Archives for category: My experiences

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind. Two pieces from my show Rebirth sold: portraits of two of the youngest subjects, Trayvon Martin and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. In addition, a commissioned painting of mine is on the site of Lumicor, an architectural panel company. (See below) And finally, I’ve been in talks about two group shows next month.

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Above left: the original piece. Above right: the painting in the print catalog

So I’m late in posting this great interview I had with Xavier Lopez, Jr., who writes an arts and culture blog for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Please check it out here.

The interview with Laura Castellanos that we mention in the last part can be found here.

 

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My piece, Slippage, in The Stranger‘s Art & Performance Spring 2016 magazine (above, right)

Some days you think you’re going to go wrangle with the electricity company over a billing issue, and then something entirely unexpected and magical happens. In my case, I received a text notifying me that my art was in the latest issue of The Stranger, a popular weekly paper in Seattle. I thought, “Well, fuck the double charge on that bill—they can triple-charge me, for all I care. Right now I’m off to get a paper!”

Then I sprinted down to the coffeehouse in the lobby of my office building, grabbed a paper, and retreated to a quiet place to look through it. The artwork in question was in the periodical’s quarterly Art & Performance magazine. The guide provides a comprehensive list of all arts events going on that season; the Visual Arts section alone contained more than 200 exhibitions and shows.

Right there, on page 23, was my piece, Slippage. I felt almost numb with disbelief. There were only five image slots available in that section; three of them promoted museum shows, including that of international art star Kehinde Wiley, and another showed the work of local legend Norman Lundin. Then there’s this unknown artist, Yoona Lee. The one squarely outside the Seattle arts community, the one who toiled in relative obscurity for 16 long years to get the show of her dreams.

That was my painting right there, and the caption made me gasp. “Why you should see it: Because [Yoona] can transform everyday materials into smart meditations on racial politics.” They understood me. They got to the heart of what I was doing.

Slippage itself was created by cutting a slit in the cellophane covering a store-bought stretched canvas and pouring Sumi ink into it. The piece is about the infiltration of the Other’s, or minority’s, perspective into a previously white and sacrosanct canon—a phenomenon as unstoppable as ink across a blank canvas. I last showed it at the 2015 Arts & Social Change Showcase.

My upcoming show at Ghost Gallery will include this work and others. Titled Run Race Ragged: Three Takes on Racial Politics in America, the show will feature a wide breadth of work: big, visceral abstract paintings, smaller conceptual mixed-media collage, and at least one figurative drawing. It will open May 12, the night of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Art Walk. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop by. Details below.

Run Race Ragged: Three Takes on Racial Politics in America
Ghost Gallery
Opening May 12, 5 to 9PM
On view through June 6
504 E. Denny Way
(corner of E. Denny Way and Summit/Olive, entryway to right of Hillcrest Market)

My website: http://www.rhymeswithrace.com/

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Me in London, 1995: I crouched next to this random scooter and jokingly said my ’67 Lambretta went tits-up, so I get around on this Spree.
(photo credit: Silvia Manzanero)

Once upon a time, I was a self-loathing Asian who hung out with the skinheads. Now, they weren’t neo-Nazis; they were traditional skinheads, or “trads” (I’ll get more into that in a minute). And ironically enough, they were more antiracist than I was!

Before you say, “But wait, aren’t all skinheads racists?” it’s important to note that when skinheads emerged as a youth culture in late ’60s England, they embraced Jamaican ska music, ultimately helping disseminate it—often called skinhead reggae—all over the country. However, neo-Nazis co-opted the movement in the 1970s and recruited violent white supremacist skinheads. This subgroup, with its right-wing extremism, has unfortunately exemplified skinhead culture to the mainstream ever since.

Found on nearly every continent today, skinhead culture comprises an array of political beliefs. The most recognizable antiracist faction is the  Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARPs); other skinheads consider themselves to be trads, a term referencing their apolitical origins. And there are plenty of nationalist wingnuts, like the culturally confused Malaysian neo-Nazis. (More on skinhead subculture and identity can be found here.)

My introduction to the skinheads, or “skins,” came through ska. Although this upbeat music is ubiquitous enough now to be heard on any used-car dealership commercial, it was underground and hard to come by for a long time. When I was 11, my older sister brought home a record that changed my life; it was the debut album by The Specials. The track that made me jump to my feet and take notice was Do the Dog. With its explosive drum intro and the lead singer’s bawled, profane vocals, this song would foretell, and maybe even determine, my later interest in radical politics and punk.

“All you punks and all you teds
National Front and natty dreads
Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads
Keep on fighting ’til you’re dead”
—The Specials, “Do the Dog”

As a gothic punk in high school, I never stopped listening to ska and eventually became a full-fledged “rudegirl” (a female member of the ska subculture). Most of my favorite bands were on the 2 Tone record label, but I listened to old-school Jamaican ska, rocksteady, and nonracist Oi!. I wore all black-and-white clothes under a bomber decorated with ska buttons and patches (part of the skinhead aesthetic), and frequented ska shows, where I’d “skank” all night with other rudies and skins, who were some of the most avid fans.

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Rudegirl selfie, Philly, 1994: I’m in a ’60s dress with ska paraphernalia (most of which I drew myself) all over my walls.

