No Name Islands

This story was originally published in Amok: Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction

 

The cargo ship in the bay is covered in a heavy grey rain, making it appear like a whale hovering over the water, still and alone, barely visible except in the occasional flash of lightening.

My sister Putri and I stand on the docks, waiting to be let on board. We are used to the rain, having worked for over two years on the unnamed island, one of many in an archipelago, where company biome plumes produce weather catered to certain crops. On the island of rain, the clouds unleashed a perpetual shower that grows enhanced stalks of rice swelling with syrupy sugar. For two agonizing years Putri and I have worked on those rice terraces, high above the plains, high enough to see the smoke plumes linking to the sky like chains.

The man from the cruise ship arrives, rain puttering on his wide yellow hood. “The captain will let you on,” he says. “You can cook, right?”

I nod.

The man looks to Putri, at the dark hair covering her eyes from beneath a transparent umbrella. “And her. Your friend. She can wash dishes?”

“She’s my sister,” I say.

“Really?” The man turns to Putri, then back to me, and my much lighter complexion. We have already given him nearly all of our two-year savings, so I see no harm in placing some extra rupiah in his pocket.

He shrugs. “Whatever you say, chef.”

 

On the ship, Putri and I share a cabin with a large window to the ocean. The janitors and deckhands stare at us, marking their suspicions with turned eyebrows. It is obvious by our skin and hair that we were not really brother and sister, though she calls me Ar-ta, “brother” in her native tongue. Luckily, our lives are hidden behind the iron walls that separates the kitchen staff from the rest of the ship.

The cruise ship turns out to be the best gig Putri and I have had since our expulsion from the island Aoro, Putri’s native homeland. Like all the islands of the Casr archipelago, Aoro was set to be terraformed for a new crop, but first had to be scorched with clouds that rained fire to clear it of unwanted ecology. I was not supposed to be on the island. I was a light-skinned tourist with a penchant for traveling to unknown places, claiming land with every camera flash.

Aoro Journal Entry:

            Day 1

Success! I’m off the map! Lovely Island by the way, pristine and untouched. To think I’ll be one of the last people ever to see Aoro in its primitive state.

Day 2

Hiked the red mountain today. Beautiful, but all the while heard loudspeakers warning “TERRAFORMING IN THREE DAYS. EVACUATE NOW.”

Day 3

Some native people still on the island. Do they not understand the loudspeakers?

Day 4

One day left and there are A LOT of natives still here. They refuse to leave their homes. Will the company still go through with it?

Day 5

 

I left day five blank. How do you describe it when a strange man begs you to take his sister, and then disappears into the jungle? What do you think when you find yourself standing in line for the last boat off the island, holding the hand of a thirteen year old girl in a long yellow dress, whose name you do not even know?

 

After my shift in the kitchen I join Putri on the upper deck of the cargo ship and feel the cool air of a nearby desert island, where biome plumes create a cloudless dry sky, perfect for growing enhanced tomatoes and cucumbers.

“I’ve never breathed air so thin,” Putri says. “Like I’m not breathing at all. Makes me wanna spit.”

“It’s just like in Vel City,” I respond. “Where I was born.”

“If they ever let foreigners in Vel City, maybe I’ll see it one day.” She lets spit bubble from her lips before spewing it into the ocean. “You know, the managers here won’t buy our story much longer, Ar-ta.”

“There are other islands,” I say. “Other jobs.”

“What if we got married?” She wipes her mouth. “I’m old enough now.” She tilts her head slightly, her dark brown eyes dilated from the night’s darkness. “I keep thinking. What if that’s why my brother—my real brother—asked you to save me? For my people, who once worshipped the red mountain, lineage is all that matters. Pass on the seed, and we will never die.” She spits again, perhaps in disgust. “Why else would he give me away to a young, male foreigner?”

For the first time I feel something pent up inside me as I observe her lithe figure in the darkness. Part of me, it seems, has always, and will always, dream of her, with all the love I cannot hold.

 

In the morning, I wake to grey clouds crawling towards the window of our cabin. I feel Putri in my arms, still nude. Outside I see the bright white pallor of an island covered entirely in snow and ice. As my eyes adjust to the light, I spot a great glacier at its center, and its shores frozen over. Ice extends far into the horizon. A line of workers dressed in heavy coats unload metal that will be used to process canned fish.

“Ar-ta! Ar-ta!” Putri screeches, her face locked in a scream that will not come out. I see what she sees. The jagged rock encased in ice that was once a waterfall. The plain of clean snow that was once a forest. The glacier that was once a red colored mountain.

On the bed, Putri stands up, legs splayed, nude. She opens the window, letting that rush of freezing dry air envelope her naked body, shiver her skin, toss her hair wide.

“Come get it!” she screams, throwing her fists like a boxer. “Come try me! I will never, ever die! I will never die! I will never die!”

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Red Is the Color

This story was originally published in Tayo Literary Magazine. It was developed in the N.V.M. Gonzalez Workshop.

 

Connie saw her people emerge from gate C14. Four college-age women wearing full survival gear: khaki shorts, hats with webbed mosquito nets that bunched from the hairline, and tan jackets that announced their nationality in a red, punctuated English: KOREAN. Connie had waited two hours for their arrival from Cebu City to the Manila airport, yet the group walked right past her, not recognizing her in her black T-shirt and black jeans, her darker skin and curly hair, with no sign proclaiming her nationality. Perhaps they forgot she was one of them.

Unsure how to announce her presence, Connie followed the group past the Chinese mascots of the dim sum carts to the passport check line. She approached them and whispered “hey fellas,” then lurched back to prepare for the oncoming hugs and laughter. It wasn’t pleasant. For the past two weeks, the group had all been to the other half, to a land of mosquitos, charred pork, stomach flus and cold showers. And all of that seemed present when Connie felt their embrace, but only for a moment, before they went back to the line and she was again that awkward Korean American English teacher dressed in all black. She held her friend Chun Hye’s hand, eyeing those legs that shot down from her hot-pants like Grecian pillars. Chun Hye’s skill with an umbrella was remarkable. Two weeks in the Philippine summer and not a hint of sun on her body.

“Look what I found in the duty-free shop,” Chun Hye said in Korean, pointing her chin at a sparkling pink striped skin on her phone.

“Changmal Jamie issoyo”—Way interesting—Connie said.

Outside, the tropical heat reminded them they were still in the third world. The four girls latched onto Connie through the English-speaking maze and into a yellow taxi. After three years of traveling in Asia, she was the natural choice to lead the group’s three-day expedition into Manila. For her, the smell of gasoline, the sweltering heat, and the sound of car horns, did not rouse the same fears of an unknown world ridden with poverty and brown bodies.

She squeezed next to Chun Hye in a taxi’s back seat, feeling her celadon green blouse rubbing against her arm. Chun Hye smiled like a model, though she must have also heard the constant wail of car horns, must have also seen the same underwear hanging on clotheslines, the same black puddles on the street that children played in, the same cartoonish Virgin Marys on passing jeepneys. Connie nudged closer into Chun Hye’s warmth, though her face seemed cold. She moved her hand to grope Chun Hye’s gorgeous ass, an ass that never went appreciated by her Korean boyfriend, an ass Chun Hye herself never acknowledged until Connie commented on it, then took her into the Philippine coffee fields to bite it, lick it, and henceforth take every opportunity to squeeze it. But now, away from the fields, Chun Hye was unresponsive, as if she had landed into a different body.

