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How I reclaimed my Asian identity and found my voice in the queer community through art

Brian Vu   

How I reclaimed my Asian identity and found my voice in the queer community through art

I was born in Fountain Valley, California, after my parents moved to the US from Vietnam. The first language I learned was Vietnamese, and I spoke it to my grandparents, with whom I spent a lot of time growing up.

When I started school, I slowly learned English, but I wasn't confident in my skills, because it was difficult for me to go back and forth between languages. It hampered my ability to communicate with people outside my family, which left me feeling isolated from my peers.

In first grade, my parents sent me to Catholic school - both sides of the family are devout, so I was raised that way too. But I found it difficult to connect with the other children. I was so shy that I turned into a loner. It was difficult for me to make friends because everything felt unnatural, and I felt like I was different.

I was ashamed of the school lunches my parents packed for me - Vietnamese rice dishes, soups, and noodles. It wasn't the food I saw other kids bring to school, and it wasn't the food I saw on TV.

In middle school, other kids started to bully me for my appearance and for my race. They'd make fun of me for having big lips, and for my height. I wanted so badly to be accepted, so I wore the right clothes and rocked the right hair, but it wasn't enough for them. They still targeted me. I noticed it in my parents, too, and how they wanted to fit in. They wore popular designer clothing, and participated in trends.

Eventually, all the frustration and sadness manifested into anger. It became so stifling that I got kicked out of 7th grade for threatening another student because I felt rejected. I was sent to counseling, but it didn't help. Instead, I just kept it to myself, and didn't fully process it. In retrospect, the outburst was clearly a cry for help.

A year later, I started going to a public school near our house. There, the racism was at its worst: There weren't many days that I didn't hear someone being made fun of for their background. I was called "Vu manchu" by one of the students, and another would call me a "chink." I also heard "Konichiwa" several times.

In high school, I started hanging out with other Asian kids to feel safer. There were still problems within the group, given that there were stereotypical jokes between ethnicities. I didn't necessarily have much in common with them because I was a creative type, so I moved onto a group of scene kids.

My interest in alternative culture began with them: a small group I finally felt comfortable with.

We were all interested in expression through music, fashion, and art. I took a yearbook class and started using my father's camera at the same time. I fell in love, and photography became my safe haven. I brought my camera everywhere and took photos of anything I possibly could. I spent hours editing the images on Photoshop. I was so excited to share them online, even to just a few people who would see it.

I could finally communicate and offer my own perspective. It was something I finally had full control over.

However, during my senior year, I took an art class that almost made me quit. The teacher asked students to take photographs over the summer and bring them into class to edit. The summer prior, I traveled to Vietnam, when I took photos of my family and the landscapes there. When I showed the teacher, she began to shame me in front of the entire class, and told me that I shouldn't steal photos from the internet and call them my own. It felt like she was targeting me because she could, and because of who she assumed I was: a submissive Asian man who wouldn't fight back.

Fortunately, I had a friend in the class who backed me up, but the class became a hellish experience from then on.

When it came time to choose colleges, I was torn between business school and art school. I applied to art school, but I decided I'd only go if I received a scholarship.

Pursuing art isn't a traditional career path to take within the Asian community. It's often looked down upon because it's seen as a financially unstable option. While that didn't bother me - as long as I was doing something I was passionate about, I was sure I could make enough money - it did bother those around me, including my parents, who were worried I wouldn't make enough money to survive.

I needed a letter of recommendation from an art teacher, and the teacher who shamed me all those months ago was my only option. When I asked her, she held it over me, and told me she didn't know if she should. I had to ask her three or four times. While she eventually did, it was extremely short and rushed. It seemed like she didn't want to see me pursue my passion, and that deeply scarred me.

To my surprise, I ended up winning the scholarship lottery, and after spending a long time convincing my parents to let me attend - and putting everything I had into my three year program - I graduated with a portfolio I was proud of.

During college, I also started grappling with my sexuality. Where I grew up, being queer put a target on my back, and I already had enough of those. I never envisioned myself in a relationship, let alone a queer one.

But suddenly, out of nowhere, I met my first boyfriend. I was twenty, and he was on tour with his band in California. and we began a long distance, and secret, relationship. It gave me time to own my sexuality, and to come out to friends once it became serious. It was a slow process, but it was healing.

After that relationship ended, I got into one that was manipulative and abusive. My depression eventually turned into self-reflection in order to cope, move on, and rebuild. I finally created boundaries and knew myself more than ever.

A few months after graduation, I moved to New York City to pursue a career in photography. I started to pick up a camera and fell in love with shooting photographs all over again. (During college, I took a long break from photography because I was trying to focus on design and my internships.) I focused predominantly on portraiture and still lifes.

The fine art photography world was full of white cisgender people, and they seemed to control every element of the industry. It was intimidating to enter into an environment that didn't have many people like me. I knew I had to work harder and faster in order to stand out. I needed to build a point of view that photo editors couldn't find anywhere else.

After years of experimentation, I became more comfortable, and decided to photograph people in the queer community. It was eye-opening to be given the privilege to capture such magnificent subjects. I've never felt so alive in my life. So much of this is because I was able to learn from my subjects, their fearlessness, and their views, both personal and societal. It was my duty to show queer people in a beautiful light, something I've never seen much of in films or television.

The art I make feels like a place we can travel to, away from binary classification and all that it brings. It's a retelling inspired by the paintings and poses of the people deemed important in history. I saw a lot of renaissance portrait paintings in museums, and it made me imagine what it would be like for queer people to be there, to be celebrated and remembered.

My life is an ongoing battle. I'm always fighting for my voice to be heard. Being Asian-American means struggling to break away from the racist stereotypes put upon us. But I will continue to wear my skin color and my queerness as powerful parts of my identity. Those two things - things that victimized me for decades - are now integral to my strength and contributions as an artist.

Brian Vu is a photographer and multimedia artist based in New York City.