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Shaun Lau

Small Media and the Possibilities of Conversation

Sept 16, 2017 at 4pm


Content warning discussion of xenophobic violence and death

SHAUN: Hi! Hi! Wait. Can I say hi? Can everybody... As much as possible... If you could say hi to me, because I'm super, super nervous, and I just want to feel like I know everybody...




SHAUN:Thank you so much. Thank you. I didn't want to know you that much. That's okay. So this talk... I want to watch this [captioning screen] too, actually. My talk is called... It's called... Small Media and the Possibilities of Conversation. Is that right? Do I look weird holding the mic like this? I feel like it's more... Powerful to do this kind of... Am I screwing you up? Because there's no sentence structure to what I'm saying? How about you? The closed captioner, is that person in the building right now?

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: No, I'm in New York City. Hi!

SHAUN: Mirabai! Hi!

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Hi!

SHAUN: Yeah, round of applause. Please.

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Y'all rule.

SHAUN: So, again, the talk is about conversations. So... Stop paying attention to the closed captioner. Like, I'm here! I'm right here!

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Listen to the man. He's right. Please ignore the captioner behind the curtain.


SHAUN: So this is actually what I was kind of hoping... Would happen... Um... This talk is about conversation. This is basically a digital ouija board at this point. Mirabai, am I pronouncing it correctly?

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Yup.

SHAUN: Should I wait for you to go back to digital ouija board, because... It was a typo? I don't want to point out your mistakes. So you said New York City, is that right?

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Yup! Washington Heights.

SHAUN:So we're waiting for her and then she types. Oh, cool! Where is that, exactly?

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Top of Manhattan. Right below Inwood.

SHAUN: I don't know anything about... If I read... I'm sorry. I almost just read your text. Silently. Does that mean you have to retype it?

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Yup.

SHAUN: Can I also ask you maybe... Um... Are there any words that you don't like? Not typing, but just... Words that you don't like. A lot of people don't like "moist" as a word.

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Huh. I don't know. Mean ones?

SHAUN: Okay. I'll try not to say... What does "mean" mean to you? That would be my next question, I guess.

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Uh... I don't know... Maybe ask a marginalized person at the conference?

SHAUN: Do you feel nervous even though people can't look at me you? Wait. You put “me”, because you were referring to you.

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Yes, I'm nervous! All right? Yeah!

SHAUN: Is this screwing with your head?

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Dude. Go back to your talk, man.

SHAUN:Like, if I say I'm nervous, you're thinking about... Shaun! Wait a minute! Hold on!

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: You made me type in Greek. ⱭƄƇƋƐ Just... Dude. All flustered now.


SHAUN:I deserve all of this. Thank you. Mirabai, you are amazing. Please accept this applause that you're about to get.

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: :'p~

SHAUN: Hi, everybody. Um... I guess I'm talking with that one person. I would love to do that with every single one of you. I don't have a plan. I don't know if that was apparent by the fact that I was talking to... Suspenseful pause. Mirabai. Um... I really am just gonna do this for the entire... What time is it? Okay. We've already used a lot of it. Um... Okay. Uh, uh, uh, uh... So... I was thinking a little bit about why I'm here, which is... This stage, this city... Talking as if I have kind of something to say that's going to be valuable and moist. I think. Sorry. Sorry. Okay. I'll stop that. I'll stop that. I'm nervous because I'm on stage. I'm hardly ever on stage. I sit behind a microphone and do a podcast occasionally. I sit behind a Twitter avatar and... I don't know. Destroy people? Is that... Is that too arrogant, maybe? It depends who they are. And so, yeah. I don't really know. But I'm also pretty nervous because of Portland. Like, who lives here? Who lives in Portland? Okay. I see some hands of color. That's not really been my experience, especially coming for the first time to downtown Portland for the first time yesterday. There's a lot of white people here. I feel like this might be the most diverse room in all of Portland right now.

AUDIENCE: (various noises of affirmation)

SHAUN: Okay. Okay. So we have an audience member... We have confirmation. That scares me. I know we have woke white people here, so hopefully it's not hurting your feelings. But that really fucking scares me a lot. And Mirabai, I'm sorry. If you don't like the cursing, but I think it's appropriate.

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Fucking love cursing.

SHAUN: Because I'm terrified... Can you say that again? I actually didn't catch it.

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: I. Fucking. Love. Cursing.