“Is that a Louis Vuitton!?” Chun Hye exclaimed, tossing her right leg over Connie’s left, anchoring herself to peer out the window. She whispered something to the other girls, something fashion related, which Connie, in her black jeans and tank-top, apparently didn’t need to hear.

 

Dropped off in Ermita, Connie maneuvered the four girls through the sizzling-hot streets, between groups of staring tourist men sitting at every outdoor bar. The hostel she had reserved for them, the Malate Pensionne, was an old wooden building that had no air-conditioning, but did have a Starbucks melded next to its front door like a prosthetic appendage. When the group gave frightened faces, she only tried to talk Chun Hye into staying. Using their Korean smart-phones, the young women reserved a room at the nearby Pan Pacific hotel, a $200-a-night tower of cosmopolitan chic.

As the only one among them without parental funding, Connie spent the night bunking next to two Korean men in a humid room full of hanging wet clothes, which would never dry in the dank urban tropic. She couldn’t help but cry, alone, covered in sweat, inhaling the mildew-thick air, her wrist itching from the blue, red, and white beads that made a bracelet. The leathery strings were made by hand by Rowena, a village girl in Negros. It was supposed to remind Connie of the Taekwondo, ESL, and painting classes Connie had taught the village children, as well as those authentic Filipino meals, her hosts the de Asis, the summer camp sites, the horror of mosquitos. And the wristband was at least one material object to show for the $1,500 USD that it cost to volunteer. Plus, the band was knotted so well that Connie hadn’t been able to take it off. It didn’t matter. She had told Rowena that she would wear the bracelet forever, so it might as well last another week.

 

Robinson’s Place

Even at ten in the morning, the streets were scorching hot. Connie walked north through the balmy sunlight to join her group’s tour of Rizal Park and Intramuros, the old Spanish garrison. After only two blocks, she ditched the whole tour idea, seduced by an eddy of air-conditioning coming from the Robinson’s Place Mall. She had enough culture for a lifetime, she thought, and enough heat in the villages. But AC was here, and it was now.

The female security guard checked inside Connie’s small black backpack and then examined her crotch and chest with the same unflinching curiosity, going way beyond a simple pat-down. Connie felt a spur of embarrassment as those plastic gloves groped her body, putting her on exhibition for the awaiting crowd. The guard even gave her a “that was good for me too” backslap as she stumbled through the entrance doorway. Perhaps the woman has a thing for young Korean girls, Connie thought, as she re-strapped her bag. Or a thing for Korean Americans who look Filipino.

She slid past hand-in-hand shoppers, through the serpentine hallways, with no goal in mind other than to stay near air conditioning. In Korea she avoided malls at all costs, easily overwhelmed by the noise, the ads, the untampered cloning process. And this mall was even more confusing, layered in five floors of added-on extensions like an underwater reef emitting a light-yellow haze that left Connie so disoriented she found herself circling time and again to the same female guard who had molested her.

She found herself in a Jollibee, the most American of the Filipino fast food stands.

“I receive two-hundred pesos” the cashier said, ending the word ‘pesos’ with an upward slant that soon divulged into a grinding sound, like a tuba wavering to hit an erring note. Compared to the mush of gigantic peppers and pork she had eaten every day in Negros, the Jollibee hamburger tasted magical.

With no goal but to stay near air-con, Connie followed the blue stripes on the floor and paced through the mall’s tug of smells: the shaobao carts, the sprayed shoe stands, the ground coffee beans. Her legs moved mechanically, letting the stripes pull her like a shoe on a conveyor belt. She felt the shape-shifting of every advertisement turning her body into fragments lacking accessories, each un-ringed finger now empty of life and value. She felt advertisements tempting her, calling her toward the manikins wearing bright pink heels, the ice cream carts barnacled with young people. She let the ads of sexy mestizo models and over-joyous middle-class families tweak her mind, beckoning her to shift and shape each undesirable piece of her body into some recognizable form. The cosmopolitan mall spat her through the cosmopolitan world: worldly films, worldly books, worldly music, worldly cuisines. The stores carried the same myths in Robinson’s as they did everywhere. For the first time, she did not mind all this adjusting. In fact, after two weeks in an unforgivably materialless island, she thought it rapturous.

At the end of the blue line, she found herself in a circular courtyard and short of breath. She walked clumsily, as if she had just gotten face, until she got a clear view of an enormous banner that spanned all five stories. Like a gigantic flag the banner flapped in the mall’s air-conditioning, advertising some skin lightening cream with actors eyeballing each other like in a daytime opera. The Filipino models looked nothing like the villagers of Negros. Their combed hair, their pristine light skin, their jubilant expressions. Nothing about them seemed Filipino.

A young hipsterish mestiza woman passed, around the same age as Connie, attired in a short form-fitting red dress and shiny red heels, trailed by her maid, a whole head shorter than her and several shades darker, loaded down with shopping bags. In the reflection of a store window Connie saw her own wafer-thin figure that men liked to call petite, her sinewy legs, her flip-flops. Her prom was the only time she had ever worn heels, and she had the concussion to prove it.

At some point she had bought a pair of white socks. She sat down, exhausted, slurping up a mixed fruit smoothie. Its colors matched the beads on her wristband. Blue, red and white.

“Oh god dammit,” Connie said to herself, realizing that the colors on her wrist matched a certain flag’s. “That’s embarrassing.” Hopefully, she thought, that wasn’t intentional.

In sugar-high bliss, Connie breathed in the air-conditioning, which spat directly on her with a loud whirring sound, freezing the heat off. Heat: the swampy soil of Negroes, the dark tan that, back in Korea, would stir ridicule. She longed to get rid of it, the wretched heat of that long grass field where she taught English to children who sat with their legs pointed out at her. There sat Chun Hye, holding Rowena in her arms like she was their daughter, looking so motherly under her yellow parasol. And Rowena, with her short unwashed hair, her loose hanging blue tanktop that kept falling off.

“Happy anniversary,” Connie had said, slowly so the Negros children could pick up her American accent.

“An-e-vur-sir-i,” Chun Hye repeated, sitting on her folded legs, just like Connie had taught her.

Connie liked teaching English, and saw it as a promising career option, though she often felt like a low-paid babysitter. Language was a powerful gift. Speaking Korean, too, had a useful distancing to it; she could mean something entirely different than her words. When she and Chun Hye prepared for bed in the village dorm room, she would tell her, “hand me a comb,” in Korean, “gae bijoosae.” For Connie, run away with me. “Let me use your lotion,” she would tell Chun Hye, “lotion saung,” meaning, Please, please leave your pissant boyfriend already.

 

Connie paused, and found herself, for the first time, in a Victoria’s Secret. She felt the shop clerk’s eyes assess her. Certainly, she was a fake. Fashion stores were museums to her. She fidgeted with a bra and sniffed its material like it was an artifact. She checked a lingerie tag not for its size, but for the place it was manufactured. “What are you looking for?” the store clerk asked. What business do you have in this place? This space where everyone and no one is welcome. The store clerk could see it instantly, in Connie’s muddled hair, her black clothes and colorless face. She was looking for nothing.

Outside, the setting sun cast blocked shadows from the tall hotels that made sharp bars across a massive five-lane highway. Hundreds of homeless sat watching advertisements streak across the block-wide, five-story mall. Walking toward her hostel, jeepneys and panhandlers pushed her further into the road’s gutters, then drove her into an outdoor bar populated with white tattooed men and their Filipinas.

