Written by Helena Berbano. Follow her at @helenaberbano.
A couple of months ago, I met Mu Yun and Iliana Panameno of We, Ceremony at a Chica Project event. The event was focused on young Latinas in STEM, but it was also a space for allies to support and network with the latinx community. As fate would have it, we connected instantly.
I found my “Ann Perkins” of social justice in two amazing individuals. The conversation flowed effortlessly—we talked about intersectionality, feminism, the voices of people of color in activism—topics that I care deeply about.
However, what truly struck a chord with me was our conversation on collaboration. Particularly, we talked about how organizations such as AAMUnite and We, Ceremony (organizations that highlight the perspectives of underserved populations) do not collaborate nearly as much as they should.
From that conversation forward, Mu, Iliana, and myself became more intentional on how we can collaborate. Though our missions are different, there is a clear space of alignment. We both want to support and uplift voices that are not celebrated.
Thus, we are active partners across our digitally focused channels and *Spoiler alert*, lliana will be writing a piece for us in the near future, and for this month—I interviewed Mu about her #AAPIStory.
Here are a few highlights from our candid conversation.
Helena: From childhood, what has your relationship been with your identity?
Mu: I think the perfect word to sum it up would be precarious, and this is still something that I’m learning to cope with, but I think growing up I really allowed my surroundings to dictate how I felt about my identity. My family and I immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 from Pingtung, the southern part of Taiwan. Growing up, race was a concept that I couldn’t comprehend. I was surrounded by people who looked like me, shared the same language, ate the same food, and upheld the same values and traditions. Sure, I knew there are people who are different from me, but it felt so distant because it was something that we would see on TV or in movies. It wasn’t until my family immigrated to America that—
Helena: How old were you and where did you grow up?
Mu: I was 7 and we first lived in Brookline, a very upper-class white neighborhood and later we moved to Brighton, which is slightly more diverse. The transition was very difficult for my older sister and myself. I knew we were different, but that was because everyone was different—we were now living in America, which is so diverse. Being Asian, however, seemed to exceed people’s willingness to accept differences or rather, we were just easier targets. Racial epithets like, “ching-chong,” “you eat dogs,” and “chinky eyes,” were so commonly thrown at us that our immigration experience, and subsequently learning to embrace my identity, became incredibly confusing. I didn’t know how to love or accept myself when I was constantly made to believe that being different is a bad thing.
"Precarious" best describes my relationship to my identity growing up because I internalized people’s perceptions of me.
Helena: Did you have a defining moment that stuck out to you, or a memory during this period in which you felt distinctly “othered” because of your identity?
Mu: I remember my older sister and I were outside a convenience store and we were enjoying our slushies when these teenage boys came by on their bikes and they started yelling, “Chinese food, chinese food!” I felt hurt, embarrassed, and defeated because in such an innocuous moment, we were reduced and subjected to that kind of harassment. I remember this very well because my sister then threatened to throw her slushie at them.
Helena: Your sister is awesome.
Mu: Yeah she is. Going back to that moment and how I felt, it made me question if this was a space I belonged in or was accepted in. And just thinking about other experiences, even generically going out on vacation with my family and being complimented on my English, despite being an American. It’s interesting how speaking English fluently, without any accent, is so essential and almost an emblem of being American. It’s so contradictory because the United States is a racially and ethnically diverse country. Since when do we measure someone’s identity based on the way they speak?
Helena: Did you ever experience the double-bind? (e.g. pulling the push and pull from your Asian values vs. your American values?)
Mu: Yes, absolutely. I think I ascribe my Taiwanese identity to my parents, and my parents are an extension of my identity…but the strongest push and pull that I’ve experienced was when I was a teenager, and even at times now to be completely honest. Sometimes I find myself detaching, or almost pulling away from my parents because they embody my “Asianness,” and the subsequent shame that I’ve been conditioned to feel. It’s unfair that I’ve placed this part of myself onto them, but I also think it’s very generational—being an immigrant (from my experience), the parents’ mentality is to work hard and survive; whereas, for my sisters and myself, we were thinking about ways to assimilate and to fit in. It’s really hard to describe this because I still experience this bind. Most times I am find myself extremely proud of my parents and other times, I find myself cowering from the things they do and say. My parents still hold a lot from Taiwan, while the U.S. still hasn’t created a space for that to exist.
Helena: What inspired you to found We, Ceremony?
Mu: Initially We, Ceremony started off as a passion project. Iliana and I are both very interested in self-expression and how that ties to our identity, which also leads to linking different social issues and values that we hold as women of color. We wanted to create a platform where we could express who we are, but also see ourselves in other women, and for other women to see themselves in us. As a woman of color, I think it goes without saying that there’s already a bond that pulls us together, and it’s just about how to share that bond and how to highlight it. We started We, Ceremony to see ourselves.
Helena: How has your identity influenced your work at We, Ceremony?
Mu: I think being a woman of color and recognizing that I have a lot to share—and why shouldn’t I be given that platform to do so? My story is just as important as my white counterpart. My identity is really at the forefront of what We, Ceremony is; we are showing that there are different identities within the woman of color demographic, and that every story is a unique one.
Helena: Moving on to AAMUnite territory - talk me through your perception of civic engagement, and how We, Ceremony ties into that.
Mu: I think being civically engaged starts at a very intimate level--for me that’s with my parents. My mom and dad are very involved in Taiwanese politics, but not so much in American politics. In order to see change, I need to educate the people closest to me, and that starts with my parents--helping them stay informed and updated. It’s also throwing major shade at my friends who haven’t voted yet. Everyone should be reminded that voting is no longer just a right, it is a privilege that we need to exercise.
With We, Ceremony, Iliana and I are putting various social and economic issues out there in a visual way. When you read all the different stories from all the different women we’ve interviewed, you are recognizing what is wrong, what needs change, but also what should be celebrated, embraced, and supported. Our hope is that people will see these issues and get inspired to take actionable steps, whether that is voting or being more involved in community initiatives. We hope that by reading the stories of women of color, it is the starting point to something much greater.
Helena: Mu, you nailed it.
We, Ceremony is a visual platform dedicated to women of color that seeks to recognize the many faces of style and through these lenses, expand our cultural capacity. Follow them on Instagram (@we_ceremony), Twitter(@WeCeremony), and Facebook.