04: Yao Xiao
Yao Xiao is a China-born illustrator based in New York City. She creates artwork depicting a poetic visual world where complex concepts and human emotions are examined, amplified, and given physical form. She has created deeply emotional and beautiful graphics for editorial print publications, pop music record covers, concert posters and book covers. Yao Xiao's serialized comic 'Baopu' currently runs monthly on Autostraddle. It is an original comic exploring the nuances in searching for identities, connections and friendships through the fictional life of a young, queer emigrant.
Sabrina Santiago is a 20 year old photographer from New York, NY.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on September 3, 2016, in Yao's Brooklyn apartment. Sabrina Santiago photographed and witnessed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
YAO: When I hear "girlhood" I'm always a little taken aback. I don't really think of it as like, "being a girl," 'cause for me that really [signifies] a lot of things about being little or being small. Like being a child, [or] a little-person. I was definitely one of those girls who felt really weird about the idea of [there being a stable concept of] “what girls look like" and then "this is you.” Whenever someone would say "you're a girl," you feel like they're talking about a completely different person, and you're like "what are you talking about?" [laughs] Whenever people were like "oh you can't do this, you're a girl," I was like "You must be talking about some other person."
If people are going to refer to girls and boys as gendered because it makes it easy to refer to children, I get that, but when there's a constant reinforcement of "girls should be like this,” that's just crazy! They keep talking about the same [set of norms] that no one follows, and [continuing to promote them,] which is just the definition of insanity. [laughs] All these terms drive me crazy. I would have been a tomboy, but I don't see why that wouldn't just be another type of girl. I had short hair just because it was hot. I grew up in China and we were trying to avoid lice, so my dad buzzed my hair every other month or so. It would be a super clean buzz, and when it got up to be a poof, he’d be like, "Time for a haircut!" I went to Kindergarten with other girls who had long hair and really complicated hairstyles, so I was like "maybe that’s a girl, and I'm just me?" And that was cool! My parents didn't seem to care. I think around twelve or thirteen is when I started getting "Oh you're a girl so you should do this,” but before that I had really short hair and played with mud all the time. I played with girls, I played with boys. I drew a lot. I was really into science. I had a subscription to a children's science magazine and went to drawing class, and I wore these dresses that people didn't want me to wear because they thought I was like, too fat and not elegant enough to wear a dress? So they were like "Oh it doesn't look good on you" because it's really weird —this little person with buzzed hair in this super big white fluffy dress. I had neighbors who were like "No, you shouldn't let boys wear dresses!" But I really loved them.
My mother is a scholar and does feminist research. And she had all of these books about feminism, queerness, activism, and all of these other philosophy books, and I remember when I was a girl she was one of the China representatives at the world’s women’s conference in Beijing when they had the Beijing forum in ’95. She came back and had this whole bag of swag and books, and I was like "No one will understand this,” but I had these AIDS pins and sexual abuse awareness pins, and all these books that were really amazing and I wish they could be reproduced because they were about like, “What constitutes as sexual abuse?” “What constitutes as harassment?” “What is abuse?” that were specifically made for Chinese audience. For things like people not treating their elderly female relatives right —stuff that people would think is ok that’s actually not ok. So I was like, five, and learned everything that's wrong about being a woman.
I guess then I grew up assuming that I could easily point out when people are being abusive and sexist, when the people themselves are still in the state where they're like "Everyone does that, I didn't know it was wrong." I think I just recently I realized that not everyone got that education. [My girlhood] is a state that I'm constantly trying to get back to, where you're a Renaissance person —you’re connected to everything. You're like "I know things! I'm gonna do this thing for a while and when I find something else, I'm going to do that thing for a while."
SOPHIA: Can you talk about the transition between being identifying as a “little person” and then specifically as a girl when you were twelve and thirteen?
YAO: I think one of the most uncomfortable things was getting your period, and then all the men in your life just have the most awkward reaction. People obviously know, but they just make a rule that you don't address it. It’s weird, 'cause you're bleeding, but you can only talk to one of your heterosexual parents about it. It's strange! But it’s a rule because these are women's things and these are men's things. Like I used to be fight with girls and guys a lot? I was the bully. [laughs] I beat everyone up, but then around twelve or thirteen, [boys] would be like "Oh you're a girl, so I don't hit you." And it was so boring!
YAO: I think the way I coped with it was to keep being very butch. It felt like…before [puberty] you were this person with two or more genders inside you, and now people are like, "you're this one or that one.” It’s kind of like a betrayal because you assume that your parents thought you were a person up to this point, and now it's like, "Wow, you were like planning [to gender me] all these years!" People do that for men but not in the same way, because for girls, I feel like [as you’re more confined to gender norms,] you get to do less and less things. And later in your life, that affects everything. Like how you interact with people. I think he was very concerned about the kinds of people I would make friends with, where I go, when I come home, or how many people I hang out with, and it's obviously not one person's fault, because kidnapping and child abuse are also real for girl children.
