M I G R AT I O N
Issue #5 Summer
白蘿蔔 白萝卜 lobak 菜頭 củ cải trắng หัวไชเท้า 무우 大根 मूली مولی mooli
all content produced by: Hanna Stephens
Jemma Paek @fat.jem
Jess Routley @jess.yi.xian
(on behalf of) soasdetaineesupport.wordpress.com
Zhi Yi Cham
Eva C.Y. Li
@kallydumpling @katrinaymson @initsdelirium
Lisa Wool-Rim Sjรถblom
Elyssa Rider @elyssa_rider elyssarider.com
Front and back cover images by Sinae Carrotate Park
Manifesto We are a group of self-identifying South East/East Asian womxn and non-binary people living within a European context. We have created this zine as a platform for Asian voices that are so often underrepresented and undervalued in mainstream political and feminist discourses. We believe in empowering each other through highlighting the collective frustrations and nuances of our intersectional experiences as a starting point for building a wider platform of solidarity. We aim to share our opinions, celebrate our creativity and build up a stronger collective voice for South East/East Asians. daikon.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org
Contents zhi gets a poem tattooed at a neighborhood studio
Zhi Yi Cham
words · Detained Voices, Tessa Qiu photo · Tessa Qiu
Self Esteem and Being Biracial Rose Delcour-Min
words · Jon Ely photos · Erica Lindberg
words · Jennifer Ngo art · Sinae Park
interview · Kay Stephens art · Katrina Bautista
Somewhere between documented student and unwelcomed shortterm stayer; In retrospect of my days in London Jessie Yoon
The Kitchen Sink
A History Lesson
Not your narrative: Reflections on the Thai sex worker trope
Drifting Between Colonisers
words · Carmen Hoang words · Vivien Chan
Filipino Domestic Workers Association Interview
words · Amelia Dogan art · Jade Chao
words · Joel Tan art · Charlotte Hong
words · Minying Huang photos · Bea Xu
Migration & Documentation of a Heart
Queer Singapore: Empire Is Not That Far Away
words · Isabella Normark art · Kally Spencer Townson
Eva C. Y. Li
Homebody52 words · Mia Watanabe art · Elyssa Rider
The trouble with freedom Jade Chao
Full Spread Illustrations Bea Xu // Journey to the West
Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom
For many of the artists and writers of this issue, migration is a process that is both enormous and mundane. A complete uprooting of a life is a process one makes ordinary through weeks, months and years of existence. Migrants come up with tactics for survival and the construction of their everyday, which emerges as economic, social, cultural innovation (is this why we’re mined for our creativity by the whites?). But many of these creative processes are tied into destructive processes. This destruction goes by the guise of cultural assimilation: hostility towards other migrants, loss of prior local knowledges, silence on matters of our personal history. Assimilation is a myth (as Jenny Wang’s comic on page 14 points out), and pursuing this myth reproduces the attitudes of the societies that devalue and violate us, and blind us to the erosion of our own identities. Does daily survival necessarily result in the gradual death of the things that make us us? Does building a connection to one place or narrative mean the destruction of another? It’s clear to see why we evade and disrupt the question of our “fromness”, why we long for the “dream of ancestors” (Zhi Yi, page 6) whilst family traumas continue to haunt us (Amelia, page 18), why we struggle with self-esteem and mental health (Rose page, 10), why our existence as queer and trans people throws our struggles of belonging into sharp relief (Jessie, page 27, Eva, page 49, Joel, page 32). Historically, shame and hatred have migrated alongside colonial policies to Asia, the exports of Empire. Today this materialises in people who are displaced from nations as a result of existing as LGBTQ+, struggling to seek refuge in the very countries who have been oppressors. But
their agency and resilience is undeniable (see e.g. Detained Voices page 8). Forced migration occurs constantly. Children are relocated via international adoption systems that privilege white motherhood over the rights of mothers of colour as an ongoing form of colonialism (as Lisa writes on page 54). Workers cross borders as a response to poverty, sometimes trafficked, or legally bound to employers. Kay’s conversation with Phoebe (page 20), chairperson of the Filipino Domestic Workers’ Association, underlines some stories of migrant women who are navigating hostile border enforcement in the UK, as well the essential work being done to support them. When we compile our knowledge and stories in our communities we reclaim what is lost. We are experimenting in new languages and mediums to tell the stories that white, Anglophone and/or European society could not, through our oral histories (as Alex reflects on, page 44), our poetry, prose, and art. Yet it is not enough only to document our own migration stories when we are in the position to. Rather than letting the stories found in this issue represent the Southeast and East Asian diaspora, we encourage you to read them in a way that reflects on our positionalities within in structures of privilege and oppression. 'Unity' is not something we can assume or take for granted, but something we earn by fighting alongside those who are most marginalised. With this in mind, we must be active and support those whose migration stories are less freely told than others. We’ve provided an overview of UK border control and a guide to some services we think deserve support in a factsheet included in the issue* – check it out! With thanks and love, The daikon* team
*also accessible at daikon.co.uk/blog/fuckborders
words— Zhi Yi Cham
zhi gets a poem tattooed at a neighborhood studio
in the process of conceiving a tattoo i become malleable, say to the young white who speaks in mimicked german accent “okay what can i do to make this easier for you –– move it to my back?” we unwind the loop i intended for the poem to become restore it to the structure intended by the poet
“here –– ”
guiding him along the wall of my back just upon the blade of my shoulder, poem be sinew powering each movement of left arm he sets screens up i take my top off he unhooks my bra i sit front against back of chair, crouched over tattoo bed browse the interwebs as he grazes needles against cold skin my mother pings me on whatsapp zhi yi you need anything from us to bring in june list it out
nah just the blanket
reports to me a line is complete
we have time today
no need mama
words— Zhi Yi Cham
baju? seluar? kaya
no need la maybe kaya
ok tq mummy pretend to give a shit about this white man’s aspirations as he carves musing onto my skin
he tells me the story of how he got into tattooing does not ask about the poem
reports to me he is fixing up little edges “okay” when he’s done i go to the mirror back bare in a studio full of white men see inked poem on skin, say “this is perfect” he wraps my tattoo up i say thank you he hooks my bra back on i say thank you you know this man spent a whole hour of his life attempting to stencil this poem onto my arm & it kicks & drifts garamond contorting & only then onto my back & this is the last he sees of the poem ––
i wish i
was the dream
–– this is the last i see of this white man this is the first i see of the poem
Notes: translation: baju – shirt // seluar – pants tattooed poem by Craig Santos Perez
words— Tessa Qiu photos— Tessa Qiu
photographs from December 2016 protest at Yarlswood Immigration Detention Centre
Around 30,000 people are held indefinitely in immigration detention centres across the UK each year. These ‘centres’ are part of the home office’s racist immigration regime, which puts migrants and asylum seekers through harmful and often traumatic processes while they await the right to remain, deportation, or removal. They are run by companies which profit off detention and which lack proper systems of accountability. Inside and outside of detention, acts of resistance and organising aim to break the isolation of being detained and oppose this inherently inhumane practice. The following is a statement by a person held in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention center, published by Detained Voices. Detained Voices is a collective of supporters outside of detention who transcribe the stories, experiences, and demands of people in and affected by immigration detention in the UK. 8
words— Detained Voices
So I will keep going, and try to stay strong, and I will not go gracefully, to exile. I’m struggling to find reasons to keep going every morning as I have done for the past 5 months here on Yarl’s Wood. So the demonstration yesterday was welcomed as it not only invigorated me a little but also showed many detainees that there are people out there who are aware of what is happening and are making a stand with us against this corrupt, immoral practice that is indefinite detention. Some people were truly moved as I think we become so accustomed to the negativity and hostility of this entire process that you start to believe everyone and everything is against you. I know that’s how I feel, whether it’s healthcare, Home Office agents, or increasingly Serco staff, the environment is definitely getting more hostile for me, as I knew it might when we began our fight just over a month ago, but I honestly feel like I am fighting a losing battle already when it comes to my case personally. I fight because I don’t have a choice, there is no alternative for me or indeed for so many people in here. So I will keep going, and try to stay strong, and I will not go gracefully, to exile.
To read more, go to detainedvoices.com For more information or to get involved, contact email@example.com
words— Rose Delcour-Min
Self Esteem and Being Biracial In 2016 I was discharged from therapy and given a project to learn about Burma and my Burmese family in order to build my self-esteem and sense of self. Trying to pass in white spaces had not helped to contribute to healthy self-esteem, but I hadn’t thought to try connecting to my South East Asian self as a remedy. I try not to be too angry at myself for the time I spent hoping to be accepted by whiteness, but how could I have developed my South East Asian identity when I knew virtually nothing about Burma?
here and look the way I do. It also served as a reminder that I could not pass for white. In a predominantly white part of North-East England, I wanted desperately to be invisible because I felt hyper visible. I tried to shrink as much as possible in the hope that if I took up less space I would be less noticeable. If I didn’t draw attention to myself then I wouldn’t have to face that I wasn’t white, but if no one believed that I was from Manchester or Newcastle, then where was I from? I got older, moved to London after staying in Newcastle far too long, and went to study at Goldsmiths. In one particularly bad week two mental health professionals separately told me that I had low self esteem. I ended up back in therapy, and whilst trying to figure out a reason why my self-esteem was so low, my therapist learned that I was biracial and I learned that she had not thought I was biracial. My therapist asked if my low self-esteem might be due to a small sense of self and identity - if I didn’t have a strong foundation of knowledge about who I was how could I shield myself from attacks to my self esteem? It occurred to me that in hoping to pass for white I had tried to be what I could never be, and closed off the opportunity to know and accept who I already was. Finding out that my therapist had accepted my asianness without asking for my ethnicity qualifications made me feel relieved. It’s difficult to explain how this was different to being mis-recognised before, but I think it’s because she framed my asianness in the affirmative - I am asian, rather than I am not white, or not fully asian. She made feel like I could claim my
When I was 19 and volunteering at Newcastle City Library an older white man stopped to ask where I was from. The demand in itself was not unusual, but as his face lit up in recognition at the mention of Burma I realised I had not yet met anyone who knew where Burma was. He proceeded to ask me for my opinions on what was happening there - he was studying the country. I had nothing to say, and came away from the interaction feeling ashamed that a creepy older white man knew more about where my dad was from than I did. 10 years have passed and I can’t remember the last time that I reluctantly explained “I’m from Manchester/ Newcastle - but my mum is from England and my Dad is from Burma.” One day I decided I wouldn’t say it anymore because I hated saying it, or I would at least make the interviewer work for it. Being regularly asked where I’m from made me feel that it wasn’t enough to be myself, that I had to come with a caption which explained how I had come to be 10
words— Rose Delcour-Min
asianness without being an imposter. (I cannot stress how important it was that my therapist was not white.)
to access information that came from Burmese people themselves. What I have managed to gather feels so hardwon - I have learned so much since my last stint in therapy. I found history and cook books written by Burmese people, and this winter my work lunches were mostly Burmese curries. I’d like to learn how to cook from my grandma but she is now 90 and finds it harder to cook these days.
