Body Sessions

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Contemplating between home & the outside world: My purgatory

Contemplating between home & the outside world: My purgatory

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Body Sessions

Earlier this year, I collaborated with my trusted friend, Mary Hauser. After enduring another harsh Chicago winter season, we did a photo project that celebrated the end of winter, and the rebirth of Chicago coinciding with the arrival of Spring. Being reinvigorated through our collaboration, we decided to come together for another project for this blog.

This time, I wanted to connect my narratives into photographic images. I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to peel my own vulnerability that are stacked in layers by way of creating, and hoping that towards the end of the process, a feeling of liberation will take place.

Collaboration is an intimate, creative process that involves a high level of trust, sensitivity, and understanding. To do a project requires understanding each other’s narratives, passions, fears, and mission.

I’ve long been drawn to black and white photography. With color, we capture what our eyes could see. We see the beauty, the invitation, destruction, and violence through our subject(s). With black and white, there are a series of gradations of light and shade that impacts what is revealed and what remains hidden. Vulnerability is my motif. Through the black and white medium, I wanted to capture parts of my vulnerability through my own space / my sanctuary. With it, comes the various degrees of shade / darkness that brings about the process of slowly coming to terms with certain aspects of myself. Originally, I looked at this project specifically from a black and white perspective, but decided to add in the color shots as I am in a more comfortable process of overcoming certain barriers with my own body and self. While there is light revealed in these specific parts through the b & w medium, there are more still to be uncovered through the abundance of darkness.

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“I am guided by the light above as I stare into the darkness.”

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Staring at the unfulfilled dreams from an immigrant son

Representing What We Wear

On an unseasonably warm November Saturday morning, I prepared myself for our full-day photo shoot in my studio apartment. I wanted to express my lifelong insecurity about my own body, and the everyday angst of having to choose clothing that acts as some sort of agency for my identity. The photo shoot had been marinating in my mind for months. I was going to reveal myself in a way that I never would have envisioned.

Our first shoot was done in the hallway of my apartment floor. Whenever my mom would stay with me, weeks at a time, I thought about how often I would go out, sit by the stairwell, having a phone conversation with my friend, and then using that space when my own safe space is already being compromised by someone I love dearly. Whenever I would come home from a day’s work, I would stand by the stairwell for several minutes to have my own brief moment of solitude before having to greet my mom at the door. The hallway / stairwell has almost become my purgatory between the outside world and my own home.

Then, I prepared for my next shoot. I went into my bathroom, got undressed and wrapped myself around my blue towel. Mary asked me a few times if I was okay, and each time, I said “Yes, I’m good to go.” I plopped down and stared straight into my messy closet. Mary has never seen me in the buff before and she made a few catcalls along the way. Several of my clothes were on the floor. I channeled my inner anxiety of what I wanted to wear.I thought about growing up as a working-class immigrant child, and how one’s visibility was scrutinized by my peers through the kind of clothes we wore to school. I was far from being the best-dressed, and my parents were not inclined to buy me the NBA starter jackets, to the Tommy Hilfigers and Nautica brands just so I can appease my peers.

When I started working my part-time jobs in high school and college, I became increasingly conscious about what I wore each day. I wanted to earn respect which I struggled to do growing up. I was anxious to prove that I was a man of good taste, someone that would be desirable to date, and as a reflection of my intelligence.

When I had lived abroad in Korea, I taught in a poorer part of Busan, its second largest city. Fashion is prominent in that country. Korean actors / actresses, pop singers and models grace every billboard, cell phone store and LCD flatscreen TVs. I was a tad too heavy by Korean, let alone, Asian standards as my clothing sizes were a hard find at many of the stores. Some store employees would gesture the large “X” mark with their hands when I entered into their store. In the next several months, I began to lose weight, and when I did, I immersed myself onto the fashion scene, donning vests, hats, tight blue jeans. My students would be in full envy whenever I got into “fashion beast mode.” They oohed and ahh’d with whatever I was wearing. Sure, it gave me an ego boost, but soon thereafter, I realized that many of them did not have the luxury of having nice clothes. I was also reminded of my own past when obtaining name-brand clothing was scarce in my family.

