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Center Stage: APIA performers discuss their experiences with racism and discrimination

Two theatre students share the impact of Asian and Pacific Islander hate on their lives and how you can help fight it

"The performance and visual arts podcast that steals the spotlight." Illustration published on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

Podcaster Peter Vezeau sits down with two Asian and Pacific Islander American performers at ASU, Jiarui Ding and Brian Calo, to hear about their experiences on and off stage. They discuss the effects racism has on their performances, mental health and activist work.

Peter Vezeau

It's no secret that in the past few months Asian-Americans have faced many challenges with the recent rise in hate crimes. My guests today will share their own stories, experiences and cultures as performers, Americans and above all, human beings. They will be able to tell me all about their views on the movement, Stop Asian Hate.

Brian Calo

Hello there. My name is Brian Calo and I am a theatre major, junior year in ASU, and I'm also a filmmaker.

Jiarui “Jerry” Ding

Hello everyone. I am Jerry Ding and I am a third-year student majoring in theatre, acting concentration.

Peter Vezeau

Thank you, guys, so much for being here. What we're here to talk about is the increase in Asian-American and Pacific Islander hate crimes over the past couple months during the pandemic and how that has affected you guys as performers. But first, I want to ask you guys, how did you guys start getting into performance arts?

Brian Calo

Interesting that you were talking about like Asian hate crimes, because the reason why I wanted to pursue a career in, you know in theatre, in a creative field is because of the fact that I didn't really see much representation.

When I started to think about what I wanted to study going into college, you know, in high school, I was really into drawing and anything creative. So most of my energy was spent on that. But then when I started taking drama class my junior year of high school, that's when I started to — being more outgoing, being more extroverted. That kind of drew me because back then I was really close to myself. I was really reclusive. 

I didn't really like spending time with other people and not because like, I don't like anyone or anything like that, but I guess that's just who I was. Definitely wanted to get out of my comfort zone. And then the stage was there for me. So that really brought different aspects of myself that I definitely want to continue cultivating. 

So that's how I started getting into theatre, started to shift my career path from like a fine arts to performing arts basically.

Jerry Ding

I did not consider this until the senior year of my high school. Before that I was just doing like, all those modeling shows like catwalks for our fashion clubs. So one day I took theatre back in high school. I went to high school in California. So basically, I took a two-year course of an English, a second language, program. So then I could go into the normal courses.

I would say I would definitely agree with Brian that I don't see a lot of representation that's on TV or in plays in general. I wanted to build this sort of like representation for this Asian community. Like I want to contribute. I was determined to learn as much knowledge as I can in the four-year span of my college years.

Peter Vezeau

That's amazing that you guys want to contribute to making sure that your voices are heard and people like you are seen on stage, but how has it been the past year during the pandemic with theaters shut down, with it be more difficult to do productions, how have you adjusted to doing virtual performances?

Brian Calo

Initially, when things started to, for lack of a better term, go downhill, it was really a struggle trying to stay motivated. It started in March and I was in my spring semester of my sophomore year, and I barely even had classes too. So it wasn't much of a heavy workload. But even the acting classes didn't seem as fun as it was in person.

When everything started shutting down, there's this feeling of depression and loneliness that's plaguing around the country, around the world, globally. And it felt like I needed to really reconnect with myself because everything seemed, you know, so loud as well. 

Then going into protest and in the Black Lives Matter movement, I really just focused on like, you know, journaling my thoughts down and being more self-aware of how I'm feeling and, you know, definitely catching up with the news and educating myself.

I didn't watch a bunch of movies. I didn't do anything like that. I definitely just like recorded myself. Self-tape. The whole time. And I would just like, look through my videos and I'd just like, you know, criticize myself, "Oh, this needs improvement." So it's just like a matter of like really, really, you know, reconnecting with yourself and being more hyper aware of how you're feeling in order for your true performance to really come out of you.

Jerry Ding

Interestingly enough, when the pandemic happened, it sort of helped with my like performance skills. 

When COVID wasn't a thing, I remember I had anxiety on stage when I'm performing for all our classmates, directors and actors, like I was literally shaking. It's not a good look though I do get it, because I was thinking too much. This break in the beginning helped me with getting out of my head, and then just do, you know? Just act, stop thinking too much. That added like skills to my arsenal, to my acting arsenal. 

But then I have to agree with Brian that as the time goes on, it's going to take a toll on your mental health. With everything happened in 2020, I would say at least you're a bit overwhelmed with all the information you're receiving every day. I think it's ok to not be ok. 

I remember I tried to go on that BLM protest, but then I thought again: "If I try to go there, if I have the virus and I'm not going to be able to test it, will I be spreading the virus to everyone else?" All I can do is go on my social media and educate myself and spread information. 

It took a mental toll, like right now, I'm very burned out for this semester. I just want this semester to be over. I think it's for moving into online learning. 

