Tag Archives: Identity

To be or not to be a minority – that is the question (poem)

1 Oct

To be or not to be a minority – that is the question
A question I have been revisiting and trying to comprehend
From the outskirts, being a minority doesn’t seem like the ideal position
Being different, perhaps a dissident, maybe exotic
And I’m all too familiar with these words and trends
Having used them, even in my favour.
But as I have come to understand and accept my story
This minority status has become a fallacy
A malicious status imposed on me
The dominant norms and ideologies that have bruised and broken and beaten me
Boxing me in to this tiny crevice of being a minority.

Have you ever felt different, or that you didn’t quite fit or belong?

Most of us have felt that way at one point or another in our lives. It’s not an easy place to be, especially when we desire love, connection, acceptance and belonging.

Puzzle

Trying to find the right pieces. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

I’ve felt different for most of my life and my puzzle pieces never seemed to line up. There was always a part of me that didn’t quite fit the community I wanted to belong to. It has been really challenging negotiating the various pieces of my identity and figuring out how I belonged (or didn’t).

In some groups, I held back certain aspects of my identity and part of me was missing. In other spaces, I hid different pieces and didn’t feel whole. There was silence, insecurity and often shame.

Gay AND Christian? Chinese AND Jamaican? Say what?!?

Many of us never feel like we’re enough.

Never forget these powerful words. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

And yet we are. (Jenna Tenn-Yuk)

Can I tell you how awesome you are? It’s true! Many of us navigate these in-between spaces and yet, we often marginalize others who are different. We really need to listen and hear each other’s stories, and not be afraid to bring our whole selves.

I’m still figuring out what it looks like to bring all the pieces of Jenna to the table. It’s tough and will be a lifelong journey, but I know it’ll be worth it. When you have a chance, check out my poem, Minority, and I hope you can connect.

Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong? How have you negotiated the various pieces of your identity?

Everyone loves an Asian girl, right? (poem)

12 Jun

Everyone Loves An Asian Girl was the first poem I wrote four and a half years ago. I was inspired after a poetry show and the words quickly flooded out of my pen.

Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. Those countless hours of writing, reflecting and performing have brought me to Vancouver as a Vancouver Biennale artist-in-residence.

Since that first poem, my work has continued to deal with who I am and the complexities of identity. Writing has helped me to negotiate, work through and come to terms with the various pieces of my story. It has also caused me to reflect and ask even more questions.

Since being in Vancouver, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity and my roots.

It’s uncomfortable to work through these difficult and complex parts of who we are, but it’s necessary for change and growth. We often don’t give ourselves the space to deal with these issues and questions.

Vancouver Poetry Slam

Performing at the Vancouver Poetry Slam. (Camila Ramos Bravo)

Last Monday, I did a mini feature at the Vancouver Poetry Slam. I performed two of my poems, Everyone Loves An Asian Girl and Minority. I hadn’t performed that piece since I wrote Everyone Loves A Jamasian Girl, a poem exploring my Chinese-Jamaican roots.

So when did liking Asian girls become a trend
When my friend asked me, “Jenna, why do guys like Asian girls?”
I let out a smirk and didn’t know what to say
It’s because we’re cute and petite and “exotic?”
Wait a minute! Why did I justify?
Offended because she reduced me to that
I was more than just an Asian girl
Who got all the stares at my –
Everyone loves an Asian girl t-shirt.

This poem was inspired by my t-shirt, Everyone loves an Asian girl, which I bought in high school. I thought it was cute and true, especially with so many people having “yellow fever.”

Everyone loves an Asian girl. (Kaite Burkholder)

Everyone loves an Asian girl, right? (Kaite Burkholder)

What’s this “yellow fever?” It’s a term used to describe people of non-Asian descent who have a strong interest, attraction and preference for Asian people and culture. I’ve been on the receiving end of this “fever,” particularly from men.

I used to think this obsession was funny, flattering or made me special in some strange way. However, I’ve come to resent this exoticization of my appearance and the assumptions associated with being an Asian woman.

It’s tiring to be objectified for how you look and having people constantly ask, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” Many people aren’t usually satisfied when I tell them I’m from Canada.

Check out my poem when you have a chance and thank you to the Vancouver Poetry Slam for filming it.

You are not a label, you are a sentence (poem)

4 Mar

I used to see labels – until I became one
Where I allowed that one label to pigeonhole and mark me
And devalue my identity and tell me, I just wasn’t worth it.

*An excerpt from my poem, Labels, which you can see below.

Labels can be helpful to understand objects, issues and people. However, they can also been used in negative ways to stereotype, limit and stifle those around us.

We have all used labels. Some labels have positive qualities associated with them, while others bring insecurities, shame and fear. These boxes can limit, and prevent people from being who they are and who they can be.