It was easy enough to take on a subcultural persona; it was much harder to deal with my racial identity. In spite of being staunchly antiracist, I was at odds with my Asianness. As a kid, I was bullied because of my ethnic features, and as a young adult, felt entirely detached from Korean culture. I didn’t have Korean friends, barely knew the language or who my grandparents were, and was usually at odds with my immediate family. Being Asian, for me, meant only experiencing racial slurs and fetishism; it was a deficit and a liability and, at best, a major inconvenience. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

As an alienated 19-year-old, I met and got to know the Philly United Skinheads (PUSH). The first encounter was uncomfortable: on a lonely West Philly street one night, a drunken skinhead began talking shit to me and ripped a patch off my bomber. I screamed at him and got the patch back; then two of his friends came up to apologize to me for his behavior while he reeled away and puked in a vacant lot. From then on, I was accepted by the group.

PUSH was led by an intensely charismatic 27-year-old skinhead named Spud. He could have been mistaken for a neo-Nazi because of his Aryan features and German blackletter tattoos. His girlfriend, an African-American skinhead, was a former mod/goth hybrid (she’d worn a lot of black suits, apparently) and daughter of a southern Holy Roller. We busted out Madness moves on the dancefloor and drank heavily while watching early-’90s ska bands like The Toasters and Bim Skala Bim play. (The stalwarts of 2 Tone ska, such as The Selecter and The English Beat, hadn’t reunited yet, but I would later see these bands in London and Seattle.)

I quickly learned that PUSH had its heroes, antiheroes, and an intricate, occasionally self-contradictory, system of values. These skins were almost religiously antiracist without identifying as SHARPs. They always partied on the anniversary of Hitler’s death and, conversely, abstained from alcohol on his birthday. They also villainized a newly dead neo-Nazi named Joe Rowan, the 22-year-old singer of a Delaware white-power band. PUSH celebrated on the anniversary of his death, too, and didn’t drink on his birthday. Like all antiracist skins, they shunned the neo-Nazis’ favorite numbers, 88 and 14 (representing, respectively, “Heil Hitler” and the 14-word white supremacist creed).

When the neo-Nazis, or “boneheads,” would visit town, members of PUSH would go fight them, but I would stay out of it. Even though I was violent, rambunctious, and ready to use my fists at the drop of a hat (and did, more often than not), I wasn’t ready to take on race. My racial identity had not crystallized enough for me to confront these rabid white supremacists.

It seemed strange to me that PUSH, who were primarily white, felt more strongly about racism than I did. I appreciated their activism, but felt almost a little suspicious, wondering if there was a white, self-heroicizing, hetero-paternalistic element to it, or at least a perverse kind of privilege.

In 1995 I moved to London and got to know some of the skinheads there, mainly at the ska shows. England had its own virulent brand of fascist boneheads, mainly from the National Front and the British Movement, but it also had more diversity in its skinhead culture than I’d seen before. I met Caribbeans, East Indians, and even an Israeli skin one night.

Rude London roomMy room in London, 1996: checkered skirt and a car coat, along with dozens of fliers from ’60s mod and ska events around town

In both England and America, there were aspects of nonracist skinhead culture that I disliked. The men were usually looking for a fight and often homophobic. Many were blatantly sexist and would get sloppy drunk, relying on their girlfriends to help them get home. (But let it be known: skinhead girls are not to be messed with—they are feisty and can hold their own.) Plus, there were many “fence-sitters,” who would hit on me but still confess to having racist friends. In one particularly chilling encounter, a good-looking but semiliterate skin flirted with me at a party and then, sidling up, admitted he’d been best friends with Joe Rowen, the infamous neo-Nazi.

As I spent more time with the skinheads, I realized that my own personal rage—which had helped me relate to them—came from my own cultural ambivalence. I couldn’t identify with my Korean heritage and didn’t care to understand it. I felt alienated from other people of my race and avoided them. Yet I also hated those who hated my race. In other words, I was a convoluted mess.

It would take decades for me to fully accept and embrace my Korean-American identity, and begin work as an antiracist activist, making art around it, leading workshops on race at University of Washington and Seattle University, and eventually drumming up the courage to confront the white-supremacist Hammerskins.

These vicious skinheads were rumored to be marching in Seattle, but never showed up. I joined about 400 other antifascists to meet them with a counter-protest on a cold, blustery night. After waiting for a half hour, we marched through the Seattle streets; I led several chants, screaming, “Say it loud! Say it clear!” The crowd responded, “Nazis are not welcome here!” We sent out a strong message: we will fight to protect Muslims, refugees, and racial minorities against fascists.

That night felt like less of a closure to my skinhead past and more of an entry into something new and dangerous, but filled with an irresistible and fortifying sense of promise.

 

On November 27, the Black Lives Matter, Not Black Friday protest shook up the retail core of Seattle. I stayed for as long as I could and documented it.

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1 PM: Signs in Century Square, the de facto heart of the retail district.

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Protesters strain to hear the speaker’s bullhorns over the blare of Christmas carols, Century Square.

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Holiday shoppers watch the protest from the safety of Westlake Center, a popular downtown mall.

Blocking intersection_mic checkSeveral hundred demonstrators occupied intersections while POC (people of color) speakers used an Occupy-style “human microphone” to spread their message.

Blocking intersectionDisrupting traffic in Seattle: some motorists were frustrated, while others were empathetic and waited patiently.

WP_20151127_096Occupying a popular intersection beside corporate retailer Nordstrom–fuck the holiday season, start a revolution!

Signs outside Westlake Ctr
3 PM: First attempt to get into Westlake Center, at the north entrance …

Altercation_Westlake Ctr… which doesn’t end well (cops 1, POC 0)–the first arrest of four arrests made that day.

White allies at protest
The crowd of protesters was diverse, with many white allies.

Cops and WTFAn attempt by protesters to enter Pacific Place, an upscale shopping center, brings cops–and a few incongruous self-designated “superheroes” (costumed vigilantes).

