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Asian Voters, Guacamole and Kelly Zen Yie-Tsai | Projekt NewSpeak
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Posted: 2010-11-02
Categories: Projekt NewSpeak

The Mexi-Asian Persepctive: A Mexican’s Guide to All Things Latin, Asian, or Both by David A. Romero

It’s Election Day, you already know that.

Here is something that you may not: the day before Election Day last November, Chinese Taiwanese American poet Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai became an internet sensation, garnering over 200,000 hits for her video, “Black White Whatever.”

That’s right, step aside 50 Tyson, this Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based spoken word artist doesn’t take any shit – – especially when it comes to mobilizing Asian voters.

I was fortunate enough to see Zen-Yie Tsai perform “Black White Whatever” and “Making Guacamole” some time ago at A Mic and Dim Lights in Pomona, CA.

I can easily tell you why this performer has rocked three seasons of Russell Simmons Presents: Def Poetry as well as stages across the globe; because she’s incredible (but I’m sure that you’ve figured that out already).

In “Black White Whatever” you put out a loud call to politicians to respond to the concerns of the “Brown, Red and Yellow” American people. What do you see as the main concerns of Asian voters as to be addressed by politicians?

There are a lot of issues that face the Asian Pacific Islander American community whether it is about immigration, multilingual access and public education, making sure that Asian Pacific Islander American communities are not forgotten whether in crises (like the Vietnamese communities in New Orleans East post-Hurricane Katrina) or due to the falsehood of the model minority myth (like many communities that are low-income and lack access to quality education and violence-free communities) or due to our invisibility in American history (like recognition for Filipino World War II veterans). The very simple fact of even being acknowledged as human beings and fully enfranchised individuals is important. We aren’t just so insignificant as to lump into other categories. We are living breathing people who have ideas and a choice to vote your ass into office or not.

Check out APIA Vote (http://www.apiavote.org/).

In “Making Guacamole,” you present what you refer to as a “cocky Asian nationalism.” Have you ever considered writing a poem entirely in the vein of Asian pride, separate from the context of a cross-cultural exchange? Or, do you feel that the more important message to convey to your readers and listeners is one of multiculturalism?

“Making Guacamole” for me is actually much more an exploration of the question “What would a Pan-Asian Pacific Islander American nationalism look like?” than it is about cross-cultural exchange. Asian Pacific Islander America is a nation of nations within a nation of nations. We have historical, linguistic, class, national differences and conflicts that follow us from the motherland to here. We find ourselves in a place where we interact with so many different kinds of people and that affects us.

For a lot of people that I’ve met that grew up in Asia, they feel a different sense of identity in relationship to other Asian ethnicities compared to what we experience here. We’re making linkages and connections between West Asian, Central Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Pacific Islander communities that maybe would have never been possible in our homelands. That for me is what the heart of this poem is about. That and the fact that cultural hybridity is a part of the reality of this country.

So to answer your question, I do think that “Making Guacamole” is primarily about Asian Pacific Islander American pride in and of itself. If your question is do I ever write about Asian people and only Asian people, the answer is yes, and I also have poems that are about people and communities that are other ethnicities as well. I feel like multiculturalism can be a very loaded word. It’s so often co-opted as a term to describe very surface level interaction between cultures (i.e. food festivals), when the actual reality is that people of different cultures and ethnicities have been in cooperation and conflict at very deep levels of engagement all throughout the world and human history. So in that way, nationalism and multiculturalism (if we are talking about this deep level of engagement) are not necessarily in competition.

In “Making Guacamole” you recall the memory of mixing together some avocado and lime with your sister to create that sublime dip of green and gooey goodness referred to in the poem’s title. What Latin influences in 1980s Chicago made this activity so natural to you?

I wouldn’t say it was because of any major Latino/a influences during my childhood that caused my sister and I to make guacamole, but I do think it’s an example of how living in America is a hybrid experience. You can’t help but experience other cultures here. It is part and parcel of what it means to grow up in this place. We didn’t really think about it. It was something that we just did. We grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and both Latino/a and Asian Pacific Islander American communities were growing and have continue to grow as major presences in that area.

“Making Guacamole” begins and ends with mention of tacos. What is your favorite type of taco? Where do you go to satisfy your taco cravings?

Hmmm… I am a fish taco fan, and just got back from San Francisco and I went to La Taqueria in the Mission for their veggie taco, which was delish 🙂

Asian Latin fusion food has become a veritable phenomenon. Do you think that Asian Latin fusion food is just a passing trend, or the future?

That largely doesn’t sound like a good idea to me, but maybe I just don’t know about that, lol.

Who is your favorite Latin celebrity, historical figure, or fictional character?

I am slightly obsessed with Salma Hayek, because of how down to business she is about her art and very intelligently working to broaden her own opportunities and representations of Latinas in commercial arts and entertainment. She’s so brilliantly produced “Frida,” “Ugly Betty,” and I just read that she is CEO of her own Latin-themed film production company via MGM. That mama is moving, shaking, and making it happen. No sitting around crying about what doesn’t exist for artists of color. She’s working her ass off to make film and television much broader worlds.

Would you rather date an Asian or someone of Latin descent?

I’m an equal opportunity dater as long as it’s not a poet. Poets are the worst people to date in the world (including myself). A lot of people think that poets are cool and sensitive and should be communicative because they’re good with words. But more often than not, I think many of us poets become so articulate in our artistic lives because we are so dreadfully inarticulate in our personal lives. Re: Latino/a versus Asian, I will say that when you date someone of Asian descent, you won’t argue about the necessity of a rice cooker, which amongst other issues is definitely a plus.

Any last words or shout outs?


Official Website: http://www.yellowgurl.com/

MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/yellowgurl_poetry

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/yellowgurlpoet

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/kztsai

Facebook: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

Acknowledgements to: Katie Piper (photos 1 and 2), Kevin Kane for Amerikan Lyff (photos 3 and 5), Myrian Touma (makeup 1 and 2), Nikki Mitchell (makeup 3 and 5) Jill Aguado & Alli Maxwell (styling 1 and 2), and Sina (hair and styling 3 and 5).

David A. Romero is a cheese enchilada-making spoken word artist who knows something about Mexicans. A lover of boba and a citizen of Diamond Bar, CA, he also knows a thing or two about Asians. http://www.davidaromero.com

Have any ideas for the blog? Questions? Comments? Hit me up below! Or email me: davidaromero@projektnewspeak.com