Lisa Hsia (Satsumabug) is a writer and artist living in Oakland, California. Find her online at satsumabug.com
Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?
Lisa Hsia: I like to describe myself as a writist and arter. It speaks to the way I see my work — transdisciplinary, with the different disciplines and genres bleeding into each other, rather than interdisciplinary, where you have a solid grounding in multiple disciplines and then put them together. In some ways I see my life as having that kind of slightly mish-mashy quality as well. I thought for a long time that I was going to be an academic, and even though I’m not, I was just thinking the other day that a lot of what I do as an artist looks like what I did as a scholar: read, think, talk, write. Everything is part of the process.
Bani: Do you reflect on your travels as an artist, a scholar or both?
Lisa: Definitely both. As an artist, as a visual artist as well as a writer, I’ve had a lot of practice in observation and imagination. Meanwhile, my academic training gave me a much more critically nuanced outlook than I think I would have had otherwise. But both backgrounds prompt me to study everything broadly before picking out individual things that interest me.
I would say, though, about traveling as an artist – I really started to think about the nature of seeing. I like to bring a sketchbook around with me, and I did that during our travels as well, but I noticed that when I first got to a place, I couldn’t sketch. I didn’t want to and it didn’t feel right. Over time I realized that was because I didn’t know yet what I was seeing, when everything was unfamiliar. We often tend to think of seeing as a kind of physical act, like something a camera does, but really it’s an act of interpretation (that’s borne out by the science of seeing too). Our brains are as involved as our eyes are. Stillness is an underrated part of traveling.
As a kid I used to get in fights with my mom when we went on trips, because she is of the go-go-go, guidebook-in-hand school of traveling, and I’d rather sit and take things in.
Bani: I sometimes feel like a bad traveler because I never ‘see the sights’. I walk around and around and around and end up drinking with teenagers in parks. I’m trying to drink things in. That’s why I stay in places for too long, and sometimes end up moving in. It takes some time for me to get from the ‘witnessing’ to the ‘engaging’ to the ‘creating’.
Lisa: Haha, I have blog posts about this that I wrote during our travels! When we started traveling I had a lot more angst about being a “bad traveler” – I would imagine some snotty jet-setter type telling me I hadn’t REALLY seen a place because I hadn’t seen the major sights.
Bani: Apparently, there’s a special place in hell for Bad Tourists.
Lisa: Ha, well, I can imagine the heaven of Good Tourists, and I don’t think I’d want to go there.
Bani: Same. As a POC, specifically as an Ecuadorian-USian living in Ecuador, doing the touristy stuff brings a whole nother level of discomfort. My multiple identities rise to the surface and duke it out for attention. There is an inner conflict that is too messy to detangle in that unforgiving space.
Lisa: Yes. That’s something I’ve always felt even if I didn’t always articulate it explicitly. It’s not always even super direct. Sometimes it’s just the tourist attitude in general. There’s so much entitlement there, and so much condescension. So much Othering. It’s sad, but it was such a common attitude that it kinds of blends into the background, like people wearing cameras around their necks. Oh! Well, here’s one that made me feel really uncomfortable.
We were in Istanbul for a month, staying in a pretty local neighborhood, meaning not where all the tourists hang out. There are cats all over Istanbul, street cats and pet cats. There was a mother cat and her kittens living outside our apartment building, and there was a white woman who lived nearby who had taken it upon herself to look after the welfare of these cats. Not a bad thing, in and of itself. The first time she saw us admiring the kittens she told us what she’d named them, and she said, “This one is Neko. You know why?” She pronounced it like NEE-ko. I said no, I don’t know why. And then she got a little flustered and said she’d assumed we were Japanese; neko is the Japanese word for cat. But it’s not pronounced NEE-ko; it’s more like neh-ko.
Lisa: That’s not a huge deal, but I didn’t like it. And then another time, she got really frustrated because people were leaving food out for the cats that isn’t Western-style cat food. Stuff like pasta or bread. And she kept talking about how “these people” don’t know how to feed cats, they were going to kill the kittens, etc. She even posted a sign in English and Turkish admonishing people on their treatment of the cats. I’m not sure whether she wrote the Turkish part of the sign. Somehow I had an impression that she didn’t speak Turkish, even though she’d been living in Istanbul for several years. I think she was an English teacher.
Lisa: But the way she said “these people” and the way she presumed to tell them how to treat their street cats…It felt like she had a lot more respect for the cats than the people. Of course I am also judging her, because I don’t know anything about her except for these interactions, and for all I know she could be a pillar of the community. But her attitude didn’t strike me that way.
There was also a white New Yorker in Reykjavík who told me all about how Maine lobster is better than the langoustines they serve in Iceland. That was weird.
Bani: So that woman assumed you were Japanese. Was your nationality ever put into question by locals or other travelers?
