When I was five, I moved countries for the first time.
I was born in densely-packed, cosmopolitan Singapore, a city-state that felt such tension between its past and modernization that it tore down historic Chinatown, only to rebuild it as a sanitized version of itself; I took piano lessons at a Yamaha studio full of kids who looked like me, studied Mandarin as a second language (my parents, both ethnically Chinese, spoke English at home), and watched Star Trek on TV. But my father, an engineer, had always wanted to leave the Little Red Dot for what he saw as the freedom and independence of the US, so a job transfer later, we moved to suburban Michigan, settling just outside of Detroit. I experienced snow for the first time. It was white, like my neighbors. It didn’t take long for me to forget all of the Chinese I’d been learning in school.
That initial job turned out to be something of a disappointment, so after a few months we were back in Singapore. Shortly after regaining all of the Chinese language skills I’d lost, we returned to Michigan, this time to stay.
There’s a name for children who spend a large chunk of their early development in a culture other than their parents’: third culture. For those of us who don’t understand “home” as a physical place—the reliability of a physical location feeling too tenuous—home is an abstraction, and “belonging” a myth; we’re simultaneously citizens of nowhere and everywhere, regardless of what’s listed on our passports. But art gave me a metaphorical home. And SF/F fed my imagination, giving me worlds where I could belong, worlds where my outsider status could be strength, not weakness; I devoured stories of hope, of resistance, of realities darker and more broken, realities where the stakes were high but heroes fought to make things right.
When I was six, I entered first grade, a foreigner from halfway around the world with eyes that turned into crescents when I laughed. Starting school in the middle of the year was awkward; I was an intruder, literally an alien (it said so on my immigration papers). Even at that age, the cliques had formed, and there was no space for a kid who didn’t know that pointing with your middle finger was tantamount to swearing (I learned that lesson when the entire class stopped what they were doing to stare). Many of my classmates had history here: their parents, most of whom worked in the auto industry, had attended the same school I now stepped into. They thought Singapore was in China. (They thought geishas were Chinese too.) The local bully pulled at his eyelids and proclaimed that my face looked like it’d been run over by a semi. I didn’t know what a semi was.
I escaped into Star Trek. I was a girl from a conservative church that believed women should cover their heads and stay silent during services, but I imagined myself as Captain Kirk: the hero, the one in charge—the one who would fight, who could snatch victory from defeat. My father looked down on “helpless females”; he was determined that I not be one, which later led to useful things like knowing how to change a tire and less useful things like hating my gender. I managed to make a couple of friends; deciding that merely hanging out was insufficient, I declared that we were a club. I was president.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Keep quiet. Conform. But my heroes are all nails.
There’s a protest poster with an image of Princess Leia: “A woman’s place is in the resistance.”
When I was eight, I couldn’t understand the dynamics of playground politics, where the popular girls would be friendly one moment only to call you ugly the next, but I could understand the ideas of time travel and warp drive. I couldn’t understand why I was always picked second to last for teams in gym and never picked as a partner (I was a mediocre athlete, but not a terrible one), but I could understand the concept of artificial intelligence. I came home from school most days in tears. I longed for blonde hair and blue eyes; every princess seemed to have them, every heroine. But I was proud of being Chinese.
I kept playing the piano. And lobbied for dance lessons.
My father introduced me to the work of Isaac Asimov; reading became a refuge and a fire for my imagination. (I still cling to physical books—I consider my shelves lined with friends.) I discovered The Hobbit. And Narnia. And Star Trek novels. I hid fiction inside of math textbooks and lived in worlds where courage meant fighting in spite of present fear, where good was not tame, where evil was a temptation—but not an inevitability—for all.
When I was ten, we took a class trip to the high school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—fantasy, though older and more literary than most of what I consumed. I’d seen plays before, but this time I was so enthralled that after the performance, I ran to the study and found the volume of Shakespeare my parents had bought as part of their Encyclopaedia Britannica set. I pulled off the shrink wrap and read the play I’d just seen; I didn’t want it to end. Just for a while, I wanted to live in the version of reality dominated by faeries and kings. Imagination, again: I’d just learned the stage could be a powerful transporter.
That same year, I went to my first audition: A children’s community theatre was producing a shortened version of Les Miserables. I was cast, and thus began a lifetime of channeling emotions—which I did not trust, because they were not logical—into something where vulnerability was strength, not weakness: Art. I kept playing the piano, and picked up the flute. As I grew older, friends would comment the difference between my melancholy songwriting and my apparently sunny personality; what they didn’t always see was that only in the risks of art did I feel emotionally safe.
I’ve always gravitated toward art forms that value flexibility and change; there’s something that feels essential, alive when cultures converse and learn from each other. Two albums, ten states, and hundreds of shows later, I’m a singer-songwriter who draws from influences as diverse as Han Dynasty poetry, Philip Glass’s minimalism, traditional Chinese folk music, and Americana. After years of teaching swing dancing, I trained in tribal fusion bellydance, a style that brought Middle Eastern folk dances to California, where they mixed with hip hop, flamenco, Bharatanatyam, ballet, and jazz; it’s a living, breathing dance that continues to incorporate new influences. Like Tolkien blending Norse mythology, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Celtic prose, and Christian narratives with his own experiences to create Middle Earth, my origins have pushed me toward art that fuses multiple traditions into its own voice.
