If there is one thing you should know about my leadership journey, it is that I have always existed in some strange non-world between gender, race, and purpose. I am Asian-American, and what that means is that, culturally, I’m too different looking to be totally white and on the flip side, I am too white to be anything Asian. My family had a term for us half bloods – hapa. Half. Neither here, nor there. So racially ambiguous that I pass for Latina, South American, brown of any denomination except for my motherland, and the only Asian-American woman in my all-Vietnamese/Chinese familial age group. For this reason, I’ve found myself occupying that coveted position I’ve read that leaders are cultivated in – that space, that “other”, the place where I thought could observe the intricate workings of cultural norms from without.
Here’s the thing, I’ve always in some capacity felt like I’ve been breaking molds wherever I have landed. It was as if my very existence was a strange puzzle piece in the wrong puzzle box. Asian-American, yes. Woman, yes. Add fabricator, maker, tinkerer, inventor, and a mean suspicion of authority, and you had…well, me. My mother had no idea what to do with me, and neither did the field I struck out into. With rampant sexism in theatrical arts, in some industrial design fields, and in trade markets, I found myself simultaneously discriminated against for being an “incompetent” woman, and fetishized for being exotic.
The story is old, and it’s insidious. I know, deep down, I’m a natural leader from the simple fact that leaders are defined as trail blazers, establishing new ideals, creating space for others to follow in their footsteps, and empathetic. But I have problems remembering that I am skilled in my trade, after years of having my male counterparts redo my work in front of me, question my expertise, or undermine me in public. Remembering that I am able to derive my power from anything other than my looks or body when I'm in the thick of a freelance project is tough at best. I can’t remember when I haven’t hid my gender under several layers of work clothing, avoided the color pink, or skipped the make-up on my way into work.
But the thing is, I can be a product designer, sculptor, fabricator, and architect if I simply remember that my interests, passions, and convictions have gotten me here. I successfully lead teams of students in an all-female staffed shop, in no small part due to my role at MCAD. I provide an example to my female students here that furniture design isn’t gender specific. I also provide a voice through my volunteer work with Mu Performing Arts, an organization dedicated to telling the Asian American story.
If there is one thing that I’m looking to remember, it is my complex capability to lead. My journey is two pronged – I wish to rekindle my leadership convictions from the inside, where my intuition resides, as well as the outside in re-engaging with my field with confidence.