Mengwen Cao is a photographer, videographer, and multimedia producer. Born in Hangzhou, China, she came to the United States in 2012. At the age of 25, her parents thought she had never fallen in love. Cao had a secret: She liked girls. Like many other creatives — Cao is a filmmaker and photographer who also made “I Stand Between,” a multimedia art piece exploring transracial adoption — she started by first getting all her feelings out in words in the form of a letter. The letter then transitioned to a video. Four months after creation, Cao decided to show it to her parents via FaceTime. Cao then transformed her experience into an interactive project of visibility, including other Asian Americans unpacking their queer identities.
Check out what she had to say about her experience and more about her project “Here We Are.”
Coming out is a huge deal, why the decision to record your parents’ reaction? Did you know before hand that you wanted to present their reaction as an art piece?
I came to the U.S. five years ago, and I couldn’t go home often. I really wanted to tell my parents in person, but reality didn’t allow it. I was studying New Media Narratives at International Center of Photography at the time. Being surrounded by a supportive community made me want to step out of my comfort zone and work on something really personal. So I did know that I wanted to make a project on Chinese queerness from the beginning. I made my video letter as a more abstracted, projected way of coming out. The decision to record my parents’ reaction made it concrete.
Have they seen the final project (their reaction to the letter)? If so, what were their thoughts?
Yes. The first comment my dad made was, “If you told us beforehand that you will be recording, we would have cleaned the room.” Now they say they are proud of me. I know they showed the project to some of their friends in the U.S. to “get opinions.”
How has your relationship with your parents since coming out changed? Do you talk openly about dating now?
I definitely feel closer with my parents now. I think they do, too. They kept saying that they are really glad that I told them, even during the early stages, when they were still trying to fully understand. I would talk about my relationship and introduce my queer friends to them. Last year when they visited New York, they stayed with me in a six-people queer co-op. They made friends with all my roommates, who are all queer or trans.
What sort of reactions have you gotten from the LGBQT+ community, particularly Asian LGBQT+ people?
Usually people laugh and cry. Many people reached out to me saying they can relate since it’s really about universal topics — identity and family. I showed it to some Asian queer friends who have not come out to their families. They said it gave them hope, which makes me really happy.
I do want to share a singular story. I showed the project in a coming out workshop organized by API PFLAG NYC. It is an intimate workshop developed specifically for Asian & Pacific Islander LGBTQ people and their families to have an open conversation about coming out issues. I went to the workshop two years ago when I first came to New York and was thinking about coming out. Clara Yoon, a mother of a Korean trans son, and Aya Yabe, a mother of a Japanese lesbian daughter, were the main organizers. They shared their own personal journey of accepting their children. I went back this year and showed the video to the participants. When I saw people anxiously waiting for my parents’ response and laugh with tears in the end, I couldn’t help but feel emotional, too. I want to do more things like that.
“We are here, we are Chinese, we are queer” — What did that mean for you, before the film and then after?
This, for me, has to do with belonging and visibility. Before the film, I felt invisible, and I felt awkwardly comfortable with being invisible. But when I was thinking about coming out, I binge-watched many coming out videos on YouTube, but couldn’t find many Asian faces or family reactions. The Chinese brochures about this topic I found sounded clinical. I wanted there to be a familiar face for when Asian people want to come out. After the film, I felt proud and empowered. Visibility comes with community and responsibility.
There is a lot of visibility as to what it means to be White and Queer, Black and Queer, and Brown and Queer — with this project, what are your hopes to add to the conversation as to what it means to be Asian and Queer?
When we talk about familiarity, it is not an actual space, but something that is elusively felt within shifting cultural contexts, and these contexts are racial. What it means to be Asian and queer is very different than what it means to be anything else and queer. It goes back to what I mentioned about wanting there to be a familiar face when people Google “Asian coming out.” This is so important because, when coming out, we often feel that our own families become so unfamiliar to us, and that we are so unfamiliar to them. I do feel that there is as much power to invisibility as there is to visibility, but only if the option to be visible already exists. My hope is that, by creating options, I can contribute to the power of choice.
What motivated the choice of the title “Here We Are” and including others as a collective, as opposed to “Here I Am” and making it about yourself?
I feel that it is impossible to see ourselves without first learning how to see other people. What I mean by that is that our lives don’t pack any significance until we see it already reflected back. Only by making this about “Here We Are” was I able to see my own story as a narrative and begin to describe it. This project has also been about memory making, which is always intentional and collective.
I also did not want to show a singular narrative because singular narratives flatten. It is impossible for me to share my personal narrative as a queer and Asian person and have it be read as strictly personal, the way someone white and hetero’s (or even white and queer) personal narrative would be read as. Therefore, I have to show that there is complexity to the labeling that this narrative as descriptor.
It is a group effort. The sense of community can impact person choices. I want to show various perspectives from people with different backgrounds. I also want to include parents into the conversation. Ideally, “Here We Are” would be an ongoing project.
How do you deal with the duality of being Asian and being Queer in your art and work? Are there ever things that contradict the other experience?
I don’t see it as a contradiction. Actually, I’ve been working with a group of Chinese high schoolers recently and you see them holding hands, being really intimate with each other in a way that American culture would call really gay. Queerness is embedded in Asian culture, but there is less stress on coming out, this act of making a declaration. In a way, choosing to come out was more of a story about becoming more American than a development of my queer identity. Because I moved to America, I lost the development of what my queerness would have looked like in a strictly Chinese sense and inherited all these ideas America has about power and visibility. Being Asian and queer and choosing to come out is very much a story about diaspora. My reasons for doing the project were initially motivated by my feelings by homesickness and, as I became more American and part of the Chinese diaspora, about homelessness.
What are your plans for the future?
I will go back to China pretty soon to visit my family and eat some really great food that I have been missing. I also want to keep working on visual stories that discuss nuance in-between spaces, especially on race, gender and identity.
Top Photo: Still from “Here We Are”
Published August 29, 2017
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