Jo Chiang is a Taiwanese-American actor, writer, filmmaker, and activist based in New York City. Her film work has been featured by Women & Hollywood, Athena Film Festival, Wifey.tv, Everyday Feminism, and Upworthy. She served on the Executive Board of the King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe and is a founding member of The Found Co. In our conversation below, we discuss her intersection between art, advocacy and queer identity.
Photographer, actor, writer, editor, filmmaker. Why so many diverse pursuits?
Oh boy. [Laughs] One reason is that I’m a queer Asian-American woman, and other people will not write work that fits me. Even if they do, it’s work I might not feel strongly about, or it’s harmful, or not as thoughtful as I want it to be. I have to be responsible for creating work that can make the kind of impact I want, but in order to do that, you kind of have to learn how to do everything.
The other reason is that I love to perform, but I don’t find myself to be particularly or innately talented. Because of that, I find that always having to make work helps me improve. If I just went out and pounded the pavement for auditions in order to settle for any kind of work I could get, I don’t think I would have as much time to push myself to be better through more challenging opportunities.
I feel the same way about not feeling the most talented, but I tend to study a lot.
You have to keep learning and practicing. If other people don’t give you the chance, you have to create your own chances.
Do you ever feel guilt over juggling different things and not being able to focus on one?
I usually feel like I have to focus on many different things at the same time, but with the same amount of effort for each.
[Laughs] Which is not easy.
Every year I always say I’m going to do less and work on one project at a time. It never happens. I’m still trying to find my balance.
Were you always creative as a child?
I think it took my parents some time to fully accept I was going to pursue artistic endeavors. But they took me to see musicals when I was five-years-old. What did they expect? [Laughs] I loved to read and write. I sang for a while but I didn’t think I was that good of a singer. I had this dream that I’d be one of those Taiwanese pop stars and wind up in those soap operas.
Are you second-generation?
Yes. My parents emigrated from Taiwan.
And you were born here?
Yes, which really fucks you up. [Laughs] There’s so much dissonance living in the diaspora when you are the child of immigrants. I can’t claim the history of Asian-American movements in the United States because I wasn’t here, but I also can’t claim our history in Taiwan because I’ve never really lived that. I can go out, organize and be present in spaces, but it’s such an immediate experience and [based on] how I grew up here. It’s not necessarily the history of my family. It’s so fascinating because within the broad Asian-American community, how do you fit everybody under the Pan Asian umbrella?
And sadly, we don’t all get along.
But even if you get specific with like the Taiwanese-American community for example—being first-generation, second-generation or if your family’s been here for ages—your experiences will be so different. Why did Jackie Chan do all these movies where he played racist stereotypes? Because he’s from the mainland and it doesn’t bother him. He has plenty of good roles to play over there. But many Asian-American actors would be very averse to playing those roles because they understand the impact it has on our lives here.
When did your interest in social justice and advocacy begin?
I trace it back to the summer I had a work study/performance workshop with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a socialist/communist theatre based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’d credit them with raising much of my consciousness at the time. The way they function today is more socialist than communist, and in light of historical context and regardless of theory, communism is really such a fraught ideology. I understood that from having lived in China for four years.
So you were born here but moved to China?
My dad’s company moved him there so we followed him over, and I was in China for high school—Beijing for one year and Shanghai for three.
What was that like?
It changed my entire world view. A lot of it was the cultural experience; a lot of it was picking up and moving somewhere different almost every single year. So college was easy because I thought, “Oh new people. This is not hard.” I never got attached to a location so I got very attached to people.
My very specific understanding of communist and socialist ideologies has been shaped by, one, my experience living in communist China, two, learning about socialism through a theoretical/academic lens, and three, the socialist white bros in college who love to espouse Mao Zedong’s stuff without understanding that people died under his regime.
Right, the two experiences can’t replicate each other.
Exactly. It’s fraught, complicated and living with that history is a kind of trauma.
By living in China, what perspectives did you gain that you might not have otherwise?
Moving out of a specific kind of lived experienced in the United States and into another one taught me a lot about myself and how communities function. It also allowed me a more contextualized look at the U.S. and how it came to be from another point of view. It allowed me to recognize the kind of impact the U.S. has on other countries through her neo-colonialist projects.
I went to international school so I was among the expat community, which is mostly a bunch of wealthy Canadians, Americans or Australians who go there to do business and explore the culture, but basically exploit the country and its people. I got a first-hand look at that. It’s why I get frustrated when I hear people say, “I want to go to China and teach English.” I’m like, please don’t.
[Laughs] To be fair, the mainland English curriculum is pretty broken.