When I was an adolescent it was really hard for me to socialize as "me" because people see this girl, and then they expect you to have all these other girl qualities: you're supposed to be really nice, or you're really good at like, managing people or something. So I felt like my earlier experience wasn't quite the right one. I read too many books, I was too talkative, and not very good at pleasing people 'cause I have a lot of my own ideas about how things should be done. I think if I were a boy I still wouldn’t have been the most aggressive boy, but I would have been like, that guy who's in the corner reading books all the time. But it's just seen as less weird. He will like, look up once in a while and say something really smart.
SOPHIA: In your work, I see a lot of images of daydreaming girls, and also a lot of isolation. I know that lot of girls really internalize the idea of the "female romantic protagonist,” which ends up playing a really prominent role in the way that they see themselves living their lives, if that makes sense. Can you talk about your decision to incorporate these themes in your work, and also your opinion of the difference between a specifically female protagonist and a genderqueer one?
YAO: A lot of the literature and art that I consumed in my early contact with stories were about men. Like biological-men-men. And [from the moment of viewing a male character] to imagining him as me, he kind of developed a mixed-identity in the process.
When I’d be doing things, I’d associate myself with a male character in a story, but I'm also aware that I'm not 100% a guy. But if I have to admit that I'm this female person, then I wouldn't have been included in that story. I don't think it's something that's completely resolved for me. I don't think my work was made specifically for a female person. I think it was my attempt to make a character who looks feminine that encompasses everyone. And then however people want to understand the gender of the character, they can do so, and I don’t think a female bodied person necessarily means it's a girl. I think it's similar to the boy protagonist who actually represents everyone. I want people to look at this feminine person and still feel like that's a universal experience.
SOPHIA: How did your ideas about what womanhood was supposed to be change when you moved to the U.S. and what are some of the more lasting differences you've found in the cultural expectations of women?
YAO: It's actually not very different. One of the biggest differences that happened in my life is that I went from living with my parents to not living with my parents. Like when you're like sixteen that makes all the difference in the world, and then secondarily I went from living in a country to living in a different country.
YAO: I think in school, the more immediate change was trying to deal with being a foreigner and being an Asian person. That was a little more apparent because there were more girls than Asian people? [laughs] So it didn't seem so weird to everyone that I was a girl, but it was more apparent that I was Asian. People are used to dealing with girls in certain ways, so it's pretty similar to China and I didn't feel a difference, but people are really weird towards Asian people. There were people who were really into Asian girls, which was annoying but not that different from how Chinese people assume Chinese girls are. Or people would just think you should be really polite and super traditional. It didn't change very much, but I felt very differently from the other girls because there was maybe one other Asian girl at the high school.
I felt like people told me "You're so sheltered" or whatever, because I was Asian, but I was living so far away from home, and I didn't go back to that reality where [being sheltered] was true, I went back to a reality where that wasn’t true.
There’s also this culture when you're in high school where there’s peer pressure to like, hook up, but it came down to either: “are you like a super sheltered prude person" or "are you gonna sleep with this man specifically?"
YAO: It came to that! Like if you say no, people are like "Wow, you're really just like, committing to this societal restriction that's stopping you from having sex whenever you want" but then [starts laughing] the only people you're allowed to really hook up with, are like dudes? And not too many of them? Or just like, one or something? Like really random. So there's constantly this effort to avoid [people reacting to your decisions] like, "You're going to do this or you're a super sheltered Asian girl [who’s compliant with] their really traditional values for women," but it's like, "I came all the way here on my own, and I’m just trying to protect myself from assholes! When I say I don't want to do something that's true! It needs to be my decision!”
I feel like even when people tell women to be more sexually open, it still [comes down to] people telling them to do things! Maybe they're just going through some crazy depression phase and can't make that decision right now. Maybe it's just not on their mind. You can't pick that time to tell them, "This is the time to claim your personhood, otherwise you're so oppressed." Especially for people who are like sixteen and seventeen, that's the last thing you want to be pressured about.
SOPHIA: Being a queer woman artist is occupying an intersectional position. Can you talk about your experience occupying all these spheres at once, both in terms of what you think those communities are doing well, and then perhaps how they’re failing each other?
YAO: Because I'm a queer woman artist who's Asian, it’s a lot of space to occupy. And then I think the thing that I'm unsure about is when you occupy a space, what do people tell you is your responsibility, and what is actually your responsibility? Those things can be different. And also, do you have a choice to not occupy that space? If you do not choose to occupy that space, do you have any space? My sequence is just being in the general art space, and then in the queer space because it's hard to be in the art space when you just want to talk about queer things. And then I was in the queer space, but it was very bad for people of color. It's terrible. Like I'm not even gonna....[laughs] It's honestly terrible. You just felt like “wow, there are all these things I'm trying to deal with and I finally found a space where I can discuss it with people…and then these people have never once thought about me in their life when they're making decisions.” It's just crazy.
Then it's so rare to find literature, first about Asian Americans in a pop-culture space, and then about queer people of color in a pop-culture space. You come to a place where you're like...this is so niche...is there a reason why [I seek out these spaces]? Like life would be so much easier if you didn't have so many labels. Why would you do this? It's a really weird place to be in because you think about how it would be be easier as an Asian person that’s not queer, so you don't have to always be like the "queer person,” which it makes you feel really insane. And then I guess being Asian seems like less a choice.
