Creating community through music as a mixed Asian Jew

A songwriter shares how her most vulnerable work sparked community and helped her find wholeness in her identity.

How I found community by writing a song about my mixed Asian Jewish identity

“What are you?” the man at the counter asked me. He said it casually, in the same way he might ask anyone else “how are you?”

I was 14, buying Japanese food at my local mall. By then, I was too familiar with “what are you”, a viscerally othering question disguised as friendly conversation. As a mixed person, my prepared answer is “I’m a confused, cultureless void.” Vague and self-deprecating, just like me.

But in this case, it was coming from an Asian person, so I knew his real question was “what kind of Asian are you?” This is similarly complicated, but well-intentioned. By the time I opened my mouth to respond, he had already started guessing. “Korean? Vietnamese? Filipino? Japanese? Thai?”

“I’m Chinese,” I revealed, surprised that he hadn’t yet guessed the statistically probable answer. He started speaking to me in Mandarin, and I awkwardly explained that I didn’t understand. “I’m half Chinese,” I corrected myself.

“Oh, so you’re not really Chinese,” he said smugly, as if he had caught me in a lie.

I tearfully ate my teriyaki chicken as my mom (a 4’11” Asian woman with the ruthless confidence of a white man) ran over to yell at him and complain to management. I knew he meant no harm, but what he said had already struck a nerve.

Miss Misfit

I grew up in a mixed family with Cantonese and Russian Ashkenazi Jewish roots. As a kid, I was unambiguously Asian-presenting, but I was also loud, expressive, bossy, opinionated, and stubborn as hell. Cultural standards for how Chinese girls are “supposed to act” were entirely lost on me.

Being mixed and third-generation Chinese American, my Asian identity always felt peripheral. Sure, there were things I could point to if I tried. We ate rice and took off our shoes indoors. I had a purple cheongsam in the back of my closet that I wore once when I was four at a costume party because apparently, my mom thought dressing me as a Chinese person was a valid costume. Our kitchen was overflowing with an ever-growing collection of plastic bags filled with other plastic bags. And the white kids at summer camp called me Mulan. I suppose these experiences could all be considered “Asian”.

Jenni in her cheongsam
Photo submitted

But I didn’t grow up with Chinese grandparents and wasn’t close with my Chinese American relatives. No one in my family spoke Cantonese. I knew very little about China or my Chinese ancestors. We never celebrated Chinese New Year. My mom was born in California and grew up surrounded by white Americans, only speaking English, eating American foods, and consuming American entertainment. There was only so much she could pass down to me.

Even among Asian Americans, I felt out of place. Every marker of Asian American identity that my monoracial Asian friends could bond over, I couldn’t relate to. I’ve never watched anime or k-dramas. I tried boba for the first time when I was 21 and disliked it. I’ve never worn fake lashes or been to a rave. I’ve never taken a classical violin lesson or wasted a summer in SAT bootcamp. And I have a degree in songwriting.

Being in between was bittersweet

For a while, I was proud to be “not like those other Asians”. I was one of the only Asian students in my high school’s pop music program and then one of the only Asian American songwriters at Berklee College of Music. I’d laugh along when others would marvel at how unexpected it was for an Asian girl to write and sing funk music.

“Your voice is so soulful,” a professor once complimented me. “Other Asian vocalists, they have no personality.” I wish I had the language to articulate how these backhanded compliments played into harmful stereotypes but instead, I accepted my status as a mysterious Asian anomaly, internalizing the message that all my positive traits were the same ones that made me “less Asian”.

“Are your parents mad that you’re so creative?” “Aren’t you supposed to be a doctor?” “You’re basically white but you look Asian”. The microaggressions rolled in, and for my sanity, all I could do was laugh. But beneath it all, I carried deep feelings of insecurity. 

What parts of me are truly Asian? Is it really just my face? Am I failing my ancestors for being so different?

Should I wash away the spark or let it ignite? 