Forever 21 protestProtesters occupied all four floors of Forever 21, a corporate retailer guilty of unethical practices.

The organizers of protest4:15 PM: A quick conversation, as police block off streets, before heading to Westlake Center for the tree lighting–and the latter half of the protest.

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The Slog, the daily blog run by The Stranger (one of Seattle’s weekly papers), covered the protest and captured, among many other people, me (in dark glasses, foreground). I lost most of my voice shouting and leading chants.

I need to figure out how to upload some video footage here. It features protesters infiltrating Macy’s, even as a security guard tried to shut its doors, and occupying Forever 21. At the latter store, I was right behind one of the march’s organizers when she simply and miraculously opened one of its doors and said, “Come on in.” I patted her on the shoulder and said it was a good idea, and then we all swept in–an unstoppable tide of people that took about 15 minutes to all get through the door. We rode the escalators to the top of the store, shouting chants like “Black lives matter, not this shit.” Shoppers were flummoxed or pretended to ignore us while scurrying to the dressing rooms, but a few pumped their fists in solidarity.

The Black Lives Matter march went on to effectively disrupt the tree lighting ceremony and finally infiltrate the two downtown malls. Some great photos and coverage can be found here. Four arrests were made, but there were no blast balls, tear gas, or major violence like I’d experienced during the WTO. And unlike the Martin Luther King Day Black Lives Matter march earlier this year, it didn’t end in the cops going crazy with the pepper spray. So in that respect, the protest was a relative success. However, many white shoppers became irate, completely overlooking the point of the protest: black lives matter more than consumerism.

Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Tanisha Anderson. LaQuan McDonald. The countless unnamed by the media.

So many. Too many. Black lives matter. Say it with me–not all lives matter”that’s also true but missing the goddamn point here.

Black lives. Their black lives. Our black lives everywhere. All of them. Protected and respected. That may sound like a liberational fantasy, but that’s what protests like these are working toward.

Affecting corporate retailersAmerica’s moneylike Chicago’s protesters did on North Michigan Avenue, is the best way of getting attention and pointing to where the real value lies. Not in 40% off the Kindle Unlimited, but in the black lives lost and those that need to be fiercely and lovingly cherished and preserved.

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Whew, the projector works! (my self-portrait on screen)

I’d dreaded giving this workshop. I literally lost sleep over it, turning over in my head a central question that I’d tried to resolve through innumerable conversations. The problem was built into the title I’d given the workshop, “Here I Am: The Self-Portrait as Act of Cultural Resistance.” And now I had to hash it out at the 2015 Seattle Race Conference.

My workshop was originally intended for people of color (POC)—both visual artists and writers. In a society where racial minorities are still marginalized, creating a self-portrait is an empowering exercise for POC to assert their autonomy and agency. It’s a way of actively resisting racial typecasting while also rooting out implicit racism in themselves. Sometimes self-judgment, like “My eyes are too small” (something I used to think as an Asian American), emerges during the process, and these indictments often carry internalized racism.

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Quarter Life, a self-portrait I did at 25 

Knowing the conference would be well attended by non-POC, I didn’t want to restrict the workshop to minorities and be accused of being, well, racist. So my big dilemma was figuring out how to position this workshop to non-POC. If whiteness is normative in our culture, then for a white person, creating a self-portrait is not necessarily an act of racial-cultural resistance. So the big question was: how can non-POC create a self-portrait and still gain an empathetic understanding of the racial minority’s positionality? It felt like trying to sell a car to someone and have them think of broccoli at the same time. Most of the non-POC I asked usually didn’t think about race at all.

So I asked the question to a diverse assortment of people I knew, from data analysts to artists to academics to executives. Their answers ranged from “Does this workshop have to include white people?” to “Have the white folks draw themselves as racial minorities.” The latter idea made me flinch, since it could easily lapse into stereotyping. I wanted this workshop to be a validating experience for POC, not another opportunity for hurt feelings and rage.

After weighing out the feedback, I finally settled on asking the non-POC to do self-portraits and hoped that the small-group discussion afterward could help them better understand the minority experience.

My next concern was: Is anyone going to be interested in my workshop anyhow? There were so many fascinating-sounding sessions, including ones run by representatives of the ACLU, Washington Bar Association, and Seattle Office for Civil Rights, going on at the same time as mine.

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An excerpt of the 2015 Seattle Race Conference guide (my session bracketed)

To my relief, 16 people showed up. They were visual artists and writers, varying in age and race but skewing POC and female. I shared some of my art and writing, including an excerpt of my piece at the Wing Luke Museum, talked about the politics of self-portraiture and the social/activistic aspects of art making, and described the parameters of the project. I asked the writers to produce a paragraph or several about their physical appearance, which is the manifestation of ethno-racial features and perceived difference. I recommended the artists stick to a realistic style but not worry about using a mirror, to avoid getting hung up on technicalities.

Then I asked the workshop participants how they would address the self-portrait challenge for non-POC. One mixed-race woman raised her hand and suggested that whites can experience oppression, similar to what POC feel, when they feel insecurity at their own features. It was an excellent point: oppression can come from oneself—we do it all the time.

Using the paper, pens and pencils I’d brought, the workshop participants got to work. They approached their self-portraits with courage and honesty; there was often pain and questioning on the page. One white woman drew her body as an outline and her head with only eyes, nose, and hair; in a caption, she berated her blankness and yearned for color. A young black man tried drawing himself several times; each time, a male relative’s face unexpectedly emerged. The mixed-race woman who had responded to my question earlier almost wept while drawing her self-portrait. On the paper, her dark eyes stared piercingly out but inward, as most self-portrait eyes do. She later told me the workshop changed her life.

