Each month, we will spotlight a new Storyteller in our Storyteller Series, without whom, Project Ava could not do what we do. Read more stories here.
Why did you become a Storyteller?
Before joining Project Ava, I merely had an abstract concept of myself as a social justice activist/advocate. I characterized myself as a self-conscious activist. I asked myself, where do I even start in breaking down systems of oppression? What is my role in the bigger battle of justice-seeking?
I joined Project Ava and the first thing I did in that summer of 2015 was to share my story. This was challenging for me as someone who had a sacred relationship with privacy and found comfort in self-silencing. After months of de- and reconstructing, my first story went live. My stomach flipped in my throat for the next three hours. It was a surprise, the peace and liberation that followed. It made the vulnerability worth it. Through Project Ava, I am given, with each subsequent story I share, a space to constructively tear apart notions and injustices.
As a Storyteller, I have learned that constructing my own narrative is to deconstruct everything that’s fucked up in the world and also within myself. I get to make the decision to fight against external and internal silencing to break down systems of oppression. As someone of various marginalized identities, this platform gives me a way to reconcile my truth and heal from oppressive trauma to create the difference I want to see in the world. Through other Storytellers, I am able to transcend understanding beyond the limit of my own personal experiences.
I will always be a Storyteller because my truth is that every story has the power to dismantle structures, to destroy the preconceived, bridge experiences, build perspectives, and ultimately, to liberate.
Where do you consider home?
It’s the place where I did the hard work of growing into the person I am today. Home is my love-hate relationship with the institution that broke me completely but allowed me to cocoon and reemerge as a badass-justice-seeking-angry-Asian-girl-butterfly.
I started undergrad at Georgetown University in the fall of 2010 as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees seeking two things: self-affirmation and upward mobility. Unbeknownst to my 18-year-old-self, the class I took at Georgetown that would ultimately guide me to my calling in social justice was a required theology course called “The Problem of God”.
During a lecture on Buddhism, a few classmates had a difficult time processing impermanence, self-sacrifice, and reincarnation. They pointed out logical flaws in the religious philosophy, (you know, because religion is logical) and my professor failed to maintain control of the discussion. Things escalated until there was unfiltered mockery; the class erupting in laughter. As a culturally practicing Buddhist, I once again faced a system that remained intolerant of my culture. I affixed my gaze to the crucified Jesus on the wall, the walls of Anglo-American, Judeo-Christian, white supremacism, channeling my willpower not to yell “fuck this shit” and storm out.
Over the span of four years, I’d have many many “fuck this shit” moments at the university. Moments I didn’t find the support I needed as a first-generation student. Moments where I found myself the only colored face in a room of whiteness and was reminded that education is a privilege rarely afforded to Buddhist, Southeast Asian American immigrant descendants like me. Moments where I grappled up the mobility ladder, chained to the burdens of my oppression. And all the moments when I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
In the face of all the challenges I confronted in the ivory tower, I learned to channel my fuck-this-shit anger into this-needs-to-be-better anger. And with that, I found cherished moments of refuge with other Vietnamese students in VSA who could identify with the minority struggle. Moments when “I” became “we”. I found moments where my internalized racism and sexism were challenged and began the process of liberation. The moment when I stood in front of a hundred of my graduating class and their families in a áo dài and finally spoke my truth; of finding beauty in my ethnicity, admitting the trauma I carried as the daughter of refugees, of learning to love my food and my lineage, so that those like me may become visible within this institution we have come to call home.
Home is the place where I’ve experienced profound “fuck this shit” moments that led me to realize this needs to be better and to challenge me and others to make it better.
Who inspires you?
Freshman year of college, I met an upperclassman who changed my life.
That spring, I attended my first Vietnamese Student Association meeting. Perched on the lecture desk, a girl in black chucks introduced herself as the president of VSA. As she narrated a slideshow of past and upcoming VSA events, I made mental notes of things I might come to; #TooCoolForCommitments. The meeting adjourned and I got up to leave. The girl in black chucks, Thuy, caught me and told me about the party they were throwing that Saturday and that I should come. I told her I’d think about it and thanked her for the invite.
Little did I know, Thuy became one of the most instrumental catalysts of change in my life and one of my best friends. By the end of that semester, I was spending nights in her room. Over late papers, meals of rice and spam, and occasional episodes of CardCaptors, we confided in each other our Vietnamese American stories. She was an aspiring writer and a performer. Loud, passionate, and unfiltered, in her, I saw the independent Vietnamese American woman I could be. Growing up without any visible Vietnamese American women as role models, I had no way to see the potential of all that I could be. For the first time in my life, I realized how deep and profound this void truly was.
