Culture, family and identity were resonant themes that repeated throughout the Brandeis Asian American Student Association’s (BAASA) Asian Pacific American Heritage Month opener. The event, called “Dare to Dream,” provided a space where identity could be celebrated and experiences shared by a supportive community.
The show began and ended with soulful solo musical performances. Both Eli Kengmana ’19 and Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner played deeply personal songs onstage and shared their stories.
Kengmana, alone on stage with his guitar and a microphone, spoke first about struggling with mental illness and tensions with his father revolving around that. At times, he said, it seemed like he didn’t understand what his son was going through—or didn’t care. “In the Asian American community there’s a lot of stigma around mental health, particularly depression and anxiety,” Kengmana said.
He played two original compositions, the second leading into a cover of multi-instrumentalist Yvette Young. Kengmana played the guitar with incredible finesse—seemingly able to pack in the sounds of multiple instruments into one. The songs were haunting. You could feel the struggle he’d described through the music; hope, too. It was very moving.
Max Tang ’19, president of the Asian American Task Force, was next with a spoken word performance. She recounted having a conversation with her father about his experiences as an immigrant in the United States. “I’ve been in this country for a long time,” he told her, “But I still feel like an outsider.”
Tang then told the audience about three groundbreaking Asian Americans: Bhagat Singh Thind, Yuji Ichioka and Yuri Kochiyama. Thind was a World War I veteran from Punjab, who was denied citizenship because he wasn’t white. It took over two decades of appeals and attempts, but in 1936, he was finally given citizenship. “America belongs to him,” Tang said.
She told the stories of Yuji Ichioka, a Japanese American interned in Utah during World War II, who pioneered Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley, and coined the term “Asian American,” and of Yuri Kochiyama, also placed in an internment camp in World War II, who went on to become an outspoken political activist. Kochiyama famously appears in a photo of Malcolm X, right after he was shot, cradling his head. “America belongs to them,” Tang said.
After impressive dance numbers by Revelasian, a traditional Chinese dance group, and Rice Paddy Heroes, a self-described “group of failed singers trying to dance,” Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast went on to close out the event.
Zauner’s first album as Japanese Breakfast was written right after her mother, who was Korean, died of cancer. She talked about losing that connection and how her music has been a form of grappling with that. “A lot of my music has tackled reconnecting with my culture.” she said.
“It’s a bit emotional for me as a half-Asian woman to see young people embrace their culture,” Zauner said. “It’s so moving to see you all doing that now.”
In a stripped-down solo set, Zauner played songs from her 2017 sophomore album, “Soft Sounds From Another Planet.” Without a backing band, it was immediately obvious how incredible Zauner’s voice is, distinct and striking with considerable range.
Before finishing her set, Zauner told the audience to “work really hard and tell your stories as honestly as possible. When you’re faced with rejection, just keep going and something will come of it, I promise.” She capped things off with a surprisingly great cover of Cher’s “Believe” and a rousing performance of her own “Machinist.”
“Dare to Dream” celebrated culture and wasn’t afraid to discuss tensions with identity and heritage, both within the Asian American community and outside of it. There were recurring stories regarding struggling with one’s identity in a country that hasn’t traditionally made a place for you, a forced American transience, as Max Tang’s father mentioned. But in acknowledging and, in a way, celebrating the struggles, there was a powerful feeling of optimism and excitement. It was a fun, moving, poignant event that showcased a strong culture and community on campus.