Interview: Melody

Birthplace, grew up in, currently living in: New York City, U.S.A.

Age: 21

See her photo shoot in Refinery29’s “Stop Telling Me What Asian Girls Should Look Like.

Find her: Instagram

(Photo courtesy of Melody; Photo credit: @ramonadai)

Q: You recently found out you had Indonesian heritage. What was that experience like for you?

For a lot of my childhood, I thought I was just Chinese, but then I didn’t really understand what the concept of race was. When I got older, I found out I was Chinese-Malaysian. I was never really called biracial, but when I did the shoot for Refinery29, the interviewer was like, “Oh, so you’re biracial,” and I’d never heard that before. I kinda started crying, but I was trying to hold it back — it was addressing part of my identity that acknowledged both of my identities. It was the first time I’d ever heard that. This year, I forget what time, my mom told me I was also Indonesian, because she was talking to her sister, and her sister was like, “How did you never know that? Our dad is Indonesian also.” So, I’m a lot of different types of Asian, and I don’t know a lot of people with that background.

Q: How did you come to understand yourself as someone with this layered Asian heritage? 

Up until I was 4, I thought I was white. I grew up in a really white neighborhood, and I don’t speak Chinese. I went to a school that was mostly Asian, and I came home and said, “No one else is like me,” because I thought I was white. Growing up, there would be things we’d do, like celebrate Lunar New Year and go to certain weddings, so I’d have little parts of my culture but I never really knew a lot about it.

I think, especially since going to college, I’ve embraced being Asian-American. I’ve never not wanted to be Asian-American, like I never wished I was white because it’d be easier or something, but my university has mostly white students, and a lot of them are from Long Island. So super suburban, boat shoes, salmon shorts, and I wasn’t used to that culture at all. I came from a performing arts high school, so then college was really different in this small New York town. It just made me hang on to my culture more because of everything I’d seen there.

Q: Tell me more about anti-gentrification work. What are you studying? How did you get into organizing?

I study sociology. I wanted to get into marketing, but I just took a lot of classes in sociology and I thought they were really interesting. Everything leading up to college, I wasn’t really active in socially. But once I got to college, there’s this organization called the Frances Beal Society and they were fighting against something called the “blue light initiative” that was trying to be implemented at Binghamton. The town has people of color, but they’re unfairly criminalized and the town leans to Trump. So the blue lights are around campus and they have a phone box to dial in case you’re ever in danger, and no one in my university really uses them. It’s very rare that someone uses them. But there was a plan to move these blue lights into the downtown area, which would cost money, and they also wanted to install cameras. That’s way too much surveillance and would further criminalize people of color. So we camped out in the president’s office in protest, and we got them to not do it. We wanted the money to go toward better mental health counselors, because students actually need that.

So then I started getting more involved in the Binghamton community, because I noticed the injustices there, whereas I hadn’t noticed such things happening in New York City. One of my professors, he lives in the Bronx but he used to live in Chinatown, started talking to me about the organization he’s in, the Chinatown Working Group, against displacement, which led me to being a part of it. Because I wasn’t a part of anything in New York City, and it’s not as good as I thought it was when I was younger, because I was so in my bubble. So that’s how I started getting into that work.

After the whole blue light initiative, I was really into the group, the Frances Beal Society, but it was a lot of stress for me. So I kind of took a step back. I don’t really make my mental health a priority as much as I should. I want to be more active in Youth Against Displacement, because I’m going to move back to the city after college.

Q: Now that you know you have Indonesian heritage as well, what do you hope to learn and how does it affect your multifaceted self?

It’s just a lot of layers. I’d love to learn more about the Indonesian and Malaysian background, because I don’t really know a lot about them. There’s so much more than my Chinese background. I think my mom is closer to her Malaysian and Chinese heritage, and I’m really close to my Chinese heritage. We both found out we were Indonesian, but we don’t really know a lot about it. I hope that’s something we can find out together.

Editor’s note: The following question and response happened via text message.

Q: And, if you’re open to, can you speak more on colorism within the Asian community?

I would say across the board, colorism affects every race, and is capitalized off of, whilst trying to also push, the ideology that lighter skin is favored and more important. It’s affected people in my family subconsciously, and something that I recognize a lot in East and Southeast Asian skincare.

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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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