SHAUN: Oh, good, oh, good. All right. Okay. I'm an Asian-American. In 1871, in Los Angeles, actually kind of near where I live right now, I live in Koreatown, in Los Angeles. Which, by the way—there are days where I don't see a single white person. Like, I walk around on the street. I go to the grocery store. I walk a lot in Koreatown. And there are days where every single person that I see is a person of color. That might be another reason why it's a little different for me right now. But... Anyway, to get back to... Was it 1871, I want to say? Something happened in Los Angeles. 15 to 20 Chinese immigrants were mobbed by 500 white men. Tortured. Hanged. Killed, I believe, in other ways. 500 people, I think, is a lot. I think if you had 500 people in this room, there would be a lot of standing shoulder to shoulder. The room would be packed. I try not to, but I think about...what that feels like. That mass of people. It's not individual people anymore. It's kind of a living anger or hatred. And it's all pointed at you. I think about being one of the 15 to 20. It's not like they died quickly. They were tortured. And it's not like there was any justice to this either, because they were... They thought that a Chinese person had done something. I don't think we know at this point if they actually killed the person who was responsible. But that wasn't the point, right? The point was for 500 angry white men to... Do what they probably felt was their God-given right to cleanse this neighborhood of Chinese people. So I'm terrified in that way too. I don't expect the white people in this room to rise up and do anything like that. But it's something that... No matter how hard I try, no matter how many white people I'm close to in my life, it's just something that I can't... Seem to stop from going over and over in my head. And that's no way to live.

SHAUN: So what I try to do is have conversations. We had a conversation earlier. With Mirabai. I talk to white people. I talk to people of color. And it feels like every question that I'm asking and every answer that they're giving has to do with something like that. It has to do with me thinking about... Not just fear, but terror. Abject terror. Not just discrimination, but invisibility. And not... Not being known, but notoriety. Hypervisibility. And sometimes I don't feel like the conversations have really taken me closer to understanding. Because I'm not sure at a certain level that there is kind of understanding involved here. Racism isn't something that's logical, right? It's one of the reasons why you can't defeat it with logic.

SHAUN: Give me one second. I'm sort of forgetting where I am. I want to talk about some of the specific conversations that I've had. There was a conversation where my wife at the time, Erin, was listening to me and my friend Brian talk. And we get really weird when we talk. And she finds it funny. And sometimes I find it funny. Sometimes Brian finds it funny. And so she suggested that we start a podcast, and I was like, "That's not a good idea. Nobody is going to want to listen to either of us talk." Most—Brian is a lot more boring than I am. So...especially him. Brian is probably never gonna watch this video too, so it's like, "I'm gonna get away with this!" There was the first conversation we had, which I believe was in 2013. We talked about the movie Inception. And the reason we talked about it was because I really, really hate that movie. And a lot of people don't agree with me. And so the idea was to kind of throw me to the wolves.


SHAUN: I’m sorry. Did I hear something? Do we have fellow Inception haters? Okay. We've got some hands raised. Okay. And I am not feeling great about the crowd of 500 not coming after me. So... That counts as gallows humor, right? That I'm gonna get mobbed and hanged as a result of not liking a movie? So we don't like gallows humor here? Or are you waiting for a better punchline? Because that's not gonna happen. I didn't release the episodes for months. Because I was really afraid that someone was gonna say that we were not good. And I was like... I have no self-esteem! I have no belief in myself. I will just jump out the window if someone says, "Eh, this was okay." Like, that level of not like it felt like it would kill me. So when I finally did release the episodes, what happened was somebody wrote... Like, a 10-paragraph iTunes review that wasn't like, "Eh, I don't like it." It was... I believe the first sentence is: "This podcast is unlistenable, and it's all because of Shaun."



SHAUN: I love you, Keah. We're gonna get that in writing. No, I love you Keah.

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: Oops.

SHAUN: So the inaudible part was... “That person is trash!” So we get that on the record. I want that on the record. There we go. Yeah. It was a really long review and it basically confirmed all the worst fears that I had about myself, which is that I'm arrogant, despite not knowing anything. I am long-winded, despite having nothing to say. One of the things I remember is that... Like, I say he. It was a very masculine-toned review. This person said that I go down to the local independent theater and bore the hell out of all the ushers, trying to pretend how knowledgeable I am about quote-unquote "canon". Which is a weird thing. Anyway... It hurt for about 48 hours. And I was like, "I'm not ever gonna do this again. I'm not gonna talk in front of people." I feel like I'm really lucky, because that was the last time that I ever felt that way. People have said much worse things to me since then.

SHAUN: I have a tweet about free speech and white supremacy, and one of my favorite responses is: “I wish your ancestors had died in Manzanar.” Which is, for those that don't know, that's a notorious Japanese internment camp. It's just lucky for that person that I actually am part Japanese. Because even if I was full Chinese or Korean or something, they probably would have made the same joke. So they were accidentally accurately racist. But that didn't bother me that much. And I think a lot... One of the things I want to talk about is: Why... Why... Like, who am I? Why did I become this person who couldn't handle certain things, but now I can kind of handle all that stuff? So did we actually... Did we get the papers passed out?