The girls were not much to look at, all got up in sparkling skirts and aqua eye shadow. Connie thought that if she too was male, white, and wealthy, she could do much better. At the sight of a cantankerous old vet, she dove into a seat next to a younger, 30-something crowd of expats.

“Mind if I join you?” she asked.

“Sure, little lady,” said one, his hair gelled up in California glitz. “Phil-Am?” he said, pointing at her with a beer bottle, meaning Filipino American.

Connie nodded. Why not? She looked more Filipino than Korean anyway.

“I did all that when I was your age,” he said, wiping condensation from the bottle. “I bet you wouldn’t believe I’m half Japanese.” He went on with the same expat story that Connie had heard in her travels around Thailand and Burma. All American expats, it seemed, were bitter, bent on escape, and had come to agree with the rest of the world that their countrymen were simple-minded, and that’s why they always preferred war over peace.

“I’m Jack,” the half-Japanese man said. “And these are my two mates, Jon and George, and the lovely Sandy, who is also ‘San-duh-ie.’” The two Brits laughed.

“Don’t tell her that!” Sandy said in that up-turned Manila accent, slapping his arm with her jeweled fingers.

“San-duh-ie, for those Korean clients,” Jack said. “Ya know? In those Christmas-light brothels on the next street, we Americans are the lowest priority. Lowest, that’s how far the West has fallen. I hear’em every day. When prozzies woo people from the street. First they yell ‘summemassang!’ for the Japanese clients. Then ‘Annyong Hasseyo!’ for the Korean clients. Then ‘Ni how ma!’ for the Hong Kong and Taiwanese clients. Only after these fail will they look my way and revert to that old-fashioned language, English: ‘Hello, how are you! Come here beautiful boy!’“

The table erupted in a geyser of laughter, and Connie with them. After a moment of beer sips and noshes of pork kebab, Jack introduced the men: “This vet here, Jonathan, came to Cebu something like five years ago to escape credit card debt. This guy, George, his wife died of brain cancer about six years ago. The piece-of-shit insurance companies refused to pay for the MRIs that would have proven she had a serious illness. And me, well, I was in a religious family. No need to say which religion.”

“Scientology,” George said, nudging Jack’s shoulder.

“Ok, yeah,” Jack said.

“So what do you all do now?” Connie asked.

“Not much!” George said, a smile across his face so big it seemed painted on. “We just, live well.”

“I do something,” Jack said. “I run a pearl business, I make a great deal of money.”

“And you’ll probably marry a hooker!” George laughed.

“Only if she’ll have me.”

Connie saw that it was her turn. She tried to imagine why she moved from Kansas City to Korea. But she couldn’t even begin to describe the bitterness. Was it her first love that made her leave? A girl who drew Yaoi comics with her, who loved but wasn’t in love with Connie, and who, out of the blue, announced she was dating a man with bulging muscles and blonde hair? Or was it good old fashioned racism? The kind she discovered when she started banging on drum sets, making noise from the break up rage, a new woman now permitted to hit stuff, only to find that the rage she felt went way beyond her ex—it was in her face, her hair, her entire projection. But most likely it was mere economic need that took her across the Pacific. Years of classes in art, ethnic studies, literature, and music, and she was no closer to a full-time job, nor could she really understand her adopted self. In college she kept her head to her music while time crawled forth like an injured pet. Then one day, it just occurred to her that getting out of Kansas City wasn’t enough. Not the city, not the state, but that entire forsaken continent.

“I’m a musician,” Connie said, hoping that would be enough. “Drums.” Like good expats, the three men knew not to inquire further. Instead they asked her about popular hip-hop artists they heard from Filipino lounge singers: Usher, Beyonce, Kanye West.

“Kanye West is very good,” Sandy said, “but I don’t like him—don’t like black.”

Legs shifted in discomfort.

“Why?” Jack said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Just Filipinas, we don’t like black.” This set off a grand inquisition. Suddenly the group, Connie included, wanted to know all of her prejudices. Was this the logical outcome of a country saturated in American pop-culture? Was this the burden of American colonialism, the burden of the Pinays?

“Who else hates blacks? All Filipinos?” Jon asked.

“Is it their skin, or their culture?” Jack asked.

Connie thought of the villagers on Negros. Dark skinned, darker than most black people back home. And those villages—only foreigners called them villages. They were small decrepit towns of farmers and decayed work houses, just like the towns she grew up in. All those economic reasons for migration. The years of bouncing around shitty small towns to even shittier small towns, holding her backpack in the back of her father’s beat-up sedan, with its check engine light that had been on for years. She was born itinerant, meandering among towns that looked like they had been ripped from depression-era photographs. Just like the village.

Negros? she thought. What a strange name for an island of sugar pickers and dark-skinned debt slaves. Had life overseas really made her that blind?

 

The Mall of Asia

The next day Connie skipped breakfast, her throat retching from the dank air of the hostel room and the oozy Jollibee mayonnaise. She rode a tour bus with her volunteer group, letting Chun Hye sit two rows ahead, squeezed in with the other three even though the bus was only half full. When the bus arrived at the Cultural Center Museum, Connie told the young boy sitting next to her that this was the place where Imelda Marcos allowed dozens of Filipino workers to be crushed and suffocated by concrete.

The boy took a picture of the grey building with his disposable yellow camera.

Outside the bus, the four women formed a small circle, consoling one of the girls squatting on the roadside, crying into a pink dotted handkerchief. Connie approached carefully, knowing this could just be some over-dramatic episode. It wasn’t far from the truth. One of them, Cho-Un, was in tears from seeing a dead cat on the side of the road.

“She must really love animals,” the British boy said, his polo-shirted family nodding along, taking each other’s hands, perhaps to pray for her. Connie knew better: Cho-Un hated animals, especially cats. It was the dead, smelly carcass that brought tears. Not tears of sadness, but of disgust.

Connie used the distraction to sneak away. She hailed a cab with a “Jesus is my co-pilot” bumper sticker “to the nearest mall,” she said, which happened to be the Mall of Asia, the largest mall in the world. A digital rotating globe met her cab’s approach.

At the mall entrance, a Pinay security guard’s hands groped Connie’s legs, thighs and ribs. Connie had never really been touched like this before, even her father seemed embarrassed holding her. The palms patting her body felt like small yanks, like she was a spirit being pulled back into the real world. A firm pat on her ass and a shove into the mall, and she was back in the universe of air-con.

She crossed an outdoor sky bridge and followed a marquee declaring ‘Hypermarket’ into an adjoining building. Inside she found a refuge of comfort: a large warehouse store, similar to the Wal-Marts she had grown up with, where she had chosen her signature black outfit, one of a small variety available in K-Marts and Targets that were implanted into every small mid-western city. She sat on a red couch with cushions like bulbs, absorbing the whispering air-con and clear aisles. She recognized the sofa—it was the same brand as the one she sat on in a hotel lobby near Oklahoma City, where a hotel manager—just as bulbous—inspected her, not believing that she was her father’s adopted daughter. “Is he really your father?” the woman asked. “Where is your mother? How did you get to the United States? Can you speak any English?” Her strong-armed father begged Connie to “just tell them, hey, tell them you’re adopted. Tell them we’re a family.” And the hotel manager with her pitying eyes fixed on Connie’s Korean cheeks and brown skin, a girl waiting to be rescued. At the time Connie couldn’t comprehend the situation, didn’t know that a young Asian girl hand-in-hand with an older white man could mean so many things. She couldn’t know that she merely needed to stop playing with the sofa’s broken springs and speak with her plain mid-west accent, and all would be cleared up.