They don’t have the infrastructure to build it up because they keep importing people.
Do you define yourself as queer? What is its definition?
Yes, but also queer presenting. The way you’re read is important in the way you’re treated.
I have a certain definition from a theoretical perspective, but also a definition from living in this world, in this space. They don’t always match up because sometimes one could dismiss or negate the other. For the context of our conversation now, I’d say queerness is tied with marginalized genders and sexualities. That’s the most accessible definition of queerness that I mean when I say I’m queer.
When did you begin identifying as queer?
I recall years in high school when I would be friends with a girl and I’d be like, do I like her or do I want to be her? I was never sure what it meant or what it felt like. I was really scared to identify as queer or bisexual (which is how I identify now), so I would always tell myself it was just because I wish I could be like her.
Tell me about your first big coming out experience.
I came out to my parents in junior year of college. I wanted to tell them in person but it got to the point where I just had to get it off my chest, so I called them out of the blue. It was hard to work up the courage. The first thing my mother asked was, “Are you in love with someone?” They were mostly blasé about it, which surprised me. Then I did the general Facebook coming out. [Laughs]
Oh man, it’s all coming back now for me too. [Laughs]
It was also right after I cut my hair short and I didn’t want people to associate that with my queerness.
Because my decision to cut my hair didn’t have anything to do with my queerness. I just wanted my hair short. I didn’t want people to over-read things because at the time, I felt like my sexuality was separate from the way I presented myself. I mean, now I snapchat pics of my outfits to friends with captions like “what a gay.” [Laughs]
Why do you combine art with social justice?
For me, art is always going to be political. Claiming that your art is apolitical is in itself a political statement. Art is about the way we navigate our lives, which will always be impacted by power structures and communities. So it’s important for me to be thoughtful and intentional not just with my art, but the process of how I make it. If my art is going to be political, it has to be done in a way that I feel is accessible and engaging. I’m not interested in art that is so obscure that people can claim that they get it but you don’t. That’s just elitism.
Whose work has really impacted you as an artist?
My favorite author of all time is Tamora Pierce. I grew up with her. She wrote about young girls who wanted to be knights. She wrote characters that got their periods during the course of the story. I’m learning about this girl menstruating for the first time in this fantasy novel. What?!
She wrote the first queer character in fantasy that I ever read and it was a queer woman of color in “The Will of the Empress” series. One of her longtime characters who had been in five previous books suddenly came out as queer. It was incredible and the character and her arc were treated with so much respect.
What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about writing?
My least favorite thing is having an idea but not knowing how to express it. I have this rule where after 6:30 p.m. I have to get off my computer and do other things. Sometimes it’s sitting in my chair with a notebook, doing nothing except thinking about what it is I want to write and how to write it. The other thing that’s terrifying is not knowing how a piece of writing will be received.
My favorite thing about writing is being able to express the things that I haven’t been able to before. The power of writing is putting words and descriptions to experiences that we are always trying to understand, and having other people resonate with it. That connection is so important to me.
What’s the hardest part about self-care for you?
I live in New York City. I always say I’m trying to make a living, make a difference and make art at the same time. [Laughs] I never feel like I have time to just take care of myself. I don’t cook enough, I don’t go out for walks enough, I don’t read for pleasure enough. I’m just exhausted and burnt out all the time. I love hanging out with people but every now and then I’ll have a week where all I’m doing is that, and I would get so tired. I have my day job and then I have the art I make. I love organizing, writing, rehearsing and editing, but that becomes work. So what I do to relax? I don’t know.
So what do you do now to relax?
I love going for walks on my own. I’ll listen to music or podcasts, but other times I’ll just walk. Sometimes I’ll bring my camera. I’ve walked from upper Manhattan down to South Ferry a number of times.
I’ve never tried that before!
It’s so nice because you watch the neighborhoods change. It’s a nice way of letting go of control, in some ways.
One of my biggest challenges is booking time for nothing-doing. If I have a spare moment, I feel I should be sending out an E-mail or creating something.
We feel like we have this deadline we always have to hit. It never ends and it never stops. What if I ran off to Maine for a weekend and got an AirBnB cabin for three days?
I do think if you grow up thinking about stigma and minority social justice, it does perpetuate this feeling that the weight of the world is on your shoulders.
Yeah! It’s kind of narcissistic. [Laughs]
And it can be a detriment to productivity as well.
I’m starting to hate the word productivity because I don’t want my work to be about production, which is just efficiency over time.
We are also riddled with expectations of what we should have accomplished by a certain age.
Many of my friends and peers are so incredibly talented. I always want to be able to do what they’re doing and it’s terrible to compare yourself to other people.