YAO: But you could not identify, which I just recently learned is a real thing. Like you can choose to not identify as a person of color apparently? I don't even know how you can do that…that’s an amazing concept. But yeah, in an art circle or a queer circle, when things like race and culture and assimilation are not the main topic, there’s pressure to not identify yourself [within a space you legitimately occupy] so you can just have a "normal" discussion about queerness, but at that point, what’s the point?
YAO: One thing that struck me and changed a lot of things is when I came out to my mother. When you're in the queer circle, a lot of things are about acceptance. One big chunk is people sharing how they were or were not accepted, and then there are support groups and coping strategies, regarding what to do if you’re rejected, which really just doesn't begin to cover anything beyond a very suburban middle class white American perspective. There are people who are like, "yeah, it was really hard but eventually it was fine," and then there are people who are not because their family is very religious, for example. But that’s just not the same as me calling my mother on Skype 'cause we live in different countries, and having her be like, “This is never going to be ok for me. It’s crazy." You get to the end of the road and you're like "These are the things that they're never gonna tell me by hanging out in these queer groups.” [In my experience,] no one has once told a different story from the [normative] little “coming out block.” There are other things where it's different, too —like all the people that talk about holiday parties. What about people who are from a different culture and a different religion and have a different kind of holiday party? What if it's not Christmas? Like, I don't care about Christmas.
YAO: Then I started writing my comic, because after that [experience in the queer community,] I did a lot of research and I read a lot of books, but I still felt very alone in terms of occupying a space. So I thought “Maybe [the space I occupy] is very thin right now.” Like, it's time to create work very specifically about first-generation immigrants who are queer and women. When you're feeling like a crazy person, it means that that space doesn't exist yet, and all the literature that you think should be there isn't there.
SOPHIA: You recently retweeted a comment that criticized the illustration of police brutality on black bodies as doing essentially nothing to help anyone. Can you talk about your beliefs about this, and then if and how you've created your own art as a kind of ideological retort?
YAO: Yeah my friend Chris, I believe what he said was "Retweeting illustrations that illustrate police brutality doesn't help anyone because obviously there is police brutality. In other words, water is wet."
YAO: I think it's something that I see in the illustration community. When people feel like "Oh, I need to do something for Black Lives Matter," a lot of them don't do their homework, and I think both Chris and I are criticizing people who are very opportunistic about it, and they want to make something that is about Black Lives Matter, but the art that they make is a lazy solution to all the things you can draw to provoke thought —to show comparisons that help people's thinking. So there's a group of illustrators who will just do like, a police officer beating up a black man. Like all the things that people know are happening. There is no more to say. So I really think that it should be pushed harder. It's like the illustrations that people do about women's abuse, and then you draw a picture of a sad woman. Like of course she's sad, she's abused!
YAO: Like what is the point!? I don't think it's enough. This might be just me, but I feel like sometimes people think that it's enough that they know [an issue] is shitty. Like, “I'm acknowledging how shitty it is! And I felt it so much I drew it!" But like...I don't care! [laughs] I get it, but I feel complicated about the idea of getting your art in front of people in the middle of a movement, just by touching the subject. So that's why I retweeted it, and I think it's a good wakeup call for illustrators, because we are a very small field, and we are mostly people who work in the background of things. We recently did a bunch of talks at The Society of Illustrators just to call awareness to the issue. I think we just wanted to make a public service announcement that said: "Just because you are a freelancer and you don't abide by HR guidelines from a company anymore doesn't mean you can be offensive." And that definitely happens a lot in the illustration community.
A little while ago there was a controversial cover for Newsweek about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley, and the illustrator who was hired did the same thing —like they drew this picture of a woman and her skirt being lifted up by a mouse cursor, like an arrow. And this woman doesn't even have a face, and she has this classic like, black bob, and a little red skirt that's super short, and then really high red heels. Things you wouldn't wear! This is about sexual harassment in the heart of the tech industry and how people still view women as sexual objects that are not professional, and what is the point of this illustration again? [laughs] It's just, this is how this person sees women, and then he's saying that "Yes, this is what women look like. Man, it's hard to talk about harassment because people just want to harass them. Look at this woman, wouldn't you want to harass her?!” It's just terrible. So that started a lot of the conversation about, as people who are hired to take directions and draw pictures, what is your responsibility when it comes to that?
SOPHIA: What do you feel that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
YAO: I think we need a lot of intersectional understanding, and to expand the space we choose to occupy so that we don't feel like we're fighting over it, because that takes up a lot of time and energy when the whole point is that everyone gets more space [laughs] I think we need to work together. That intersection can be age and generation, different cultures…And I think women need to be paid as much. [laughs] Like when you have more money you can solve a lot more problems. So that's my secondary thing.
If you enjoyed this interview and think the work we do is important, please consider donating to Mythos, and most importantly, share the magazine with the women in your life. That’s why we do what we do, and it’s 100% free.