I don't like black and white boxes. (Terri Figueiredo)

I don’t like boxes, especially black and white ones. (Terri Figueiredo)

How often do we put people and communities into boxes, labels and stereotypes without hearing their stories? 

We do it all the time. It’s easy, convenient and often lazy.

And you know, labels just let us be lazy
Because we can’t see past the hazy label
And realize life is more grey than black and white
That people are more than black or white or brown or red or yellow
They are people, and should not be hated for being different.
And one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard was when my friend said,
“Jenna, you are not a label. You are a sentence. Actually, you’re a few sentences.”

I shared this beautiful quote during my TEDTalk (Allison Smith).

Sharing my friend’s words in my poem and TEDTalk. (Allison Smith)

One of my best friends shared these powerful words with me a few years ago. Her words are just as profound then as they are now.

Why do we use labels and erase our sentences?

Our first impressions are often incorrect and limiting. We don’t take the time to hear people’s stories. We don’t even take the time to see the various pieces of our identity that make up our beautiful tapestries.

Everyone loses out when we simply see labels and ignore our sentences. We need to remember that we are whole people and each one of us has so much to offer the world.

I recently gave a lecture at the University of Ottawa and shared my work on the politics of slam poetry, as well as the complexities of identity and the potential for change in the slam arena. I also wove in some of my poetry to flesh out some of these ideas, and it’s neat combining my passions with academia.

I would like to thank my friend, Caro Ibrahim, who filmed my poem and lecture. They are a talented, Ottawa-based filmmaker, so check out their work when you have a chance!

What are some labels in your life?

Part 2: 30 lessons I’ve learned from coming out as gay

17 Oct

In my first post, I shared 10 lessons I wish I knew, like the importance of taking those little steps and how acceptance starts with you. In this post, I’d like to share 10 things not to do when coming out as gay.*

Looking back at my journey, I made a lot of mistakes I wish I could take back. Come to think of it, I do a lot of silly things and don’t always make the best decisions. Last week, I wanted to go on a swing and actually felt nauseous after being on it for a few minutes. You know you’re getting old when…

Reliving my childhood. (Kathleen Clark)

Anyway, back to my post and my less-than-stellar choices. These experiences are now part of my story and if I ever become a comedian, some of this material is gold! I hope you can learn from my experiences and realize you’re not the only one negotiating these various parts of your identity.

*Note: When I say gay, feel free to substitute LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer) or your experience into that spot.