Are there specific qualities that you feel artists really struggle with in terms of self-care?
There are so many. [Laughs] Part of it is just trying to believe in the legitimacy of our work, in terms of quality or impact. Some people are now saying that fighting for representation is a trap and a distraction from real issues, but representation matters.
What has helped you during times of struggle?
I enjoyed school but I’m glad I’m not in it anymore. But post-grad was difficult because I was scared of losing my community. It got to a point where I just had to reorient the way I was thinking about it because I was so burned out. The people that matter in my life will stay in my life. Maybe I can reconnect with people I’ve lost touch with in a year or two, but I don’t have to feel so adamant about it now.
Who are the people you count on the most and why?
I’m incredibly lucky to have supportive parents. My brother is also on his journey on raising his own consciousness, so it’s really easy to talk to him about these issues.
Tell me about some projects you are working on right now.
I am producing an episodic podcast radio play called “Tapes from Jane Street.” I’ve been calling it “Waiting for Godot” meets Janelle Monae. A tagline I’ve written is: Stay tuned for cyborgs, bisexuals and folks who are a little bit of both. It’s partially inspired by Welcome to Night Vale and Zombie’s Run. I love that they built a world around the listener.
In our story, the listener is the protagonist of this world and a cast of characters build it around you. We want to talk about living post-trauma but pre-revolution, which is where, in many ways, we’re living right now. It’s science fiction and the reason we have cyborgs is because I hate it when sci-fi does the allegory thing in order to put more white people in the story. Instead of that, I want to create a world where sci-fi elements help to exacerbate the inequality instead of replacing it.
Do you think everyone is marginalized?
[Pause] Everybody has issues they are working through and the historical context of those issues is incredibly important. In terms of identity politics, what’s the history? As someone who is Taiwanese-American, I’m pretty sure that my ancestors displaced the indigenous folks in Taiwan. At the same time, my grandmother has lived through intense imperialist policies. You can never be reductive about things.
It’s always an ongoing journey to get to a place of healing because we’re all children of trauma. Even the richest, whitest, straightest, most able-bodied man alive must have some kind of trauma. It may not be something I care about, but I have to recognize that pain is real for him. That doesn’t mean I’m going to make it my sole effort to help along his healing.
What are some aspects of today that you feel requires a lot of healing?
The reason I’m drawn to storytelling is because stories are the way we try to understand ourselves, and so much of trauma comes from having that understanding taken away from us. It can be through history that’s been erased, colonization, upbringing, assimilation. It’s anything that’s stolen from us things we’ve never been able to understand, so we dig deeper to find it again.
That’s why I want to keep telling stories. It’s a kind of therapy for me. When I can express it and other people can recognize it, this mutual connection is so powerful. I see who you are and I understand you. Even if I can’t be where you are right now, I will be with you, alongside you. That community is so healing and storytelling, at the end of the day, is always about community.
How do you think we can change the minds and hearts of those who don’t already agree with us?
So much about being an activist is picking your battles. There are some battles that I just don’t have the energy to partake in. Everyone is on their journey to deeper understanding and some people are not where other people are, but sometimes it’s not my responsibility to get them there. And maybe they could get there on their own or through the help of another.
I completely ascribe to the idea that it’s not the onus of a marginalized person to educate someone who’s less marginalized. At the same time, as someone who claims that I want to make the world a better place, I need to put the work in myself. I would never force anyone to do the same, but I do feel that responsibility. On the flip side, no one is ever going to have the exact same ideologies, and when you have similar-but-not-quite-the-same perspectives, you can go deeper and unpack some of the finer details. That is also powerful in terms of making change.
Is there something you would do or say to someone who’s really struggling in terms of their quality of life?
My impulse has always been, “this too shall pass.” It’s a more useful alternative to “it gets better.” “It gets better” makes it seem like there’s this end goal that’s perfect and lovely, which I don’t agree with. This is a dark moment for you. You will have many more dark moments and also healing moments that will come, regardless. This low feeling is always going to pass.
When I’m in a downward spiral, I always remember that I’ve had really beautiful moments in my life, and I’ll get there again.
In the long run, what’s your picture of a really good life for yourself.
Even though I’m exhausted, if I take a step back and look and reflect, I’m honestly really happy with the life that I’m living right now.
So just keep doing what you’re doing?
Yeah. I want to keep meeting new people and creating work that is impactful, thoughtful and healing. I don’t want to peak, I want to keep making progress. Oh and I do have this vision that when I’m 80 and retire, I will get a Masters of Library Sciences and be a librarian for the rest of my life.