The Powerful Asian Folks Giving Me Inspiration
There have been numerous moments during quarantine of feeling stuck, of feeling the absolute opposite of inspired, which I’m sure is something many of us have felt at least once during this pandemic. For me, being in a small town again without being able to see my friends, go out and explore the city’s wonders, or experience the thrill of live art, has in moments, instigated an overwhelming monsoon of hopelessness within me. Of course, I then realize that there are other things that can bring me joy right now and I realize that this won’t last forever (that’s what my therapist tells me at least). And even with being stuck in an entirely separate world than the one I dreamed of at this stage of my life, being stuck has forced a flow of imagination from me. It’s almost as if my mind suddenly realized I have all the space in the world to make room for my own thoughts and to make space for, well, me.
There have been ebbs and flows in my confidence and level of inspiration during the six months I’ve been home. But whether I was riding high or feeling low, I still turned to art whether that be a movie, a show, a play, or music. One thing I noticed though, with all the Netflix and Hulu shows I watched, was how I continued to see white people be considered the norm for characters, and when there was representation like in “Mulan,” it was made with a white team that filled the story with stereotypes.
I decided to consume more art in which I felt represented, where there wasn’t room for me to compare myself to a blond-haired woman with blue eyes and a thin figure, where there wasn’t a refusal to show Asian cultures in a normalized way. Instead, I turned to people who stand proudly in the beauty of their Asian identity, and at the same time, don’t let that identity solely define who they are. Here are some of the kickass Asian artists that I sought out (in no particular order) that have provided me some much needed inspiration and empowerment.
PEN15 on Hulu is a must watch for all Asian folks (that includes you, hapa folks!), especially season one, as I wrote in another blog. When I began to question the validity of my own experiences a few months ago, Maya’s narrative in this show affirmed me, it felt like a warm hug to all the insecurities I’ve ever felt about my identity.
2. Rushalee Nirodi
My friend Rushalee wrote an entire queer fantasy musical with Asians as the leads and a mainly BIPOC ensemble called “The Legend of Astrophela.” I was honored to play a small role in this. Once you watch it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s the velvety and intricate harmonies or the emotional power in Rushalee’s acting, you’ll be amazed.
3. David Henry Hwang and the cast of “Soft Power”
I saw this show at The Public and I’ve been listening to the cast album non-stop throughout quarantine. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me dance, it made me pretend to be Hillary Clinton singing a power ballad about democracy. This musical was unlike any other I had seen before where the entire cast (except for the actress who plays Hillary Clinton) were Asians that mostly played normal Americans aka white people. They totally flip the narrative that you usually see in musicals like “The King and I,” where the white people go and teach the Asian characters how to be proper. Instead, the male Asian lead teaches Hillary Clinton lessons from China, while also learning from David Henry Hwang’s character in return, and he shows us that yes, an Asian male can play a dashing love interest. Even if you never saw “Soft Power,” the cast album is so worth a listen.
4. Rina Sawayama
I discovered Rina a few months ago after finally listening to my friend’s recommendation to listen to her. Not only does she have an amazing voice and some pretty catchy songs, but she’s one of the first Asian pop stars I’ve seen in mainstream Western media like this –at least to my knowledge. Also, she is hapa and she uses her identity to confront important issues. Whether it’s addressing microaggressions in “STFU” or using Japan as the landscape for her songs in “Bad Friend,” “Tokyo Love Hotel,” and “Akasaka Sad,” she’s truly an icon. I wished I had known her as a kid growing up. My favorite songs are “Cherry” (acoustic version) and “Akasaka Sad.”
5. Haruna Lee
Haruna just won their first, and much deserved Obie Award for “Suicide Forest” (yay!), which was a piece of theatre that quite literally changed how I viewed theatre. I remember the night I saw it and I decided right as I was walking home that I wanted to audition for the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU Tisch and that I wanted to explore devising pieces around identity. “Suicide Forest” is a bilingual play that takes you on a crazy fantastical ride, exploring the pressures of Japanese society and the pressures on Asian females in America. But really... it’s hard to explain, and even if you can’t see it, I highly recommend reading the play. I had Haruna as a teacher in ETW and they are always committed to fostering a safe space and questioning how we can create tangible change, while acknowledging our privileges among each other. Everything they say is inspirational and powerful.
7. Eva Noblezada
I’ve also been listening to Hadestown on repeat and I’m sure most people already know how great this musical and Eva is, but if you don’t, please go listen to it! Listening to Eva sing on this album so powerfully as an Asian-Latina woman in the role of Eurydice gives me so much inspiration. I feel powerful along with her when I listen to her “Wait for Me” solo or “Flowers.”
8. Sandra Oh
I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t too familiar with Sandra’s work before this show, but the acting in “Killing Eve”… wow. It’s like electricity is buzzing out of her, especially in regards to her fascinating relationship with Villanelle, an assassin. The chemistry between Eve and Villanelle is palpable in every moment. I can see exactly why she won that Emmy, and by the way, she is the first Asian woman to win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama series.
9. Phillipa Soo
I’m sure we all know Hamilton, but I’ll just say it anyway, Pippa’s acting!
10. Tomoe Gozen
Lastly, this is some historical inspiration for y’all. After feeling extremely disappointed about the new “Mulan” movie (and ripping it off in a blog post), I decided to research female warriors from Japan I could look up to that didn’t involve any Western stereotypes of exoticsm. Guess what, *cough, cough* Disney? There were many! In Japan, they’re called Onna Bugeisha and they were female samurai. The most famous is Tomoe Gozen, who was a master at archery, horseback riding, and using the katana (Japanese sword). Tomoe Gozen was well respected among her troops. Though facts have begun to get blended with legend, it’s said that she led 300 samurai to fight against 2,000 enemy samurai in the 1184 Battle of Uchide no Hama.
These are just some of the inspiring artists I’m turning to, whether I’m trying to be productive creating at my home or accepting that I want to curl up and binge comforting art. Either form is acceptable during this crazy time. I hope that these artists can provide you with some comfort too.
If you have any others you think we should check out, please let us know :)