Ever since the uncomfortable experience with the man at the library I had vowed to keep up to date with the events surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi and the military dictatorship ruling Burma, but it was hard. It wasn’t until I discussed race and identity with my therapist that I was prompted to use the research skills I’d learned in university to find out more about Burma. Living in London was lucky, and the first time I ever saw moving image of Burma was in 2016 when I went to the ‘Yangon Calling’ screening at the ICA. I hadn’t seen much more of Burma in still image - I didn’t know why at the time, but I would later learn that my Burmese grandma’s family photos were mostly lost or destroyed during WW2. For most of my life I believed that it had been different for my dad, because although he was born in Rangoon and came to England when he was still a baby, at least he was “properly” asian. I assumed that this helped and that somehow my dad’s understanding of his cultural identity was stronger - I would later find out that it wasn’t that simple.
When I found out that my grandma had worked in a sweet factory in Southall in the 1970s my heart swelled - of course she has a place in London’s history, I have a place in London’s history. I found Newcastle incredibly isolating, a feeling I couldn’t name until I had left. I feel much happier in London because I can be somewhere with more people of colour, feel less self-conscious, and see my grandma. My project would not have unfolded in the same way if I still lived in Newcastle - I might not even have been given it in the first place. Recently, oblivious to my project, my mother told me that she had tried to raise me with good self esteem. I clenched my fist and said nothing. At this particular moment I can’t help but feel anger at the racism, fetishism, and pain that permeates our relationship. Sometimes I wonder how it might have been different if it was my mother who was Burmese. I’d say I had no community, even though I had my sister, brother, and my dad. How isolated and lonely did I have to feel to not even consider talking to them? I honestly believed they experienced everything differently to me - that they weren’t biracial in the same way that I was. I also had to learn the vocabulary myself outside of my family. Now I think I talk to my sister about race almost every day, with my dad every
There are many reasons why I knew so little about Burma and my Burmese family - my dad had grown up in London from the age of 2, as well as family arguments about money, and there was no discussion about race. We moved from Manchester to Newcastle when my dad eventually found a job, creating an even greater distance between ourselves and my grandma in London. Burma was and still is largely absent from the mainstream news and media - it felt like a revelation to find two Burmese restaurants in London. I found it difficult 11
words— Rose Delcour-Min
now and then, and my brother and I first talked about being biracial last year.
couldn’t make it in Newcastle the same way my grandma makes it), calling my grandma ‘May’ which means mother in Burmese (but I didn’t know her real name until relatively recently), my grandma’s insistence of all of her friends being aunties and uncles, Burmese onion fritters that looked nothing like onion bhajis but that’s what my dad called them. Even the meatball curry my dad makes, which I thought was just a weird meal that my dad concocted whilst trying to feed two children with little money, turns out to be a Burmese curry! Now me and my dad are reading the same history books about Burma, and fiction by asian writers. I love my grandma, who I only got to see regularly since I was 24 and I’m trying to learn as much as I can from her, whilst navigating our relationship as one where she was not present in my life for most of it. This April I found out about Burma’s New Year, Thingyan, and told my dad “Happy Burmese New Year”. I didn’t call my grandma because I was worried she no longer marked it, but when I called her a few days later she told me my dad had mentioned it and she started telling me about her experiences celebrating it in Burma, with an animation I hadn’t heard from her for a while. I look forward to having more moments like these with her as I learn more about where she is from and my dad was born. It’s hard to describe the process of how this project to learn about Burma and my Burmese family has contributed to my sense of self and self-esteem, but the best I can do at the moment is say that it makes me feel like I exist more.
It wasn’t until I was 28 that I had the conscious recognition that my grandma was Buddhist. Reclaiming Buddhism from my mother’s cultural appropriation and re-aligning it with my grandma is one of the most confusing things I’ve been doing on this project. My mum’s new age collection of Buddhist imagery and ideas, combined with her fetishism, made me want to vigorously reject anything to do with them in order to distance myself from the pain my mother causes me. One day, I was at my grandma’s flat and I noticed a small shrine. I’d like to ask why the presence of Buddhism was felt mostly through my mum and not my dad, but I don’t think I can have those conversations with her, and I’m not sure I want to hear the answer. When I’m feeling particularly sad I wonder how anyone bringing a biracial child into this world could so massively misjudge the importance of knowing both cultures and talking about race. I feel isolated and unable to cultivate the relationships with my family to discuss what I need to talk about, to know what I need to know before I can no longer ask. When I’m at my best I feel like there is a place for me, and within the history of Burma and Asia, and the north of England, are the answers to why I am who I am. These days I can recognise the feeling when I need to talk to someone about it. The more I’ve learned the more I can now appreciate the fragments of Burma that were in my life growing up: mohinga (Burma’s national dish, which I once hated but now understand why my dad
words— Jon Ely photos— Erica Lindberg
du har aldrig blivit hälsad på på ett språk som inte är ditt du har aldrig blivit förlöjligad för ett språk som inte är ditt du har aldrig känt dig som en främling i en kropp som är din Stockholm som jag kan utan och innan men som ändå aldrig kommer förstå kullerstenarna är formade efter mina fötter men gatorna blir aldrig mina
you have never been greeted in a language that isn’t yours you have never been mocked for a language that isn’t yours you have never felt like a stranger in a body that is yours Stockholm which I know inside out but will still never understand the cobblestones are shaped after my feet but the streets will never be mine
translation: Isabella Normark
artâ€” Jenny Wang
words— Jennifer Ngo art— Sinae Carrotate Park
Canadian This is a short creative reflection on personal identity and hybridity, using biotext, a form of writing that is between prose, poetry and thought, to explore the writer’s first time living in Canada, despite being born Canadian. Written at aged 20, edited a decade later, while living in London. To write in poetry is to move past the comfort of a ruled discourse; in order, to move on, beyond order, the complete thought spills over to an excess and residue of language in which my ‘marked body’ dissolves into unsure relationships -remarked. (Fred Wah, Faking it, 20) Twenty hours and then two in a rented jeep, we bump past tree after trunk after tree, a forest, two forests, hill after rolling hill until hill, forest, trunk and tree become the only thing the eye could see. Trees like people in Hong Kong. The quiet, the blue skies do not translate. My father drives me to a small Canadian town on the border with the United States. Eighteen and excited, the East Coast view ate up my mind and I plunged into the unfamiliarity: Halifax’s artists, St Stephen’s small-town folk musicians, Irish descent people from Europe not European. Canadian, they say. What is this? Who are these people? I am the only one racially “Chinese” in my tiny maritime school. Yet I am also anything but. Maritime — perhaps, raised on hot beaches and packed rice boxes for seaside trips, rugged coastlines which made up my fragrant harbour skirting the South China Sea. It’s the Chineseness which is debatable. I am from Hong Kong, a Chinese spin-off, a British fake, technically ignorantly Canadian. Technically Canadian, nothing registers with my dark eyes black hair whiff of British accent communist-tainted. Communist-tainted, because I sang the patriot song, when country enveloped city ended colony and to the West, I Chinese so I communist. I am technically Canadian, yet nothing registers but the hollow word “Canadian”. They ask me where I’m from and to them I was Japanese. I represented the Far East to the furthest east in this small town. The sight of people’s piercing-filled faces and inked skins, the sound of guitar strumming, the smell of bread and yeast from a generational recipe screams disconcerts dismantles disrupts me, just as my skin colour, my accent, my cooking my approach to school screams foreign to them.
words— Jennifer Ngo art— Sinae Carrotate Park
words— Jennifer Ngo art— Sinae Carrotate Park
First glimpse of Canada, the trees, the sea the beauty throws me off, but I was welcomed home when I crossed the border, clutching my passport. Who I am who am I supposed to be, oh the Hong Kong noncommunist freak city girl Chinese no not Chinese Hongkonger bilingual really trilingual maybe, prim-proper- English-starched school product Canadian passport holder hybrid a parental extension everything nothing...what. History made states, colonialism created my disbelonging to any of them. Search the land, search the land. Technically Canadian. What is Canadian for the technical record. Who am I search search search search the land of a confusion of blood and race and lingo. Search the land, taste the soil, see the fog and snow, touch the pine, smell the maple, talk...talk, debate, discuss there seems to be room. Room for dialogue with the self, play with the words, create a culture. I am in Canada. I am technically Canadian. * “Where are you originally from?” But I take out the originally from the question. Where are you from? Who are you? I’m from Fredericton. I’m from Vancouver. I’m from Chilliwack. From Edmonton where it is always cold. From Victoria Island where you can surf but always with a wetsuit on. From Saskachewan, from a teensy town with only a thousand neighbours. I eat with chopsticks I married a Québécois I speak several languages. ‘Where am I originally from?’ I have also taken the originally out from this question. I have experienced Canada, distinct from the melting pot down south, distinct from the metropolitans and cosmopolitans who boast of hub disco drinks of the same names financial centres hedonism world-class airports translations whatever. Room. I want Canada to hold room, to have space, a chasm hole chunks of cliffs beaches forests for words for discourses for me. For even me, barely a Canadian, but perhaps could be. We write in Chinese, we write in English, we write in Spanish, we write in French, we write in squiggly lines and ink characters and pens on paper and virtual documents on laptops. We write Canadian, we write colonial — no we write anti-colonial, as colonised worlds wrangle coloniser’s language, and travelling stories are told across the sea.
words— Amelia Dogan art— Jade Chao
Migration & Documentation of a Heart We kept all of it in a small drawer. In a plastic folder, there are the documentation of our births, our immigration documents, and our passports. I was never allowed near the drawer as a child; only if we went on a trip out of country could I stare at my bad passport photo. The tension of never having gone through my parent's international, paperwork-filled immigration process was always been held over my head, so when we eventually migrated and moved from place to place I was never treated with emotional tenderness. Our legal documentation provided us privilege and security throughout my life, but the process of obtaining these papers were a stressor that served as an emotional hurdle between me and my parents. Every time we went to get my passport renewed, I would be told to be grateful. I never had to get threatening letters from the government about renewing my status. I wouldn’t have to go through intense interrogation at the border about whether or not I should be able to enter the country. Rather, I was born with these plastic-coated passport sheets that would ensure my legality to work and reside in this country. When I was younger I didn’t think of the lawyer fees or the tears as immigration applications were rejected; I was more concerned about moving from place to place. There were the big East Coast metropolises and the big towns. The only difficult paperwork, which wasn’t even my problem, was the rental agreements and house purchases. These were signed without hesitation because the moves were necessary. The necessity didn’t erase any of my anxiety or lack of understanding. After all, my parents grew up in the same neighborhoods with family down the street all their lives. The first time they packed up their lives to a new country was in their late teens for education. How could they have known to comfort a lonely only child simply moving within in the same country? One of my most vivid memories leaving a big Midwestern town was sitting with a couple friends on a porch. One of them said, “I think we’ll see each other again.” In that moment, I knew I would never be coming back, yet I agreed with the friend. It was part of a lie I told acquaintances that I would remember and keep in contact with them. I haven’t set my foot anywhere near the big town since, and have only seen one friend three years after the move.
words— Amelia Dogan art-— Jade Chao
Setting foot in the new school a second time, I was constantly told that, with the past experience with moving, finding friends would be a breeze. Having done it before didn’t streamline any of it, but I had continued to live in the same stable country - who was I to be crying over some teenager not inviting me to hang out with them? A school counselor in assembly once remarked something along the lines of: if an issue was important for us to care about, then it was important for us to seek help about. I laughed inside my head for I knew nothing in my life compared to my parents’ experience. At the same time, I can keep the two seemingly paradoxical strands in my mind that people should seek mental health help and I shouldn’t feel anxious over some other girl’s opinion of me. I didn’t dismiss other people’s struggles hearing their struggles with their own demons. I locked up my own social problems, since the immigrant experience, which members of the last 3 generations in my family had undertaken, was not my story. Mine is a story of internal migration, citizenship tests and the emotions of leaving home several times. The story differs from the language barriers and lawyers of immigration, yet the burden of leaving home has been passed down and has extracted a mental toll from everyone in my family.
words— Kay Stephens art— Katrina Bautista
Filipino Domestic Workers Association Interview The Filipino Domestic Workers Association (FDWA) is an organisation founded in 2012, composed of Filipino women working as domestic workers in the UK. I spoke with Phoebe – chairperson of the FDWA – about the organisation and her own experience as a migrant domestic worker. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
domestic workers would be unable to leave their employers without becoming undocumented again. Our main aim was to help people who couldn’t leave abusive employers. We also campaigned to reinstate the 1998 Overseas Domestic Workers visa. As of April 2016, domestic workers can change their employers, but only during the term of the 6-month visa they were admitted on.
Kay: How did FDWA get started? Phoebe: There’s an annual event called Barrio Fiesta, a celebration of Filipino culture. An organisation called Migrante International [global organisation supporting overseas Filipino workers] had a tent there, and I approached them and we had a chat. I used to be a trade union organiser in the Philippines, so they asked me to join them in setting up an organisation to support Filipino domestic workers. That’s how I met the others.
Kay: What are the main activities of the group now? Phoebe: We rescue people. We’ll get a call that someone needs help escaping from their employer, and rescue them. But first we educate them about the law, and what might happen to them, so that they understand their situation before they run away. Then, we channel them to the right institutions. We refer them to the migrants right charity Kalayaan - ‘kalayaan’ means freedom in our language - then Kalayaan will interview them and see how they can help. For example, they’ll see if they are victims of human trafficking, and find them a solicitor. We also do workshops: ‘speak up’ workshops, which train people to be confident to share their stories; workshops with the Anti-Raids Network because of the status of most of our members; workshops on why are we forced to go abroad. We do not only focus on the situation here, but the issues back home – our families are still there, so whatever happens there, we’re still affected. We want them to be politically aware of the situation in the Philippines.
Kay: What kind of issues were you tackling at that time? Phoebe: Before 1998, the government granted ‘concessions’ to domestic workers1 – domestic workers gained entry through their employers and were tied to their employers, putting them in danger of abuse. After years of campaigning by trade unions and migrant groups, the Labour Party introduced a system that allowed domestic workers to change employers, and apply for indefinite leave to remain after five years. But in 2012, the Conservative government made it so that 1 The primary rationale for such concessions was to attract wealthy foreign investors and ‘skilled workers’ who would want to bring their domestic staff with them.
words— Kay Stephens art— Katrina Bautista
portrait of Phoebe "Bing" Dimacali to find out more about the Filipino Domestic Workers Assocation, visit fdwa.co.uk
Kay: And what legal changes are you campaigning for now? Phoebe: We want the government to ratify ILO [International Labour Organisation] 189, which grants important rights to domestic workers, and protects them from abuse and exploitation. We want to be recognised as workers, rather than ‘part of the family’. But it’s not only about work. With the current [hostile environment] policy, when people become undocumented, finding a place is hard because landlords
ask for your passport before you can rent, and it is difficult to access healthcare when doctors ask for your passport as well. Kay: Earlier you also mentioned workshops helping your members understand why they are here - what are the main reasons why your members become domestic migrant workers? Phoebe: Poverty. 99% of the time, poverty is the main reason. I’m a single mum with four kids - I used to work in 21
words— Kay Stephens art— Katrina Bautista
the local municipality as a clerk, but it wasn’t enough to feed my children, to send them to school.2 Many women left their families and took the risk to go to the Middle East. We know it’s risky but it’s the cheapest option. Here in the UK, it’s only ‘highly skilled’ workers that can get a visa; for us, the domestic workers, we could go to Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, but there is an expensive placement fee. For people who go to Hong Kong, they pay thousands of our currency to go. They’ll borrow from the bank, or they’ll sell their belongings, their house, whatever they have. Most of us are forced to go to the Middle East because we don’t have the money.
follow that either. The agency will fake the birthday on the passport. Kay: What was it like being a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia? Phoebe: It’s difficult. You are not allowed out of the house, not allowed to walk or talk to people - to the driver, to the gardener - even if you are in the garden playing with the kids you shouldn’t talk to men. Most of the time you are locked in the house – the house is always locked, every door is locked. If the police see you walking outside in the street, they’ll catch you, especially the women, and they’ll put you in jail. Kay: How do people get from the Middle East to the UK? Phoebe: We can’t come here without our employer. So, it is only if our employer is visiting the UK that we can come here, and then we can run away. The money is much better here than in Saudi Arabia, and life is much better – you can go out on the street, talk to people, buy your own food, live out. Not like there, where you are like a prisoner. I didn’t know anyone in the UK when I came here. My boss was really strict, I couldn’t go out on my own. They didn’t give me two months wages before because they thought if I had money I’d try to run away. We were in the park one day and I was looking after the kids and there were two Filipinas talking. One was giving the other a number, asking her if she was alright, if she needed help. The other one said not really. I couldn’t talk to other people, I wasn’t even allowed to smile at other people. So, when I was with the children, I talked to the Filipinas but without eye contact. I said, “oh maybe you can help me as well”, facing the children the whole time. I told them I can’t really talk to you because the children will tell the mother and I won’t be able to go out anymore.
Kay: What’s the process of migrating to the Middle East as a domestic worker? Phoebe: Agencies in the Philippines arrange for you to go to the Middle East – the Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Dubai. The agencies make sure you meet the requirements. They arrange for a general check-up to make sure you’re fit to go abroad, they get you a passport - many people do not have passports because they are too poor to travel abroad. Because this costs a lot of money, the agencies take your salary for the first six months. The contract will say you should be paid a certain amount, get days off, that your employer should not hold your passport, but none of this is followed. When I was in Saudi Arabia, I was supposed to be paid 1,500 riyal but I only got 750. In the Philippines, there is a law that you should be 25 years and above before you go, but they don’t 2 The IMF and World Bank imposed its first structural adjustment program in the Philippines in 1980, and two more from 1983 to 1985 and 1990 to 1992. In 1977, remittances (migrant workers sending money to individuals in their home country) represented 1.7% of the country’s GDP, by 2015, it represented 10.3%.
words— Kay Stephens art— Katrina Bautista
Then they said to me, OK let’s go to the toilet. I asked the two girls I was looking if we could go to the toilet. So I took them, and the Filipinas followed me but went into different cubicles. They gave me instructions, and a contact number. The kids asked me if I was talking to them, but I told them I was just singing to myself. So afterwards, I contacted them, and after two weeks, I ran away.
injuries and the Home Office said her case was very weak. We believe she was a victim of human trafficking - she didn’t want to come here, her employer decided she was their slave and decided everything for her. They told her, if the British Embassy ask you how much you’re earning, tell them you’re earning £1,500 per month, tell them you get a day off. This member of ours was refused a visa. The charity looking after her appealed. She was denied again. We encouraged her to appeal with a different institution. Now she has been given a visa. If you saw the short documentary “I am Just a Slave” on The Guardian - that’s her story. She showed her face, it was very brave. I still cry when I watch that video. That helped bring in the 2016 law. But when her case initially went to the Home Office, it was refused. It can really depend on the caseworker, how they interpret being trafficked, being a slave.