 

So the ‘largest mall of Asia’ was a lie. The complex was, in fact, a combination of a large superstore, a cinema, an arcade, and a large department store, all thrown into the same block and called a mall. The only mall-like section happened to be in the middle, a transit point between the other buildings connected by sky bridges and small verandas bordered by butch security personnel ready to feel her up. Despite the mall’s disappointment, it was full to the brink with groups of young locals watching the skating rink and loitering near coffee shops.

On a sea-side patio overlooking Manila harbor, polo-shirted Korean tourists lined the walkways, their skin far fairer than their underdeveloped brethren. So many bridges, monuments and museums had the imprint of Korean development, with melded-in plaques in Korean characters announcing their goodwill. Connie joined the Western tourists crowded at another Manila Bay viewpoint, most of them taking pictures of the small peninsula in the bay. When she peered over the bridge for a better view, a tourist motioned her away from his children. A blonde girl in a flower dress gave her a puerile grimace.

“Excuse me, excuse me!” The father yelled at her, his tripod pointed toward the children at Connie’s side.

“She doesn’t understand English Dad,” the girl said, tapping her foot in annoyance.

Connie stood, leaning on the rail, taking a small glimpse of the bay, until the father gave up and took the picture anyway, with the dark-skinned Korean adoptee staring contemptuously back.

In five years, Connie thought. I’ll still be in your family picture, gae-sag-ee. You’ll see my ass in these black jeans, shi-bal byung-shin. Right in your children’s faces, boh-jee.

She walked without purpose from the deck and found herself in a clothing store. She felt the eyes of the staff upon her, their smiles hiding their reservations. There she was, like a cartoon character, always dressed in the same black T-shirt and matching jeans, the clothes her mother selected for her because they matched her Asian hair, face and dark skin tone. Black was easy. Her mother was satisfied with anything cheap, quick, and, like her adopted daughter, something made in Asia. That’s why they didn’t adopt Russian. Like cheap bulbous motel couches, Connie was an easy sell, a commodity imbued with the precocity of a math whizz in her brain, and the frame of a lotus flower in her cheeks. Would they still have chosen her if they knew that she would become a musician, and worse, a lesbian? A girl too dark for her homeland and too bitter to return home.

She rifled through racks of clothing, her fingers rubbing material though she couldn’t tell the difference between linen and silk. It seemed obvious to anyone that she had spent her life in a fashion enigma. Afraid of confusing those around her, she had felt a duty to reflect the same image every day. But in Korea her friends had difficulty accepting her fashion taste, of all things. No matter the amount of kimchi she ate, or how sharp her Korean became, it was her lack of clothing that had kept her from a true homecoming. Now she felt the same suspecting eyes watching her sift through expensive outfits, knowing that she was a phony, that to her these fashion symbols were merely well organized pieces of fabric. She took a loud yellow blouse from a rack, then a floral ankle-length skirt, whatever looked awkward, absurd, or unconventional. It all came with her into the dressing room.

First she tried on a large white leather purse with silver shoes, a yellow leopard hairband and a dress that hung like white drapes. In the mirror, she looked just like a Mexican dancer. The transformation was incredible. More.

Next came a short dress with blue, pink and red flames on a black background that made her look unmistakably Japanese. Then she tried on an 80’s style pink shirt and the Japanese woman in the mirror transformed into a middle-aged Korean. Next, she donned a white and black striped dress with a thick silver belt, and the Korean woman turned American. She then slipped into a black dress that left one shoulder completely exposed. Her appearance seemed to be a Filipino girl, perhaps, holding the hand of a white man, older and in some unearned bliss. She felt like putting on make-up, changing her hair, everything.

Then it happened: the small red shirt, accessorized with a white top, complemented with a small red circle streaking across her stomach. Red the color of moving body parts, activated in crimson. Red the color of Commie China and red the color of lamps and small envelopes full of yuan and red the color of gambling under-garments and red the color of motel couches and mestiza heels. But then came the pièce de résistance, a red plaid skirt with belt-straps sewn down the left side and fake opened zippers on the right. A British style that had morphed into a Japanese costume that had alchemized into a fearless Korean pop ensemble. Connie’s image in the mirror quieted her breath. The perfect symmetry of lines and colors punctured her deep within. The outfit was a mash of different brands, British, American, Japanese, Filipino, all from factories in Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, China, the Philippines. And the girl in the mirror seemed frightfully enigmatic, a symphony of colors and shapes, and even better because it was not a painting or a sculpture or an advertisement: it was her. To think, all along, red was her color.

Then what to do about that? Connie thought, staring at the beads on her wristband, which stuck out like a bruise. She gave a quick tug at it, but the thread held strong. She pulled again, and the thread imprinted a bright red circle on her skin.

 

Darkness fell over the Mall of Asia’s immense parking lot. Connie took a cab back to that sleazy outdoor bar, where a new girl in white overalls sat in George’s lap. From afar, George looked young, his head shaved, but as Connie approached the expat table, his scalp resembled the spotty, ailing baldness of a cancer patient. As soon as the girl left to order drinks the three men, George, Jon, and Jack, huddled together.

“She’s still all on about going to the mall without her?” Jack said.

“Blimey—I can’t believe she’s showed up here,” George said. “The girl’s got work in the morning. Five a.m.”

“She looks bickered,” Jon said.

“I don’t know what to do.”

After a pause, Connie attempted to clarify the situation. “So she’s jealous about you going to the mall?”

The men nodded their heads. “Oh yeah,” Jack said, sticking a cigarette between those California teeth.

George mimicked a phone call, using his hand. “She calls me up, says, ‘baby where are you,’ and me: ‘I’m in the mall.’ ‘The mall!’ she says, and I can hear it coming at this point. She says, ‘because there are other girls there?’ ‘No, baby, not because there’s other girls, but because I’m at the mall!’ Then she goes, ‘but there are a lot of girls at the mall.’”

The group of men burst into peals of laughter, having heard the story before. When the girl returned, bright-eyed, Jack told her: “We’re talking about how you always beat him at pool.”

“I went to the Mall of Asia today,” Connie said, landing the statement with a sip of beer.

“The Phil-Am homecoming,” Jack said, clapping his hands in a single stride. “Did you find your true self in the adobo and cornsilog? Did it whisk you home, my lovely lady?”

“‘Largest Mall of Asia’ my ass,” she said. As she described the mall, she felt Jack’s cold palm on her right thigh, not quite still but not quite grabbing her either. Her words became stilted, awkward, and she saw the other men grinning, nodding, even as her tongue stuttered and her story became filled with awkward tics: “um” “right?” She looked to the Pinay girl, who smiled back, an eye rotating to Jack’s hand with an eager smile. It reached into her, through that gap of skin once shielded by her black jeans. She saw that it wasn’t only his hand, but the eyes of the men around her. They all moved over her like oil, feeling her torso, toward the red circle near her stomach.

“Did you find the rhythm of the Filipina’s tsismis?” Jack said, his eyes finally settling on her forehead.

Connie smiled, teeth grit. She had played drums for years. She knew how to hit things into submission, to beat them back to her own beat. So why was that hand still there? Unabashed, unafraid, unashamed.