When I divided the class into small groups afterward to talk about their self-portraits, the discussions were rich and deep, even spilling into the lunch hour. As I visited with the groups, I found it challenging to adroitly respond to some of the issues that came up. What to say to the young white woman who drew herself in long sleeves and wrote that she was seen by her high school as a threat to the community (due to self-harm) but “still doesn’t know oppression”? Or to the half-Hispanic woman who called herself “an invalid” because she doesn’t fit into either culture and it makes her feel sick and useless.

Or to the white senior citizen who had remained resolutely silent until she finally opened up about escaping her bigoted small town when she realized she was gay.

Many writers tried their hand at sketching. A biracial woman who had never drawn before brightly observed that she could pass as either Mexican or white. She drew her eyes looking down in a shocked but amused manner, the whites showing above the dark pupils, and a half-smile on her thin face.

I was inspired and moved by everyone’s braveness at confronting their issues and speaking frankly about them with strangers. A few participants told me afterward that they’d had a profound experience. I ended up making two friends: a talented young poet, who has since expanded her self-portrait into a long-term creative project, and a woman from the social justice organization Coming to the Table. The latter led an afternoon workshop that used art interpretation to reveal implicit bias, which fit the conference theme: Perceptions Kill! The Impacts of Implicit Racial Bias.

The conference itself was sold out, and the majority of the attendees were non-POC, which shows that Seattle is progressing, even if it has a long way to go. I met likeminded folks who offered me opportunities to lead workshops at University of Washington, North Seattle College, and Western Washington University. I was also invited to show my art at a gallery in Kingston, WA.

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New friends at 2015 Seattle Race Conference (me in center)

Talking about race in America is arduous, but it’s amazing how engaged people can become once they get started. I was struck by how coworkers at my office, even between meetings, spoke about it with earnestness and alacrity. Race is an issue that is alive and vital, percolating below the surface, and when siphoned out carefully—in moderated small-group discussions, even in large-scale events like this conference—it can become a potent and transformative force. So let’s keep talking. Let’s keep meeting. Let’s keep looking into ourselves, for our faults, our beauty, our future potential. Because that is where social change begins.

This post is dedicated to freedom fighter Grace Lee Boggs.

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My tribute to Grace Lee Boggs on the chalkboard at my workplace

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None of these tattoos are real

When I was 16, I cut class and went to meet a local tattoo artist at a nearby McDonald’s. My plan was to drop out of high school and get apprenticed under him, so I took along some of my best pen-and-ink drawings. The guy turned out to be this sunburnt dude with a bleached-yellow mullet in a teeshirt that promoted drunk surfing in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. He spoke with a hillbilly accent and was the color of ham and eggs. I noticed a pastiche of bad tattoos on his left arm: wizards, skulls vomiting out other skulls, and the occasional lopsided guitar. He proudly pointed at them and told me he’d had lots of practice tattooing.

When I asked the guy what he was working on these days, he described an elaborate bower of roses winding up from his right knee and arching over his groin. Then he stood up, unzipped his pants, and said, “Here, you wanna see it?” I got the hell out of that McDonald’s, but not before shelving my tattooing dreams right then and there.

It was a pity because I’d already had lots of practice drawing badass shit on people. As a high school freshman, I brought a steel-gray magic marker to school every day and inscribed king cobras and cracked skulls on the punks and heavy metal kids. I hit the big time a year later, when I was asked to give someone a tattoo using a homemade gun made out of a spoon, a guitar string, and a needle, powered by an electric train track. (I ducked out because the gun was rickety and had a reputation of getting “a little too close” to the bloodstream.) In the meantime, I always gave myself Sharpie tattoos as preparation for the real thing.

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Me at 16 with my homemade tiger tattoo

So you would expect me at this point, decades later, to be covered head to toe with tattoos, right? Well, I’m one of the few people walking around without a single one. When asked why, I’ve always said there was nothing—no image or text—I could commit to wearing full time on my body. But the other day, I was surprised to find out the real reason why.

It all started when a coworker wanted to throw a punk-themed party at my workplace. I was brought in as a “consultant,” or a punk SME (subject matter expert), having spent 25 years in the scene. A few weeks later, the office’s main conference room was transformed into the grungy cavern of the now-defunct NYC nightclub CBGB. With trash on the floor and loud ’70s punk rock on the sound system, it looked and felt surprisingly authentic, not like a lame mockery of the counterculture.

For the party, I donned a tank top constructed out of two Plasmatics backpieces strung together with safety pins, along with an old Crass patch and the DIY jewelry I’d worn as a punk in high school. Of course, I had to add some tattoos in permanent marker. Here’s what it looked like.

Tat sdetail 1
On my right arm, tattoos done by me: the international squatters symbol; skull with spiderweb, rope, booze bottle, and nails; a bloody razor blade with “City Baby” (GBH reference) on it; a kitchen knife with “Punks Not Dead” (Exploited reference); two snakes (one not pictured); and a sprig of dying roses

Tats detail 2 

On my left arm, tattoos done by friends: a psycho skull, lightning bolts, a snake, and a “DC Hardcore” symbol (not pictured)

I drew some spider webs, skulls, dangerous weapons, and the international squatters symbol, which resonated with my anarchist beliefs. I included references to some of my favorite punk bands and added “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards) on the knuckles on my right hand. A friend later wrote “BIAS” on my left knuckles as a joke.

