Journey to the West is a podcast hosted by Vi, J, Sen & Wen. Listen to actual Asian women talk about Asian issues with a lot of the meandering and bullshit cut out.
Can you each tell us a little bit about yourselves?
Vi: I am Vi Nguyen, and I am in my early twenties, a recent college graduate as of last year, and I’m from the West Coast. I actually majored in Ethnic Studies, specifically Asian American Studies. I am really passionate about things like beauty, fashion, and media, as well as learning languages and history. I am particularly interested in Southeast Asian history because I feel that not a lot schools cover it and I have to do the research on my own.
J: I’m J. Maraan, I live on the East coast, and I am a second generation Filipino American. I double majored in psychology and creative writing. My background is in poetry but right now I’m writing articles. I’m kind of a closet nerd in that I’m a fan of RPG’s.
Sen: I’m Sen, I’m from Australia, in my early twenties, and I’m kind of a nerd as well. I work on the technology side for JttW so I edit everything and post it all on YouTube - anything related to the website, that’s what I do. I am really into K-Pop and manga, and gaming as well.
What is Journey to the West? What is its mission?
Vi: I felt that there were some things you couldn’t discuss in real life. For example, when I was going to VSA (Vietnamese Student Association), we would talk about things like the origins of bánh mì - we knew it’s a Vietnamese speciality, but that it has to come from other origins too, especially considering the role of colonialism in Vietnam and how there are certain things you can’t grow in Vietnam. So my friends and I would talk about the subtle history. Another example is cà phê đá, which requires condensed milk, but have you actually thought about where condensed milk comes from? These are questions I can’t discuss in real life, so I went to the internet community to spaces like Reddit, which is where I met J. and Sen. You have to be careful with the internet, but I built trust through creating community and being respectful. We also felt like the internet community was too much of an echo chamber, lacking in nuanced discussion. We decided that we have to maybe branch out a little bit, which is why we created Journey to the West.
Sen: We were all part of the Slack group and it had pretty much every type of Asian you can think of. Some of them wanted to make a YouTube channel, and then we had this kind of group chat talking about what we can do (in terms of how to raise awareness on the internet). It took us quite a while to get to where we are because we were just mulling over so many things like what if it’s not good enough, we need better sound quality, and this and that. Originally we wanted this to be more of a male and female kind of conversation, because I feel like there is kind of a gap in terms of how Asian women and Asian men talk to each other about these issues. Most of the issues are understanding the unique intersections that we both have, like how. Asian women are hypersexualised & Asian men are emasculated. But then some of the people in the group had other priorities and so they had to drop out. We decided that since the four of us were very down to do this, we might as well push JttW out there.
What are some of the topics you all have covered, and plan to cover? And why did you all choose a podcast over other mediums?
J: Some of the earliest topics we covered were whitewashing in Western media, substandard Asian representation, self-esteem, anti-Asian crimes in the West and globally, the recent Pyeongchang Olympics. One of our latest episodes is about decolonizing Asian beauty, and we’re about to release another about issues that affect working class Asians in diaspora.
In terms of the choice to do a podcast, we were thinking about creating a blog and we almost went through with it, but it just seemed like there wasn’t enough time and people to get that together.
Sen: It was also just really easy to do. Originally we were recording a lot of these pods but felt that they were not good enough. Then this show called Chinese Burn came along. Chinese Burn is a BBC, British comedy spearheaded by three women of Chinese descent. It was extremely problematic in how it reinforced Asian stereotypes in the guise of satire. For example, Asian women playing as prostitutes in film and Asian men having small penises. As well as the podcast, Vi also wrote an article on it called, “I’m not feeling the Chinese Burn” on April Mag. I downloaded it, we all watched it, and we were raging about it. We felt that it was the perfect time to do a podcast, to just get it out there and see how it pans out. YouTube was the easiest because with the other platforms, if you want to host something substantial, you have to pay. Also, we weren’t really ready to invest that much yet, and it takes a few days to get onto some directories like iTunes and Stitcher.
J: And it’s not like they limit the amount of content you can upload, which is something we encountered on other platforms. Plus, we get to add fun visual aids to the videos that can help those with shorter attention spans.