[Affect staff nods in confirmation and gives thumbs up]

SHAUN: Okay. Perfect. As I think about this next part, I just want to explain the pieces of paper. I would like for everybody who wants to and is able to write a question on the piece of paper. It can be a question that you don't know the answer to. It can be a question that you do know the answer to. It can be a question that you don't really care much about the subject. It can be a question that you're extremely passionate about. I just want you to write that down and we'll figure out what to do with that a little bit later. No additional context. And you don't have to. I mean, if it's stressful, then please don't. While we're doing this, I'm just gonna kind of run down other important conversations.

SHAUN: So we had this conversation to start a podcast. I was resistant. We had a conversation about Inception. We recorded it. In a way, the iTunes review was a conversation. I mean, it certainly sounded like my mom's voice was in my head, saying a lot of the things that she said while I was growing up. Hi, mom. I haven't spoken to you in... Seven years? And you know why. Like I said, that was in 2013. In 2015, I had a conversation with my then-wife, Erin, about quitting my job, because I was doing marketing, at a biotech company, and I didn't like it. I had gotten a lot more into issues of social change on Twitter. Which is where I was promoting my podcast. I was just basically like, "Here's my podcast! It's a really unique thing. I'm gonna tweet about my podcast on Twitter and get people to listen to it!" You probably have never seen anybody ever tweet that before, right? Right? No one's... Who has podcasts in here? If you host a podcast, that's actually kind of surprising. We have... It looks like two. I thought everybody had a podcast. But I guess I'm wrong. So I quit my day job. Later we had another conversation. My then-wife and I. And the conversation was more like, "Hey! You're not paying bills by being on Twitter. And so... You want to start doing that? No? Okay. Let's get divorced." And that was December of last year. The conversations... They're not always positive, right? The ones that kind of bring the most change. Or the best change.

[Shaun glances at notes on phone]

SHAUN: I’m gonna skip a lot of this. Because it's very self-indulgent. Unlike the rest of my talk so far.

[Affect staff hands Shaun the stack of questions]

SHAUN: Oh, great. Thank you so much. All right. Um... So... There are important conversations, I think, that started on Oscars Night of... Was it... It was 2016. 2016 Oscars. By this time I had actually admitted to my podcast listeners that I'm Asian-American. Because I can hide behind this non-accented voice. Many people called me white, just on the basis of hearing my voice. And it was always uncomfortable. But it took a couple of years to actually kind of come out and say that I'm Asian. There are a lot of reasons for that. That's a whole separate talk. But I was stanning Asian-Americans, because I was kind of identifying as one for the first time.

SHAUN: The thing that happened on Oscars Night, 2016, was... The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag had been trending. Everybody remember this, broadly? So that hashtag was created by April Reign. Pretend that I said that properly first. That's cool. Okay. Thank you. So... The thing that happened on Oscars Night last year was that... Some prominent Asian-Americans kind of went after the hashtag, which was like going after the movement, which was like going after the creator, April Reign. And saying... Why does Oscars So White not include anybody besides Black people? If you had seen April on CNN talking, she was making it very clear that not only did it include people of all races, but it included queer people, disabled people... She's talking about inclusion for everybody. And it was very clear that these very prominent Asian-Americans with large followings on Twitter didn't know anything about it, and the easiest thing to do was to criticize what end up being a Black woman. So that was a conversation I wasn't involved in necessarily. I was looking at it from the outside. There was a hashtag in response called #notyourmule, by Mikki Kendall. And she talked about the historical context of specifically Black women doing labor for other marginalized groups. I didn't know any of that stuff. I learned a lot. So as a result of that, I took a look at my podcast. And I said... How many times am I including people of other marginalized groups? And it turns out... That I had done 106 episodes, and I had never had a Black woman on my podcast. So I wondered what all of that meant about... You know, about me, about the culture, broadly, of the United States. Culture of the world. So the 107th episode, I had my friend Shannon Miller, who is part of the Nerds of Prey podcast. Anybody heard of that? Applause, please? Even if it's only a little. This is gonna make them so happy. Can we pretend like we've all heard of it, and just do a huge round of applause? Nerds of Prey!


SHAUN: They're amazing. Please subscribe to them. Wait. Wait. Did you for real say “fake applause”? The thing is... The hands went together. Like, the physical action was for real. Who are you to judge the intent behind the hands of all these people? No, that's an actual question.