When I was fourteen, I spent most of my time in English classes gleefully turning the daily vocabulary words into poems about wyverns and starship captains rather than just jotting them down in the obligatory notebook like almost everyone else. (This netted me a nice cache of extra credit.) So when my freshman teacher declined to recommend me for the advanced English program, I was confused. I needed a reason for being passed over while others with poorer grades were praised. So I asked. Why? She said that I finished books too quickly; clearly I must be skimming instead of reading. I was in my mid-twenties before I started to wonder how much of this might have been informed, even subconsciously, by the stereotype that Asian Americans don’t have solid English skills. What my teacher didn’t understand was that of course I devoured books swiftly—books were my lifeline.
That was the year the silly sci-fi show with the bad lighting and special effects started getting interesting. Babylon 5 eventually became my favorite science fiction series (a title it would hold until 2004’s Battlestar Galactica); I wanted to grow up to be Delenn. She, too, hovered in the space in-between, transforming from fully Minbari to Minbari-and-human; she understood the tension, the not-fitting of an immigrant background. But she was strong. I admired her leadership, her force of personality, her conscious work to bridge worlds, and her willingness to fight for what was right no matter what the personal cost. This was a woman who single-handedly stopped a war.
In college, I was the Asian American who was deemed “too white” for the Asian Americans; they said I listened to the wrong kind of music and faulted my inability to speak Chinese (long a casualty of the final international move). I’m the American—a naturalized citizen at sixteen—who’s too foreign for the Americans; when I leave Chicago, so many still ask me where I’m “from” and try to speak to me in the first Asian language that pops to mind. I’m the Singaporean who had to learn proper etiquette during every-few-years visits: Take your grandmother by the hand or elbow whenever she’s walking, put food on her plate from the shared dishes as a sign of care, call each relative at the table by name—in order of rank—and tell them to “eat” before starting yourself, lest you seem rude.
Like other third culture kids, I always feel like an outsider; I don’t fully belong anywhere.
But there is strength in this.
I’m adaptable: When you’ve spent your entire life conscious of cultural norms, you make fewer assumptions and experience less culture shock. (Never do I feel less American than when I’m traveling in Europe with Americans.) Because I lived through such huge disruptions as a child, change and risk aren’t as scary to me as an adult: I’ve visited 20 countries, often as a lone woman, and switched day careers multiple times. I have deep relationships with people who are many things I’m not: trans, pagan, atheist, Creationist, poly, black. These things combined with the lessons I learned from SF/F about fighting for good even in small ways, even in the ordinary, so that I once walked away from a dream job because it would have required me to turn my back on QUILTBAG friends. There was a cost. But it wasn’t a trade I was willing to make.
Four years ago, my love for art and my love for geekdom merged to give birth to Raks Geek; in defiance of a host of model minority, quiet Asian stereotypes, I founded a nerd-themed bellydance and fire performance company that’s since garnered acclaim from the US to the UK. (See: Bellydancing Wookiee.) I wanted to challenge preconceptions of what bellydance could be; I wanted to reach outside of insular dance spaces and introduce the general public to bellydance performed with high artistic and technical skill. In the process, I’ve created a company filled with POC and QUILTBAG folk who are often Othered by society and vilified by political rhetoric. (It’s important to also note these performers are incredible—they’ve taught at the largest festivals in the country and performed from Spain to Argentina.) Artists shape how people view the world, how people view each other; my hope is that by telling stories—in our dance, in my music, in the fact of our existence—we humanize marginalized groups. We expand the narratives our culture relates; we change who we’re allowed to be. We remind communities that we’re better, stronger together; we create neighborhoods where love is stronger than hate. Art is my resistance. It is easy to hate an abstraction; it is harder to hate someone real.
Though I’m far from perfect, in an America that’s increasingly more hostile to people who are not the same, my background and the stories I loved taught me that we’re all human: we all laugh, we all bleed. If we treat people as non-human our imaginations weaken, our souls lessen—as we diminish others, so we ourselves (and our institutions) diminish. The reward for openness is life and a universe that expands.
Babylon 5, Star Trek, Lewis, Tolkien—so many of the stories I loved taught me that individuals matter, that actions matter, that we have to fight for the good in the world. It may cost. We may be afraid. But it is not great power that holds evil in check; it’s ordinary people who triumph when we decide to take a stand. “A woman’s place is in the resistance.”
© 2017 by Dawn Xiana Moon
One Response to “A Work of Art Is a Refuge and Resistance”
What? B5 was “the silly sci-fi show with the bad lighting and special effects”? At the time, those effect were state of the art CGI. They did quite a lot of impressive things, especially in season 3. 🙂
B5 is still my my favorite series. I am glad you enjoyed it despite giving it that description.
Anyway, very interesting essay.