Instead of screaming, as she nearly did, or taking a beer bottle as a drumstick and beating new sounds out of Jack’s smiling corpse, Connie left—just left. She maneuvered past the servers and tables, securing her black backpack tightly like a packed parachute. She took wide strides to her hostel batting away tears, trying to forget the feeling of that hand creeping up her thigh. Who the fuck just takes a piece like that? Any person she had ever dated, man or woman, had slinked away before a week was out, their dignity worn to a frazzle. Goddamn bastard, she thought. He never said anything. We speak the same language and he never said anything. Was it the mood, the drunkenness, the expat freedom, the outfit? Red the color of roses, of romance. Red, the color of North Korea, red, the color of fortune.

“I’ve had it with this chintzy shit,” Connie said, tugging at the bracelet on her wrist. The fabric tore but wouldn’t break. It looked like yellow hair growing out of her skin. “Goddamn it,” she blurted. She knelt on the sidewalk as a colorful Mother Mary jeepney zoomed past. Her eyes stung with salt.

The way he looked at me. Like I was a manikin. Like I was skin with no biography. Like I was a pineapple drink on a hot day.

 

Greenbelt

The next day Connie turned her phone off to ignore whatever cultural excursion the Korean volunteer group had planned for the day. She sat at an outdoor café until the sun chased her into a cab heading for the four-building long Greenbelt Mall in Malate, Manila’s business district. Once out the taxi she felt sunlight toast her chest, the exposed skin that her black T-shirt had always kept hidden. Entering the mall, she used her left hand to hide the wristband and felt the sudden up-draft from the air-conditioning, billowing up her skirt.

A stunning whiteness ran up and down the Greenbelt mall. The clean white walls, the ceilings, the white tiled floors, a blank hue of milky white. Lights came from chandeliers that hung from the fifth floor in the shape of sharp icicles. No music played in this mall; the only sound was the running water from between small stones and window panes. As she strolled through, never was the sight and sound of water ever out of her vicinity: water running lightly down glass, scentless, transparent, clean, whisking away the smallest bits of dirt, blurring the white lights into distant stars, slowly disintegrating the people passing by.

She entered a small high-end art shop, with paintings of village children in Negros—dark skin, curled hair, loose and earth-stained shirts, tattered hemp trousers. But the images were blurred, as if a hand had blotched them into obscurity. When she was very young, Connie had seen her own face in the same way. Her mother had rented a Korean movie so that Connie could see the beautiful actresses. Her mother told her, “You may look at lot like that when you are big.” Connie was punched speechless. All her life she had been positive that she was going to become white, like mommy, and that her Koreanness was only a condition of her childhood. Something to grow out of, like her teeth. That was the first time it hit her: She would never, ever, look like the people around her.

In the surrounding outdoor garden of the mall, Connie spotted the four Korean women from the volunteer group, standing like ivory statues beneath the colorful parasols protecting their skin. They carried shopping bags and talked in that high-pitched, cute voice that Connie herself always mocked, calling it wanchun gweeum, “perfect cuteness.” They walked right by her, perhaps, not noticing her in anything but black, or perhaps they thought she was just another Filipina server. Their shopping bags were full to the brim of bright folded fabrics. Soft pinks, loud oranges and turquoise, the flavorful colors of Korean chintz. And Chun Hye was with them.

The girls sat on a park bench while Connie listened from behind a row of bushes, absorbing Chun Hye’s perfume, watching the small of Chun Hye’s back from behind the bench, that valley of light skin. The girls sat there for what seemed like an hour, with Connie shifting her sitting position every minute, marking up her now-exposed legs with small cuts.

The shade around them grew. A hazy radiance refracted sunlight. Wind came fast, blowing the tall pineapple trees eastward. Rain pattered on asphalt, then built up like popcorn. Then a torrent of rainfall. Thin screams rang from the girls as the wind tossed their umbrellas inside out, while Connie retreated with them into the mall, her red shirt drenched into maroon.

The storm brought dozens of shoppers inside: foreigners with their putas, the Filipino elite with their suitcases above their heads, those packs of East Asian tourists covering themselves with brochures. Everyone shared in ironic laughter, each one shivering from the huffs of air-conditioning, their hair splashing acidic liquid about the white walls. The Korean girls rung out the blouses and skirts that their shopping bags had failed to protect.

One was missing—Chun Hye. Connie saw her tall figure outside, screaming with her hands in the air as two Filipina workers waved her toward the doorway. Once inside, Chun Hye didn’t bother drying herself off, but approached Connie, clasping that red, white, and blue bracelet in her hand. “I,” she panted, “saw you, Connie. The rain. Must have—how do you say?”

“Loosened,” Connie said, her voice shushed by the buzzing air-con, “loosened it.” She took the wet bracelet back. “You’re ok? Gwaenchanhayo?”

Chun Hye nodded, fixing her hair in a bun to squeeze it dry. Her white blouse was soaked and translucent in places, showing her pale skin. “I just,” she said, her voice trilling from the cold. “Remember. You say. You will always wear that bracelet.”

Connie tilted her head to meet Chun Hye’s eyes, pupils that expanded when they met hers, as if she were looking at something majestic a great distance away. Even with those surgically altered eyelids, Connie no longer saw Chun Hye’s Korean face, her perfect cuteness, those eyes that once looked like the black beads of a doll. She wondered how walking in heels must have pained her feet. She felt that guilt of being unable to turn the tag, because nothing would keep it out of her hands. She felt a longing, for what, but to speak.

Taking Chun Hye’s hand, Connie wrapped the bracelet slowly around her wrist, feeling her veins tense, tickling the palm as she wove the thread into a knot, squeezed tight, so it might never fall off. Chun Hye nodded her head slightly, letting Connie’s fingers linger upon her own.

A sharp crack of lightning made them both wince.

“Look,” Chun Hye said, using her chin to point out the window, toward a Filipino family of eight retreating figures, all caught in the typhoon, trudging in the flood. Darker skinned, thicker hair, shorter than the others. Perhaps, from the small towns. There were no guards patting down visitors to the Greenbelt malls, but the water surrounded them like a moat, mixing together the debris, overlaying them together until they were a mushy brownish blob.

Safe inside the mall’s white surfaces, Connie and Chun Hye could only watch, standing side by side, both soaking wet, and with shortened breath.

 

 

The Last of Its Kind

This story was originally published in Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond

 

I see our great empire has retracted to squabbled chaos, retreated behind fortified walls, and abandoned me to my great chase. Yet I still pursue the dragon with a passion that amazes me. As a magician, I was branded to hunt her through ancient, worn-down cities, without ever sleeping.

All the hospitality has gone out of Perd; the ancient magician’s city has faded to a resting place for weary warriors and monks. I pass an ancient portrait of the restricted God Ka, with smears of dried grease atop the canvas; I see the remains of a torched Inn, its burnt wood smeared with the blood of the empire’s enemies. Once locked inside with the fire, their charred remains now traced the ancient archaic symbols they died to protect. Even the magician’s schools near the mountains have been converted to forts towering over the snowed city, poised ready to turn against their own people. The children point to me, spot my dirtied cloak and empty eyes; they know I am among the last generation of magicians, we spell-casters who the empire once branded as heretics. The children take no time from me, for they must also know who I am hunting: a dragon, that last visible ghost to an empire already crumbling.