I also thought about the times when I used to go to a formal work function, or put on a new pair of glasses, and a colleague or two would come up to me, and say, “you look so smart”. It’s as if you have to spend more resources on your appearances in order for your peers to validate your intelligence.

I think about how the clothes I wear each day represents a partial piece of my personality, my narrative, or associations of past memories. I think about how our clothes affect our relationship with the people we come in contact with. I think about how each layer of clothing we put on makes us choose what parts of our identities we feel most comfortable in revealing.

In the process of being captured in my own nakedness, I felt a sense of that liberation. Prior to the shoot, I had been uncomfortable with my own body for weeks because of my weight battles. I decided that if I wanted to express that insecurity, that vulnerability, it would be in a place that I should feel most safe in.

I stared into my bathroom door mirror, and Mary asked me to hold a blanket to my chest. I thought about my future. That I am now holding onto my youthfulness and being scared to let go. I thought about my family whose health has been problematic, and wondered if I would be next. I closed my eyes, embraced my blanket, lovingly wrapped my arms around my waist, and reassured myself that I’ll be safe.

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“My Body is a Barrier”

“I’m half child, half ancient”—Bjork

My mind is restless, constantly envisioning imageries of utopia. Pleasures abound with Herculean lovemaking conquests, triumphant declarations of justice, limitless movement between existent spaces, and achieving the greatest prize of all, immortality, are the kind of magical dreams that conjure up during my nights of rest.

Immortality, humankind’s greatest fantasy, still remains defeated against Father Time. Even in our heroic efforts to keep it at bay, we inevitably fall to the decay that leads to our eventual demise.

As I am into my 3rd decade of existence, I have been a witness to the cruelty that Father Time has afflicted upon to older members of my family. My grandma, from my mom’s side as well as the only living grandparent on both sides, has been struggling with dementia. On my mom’s side, my aunt passed away in 2010 in her upper 50s from cancer. From my father’s side, my youngest uncle died in 2012, only a few years shy of 60 while my oldest uncle has been fighting off mini strokes and diagnosed with Parkinson’s for the last decade, and more recently, my other uncle was diagnosed with Stage 1 colon cancer. For my parents, it has also been an ongoing battle. My mom, a few years ago, suffered a massive stroke, and is disabled, while my father (a Khmer Rouge survivor) has experienced a number of mental health issues. In all of these recent times, my family has been besieged by health problems over the age of 50.

Growing out of my youth, and into adulthood, I am faced with the reality that the folks who have been mentor figures in my life are now aging and slowly deteriorating.

As I look into my bathroom mirror, I started rubbing through the smooth layer of my skin, and touching the palm of my face, and I thought to myself, “What will become of me 20 years from now? What will the process of aging look like for me?”

“Am I going to be faced with the same, premature illnesses that have greatly affected members of my family? “

I never feared death, but I admittedly fear the process of dying. The loss of functioning, freedom, movement, expression, and having choices are all part of our interactions with mortality. Will I go blind? Will I be able to remember my trips to other countries or of my loved ones? Will I be confined to a wheelchair at the end of life? Though I am not mentally consumed by such future potential physical / mental downfalls on a daily basis, I start to ask questions about my quality of life. What are my ambitions? What are my barriers? How can I preserve the physical and mental foundation of my body?

I dream of waving my F-You finger to my family DNA that is ready to detonate inside of me at any given moment. I want to fight off Father Time a bit longer in battle, and not have to lose limbs before I finally give in.

The only chance I stand of reaching my immortality is living. Living to create. Creating for what I can leave behind that will stay in writing, in capturing, and in sharing. The body machine may break down, but Father Time can’t erase the miles I’ve left behind on this journey.

Today, I am in combat. Maybe this time, I will let my imagination guide me when my body can’t.

