Each individual featured on the #IAm cover, aimed to challenge perceptions of themselves and highlight something that makes them unique. Farai Engelbrecht, Rhain Jenkins, Zoya Pon and Ian Muller were each given the creative freedom to conceptualize and express their topic. This was to make space for genuine expression, and in turn created an authentic outcome that is both honest, vulnerable and impactful. The cover images were shot by Frantz Birkholtz with clothing by local designers: OH OK, Artclub and Friends and Koeksuster Intimates.
ZOYA PON (@THATASIANGIRLZA)
I was teased in high school a lot for being Asian.
I was always ‘that Asian girl’. Eventually I made it my Instagram handle- I owned it. I’m not the only Asian girl, but I’m not ashamed of being biracial, I’m not ashamed to be Asian- but I really was made to feel odd because of it, growing up.
Racism has been a consistent theme in my life.
But the worst part is that it has never been taken seriously- even by myself. I failed to validate it, until recently even though it had obvious affects on me, and those around me. I can’t tell you why it is this way, but whenever I have spoken about the daily harassment, fetishization and catcalls I receive in public, when out on the street, at a bar or having coffee with friends… Whenever I have called it racism, there is a certain tension. As if racism can only be black and white.
If I had been born a few months earlier I would have been illegal under Apartheid law.
My parents were harassed constantly throughout their relationship, with police raiding their apartment, my mother being called names and my father receiving racial slurs whenever they were together.
While filming for a series with a vastly Asian cast…
The lead told me that she’d been speaking to some of the extras about Apartheid and how it had affected them, and that some of them had cried when recounting stories- and it just broke my heart. Because their stories are not taken seriously.
My experience is unique because I can see it from both sides.
It’s given me a lot of empathy, but it also means I have never really felt ‘enough’ to belong to either. I read an article on the biracial identity and the issues that come with it and one point that stood out for me was that biracial people get to choose. Our identity is our own. That was powerful for me, because my whole life, and even every other day, I am told what I am by strangers.
The idea of me identifying as white has inspired many really strong reactions.
There’s this idea that ‘whiteness is rightness’. Once Caucasian mixes with anything else that person is either biracial/mixed race/or the other race- NEVER white. I saw it when I began ticking ‘white’ on forms in peoples’ reactions, so I switched over to ‘other’.
Identifying as white is not to mean that I idolize whiteness-
Or think I am ‘pure race’. I grew up with my white mother, with her white family, I was born in South Africa and raised in Cape Town, my ID says I am white, I’ve never been to Asia, I don’t speak Mandarin… Not that I have to explain that at all, to be honest. I’ve been told that I am not South African OR that I am only Asian, and I can’t be white at all, except when the circumstance suits.
Fetishization of Asian women is off the charts.
I can’t wear certain things, even if they are in fashion, because they are automatically sexual. Hell, even wearing my specs encourages porn-inspired comparisons. This is past having to worry about what I wear everyday as a woman in general in public.
I am more than an idea.
Or a stereotype, I am a person, and your attraction to me should be based on more than an aesthetic.
Instead of distancing myself from my heritage, I’ve found myself embracing it.
Being biracial has afforded me many opportunities with regards to modelling and acting- it’s what makes me stand out. I’m not ashamed of it anymore, and I don’t shy away from kawaii or cute things like I did before. I love Hello Kitty, and it’s not because I’m Asian. My boyfriend isn’t only dating me because he has ‘yellow fever’ or because of my ‘Asian persuasion’.
I think that we need to speak about this more-
We can’t continue putting it down to ignorance, or saying ‘it’s because they don’t know better’. Asian people, people in general, need to realize that it matters, because it’s not just offensive to shout ‘Ni Hau’ across the street at a complete stranger- to single them out and ridicule them- it’s hurtful and harmful to self-esteem and emotionally damaging. So please don’t say ‘konichiwa’ to me, if you do not speak Japanese, and least of all, because I am not.
Words: Zoya Pon
Images: Frantz Birkholtz