Kay: So that’s incredibly lucky that you heard the Filipinas there at that time. Phoebe: Yes. But there are always people looking out, people who have themselves escaped from their employers. I did that before FDWA existed – I took my children with me to the park, and we’d get near to other Filipinas. Most of them won’t talk to you, but some of them do. Because I had my kids, they would play with the children the Filipinas were looking after, and then they’d be like playmates and then I could talk to the Filipinas, and ask if they need help. At that time, they were still allowed to leave their employers but after 2012, I stopped doing that because it would be risky as they could become undocumented. When I ran away, the people who rescued me helped me to find another job before my visa ran out, and after that I could renew my visa. Now, you can only change employers if you find another employer before the 6 month visa you came on runs out. Otherwise, you can stay if you can prove you’re a victim of human trafficking.
[Content warning: rape mention, abuse] Kay: Are many of the cases you work with successful? Phoebe: Well, we have many cases. The first successful one we had since 2012 – she was a victim of sexual abuse. She was raped by her employer in a hospital in Gloucester, and had been raped in Qatar before. When she was in the hospital, she talked to the Filipino nurses there, and told them about her experience. And they said they could call the police for her. The hospital workers called us and we rescued her, and eventually she won her case. Another Filipina was threatened with murder by her employer – she won as well. Another lived in Knightsbridge, she wasn’t fed for ten days – she won.
Kay: How difficult is it to prove that you are a victim of trafficking? Phoebe: Often you’ll need physical marks of abuse. But there’s a long list of things - if your passports are not with you, if you’re not being fed, if you’re not paid the right amount of money, if you don’t have your own room. But one of our members didn’t have marks or
Kay: What are the main difficulties when it comes to rescuing domestic workers? 23
words— Kay Stephens art— Katrina Bautista
words— Kay Stephens art— Katrina Bautista
words— Kay Stephens art— Katrina Bautista
didn’t know. When she was in the hospital, she told the nurses about situation, who told the police, and then the Filipino embassy. She came to stay with us, then we launched a case against her employer, and she won. She had left the Philippines when she was only 17, so the agency faked her birthday, so hers was a case of child trafficking too.
Phoebe: One issue is that people don’t know their rights. There was a woman brought here, to Cheshire from Jordan. She got no days off and wasn’t allowed to go out. She thought the money she was receiving - £250 per month, for fifteen years - was the right amount. She didn’t know that she should have her own room, or that she should be holding her passport. She didn’t know anything. She only realised she had indefinite leave to remain here because someone else looked at her passport and told her so. She came back to the UK and went to the Filipino Embassy, who then called us. We launched a case against her employer for back-pay, which was maybe about £100,000 at that point. In the end, there was a settlement between them. Another story: a woman came with the brother of her employer from Syria, which is a case of trafficking because she was not brought by her employer. She didn’t get enough food, and got no days off. Eventually, she overdosed on pills so they’d take her to the hospital. She didn’t know her rights, but she really wanted to leave the family. Her visa followed the old rule [before 2012], so she would have been able to change employer. But she
Just yesterday, we had a success story. She was first in Qatar, then came here with her employer in 2014. She ran away, but nobody told her what her rights were, so she didn’t know. She just worked, but in hiding. But then, she fell ill. She was scared to seek help because of this hostile environment policy. Eventually, her condition was so bad that she had to go to the hospital. It turned out she had a hyperthyroid problem, a heart problem, a very rare disease, and kidney problems. She was very ill, and bedridden. Then the doctors found out she was undocumented and had no access to healthcare. No one was visiting her, so the hospital wrote to the Filipino embassy, and to Kanlungan, and us. We launched a case to the Home Office. We got the result: she was a positive victim of trafficking. That gave her access to the NHS. They tried everything, but her body was not responding. She decided to go home, and the Home Office paid for everything because it was an AVR [assisted voluntary return]. But yesterday, she got to go home and see her family. But we consider that a success, because she was categorised as a victim of trafficking and gained access to the NHS. Kay: So what can people do to help? Phoebe: Campaign with us! Join our workshops. Write to MPs, ask the government to ratify the ILO convention, ask them to reinstate the Overseas Domestic Workers visa. Speak out, as well. Let people know what is happening.
words— Jessie Yoon
Somewhere between documented student and unwelcomed short-term stayer; In retrospect of my days in London Jessie (they/them) 0.
starting point is an assumptionthat you are lying, and the process is to refute that assumptionwith piles of evidential documents. You have to pay £348 for your application to be considered, which is the cheapest amongst all visa types (citizenship application is £1,330; partner visa £1,523; the most expensive one is for adults moving to be with UK relatives, which is £3,250. Yes, wow). Even if you paid and met all the criteria they still could reject your visa, and as you sign the acknowledgment of this term, you think: why should they accept the application if they can reject it, and get twice the money? Students have to apply twice to gain entry anyways. That happens. Fortunately not for me, but a number of them were reported. And it is truly the easiest visa to obtain. Once you obtain it, you just have to sign the attendance monitoring form monthly in order not to experience ‘the consequential restrictions of your studies’.
Two days ago I sat my last exam. 1. Crossing the UK Border with a Student Visa My visa expires on the 8th of August. As the day approaches, returning to Britain from a trip has become much of a hassle. They usually ask those questions: Where do you study? What do you study? What kind of courses are you taking? These are basic questions written in protocol to see if the person is a ‘real’ student. Sometimes they ask stuff about what you study. What is your favourite art museum? What is art and sciences? My friend who studies Chemistry had to recite the periodic table in order to gain entry, to prove that she really studies Chemistry. As the expiry date of my visa approaches they ask at least ten more in order to be assured that I am leaving this country before it ends. Do you know when your graduation is? Why do you stay longer than your course? (even if the visa itself allows +2 months after the end of the term). You know when your visa expires? Do you think you are going to extend? Have you booked your flight?
Back to the border cops. The best part of my experience was the ‘genuine’ curiosity the cop showed. Why did you have to travel when you can stay in the UK studying? He asked. In other words, why would you travel as long as 3 weeks when ‘we’, the Great Britain, gave you this generous allowance to study? It is truly an imperial point of view. EU students were never asked those questions. In this student visa system, if you’re not from a ‘first world’ country the same colonial dynamic comes into action. You pay and we give you the world-class education
To summarise: are you really a student or not? In a much safer and privileged way, it resembles the question, ‘are you a true refugee or not?’. It is a micro-portrayal of how this system works. The Home Office works as a police, not some kind of manager of foreign residents. The 27
words— Jessie Yoon
and knowledge. Let’s not forget that the first thing I learn studying at UCL is to not cry or protest racist remarks inside the seminar room, on a course called ‘Nationalism and Ethnicity in Contemporary Europe’ where I was the only person with a non-EU passport.
So if I hate these system so much, why am I here? Was it worth it to go through all those to leave Seoul? Well it’s not all that simple if you’re queer. Growing up in Seoul, as a queer kid, under that toxic nationalism and such, all I wanted was to leave. I couldn’t, as a teenager, so I studied. As I became smarter I realised there are perks there too, actually loads of them, but I was that sad closeted queer till 2 years ago. Praise for the cultural heritage yes, but Seoul is the city that I have never felt I belonged to.
Anyways. This dubious status as a non-EU national with limited residence opened my eyes to see the system critically, but also to realise and reflect on my privilege. Despite me identifying as genderqueer, I am read as an East Asian woman: one of the most predictable type of bonafide traveller. Even if I am asked those questions I have never been denied entry, nor held in that glass cube with those whose entry was either pending or denied. I have never seen a white person there.
Am I contributing to homonationalism? Am I solidifying the dichotomy of queerphobic East and humanitarian West? My main concern is this question erases the power dynamic inside the queer community in the Western world. It portrays the Euro-American queer scene as a harmonious one when people of colour continue to be marginalised in the queer community as well. It took so long for me to unlearn homonationalism in myself and actually recognise my own agency for migration. It doesn’t have to be self-loathing. I couldn’t stand living where I was born and wanted to study in London, where I can access resources on Queer Aesthetics (even if academia here is also fucked up). I chose it myself.
Ok, so it has been obvious that home office do not want us, and constant policing and screening at the border reinforce this status. My friend (or maybe not) called them ‘necessary evils’. Oh, how white people think never ceases to amaze me. Anyways then, does the university really want ‘international’ students? 2. Why are you here?
It is not that rose-tinted life of pursuing studies here. My remarks were frequently ignored in the classroom. I feel like my academic potential is underestimated because of my ethnicity, English, and my inability to translate certain knowledge into this flat language. Here, I feel like my strength, my efforts, and all the time I’ve struggled juggling between mental health and studies, being reduced into that notion of ‘Asians work hard therefore fare better’. Good ol’ model minority stereotype.