Sen: I also want to quickly add that the reasons why we wanted to take a voice format was because, one, we didn’t want to show our faces, and two, I feel like there are so many good articles and writers out there already. I feel like people read these pieces and really resonate with the content, but then forget about it after a while - it gets lost in time. We remember people bringing up these articles that were published in the early 90s and early 2000’s, and it’s exactly the same; things haven’t changed that much.
J: Topics like lack of representation, whitewashing, the model minority stereotype, and the bamboo ceiling have been prominent Asian American issues for decades. For example, a recent study showed that while there are now more opportunities for AAPI actors in film and television than there were in the 90s, our characters are still as marginalized and tokenized on screen. And Julia Oh wrote a piece back in 2004 critiquing Joy Luck Club’s problematic use of orientalist tropes, which is harmful for the Asian American community.
Sen: Furthermore, as Asian women, we feel there’s not enough Asian women who really represent our thoughts as well, and so we felt that it was high time we go out there and say our piece.
J: We really want to have these honest conversations. We are not trying to impose our views on others, but rather share our thoughts on different issues and if people want to discuss it with us in the comments, they can.
In a general sense, I hope we can inspire others to start their own projects. Because if we can do this having zero prior experience, then other people can too. This will allow for more voices and more nuance in the discussions going on.
Vi: I really would like people to put themselves out there, like J. said. It feels like everyone is silently observing, and then going on the internet and saying “Yeah!” We would love to have more honest discussions.
What we love about your podcast is that you use an intersectional lens, and really consider each issue from both a macro and micro level. How did each of you get involved in activism? How do you see JttW as an activist platform?
Vi: Back in school, an issue that really ticked me off was that people didn’t take into account educational backgrounds or income when we talked about activism because I don’t have the money to pour into GoFundMe or pay for gas to drive to marches. It kind of feels like when you have family members who come from a place where freedom of speech is not encouraged, you have to also be inclusive of that because silence can also be empowering. I think there needs to be a balance. I hope people recognize that there are other ways to speak out, to be empowering. Also, even when I’m in intersectional spaces, I feel like Asian women are excluded from the discussion.
J: The East Asian narrative pretty much dominates. I understand, but it’s nice to be able to focus on Southeast Asians for a change.
Sen: Inclusiveness is good in general, but I feel like each group should have their own space to talk because we all have problems that are unique to our communities. I live in an enclave and there’s a lot of Viets around, so I never felt out of place, but I can understand that in some conversations, especially publically, if you have so many East Asians being represented in a lot of facets and you have a lot of Southeast Asians not achieving that same level, there is kind of a complicated gap.
J: Even globally, if you look at Asian media, what people are aware of is Chinese cinema and Korean dramas. But where are the Filipino dramas? They’re not really acknowledged at the same level because of issues like socioeconomics and a different history of colonialism. Many Southeast Asian countries have experienced centuries of colonial rule or occupation by Western powers, and continue to be exploited by Western governments or corporate entities. All of this has left negative impacts on our struggling economies. The export of Western culture is so strong that American films have actually been the highest grossing in the Philippines for the last 20 years, not domestic ones.
Vi: I’d like to add that when we were discussing these issues with other intersectional feminists, the narrative felt canned. We have what people call a Westernized education, so it’s a privilege to be able to learn in a university here but it feels a little off to impose what we learned onto other countries, our worldview on other sovereign nations. I feel like there needs to be a bit more mindfulness when it comes to talking about certain issues.
Sen: We can’t have these conversations in real life because no one is primed to even talk about it. We wanted to present in a way where you can pull up your friend and say, “Have you heard this news?” - just a candid conversation rather than tip-toeing around it.
J: Obviously we are mindful of how we’re saying things, but it’s definitely in a more candid way and we don’t feel obligated to cater to the sensitivities of non-Asian people, which is something that I see in other spaces, like when they say “Don’t be too harsh on white people.” It’s understood that “not all members of a group are...” and we don’t need to make that disclaimer every time.
Are there certain topics that we as a community need to be better at addressing?
