Front Row: Ryka Aoki

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Tell me about your performance name, “de la Cruz.”

De la Cruz used to be one of the things I used when I performed, but it’s kind of like one big mix. My parents come from Hawaii, and my family does too. So de la Cruz literally came from the idea that… –let me clean this up. So, my childhood. I was a victim of child abuse. And it sucked to grow up. Then with realizing I was trans, it double sucked. I don’t know anybody who wants to grow up trans. It’s like great, that’s marginalization upon marginalization. And so I thought, well, I can either go hating people for the rest of my life or I can kind of try to find out why, and I decided I wanted to be the kind of performer that was wanting to find out why as opposed to berating the world for not having been fair to me and that’s why I developed de la Cruz to help focus me. But the problem is, in doing that, I realized I was appropriating the Filipino surname which is not anything I wanted to do at first. I have a lot of great Filipino friends but I didn’t want to be that girl who says I have Filipino friends so I just let that go.

Being part of the Japanese-American family, how difficult was it for you to come out to them as trans?

Well, I’ve never come out. It doesn’t mean I’m in the closet, it just means certain things are unsaid. You know how it is, sometimes where it just… my family is really old school. I talk about this in my book, where it’s like, my sister’s really ill and she wants me to convert to Christianity so I can pray for her. My father kicked my auntie out of the house just for going out with a white guy. My mother called my gay cousin an “it.” A little bit of a different generation. So I tried to come out to them much more socially, and well, [they’re] not so interested in talking about that. My mother and I have gotten a lot closer, which I had to kind of consciously do, because well, my mother was the person who kept me home when many bad things were happening that weren’t cool. But I realized I have to make a good foundation for myself. So in the coming out process, it’s a negotiation. It’s a constant negotiation. How much can they know, how much can they handle. Even with my partner’s family, too. The older generation knows we’re together—sort of—the younger generation, they totally know I’m trans. So it’s this weird situation where my parents know we’re going out. They don’t quite know what I am, they think we’re in some kind of weird straight relationship that only artists do. And my partner’s family, they think we’re just a dyke couple. They just think it’s a lesbian thing. They don’t know, and them being Asian themselves, that’s their jump they can make. One day, her parents are gonna meet my parents and are gonna say, “You’ve got a lovely daughter,” and that’s just gonna be fun [laughs].

So you’ve never sat down and had “the talk” with your parents?

I don’t think there’s really a need to know. We haven’t sat down and talked about it. I think that—and this is something that is really important that I really feel strongly about—all families have different dynamics. And, the sort of WASPy way of coming out at Thanksgiving, just ruining the holiday for everyone just doesn’t pass for Asians. Our families are a little bit different. My family is a lot different where it’s like, sure, I’m entitled to come out, but do I really want nuclear war in my family? You know, right now, my sister’s not feeling well. My mother needs somebody to talk to. Even my father needs me in a weird way. So it’s like the idea of being the dutiful child versus being the out adult and I can do both. It’s no big deal. I’ll just work it as long as I can. So even later if it turns out that I do come out, at least I can tell myself that I’ve tried. And I’m telling you now because I know there are people who criticize that course of action, but I also want people to understand that “out” means “out” to different people in different ways.

So the narrative, what it means to be male, what it means to be female, or what it means to be a hero is different from culture to culture. We can’t be adopting the existing narratives and always trying to shoehorn who we are into them.

Does it bother you at all, or are you more proud to be “deviant,” “out of the norm” Asian American?

I don’t think I’m deviant. I think that society is deviant. I mean, I just go on about my day. I’ve never set out to be deviant. I never set out to be transgressive. I’ve only set out to find a place where my natural behaviors, what I love, what I like, what I be or respect, and if that makes me transgressive or deviant, that’s happened to me. I actually love traditions. I actually like the idea of acceptance. And as Asians I think we kind of run into that sometimes, where all your friends are being post-modern and stuff, and you’re still trying to figure out what modern was. And that’s okay. That’s not backwards. That’s just different.

How would you say you identify yourself? Because you’re trans, but you’re also Asian American, Queer, Female, an artist, an educator.

The flip answer is that I’m just me. But that’s bullshit. I am always trying to figure that out. That’s a hard question. It feels weird to have to figure out what I’m going to include in a 50 word biography. On the other hand, it feels weird to make a big deal out of it. Because when I grew up, the idea was, don’t make a big deal out of yourself. Don’t stand out. Just go with the flow. And here, apparently, I haven’t been going with the flow. I’m proud of it, but on the other hand, you know, I say to my partner, “Am I fucking up? What is going on, why is everyone paying attention to me?” I’m just trying to get by, you know? It’s still that wanting to be humble, but realizing that I’ve been trying to be humble this whole time and these things have been happening.

So how do you deal with all that attention? It’s not necessarily unwanted ..?

In our community, like for example, coming to Syracuse, where all of a sudden, I’m just some girl who writes shit on paper and everybody likes it and I don’t know how this happened! [Laughs] And I don’t know. I work very, very hard, that I know. That gives me a little reason for being. Also, saying thank you, a lot, helps. And the third one is this belief that other people probably have many things to say as well. And so as a teacher, as an educator, to try to actualize other people because it is a lot of fun to come out and talk and to meet people. I know people in LA who have never left Rowland Heights. And here I am out here, look at you out here, and it’s good. Do we take it and leave or do we go back? I always tell myself that with my writing, I am always trying to get back and I really hope that’s enough.

How do you feel these multiple identities intersect in your life or in your work? I know you just published a book.