Well, the university does need money. Non-EU students pay twice the amount for tuition. Lucrative! The affiliate student manager at my department explicitly told me that if I applied for MA I would be granted admission so easily because UK universities need ‘your’ money. He, a white gay man, thought it was a joke or even some reassurance. It is, my friends, not a joke. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
words— Jessie Yoon
3. At the intersection of multiple marginalisation Around January, mid-winter, I was a depresso espresso. All I could think was how I will cope with leaving here, as well as living here. That contested feeling of failing both; the city you’re born in and the city you chose. Again, a counterargument against homonationalism. Surprise, deconstructing homonationalism whilst dealing with your own oppression is not that simple. It’s nice to explore my sexuality. To date people, go to queer events and such. London queer scene has its perks, but it’s relieving to know that people, especially beautiful qtipocs are working together to make the scene more inclusive. But also I felt that I was failing, that I am not part of that scene. I couldn’t go out for long, I was not good at making friends. I became more and more self-conscious of myself failing that I started to isolate myself even further. Jessie, you wanted to leave, and now you’re here, why can’t you live as you wanted? As always, I intellectualised it. I became academically involved in the queer side of migration studies. I took courses, wrote papers, and went to conferences. Whilst attempting to do research on multiple marginalisation against queer East Asian migrants in a Euro-American context, I found out there is no such research. There are some on Asian Americans, and model minority stereotypes and such, but not much on queer issues. When I tried to search for queer migrants, East Asians are barely mentioned. So I had to extrapolate and bridge two theories on queer migration and East Asian migrants. At the intersection of being queer and being ethnically East 29
Asian, what I focused was the sense of belonging, namely, home. My premise was this difficulty to find home would further deteriorate their (our) mental health. Many models on East Asian migration focus on the cultural homogeneity and the closely-knit community. Following those, big scholars in migration studies count homeland orientation as a defining characteristic for these diaspora Even though they are ethnically marginalized in Euro-American societies, they maintain strong social ties within themselves and build their own small society to deal with it. Is it applicable for Queer East Asians? Maybe, but largely not. Why would I go back to what I wanted to escape from? Here comes the second wing of marginalisation bird: sexual marginalisation. Finding home, finding a community, having friends who understands, not having to explain everything before you even start to talk about stuff, have been nearly impossible for me. Either you have to constantly come out, or you have to become an ambassador of the culture you grew up in. Of course there will be good people somewhere, in and out of both communities, but no, you just can’t hold onto that hope sometimes. Anyways, using academia as a therapy helped. 4. Afterlife? I leave in two months. I am planning to come back next year to continue my studies. Thank you Gia, Biju, Panini, and my friends. I hold on to your words and voices when I cannot hold myself on. See you soon! Despite all the problems, I also learned to love it in a way. So, I think I’ll come back. And I already hate myself for that, but I wish to continue fighting against it. With you.
words— Joel Tan art— Charlotte Hong
Queer Singapore: Empire Is Not That Far Away skinned, good-looking boys from Hainan Island were shipped over by the British to serve as prostitutes for other Chinese workers and possibly British settlers. I think about fluid East Asian attitudes towards queer desire, how Hainanese men in particular were known for their femininity, their openness towards homosexuality. In French Indochina, Chinese houseboys, many of them Hainanese like me, were known as “ambassadors of sodomy”. In Singapore, the Chinese houseboys who served the British were overwhelmingly Hainanese. We were known for our cooking, the gentleness of our approach. I think of the frissons and desires that must have sprung between masters and servants in those dank, sweaty tropical houses; forbidden issuances left out of the history books.
1. At a dinner party in Buckingham, I meet an elderly British man who, on learning that I’m from Singapore, tells me he was stationed there with the British navy in the 60s. He winks and asks me if I know about Bugis Street, a part of town infamous at the time for its transgender sex-workers and licentious foreign sailors. The number of times I’ve been asked this question.
I think about how much of the fetish for other skin must have been learned in the fetid, unequal crucible of the colonial encounter. There is much in common between the man on Grindr seeking smooth-skinned, submissive bottoms from Far East Asia, and a certain Charles Baker, the early 20th century gentleman traveler and cocktail enthusiast, who writes, in his description of the Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel:
I don’t answer him. But I start to think about my father, himself a sailor in his youth, a man descended from immigrants from Hainan Island in Southern China.
“When our soft-footed Malay boy brings the 4th Sling and finds us
I think of a little factoid the colonial historian Malcom Turnbull once turned up about how, in the mid 19th century, fair32
words— Joel Tan art— Charlotte Hong
peering over the window sill at the cobrahandling snakecharmers tootling their confounded flutes below, he murmurs 'jaga baik-baik Tuan' . . . or 'take care master' as it means in English. The Singapore Gin Sling is a delicious, slow-acting, insidious thing.”
and ultimately imprison gay men in Singapore. This was some 30 years after the same law had been repealed in the UK. 377A of the Singapore Penal Code describes Unnatural Offences: “any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years.”
I think of these spiritual inheritances from long-dead queer ancestors, a queer history recorded as forgotten lovers, censored names, inscriptions on the heart and imagination.
As recently as the early 2000s, Singapore’s parliamentarians rested firmly and resoundingly on keeping this law on the books, turning down again and again petitions by local activists to repeal the law. They were afraid of widening a schism in society created by right-wing fundamentalist Christians, who trace their deep roots in our society to the arrival of European missionaries in the 19th century. 3. There is a Victorian tonality to discourse at the highest level of Singapore’s public life when it comes to sex. 2.
This is Christian parliamentarian Thio Li Ann during a 2007 parliamentary debate over the repeal of section 377A:
Empire is not that far away. As recently as the 50s and early 60s, Singapore was still part of the British Empire. My parents were born British subjects.
“Anal-penetrative sex is inherently damaging to the body and a misuse of organs, like shoving a straw up your nose to drink.
As recently as the 90s, a law created on British shores in the 16th century—that was absorbed like a virus into Singapore law from colonial Indian law through an arbitrary osmosis—was routinely used to prosecute, publicly humiliate,
…To slouch back to Sodom is to return to the Bad Old Days in ancient Greece or even China where sex was utterly wild and unrestrained… 33
words— Joel Tan art— Charlotte Hong
affair. Foreigners and foreign companies, should not be able to weigh in.
We should not be subject to the tyranny of the undemocratic minority who want to violate our consciences, trample on our cherished moral virtues and threaten our collective welfare by imposing homosexual dogma on right-thinking people. Keep 377A.”
Many of Singapore’s positions on issues of supposedly moral import have to do with a culture war that began in the 70s. In a massive cleanup of the city, our government pit “Asian Values” against so-called “Western” ones. A culture war to consolidate national identity in the wake of the vacuum left by years of colonization. Homosexuality was seen as a Western vice, and was actively prosecuted from the 70s through to the early 90s, three decades that saw brutal police entrapment at gay cruising spots, raids and arrests at gay bars, and public naming and shaming.
This was met by a chorus of chairthumping agreement. In these moments you hear the ghosts most clearly, clawing and scratching against the veil.
This is the same government whose current position is that 377A will remain on the books as a placeholder for public morality, even though as an olive branch to global capital and the pink dollar, the law itself will “no longer be enforced.” Today, Singapore, always a nexus contradictions, is one of the gayest cities in the region. 5. There is a Victorian tonality to the way the police interrogate me about my breasts after I’m hauled into the police station during Pink Dot in 2016. I’ve turned up at the protest in drag, as one does, and I’m wearing a pair of fake breasts that I’ve let hang out. Someone has made a police report against me, very likely someone from the right-wing evangelical camp that routinely turns up at Pink Dot to spot trouble and report it to the police—anything from littering to, as it now emerges, fake breasts.
4. As recently as last year, Pink Dot, an annual anti-377A movement and public gathering, was told by the Singapore government that it could no longer receive financial support from international corporations like Google and Barclays. The debate over 377A, the government maintains, is a local 34
words— Joel Tan art— Charlotte Hong
“Sir I think you probably understand that some women might find it very disrespectful,” the police officer tells me, gesturing at my fake tits. I can see as he says this that it’s also helping him to justify to himself why we’re going through this at all. We go on to have a conversation about how the police might deal with a situation if a fat man with breasts decides to expose them. It’s not really a conversation, all they can say is “he’s a man”. “But these breasts aren’t even that big, " I say. "They’re actually kind of small for me." I’m strung along on this investigation for almost 6 months, during which time I’m not permitted to leave the country. Eventually, I’m let off with a stern warning about having exhibited obscene materials. The next time will lead to a charge.
keeps texting away on his phone, as if afraid of acknowledging the nature of our encounter in public. Later in the bedroom, he apologises when he cums, and leaves. In his shame, I hear the echo of an older man who once came up to me on a gay dating website in 2004. I’m 17, and have been very active and open on these forums. In his carefully worded message to my inbox, this man says: “be careful, don’t be so public, it’s not safe for us AJs” using the popular Singapore pig latin term for “gay”. I remember feeling embarrassed for him. Remember thinking how behind the times he was. How ridiculous that he could not bring himself to say “gay”. We weren’t living in the most progressive of times, but by 2004, the police raids had long stopped, the entrapment campaigns had long ended, the clubs and bars were in their heyday.
6. There is a boy I meet on Grindr. Before we hook up, he meets me under my apartment while I have a cigarette. I try to make light conversation. He won’t make eye-contact with me, and
It isn’t until years later that I think about him again. I am 28, overlooking the bay from the rooftop bar of one of the glass 35
words— Joel Tan art— Charlotte Hong
skyscrapers of my city. Somehow, I have ended up being the only Singaporean at a party filled with white gay men. I think in this moment about how there are layers of this city, hidden in plain sight, that are built entirely for the enjoyment of transient people. At this bar and others, I look around at the kinds of gay encounters this wave of capital has brought onto our shores: the circuit parties, the white men feeling up brown boys at the downtown watering hole. Drunk and very troubled, I think in this moment about how cynically my government has papered over its past violence in service of a new, pink-washed era of false tolerance. How it can present, depending on the vantage, the illusion of a queer safehaven over a fresh warfield still reeking of shame.
7. And I think, this is all so much history. Things born in pain never go away, they stay around to haunt. History is not progressive, it’s a swamp; but we wade through it thinking geometric thoughts.
And I wonder, in this moment, about that poor man who reached out so sincerely, and pathetically, to me over a cold Internet forum all those years ago. Where has he has gone to? What love has he found? What shame has he reconciled? What happiness has he grasped?