Brian Calo

Yeah. Can I touch base on that too? Because like when the pandemic hit, like I said before, I didn't really feel motivated, and I just really wanted the semester to end because the classes weren't exciting.

And then when summer came, I tried to create like a stable routine of ... work and then working out, practicing guitar and practicing singing. So like all those in combination, that was basically my routine. And it felt really repetitive, especially when the protests were happening. It was just like a lot to take in personally, because like, I was working as well.

Then, you know, the whole masks thing was a thing, and people like disobeying regulations, and it was really hard to maintain a stable routine while dealing with that and then while also dealing with the racism that was like transpiring and like resurfacing or--no. I shouldn't say resurfaced, or surfacing. It's been there for a long time. We just came to an epiphany and a realization of how serious it really is. 

And like during rehearsal, we were talking about your mental health and it was really nice hearing people's comments on how the cast is like a community and that we're grateful for each other, because I always write down what I'm grateful for and nowadays it's really hard to think of what I'm grateful for, because like, especially with the shooting that was going on and, you know, the thousands of Asian individuals being brutally attacked or these racist remarks. It's hard not to focus on anything but that. If anything that I've learned from 2020,  it's to really like do some deep self-reflection, and I'm still doing that right now. I feel like that's going to be a forever thing.

Peter Vezeau

I think that 2020 put a lot of stuff into perspective. We were away in our houses, maintaining social distancing and doing stuff virtually and so we spent a lot more time on our phones, keeping ourselves informed, as you both said.

And in this past year, we have seen a lot of negative remarks and negative actions done against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We have seen COVID-19 referred to as the Chinese flu or in some more hurtful cases, the Kung flu; we have seen Rideshare drivers be assaulted and harassed. 

We have seen the Hollywood reporter call Asian American actors succeeding, "breaking the bamboo ceiling." And we have seen, in the past two days, the shooting of eight Asian women at three different parlors. How has it been just seeing story after story, especially by the time we're recording — a lot of these happened in just the past week and a half. How have you guys been taking that all in really? 

Brian Calo

Okay. So when the Black Lives Matter movement was really pushing through, as an Asian individual, I was definitely seeking ways I can contribute to that community. 

But when it's my community being, you know, attacked and assaulted and being mocked, it makes me feel kind of drained reading through the repetitive news. Like, "Oh, there's another individual that's being attacked," or "So-and-so said something about the Asian community."

It gets tiring because like, sometimes I'm like, I just want to quit social media, just forget about the whole thing. But at the same time, I don't have that privilege to just like close my ears or close my eyes and not listen or see what's going on around me. I definitely need to like, be a better person for my community and do my part and, you know, make other people more aware of what's really going on.

When I heard the news about the shooting, I was kind of devastated. I felt angry, upset. I felt frustrated. I felt overwhelmed. I felt sad. There's only so much that I could do, but I definitely want other people to know about this so that we could have a profound conversation to end these violences and to stop these attacks.

To make others aware that there is still racism that's occurring in this country and we need to do something about it. And talking about it, sure, that will get us somewhere, but having these social justices, these regulations really in place will hopefully limit these attacks.

Jerry Ding

I definitely feel overwhelmed and disappointed, because I know this has been happening ever since the pandemic. 

People normalize this sort of racism and hate crimes. They make it sound like our fault. That they make us think that's our fault from the Asian community, but it's not. And because we receive all this information these days, you don't forget these things easily, and combining the BLM movement, I would say people are so divided.

I think we need to heal and unite. And I am glad that all the media and news are shedding lights on events, based on my personal experience. Do you want me to talk about personal experience? 

Peter Vezeau

I'd be more than happy to hear them if you're willing to share them. 

Jerry Ding

I went to school in the Bay Area. My school is in East Bay, and one day I went to San Francisco International Airport to pick up my mom. 

At that time, I just got my driver's license, and I didn't know too much about parking in front of the airport. You're supposed to wait until your guests arrive. You don't supposed to get out of a car, but that day I did. That was the first time, picking up a passenger for the first time, I tried to help her with her luggage, and by the time I got back, there was this elderly gentleman shouting all those racial slurs. 

Personally, I was a bit angry, but what made me numb, I didn't know what to do. He was shouting at my mom, all these racial slurs and he kept on asking her, "Do you speak English? Are you deaf?" That made me almost explode, but I didn't know what to do. Then I drove away because he asked me to get the hell out of here. It was a very intense experience. 

Then 2020 came, I was trying to walk in Target and then another elderly gentleman stopped me and asked why this Chinese virus was here. I wasn't even mad or angry because I think we normalize this sort of hate. No matter what we look like, you should respect any sort of people with any sort of ethnicity background. So I knew I wasn't going to change his mind, but at least I need to let him know, speak out. 

