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Identity Dilemma

Identity-seeking in Los Angeles

I had 12 unplanned hours in Los Angeles on a recent Saturday. What I thought would be a cliche culinary tour turned into a journey into identity and connection.

It started at a Filipino restaurant (Ma'am Sir) in Spring Lake, an artsy neighborhood full of secondhand shops and local restaurants. I hate to admit it, but it was weird being served Filipino food by white people. I am not proud that I felt this way, but there it is. Despite the initial sense of wonderment and displacement, the food was delicious. Eating with the traditional spoon and fork, I wondered why it was that I no longer ate that way. There was a part of me that felt barbaric, almost uncivilized. I tried to trace back to the last time I ate with both utensils and I can't pull up the memory. Did someone "correct" me when I first emigrated into this country 30 years ago? Or did I just adapt because I was somehow embarrassed of my "otherness?"

In the midst of enjoying my brunch, I scrolled through Facebook and ran into this article entitled "The whitewashing of #WhitePeopleDoingYoga" and it piqued my interest. You see, I have this controversial aversion to white people taking on Eastern Indian identities, whether in name or dress. I always considered it "theatrical spirituality" or "spiritual costuming" when I see Yoga teachers taking on cultures that are far from their own. Why can't your instructor be a "Karen" and be effective? Why can't we transcend our cultural programming while fully embracing our cultural identity, wearing our given names with pride and wearing our own style of clothes? Why can't we honor and celebrate a culture and its practices without claiming ownership of it?

The article brought me to several uncomfortable places, and I saw that the artist is exhibiting his installation from the article, in its entirety, at an art space in Chinatown. So, what's a girl to do, untethered by plans, in a city she doesn't visit often? I zipped over to Human Resources art space to see this controversial installation. I got lost, of course; the physical reflecting the spiritual. You see, I also taught Yoga in San Diego. But somehow, I have never felt welcome nor embraced by the Yoga community there. Or perhaps, I should say, that I never had any interest in embracing the Yoga culture there. So I decided to just park in the vicinity, and found it behind Pho 87 Vietnamese restaurant, a nondescript building that looks like a former vegetable market common in the various Chinatowns I have visited all over the world. I actually almost passed it, if it weren't for the impressive collection of colorful paraphernalia of appropriation tacked on the wall.


I was hit by a sense of comedy followed by tragedy. "This is why we can't have nice things," the cliche goes. The article points out that there are barely, if any, Eastern Indian Yoga practitioners on the cover of Yoga Journal, one of the biggest publications on the subject of Yoga. One of the images that made me so uncomfortable were the white musicians dressed in Eastern Indian garb. The artist, Chiraag Bhakta, and I agreed that it is a form of brown-face. But because spiritual bypass and toxic positivity is at the heart of this white-washing, nobody bats an eye. And when a brown-skinned critic, such as the artist, raises questions, he is ultimately met with the questions "Why you so negative?" (which ultimately became the title of his solo exhibition).

Me with the artist, Chiraag Bhakta

One of the most important message of his op-ed in Mother Jones Magazine is that perhaps white people have not yet fully come to terms with the fact that their lineage comes with a history of colonialism, violence, and oppression. This colonial mentality is now shrouded in positivity and pop-culture, a passive aggressive appropriation of cultural practices and art that resulted from centuries of oppression and survival. When you put on the costume of Eastern Indian or Native American Yogis or Shamans, respectively, you are diluting the struggle that people in those cultures are still experiencing, their fight to retain their identity in our increasingly homogeneous American society. Even as an Asian American, born and raised in Asia, I struggle to wear the traditional Gee when I teach Qigong. And that is because I am not Chinese. I did not experience the persecution of the Cultural Revolution. I have never had to hide my spiritual practices in fear of being jailed, or worse. This exhibit, the conversation that it birthed, confirmed all my feelings.

Perhaps now I will seek out my own cultural fingerprint, trace the roots of my ancestors and embody that when I teach. For now, connecting to that part of myself starts at brunch. The Pan De Sal as the gateway food for a more authentic way of being.

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