Is there a true reckoning of LGBT history in the UK, of Pride, of anti-gay legislation, brutality and violence, without a reckoning with empire and its long shadow? Empire, in the broadest sense, made “queer” and “other” entire peoples; made people queer unto themselves, turned into British moral subjects people from an array of moral and religious traditions. In my country, the psychic and spiritual dissonances still ache today, an ongoing moral crisis, a nation daily scraping off and then piling on dirty old skins.
words— Minying Huang photos— Bea Xu
lăo cháozhōu Bàba, they coal your eyes, these alleyways I walk differently, hand held, pigtails, red hood, red shoes are for dancing home to māma. (Being carried home to māma.) In the chill of the city, small, blued, spills blood right by street vendors, child. Cart after cart, they coal your eyes. Two feet blued, small, you. Mine only blue at the beach in a sprint towards the sea. In the chill of the city, blued, age seven, you. I eye size sevens in mā’s lap by the whir of the electric heater, sevens stir up the lane, tread blood bond back to gōng gong, and I know time brought socks, other shades of soft, and shoes. But see, all I see right now is you, age seven, coaling barefoot towards us.
words— Carmen Hoang art— Vivien Chan
The Kitchen Sink it. You’re never really sure. Nothing is recorded. Word of mouth. Story telling. Everything I'm going to write is hearsay and paraphrase.
I often cut through the bit of green that underlooks my block, a shortcut by a minute or two. I beeline for the gap beneath the walkway to my parent’s door right in the middle of this maisonette. I sometimes think about how strange and beautiful and random it was for them to have ended up here, in this part of Lewisham, this part of London, this part of England, this part of the world. We could have ended up anywhere but we’re here.
I eat a pickled salad made by my mum. It's got salmon and mangoes and cucumbers and onions and it's sweet and sour and refreshing and to me it tastes like summer and my dimly lit bedroom. To her it tastes like sitting outside in a Vietnamese village during hot nights. As a teenager, her and her friends huddled around a TV, watching a film someone has put on.
When do migration stories begin? At the moment a family decides to leave? The moment they run? A foot on boat?
When does a migration story start?
Parents, aunties and uncles will go on and on about their history. It'll always be superficial because you've not lived
Mum tells me my grandma was a top notch tofu maker. She earned big bucks 38
words— Carmen Hoang art— Vivien Chan
on her street. I never know if I can trust what my parents say. Their stories sound so outlandish and foreign, but I find myself repeating them all the time. My dad used to smuggle things into Communist China. Everything, he says, from chopsticks to a shoelace.
my bed and I only wear slippers in my room. I find myself nervously laughing at ‘uncomfortable, but definitely not racist, not THAT racist, not racist like RACIST RACIST’ jokes, to not appear contradictory. I’m 24. It’s a family event and it’s my family this time. They say horribly awkward, racist things. I’m not 18 anymore. This time, this time, I stand up and I say something (I don’t like the things you’re saying, I feel uncomfortable). They ignore me. It’s much harder to stand up against family. They say, I’m sorry you feel offended. I sit back: red cheeks, puffed face, hot tears pushed back. Yeah, sorry I’m offended. I wonder if my brothers ever feel like an outsider looking in as well.
Even our surname has a story. Dad’s parents cross the border, change their names to the Vietnamese spelling. They luckily speak the language. They come from money and they’re running from persecution. When does a migration story start? Mum and dad are obsessed with talking about how they came from well off backgrounds. You know, dad’s family built half the buildings in the village - the pool, the courts of justice. You know, mum’s family were of Chinese descent - a sign of privilege over the Vietnamese locals. When I was a kid, we went to visit the village. It’s a weird, dilapidated looking thing connected to a shop. There are chickens in tiny wooden cages everywhere and a strange smell in the air. A heat my body can’t stand. I want to make myself so small in this place. Mum and three of her siblings shared a bed growing up, she says. I think, is this money to them? Then I realise, this is money to them. It makes me realise what I have. I bet they must think we’ve got it made. The truth is they probably don’t think of us at all.
Nonplussed by me, my parents regale stories of when they were young. There was a time, mum says, we had to wash clothes and plates in rivers. I look at the kitchen sink and it’s overflowing.
I’m 18 and it’s the first time I’ve really thought about being Chinese. It’s Sheffield, it’s white and it’s different. Not bad, just different. I don’t eat choi sum or pho as often any more. It’s more pasta and more potatoes. I recoil when someone puts their shoes on
One of the hardest lessons you’ll ever learn is that you might love and respect and be proud of and feel devoted to your parents, but deep down you know you don’t like them. You know that there’s 39
words— Carmen Hoang art— Vivien Chan
a reason for their beliefs and that you must dissect and dismantle where these prejudices come from, but that doesn’t change the fact that you just don’t. You feel guilty all the time for it.
it too. Children of immigrants can’t help that, nor should we.
I sometimes wonder if it’s the same for them. That they look at me and think, I love you, I really love you, but I don’t like you.
Is it when the boat first hits shore? When you see lines of streets, rows of houses, and an impossible number of lights. And you work at a takeaway, provide a service. You smile when you give their change back. Grit your teeth when they tell you to go back to your own country. See a government slowly erode your culture when it suits them. You fall in love, however briefly, and buy a house in the city. You raise three children, and they get jobs, marry, have children, and travel, drink on warm nights, hate their jobs and find love in trivial things. In this terrain that is so different from what they started in.
When does a migration story end, what makes a journey worth it?
It’s 2018 and my cousin has found an archival report from a popular Irish news broadcaster about mum’s family reuniting with their village friends in Dublin. It’s 1981 and my mum is super young, super dark and has a super perm. She’s 16 and her mum is crying with happiness because the last time she saw her friends they were fleeing the Communist regime. Mum, I say, you’re famous. We have wide grins over this piece of history. For me - evidence of her journey, for her - a memory. I love her more than anything in the world.
When does a migration story end? When a foot hits a land? When no one feels proud about a journey made? When there’s no one left to remember any of it?
I use it as a way to show solidarity to those crossing borders and channels and oceans now. I fear my parents probably wouldn’t.
Its dinner time and I’m like 10 or something. My dad’s trying to teach us correct dinner etiquette which we will never follow unless in the company of lots of extended family. Things like, don’t eat all the good parts of the chicken first, tell everyone to take their time once you’ve finished, hold your chopsticks properly. My brother points out that I don’t hold my chopsticks properly. It’s something I’ve never realised before. I’m marveling at it. An outsider looking in.
Dad once told me that he was part of the late 70s movement of Cantonese speaking Chinese people who went to London. He liked to say he was a big part of it, like a ‘leader’. But I also learnt over the years that my dad likes to embellish the truth, so I don’t take him seriously. Sure dad, I say, in that sarcastic tone you automatically spout once you hit fourteen. It’s not until months later that my auntie says exactly the same thing and I’m in disbelief that it’s true, that I feel, what, pride? He is part of this history, one that I will never know, but because I am his that makes me part of
That’s okay, my mum says, as long as you can still eat with them. I smile. Words of comfort from a woman who has been an outsider, many times in several countries, for a journey I hope was worth it. 40
words— Carmen Hoang art— Vivien Chan
These classroom-style drawings demonstrate some of my experiences identifying with my Thai half. I cannot read or write in Thai without referring to the Thai language books I had as a child. For my mother it is her mother tongue, but for me as her child it will always be my second language, my child tongue. Kally Spencer Townson
words— Kally Spencer-Townson art— Vivien Chan
words— Kally Spencer-Townson art— Vivien Chan
wordsâ€” Alex Lim
A History Lesson History has a way of filling up gaps in knowledge like water rushing into the corners of a pool. It doesn't matter about bias or context or content. If you can swim in it, then surely it works well enough. But most of the time people don't realise they're still in a pool and that there's an ocean out there. This is a lesson I learnt about discovering that ocean.
Holocaust. And one line about the number of Australians that died fighting the Japanese in jungles. No further explanation. No further mention of the war in Africa or Asia. The absence of information led me to believe that the 'world' meant Europe, America and the Soviet Union, and that other countries managed to miss out on the worst parts of the World Wars. Because surely if they had suffered, it'd have been worth talking about. If I could believe this - a relatively bright kid whose parents are Chinese-Malaysian - then couldn't anyone of British heritage believe it? And why would there be any impetus to question otherwise?
I was 14 years old, waiting for the History teacher to set homework on a World War II syllabus. I desperately sought approval from others (teachers, middleclass kids, cool kids, clever kids, white kids) to shore up my self-esteem, so I was excited to get the homework, excited to read books, write essays, prove my worth. Unfortunately, the homework was the 'easy' task of interviewing our grandparents about their World War II experiences. No books to be read, no sources to be cited, no arguments to be made. Just a simple transcription required.
Our narratives don't exist in school textbooks or media, and it's disassociative to learn about the world through a post-British Empire lens: we gave Indians trains (whilst enforcing the caste system)! We abolished the black slave trade (that we started)! etc. Knowing that they're talking about your ancestors, with no alternative answers in mainstream media or culture, can be confusing, particularly when you're grappling with identity. If I were to trace my disillusionment in academia, the existence of meritocracy in a world of capitalism, and History (with a capital H), I think the origins could be found somewhere around this single piece of homework.
In a vacuum of knowledge about my heritage and ancestral history, and thus filled only with British school curriculum history, these were my thoughts: 1. My only living grandparent, and the only one I'd ever met, lived in Malaysia and we didn't speak the same language. 2. Did my grandparents even have any experience of the war, being so far from Europe, the Nazis, the Blitz, evacuees, rationing? 3. I'm not going to get an A.
Perhaps I could have felt more secure if I had a stronger grasp of my own personal history, but my parents have always found it hard to talk about the past. Migration stories are often stories about displacement and losing dreams, and people, and I understand this better now as an adult. Sometimes
What's taught on the school curriculum is nowhere near the breadth of what's necessary. I remember videos and books about the Blitz, (too many on) British rationing, wartime spirit, the 44
wordsâ€” Alex Lim
photo: Alex Lim
things are too painful to talk about out loud and you don't want to pass on that grief to the next generation... but it's also a disservice because without that knowledge, we learn our history through the eyes of others.
