Allowing Many Forms

While co-writing and co-teaching DMU’s first Foundations of Design Justice course, the two of us began an ongoing conversation about our positionalities as Asian bodies working in racial justice spaces, where dominant power structures often render us invisible or irrelevant. Here, we call on our design colleagues of Asian diasporas to join us in imagining new directions and orientations for co-creating liberatory diaspora spaces outside of what we’ve been told exists.

For centuries, Asians have been dispersed from our ancestral lands through imperialism, colonialism, war, indentured labor, immigration, and globalization. Across British settler colonial states—the so-called U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—our refugee and immigrant communities inhabit and shape cultural centers and landscapes that are predicated on Indigenous dispossession and deeply intertwined with Black, Brown, and multiethnic Asian communities. As Taiwanese and Chinese diasporic practitioners in the U.S., we orient ourselves from our own diasporas’ entangled spatial histories, in which waves of migrations to the Americas were, in one century, imported and weaponized by British and American imperialists against Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty, and in another, enabled and empowered by Black-led civil rights and Global South solidarities. It is within this context that we are interested in imagining Asian diaspora architectures that center our own visions of collectivity, plurality, and cross-racial solidarities. Here is how we might begin:

We invite our colleagues to see our identities beyond the Black-white binary and honor our experiences through transcultural, decolonial, and anti-imperialist frameworks in service of liberating spaces for all marginalized communities. The label “Asian” flattens a range of identities, including Southeast Asian, South Asian, Central Asian, Southwest Asian, and East Asian, as well as immigrant, refugee, adoptee, and multiracial. How do we further break down the monolith of a so-called “Asian American” experience and actively construct expansive claims to Asianness? What have we lost and what have we gained through diaspora and displacement? How do we individually and collectively understand, occupy, and otherwise transform space as Asian bodies?

We challenge our colleagues to dream about collective diaspora futures that are free from caricatures, fetishes, and the harmful myths that have shaped dominant narratives about Asians in the U.S. What new imaginaries must be constructed to reflect our entangled pasts, presents, and futures with each other and all racialized peoples? How do we build new lived ideas of home, belonging, and safety as diasporic, displaced, and dislocated communities, “perpetually foreign” in the places we live? Can a space, an architecture, or a landscape be Asian diasporic? In doing this work, we honor first-generation Asian diasporic experiences while acknowledging that emergent ones exist and evolve beyond them, and thus our architectural practice, history, and preservation must be expansive across generations.

We offer permission to ourselves and our colleagues to acknowledge, embody, and share contradictory feelings of both joy and melancholy as acts of resistance. While our experiences of silencing and shame may stem from different roots—both within our ancestral cultures and in our survival in the West—we recognize that many within our diasporas are not allowed space for emotional breadth and depth. It is through cultivating this spaciousness that we can transform our spatial practices.

Imagining ourselves and our environments outside of what we have been told is a challenging, complex, and ongoing process. We may not be fully ready to make and take space that is truly liberated from internalized racism, cultural assimilation, and the white gaze. As Asians in this country, we have been disappeared or othered through how others perceive us to be rather than how we perceive ourselves. This makes it all the more empowering and exciting to start conversations, take control of our own narratives, and explore infinite opportunities to experiment and co-create affirming, liberatory spaces for ourselves and our diaspora communities.

Please join us in conversation at Storytelling Spaces of Solidarity in the Asian Diaspora, an initiative that engages Asian diasporic designers in learning, building, and practicing intra- and inter-community solidarity through storytelling, memory work, and knowledge sharing:

Reviewed by Theresa Hyuna Hwang.

This article first appeared in the October 2023 issue of ARCHITECT, which was guest edited and designed by Dark Matter U.