Over the years, I learned the art of shrinking myself. 

It became instinct to soften my opinions, preface my ideas, and code switch on a dime. I was an expert at squeezing into whatever space people needed me to fit into and, in effect, retreating into an absence of a person. In conversation, I constantly dissected my thoughts for any possibility of misunderstanding then littered my words with qualifiers until I forgot what I was saying. 

Still from “Water & Oil” music video
Photo submitted

Being a mixed Asian woman meant navigating conflicting frameworks of who to be, and it was exhausting. Where did the bold spark of my childhood self go? Who had I morphed into?

To all my mixed-up souls

One night in 2017 at 3am, I finally confronted these deeply-buried feelings of othering and cultural disconnect. “I’m a clash of cultures / I’m a freak of nature,” I scribbled into my songwriting journal, shocked to see my most vulnerable thoughts written there in ink. I had released countless songs about breakups and politics, but something about these lyrics felt so uncomfortably honest. I couldn’t imagine showing anyone this song, much less releasing it online.

Two years later, I revised the song for an assignment in one of my songwriting classes and titled it “Water & Oil”. After receiving good feedback from my classmates, I worked up the courage to perform the song at a few small shows to test the waters. 

To my surprise, “Water & Oil” was an audience favorite. “I’m mixed Asian too, and you put into words things I’ve been feeling my whole life,” someone told me in tears. “I can’t wait for my mixed Asian daughter to hear this song,” another person shared.

Realizing that my intensely personal song made other mixed folks feel less alone, it felt selfish to keep it to myself. So throughout 2019 and early 2020, I began recording the song, bringing on mixed collaborators for every stage of the process. 

We are water, we are oil

Two of my mixed friends, Claire Chaix and Louisa Byron, performed strings on the song, which Claire arranged. Several mixed vocalists joined me at studio sessions in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles, and others sent in remote recordings, to form a choir of mixed voices singing call-and-response with me. Mixed artist Noah Laroia-Nguyen designed the cover art using lithography, a printmaking technique based on the principle that oil and water don’t mix. 

“Water & Oil” album art
Photo submitted

I got in touch with mixed filmmakers Brandon E. Lee and Jared Chiang-Zeizel and together we began conceptualizing a music video for the song and assembling a team. Our initial idea was to film a large crowd of mixed people celebrating together in one space, which we planned to film in spring 2020.

Throughout the project, I connected with a multitude of mixed creatives, many of them mixed Asian, and the experience was deeply transformative. Being in a room of mixed folks felt like a major sigh of relief. We exchanged stories and bonded over shared experiences of othering, cultural clashes, fetishization, and racial impostor syndrome.

“Water & Oil” was growing far beyond what I had envisioned for it when it first spilled out. And for the first time, I started to feel whole in my mixed identity.

But then a global pandemic hit.

Finding fellow Asian American Jews

All of the joy and creative momentum I had built over the past year collapsed as 2020 ushered in a devastating wave of isolation, global loss, racial violence, and scapegoating. It was both a very difficult time to be Asian American, and a very difficult time to be Jewish.

But sometimes community materializes just when you need it most. One day, in April 2020, I received a Facebook message from someone named Gen Slosberg. She had seen me featured in a Jubilee video about mixed race identity. “I’m mixed Chinese and Ashkenazi Jewish as well!” she shared.

At last, I met my mix twin.

Gen and I hopped on Zoom with three other Chinese American Jews and we began to unpack what it means to live at this seemingly rare intersection of being Chinese, American, and Jewish. This conversation inspired Gen and I to create LUNAR: the Jewish-Asian Film Project, a video series about Asian American Jewish identity, which we brought to life with a small grant from the Jews of Color Initiative.

Over the next year, LUNAR exploded into a thriving, engaged community of Asian American Jews. Beginning with our 23 cast members and expanding to hundreds of community members, I connected with Asian American Jews from all across the spectrum of Asian and Jewish identity, including multiracial folks, transracial adoptees, Jewish converts/Jews by Choice, South Asians, Southeast Asians, East Asians, Central Asians, and folks from interfaith families.