My spell of direction has picked up the beast’s scent, and the children follow my furred boot-heels to the city gate, but they cannot go any further, for they, like myself, are prisoners of their own imperium. I am not yet asleep, and I have nowhere else, so I follow the dragon’s diminishing cry.

 

The petrifying wind of the north stanches my thirst, numbs my skin, and freezes the grip upon my staff. The spell of direction leads me outside the imperium, towards untouched primitive land hemmed in by frozen cliffs scrawled with dragon’s claws. The dragon knows I am behind her; her trail takes me on a mystic eddying ride down steep cliffs and frozen ice. I will follow her anywhere, even after my spells have drained. To death, to the greatest reach unmapped.

I pass the imperium’s last archway, chewing on clumps of oats and walnuts. With my death, all magicians will finally fade into memories of pleasing songs, ritual dances, and parades, where our descendants will be held up, weak and sputtering, for the crowd’s gaze. The empire could never dwindle our numbers by attacking us directly. No greater hatred could they exploit than that between magicians and dragons, for that ancient war brought purpose to our schools, gave us an identity beyond that of heretics. We felt useful, locked in a war with a radical, beastly enemy. The war between us, a war the empire had begun, would be our end.

Bereft of the spell of warmth, I continue into the grey, cloud-speckled sunlight onto the flatness of frozen ice, a still lake bordered by hardened seaweed. Standing under that heavy sky upon the remains of a vast, dim moor, I see the shadowy figure of that wild dragon Evald, the last wild dragon, her rugged skin so unlike her domestic brethren who play fire tricks behind iron bars. Her wings shine in the grey sunlight like a crescent moon; her nose expels a deep bright orange flame. Cornered in the harsh tundra, she seeks to frighten me away, the last primitive impulses of her life now caught in a rabid dance of flame, smoke and ice. I cast a multiplicity illusion so that I appear as a hundred rather than as one, and she takes aim at my copies, crushing them in the fierce fireballs that split open the frozen ice. Then she aims at nothing, her crazed dance now a spinning, fire-spitting pirouette, and below that chaos I hear the crazed near-death laughter of the wise beast, and following her, the fuzzed traces of my own incantations, ice spells, and weather alterations that bring lightning to strike her wings. She is battered across the frozen lake, her escape put to rest by the bright fogged cold, her tattered body too numbed for chasing.

 

With Evald’s passing, I am left alone, waning across the crunched cracks of snow, stepping languorously across a spacious sky, the cold sometimes slowing my breath, sometimes shocking me into a fearful, flailing sorrow. With nothing left for me in the imperium, I march northward, through the foggy ruins and silver-imprinted runes of an even more ancient civilization: the Tydes, the legendary high-elves who we magicians once expelled from our own dominion. The Song of Wharre tells of the Tyde necromancers from the north with strange powers over the minds of men, powers of possession and resurrection, powers we could not understand nor hope to master. In one generation of war, we magicians wiped them out, with not even a single surviving elven child who we could ask repentance from. I join them now in their frozen heaths and haunted tombs, with my boots on death’s step, far from the imperium’s reach.

The ruins are frozen over, inhabited only by smog and mist, a circus’ silhouette, where no voice can remind us how it once was and who it was for. In a frozen caved-in Tyde dwelling I sit and let my breath sink beneath the snow. With my magic drained, my staff can no longer emit light, yet the glow of that stark diamond sky brings me familiar, mindful offerings.

 

On Trump and Colonial Travel

I was on an airplane when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. When we landed in Hong Kong, I was so sure that “H” had already won, that when I saw my friends turn white from reading their phones, numbed by the news, I thought a bomb had dropped. I recall the faces of those around me–the Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese, coming direct from Vancouver, Canada, each one speechless, as if the light from their phones induced them to silence. Then I looked forward, to the first class and business class cabins. There was a group of Westerners, silent not from shock, but from trying to conceal their smiles. One of them, a man in a dark blue blazer, stood up straight and closed his eyes, straightening his body in place as if to keep from jumping for joy.

Four days later, I saw what lied behind these smiles at an Open Mic poetry reading in Central, Hong Kong’s old colonial district. A dark-skinned poet from Canada read a poem about his deep sadness after the election. Immediately after, an outraged man (white) spoke on stage, shouting that we needed to respect Trump and his wife–since she knows four languages, he pointed out–and “Fuck you” to anyone who writes badly of them (his finger pointing to the previous poet). The Open Mic became a literary war zone. A young woman (Asian, diasporic) took the stage with her personal poem detailing her fear and hope for the future after Trump. Then a man (white, American) asked his Russian girlfriend to go on stage and read his poem, which included the phrase “I was chatting with this chink from Vietnam,” and ended with complaints about how American women were too fat and Asian women were just right. A friend of mine, a visiting poet, asked me if it was appropriate to kick his ass.

It took me two months to fully process these reactions to Trump’s election. Even as a travel writer, university professor, and teacher, I have never been able to let go of the notion that travel, and living overseas, can make you a better person. Better at understanding different cultures. Better at appreciating different ways of life. Better at loving those around you. But for the past year, since living in China and Hong Kong–and since beginning this blog–I’ve come to the opposite conclusion. Travel, if anything, makes you more certain of the prejudices you have. It couples your ignorance of others with the certainty that you already know everything about other cultures, and that they are just as despicable as you are.

Sound too dramatic, too simplistic, too reactive? Fine, I don’t mean that everyone who travels becomes a bigot. But those who travel, particularly those who write and talk about their travel experiences, often do so with the clamor of a medieval knight errant spouting tales of how they rescued a local damsel from the evil barbarians.

OK, so I don’t mean all travel writers. I have in mind a type of travel writer, the new colonial writer, represented in one particular author–C. G. Fewston, an expatriate author in Hong Kong who claims to have been nominated for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize and the 2016 PEN/Faulkner award for a novel, A Time to Love in Tehran, (evidence on both of these claims has been entirely absent, but I invite anyone to assist in fact-checking). Not long after Trump’s election, I got into a Twitter-spat with this author when he started trolling the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the actual Pulitzer Prize nominated (and won) novel, The Sympathizer. Nguyen is a Vietnamese refugee, which Fewston (who has lived in Vietnam) sees as a reason to disqualify him from the Pulitzer:

 

As an admirer of Nguyen’s work since I was a graduate student, I responded to this stream of tweets with deserving vitriol:

 

This was enough for Mr. Fewston to ban me from his Twitter account. In time, however, I began to get word from fellow Hong Kong writers that this author was “at it again,” posting a slew of tweets against Nguyen, Junot Díaz, as well as refugees, immigrants, and people of color generally:

 

I won’t bother dissecting these piece-by-piece, except to say that Mr. Fewston is clearly one of thousands of American expatriates in Asia emboldened by Trump’s wall, Trump’s refugee policies, Trump’s white nationalism. It isn’t Mr. Fewston’s political position that interests me, but his means of using travel itself to legitimate anti-immigrant rhetoric that masks itself with “#love,” and with his own standing as an immigrant in Hong Kong. His knowledge of Viet Kieus is deployed to name a refugee as un-American, and if you disagree, it’s because you don’t know what a Viet Kieu is (he will educate you). His knowledge of “Vietnam’s Civil War,” as he calls it, erases America completely from the picture. His self-named “travel writer” position allows him to spit this nonsense while claiming to be “apolitical” (the haven for those whose politics ally with no communities or peoples). His travels give him an enlightened “worldview,” which others cannot begin to comprehend, trapped as they are in their American racial identities.