The fake tats didn’t make me feel like a poser, but they did make me unrecognizable to myself, like “Whoa, whose arm is that, and why are they cutting my tomato?” As I got used to having them, I began to feel confined, as if the tattoos defined me a little too much. They seemed to set people’s expectations and subconsciously set mine too. I understood why people get tattooed, because these permanent emblems can reinforce one’s identity. But in my case, they were restrictive, as if I could be nobody else except what these tattoos required me to be. I felt self-contradictory listening to anything but punk rock and surprisingly out of place when I went to see my friend’s ’60s mod band play that night.

I also noticed my behavior becoming more jaded, cynical, and a little more regressive (yes, even more than it already is!). It was hard to stay professional at work when my tats reminded me that what I really wanted to do was down PBRs and listen to seven-inches all day. Plus, no matter what I wore, my arms and knuckles gave the outfit a certain slant, which wasn’t always what I wanted.

The Sharpie tats lasted a few days, and they made me realize how much I need to be free and unfettered. Markings that defined me also constricted me; without them, I could continue to be mercurial, endlessly transforming myself, even while staying true to who I am. Ultimately, the whole experience made me realize that I don’t need to wear tangible reminders of my past or interests on myself. They are all in me, behind my eyes, under my skin, and in the bloodstream that continuously leads to my heart.

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The final result, pictured with my buddy Dionne, the other punk SME and artist of the psycho skull above

Cacus story 1

I just can’t bring myself to own this dog. Or this cat. Or even this hamster.

I already had my heart broken once—and it wasn’t even an animal. It was a cactus.

The cactus popped into my life as an unlikely birthday gift many years ago. It was about six inches high, thick as a soda can, and surprisingly hairy, with a corona of white hair—which is why this species is often called an old man cactus.

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At first I gave it the side-eye, but decided to accept it into my life as a friend. I put the cactus on a table in the sunniest spot in the living room. Before I knew it, we were sitting together for contemplative stretches of time, and I’d occasionally stroke its surprisingly soft white hair. I named the cactus “Pom”—short for pom-pom. It was a he (I mean, look at him).

When I was a kid, the only pet I was allowed were some measly goldfish. I nicknamed them after my older sister’s boyfriends and soon grew tired of watching them. All they did was stare idiotically at me and move their mouths. I yearned for a dog or cat, but never got either, even after I’d moved out of my parents’ house. Because by then, I realized that I was someone who could get emotionally attached to a box of paperclips, therefore it probably wasn’t the best idea.

So Pom was the perfect companion for me. He wasn’t much of a communicator, and he didn’t do anything exciting like grow flowers, but he was a great and steadfast friend. I made sure he got lots of sun and was careful not to overwater him. After only a few months together, I couldn’t imagine life without my old man cactus.

Then Pom developed a scary-looking brownish-white patch on his side. Within a few days it grew larger, and I feared the worst. When I told a botanist friend about it, she nodded sagely and told me, “Yep, bacteria—it’s the oldest life form.” The way she said it made me realize Pom’s days were numbered. Eventually he began to lean a bit and look even more like an old man.

At my wit’s end, I rushed him to the florist where my friend had purchased him. In a choked-up voice, I explained Pom’s dire situation to the kind man behind the counter, and said I’d do anything if he could save the life of my dear cactus. I even threw a crumpled $20 bill on the counter. He gingerly shoved the money back toward me and assured me that he could “do a little surgery that might—might—do the job.”

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A few days later, I picked Pom up and was shocked at the stark, C-shaped gouge in his side. Not only was the infected portion gone, but so was a good part of the surrounding area. The plant doctor had done a very thorough job.

I placed Pom in a beam of sunlight and silently vowed to boil less pasta and take shorter hot showers—anything to lessen the amount of moisture in the apartment. But alas, rainy Seattle is not a kind place for a cactus. Eventually Pom lost his battle with fungus.

Since I didn’t have a yard to bury him in, I did the next best thing and put him in a plastic bag that had contained some Thai takeout. On the side that didn’t have a bunch of red THANK YOU’s printed on it, I wrote in marker, “Pom, you were a beloved friend ’til the end,” and added the date. Then I dropped the bag down the garbage chute of my apartment building and sobbed as it bounced along the sides on its way down to its final resting place, the dumpster.

It took me years to get over my old man cactus, and I swore I would never get another one. And there was absolutely no way I could ever get a furry, bright-eyed animal that would—god forbid—reciprocate the love I lavished on it. I may, however, get an oregano plant someday.

But in the meantime, I do have something cute (and mute) that greets me in the mornings. It’s a wool tomato my husband gave me after I lost Pom. The tomato’s name? Pom. But this one’s short for “pomodoro” (the Italian word for tomato). And yes, I’m quite attached to it.

Pom

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Ghosts in the basement: closeup of The Morris

After the three clocks in my apartment provided a horrifying insight, the ghost hunter I met sold me a sage stick. I had no idea what to do with it—or really, what exactly was in my apartment. So I invited Annette, a close friend who was sensitive to the paranormal, to come and assess the situation. She meditatively walked around the rooms and eventually concluded, “There are a lot of shadows in here.” Not quite getting her point, I explained that the east-facing living room was usually dim, receiving only a stingy triangle of light during the day. Annette shook her head and said, “No, by ‘shadows’ I mean … human remains.”

Then she pointed to a corner of the kitchen ceiling and said, “That’s your problem right there.” I noticed that area was where my boyfriend’s eyes had taken on a sinister cast in a photo and where my new desktop computer kept freezing up. Annette told me she saw an emaciated, very angry young man hanging there. He might have been a former leukemia patient from the turn of the century, when my building had been a hospital for the then-incurable disease.

