Panda on reinvention, drag as a tool of resistance, and learning to be a better friend to herself

rupaul's drag con 2017 aaron jay young
photo by Aaron Jay Young

What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name is Kyle Chu, or Panda Dulce. I am a fourth generation Chinese-American, born and raised in San Francisco, queer person, and drag queen. I use she/her/hers pronouns.

How are you doing?

I’m okay. I’m in an upswing after some ups and downs. 2017 has been a big year — a lot’s happened in the world and in my personal orbit. A friend recently passed who I’ve known from the punk scene since I was young, angry, and becoming. I also made some new friends and began reinventing.

I’m sorry to hear about your losses. What do you mean when you say you’ve been reinventing?

I was heavily involved in direct action and protests since the inauguration. I was very action-oriented, pursuing a lot of creative projects, and working to make my extended family who may have resigned themselves to be politically complacent more cognizant of the issues we’re facing. Given my context, coming out of direct practice social work, I totally burned out on this path. It was holistically consuming. I tried to funnel my energy into drag and looks that would coax action but I ended up self-isolating and retreating because I needed to heal myself, rest, and actually sleep. In the process of doing some high profile work I needed privacy and downtime to recharge.

There’s an expression that says you’ve been building a house your entire life and when you go through your Saturn Return you burn it all down. I just finished my Saturn Return in November. For so long I’ve been on a clear path of activism, social justice, creativity, and have felt intimately connected to the community we’re fortunate to have in the Bay Area. There was a shift that had to something to do with the onslaught of depressing as hell news, the toxicity of social media, and events that happened within our micro-communities in the Bay Area punk scene. A high-profile local scene celebrity was outed as someone who had sexually predated on a lot of women. There was a messy DIY accountability process; people were wheatpasting posters lambasting his character — and others’ in his cadre — all across town. I hated it, I thought it was necessary, and of course, I don’t have a perfect, let alone “better” resolution for this kind of thing. With anything we’re trying to build ourselves, it was new, unfamiliar and more or less Macgyvian.

I saw people get subdued, fall, and steward each others’ trauma in unsustainable ways. Which brought me here. I needed to reinvent myself and the way I process these issues. I’ve withdrawn from a lot of my activism and in its stead, I’ve taken to one-on-one drag mothering queers I meet. Even though drag can also be tiring — editing tracks, hours of makeup, cooking up concepts, looks, and adopting funky side hustles to fund them, it’s reinvigorating to teach someone a craft and watch them learn something new and aesthetically rebirth themselves to reflect their suppressed inner knowings. There’s also something to be said for creating your own makeshift chosen families in that way. I went from trying to impact a huge world that seemed insurmountable to meeting a queer 18-year-old who had experienced a lot of trauma and just wanted to look like a non-terrestrial ball of light.

It sounds like a mutually humanizing experience. Can you speak to the idea of drag as resistance?

I’m reading RuPaul’s autobiography right now just for funzies. One of the things she says is that drag as a queer art form is openly mocking all of the roles that we have internalized and so tightly cling to that we’re unable to see the performance of it anymore. The corners have disappeared. Her whole throughline is “don’t take anything too seriously.” This is not a directive to be problematically carefree, colorblind, and ignore patriarchy. It’s more so to say that drag as a vessel is teaching us to take life more lightly and to laugh in order not to cry. The reason why I enjoy drag is because any fantasy you imagine can be rendered real, palpable, and transmitted through social media. It’s futurist in that sense, like a continual practice of creating boundless “what if” scenarios. Like a lot of art, it’s being able to imagine beyond the scope of your immediate individual work and impact. It’s being able to visualize what you want and bring it to life through crappy CVS products. 

In terms of gender, I have spent a lot of time as a young person feeling very self conscious and having an adversarial relationship with my body, where certain physical aspects and wants have been at stark odds with expectations of me as a partner due to my race and perceived role and stature. I’ve felt that old pain and pull that I must drastically change myself in order to experience love by myself or others/or to participate in a love that is often communicated as solely eros-based, epically Hollywood, traditionally-attractive, able-bodied, hairy, and white. Drag has become a way for that to not be as destructive and as inwardly debilitating as your inner voice can sometimes make it. Drag can become a place to meditate and spend time with yourself. When you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, the sequence of them putting on makeup and getting into face lasts five minutes, but when you’re just starting out, drag actually takes three to four hours to get into face and to get to your look. That’s you looking at a mirror at yourself for hours. It’s me sitting, being present, listening to SZA and spending time with myself, forcing myself to confront the reality of who I am, and convincing yourself that you can be as beautiful, as grotesque, as shocking, as whatever as any vision you commit your brush to. That in and of itself has been healing. It’s learning to find love for yourself again, and putting that on blast.

this world is not my own - i'm just passing through
Photo by Urvi Navgrani

When you’re in that meditative process of looking in the mirror and putting intention and imagination into your craft, what do you think is possible for yourself and for the people who witness you?