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My silhouette reflection

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For more on Mary’s work, please visit her site:

http://www.portfolio-of-maryhauser.weebly.com

Photography and Editing Credits: Mary Hauser

Additional edits: Randy Kim

All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim 2015

Tears of a Rainbow

The LGBTQ community recently secured a victory from the US Supreme Court this past week on its legalization for marriage equality. For many in the LGBTQ community, as well as a growing number of straight allies, this was a historic milestone worth celebrating, just in time for Pride weekend across the nation. However, for others in the LGBTQ community, there are growing concerns on the number of issues that are still left on the table, or have yet to be acknowledged by the community as a whole, and what direction the LGBTQ community will take moving forward.  For some including myself, this historic day has triggered some unhealed wounds from our past during a time when we were in the process of coming to terms with our identity, and the fears that the other LGBTQ issues will not be as supported or advocated now that the marriage equality has come to pass.

On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, I became visibly emotional, not so much out of joy, but in recalling many of the pain that I endured as I was struggling to come to terms with my Asian-queer identity. I first thought about the countless generations of LGBTQ folks that have passed on having never lived to see the ruling, never having the opportunity to see the stronger queer community spaces that’s become more accessible, and that they have had to endure a lifetime of secrecy, disownment from their family and community, public ridicule, imprisonment, and violence.  There are those whose lives ended prematurely because of the power of the homophobia / transphobia resistance had / still has towards our community, which has led to suicide or hate crime violence. Those are people that we cannot bring back, and that their lives are forever attached to the lifetime of hurt & cruelty of their identity(ies) from a society that believes could not co-exist with the accepted hetero space.

I recall the years of childhood and young adult angst of growing up in a predominantly white suburb, coming from a family of immigrant refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. I remembered the struggles of being socially accepted by my peers as a minority, while at the same time, facing pressures from my family to succeed academically and having to uphold my family culture through that process. As I hit puberty, I remembered feeling mortified when I started to have attraction towards men. I heard the voices of my male peers yelling out the words, “faggot”, “homo”, “you like to suck dick” amongst themselves. I think about the time when my high school English teacher brought up Matthew Sheppard, a gay man that was murdered in a hate crime in the late 90s, and some of my classmates’ responses were downright visceral, “He deserved to die”, “Oh, that’s what he gets for being gay” as they said while others laughed and nodded in unison. I sat quietly in my desk, slowly slumping over knowing that I was already an outcast. I was fearful for my own life for the first time. I could be the next victim. I was so upset with my English teacher for bringing his name up as she stood quietly and did little to interject or disrupt my classmates’ hatefulness. She didn’t realize how much I needed to feel supported, but instead it only validated that my existence was never going to be respected. My parents suspected and raised concerns over my sexuality, and insisted that I should not become that way. I had spent those years into my adult years being forced to “straight-act” and to quiet any suspicions of my own sexual identity. It was for my own survival. Even today, as open as I have become, I still resort to moments of downplaying my identity when I meet with older folks, certain past and present colleagues, and with my own mom whose disability has put me in the position as a caregiver along with my brothers.

I fear the losing of allies and the growing division of the LGBTQ community on issues that are ongoing in the racial, social, gender, economic inequality spectrum. Yes, marriage equality is essentially important as it not only validates same-sex couples’ union, but to receive benefits, to have a family, to have equal rights when their spouse is sick, or facing end-of-life. However, it’s a megabyte among the terabyte of the community’s concerns. We still have hate crime violence issues, especially among transgender folks of color, high LGBTQ homelessness, employment discrimination, immigration, lack of proper healthcare access, gender profiling, hetero / cis-gender sexism towards trans folks, and the list continues to go further. Will any of our other issues hold any weight and momentum on the mainstream level, but more importantly, from within the community whose interests and issues are differed and varied? Will there be a time and space where our community will begin to properly heal from the post-traumatic wounds from the discrimination, violence, shaming, and marginalization that folks have experienced?