We are all familiar with this. Mr. Fewston’s travel is the type of travel of the colonials, old and new; of the traders who once worked for the East India Company but now work for J. P. Morgan; of the religious zealots like Marco Polo who now seek to rescue Asians from themselves (especially beautiful female Asians); of the travel writers who created barbarians and cannibals and who now write of exotic women and tyrannical Asian men. These travelers have always used comparisons to justify hate. They see hate and bigotry in other countries, regard it as a fact of life, and see racism in the U.S. as no big deal.

 

How to Travel like a Colonial (Hint: You’re Probably Already Doing It)

There are many ways one can travel. But in the 21st century, like in the age of colonialism, imperialism, and chattel slavery before it, most travel routes are fixed to make Westerners more certain in their own prejudices. Industries of tourism, English-language learning, and colonial enterprises have set-up travel as just another scheme to reward arrogance. And in an era of identity politics, when we all want to be minorities, it’s a way for the most privileged among us to have their own stories of prejudice to tell.

I’m a traveler of sorts, and I’ve heard the same rant from white Americans in every major Asian city, from #Seoul to #Shanghai to #HongKong. It’s the “we are the minorities now” rant, where Westerners fantasize that they are being harmed just for being white. At a time when immigrants and refugees are under attack in the U.S., this takes on a particularly sinister form of colonial arrogance. Claiming that because you were an expatriate in South Korea you know what it is to be a minority in the U.S. would be like taking a tour of the Grand Canyon and claiming that you really know what life is like “living on the edge.”

But the white colonial experience in Asia, as much as some of us would like to believe, is not the same level of social integration expected (demanded, forced) as a Muslim refugee in the US. It’s not even “same same but different.” Sure, you may have suffered loneliness (even among the women available), you may have suffered time (filling out multiple Visa forms), you may have suffered financially (paying double taxes), but think–are these anywhere similar to the terrors of the police, the FBI, the lynch mobs, the courts, who have always protected majorities over minorities? Were you ever vulnerable to an omnivorous prison complex targeted at you and your family? Were you ever told to change your religion, your values, your language?

In the age of identity victimhood, travel can offer everyone a part to play. No wonder the most privileged of us obsess over the types of travel that offer instances of fabricated danger–in camp sites, in tourist cities of Thailand, China, Cambodia, in music festivals, in clubs, in casinos, in drugs. We embrace these moments as memories of “risk,” when really we were no more taking risks than a family visit to Disneyland. We pretend that after wallowing in a hostel in India we are suddenly equal victims as those black bodies living on the streets of Baltimore, Washington D.C., or Detroit. We get food sickness and pretend we can now understand the dysentery plaguing the starving. These attitudes bring us no closer to those we now claim to understand, but merely widen the gulf with our newfound arrogance. And in that arrogance we go on, guilt free, back into the dream made for everyone and no one.

Some of these colonial authors will use stories of pretend oppression to fold back into protecting their American heritage. They will insist that Americans join the rest of the world in racist exclusions. They will see how Koreans protect Koreanness, Japanese protect Japaneseness, and our writer in turn will move to protect Americanness as a white cowboy Christian mythology. They will say, straight-faced, that if Asian countries can protect their mythical national race, why can’t we? Victimhood, migrancy, historical marginalization–these are mere games for these players, these movers, these managers, these writers, these travelers. But the pieces locked into the board are not playing along.

The biggest question for the traveling writer is not about the space itself but why we are inhabiting it. You the American traveler, who came armed with the world’s highest-valued passport, who could afford to burn cash and jet-fuel on a prolonged vacation, you who reside in a land that belongs to others but has been ready-made for you, with a job just for you, an inhabitance just for you, and people willing to risk social stigma just to spend time with you. What are you doing here, really? What do you hope to take from this place, really?

 

Self-Tourism

Travel can expose the dark sides of the world, so it is natural that it can make us more prejudiced. By being exposed to atrocities, we can walk away believing that, by acting on our prejudices, we are merely matching the prejudice of the rest of the world. Yes, there is racism, bigotry, and hate in every country. But there is also protest, struggle, and organized resistance. In every country you will meet those who are part of the struggle for justice, whether they are trying to impeach a president (as in South Korea last year) or are writing editorials that will make them targets for censorship and state violence (as in China, the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia). And in every country there are those who see hate everywhere, who have traveled just to come back and say “they do it over there, so why can’t we?”

For those of you living in America, who see the writings of colonial travelers and say, “at least they’re not in the U.S.,” I have a wake-up call for you. These travelers and expats, who might be LBHs (“losers back home”), are well respected in Asia. Many of them are educators, entrusted to represent American history, culture, and politics. They are “young professionals,” poets, writers, artists, intelligentsia. Now, with the election of a man who seeks to rid the U.S. of non-Christian, non-Western elements, they are emboldened. They seek to represent America’s voice to the world, as expert travelers of the world. And here, people are listening.

Hong Kong Domestic Workers in the Gallery

Six months ago I visited the Hong Kong contemporary art gallery, Para Site, when it hosted “Afterwork,” a collection of work about migrant domestic workers. The blog I wrote then was about the (mostly white) audience who patronized the gallery on its opening. I feel this was a mistake. The artists themselves had little control over how the expatriate community would receive their work. The anger I felt distracted me from the art itself, which I hope to rectify in this installment.

Only six months later, in retrospect, does it become clear how these artworks were pushing against the grain. The artworks flat-out rejected ideas of migrant workers as heroes celebrated on Migrant Workers Week and applauded in Hong Kong when they’re not caught stealing or going to bars. But it also rejects the Human Rights version of them as helpless victims. The introduction to the exhibit selects work that shows “how the Southeast Asian ‘other’ has been approached in Hong Kong and more broadly in Chinese culture.” It does not cater to the audience, as I presumed in the previous blog. The collection plays with the audience’s desire to hear the maid’s story, or to provide rescue. Its introduction reads, “Afterwork does not, however, mean to patronizingly give a voice to or be the vindicator of the struggles of migrant workers.” In Hong Kong migrant workers are seen as either unruly, willing and ungrateful thieves, or as church mice stamped with the oil of heroism and self-sacrifice.

The activist artist Daniela Ortiz’s contribution was titled 97 House Maids. Ortiz took Facebook photos from upperclass Peruvians that unintentionally caught glimpses of their migrant workers. The frames display the erasure of migrant domestic workers as mere background or as props to hold up and support the family narrative.


The background labor is necessary to the storyhood of the family, yet the workers’ presence is effectively erased.

The Taiwanese artist Jao Chai-en’s REM Sleep (2011) addresses the difficulties of dissecting life stories from migrant workers who themselves are paid to perform as puppets resembling religious purity. Chai-en does not simply interview migrant workers to discover their real story, but has them recite their dreams during REM Sleep, the only time when their strings aren’t being pulled, and no performance is being demanded from them.

In this cruel reality, free thinking is only permitted during deep sleep. Their stories are meandering depictions of their own dreams: dreams of freedom, of family, of anger.

In Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s Hong Kong Intervention (2011), the voice of the domestic worker becomes visible only through a final destructive act of anger and (presumably) vengeance: a grenade left on a kitchen counter, paired with the domestic worker who wishes the family harm, her back turned to keep herself anonymous.

The un-knowable migrant body positioned next to the grenade shouts resentment and anger, but also threatens my own gaze staring at her, hoping to access her life story.