Vi: Developing Southeast Asian pride is one of the issues I want to talk about. I was having a conversation with a family member and she asked, “Why don’t people in Vietnam or Vietnamese Americans have pride in themselves?” We were talking about how some clothes that were made in Vietnam didn’t have a “Made in Vietnam” tag. It just feels like in our community you don’t say you’re Vietnamese American - you just say you’re just Asian or something along those lines. I want us to proud no matter who we are, and that’s something we need to talk about. People don’t even acknowledge that Southeast Asians exist, or if they do, they associate us with crime or being less than. So I think we need to talk about this deficit lens and hopefully build more pride, and the key to doing this is to learn more about our history in the U.S. and Southeast Asia. For example, I encourage bilingualism. Vietnamese was my first language, but then when I was five years old, I almost got put in ESL so I had to learn English, which caused me to forget my Vietnamese. That’s why I encourage people to practice self-pride or go to community events that are spoken in your native language so you can learn it. That’s what I hope we can address: the inferiority complex and how to develop self-pride.
J: Whenever I visit my parents, which is pretty frequent, it seems like they’re always watching YouTube videos of people who are travelling in the Philippines and showing everybody the local culture, food, and things you can do. So I tried to open a discussion with them about why it’s always white people and why they enjoy watching white people being tour guides instead of actual Asians. It’s difficult because they don’t see race or racial relations in the same way that I do. With my mom, I even tried bringing up the history of how Filipinos were paraded around like human exhibits in the United States. Her response was, “Oh, I didn’t know about that, but it was a long time ago and things are different now.” It felt dismissive to me and it was kind of frustrating that I couldn’t have a conversation with her about it. I think it’s really important to understand that colonialism has lasting effects so that we can be critical of our own perceptions and try to decolonize our thinking and our identities.
Sen: I feel like if you look outside America, the conversation about Asianness and our position in society is a lot smaller, kind of nonexistent. What I mean is how we’re perceived and the disadvantages we face, socially and economically, as a minority. I have to go online to find people to talk to. I tried doing it in a very blunt way, which didn’t work, I tried being very subtle to bring up conversations and that didn’t work. People were like “that sounds bad” and I would say yeah and that would be it. Some instances include an Australian politician who had won a seat in the senate in 2015. She has resurfaced like a remake of a movie when she previously said, back in the 90s, that Australia was “...in danger of being swamped by Asians”. People were appalled but didn’t think much of it despite the Reclaim Australia rallies and Sinophobia rising. I need to vent to someone about this. I’m actually quite lucky to have a mom who is kind of attuned to these things, which I think is because she’s younger. She also experienced a lot of racism and bullying in the workplace and it kind of got me aware at a young age. I remember her observing that they only hired Vietnamese people because the women were a lot less likely to speak up about injustices in the workplace. She would also say things like, “White people aren’t going to treat you well”. I didn’t understand what she meant by this when I was younger, but later on down the track, it made a lot more sense to me.
Another topic we should be addressing is the sex industry, human trafficking, the massage parlors. I remember there was this place I worked in the suburbs where there were these strings of massage parlors that got closed down by police. It was kind of funny because you have these massage parlors in one little area, five on one road, and it’s so obvious that these are dens for white men to, you know. And then there’s this other article about how a lot of massage parlors had to put signs up saying we’re not that kind of establishment and men would still come in and ask what their services were.
What are some other good podcasts/spaces you recommend to others who are interested in learning about issues affecting the Asian community?
Vi: I really love Project Voice. My Southeast Asian ladies! Also, April Magazine, which is starting to add more Southeast Asian writers.
Someone on our Slack introduced us to April Magazine.
J: She’s not active anymore, but she was the first of our group to start writing articles about Asian issues. Her name is Yuenting, she wrote an article about how some Asian women say that Asian men are not attractive, that they would never date an Asian man -- basically, internalized racism. They were looking for more contributors, and then Vi got involved, and she hooked me in. The rest is history.
Sen: It’s like a chain thing - a chain migration to April Mag.