My experiences as an Asian-identified queer have made me naturally leery of straight folks that have supported the recent Marriage Equality rights. Were these the same folks that openly shamed LGBTQ folks in my life which have caused me to retreat into an identity that wasn’t me? Would these folks still be there when we need to have another important legislation to pass when we need to once again validate our need for equality? Would they ever take the time to understand and validate the struggles that my queer friends and I still care about? At the same time, I also think about the number of straight allies who became my friends who were the first ones to lovingly support me. They, along with my LGBTQ comrades, were the ones that listened, consoled me, empowered me as I was stammering out the words, “I’m queer,” and reinforced the kind of loving community I have surrounding me.

Within the LGBTQ community is a growing divide. For years in my bisexuality, I remembered hearing ridicule from the gay and lesbian community telling me that there’s no such thing, or it’s just a denial. Having to hear that kept me more in the closet, and contradicted the inclusion and protection that the gay / lesbian community was supposed to bring in. In the mainstream gay circles, we are not recognizing gender pronouns, agender / gender queer, cis / non-cis gender identities. Heck, I learned about gender pronouns only 2 years ago. So the distrust and disconnect is still there in the community, and with it, comes the reality that our current barriers may never be able to change when we are unable to recognize and give light to the severity of these issues, and how we address it on a universal level.

I can’t undo the trauma that I lived through being a queer-identified Asian minority where my queerness, Vietnamese and Cambodian, disabled (left-eye blindness) identities became my barriers, sometimes altogether at the same time. I am mixed in between the eternal optimist who has seen the progressive changes where I can now tell my 14 year old self that it’s okay to come out of hiding, and the eternal pessimist who is still shouting to be heard, and watching his fellow community folks suffer great disappointment. Today, those worlds have collided with the tears of joy and pain rolling off my cheeks.

2001 Randy Edition

Preface:

Earlier this year, I participated in a writer’s circle at Sage Community Health Collective, and volunteered to co-facilitate with a partner. Inspired by a fellow writer and good friend, Stephanie, I wanted to take on the topic of being able to “Thank Our Past Self.”  It came at a time when I was already burned out with writing. My previous blog with my former partner / friend ended badly. Writing has represented a significant part of my life, and has served as my go-to-outlet for my own personal expression. However, it also became toxic and emotionally triggering to me as I was writing about certain parts of my life that I was starting to acknowledge for the first time and still in the process of recovering from. I needed to regain my confidence in using writing as not just for my own “emotional purging”, but as a way to acknowledge, and celebrate the positivity and growth in my life. For this writer circle, I chose to reflect on a specific turning point in my life at the end of my senior year in high school. 

Dear Randy of 2001,

High school is about to end for you. You are almost at the finish line. I know you’re eager to race on out of there. You spent the last 13 years of being misunderstood, ignored, and bullied by many of the same classmates in the small community of Westmont.  Your peers had 13 years to know you, and yet made you feel as if your existence is invalid. You couldn’t remain anonymous in a class of 93 with a total of 400 students in our high school. Your fights with our parents are going nowhere; dad is demanding that you study to become an engineer or lawyer. He is becoming agitated that you’re defying him, and on the verge of losing his parental control over you. You’re going to turn 18 a few days after graduation, and unsure if you can succeed in college. Yeah, sounds like you got a few things going on, I get it.

Randy, I haven’t made a visit to you in quite awhile. I spent my college years working to undo the image of the “quiet Asian kid” that stuck with me throughout my childhood, and I might have overdone it with a few crazy escapades of my own in the good ole Chicago night scene.

Now, I come back to finally acknowledge and thank you for finally breaking out of your shell. It was long overdue, but looking back, you got the ball rolling for me. Towards the end of senior year, you showed our old classmates that they were wrong about you for all those years as they painted you as this silent, awkward Asian kid who would sometimes cry when being threatened. Instead, you showed off those wild dance moves at prom night much to everyone’s surprise, and forgetting about your girlfriend at the time. Oops..don’t worry, she’s not going to be in the picture very long anyways (just a heads up there). You successfully managed to grab the attention of everyone in the entire banquet hall, and turned it into your own private show. For the first time as I recall, you didn’t give a hoot about what your peers thought, and you were on the driver’s seat, in control of how much fun you were having. You were eventually named “Best Dancer” by those same peers because of that night.  That moment was your official “liberation.” I owe it to you for that prom night. You gave me the confidence I needed to be in front of my peers, and I can assure you that there will be plenty of those kind of nights in the future.