Lisa: Totally. There was a waiter in Paris who asked where we were from, and when we said “California,” he just shook his head and said, “Non.” A lot of restaurant touts in Istanbul would call out “Konnichiwa” to us.
Lisa: Actually, some of them would go, “Konnichiwa. Nihao. Anyonghaseyo!” Which, besides being annoying/insulting, was just bizarre to me, because it made me want to go to their restaurants less, and I can’t imagine that ever being a successful marketing strategy with me. But then I think, it has to work with a lot of tourists, because otherwise why would they do it?
There’s definitely a big difference in the way people read things as condescending or helpful. This might be a little off-topic since it doesn’t have to do with travel, but I’ve noticed this with immigrant parents versus their US-born kids. Things that offend the kids will read as perfectly okay, or maybe even good, to the parents — like depictions in movies, that kind of thing.
Bani: That sometimes has to do with desensitization. Sometimes, cultural cues are offensive AND helpful. And that’s confusing when you’re 2nd gen.
Lisa: Yeah, definitely. And as a US citizen, fluent in English and with lots of education and resources, I have a kind of international security that my parents, as immigrants, don’t have. Or don’t have to the same extent.
Bani: Speaking of this: Were there instances where your ethnic background helped you to ‘blend in’ to some places you’ve traveled? Are there positive and negative aspects to that fluidity?
Lisa: So much yes, to both those questions! The blending in is a very strange thing. I found that I both craved the ability to blend in, and resented it. Which I think is reflective of my own sense that I don’t quite fit in anywhere. There was a sense of extreme relief when I could pass as a local, which happened in places like Japan or Singapore, or in London or Toronto. But on the other hand, I was a foreigner in all those places, and sometimes I wished people could see that.
That might actually say more about the loneliness of traveling than about anything else.
I think a lot of the negative was about loneliness, now that I think of it. I’d enjoy the feeling of blending in with people or feeling like I’d found “my people” somehow, but that would never actually be true. Which is something I’ve struggled with in my regular life, too, and actually I think the traveling helped a lot with that.
Bani: Is it hard to build alliances on the road? The find community?
Lisa: I feel that being able to claim membership in a group can be a really comforting thing, but sticking out can also lead to real connections with other people who also feel slightly at odds with the group.
Bani: Maybe, as POC in the U.S., we feel at home with feeling at odds with the dominant group? We want to be visible in our difference but not ostracized for it? Queers are like that sometimes.
Lisa: That’s true, but as someone born in the US, I also think I have a level of ease in the dominant group that I didn’t fully appreciate until I left the US.
Again, that’s part of the loneliness and feeling marginal — encountering other Americans on our travels was more often alienating than not. Part of me would want to reach out to them, but part of me didn’t, because of the many ways I feel at odds with US American culture.
Bani: Yes – traveling abroad dislodges that thing that says ‘I belong’. I guess I didn’t realize how much I didn’t belong until I started leaving the States.
Lisa: Yeah, I would say that traveling made me feel both my belonging and my not-belonging that much more strongly. But I would see that play out with different people in other countries, and that was reassuring in a way. Everywhere you go, you find people who don’t quite fit in, and that can be comforting.
Bani: Outlaws looking for outlaws.
Lisa: Outliers looking for outliers. It was also interesting for me, in talking to other outliers, to see how our sense of not-fitting-in was both similar and different.
This isn’t exactly on the topic of what I just said, but coming from the US, I was fascinated with racial/ethnic homogeneity in other countries, and how that affected the racial consciousness of people living in those countries — either people who fit the dominant group, or immigrants or minorities.
I was talking with several New Zealanders with Māori heritage, and although their struggles in some ways mirror the difficulties faced by Native Americans in the US, the Māori are much more visible in NZ than Native Americans here. One of the people I spoke to said she thought it might just be a “numbers game” — in a country with fewer people, you know your neighbors a little differently.
On the other hand, someone I spoke to from Hong Kong — a well-traveled person who has actually lived in the US — made really overtly racist remarks about African Americans. Lack of diversity makes it really easy for people to engage in the worst kinds of Othering.
Bani: Meaning that they lived in a part of the States where there weren’t many African-Americans? I hate that excuse (even though I get it). I mean, how much diversity do folks need to not be racist? What’s the quota?
Lisa: Actually, no, and this is what made me furious. She lived in LA.
Lisa: Yeah. And I agree, lack of diversity is not an excuse. It’s a kind of explanation that I do understand, but still. But I think it’s easier to be racist when there’s nothing in your society to challenge that view.
Bani: Reminds me of my family – immigrated to New York in the 60s, moved to Florida in the 90s. Really anti-black. Haven’t changed much.