In Asian culture we are sort of taught to be like an ultimate pacifist. If you didn't have to speak about things, if things stay the same and if it works, you shouldn't change it. So I think people in Asian culture, we're afraid of change, just because we were taught to be like an ultimate pacifist.

Peter Vezeau

Thank you for sharing that. Brian, is there any kind of personal stories you want to share?

Brian Calo

I just wanted to say thank you, Jerry, for sharing that I know that can be a really personal thing to share. I did have a friend. She was at some store and it was like around New Year's. Some guy goes inside the store, smacks down like these firecracker pebbles and then said a slur, and then immediately like jets out of the store.

And then she said that she was really scared. She was, you know, terrified. She was crying. I was aware that the violence towards the Asian community was growing, but to hear a friend encounter that, it makes you feel even more angry or more upset because it's someone close to you. That's the thing, too. Like after I heard the news of the women that were shot in Atlanta, Georgia, I was getting ready to go to bed.

I was just thinking about, wow. Like anyone could literally just go up to any place and kill people. And I'm like thinking, "Wow, like it could be me. It could be, God forbid, the ones that I love, like my mom or sister." Like it got me thinking, this is the reality we're living in. It's tough to face it for the community who's facing it, you know?

It's interesting that you brought up, like you said, Jerry, like people normalize these things. What's scary to me is I don't want to feel like these racist attacks are normal, despite the fact that you know, it is common nowadays. 

The information you consume should be very limited because for myself personally, I don't want to desensitize myself into thinking, "Oh, this happens every day," and I don't want to believe that. I want, hopefully, one day that these attacks will no longer happen. After COVID, after all these crazy things that are happening, I'm just like really hoping that we really learn from this event and from the events and the attacks before this.

Jerry Ding

Yes, I think you've said it all, Brian. There are a lot of work we need to do, but as long as we're fighting, there is still hope.

Peter Vezeau

It's stories that I feel a lot of people can sadly relate to. I'm a Mexican-American and I also hear these things of, "Do you speak English?" and there's that assumption.

It's very heartbreaking when they make those assumptions based on one look at you. These things shouldn't be normalized, like you said, Brian. We gotta keep fighting, like you said, Jerry. We have to keep these things in discussion and know that that doesn't make them normal. That makes them alarmingly common. Is there anything you want to tell our listeners?

Brian Calo

I know when the Black Lives Matter movement, back last year, was going on, there was so much information to consume and I was just like trying to keep track of everything. And then when it came to like, you know, this year and with all these attacks toward the Asian community, for me being a part of the community, it felt like I didn't want to read any of those.

Like, I'll read anything that will help the Black community, but then reading these attacks toward the Asian community, it felt like too much to handle. But then I started to realize I needed to step up. I needed to be more aware, and I can’t just shy away from these problems because it's my community that's being affected. I should voice out my concern. I should be more aware about what's going on and ways I can help.

So what I want to leave the audience is to just like educate yourself, find ways you can help the community or any minority community in general. Talk to a friend who's probably a part of the community, or even, you know, support a local business that's, you know probably getting these hateful, racist comments or have been attacked.

It's important that we help each other, despite your beliefs or political views. 2020 has taught us to really voice out our thoughts, and I feel like this year is the same, and I feel like the more we keep doing that, the less these attacks, you know, will prevail. So, you know, educate yourself and find ways you can help.

Jerry Ding

Well said, Brian. Well said. I think I agree with you. I would say the reason I went, I made my decision to study here is because this is the United States of America. Not — you're at your best when you're the united, not, not the divided States of America.

That's I think, I think the reason why this is the best country in the world, it is when you're united together or you're not fighting with each other or try to make people hate on each other. 

I think this is a very important time for us to heal, to listen to each other, to educate ourselves. No matter, you know, with what sort of platform you have, either it's news or social media. They're always reporting on these incidents. If those reports goes against your own personal value, still read about them, educate yourself. You can't just make assumptions without, you know, knowing stuff that's happening around you. You just make assumptions and that's not right. So you should read about them. If it goes against your own values, fine. Still, read about them, know about what is happening around you and no matter what minority is facing what sort of issue, we should try our best to know about like, what is the situation and how can we help?

So therefore we can stand together to heal and to unite. So that's the one thing that I can take away from this podcast, I will say. 

Peter Vezeau

Thank you so much for being so open and so honest about your experiences, and hopefully this helps someone be more educated in the future and know that we do need to be united, that we do need to heal and we do need to do better. Thank you guys so much once again.

Jerry Ding

Thank you.

Brian Calo

Thank you for having us.

Peter Vezeau

My thanks again to Jerry Ding and Brian Calo. It was an absolute privilege to hear their views and perspectives. If you would like to know how you can learn more or even help, check out For the State Press, I'm Peter Vezeau.

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