Annette continued exploring the apartment and observed, “There’s anger in the main room and anguish in the bedroom.” I joked that those are the two emotions I do best at, but she turned and looked at me, her eyes speaking worlds I didn’t understand. Chastened, I realized that what she found could never be translated into human terms. A panic reared up in me. How could I spend another night in this apartment, knowing it was crowded with tormented, undead spirits? Dave, the on-site manager, had warned me about this, but he’d quit and moved out, claiming the building was killing him.

Taking the sage stick from me, Annette volunteered to rid my apartment of its bad energy. She opened all the windows, cabinets, and drawers, and told me to wait outside the building. I huddled on the sidewalk curb, wondering how effective the smudging process would be.

401 Meth Ave
View from my apartment (halfway house across the street and meth labs in brick building next to it, among other neighborhood attractions)

About 15 minutes later, Annette came and told me it was safe to go inside. Walking into the apartment, I didn’t feel much difference in the space. Annette left, and I laid out small bowls of salt (another gesture in this new superstitious vocabulary I was acquiring), hoping for the best.

The shadows had not left. Things only got worse in the apartment and more bizarre.

September 11 had occurred a month before, and the world seemed upended. One evening I had watched a TV program on biochemical weapons—including anthrax—and was reading a magazine, when I turned the page and stuck my thumb in some white powder. Freaked out, I called the non-emergency police line and sheepishly mumbled, “I’m sure it’s nothing, but …” I’d barely finished my sentence when police sirens came wailing up to my building. The Hazmat guys came to my door in their space suits and confiscated the magazine. A few tense days passed, and I eventually found out that it had been only talcum powder, used to keep the pages of glossy publications from sticking. (I did get my letter recounting the incident published in Paper, the magazine I’d been reading, and they courteously sent me a replacement issue–talcum free.)

As if that weren’t enough, a few weeks later, I returned home to find that my apartment had been broken into. Ironically, I lived in the most inconvenient unit to rob: on the top floor, nowhere near the ramp or emergency stairs, and directly across the hall from the manager. The break-in happened while I had stepped out for a slim length of time in the afternoon. The burglars had taped a small circle of white plastic bag over the manager’s peephole and then chiseled a rectangular hole into my door with a sharp blade. They pushed aside the deadbolt and made off with all the CDs I’d lovingly collected while living in Seattle, Philadelphia, DC, London, and Seoul. To add insult to injury, they also grabbed my stash of laundry quarters. The police officers shook their heads and said they’d never seen an apartment entered this way. They never found out who did it.

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The strangest break-in, according to police officers

Afterward, I kept my blinds shut and hung a piece of white gauze in front of the bay window, blocking out the surrounding apartments. The burglars could have lived in any of them, watching me leave my building. I felt violated and under surveillance, both from those outside and from whatever was continuing to monitor me inside my own home.

After less than five months of living in the cursed apartment, I was done. The angry guy in the kitchen, the anthrax scare, the break-in … it was time for me to leave. I broke my lease and was not surprised to hear that the tenant before me had too.

I found a small studio apartment in an entirely new neighborhood, Belltown. My new apartment manager told me that the building, the Stratford on 4th, was constructed in 1916 as an army flophouse. According to a retired fire marshal, it “used to burn down weekly.” But unlike the apartment I’d fled, this place had a neutral, even cozy, feeling to it. Plus it had an elevator–and no ramps in sight.

After moving the bulk of my belongings into my new studio apartment, I went back to The Morris to pick up the last few items and return the keys. Then I called a cab and waited in the empty, preternaturally silent apartment. The air was thick. I was still there and so were they. Sitting uneasily by the door, I felt a tension mounting in my chest and my throat starting to constrict. My fingers tightened around my backpack. They wanted me out. Now.

Fine, I thought. I gingerly picked up my bag, using all the self-restraint I had, and managed to exit the unit without breaking into a sprint. People say that energy travels up and outwards in a building, so naturally my corner top-floor unit was ground zero for paranormal activity. I left the apartment to its occupants. They had resided there for decades, beginning in the dim hours of the early twentieth century. They are probably there now.

On the street I waited for the cab as a disoriented, shirtless man in pyjama bottoms wandered around the block, mournfully repeating, “Danny … Danny … Danny …”

A few minutes later, the cab pulled up, I turned my back on the apartment forever, and we drove down to my new life in Belltown.

401 interior
Interior of my haunted apartment

The ramps should have been a warning. The apartment otherwise looked normal—just old. But where the stairs or elevator should have been were long, carpeted ramps, zig-zagging their way up the four-story building. As someone new to Seattle, I marveled at how the city seemed so politically correct; even the apartments appeared to be wheelchair accessible. I didn’t realize that my new apartment building had been a leukemia hospital at the turn of the century—back when the illness was a death sentence—and subsequently a hospital for wounded soldiers. The ramps were necessary for wheeling an endless succession of bodies out of the building.

Last week a robbery and a shooting took place on the corner where the apartment building, The Morris, still sits in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. That area has always been down and out; in fact, that part of Summit Avenue was once christened “Meth Avenue” because of all the homemade labs lining the block. People may think it’s scary to have a shooting—and there had been other gunshots while I lived at The Morris—but the thing that frightened me most was what lived inside the building: animated, unseen, and always there.

