"Pretty Queered Up"

I was recently contacted by Miyuki Baker, a student at Swarthmore, who wanted to interview me for her website about being Asian, Gay, and Proud. (You can go directly to her website and the interview here. It’s looks better and is easier to read.) It took about a month for us to be able to find a time to talk that worked for both of us, but eventually, we made it happen. And I am glad that we did. I’m also glad that I had that month to think about her questions. Through my own reflections and conversations with others, I tried to think of how I could articulate my own thoughts and changes and identities in ways that would be sincere and hopefully helpful for others. I was able to write some of the answers to Miyuki’s basic questions the night before the interview. The rest is a large part of the conversation that we had over the phone.

Cori Wong, 6/2/11

Cori Wong grew up in Boise, Idaho, studied philosophy at Colorado State as an undergrad, and is currently a graduate student at Penn State University in Philosophy and Women’s Studies. A large part of her academic work is motivated by the desire to make philosophical reflection accessible to people beyond the university setting and relevant to real-life experiences. Her approach to public philosophy, or doing philosophy more publicly, is reflected in her coinage of the term, “philifesophy.” which aims to capture the interrelatedness of life and philosophy.

In addition to spending time on her own philosophical work, Cori has equally strong passions for food (cooking and eating), dancing, and sitting around cafes having long and enjoyable conversations with friends.

Who? name, age, what you identify as (or not)

Cori Wong, 24.

Though I think labels can do important political work and often help in terms of legitimating identities, I also think that they often are too limiting, inadequately capture one’s experiences, and can create unnecessary anxiety. As a result, I’m loosening up on my own identification. At different times I’ve called myself a lesbian, identified as just “sexual,” and have recently thrown around with the idea of being “pretty queered up.” The last one is funny and subversive all at once. I like that.

What? what do you do for a living or things you would like to do.

I’m a graduate student in Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Penn State University where I specialize in feminist and Continental philosophy. My research centers on affective experiences, embodiment, sexuality, gender, oppression and resistance. I passionately love to learn and to teach, so I hope to continue doing both after I graduate.

When did you come out? Any stories?

I started the slow process of coming out in college. It was relatively smooth for me given that my studies provided me with very helpful language and concepts over the years that enabled me to make sense of, and be really okay with, my own experiences. Once I started being explicit about it with friends hardly anyone was surprised. It took a while longer for my family to feel more comfortable, but again, I think that being able to articulate myself clearly helped our process along. There was one instance that I think counts as my “official,” public coming out moment—it was the last round of a slam poetry contest and I performed a steamy and sentimental poem about a woman (not really anyone in particular). As I walked away from the microphone, I sort of squealed into my friend’s ear, “Oh my, I think I just came out to 100 strangers!”

The strange thing about coming out, though, is that it’s not really just a one-time thing. There are many situations where one has to decide whether and how to repeatedly and continually come out. Sometimes these situations can be frustrating, nerve-wracking, or empowering, and the repetitive quality of coming out is something that many people under-appreciate.

How did coming out impact your career or relationships with others?

I’m fortunate to be on a career path that is pretty open with respect to acknowledging sexual identities. Because my work aims to resist oppressive attitudes about topics dealing with gender, sexuality, and sex (to name a few), I think that being out myself has allowed me to engage more deeply with these issues. Both professionally and personally, my own ability to be open, accepting, and positive about my own identity has probably helped to foster some unique connections with others. In a lot of ways, once I came out I started to “see” a lot more queer people around me (Maybe it’s better “gaydar,” or maybe it’s just the kind of recognition where you pass someone on the street and give each other the, “Hey, we’re cool, we’re family” look…) Other people started to find me, too. I have been approached by numerous others (friends and acquaintances) who have been in the process of trying to better understand their own identities, and I’ve been told that my own comfort and openness made them feel like they could approach me and ask more poignant questions.

Miyuki: Why did you start your youtube channel, “My Philifesophy” and the Think for a Change video series?

Cori: When the September suicides were happening with the young gay boys and Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better” project, I thought for a really long time. It took me over a month actually to finally upload a video to the project because I didn’t know what to say. I really wanted to do something but I just didn’t know what to say. So then I finally realized that I didn’t know what to say because just saying that if you wait and push through, things would get better, felt so empty to me and really dissatisfying. So I felt like we needed to be able to say something more.

For me, it was one particular class that introduced me to feminist and queer theory and so after that I started exploring both of them. That changed my life and I thought, “That was when I was in college. We have to get resources available to younger people when they can’t take the college class.” And so I thought, well, they’re on the internet. Maybe we can put some resources on the internet and maybe that would help. So in my “It Gets Better” video I say “Find resources” and since it’s hard to just say “find resources” without pointing to them, I decided that that was something I’d do–it’s now my task to make resources available. So I read from books that are really good and also try to demonstrate what it is to think and talk through these issues. I wanted to provide the material and lead the questions along.

