How Comedian Kristina Wong Went Viral, Then Took Her Art And Activism Offline
The metaphorical armchair is a comfy place — the temperature is controlled, snacks are readily available and the Internet speed is high. Best of all, it is the easiest place to comfortably critique society in the digital age.
Los Angeles-based performance artist and comedian Kristina Wong is all too familiar with that abstract cushy seat. After years of making live theater, the armchair is where she, like many before her, went viral. At the beginning of her new one-woman show, “Wong Street Journal,” she explains this pivotal moment with a simple bar graph.
Two years ago, Wong recounts, she had finished touring two consecutive one-woman shows. “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” was her take on the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian-American women, followed by “Cat Lady,” a play about the loneliness she experienced touring “Cuckoos Nest” and the larger, tragic subculture of of pick-up artists. One squat bar on her graph (made of felt, like most of her personally handsewn set) represents the response she received from those shows, while another bar towers in comparison. The latter represents the high number of likes, followers and shares she received as the result of an xoJane essay she wrote in 2013, titled “9 Wack Things White Guys Say to Deny their Asian Fetish.”
Wong lovingly strokes the tall bar in a happy-ending fashion, contemplating the beginning of her tumultuous relationship with social media. After publishing the article, Wong went after any commenters she came across who were racist, misogynist or generally ignorant on the Internet. Through hashtag campaigns and troll wars, she cemented her role as a self-proclaimed “public shame master.”
As much as the Internet feels infinite, the stream of people reinforcing and maintaining the oppressive status quo can feel just as endless. To demonstrate this in her performances today, Wong enacts a live hashtag war with her audiences, using felt versions of the symbol “formerly known as the pound sign.” In a frenzy, she throws plush, red hashtags into the audience while exclaiming her favorites.
“Hashtag revolution! Hashtag not your stereotype!” Someone throws one back at her — “Thats a retweet!” she says. “I can do this all fucking day!” Wong exclaims.
But in truth, she couldnt.
“I just found myself fighting with people online all day. It was this weird rush, not having to see people face to face, but it also just felt so exhausting,” Wong told The Huffington Post. “Is this going to be my life?”
If Twitter was her battleground, theater was her safe haven. But after touring two emotionally wrought, personal plays for the better part of a decade, Wong was sick of herself. So, three months after publishing her xoJane piece, she decided to get away from the theater, social media and her armchair by volunteering in Uganda.
“I had an existential crisis, which felt like such a privileged thing,” Wong explained to HuffPost. “I was guilty of having an Eat, Pray, Love moment.”
That feeling of privilege and the guilt that followed was pervasive throughout her three weeks in Uganda, working with the organization Vac-net, which empowers women through efforts like microloans. Before her trip, Wong had built a reputation for her online and offline antics focused on race — crashing the Miss Chinatown pageant, seeking reparations from white guys with yellow fever, and co-opting a televised talking-head segment on “Why everyone wants to date Asian babes.” But once she arrived in Uganda, the racial dynamics in her world shifted. One of her initial interactions in Uganda involved someone calling her “mzungu,” a Bantu term for “white.”
“Suddenly, I was the face of oppression,” she explained to The Huffington Post. “It was really weird to go from constantly calling out white people to people having to literally walk around the power I bring to the room.”
During “Wong Street Journal,” she defines white privilege and gives an overview of her (and perhaps most Americans) knowledge of Africa through celebrities, “the dark continent brought to you by white people.” Similarly, she emphasizes that the lingering question that hung over her while in Uganda was, “How do I enter this situation, leave a legacy, and not be a colonial asshole?”
She recounts how, upon learning of her travels, friends and Facebook “friends” (an important distinction) who had never been to Africa told her to “be careful” or praised her for being “so brave.” A projected screenshot on view during her performance shows how one particular Facebook “friend” pestered Wong about how she could help, potentially by sending her clothes to Africa. The “friend” ended one message with, “I have a purse, too.”
While Wong does point out the ignorance of those individuals, she scrutinizes herself most of all. In addition to being self-conscious about her privilege, she analyzes her own urge to document, upload and share all her thoughts on social media.
For example, Wong acts out a relatable moment from Uganda, when she realized that her head had become “24 hours of backlogged tweets.” On stage, she demonstrates her first foray outside of her comfortable hotel, when she met and befriended a group of young male rappers and music producers. In an unexpected and hilarious turn of events, Wong ended up cutting a five-song rap album with them featuring songs about racial privilege and female empowerment, which is still played on Ugandan radio.
Still, Wong’s quest for connection and authenticity isn’t finished. Throughout her performance, she awkwardly and humorously fumbles through her Western privilege but refuses to sit in it, grasping for answers to tough questions.
“Ive found the best way to help [marginalized people] is to find ways to support their self-determination,” Wong concludes. “What actually supports the ability of people who want to speak for themselves?”
At the end of her performance, she finds herself back in her armchair, literally and figuratively, scrolling through messages from her rapper friends, photos with her colleagues at the volunteer organization, and videos of moments in the community that moved her to tears. By getting out from behind her computer, Wong made herself vulnerable to the same criticisms she had lodged at others, in addition to her own shame, discomfort and guilt. But she pushed through those feelings, and with self-awareness and sincerity, she managed to find genuine connection with the people she met, no “liking” or “retweeting” necessary.