J: I’m not a podcasty person, but I do watch a lot of media. Lately I’ve been watching Kim’s Convenience, which is like if Bob’s Burgers and Fresh Off the Boat made a baby. That’s my sense of humor. I love that they centered an Asian diaspora experience without othering the Asian characters. There was recently a documentary that was nominated for an Oscar called “Abacus” which focused on the only bank that was prosecuted during the 2008 financial crisis, and which just happened to be owned by a Chinese family in Chinatown, New York . It was really inspiring though, and I’m so glad that they were able to talk about that and frame it in a way that made it easy to understand. It was very clear that there was racial bias going on there.
For our final question, we want to ask if there was ever a time you felt ashamed to be of Asian descent? Or proud?
Vi: When I was a sophomore in college, I just started getting involved in VSA and we had conference with the Asian American Studies department and academics. One of the professors there was telling me about a student they had who recently came back from Vietnam and they recommended that I go visit Vietnam as well. And I said this: “I don’t know if I would feel safe going to Vietnam as a girl by myself, and the last time I went there was 10 years ago, so I feel uncomfortable with the idea.” I had another professor, who was of non-Vietnamese descent come up to me and say, “Oh okay, you’ve been there years ago, but have you thought about how that statement could be a little bit problematic?” I really reflected on it later on and realized I was imposing this idea that Vietnam and Southeast Asia were these backward places. By doing that, it asserts that the West is somehow better, and I realized how problematic and prejudiced I had been. I told myself I would not do that anymore and so got in the nitty gritty and invested in VSA, learning more about not just American history, but also Vietnamese history, and the language.
There is one example of when I was really proud where recently, I was doing a project and we were talking about beauty standards, outfits, and all that. I felt so proud to be able to talk about the history of Vietnam’s fashion changes, how because of colonial influences, Vietnamese style changed a little bit, but still kept some things. They made cà phê đá our own by adding condensed milk, and we change and transform cuisines. Another thing I’m really proud of is how our people have showcased how we were resilient. Like the story of Ba Triệu (?), the legend of a woman warrior who risked her life for her country. To say that we had a woman warrior in our history, that’s something to be so proud of.
J: I didn’t necessarily feel shame for being Asian since I grew up in an enclave, but it was a predominantly Chinese enclave so I often felt like the odd Asian out. There were just some things I couldn’t necessarily relate to. Having grown up watching shows like Full House that depict your typical white family, sometimes I wondered if white kids had an easier time growing up, maybe more lenient or understanding parenting styles. But the grass is always greener on the other side, and I’ve heard enough stories from white friends to know that this is obviously not the case. I’m glad that I realized this early on rather than internalizing the belief that Asian parenting was somehow worse. As far as pride, the Winter Olympics were my jam. Thanks to the record amount of Asian Americans on Team USA, I’m a figure skating fan now! I’m actually going to see Stars on Ice, which I’m so excited for. You almost don’t even realize how important it is to see yourself represented in something like winter sports until you really experience that moment of recognition, of feeling “seen.”
Sen: Well again, I also lived in an enclave so I never really felt shame. I always felt really good about speaking Vietnamese with my mom outside of the home; I just always liked talking and not having everyone else understand. I’m actually really proud of my relationship with my mom because I feel like with other people, they don’t have that kind of dialogue or any conversation with their parents. I’ve always talked to my mom about a lot of things, including race and other deep issues, and I’ve always been able to talk to her in more of a complex way. I didn’t really go to Viet school so I didn’t have formal Vietnamese education, but I do know a bit above conversational level so I am still able to have these meaningful conversations. Also when I was visiting my uncle in Germany, the big thing was that I was able to speak to him because I knew Vietnamese, and actually, the first conversation I had with him was about politics. I think he was a bit taken aback because he wasn’t expecting it. I was also able to warm up to my aunt quite quickly because of the language as well, so I felt really proud at that time. Another time I felt proud was when I was in Sydney, which has the biggest Asian population in Australia, especially Viet people, looking at this statue of refugees. I remember talking to my parents about it. My dad told me about his refugee story, and I looked around and thought, “We built this, this is our place”. I felt so proud.