Lisa: And the myth of colorblindness is so alive and well in this country, it’s no surprise that it’s even stronger in more homogeneous countries. I met an Italian exchange student who said her family’s comment on her studying in the US was, “Don’t come back with a Black boyfriend.” She said they were kind of joking, kind of not.
Bani: I grew up with that ‘advice’. Living in Ecuador, I understand the kind of society that fostered their thinking. Well I don’t ‘understand’ it, I just witness it and can make more sense of it as an adult.
Lisa: Which is another part of that feeling of multiple identification — I feel really comfortable in Asia for many reasons, but there’s a lot of (often latent) racism there that I refuse to identify with.
Bani: This is all leading up to my last question! Travel can force us to reflect on place and belonging – you’re in a new place and trying to find some footing, your community. When have you felt most ‘at home’ in your multiple identities, in your travels?
Lisa: Ooh, that’s an interesting question. I would say there were two separate ways that I felt this.
One was when I was art-making. I don’t want to be glib about this, but there are ways in which art (visual, performance — anything non-verbal) speaks all languages, or perhaps transcends languages. Drawing, painting, and sketching were a kind of “home” for me that I could call up no matter where we were, and that was so comforting. I think many artists understand this feeling of art being both a reflection of ourselves and something separate from ourselves, and when people got my art, I felt like they could see or accept me in a way that was different than connecting on a more personal (meaning, me-the-person) level.
The other was when I got to know other people who were also outliers. I felt like we were able to see and acknowledge the complexity of each other’s multiple identities, and in that sense, finding each other was also finding a “home” or a people. Immigrants and the children of immigrants, racial/ethnic minorities (especially if they were also of mixed racial or cultural heritage), queer people, and also just anyone who felt at odds with the expectations of the dominant culture.
I think a lot of us with multiple identities know the relief of finding such fellow-travelers (pun intended) — there’s a sense of being able to let down some protective walls. And of not having to explain/justify certain things that are integral to our existence.
And on that note – being an outlier also means feeling freedom to critique the mainstream, which could be REALLY comforting in a foreign place.
Lisa: As a traveler I want to be really respectful of the place and culture and people, but sometimes I also want to say “WTF?!” and it felt easier to do that with people who were not fully identified with the majority.
Or I felt I could ask questions about things that confused or bothered me and get a thoughtful, nuanced answer and not just a textbook kind of reply. For instance, I got really cool New Zealand history lessons from new Māori friends, who told me things that I wouldn’t have found in a guidebook or in museums.
Bani: Oh right. I thought you meant you felt comfortable asking other foreigners local questions
Lisa: Yeah, not that.
Bani: The truth always takes some searching, and everyone has a different version of it. In this way, it’s truly rewarding to get ‘off the beaten track’.
Lisa: Yes! And I guess what I’m saying is that I feel like some people stop searching at an earlier point than other people, and I connected more with people who searched more deeply. And that was often because of their multiple identification.
Bani: A healthy distrust in the system can go a long way.
Lisa: And a healthy distrust of single narratives. I think sometimes people just don’t know. Like people in the US not knowing Black history, or the history of Chinese immigrants, etc.
Bani: Yes. But we act like we DO know. And don’t even ‘know’ it, we’re familiar with it, with the dominant narrative. For me, and this is a very generalized statement, but I feel being of color, queer, all these things, prepared me for the discomfort of the ‘unknown’ of travel. It doesn’t really scare the shit out of me. I’m used to and somewhat comfortable with being the Other. I know that I’m the one that’s foreign, not the place.
Lisa: Hmm, I think it might have been the opposite for me — I think I was a little more afraid of travel because I thought I might stick out too much in some places. But I’ve come to more of that feeling you describe, of feeling paradoxically comfortable in lots of places/communities because I’m so often an outlier anywhere.
Bani: It wasn’t immediate, it took some evolving. I’m just used to sticking out. Everywhere.
Lisa: I think this is so interesting, because, circling back to what we were talking about at the beginning of this convo, when travelers who aren’t as marginal/multiply-identified go around the world acting so entitled, not to excuse that behavior, but I think that’s their way of coping with the unfamiliar — instead of feeling “foreign” everywhere they just act like they own everyplace. ;b
Bani: Very true. They’re trying to balance out the power (even though it’s inherently imbalanced!)
Lisa: These are two really, really different styles of traveling and of just being, in general. I’d be interested in hearing more about this evolution of yourself as a traveler.
Bani: I’m writing a book about it! Thanks again for chatting with me tonight, Lisa.
Lisa: Thank you! I really appreciate these dialogues you’re creating and like I said in my earlier email, I so wish all this had been on my radar when we first started traveling.
Bani: I’m def no pioneer – there are lots of resources (poc travel blogs/critical thoughts on travel, neocolonialism, etc.) that I can direct you to.
Lisa: Well, I think in a way we’re all pioneers just for not staying quiet.