Now that I'm older and have learnt to ask, I have collected as many small anecdotes and stories that I can. I have hundreds of branches, and that still doesn't make a tree with solid roots. But I treat these stories as the equivalent of birth certificates, obituaries, marriage announcements, newspaper clippings, landing cards, war medals. They're coloured with biases, full of halfremembered facts, misinformation and sometimes contradict one another, but it's better than a void. Floating in the ocean can be a terrifying thing, but it's more refreshing than doing the same laps over and over in a pool.
There's so much shame in our culture, which always leads to secrets passed from generation to generation. My father is adopted and found out when he had to provide a birth certificate for his university application. My mother didn't know she had a Japanese grandmother until, prompted by an orthodontist noting my brother had an odd teeth formation only found in Japan, she asked her older siblings. And if you know anything about Chinese-Japanese relations in the 20th century, it makes sense that this was buried for years. My great-grandmother's name, what she looked like, where she came from, will all stay buried by death and silence and shame. I always feel a twinge of sorrow when a doctor asks about my familial medical history and I have to say, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. I'm at risk of everything and nothing.
The homework was pointless by the way - the teacher never asked for the stories and never read them. I kept my copy, an insecure 14 year old's re-telling of my mother's recollection of her mother's World War II experiences, and still have it all these years later as a precious document of my family's history. And even if that's all there is, I've learnt that my history is valid in whatever form it takes. 45
words— Isabella Normark art— Kally Spencer-Townson
Not your narrative: Reflections on the Thai sex worker trope As a person of Thai-Swedish parentage, my migration story is often written for me. It is inferred that my father is an old gross white man and my mother is a beautiful and docile younger woman. In the best case scenario, people will wonder how she can be with him and what god-awful situation this saves her from. Alternatively, she is understood to be loose and sexually aggressive. Both scenarios imply sex work, and so, ‘wellmeaning’ curiosity in “where I’m from” is turned into a set of moral judgements and patronising attitudes. They wonder, do I know about the sex industry in Thailand?
immigration to Europe is the result of Western imperialism, from wartime ‘rest and recreation’ programmes for American soldiers to the modern day industry of sex tourism. Yet, the demand for Thai women is so often reduced to the individual behaviour of sex tourists. Swedish people like to think this is miles apart from their family holiday in Koh Samui, with little regard for how the tourist industry as a whole affects people’s livelihoods and rewires the local economy and infrastructure to meet a new set of demands. They use the same roads, buses, hotels and bars as sex buyers but how could they have anything to do with the sex industry? When white men with Thai women in short skirts walk by, they give disapproving looks and hold their children’s hand a little tighter.
It is interesting how (white) people’s analysis of this so nearly understands the combination of racism and sexism that affect Thai women and ‘female-assigned’ people, and its role in shaping the sex industry - how the trope of Thai women as sex workers is based on Orientalist notions of Asian women as “exotic”, submissive, and subservient. Of course, such an analysis often overlooks the fact that Thai men are also sellers of sex, and the fact that transgender women and Thai people who identify as ‘kathoey’ (a historically Thai gender of Khmer origin) are particularly affected by racist and (cis) sexist systems.
Yet, the paternalistic concern for Thai women and moral judgement on sex buyers does little to address the precarious situations of women working in the sex industry or the racism and sexism faced by so-called ‘import brides’, especially when they don’t live up to the perfect victim narrative. It is easy to take for granted one’s own right, ability, and will to travel and move across the world, but when a Thai woman travels or migrates it is often assumed that she is a victim of patriarchy. Yet, for Thai women in Sweden, ‘friendly’ concern quickly turns into shaming if they wear too much lipstick or too tight a dress. If she’s not a perfect victim, she’s a gold digger, whose
It is interesting how the nick-naming of Thai wives as ‘import brides’ so nearly understands that ‘we are here because you were there’ - that (unwanted) Thai
words— Isabella Normark art— Kally Spencer-Townson
aggressive sexuality disrupts society’s ‘proper’ codes of (white) womanhood.
on the day to day may have little impact on my actual experience of racism and (cis)sexism in public, I have felt that there is a difference in how I am received in certain spaces when expressing features more associated with masculinity. Being read as queer or gender non-conforming gives me the potential to be a ‘liberated’ subject in the white feminist narrative. In other words, it’s harder to pin me in the role of the oppressed Thai sex worker than when I express more femme.
As a mixed white and Thai diasporic, the trope of the Thai sex worker is one which follows me around. Assumptions are made about my parentage and my story of migration, but also about me as a ‘female-assigned’ body racialised as Thai or mixed Thai (when not absorbed into an orientalist notion of Asia as East Asia). Although I couldn’t name it at the time, I think I experienced my first dissonances with my assigned gender upon realising that I was already seen as gender deviant in the eyes of those who paradoxically (mis)gender me a woman. As much as I asserted myself as highly educated, well-spoken, or feminist, Thai femininity can never live up to the (unattainable) norm and respectability of white womanhood, whether in its more conservative or liberal “progressive” form. As a femme identifying person who feels at home in an outward expression typically associated with femininity (but which for me has deeper and more complex meanings), I often feel the need to tone down my femmeness in public spaces to ward off sexual harassment associated with the ‘Thai sex worker’ stereotype. Asking my fee or otherwise implying that I was a sex worker in a way that is clearly meant as a racist and sexist slur, is a common way in which men have tried to claim ownership of my body. So, it is interesting that, as a queer and non-binary person, being associated with queerness or androgyny (which for female-assigned people is problematically linked to expressions which are understood to be more ‘masculine’), while making me vulnerable to queerphobia, can also make me feel safer in public spaces. Although how I present
Of course, the fact that people assume or imply that I am or that my mother is a sex worker is not the same as the experience of actually being one. The truth is, it is not my narrative either. Rather, my intentions for writing this piece is to say that, just as the time is up for white saviorism, it is also up for respectability politics. As much as we might want to reject stereotypes imposed on us and our parents, we cannot fight back against racism and sexism by vilifying sex workers. Being called a sex worker is not an insult (although using it as an insult is harmful and stigmatising for sex workers), yet we are too often encouraged to play the good immigrant by distancing ourselves from sex work. Whether our parents are sex workers or not, they deserve our respect. This is also something we must learn to respect ourselves when faced with assumptions and moral judgements. As people who are confronted with the trope of the ‘Thai sex worker’, our allegiance should not be with trying to perform a respectable Thai narrative of migration at the expense of sex workers. It should be in solidarity with sex workers as a part of, and beyond, the Thai and Southeast Asian community.
words— Eva C Y Li
Drifting Between Colonisers1
‘So, do you feel Chinese then?’
Having constantly experienced the ‘NiHao racism’2, I am always well-prepared with a list of literature that critically contests the notion of ‘Chineseness’, such as how the contemporary People’s Republic of China (i.e. ‘China’ in most people’s understanding) has monopolised the definition of ‘Chineseness’.3
At an academic conference, a Cypriot Turk asked me a question while we were engaging in a group conversation about place and identity: ‘As a person from Hong Kong, do you feel a strong connection with Britain?’ I did not feel offended, but it took me a few seconds to organise my thoughts.
But my brain wasn’t functioning after three days of conference. I, reluctantly, gave him a very short answer:
As a (former) colonial subject, did I feel a connection with the former colonial power when I first moved to London?
‘I’m not entirely sure about what “connection” means. But I definitely notice the strange familiarity in my everyday life living in the UK.’
Invisibility Another day, I was having coffee with M, my Austrian friend. We talked about our everyday experiences of being a migrant, especially after the EU referendum in 2016. She mentioned that, as a white foreigner in this country, she was never the target of alt-right racist attacks of any kind.
Connection is less manifested by a conscious emotion as by a series of embodied practices incarnated in my body which I have sometimes taken for granted. ‘There are many microscopic instances embedded in my everyday life that remind me of my Hong Kong origins. For example, cars drive on the left. Pedestrian crossing buttons look so familiar here. I don’t have to bring socket adaptors with me, because three-pin plugs are also used in Hong Kong.’
‘But I can feel the growing xenophobic atmosphere off campus,’ M said. ‘Have you encountered any anti-social behaviour?’ ‘Of course. Not very frequently, but it’s part of my everyday life here.’ I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I’m not sure if I should feel lucky or guilty though. East Asians are usually not the primary targets of xenophobic attacks, because
To be honest, I feel ambivalent about these instances of everyday convenience because they can be considered the product of colonial disposition. 49
words— Eva C Y Li
we are considered “invisible” in the racial hierarchy, I guess.’
the 1990s, as though it had been sealed in a time capsule. Part of the reason was that many early Chinese migrants were from Canton or South China.
The chat went on and we talked about our work.
In Cantonese, Chinatown is known as ‘Tong Yan Kai’ (唐人街, in Cantonese romanisation), literally meaning ‘Tong’s People Street’. ‘Tong’ refers to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), often considered to be one of the ‘greatest’ empires in Chinese history because of its military conquests. Before the birth of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1912, which was the successor to imperial China, and the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which is the (disputed) successor to the ROC, many Chinese migrants identified themselves as ‘People of Tong/Tang’.
‘Are you planning to stay in the UK after Brexit?’ I asked M. ‘I’m not sure yet. If I can get a well-paid job elsewhere, why not? How about you?’ ‘I’m not sure either, because I find myself always being a second-class citizen, no matter where I am.’ I took a deep breath and went on. ‘Being a lesbian in Hong Kong, I’m a second-class citizen regarding sexual citizenship. There is no anti-discrimination legislation based on sexual orientation, not to mention civil union or gay marriage. Politically and economically speaking, the autonomy of Hong Kong has been encroached upon by the neocolonial power from the North. It has become even worse since the Umbrella Movement4. Even our everyday living space has been invaded. However, being an East Asian in London, I also have the same feeling of being a second-class citizen. My skin colour and my accent are like permanent markers of a migrant.’