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The foreboding facade of The Morris, May 2015

After I moved in, the on-site manager, Dave, told me about the history of the building and the ghostly activity inside it. I was skeptical, but could feel there was something unsettling about the interior, particularly its basement. One time Dave had seen a panel of glass, which was propped up against a wall, silently shatter on its own and slowly slide down until it folded into a sitting position. He and his live-in boyfriend also heard voices, but struck a cavalier attitude. Dave told me he was part Chippewa, so he had psychic abilities and had seen scarier things. As a child, he had run inside an old frontier hotel in Oregon and immediately seen a cowboy’s lifeless body hanging from the tall, rickety staircase. His family looked but didn’t see a thing.

My own apartment unit seemed normal, but strange things began to happen around me at The Morris. I wasn’t sure how much was a result of the paranormal, but the building definitely seemed to contain some perverse, dark energy. I discovered that Dave, who was a burly guy in his mid-thirties, was regularly beaten up by his delicate-framed boyfriend, Shea. Shea had a wandering eye and apparently slept with a knife under his pillow. A few months later, Dave had a heart attack after biting down too hard on a Dorito and cutting his gum deeply enough to drench the entire bed mattress with blood. “This building is killing me,” he confided to me afterward.

Dave managed to convalesce and kick Shea out, and then one day he informed me that a corner unit on the top floor opened up. Since I hadn’t encountered any ghosts in my unit—and I wasn’t even sure I believed in them anyway—I decided to take a chance and move in. And that’s when the trouble began.

At first glance, the apartment was a charming one-bedroom with a bay window and a beautiful wall of exposed brick. Sure, it looked out onto a couple of seedy halfway houses and an all-night drug drive-thru window, where a morbidly obese man sat at a first-floor window and dispensed small white packets day and night. That didn’t faze me, but my first night in the unit, I felt something was wrong. As a single female, I felt vulnerable and was afraid to even leave the bedroom to get a drink of water out in the kitchen. It had nothing to do with crime; it was something inexplicable.

401_brick wall
The beautiful exposed brick wall in my living room

The next day I instinctively set out the little ornaments and drawings that friends had given me, almost as protective talismen. I hung my photographs and artwork in an effort to make the place more familiar and comfortable. But the apartment never felt like home because, as I later found out, it was already inhabited by something else.

Soon I began to pull long, blond—almost white—human hairs out of the carpet. They didn’t belong to anyone I’d invited over. They were unrealistically long, as if they had grown for decades. Dave told me the former tenant had short, brown hair and the carpets had been cleaned after she moved out.

Weeks went by, and I constantly felt like I was being watched. One particular corner of the kitchen seemed thick with a heavy, unwelcoming atmosphere, so I hung my favorite photos there. One day my glance fell upon a picture of my boyfriend and me laughing at the camera. I was shocked to see something unexpected staring out at me through his eyes. There was an arresting, and unmistakably evil, glint in them that made me instantly take down the photo and shove it in a drawer.

401 wall
The photo mentioned above is the horizontal one right next to the postcard hanging by itself

The same thing happened again, this time with a self-portrait I’d made in the living room. Using a mirror and charcoal on paper, I’d drawn myself peering at the viewer over one shoulder. Creating a self-portrait—or any piece of art—is the ultimate act of ownership. However, this drawing didn’t belong to me. One day I looked at it and realized the eyes were someone else’s, staring unerringly at me. A chill immediately entered my heart. The drawing went straight into the trash.

The bedroom was not a safe sanctuary, either. A family of rodents skittered across the ceiling all night. In the daytime, pigeons would alight on the roof, their calls amplified into loud, unearthly moans. “Nngrhh nngrrrhhhh nngrrrhhhh”—it sounded eerie and inhuman, like a raunchy sex session between lost souls. The animals created so much dander that my boyfriend could not breathe in the room and would wake up gasping for air.

The most unnerving thing about the apartment was how it made the most familiar objects and people unrecognizable to me. I once woke up in the middle of the night and thought my boyfriend’s thumb was an enormous insect that had strayed onto the sheets. Another day I was applying my makeup in a mirror when I spotted a long, gray snake hanging from the exposed pipe along the wall. A terrifying second passed before I saw that it was one of my favorite scarves that I’d hung as decoration.

It was becoming apparent to me that my apartment, formerly the nurses’ station in the hospital, was haunted. I casually mentioned this on a phone call with my mother, who didn’t believe in the paranormal, and tried to act unconcerned about it. Gazing idly at the exposed brick wall, my eyes locked onto one of its many deep cavities. From the pitch-black hole emanated an intense and forbidding coldness that halted the laughter in my throat. I heeded it as a warning to never make light of the spiritual world.

Then three of my clocks stopped at the same time. They all had differing power sources: electric, battery powered, and manual wind-up. My favorite clock, which had a brand-new battery, would break in that position and never move again. I seeked counsel at Travellers, a nearby shop that sold all kinds of esoterica. The soft-spoken man behind the counter was an official ghost catcher. He told me, “The time your clocks stopped was probably significant to whoever is still in your apartment. It was probably when the person died.” Then he sold me a sage stick to “smudge” the apartment and wished me luck. I looked at the fat bundle of dried leaves in my hand and desperately hoped it would work.

To be continued.

The irony was discomfiting: I was sitting in a Seattle jury waiting room, wearing the same beat-up wool jacket that I’d worn during the WTO protests. As usual, I felt like the most cynical person in the room. As the hours ticked by, I fiddled with the jacket’s busted seams, which I’d Scotch-taped so they wouldn’t hang down (very classy, I know). I dangled my fingers through the holes in the pockets and wondered if the coat still smelled like tear gas. Sure, I could have dressed better, but I had a plan in mind.

The jury waiting room had the glamour of a DMV office. It was stressful and boring at the same time. As a potential juror, you anticipate your name being called while being lulled into submission by the fluorescent lights and drab furnishings. It felt like a cross between a church—with its almost reverent silence—and an airport waiting area.