Together, our community encompassed a wide range of intersectional identities, locations, passions, beliefs, and careers. We each held varying levels of access or disconnect to our cultural identities. Finally I understood, even within this supposedly narrow niche, how truly diverse and wonderfully multi-dimensional Asian Americans are.

You are worthy, you are whole

We initially chose the name LUNAR based on the use of lunisolar calendars in many Asian and Jewish cultures. However, our connection to the moon has become more meaningful for me.

My relationship to different communities, the language I use to describe myself, the ways that I am racialized, and the layers of my identity that I present to the world all fluctuate over time. Just like the moon, I am learning to find peace in the waxing and waning of my identity while also celebrating the wholeness of being a complex human. 

Through LUNAR, I began to dig into both my Asian American and Jewish identities, embracing both simultaneously. It was surreal to feel so safe and accepted in a space that was both distinctly Asian American and distinctly Jewish. 

And more than camaraderie, the LUNAR community also became a crucial space for comfort and safety in the midst of rising anti Asian racism. In the aftermath of the Atlanta shootings, 40 Asian American Jews in the LUNAR community spontaneously gathered on Zoom to process and grieve together. Between the tears of grief, I remember also crying tears of joy, reveling in the feeling of finally having true community support.

Shortly after, we celebrated Passover, a Jewish holiday celebrating liberation and commemorating the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. As we mused on the idea of “liberation” and its modern implications for us as Asian American Jews, a quote from LUNAR cast member Maya Katz-Ali stuck in my mind: “Identity gives you community, and community saves you – from trauma, from fear, from feeling lost and alone.”

This is me in my element

In spring 2021, with the COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon and in anticipation of Mixed Asian Media’s newly announced film festival, the “Water & Oil” team revisited our ideas for the music video. We reworked our concept and planned a more COVID-safe production, funded through my LUNAR stipends.

The music video satirizes and subverts moments from my mixed journey, such as my struggle to use chopsticks, my distorted self-image, and my racial impostor syndrome. It features a contrasting periwinkle and gold color palette, representing the tension between the two sides of my identity. We shot at various studio and outdoor locations in LA, with distorted funhouse mirrors, bright monochrome sets, a bubble machine, and plenty of disco balls.

Still from “Water & Oil” music video: Jenni trying to figure out chopsticks
Photo submitted

It was therapeutic to creatively and humorously express the full range of nuance that comes with being mixed. After wrestling with identity my whole life, at last I was able to look back on my journey, with empathy for my younger self, gratitude for the community I’ve found, and joy in finally embracing my full self.

Wasn’t made to be contained

For someone who has danced on the border of different communities her whole life, I never imagined that I could fully belong somewhere. 

But if anything, perhaps feeling peripheral, disconnected, and uncategorizable is a quintessential Asian American experience. This search for belonging is what inspired me to create communities for those like me, reaffirming that we all do belong somewhere. In the process, I’ve grown into a version of myself that is once again bold, expressive, unapologetically funky, and wholeheartedly Asian American.

The truth is, there’s no one way to look Asian, act Asian, sound Asian, or be Asian. I believe that one of the joys of being Asian American is the sheer depth of our vastly diverse community. 

As a funky, mixed Asian Jewish creative with a songwriting degree, too much personality, a distaste for boba, and an embarrassing lack of chopsticks skills, I’m honored to embody that depth. I, too, am Asian American, and I am proud of who I am. 

“Water & Oil” is available on all streaming platforms.

See also:

Identity through the eyes of a Black Asian: Part 1

hot for food’s Lauren Toyota on her career journey, racial identity, and new cookbook

Ketchup and Soya Sauce is an intimate exploration of interracial relationships in Canada

Featured image was submitted by the author.

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