Part 2: What not to do

  1. Don’t go through this alone. If I could go back, this advice would have helped me the most. It’s scary, lonely and heavy to hold this burden all by yourself. You shouldn’t and you don’t need to. I kept my secret for many years, and the weight and fear affected many other areas of my life. So please find someone you trust or even call a helpline – just someone – and let them support you through this journey. It’s amazing how freeing it is to have even one person in your corner that you can talk to.
  2. Never come out while driving in a car. I came out to both of my parents on separate occasions in the car. It was much worse when I was driving. Picture this: the rain is pouring, you’re speeding on the highway, your emotions are exploding and you can barely see through your eyes because you’re crying. You may have to pull over because you’re endangering many people’s lives. Avoid this option at all costs. But if you ever become a comedian, this material is awesome!
  3. You are not a label. You are a sentence. These are some wise words from my best friend when I was really struggling to come to terms with my sexuality. Since I couldn’t accept who I was, I saw myself through a very limited lens and I didn’t believe others would accept me. It wasn’t until I began to love myself before I could see that being gay was a piece of me, but not all of me. I was still the same Jenna who played music, laughed a lot and was obsessed with Kettleman’s bagels. Some things never change.
  4. Don’t shut down the conversation. When you’re struggling to love who you are and finally open up, you just want people to accept you. Some people who were very close to me didn’t believe I was gay, let alone think it was okay for me to be gay. This was extremely hurtful and although they said they loved me, I didn’t trust their words if they didn’t accept this part of me. As a result, I was very defensive and shut down any dialogue, which really hurt a number of my relationships. However, I’ve come to realize it’s not necessarily about having people accept who you are, but more about giving you the same respect they desire. If I can help people realize gay people are people, and go grocery shopping, sit in coffee shops and may even be a friend, family member or co-worker, then it’s worth having the conversation. Fear, difference and the unknown prevent us from getting to know people as people. It’s crucial to listen – on both sides – if you want to be heard.
  5. It’s not your responsibility to help people get it. You may feel like it’s your responsibility to help people understand what it’s like to be gay. Visibility is important and you’ll have to share your story at moments, but you don’t always have to walk alongside everyone. Also, you may never be able to help some people understand what it’s like to be gay, which is really tough but it’s not your burden to carry. It’s absolutely exhausting. Believe me, I’ve done it many, many times.
  6. You don’t have to smile. I love to smile, but I had developed a bad habit of telling people I was fine when I was falling apart. I became even more polished when I was struggling to accept my sexuality, and didn’t want people to notice what I saw as “cracks.” People could see through my smile and if I wasn’t happy, I didn’t have to pretend. It’s okay not to have it together. None of us actually do.
  7. Gay or Christian? I grew up Christian and went to church, Christian school and was involved in a number of faith-based organizations. In these communities, it was very clear that being gay was wrong and one of the worst sins – despite the fact Jesus never talked about homosexuality and never measured sin. I suppressed my sexuality growing up, but I knew a part of me was missing. As I came out, I repressed my spirituality and also realized a lack there. I’ve seen too many people sacrifice who they are in order to fit because they don’t believe these parts can work together. I’m still negotiating these parts of my identity – pieces of me I’ve hated and been ashamed about at various times – but I’m hopeful I don’t have to choose one or the other. There needs to be a place in the church and in LGBTQ communities for everyone to bring all the amazing aspects of themselves to the table. And you know what’s interesting? I’ve never felt condemned by God. It was always people and the church.
  8. You can’t pray away the gay. I spent many years trying to pray away being gay. It was extremely draining and obviously didn’t work. Looking back, I wish I focused on asking God to help me love and accept who I was instead of taking away a part of me I hated. In those desperate moments, I just needed to know I was a valuable human being and there was nothing wrong with me.
  9. Support comes in different shades. When you’re figuring out who you are and struggling to accept being gay, you may take out your frustrations and confusion on those who are trying to support you. I remember this one conversation where I burst out in anger and tears at someone close to me. After I yelled at him, he said, “Jenna, why are you getting mad at me? I’m on your team.” In that moment, I realized his support looked different than others and I couldn’t expect him to say what I wanted to hear. That person hasn’t always said the right thing, but he has been there for me since the very beginning and loves me. You’re not perfect either, so don’t expect the “perfect” responses.
  10. Gay people aren’t scary. Since I couldn’t accept who I was, I projected my insecurities onto other LGBTQ people and told myself I wasn’t “that gay.” I was placing people into the same boxes I didn’t want to be put in, and I was afraid of being associated with them. As I opened up and started connecting with more LGBTQ people, I realized how much we had in common, instead of focusing on our visible differences. Many of the people I was afraid of are some of the most amazing people I know, and they ended up supporting and helping me out a lot. There’s something special and important when someone can look you in the eye and say, “I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there.”

As you can see from my mistakes, going through this journey alone may cause you to experience self-hatred and shame, and you may project your insecurities onto other people. Please don’t go through this process alone, and allow those around you to help you see just how fabulous you are!

It has also been a huge challenge for me to negotiate the various parts of my identity, especially growing up in communities that told me being gay was wrong, shameful and seemingly less than human. Although I’ve been extremely hurt by many Christians, shutting down the conversation and distancing myself from Christian communities won’t solve my own issues, let alone larger ones.

It’s still quite difficult for me to speak to people who spew homophobic comments and tell me what the Bible says about being gay (without exploring the passages themselves), but I’m willing to have the conversation. I’m willing to go to those hard places and regain my voice back.

I also want to be a voice for many LGBTQ people who have left the church and/or believe there is no place for them there. These spaces claim to be safe, loving and accepting, yet many people (not only those who identity as LGBTQ) don’t feel welcomed in those doors.

A huge problem I see in religious and LGBTQ communities is the lack of dialogue happening between these groups. I’ve been embedded and connected in both these spaces and have actually found many similarities – believe it or not!

If we want real understanding and change to occur, we need to talk about these issues and actually listen in a respectful way. We must have the dialogue and validate one another’s voices, even if it’s difficult, uncomfortable and painful. These conversations are crucial if we hope to move towards understanding and change.

Be sure to return for my last post this week where I’ll share 10 lessons that have helped me, including saying, “I am gay,” in front of the mirror. I’m not even joking – it actually helped!

If you could share some advice, what wouldn’t you do?

The day I pretended to be a model (photo shoot)

27 Sep

You know what’s hard? Being a model. You know what’s even more difficult? Being yourself.

I recently worked with a talented Ottawa photographer, Brian Goldschmied, for a photo shoot. The different outfits, poses and expressions made me think about the different parts of my identity, and also how easy it is to create a certain image for the world to see.

The photo shoot was a really interesting experience for me since I’ve never really modelled in that capacity. I may look comfortable in these photos, but I felt pretty awkward and didn’t know what to do.

How should I pose? Where should I put my hands? What facial expression do I make?

What you saw. (Brian Goldschmied)

How I felt. (Brian Goldschmied)

How can I channel my inner Zoolander?