There’s the aspect of reinvention where you can put on a look that shifts the narrative, either onstage or just for yourself. I’ve always wanted to be a hot girl. It’s being able to revel in showing people everything you’ve held onto internally that you haven’t felt safe enough to manifest physically. Letting it explode. Drag wants a reaction from people. Everything is big. The earrings and hair are big, you make your eyes and lips bigger, you overdraw everything. It’s like yelling at someone to look at you, the inverse of how invisible I’ve felt for a long time. It’s kind of punk. The act of declaring yourself a wild tropical bird you have to look at is arresting in and of itself. It flips everything I’ve experienced in the gay community so far; it makes me feel powerful and big in a milieu that often makes me feel small, irrelevant, and ignored.

What do you see as your role and work in this political moment in your shift to focusing on intimate, emotional connections and work?

I’ve always been in a nurturing or coaching role. I have a twin brother with a disability and I have been coaching, teaching, and guiding him and others who come in contact with him for my entire life. Working with people with disabilities introduced me to working with people of other marginalized identities in social work. I’m fortunate through my art to have met a lot of young drag queens and punks from similar backgrounds who are coming up. The capacity I feel most comfortable with is bringing people up and trying to help them become their best selves. When people find what it is that invigorates them I like to be someone who can help them magnify that.

I appreciate you naming that as work. Many of us have internalized the emotional labor we and others do for granted, work that is often feminized labor and really crucial for building the world we want to live in. What is the world you want to live in?

You know that Lauryn Hill adage, “how are you gon’ win if you ain’t right within?” You need to start with yourself before you assume anything external. I’m addressing the queer male community in particular when I say this —  everyone is struggling to fit a limiting image — fit, white, masculine, and other valued attributes that causes immense splitting and only actually applies to a small hegemonic portion of the community. It’s suffocating, yet everyone is indoctrinated to want it. So the ones who embody this end up presiding over the rest in what ultimately resembles in-crowd go-go dancers looking down upon the rest of their stratified small town high school cafeteria. It’s kinda bleak. I feel like I’m operating in a parallel dimension where everyone I choose to hang with is compassionate, political, and sensitive to others. Those are the values I personally appreciate, and what I want to see arbitrate my community. We need to reimagine who we champion and what we see as beautiful and ideal. That starts with who we, as individuals, proclaim as ideal partners and community members.

reverse genocide oregon trail pilgim barbie
Reverse Genocide Oregon Trail Pilgim Barbie. Photo by Robin Chu.

Care and compassion are so important but I feel like those concepts get simplified into: love trumps hate, and that’s that. It’s harder to convey the depth and power that comes from true compassion and deeply honoring people’s identities and experiences, and standing together in collective struggle.

The ‘love trumps hate’ idea is very white liberalism. It’s also starkly at odds with how the gay male community is so focused on instant visible gratification. I’m still learning how to have meaningful relationships with gay men that aren’t transactional and based on exclusively sexual exchanges. I’ve worked with younger queer people who are just coming out and coming onto the scene and see my younger self in them so much in a way I hope changes. I see them coming into the club and using substances in a way where they have spent so much time isolated and it took them so much work and grit to get to this moment and what this is. For them to get here to be just as disillusioned with the shallowness of how we’re expected to relate to each other is really harrowing! There’s so many beautiful creative, brilliant young people with potential who I see fall prey to debilitating substances due to self-consciousness and unresolved feelings of belonging based on this physical fluid swap culture.

It’s sounds like you’re working on bringing softness, connection, and humanity to a scene where you haven’t experienced a lot of that. I imagine that takes some courage and grit to not succumb to old demons even though I’m sure intellectually you know that type of culture is bullshit.

It’s isolating. I haven’t done drag for very long. Before then I was in punk and hung out with a very intentional/action-driven crew. Most of my friends are women and queer and trans people who are very vocal of their antipathy towards cis men. I’m trying to unlearn that and relearn openness. It’s a tough pill. Recently I acknowledged that I definitely move through the world like a cis man even though it doesn’t entirely feel that way to me personally. A lot of people I am intimate with are cis men and I want to reconnect in a way where I’m not psychologically distorting and writing them all off as toxic.

One of the reasons I started drag is because it often takes place in the gay male sphere. A lot of the gay men I meet still subscribe to poisonous ideas about anyone who deviates from the standard I mentioned earlier. I am somewhat of a black sheep in vocalizing my opinion to say that’s actually kind of messed up. Trying to assert people’s humanity in this context can be exhausting. The whole point of drag is making fun of all of these roles that we’re firmly attached to- including racial caricatures that make me routinely cringe. I’m coming from this context where everyone is trying to be sensitive to these issues, trying to use the correct pronouns, and trying to not step on people’s toes when it comes to issues of race, etcetera; then in the drag sphere we’re encouraging each other to do Asian caricature for laughs, you know? It’s a very different approach to handle complex issues. It’s been a tough transition for me but I can also see its liberating potential.

I’d like to believe it’s not a binary, that you can have this irreverence and levity without making anyone feel really bad, right? That has to be possible. What do you come up against when you’re pushing drag culture to hold more anti-oppressive values?

I’m a special case because I joined the Rice Rockettes, an all Asian drag family. We have a monthly show and attract a primarily Asian crowd, so it feels like everyone’s in on the joke. That feels different than if I were to go on RuPaul’s Drag Race and perform exaggerated Asianness in line with a lineage of images that have historically drawn hilarity to a presumably majority-white crowd- certainly not mine. Taking the audience into account impacts my approach. It’s like code-switching. My drag sisters welcome irreverence and laugh everything off, which I am still learning to do. When I’m hanging out with my other friends, there’s a lot of reticence around that. You’re right. It’s certainly not a binary. It’s a spectrum where you balance the weight of systems with the levity of living. There’s gonna be tons of ways to approach that in between. It’s something I’m still figuring out, case-by-case.

Yeah of course. There’s also can be so much richness when you can find the strength and resources to bridge the gaps. I know what you mean when you talk about a culture of disposability, and feel like there’s a lot of power in being able to connect with people who might not be on the same page as you, but who see you and your humanity.

Totally. When I say compassion, I’m referring to callout culture as well. I don’t have the perfect solution for addressing harm. But it’s come to a place where our micro-culture resembles a punitive church. If you’re not subscribing to this code of beliefs in this specific way and using this specific language, you are blanket problematic and that is grounds for total alienation. The problem that I have with the way that one accountability process happened is that the maligning of character painted this person as inherently fucked up, whereas we should be focusing on his actions and behavior. In clinical social work, you never focus on the person, you’re focusing on the behaviors so they can understand that the issue is not them as people; rather it’s something that they’re doing. Behaviors are perceived as more dynamic than total beings. Language has a way of pathologizing. Speaking of reinvention, we need to reinvent the ways we approach accountability and the language that we use around how somebody can improve themselves or reduce harm.

carmen miranda homage gabriela hasbun
Carmen Miranda homage. Photo by Gabriela Hasbun.

I really feel you on that. It’s painful to see all our traumas getting acted out on each other. It’s a conversation I’ve had a million times with friends that still leaves me at a loss sometimes. What do you feel are the things in your life that support you in playing the role you’re playing, and what are the things that feel like barriers to making the work sustainable?

I have a constant internal monologue with looping messages. Journaling and having the time to enact them on paper has been really supportive and is critical for revealing the patterns in how you think. There was a period of time in high school that I kept a journal every day. I recently unearthed a couple of them and realized how dude-centric my writing was — I was very concentrated on if this guy likes me which is arguably typical high school behavior, but it made me realize things about my attachment style and how I found value in myself from others. I see the ghost of it in my writing now, and think about how drag can also become an external validation model. It’s important to be aware of it and see when it’s happening so you can interrupt that cycle and be able to ask yourself more assertively what you’d like to see instead.

I’ve spent a lot of time drinking tea and taking baths and being kind of an old lady. I like going on pinterest and letting myself wander the creative playground of drag — just appreciating the craft of others and getting ideas for new looks. It’s humbling to remind yourself of how big the world is, and on the flip, how insignificant you are. I’m trying to find more international queens who bring something different. There’s this one queen in Thailand my sister introduced me to who finds ways to wear household objects and appliances. She’ll put a Dell computer on her shoulder, a keyboard over her crotch, and just type type types clackity clack clack as she walks an imaginary catwalk. Her stuff makes me happy. There’s also makeup prodigy in Hawaii, Bretman Rock, who is a flaming ball of comedic light. Just remembering to connect with comedy and very brightly burning creatures in the world is supportive.

In terms of obstacles, I don’t want to say finances because I feel like that’s such a San Francisco answer, but… finances! I chose a very expensive craft. Sometimes you can keep the tag on an outfit and return it, sometimes you can’t. I picked up a couple side jobs to support it.

I identify as a multipotentialite, which is based on this Ted Talk I saw once. It means I do a lot of different things. I do drag, writing, film, and music. A significant obstacle for me is being able to focus. This is a world of specialists. When you’re little people ask you, what do you want to be when I grow up? Nobody’s gonna say I want to be a freelance journalist, filmmaker, social worker, and a drag queen. I want to accept the fact that some of us just do a lot of things and there’s no one way to be successful or express yourself.

The last interview I did was with this rad activist/healer/organizer/witchy herbalist person who also brought up that Ted Talk, and talked about stepping into their power as someone who does a lot of different things. The pressure to specialize is a capitalistic idea to have one mastered offering for the world that makes you valuable. I think it’s great you’re interested in and engaged with a bunch of different things! Are there other artists and work you consider as inspiration and resource for your own art and craft?

I’m thinking this drag artist who is a total visionary; her name is Hungry. Her looks are like Rorschach ink blots — extremely surreal and imaginative, like a Kabuki wet dream. I think she’s Asian too which is part of what inspires me. It’s good to see my people getting it in the drag world. Her work is just unreal. She makes her nose disappear; she’ll make multiple eyes and elongate them with these sclera contacts that cover the entire eye. She’s been getting a lot of attention and with good reason. She recently collaborated with Bjork’s look on her new album. Andrew Thomas Huang is another artist who imagines looks or scenarios like dark witchy rituals and fantastical alien creatures playing the flute that bring to life a huge, expansive vision of what you can be. They make this amazing, totally unpredictable artwork. And then a lot of local artists and friends like the writer Nia King, Blue Scholars, FKA Twigs, and my friends Claudia Leung and Muriel Leung. Princess Nokia.

You told me a little bit about the world you want to live in and I’ve also heard you talk about the role you’re playing in helping to get us there. Flashing forward to this imagined world in progress, where there is more compassion and community care and an anti-disposability politic, what role would you play there?

Makeup artist (laughs). I see myself teaching and collaborating. Right now I’m working as a counselor at an arts college. I work with young artists to clarify their visions and to get granular about what they want to do in their field or how to build a bridge towards their broader visions. Being able to help people be their best selves really brings me my light. That’s definitely the intersection where I thrive: on creativity and justice and helping people hone their craft in service of their vision.

I would want to work with youth. Youth are amazing. While they can be extremely honest and cruel and playgrounds can be sites of a lot of pain, they also are so excited about the world. I miss that. I used to teach second grade. Kids that age are so impressionable. Everything they absorb has such a big impact and it feels like such important work.

You sometimes do Drag Queen Story Hour, reading to children and infants. What is it like for kids to witness and engage with your drag self?

It’s been amazing. When I was a teacher, there were a lot of homophobic taunts and insults being hurled around on the playground. It was one thing to be able to interrupt that as an adult authority figure. Teachers have differing philosophies about whether or not they should disclose if they are queer or bring queer content into the curricula. There’s significant stigma around queer educators and children. What’s cool about drag queen story hour is not only is it expanding the child’s imagination of what you can be and giving them different types of queer role models, but I also get to blur that line. I don’t have to sidestep an integral part of myself in order to connect, which is is something I felt was expected of me in the classroom. It’s great to be one of my authentic selves and not have to hold anything back. I think it’s important for them to see.

A lot of gay and safe spaces began at the bars, so a lot of the drag world is very nightlife-focused. It’s also cool to be able to not only be able to bring my authentic self into youth spaces, but also be able to engage with straight parents and queer parents and queer kids or any amalgamation of those. That never happens because of stigma and the historical underpinnings of safe gay spaces. It’s cool for me to be able to interact with kids instead of just drunk patrons. It’s so fun! Sometimes babies don’t really know how to compute. Some will look at me with utter delight and joy and others are terrified and screech.

That’s fair, it’s a lot to take in.

Yeah. I’m essentially a cartoon character to them.

Given that it’s January 1st, can you share any hopes or intentions for the coming year?

I hope 2018 is a harbinger of good things. I want to learn how to listen to what my body needs. Sounds basic, but so fundamental. I have a lot of ambitions and goals in very different fields that feel very distant, and in service of all of these goals, I neglect what I need in the current moment. I want to learn how to listen to and be a better friend to my needs — on the granular, get more sleep and drink more water.

You can learn more about Kyle’s work on her website (don’t miss her powerful political writings), and you will be very glad you followed her on Instagram! This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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