Now, ‘Tong Yan Kai’ is fading. ‘Zhongguo Cheng’ is rising. And I hear much more Mandarin than Cantonese in Chinatown when I do my monthly grocery shopping there. ‘Zhongguo Cheng’ (中國城, in Pinyin romanisation) literally means ‘the city of China’. Climbing the stairs from Leicester Square underground station and entering Chinatown via Lisle Street, I saw an interesting juxtaposition of symbols—red lanterns and the Pride flag.
‘But I guess the privilege of living in London is that people don’t really care about each other, right?’ M chuckled.
Some say that they are incompatible symbols. ‘Homosexuality is not part of Chinese culture,’ is their usual saying.
‘Probably.’ I shrugged my shoulders again.
‘They might be an impossible utopia of disappearance,’ I ponder. Literature professor Ackbar Abbas once described Hong Kong as a culture as disappearance.5 In such a ‘borrowed place in borrowed time’, a phrase used
Disappearance When I first arrived in London in the early 2010s, Chinatown was like Hong Kong in 50
words— Eva C Y Li
by sociologist Lui Tai-Lok, Hongkongers’ struggles with misrecognition and selfrepresentation have become even more salient. Intriguingly, the sentiment of disappearance and this juxtaposition of symbols reminds me of the lyrics of the song Brave New Hong Kong (美麗新香港) by indie band My Little Airport: ‘This Hong Kong is no longer my turf. Just try to think I’m drifting elsewhere. (這香港已不是我的地頭 就當我在外地飄 流).’6 Hongkongers have been drifting, so have the queers. No wonder queer scholars like Helen Leung draw a parallel between queer lives and the postcoloniality of Hong Kong.7
photo Eva C Y Li
So, where is home, and what is home? And what do the answers to these questions mean to me, a queer woman from Hong Kong?
1 This title is inspired by an article written by the postcolonial literary theorist Rey Chow. ‘Between Colonizers: Hong Kong’s Postcolonial Self-Writing in the 1990s’
Looking at the chain of pair of flags which were hung alternately behind the Pride flag, I might have found the answer.
2 The ‘Say “NO” to Ni-Hao Racism’ campaign was initiated in 2016 by Ayumi Nonomiya, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. 3 For example, Allen Chun, ‘Fuck Chineseness: On the Ambiguities of Ethnicity as Culture as Identity’; Shu-Mei Shih, ‘The Concept of the Sinophone’.
The pair of flags look familiar, yet estranged; I remember that I was told to ‘know’ the Union Jack, and then I had to learn to belong to the red one with five yellow stars.
4 The Umbrella Movement, or the Umbrella Revolution, was a massive civil disobedience occupy movement which lasted for 79 days in Hong Kong. Participants were protesting against China’s political intervention that prohibited universal suffrage and also the business-government collusion that has resulted in a wide wealth gap.
While some of the second generation of Hong Kong migrants are ready to embrace the rising superpower in red; it might be slightly easier for me to twist the state of permanent drifting into a sense of rootless belonging.
5 Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. 6 Translation
by Vicky Leong.
Abbas might say that it is the practice of disappearance.
7 Helen Hok-Sze Leung, Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong.
words—— Mia Watanabe art ——— Elyssa Rider
I was born in Kobe. My mother is Japanese and my father is British. Apart from my early childhood which I spent living between the wild mountains of Nunobiki and the bustling metropolis of Osaka, I grew up in England. I have a British passport, English is my first language, I went to school in England, I call Britain ‘home’ – I am British. I feel British. For the most part, ‘White Passing’ is an accurate description of my mixed race identity. My whiteness allows me to move in and out of white spaces without most people even batting an eyelid. And with that I have access to certain white privileges. But there’s still something that makes me feel uncomfortable in Britain. I’m not fully white and I can tell that many of the people around me don’t quite think so either. Maybe it’s the calculating eye contact that lasts just a little too long. Maybe it’s the incessant interrogation about ‘where I’m really from’. Or perhaps it’s the occasional sexualisation and fetishisation of being ‘exotic’. These gestures all point to the fact that some people just can’t work out what I am. And for them, it seems to be enough to justify the delegitimisation of calling Britain my home. I cling to the dream of one day being able to call here, there or anywhere my home. In many ways, this is what I expect each time I return to Osaka to visit my grandparents. I anticipate an erasure of all this uncertainty: a feeling of contentment – of belonging. Yet I still cannot help but question my selfhood through every breath I take. Eyes lingering, heads turning, ‘what is she?’. I find myself constantly assuming what the people around me make of me. I feel a self-crippling, self-consuming kind of selfconsciousness. A surging desire to prove that I am Japanese. I don’t feel concrete. I don't feel real. And in this attempt to feel visible, I have made myself invisible. My understanding of home ceases to exist. In early 2018 I legally changed my name in Britain. I exchanged my father’s Irish surname for my mother’s Japanese maiden name and just like that, Finnamore became Watanabe. Although a family dispute had initially spurred me to make this decision, I can’t deny that part of me was determined that changing my name could convince myself (and those around me) of my own identity. By labelling my half-British, halfJapanese self with a half-British, half-Japanese name, I thought I might be understood. I thought I might understand. I thought I might, finally, exist. After all of this, I am still the same. I continue – and will continue – to occupy this same liminal space between acceptance and rejection, known and unknown. Yet I find myself unconvinced of my own identity, my own home. I have internalised those glaring eyes and regurgitated them into self-doubt and anxiety. I can only hope that one day I will be able to move freely between British and Japanese identities whilst accepting that at times I am ‘more’ White Passing, at other times I feel more Japanese, and sometimes I am just there, being. Nevertheless, existing. Home is not here, there or anywhere. Home is in me. Home is in my body. And coming home means coming back to my body. To breathing, to existing, to oscillating to and from. Home. 52
words— Mia Watanabe art— Kally Spencer-Townson
words— Mia Watanabe art— Kally Spencer-Townson
words— Mia Watanabe art— Kally Spencer-Townson
words— Jade Chao
The trouble with freedom (plus, an analysis of tourists)
Often when you’re an immigrant you come somewhere in the hopes of cultural, intellectual, geographical freedom. But really we have all seen what truly offered to immigrants - restrictions on their culture, physical movements, and lives. The people with the least freedom to move are restricted by governments or socioeconomic factors or are refugees (they’re forced to stay put or to flee) and those with most freedom to move include tourists and the wealthy (they’re travelling purely for the sake of travelling). I’ve been thinking a lot about these different travellers and what it means to be positioned on this scale of geographical mobility. When my parents made the decision to migrate they were somewhere in the middle. When they arrived, they found themselves somewhere towards the shit end. As newly arrived immigrants, it’s a huge task trying to visit or contact your family: • when you have to stay in the country for X number of years as you’re trying to prove to the home office that you Love England and you want to Stay Here Forever • when you can’t afford the trip anyway because rent is several times what you were paying back in the homeland • when you can barely afford a long distance call, so make a bi-weekly trip to Leicester Square where a phone booth there has a conveniently malfunctioning coin slot which allows you to China for as many minutes as you like (or until there is a queue of immigrants are waiting impatiently behind you to do the same thing) For 20 years my dad worked serving the people on the sweet end of the scale. He was a streetside caricaturist for most of my childhood and early teen years and tells me that he gained a lot of knowledge on tourists, who were his customers. He thinks he can tell a person’s innate ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ by the way they look. He used to look at faces all day and was paid to capture someone’s essence in 20 minutes maximum, so if there’s anyone who can it’s him “So for example, people from poor countries or the middle east are generally a bit difficult. They think you’ve drawn them ugly and they want a discount. I usually have to tell them the same thing - ‘I’m a caricaturist, that’s how it’s supposed to look’... If you get someone from Germany or America, on the other hand, they might enjoy the picture a bit more… and you get to ‘keep the change.’”
words— Jade Chao
As much as he boasts, I think that my Dad’s empathy or lack thereof doesn’t equate to a transnational understanding of human natures. Sometimes it's shit to be a tourist, and mostly due to the fact it's shit to move across borders as a non-white person. You don’t know the language, you look different, no one understands you, everything is expensive. It’s kind of like what it’s like to be an immigrant, only you’re travelling somewhere on the pretence of having a rewarding “experience” and usually you have a home to welcome you back afterwards1. But really, how rewarding is it to experience a synthesised version of a local life? Even though as a working migrant, your movements may be restricted, and as a tourist, you’re relatively mobile, both kinds of travellers are limited not by a lack of freedom but by the lack of power to establish belonging somewhere. Currently, the Home Office’s fascist usage of detention centres has been working to keep unwanted immigrants in a limbo, separated from families and support networks for indefinite lengths. As we see this, and consider the ways in which rootlessness and transiency are institutionalised, a question is raised for me: should we think of freedom as the right to move around, the right to put down roots, or a combination of both? After having conversations with my parents, I’ve learnt that our Western conception of freedom is constructed by patriarchal, colonial, neoliberal beliefs, which many immigrants find themselves ironically trapped in. But these values affect us all. Our societies are governed by the desire for a certain type of freedom, from accountability and social ties. We live for the weekend, we save up to go away on holidays, we valorise experiences over enduring things, free speech over the protection of the vulnerable. Freedom is constructed by the false idea that you can build your own fame and fortune out of nothing. Freedom is positioned as the antithesis of domesticity and responsibility towards others. Freedom falsely assumes that the places you would like to go to are, by default, willing and available to accommodate you. How can we aspire to be free when this version of freedom is based on class, race and gender oppression, and only attainable by the most privileged? Dad drew portraits in England and he made more money in a week than he would in a month in China in the 1990s. He and my mum chose a migration to London for the cultural, economic, social freedom it offered, but didn’t anticipate how borders crossed physically still pose a daily restriction on our psychologies, in our lives and relationships with language. Despite this, they constructed their survival and belonging through their children: my brother and me. In the same way as many other families have and will continue to do, they have constructed the immigrants’ version of freedom, which is dependence on one another.
1 If you’re white, it doesn’t have to matter that you’re an clueless tourist as long you can assert your privilege and feel entitled to belong anywhere you want.
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