Bamboo Singers

When I first heard of Jook Songs, I thought it was some kind of Korean a cappella.

That wouldn’t have been unusual at a place like Yale, where a Bible Belt girl with decidedly western sensibilities and a shameful history as a Chinese school dropout could do the postcolonialist thing— try to rediscover her erstwhile heritage by roaming the right aisle of the extracurriculars fair. Wanting to bring my abjectly colonized life in line with my yellow skin and dynastic surname, I tried to out-Asian the good Asians— the ones who hailed from Canto-speaking boroughs of San Francisco or the city, folded shapely dumplings and listened to Wang Leehom. It was all tongue-in-cheek, kind of. I embraced the brazenness of cliché.

I told my friends I was performing the Asian ethnicity, like at a Phoenix show— that it felt exactly donning a Uyghur gown, twirling to rousing music from the Gobi. It was fun. But Jook Songs was different.

This writing-workshop-cum-performance-group began as something aggressively Asian, but it soon outgrew its loud and politicized “Yell-oh!” origins. In its modern incarnation, Jook Songs is hard to explain. Depending on who I’m talking to, I’ll describe it as “Asians who write dramatic monologues together”, or “like performance poetry, except prose and autobiographical”, or my favorite— “a cross between group therapy and a Protestant revival meeting”. But the truest encapsulation might be this— Jook Songs is a group of people who expect an honest answer to the question, “How are you?”

In any case, trying to do it any justice is as much of a mouthful as pronouncing those two jagged syllables, an epithet meaning “hollow bamboo”. As initiates heading into our first show season— a nerve-wracking process that felt a little like entering a priesthood— we were given the basic etymological spiel. “Jook songs” is the term that old Cantonese immigrants tossed at their Americanized children, in frustration or contempt— authentic on the outside but empty inside. And our narrative was one of reclamation. We take that hollow, fill it with our voices.

But Jook Songs has largely transcended those cultural boundaries. Little of what goes on in the Saybrook Athenaeum Room, where we hold workshop on Mondays, has to do with writing about the hyphen— that isthmus of contested territory between two continents in “Asian-American”. Instead, JSers are trained to think deeply about their own lives, to be sensitive to its directions and details without artificially imposing pat narrative on the undifferentiated minutes. The writing that results is meant to be unvarnished honesty. When it’s not, we call each other out.

Everything about Jook Songs was novel to me. It’s an exercise in authenticity, when I’m used to cloaking myself in performative gestures. It’s a chance to hang out with other Yale Asians, in a structured setting, without consciously meditating on our shared Asianness somehow. And it’s a series of literary encounters of a sort I’d never had before— writing as communal activity instead of exorcism, a reminder that the act of stringing words together could be more than just one man with a candle against the dark.

In the end, the wordsmithing itself is unimportant; the project of Jook Songs is less about art than truth. I’ve seen my fellow JSers write their way to epiphany at the end of a paragraph, felt the click of “Eureka!” as inspiration slides into place.

With truth comes trust. In workshop, anything you say can be held up to the light and questioned. But this halo of unceasing scrutiny somehow hallows the space, makes it safe.

JSers are the only Yalies who have ever seen me cry. It happened last November for the first time in a year, during the tech week before I performed my first piece. Those were seven brutal days of rehearsal, critique, and unflinching self-reflection. I skipped class, slept in street clothes, and rarely overlapped with my suitemates in the waking world; I tried to pound out a paper in the chaos of the Calhoun Cabaret. But in the end, there was no regret, just elation followed by a vaguely postpartum sense of hollowness. I could no longer remember a world before the show had taken place.

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