During the five-hour photo shoot, I changed into a variety of outfits and it was a lot of fun dressing up. When I was younger, I used to be a tomboy and playing dress up was boring to me. Oh, how times have changed!

As we were shooting and I went from leather pants (which I never wear) to a cream dress (which I love to wear), Brian jokingly said a comment that caught me a bit off guard.

The leather pants! (Brian Goldschmied)

I love pretty dresses. (Brian Goldschmied)

“Will the real Jenna please stand up?”

That question was all too familiar to me and stopped me in my tracks. It’s a question I’ve actually asked myself over the past few years as I’ve tried to negotiate the various parts of my identity.

Jenna the musician. Jenna the Jamasian. Jenna the poet. Jenna the athlete.

These are all pieces of me, just like the different outfits, expressions and personas I had in the photo shoot. However, focusing too much on one part of my identity can marginalize the other aspects of my life.

We’re constantly negotiating, bringing out and even freeing the different pieces of our lives at various times.

Looking at the photos, I seem polished and put together. But on the inside, I felt really awkward and silly. I could also identify with these feelings of being what I call, “that girl” – someone who is polished on the outside, yet is falling apart on the inside.

Playing my uke. (Brian Goldschmied)

It’s a worthwhile question for each one of us to ask ourselves, “Who am I?” It seems so simple, yet few of us actually take the time to ask or figure out that question.

I’ve spent a lot of time and personal development asking who the real Jenna is. It’s tough work and can be really scary, especially when you have aspects of your life you don’t accept. But trust me, it’s definitely worthwhile in the end when you can love all the pieces of yourself and are comfortable in your own skin.

Brian took some really lovely shots and made me look great. Each photo has a piece of me, even my shots with leather pants! However, the pictures I resonate with the most are the ones where I’m smiling and being silly – like this one.

Being my silly self. (Brian Goldschmied)

It’s fun to play dress up every once in a while, but it’s a lot of work to micromanage and keep those personas up. It’s much easier to rip off our masks and just be our raw, unglamorous and silly selves. 

Will the real you please stand up?

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Searching for my Chinese-Jamaican roots and finding my way home

7 Aug

Yesterday afternoon, I performed some spoken word poetry at the Jamaican Ottawa Community Association’s flag-raising ceremony at Ottawa’s City Hall. It was the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence from Britain and a proud day for many Jamaicans around the world.

The crowd was covered in green, gold and black – the colours of the Jamaican flag. Proud Jamaicans were excited when the national anthem was sung, the past was referenced or Jamaican sayings were shared. The loudest cheers were for Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt, who just broke his own Olympic record in the 100m and won his fourth gold medal in London.

At the event I shared my poem, Everyone Loves A Jamasian Girl, about my identity struggle being Chinese, Jamaican and Canadian. I was born and raised in Canada, but I look Chinese. However, since my parents grew up in Jamaica, our culture is more Jamaican than it is Chinese.

So I’m not black enough for the Jamaicans
And not yellow enough for the Asians
So where do I even fit in? 
This Miss Chin wondering if she’s more Canadian than Chinese and Jamaican
And what does being Canadian even mean?

*An excerpt from my poem, Everyone Loves A Jamasian Girl, which you can watch below.

After I shared my poem, many people came up and hugged me, and told me how much they appreciated my piece. I love the friendless and warmth of Jamaican people, and how they welcomed me with open arms. It reminded me of my family and of home.

Many people said they could relate to my poem, and they also referenced other Chinese-Jamaican friends and family they knew. I wish my parents were around because I’m sure we would’ve found many connections. The more people I meet, the smaller this world becomes.

One woman referenced the diversity and motto of Jamaica, “Out of Many, One People.” She said we can’t put people into boxes and despite my identity struggle told me, “You know who you are in your heart.” Her words moved me, but I felt a bit unsettled.

Do I really know who I am?

Last year, I went to China and felt like a foreigner among my own people. Many people were confused I could have similar features, yet I couldn’t understand the language or culture. A number of conversations went like this:

Local person: [Speaks to me in Mandarin].
Me: [I shrug my shoulders and look confused].
Local person: Where are you from?
Me: Canada.
Local person: Do you speak Chinese?
Me: No.
Local person: But you look Chinese.
Me: I know. [I walk away, wishing I could say anything in Mandarin].

At the Great Wall of China with my brother. Note: do not wear shorts and a t-shirt in May or you may end up buying matching sweaters out of desperation. (Kaite Burkholder)

Just like my visit to China, I wonder if a trip to Jamaica will leave me with more questions or help bring me closer to home.

What roots are you searching for?

For more events in Ottawa to celebrate Jamaica’s 50 years of independence, please check out Jamaica 50 Ottawa.

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