Through Thuy, I came to meet some of the fiercest Vietnamese American women I have in my life. In a world where Asian American women are told by our families, cultures, and society to be self-sacrificial and obedient, intelligent but un-opinionated, strong enough to carry burdens but pliable enough to be compliant towards filial obligations and the patriarchy, thank you to the Vietnamese American women – artists and activists – who are fiercely fighting every day for justice and representation. Thank you for shattering all the notions of who I thought I was allowed to be to pieces. Inspiring me at times when I feel like a mere speck to strive to do your magic justice.
What impact do you want to have in the world?
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” – Malcolm X
I grew up force-fed the toxic waste of conservative media that taught me to fear Black people, gay people, and powerful women. I experienced firsthand the insidious effects of self-interested news media that produced an 18-year-old who tried to be ‘as good as white’, hated blacks, and dismissed feminism.
My problematic self was a product of corporate media institutions operating under the guise of informing the public but was perverted by capitalist interests. A system that paints Black people so severely destroyed by white supremacy as the villains who had dug their own graves. A system that tells us a drunk woman is non-compliant and belligerent and therefore deserved it. A system that tells us it’s not the availability of guns, white entitlement, or toxic masculinity that’s the problem; it’s multiple isolated cases of mental illness.
The change that I desire to make in the world is pushing mass-media to act with consciousness because if we change media, we can change society. To provide critical analysis of issues that are underrepresented and nuanced in the complexity of institutionalized oppression. To push media and other industries to recognize ways in which they perpetuate systemic oppression; to take social responsibility into their work so that every voice is represented with integrity.
When did you find your passions?
I have always been moved by the arts and had a passion for expressing myself creatively. I’m still waiting for some cherished sketches from six-year-old me to make thousands one day.
I dabbled in the realm of writing teen sci-fi fantasy during the awkward prepubescent period of just discovering my sexuality. There were alien planets and love of alien princes involved, (#SailorMoonInfluence) I won’t delve into it more than that. I buried into them all of my unfiltered preteen angst.
I fell back in love with visual arts through various film projects I completed in college, realizing all the ways in which representation could be achieved and actualized. It instilled the desire to hone technical skills that allowed expression through video. Video is also unique in its ability to capture thought, feeling, and expression whereas written word is only accessible to the literate.
I also found cathartic relief in blogging as a 21-year-old in Hong Kong. It was the most important outlet I had to contextualize my fears, excitement, and experiences. This was when I discovered that I had something meaningful to say and unlocked the passion to say it.
I discovered community advocacy and activism as a passion through my work with VSA and student-organizing in college. I learned about all the impacts we as individuals make and how to amplify that impact by lifting others up. I recognized that things are far from being okay and to not fear standing up for representation.
I found opinion and analysis journalism as my call-to-action when I started working for Project Ava. Slowly I pushed myself onto the front lines of social justice and found that my thoughts, experiences, skills, and perspective had the power to make real change. In recognizing how perversely problematic mainstream media is, I found a way to incorporate creative multimedia expression, self-actualization, and intellectual activism into the media myself.
How would you like to improve yourself?
Decolonize the mind.
Getting myself to the point where I want to be in my activism, there is nothing more crucial than decolonizing the mind. As a budding fan of Marvel, I admit that Netflix’s Daredevil is one of my favorite installations of the Marvel Universe. On the surface, it presents everything that western media says make the best stories: the alpha-male, vigilante justice, foreign threats we must defend ourselves against, attractive supporting female serving as the emotional foil to the male lead, and oriental female side-character who loves and sacrifices herself for the white man. I finished the second season hungering for the third, but later realized the problematic Asian portrayal that revealed to me how easy it was to internalize and perpetuate the sexism and racism I’ve been conditioned to uphold.
I bring myself through the tragic history of colonization, a time before I existed. The French came into my motherland and began instilling into our minds the superiority of whiteness and the West. The legacy of colonization is the commodification of double eyelids, mothers pulling at the bridges of their infants’ button noses, and the full lips which I have all been ‘blessed’ with. The colonization that told me to be thankful for my ‘white features’ while I yearned to see more of my Asian features in a dynamic female lead character.
I dig up the strong roots of white patriarchy. I carry the trauma of Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon. The notion that a white man would not see all the complexities that make up my identity. I fetishized Elektra because she was beautiful, mysterious, badass, and ‘brave’ in giving up herself for her love only until I realized that I had been colonized to want to be her.
I recognize that in order to make society more equitable, accessible, and to rid institutions of oppression, I must first do the hard work of ridding all of that from myself. That starts with consuming through a critical eye; not validating myself through the beauty standards of the West; trying the most to help women celebrate their merits without tearing myself down; and living myself authentically — satisfying stereotypes or not.
If you’re interested in reading more works by Kimberly, you can find them at the following links: