commotion.

And when I woke I started laughing.

The jokes on me for not believing.

We are not your kind of people.

Speak a different language.

We see through your lies.

We are not your kind of people.

Won’t be cast as demons,

Creatures you despise.

We are extraordinary people.

We are extraordinary people.

We are extraordinary people.

We are extraordinary people.

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