The solidarity presented in these works crosses national, racial and gendered borders. The ubiquity of migrant domestic work broaches into disadvantaged nations. These artists’ works immediately resonated with me. Isolated from Filipino and white communities as too mixed race, and called an “island hopper” even by close friends, I had accepted early on that I would remain a cleaner or service worker for most of my life, where I belonged with the other brown-skinned mulattos. In Las Vegas I worked jobs for $5.50 an hour where I cleaned, smiled, and absorbed all the stored-up resentment from every customer. If I was interested in a girl, that too was colored by race. If it didn’t work, I felt it was because of my Asian-ness, and if I got lucky, it was because she was looking for an exotic spin among the jungle hybrids. Even my small successes were taken away from me. After three years of applications, I finally got into graduate school, only to hear my best friend tell me (totally sober) that “I wish I were Asian like you, then I’d have everything given to me.” I never spoke to him again. I never spoke to a lot of people again. For years I have preferred isolation and estrangement. Why was everything, failure or success, sex or unsexed, blamed on my race? Was I really just a mere puppet, with this invisible being, “race,” pulling my strings?

Perhaps this is why, as a traveler, I’ve always felt more at home with locals or low-paid immigrants than with expatriates. Black, Asian, and other minority travelers I’ve met seem to feel the same. Leaving America is a political choice, it’s getting away from that pigeonholed identity, from the puppet master who forces you into exile even when you are home. As minorities we are always exilic, and it’s not a question of finding home or of fitting in but of just waking up one day without feeling his strings tugging at your every limb. But as travelers we carry new identities with us: upper-class, whimsical Americans, who can breeze in and out, armed with English and passports and ready-to-work jobs that make us indispensable.

Domestic workers in Hong Kong are the expatriate community’s Others. Where we always make above minimum wage, they always make well below it. Where we are pushed into isolated apartments, they are kept under twenty-four-hour surveillance by their adopted families, often living in the same rooms as the children. Where we can stay for months at a time with no explanation, they are kicked out after two weeks without a sponsor. Where we can gallivant in clubs and mix with locals, they are hunted down for any sexual trespass, and their mixing (in terms of pregnancy, prostitution) leaves them vulnerable to forced deportation. Where we are seen as contributing to the “globalness” of Hong Kong, they are seen as third world parasites. In the literary world, works like Jose Dalisay’s 2008 novel, Soledad’s Sister, and Mia Alvar’s short story “Shadow Families,” are unique gems that tell us different stories. And even in the garish business of the art world, there are still a few gems.

This blog was originally published on decomP

References

Daniela Ortiz’s 97 House Maids

Jao Chai-en’s REM Sleep

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s Hong Kong Intervention

Art Spaces in Phnom Penh

Spoken Space

We (you and I, let’s say) stroll along Street 308, an “up and coming” (read: gentrifying) area of Phnom Penh, speckled with packs of foreigners and tourists armed with open-carry bottles of wine and thin needles of hash, their bodies attached to tall resident walls like seaweed wavering to and fro against a stream. The street directs us to the dawdling Mekong river that flows from southwest China, bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, before drifting through Phnom Penh and into Vietnam.

But the street comes to an end at Cloud bar, a “unique culture, art and music venue,” according to the googlemaps reviews I looked up, which also recommend the “excellent homemade punch.”

We squeeze into the back row of a shark-fin shaped room, where Kosal Khiev, the renowned refugee spoken word artist, will perform. A refugee to America at one year old, tried as an adult at sixteen for attempted murder, imprisoned for fourteen years, and at thirty-two, named an “alien” and forcibly deported to Cambodia, Kosal’s very survival is stunning. That his heart still beats after so much pain, that his mind still functions after fourteen years in prison, that his head still holds high after eight months in solitary confinement. That he’s not only here, but that he exudes a force both calming and energetic, alluring yet visceral.

 

Kosal Khiev
Kosal Khiev from “Why I Write”

 

One of Kosal’s students, Conrad, introduces him as a survivor: “He was one of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge, he was a survivor of the war, he was a survivor of freedom, of the American dream, whatever you want to know, he is a survivor of violence, more importantly he’s a survivor of the system.” Conrad mentions Kosal’s community work, too long to list for a simple introduction. What comes first? His mentorship of young artists? His work with Cambodian children? His national stardom at the 2012 Olympiad? His starring role in the documentary Cambodian Son? In a city that has become a symbol of survival, he is its offspring.

Kosal KhievKosal takes the stage. He’s a scrawny man in a black hat and black T-shirt. He makes room for himself, removing the microphone stand, the lectern, the chairs, forcing a circular space where he can spread his tattooed limbs. Then the words flow out of him in a soulful song, “I’m on a midnight ride on a rail of a beaten down trail / I got my hat down low and I just made bail,” then the words push us down, submerging us, his rhymes splitting us against a barnacled floor more shallow than we could see from above:

call me a murderer, a homicide, I just died by a pack of wolves dressed up as the uniformed service, a flock of crows purposefully moving with guilty verdicts, executing and shooting anyone moving with purpose.

Kosal lunges out, hands shaped like glocks towards the sky, words charging in bullets. His face captures us, dense in desperation and prayer, wrinkled from an age apart.

 

Dancing Space

It’s Kosal’s face that haunts us as we jump into a tuk-tuk towards the weekly drag show at Blue Chilli’s bar. The show has become a ritual jaunt in Phnom Penh, an event that pleads to us more than the killing fields, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the markets, the river itself. Speaking of: our driver follows the Tonle Sap river north, against its stream, passing hand-in-hand pedestrians, jostling youth, and women exercise-dancing near the river walk. I watch the water’s unstable darkness and remember there is a drought in Cambodia’s countryside. The worst in fifty years, the dry wind and dust has left tens of thousands in need of water and food.

Naked colored bulbs welcome us into a rectangular bar overflowing with alcohol. We watch the queens slam things into the ground: their heels, their asses, their wigs. We drink and shout to new friends over loudspeakers. We duck below coiled wires leading to electric lights. We grip each other, facing the dancers like flags fluttering in trade winds.

Miga, the queen of Blue Chilli, takes the stage with a looming intensity. Her eyes flutter. Her body seems weightless as she breezes up and down a silver pole. Like Kosal she wears black–black dress, black bouquet. You spy something odd about her hat–not a hat, but a revolver, held onto her hair like a perched bird. We can’t help but gawk at it–a symbol of American cowboys, of violence, whisked easily into a drag queen’s ornament.

Miga
Miga

Like Kosal, Miga has been a community pillar. The amount of events she headlines, teaches at, and supports, is a testament to what the “community artist” can really do. Her pride in drag coupled with her unstoppable talent and energy has made her a powerful symbol for the LGBT community. She is a drag queen who has appeared on national television and hosts fashion events. Her makeup tutorials have brought her to issues of wildlife (The Jungle Project), and her fem performances have brought her to breast cancer awareness groups. Given this dedication, it’s no surprise that she has also been violently attacked in clubs by, as she calls it, “people who hate sissys.”

 

I Am What I Am
Miga featured in the 2015 campaign, “I Am What I Am”

As we talk to Miga, I notice he never uses the word “survive.” He explains himself without this word. He has no lovers, but loves only his passions, his community work, his performance art, and his full time job as a barista. All of this, and he never makes it sound like a struggle. These things bring him life. It’s not merely a way to survive–but to survive well, to inspire, and to exclaim: “We are here.”

This blog was originally published on decomP