Vera Chok is an actress, writer and performance maker. She recently contributed to The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by writers of colour exploring what it means to live in the UK today, which topped the Guardian and Amazon bestseller lists (and won the Books are my bag Readers Award) and has been making waves throughout the media since its publication a few months ago. She kindly carved some time out of her busy schedule to chew the cud with me….
Julie: Congratulations of the success of The Good Immigrant! It’s not for nothing that J.K. Rowling called it “an important, timely read”. How did it feel to write about your experience of being “a small, yellow-skinned female and one hundred per cent ethnically Chinese”?
Vera: I learned so much in the process of writing the chapter. I was shocked and disturbed to learn that East Asians are considered so insignificant in the UK, despite making up a proportion of the population not materially smaller than that of black British. For example, our census doesn’t tell us the total number of East Asians in the U.K. but only captures data on those who are Chinese. Crime against East Asians goes unrecorded and thus is unreported. On a personal level, I realised that the word “immigrant” applies to me – I have never self-defined as that. It was distressing and empowering to collect and articulate my thoughts on my position in UK society and have this incredible platform to share my thoughts with readers. Discussing the book at literature events is a privilege and a joy, but it also costs me to keep talking about the racism and bias we haven’t yet and cannot “solve.”
Julie: One of the elements in your piece for The Good Immigrant that stood out to me was the idea of labels – the difficulty of defining, for example, East Asian, and the label “yellow” which you use to describe people like you and me. What do you think are the dangers and benefits of labels, and what would you say we should be wary of when using them?
Vera: Human beings label and categorise in order to make sense of the world. This is a practical and necessary thing. We’re on dangerous territory when we attach value judgements arbitrarily e.g. “All tall people are evil” and do not 1. adjust them even if we gather more data e.g. tests show only half of tall people are evil, 2. implement seperatist action based on unfounded value judgements e.g. All tall people must live in separate houses to normal people and will be killed if not. When I use silly examples like this, it seems ridiculous, but this isn’t too many miles away from genocides in history i.e. based on arbitrary features, a group of people are killed.
Julie: I found your experience of being an ethnically Chinese Malaysian to be very similar to mine. In fact, being ethnically Chinese with Mauritian-born parents, people will often even hear Malaysian when I tell them I’m Mauritian! Like you, I feel tension between my various indentities, that is, my Chinese ethnicity, my British-ness and my Mauritian-ness, and sometimes wonder whether surrendering myself to the neater Chinese role would be easier. How do you deal with the tension? Are there advantages in being able to put on the mantle of different identities in different situations?
Vera: My current strategy is to keep things complicated. In this fast-paced, soundbite-driven world where we don’t really see each other, I relish any opportunity I get to engage with another person as my whole, complex self. I used to simplify my narrative to be accepted. It does make things easier in the short term but I am no longer interested in that as a life strategy. Of course, we all of us do what we need to to survive and get on in life and I think we should always remember that we are free to make choices every single day. We have more freedom than we use. Mistakes are great opportunities to learn and grow. Live as well as you can.
Julie: There is a preponderence in Western culture of the hypersexualised yet pliable East Asian woman juxtaposed with the emasculated East Asian male. How would you like to change this status quo? I practically fist-pumped when I saw Master of None‘s Dev and The Walking Dead‘s Glenn have sexual relationships (with white women, no less!). What would your ideal, non-stereotyped East Asian female and male be like on stage/screen?
Vera: There isn’t one. In the “west”, a white person is the norm so the opposite and ideal would be when a person’s skin colour doesn’t immediately and clearly signify character traits or physical abilities. The easiest way to do this quickly is to have more than one person from the said marginalised group. In Luke Cage, most of the characters are black so you have black people of different classes and of varying wealth and education, you have goodies and baddies and questionable people in between. In Sense 8, you have several gay people, everyone is “foreign”. In both programmes, there are as many women as men and they are as complex as the male characters. Normalising the existence of people traditionally objectified is the way forward.
Julie: You describe experiences of an old white English man shuffling up to you and shouting “Chinese!”, and a young black man murmuring Chinese words to you. These incidents of people publicly projecting Chineseness onto us appears to be an unfortunate yet not infrequent occurrence for a lot of us yellow people living in the UK. What is your reaction or response when this happens?
Vera: I often react too late as I am usually too surprised when people display such stupidity. But I am training myself to be better at responding. I’d like to be able to assess whether or not to counter this violence – and yes, I do classify it as a violence, – with violence e.g. to yell something like “Fuck you!” or to have an open discussion with the person about the silliness of their actions. I think if we were more connected with our selves, we would recognise our selves in others.
Julie: Another thing that became clear from your essay is the difficulty in finding data on East Asians in the UK (having often been relegated to the catch-all label of “other” in race-monitoring exercises). This seems to be a further manifestation of East Asian invisibility. Would you say it’s different in the US?
Vera: I don’t know for sure but it seems so. There is a longer history to the social justice movement in the US and Asian-Americans seem more visible there.
Julie: A few weeks ago you initiated a Devoted and Disgruntled discussion about East Asians being trapped as portraying the other, which provided a space to openly discuss the issue. It became clear that, though times are changing, we still have a long way to go. How much more change, and what kind of change, do you think we will see over the coming years?
Vera: Hard to say, but I know it does depend both on how much effort East Asians connect with each other and the greater world. How much will we put in and how much are we open to. Do we support other marginalised groups? Are we educating ourselves, taking risks, asking questions and rocking the boat? Visibility and opportunities aren’t going to be handed to us on a platter.
Julie: Last but not least, you refer to Said’s text Orientalism in The Good Immigrant, where he describes ‘The East’ as a place set apart ‘geographically, morally, culturally’ alongside the idea that ‘it is our distance to it that fuels our desire to know it’. How does one go about researching such a vast topic as ‘The East’, or China, if they were to write a play about it?
Vera: What do we mean by ‘the East’? It is only a place in relation to somewhere else. Our maps do not show the objective centre of the world. If you’d like to explore the ideas surrounding the concept of ‘the East’, I’d look at where this place is supposed to be, how the boundaries were drawn up and how they’ve shifted through time, how it’s been described, and what it is held up in contrast to. With regards to China, I’d be interested in the artist’s relationship to China, their ideas of China, and what they think Chineseness means to others and what it means to them. These questions should keep you busy.
Julie: Thanks Vera!