Once all the juror candidates had been seated, we were shown a video on the wonders of America’s legal court system. Seeing a few minority females represented as authority figures made me a shade less skeptical, but the term “ordinary citizen” still chafed me. I treated the video like most travelers do the requisite airplane safety video before takeoff; I dozed through it.

Jury_1

My name finally came up with a group of people who were called for a court case. We completed a survey and were herded by the bailiff into the marble hallway. Standing in line, I was flooded with ambivalence and felt a sudden flash of hope. Maybe I could make a difference as a juror; this could be a big opportunity for me to be an actual conduit for justice. But what justice? I was not a proponent of the prison-industrial complex and felt that the entire US legal system was irreparably flawed. My way of fighting for justice had been through boycotting corporations, marching in demonstrations, signing petitions and writing letters, and creating socially aware art. I’d never been inside a courthouse to participate in an actual trial before.

Upon entering the courtroom and seeing the judge and attorneys—all older Caucasian men—my heart sank. I felt a dark and embittered resentment swell in me, and with it came stubborn resistance. I flatly refused to participate in this broken, racist system. My revulsion grew as the defense lawyer, with his greasy shoulder-length hair and flashy suit, introduced himself in a practiced, plummy voice. When the judge asked whether anyone had any difficulties in participating as a juror, I indicated that I would like a private consultation. My heart began to race, and my veins felt electrified with adrenaline, like 10,000 bright-red traffic jams in the rain.

After an hour and a half of waiting, all of us “problem children”—the ones who had reasons not to be selected as jurors—were herded into a small room outside the courtroom, and the voir dire process of private interrogation began. I was second to last in a group of about 10.

When it was my turn, I walked into the courtroom wearing my black hoodie, frayed wool jacket, jeans, and scarred Doc Martens. It was an overtly anti-establishment look, but I had the rhetoric and the ideology to match. Choosing a center seat in the first row of the jury box, I turned to face the judge, defense team, defendant, and prosecutor—their median age hovering around 51. I took a breath and told them, “I have deeply held convictions on race, gender, and the state that would preclude me from being an impartial, unprejudiced juror. As a radical POC feminist and an anarchist, I am ideologically opposed to the court and to the state at large, and therefore unfit to be a member of the jury.”

Jury_2

The judge, clearly nonplussed, seemed to dissect my statement with a giant pair of forceps in his mind. Finally, he said, “Now, you have a … constellation of fairly wide-ranging beliefs.” I joked, “Yeah, I’m a mess,” which produced some laughter and hastily exchanged looks from the attorneys.

I had intentionally used the word “POC” (person of color) to test the attorneys. Sure enough, the prosecutor asked me what a POC was. I didn’t hide my dismay when defining the term, frequently used in social justice circles. I said I found it worrisome that this was not a familiar word in the courtroom. The greasy-haired defense lawyer then confessed that he’d just heard the term for the first time the day before, in relation to a burlesque event. I have friends involved in POC burlesque—which can be an empowering tool of liberation—but I still lowered my head into my hands, in mock vexation, and said, “If that was the context of your first encounter with the term, then I’m doubly concerned.”

Seeking to analyze my anarchistic beliefs more, the prosecutor asked me whether I regarded him as “an oppressor.” I said, “Nothing personal—but yes,” and looked at him. He nodded in an unperturbed manner and returned to his notes.

The burlesque-friendly defense lawyer then shook his head in disbelief and declared in an orotund voice that in 300 cases tried, he had never encountered someone who identified themselves as an anarchist. Then he leaned toward me and, in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge tone, said something about identifying with its values. It was almost like he was claiming to be an anarchist himself—which left me all the more distrustful.

Most of the personal interviews had gone on for about 10 minutes, but mine seemed to last more than double that time. I was asked about the fact that I’m a proofreader at a global agency. Did I ever go to meetings? I tried to be as good-natured and respectful as I could, and answered candidly. Yes, I enjoyed meetings about editorial style, but was in a challenging and ironic position, making the work of all clients look perfect (ideally)—even if they were unconscionable multinational corporations.

Finally, sick of being ensnared in an interminable dialogue, I busted out the big guns. I stated in no uncertain terms that because of my hyper-awareness of sociocultural power dynamics, I would always be partial to women, minorities, and minors—even if they had, in fact, committed the crime. At that, the judge looked resigned and reluctantly excused me from the court.

I left the courthouse feeling weirdly defiled and degraded, as if I had been a gerbil getting an anal probe in a dirty cage. Outside, I instinctively dusted myself off, as if to remove any bits of shredded newspaper and droppings. Then I went home and opened a beer, and mowed through a large bag of chips.

Afterward, I related the incident to my sister, a Harvard Law School–educated partner at an international law firm. She was amused and said the lawyers were probably entertained at my responses. But that still didn’t prevent me from feeling a deep ambivalence and sense of misgiving. I couldn’t help wondering if I hadn’t done a grave disservice to someone whom I could have advocated for. Or maybe I’d gotten myself on a watch list.

I realized that I really was a mess, a big tangle of conflicting traits: an anarchist who proofreads work for unprincipled global corporations, an artist who deals with social justice issues but refuses to participate in the American justice system, a cultural hybrid who’s too Korean to be American, too American to be Korean … the list goes on. But one thing was for sure: I firmly believed in advocating for social justice through anger, awareness, and creativity. With a Sharpie marker, I changed my juror badge to read “FUROR.” Then, just for the hell of it, I wore it for the rest of the night.

juror badge