They would drive me insane. If I just let them go, they all run away. Identities can be like hurting cats—to use a cliché—they run away, they conflict with each other, they get in each other’s way, you know, even with my family I need to be the dutiful daughter but I’m not, and they don’t even recognize me that way, so what does one do? Unless we look for common principles. And that’s sort of the impetus of my work: to try to find the commonality. How being Asian informs my being American. How being Asian American informs my being queer. How that informs my being trans. How being trans informs being Asian. And once we are doing that, at least we have some common tropes that run through all the different identities. And those commonalities are the things I think that make my personality up. If I spend too much time on the details I go crazy. I try to find the center.

That commonality, do you feel there is an increasing awareness and space for those people who struggle with multiple identities?

Yes. Absolutely. People with multiple identities—well, first off, you’re ahead of the game if you have multiple identities, because you recognize you have multiple identities. I feel really badly for people who live in a more hegemonic or paradigmatic culture. It’s like, it must suck to be white! You don’t even know that you have culture! I mean, look at these poor bastards who say we have no culture, then you come here and you realize that we’re a watch in white culture, they just don’t get it. Poor people. It’s like oh, tsk tsk tsk. So that’s the first thing, that we are aware that already sets us ahead of the game. And then because we have so many data points, because we have so many scenarios and encounters, I think that gives us a lot of data to theorize what it means to be human. What matters to us. And I think that is something that is very, very special that a multiple marginalized identity gives you .

Would you say your Asian American identity has a lot of influence in the work you put out?

That’s kind of like saying does my ability to breathe influence my work. I am Asian. And everything it does, everything I am, comes through, and is a result of that. I see the world as I am. And I do think that you know the idea of different views of family. My entire book, Seasonal Velocities, most of it is about don’t destroy your family. It’s imperfect. That’s why it’s family. Let’s work from it and grow from it. Which, as Asians, we tend to have a very strong family structure. They talk about the queer movement, they talk about family, and how family never sticks together. Have you seen their nuclear family? Of course it doesn’t stick together! They’ve never had a working model! Mostly never [laughs].  Not to generalize.
Whereas if you have roots that come from strong families, we know how to deal with each other’s craziness. The crazy one goes out, she’ll be back, and we don’t destroy everything.  And then you look at Asian male masculinity, for example, how much of it is tied into we’re smaller, we’re shorter, and all this other stuff. And you see all of these trans men who are small, short, even the fetishization of penis size, and you have a bunch of trans men who don’t even have anything, but they can be men. So the phallus is obviously not a physical organism. So even trans men have something to inform back into the population. You know, if you see somebody like Chase, or somebody like that, who identify as a trans-trans men, I wish they could talk to Asian men about what it means to be men, you know? Like think of trans men. They’re like 4 foot 7, you’re running around and, you know, you don’t have the structures we define manhood by, and yet you’re pulling it off so beautifully. You’re doing so well. Whatever you have, I wish my brother had [laughs].

Do feel like one of your identities has been completely neglected by your family?

Yeah. I can’t share this with my family. My family doesn’t look at my career. They think I’m just teaching and getting by with life. They don’t know I tour the country like this. They don’t want to know. My father doesn’t want to know. My mother might one day. So, that hurts. That’s honesty. That’s honestly what I can share. But the price is a little bit too high right now for me. And you know, if somebody disagrees with me, I could be wrong. But that’s how it seems to me right now. I’m just telling you how I live my day to day.

Do you feel like the public sees you more as trans rather than Asian American?

No, it’s about equal. It’s about almost completely equal. Weird, I haven’t thought about it that way until I just said it now. But they’re tied. They’re always tied. People see Asian, people see trans. And even right down to the stereotypes. Even within the trans female community, or even within the lesbian community, or just the queer women community, I’m seen as an Asian women. So it’s just one other level. So even if I get accepted as a woman by a group, I’m still seen as Asian, and that’s another level that I have to deal with. I mean, I know or suspect and wonder sometimes if I’m a better bargain for a place like Syracuse because I can come in as POC and speak as queer, it’s like wow, two for one [laughs].

So you don’t necessarily see it as it as you as Asian American on TOP of different identities as a form of oppression?

I could. I really, really could. I was walking across the street and cars stopped, and I know we’re in New York so that’s actually nice, and even when I walk across the street in places and cars stop for me. When I am walking around now people say hello. When I was presenting male, nothing. Nothing sucks more in society than invisibility and being an Asian man. They will knock you down, they will run you over.

I get more attention [as a woman], but is it better? That’s the question. Because that’s also horribly objectifying. You know,and, when people make talk and it goes over to race…it’s like, really? No. It’s just different. I mean, can I see it as oppression? Absolutely. But again, back to what said earlier, if I did that I’d go crazy. If I went after oppression everywhere I saw it, I’d have no time to write a poem about that [points to flower], and I really would rather choose to think of it as opportunity. Maybe one day I won’t be too charged to do that and I’ll be this crotchety old lady, but not yet. I still have my soul. I still like to think that people inside are all beautiful. I really, really feel that. And that’s what I’m after.

You know, I mean, my father. I was scared every night because my father said “I can come in and kill you any time.” You know how sometimes kids have toys? I was scared of toys because my father used to draw blood with them. He would hit me with them. I’m scared of water because my father used to throw my head in the toilet. And this was all pre-queer. Or maybe he saw something that was going wrong.

It happens. But, if I let that get to me, then, I mean, then why be alive? Why continue? I don’t want to spread that. I think the hardest thing as have as human beings is to break the cycle of hate. And that occasionally means accepting more hate and taking in more hate than you give out. It’s not the eye for an eye. It means that sometimes, in order to stop hate, we have to walk around with one eye while everybody else has two. And we have to say “no, I know what it’s like to lose an eye and I’m not gonna ever do that to anybody else.” —Interview by Elizabeth Lee / Photo by Zixi Wu

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