You know, I really wish there was something more that I could do–and there are advocacy groups out there–but it takes such an effort on the part of a young person to put themselves in the position where they have resources available to them. I’m happy that I had the idea to do this and it’s been getting such good feedback but I also feel like it’s pretty minimal in its reach and capacity right now. The other really scary part of this is that a youtube video is such an insufficient way to have a dialogue.

Miyuki: Since my website is geared towards the coming out process and what it means to be Asian and gay do you have any thoughts on the intersectionality of those two identities? Also what would you advise someone to do to create change when they don’t have the resources that we do or the vocabulary to talk about queerness?

Cori: This question is complicated for a lot of different reasons. First, the intersectionality of those two identities is really complicated because I think Asian American identity is sophisticated and queer identity is sophisticated–bring those two together and it’s going to be a network of different nodes that match up and other ones that don’t. So for me personally, my answers are geared more towards coming out and queer identity because my Asian identity has been less central to my queerness. I’ve done separate work trying to figure out my Asian identity in a similar way that I have done with my sexual identity, because that is itself already another bucket of worms and is really confusing for me. So I think the intersection of the two is important and will be unique and specific for each person, and it can create a different set of challenges and issues that a person would have to work through. But, independent from one another, both identities are challenging enough on their own.

In terms of lacking resources and finding ways to articulate your own experiences, if you don’t have exposure, whether that’s classes or books, it’s such a hard thing because I think that having resources is one of the most important things we can do. I don’t think there’s much we can accomplish if we just sit alone in a room and ponder these things on our very own. You might be able to get yourself somewhere into thinking new ideas but we need to have the dialogue, different perspectives. We need different approaches to open us up to things that we couldn’t have imagined on our own. Like “wow people really do that?” or “people really live that way?” and “that’s possible? I had no idea.” We need to find resources–it doesn’t have to be in a book or in a classroom. And I think it’s just as important to be able to recognize what’s around us and what can possibly be a resource.

When I went to pride for the first time I was so happy that people were wearing leis around their necks because as we decided to go for lunch in downtown Denver, outside of the pride parade area, you’d see all these people wearing leis on the streets and in the restaurants. Anyone else might have thought, “here are a bunch of straight people” and it probably wouldn’t have even enter their minds, but you know that they’re wearing leis because they’ve been to pride! So, in that moment, the leis functioned as a kind of marker that helped me to see differently what is so easily assumed. Though we won’t all be wearing such obvious markers, I think that it is important and beneficial for everyone to be better able to recognize that there are other people with different kinds of relationships, with other identities.

On a similar note, I think that we can do our own work to try to first be able to recognize the differences that are available to us if we don’t have immediate stimulation from resources outside of ourselves. I think that your website and finding resources online and doing a bit of initial work is really important. That’s why I do what I do, and why I think you do what you do, because we need visibility. Not to persuade us and not to tell us what to think and not to give us a handbook on how to do certain things, but only to provoke new ways of thinking and understanding.

Miyuki: At the same time, I think that while we can provide all of these resources, if the person reading or being exposed to it isn’t open-minded, all of these ideas are just going to hit a brick wall. While I was talking to my mom about queer issues this afternoon, she explained her own thought process. We all have the ability to think but we also all have different lenses through which we think. So the lens through which my mom thinks is very much sculpted by traditional Japanese values so even though she thinks a lot as well, it’s hard for her to come to the same conclusions as I do, and that’s where we have our disagreements because I’ll try to explain the way that I see the world but she’ll say “yeah but you grew up here, you have different tools to use when you’re thinking about things.” So as a philosopher, how do you grapple with that kind of cultural difference in the ways that people think?

Cori: That’s a really good question… and it’s reminding me of one of the most difficult conversations I had with my mom during the first year when I came out. She said that she was frustrated and didn’t want to talk about it because she felt that whatever I said I would think that I was right and that she was wrong–that I had to correct her every statement. When you hit a wall like that you recognize that you don’t understand in the same way as another person.

Is it possible to bridge between the two of you and come to some sort of common understanding? When you come together and you say “I’m a thinker, you’re a thinker and we disagree,” you can reach a sort of stalemate and this is really tricky territory because as a philosopher I’m also really skeptical of what it means to be right, or to have a handle on the Truth. So I wouldn’t ever want to tell my mom “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Most importantly, I’ve become very pragmatic in the sense that I try to agree on the bare minimum of values like respect and life first. But, for example, I put values on things like pleasure and any sort of affirmation of enthusiastic joyfulness about life…and it might be that someone like my mom might disagree with me and say that they don’t believe in being able to do what you want to do with pleasure.

Actually after I had that conversation with my mom, I went to one of my role models, a philosopher, and I asked her “what do we do when people just don’t agree?” and she said “you have to pick your battles wisely.” And I think there’s some wisdom to that too…because if you’re coming from a completely different lens I would never want to impose that I’m right. The point isn’t to persuade another person, but rather to undergo the practice for ourselves* and if it comes down to that, than I can live without my mom fully agreeing with me. At least I can live! At least I can better understand for myself or I can go through this process for myself and whether or not my mom or whoever else wholeheartedly understands where I’m coming from, that’s really a lesser issue than me and my own existence and how I’m going to go about doing that.

I think it gets complicated and hard and dangerous and really conflictual if we think that what we have to do is convince all the haters that we are right or okay or normal. I think we’d be better off if we’re doing work for ourselves by understanding who we are and trying to better live our lives and not constantly trying to change the minds of others.

So when I say “think for a change” I mean it on a personal level of one’s self being able to think and live differently for one’s self, not so much “think for a change” just so that you can convince others that you deserve something, like their recognition or rights (though, of course, I think we do).

Miyuki: It’s interesting to look at the different ways we come to our own identities and affirmations of ourselves and because we’re always interacting with other people, often times it’s completely influenced by other people’s opinions of ourselves. And in Asian societies in particular, “face” is so important and the familial bond matters so much that your child’s actions tie directly back to the parents. And when everything is in relation to that core and keeping face, it changes the way that Asian people see themselves because they’re always comparing it to the ways that people see them. This is what my mom constantly tells me, that I’m able to tell people confidently what I’m all about without caring about people’s opinions because of my Western upbringing.

Cori: The Asian culture about keeping face and strong familial bonds is something that emphasizes the fact that I know I speak from a very different position but that I didn’t fully appreciate until I started dating my now ex-girlfriend who is Taiwanese. We had so many conversations about family expectations, and I even wrote a blog post about saving face because of our conversations. I had to really appreciate the cultural differences in our relationship. This is because growing up in Idaho, I was really Asian to a lot of people, but when I was dating someone from Taiwan I was made to feel like I wasn’t really that Asian in a lot of ways. I also taught Asian philosophies this semester to my students and when we got into different ways of understanding one’s self in relation to others like your family members or your society, I realized that it is hard to just talk to American born and raised citizens about these differences because they often don’t get it. It came down to the point where I said “You know what? this is where we have to say, we don’t get it. It’s different.” We can’t just say, “Well, just do this, or think this way,” because there are real, serious differences.

At the same time, it wasn’t until I started talking to more people from Asia and people with really strong Asian family identities, and when I started to see these differences, that I was also able to better recognize some elements of Asian influences in my own upbringing. So, again, it’s the same process for me (much like with sexual identity), I need to constantly try to see differently, think differently, learn to listen, talk to people, explore and investigate. Honestly, I’m still working through a lot of this stuff.

Is there any advice you can give to other Asian, Gay & Proud readers?

The most recent advice that I have given to others, and that I have taken to heart for myself, is to do whatever it is that you need to do to feel comfortable, strong, healthy, and confident. For me, delving into philosophy, feminism, and queer theory equipped me with important tools that helped me develop my own voice. On the more casual level of living day to day, I think that we all need to allow ourselves to do and be how we please, without restricting ourselves to labels and expectations that, unfortunately, can sometimes be quite stifling. I don’t think that there is a “true,” deeper core to who we are that we eventually discover, and in many ways I’m skeptical of the need to feel like one was always gay but just didn’t know it or know how to express it. However, I don’t think that it simply boils down to mere choice, either. This stuff is more fluid, more sophisticated, and more open than we often allow ourselves to think.

I think that we all—gay, bi, straight, whatever—would live better if we could openly embrace ourselves and others by encouraging freedom to live and relate and love in as many ways as are possible.

Nevertheless, if you feel like you are still trying to figure out how to be comfortable and confident in yourself, know that there are resources available. Find friends who think and talk about things in ways that encourage your own self-creation, expose yourself to sub- and counter-cultural media, if you can, take classes that aim to challenge social norms, and do your best to find other supportive resources that offer a different perspective on things than what you might have been given when you were growing up. I think this site is a good example that helps reveal that other people are out there living, loving, and doing well…and that there are a lot of ways to pursue those aims.

*Cori elaborates on this in her video called: Freedom to Think Differently, or At All
**Cori’s response to Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Project: It Gets Better–Think For a Change

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