You stood up to dad when he tried to dictate your future. You managed to start pursuing your academic goals and your circle of friends without his approval. You avoided succumbing to the temptations of drugs and ended friendships that were becoming problematic for you. While you may not have had the best of times in those 4 years of high school, you are certainly making those last few months count.

In my current self, I look to you for inspiration when you took on the people you were most afraid of then. Also, I want to let you know that you aren’t a bad looking person despite what anyone thinks, and I wish I still have some of that crazy Gemini energy you were running around with. If you can do me a favor when you go to college, I want you to do me a favor, and take it easy on the Wendy’s and Taco Bell.

Getting ready to go to Prom

Getting ready to go to Prom

40 Years is Everyday: Remembrance of Cambodia

killing field

Last week on April 17th marked the 40th year anniversary of the Khmer Rouge genocide, an era that would last only 4 years, but would leave its bloody, traumatic mark in Cambodia in the following four decades since. An estimated 2 million Cambodians lost their lives during that period through imprisonment, harsh labor, starvation, diseases, and execution. My father was among the survivors as he escaped with a few others as all of them risked certain death through the treacherous countryside filled with the presence of Khmer soldiers and land mines nearby to reach Thailand. My dad’s survival ensured that he would be given another lease on life. He eventually moved to the US, and a few years later, meet my mom.  I was born and my brothers soon thereafter. My dad’s life continues, but so does the trauma.

In the days leading up to the anniversary, I was consumed with finding a way to convey my sadness, remembrance, introspection, and somehow reflect a hopeful tone that the Cambodian community, both in Cambodia and elsewhere, will continue to persevere, achieve healing, and reclaim its cultural identity that was taken away during the regime. As each day got closer to April 17th, I think about some of the stories that my dad would share with me in confidentiality, or the survivors who I’ve been privileged to talk to, or the sounds of classic Khmer music that would breathe life into the family living room, or at family parties, but also, of how it’s now been 2+ years since I’ve last been in touch with my father.

The day finally arrived. I felt the sorrow permeating through my veins, and at certain moments, reaching through the optic nerves of my eyes. I come across articles and Facebook posts about the genocide. I saw haunting pictures of human skulls that were once occupied by helpless, terrified Khmer souls lying in a glass case in the infamous Tuol Sleng prison staring at the living. I thought about some of my relatives that I would never get to meet because they were taken away too soon, and wondered how their presence in my life could have potentially benefited me. I think about Cambodia, and what it could have been.

I came home later that night after attending a writer-support group, and got my thoughts on a Facebook status. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been looking into documenting my dad’s survival, and the intergenerational trauma that’s been carried on that has impacted our father-son relationship. So far, I’ve encountered more mental roadblocks than a Chicago construction season.  Writing, as my friend Stephanie would put it, is like giving light to some of the darker surfaces that we are afraid to see. There are many moments in my relationship with my dad that I would rather not revisit, yet at the same time, I found better understanding in being able to reflect on these experiences, and that by doing so, I can start the healing process for myself and for my family. I also have a sense of purpose in making sure that more light is given on Cambodia’s dark history to the young generations of Khmers, and for many others, both whom are surprisingly unaware of the existence of the Cambodian genocide, and the structural / psychological impact it carries for our current and future generations.

2015 not only marks the year of the Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields”, but it also marks the 70 year anniversary of the Holocaust liberation, the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide which happened today as we speak, the 40 year anniversary of the “Fall of Saigon” which also affected my family, and countless other acts of crimes against humanity that we unfortunately have to remember and revisit.

With the 4/17 date having now passed, I can only know that for many Cambodians, this date has not changed.

© 2015 Randy Kim All Rights Reserved

Uncredited photo used for story