MIRABAI [via live captioning screen]: I'm just the captioner, man.

SHAUN: I don't know how to get back to the serious things I'm saying. Okay. So I learned the term misogynoir. I learned all that stuff. We were ignorant. We learned things we wanted to talk about so we could have better conversations. Conversations are the lifeblood of all of that. So I'm consciously thinking about all of that. About who I want to have on my podcast, who I want to talk to, and not about who other people want to hear. Not about kind of... Picking the same white male celebrities that seem to go around every podcast. The hardest thing I ever did was... A series on my podcast called 49 Voices. And it... Starting the day after the Pulse Massacre, I decided I wanted to talk to 49 members of the LGBTQI+ community. Because I think a lot of us... A lot of us straight people... Feel like we're kind of automatically allies, because we're not doing any harm. But I didn't know anything. Like, the more I thought about all this stuff, I didn't know anything. And it was hard. Here's this straight ally, making it about himself. It was heartbreaking. I actually, earlier today, before I came in today, I was hanging out with two queer enbys, who I met through that project. I met them for the first time. And... It's amazing. Like, they were talking about how it still kind of impacts their lives, nowadays. And I feel like... It's almost disingenuous to accept that praise, because I feel like it did way more for me, than it did for anyone else.

SHAUN: So I'm here today, because... I got an email from Elea, and we had a conversation. Conversation brought me here. And I think... I hope, by all kind of the rambling that I've done... Like, I want to make it clear that... I didn't ever... I didn't ever plan to be a professional anything. Like, I kind of just did what I wanted to do. And it led places. So the conversations that started, and the conversations that continued... That I kind of never planned for... Are the ones that have taken me a lot of places, including here on this stage, in this very white city. So these... These questions... Oh! Can I actually have someone to help me with these? So what I would like to do is... We're gonna randomly redistribute these back. To everybody in the audience. So technically you're now in a conversation with someone that you don't know. Unless you get your own back. In which case... That's fine. We do need to have conversations with ourselves, once in a while. So... I'm gonna wrap this up. There have been so many amazing talks. Like, I feel really honored, but also self-conscious, about kind of wrapping it up. Can we give a huge hand for everybody who spoke?


SHAUN: And then I think we're gonna have closing announcements, so I don't want to steal any thunder there. But I think... I hope this question thing works. I hope it's, like, enlightening in some way. Okay. Wrapping up... Conversations need to happen. And I think the most important thing that I want to impart to everyone, and a lot of you already know this—so if that's the case, then just kind of take this as validation that you're absolutely right—but what I want you to know is that you are ready right now for these conversations. For any important conversation that you want to have. You are ready right now. To have the conversations, to facilitate them. Whatever you have to say, whatever you're curious about, whatever you feel enough distance from to talk about—or proximity to. To talk about. You can have these really raw, real conversations, if you want to. With people you trust and feel safe with. You already have the open mind that's necessary. You already have the willing heart that's necessary. You wouldn't be here if you didn't. Right? So... It's okay—again, possibly just validation, but it's okay to get out there and talk. To get out there and listen. To make mistakes. Probably a lot of mistakes. And as long as you learn from them, that's fine. Because I think our entire lives... I don't know why I keep looking here [at my phone]. I'm just going completely off the script.

SHAUN: Our entire lives are... It seems like it's preparation for another stage. Right? We have preschool before school. We have intermediate school before high school. We have high school. On the first day, you arrive and they're like, "What college are you going to?" You go to college and...what you're gonna study for the entire time there is determined by the job that you're supposed to be looking forward to getting. The job gets you a salary. Hopefully that's preparing you for the American Dream nuclear family with the kids and the owning the property... The retirement money that you get is preparing you to participate in a death ritual, with an expensive coffin. Everything is all preparation. So where in there do we get to use the truths that we know? Not the ones that we're told. But the ones that we know, just because we know them. Right? Just because we feel them emotionally. I don't know. I think it's very, very intentional that they don't leave us that space. Right? That they don't leave us that time. But I think... And this is something that's taken me a long, long time to accept... All that means is that by... All it means is that, by definition, the time is always now. Right?

SHAUN: So let's talk. Thank you.

Shaun Lau

Indoor photo of Shaun Lau concentrating on taking a selfie with his phone

Shaun hosts the film and social issues podcast No, Totally! and writes about Asian-American representation in media and entertainment. He's been interviewed on issues of linguistics, representation, and race for publications including The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, Splinter, USA Today, The New Statesman, and The Village Voice. Cosmopolitan once erroneously claimed that he got into a Twitter fight with John Mayer.