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Teenage Superstar

Three Asian American girls walk into a punk club…


springtime last year, i had a conversation that changed my life. it was with my friend, amy, who’s a fierce asian american educator and a person i can always rely on to say the hard truths. we were in the middle of planning an event and i was getting frustrated. so many times during these planning sessions and i guess, just in regular life, i get stressed out when i have to make decisions. i think i’m really scared of not doing things the way that i feel like they have to be done, even when i know they don’t have to be done in any kind of way.

amy interrupted me in the middle of all of this and said: “you should just do what you want.” [record scratch] i was like, hold up — what? do what i want? is that…legal? this was the first time that anyone had told me something like this and i had no idea what to make of it.

and then she kept going: “yeah, you should just dream big and go for it.”

dream big and go for it? isn’t that kind of selfish, i wondered.

well i don’t even know if she remembers this conversation, but i haven’t been able to stop thinking about those words since she said them. i realized afterwards that 1) it’s not selfish to have dreams and 2) there was a pretty glaring contradiction in the way that i was acting and my politics. like, how am i going to fight for a world where people can be free and at the same time be so freaked out by my own freedom?

and now, the more i’m thinking about the kind of world i want to live in, the more i realize that it’s not a world where people do things for their communities out of obligation and guilt. it’s one where all of us who have been told in one way or another, that we are too much, that we are too loud, that we deserve to feel small and stupid — where all of us can dream big and go for it, and revel in these dreams together.

so yeah — this conversation changed my life, and it set me on a path to find stories of people who did precisely this kind of beautiful, liberatory, visionary work. the story i’m about to tell you now is about emily’s sassy lime. they’re a band from the 90s heyday of riot grrl, formed by three asian american teenage girls from southern california, who unbeknownst to their parents, would do things like sneak out of the house to go see bikini kill concerts and play shows at punk clubs. they became pretty well-established in the diy scene, even going on to record two albums.

anyway, here’s one of the members, wendy yao, who was 14 when the band started. now she owns a store in LA called ooga booga, and juliana huxtable follows her on instagram.

W1 9:26 We couldn’t quite get it right for a long time… for most of my childhood. We had a really different family culture or disciplinary culture at home, so socially, we were very very shy. In elementary school every year, everyone’s signatures in our yearbook would be like “speak up!” or “you’re so quiet!” cuz we just like… i think the shyness that my mom felt in being an immigrant and not feeling like her english wasnt good enough translated us to being really shy and pretty nerdy.

W2 10:36 we discovered the world of underground culture and punk and zines and it…was a g ateway to a world where people were finally speaking our language, or a language that we didn’t even know existed but finally put voice to things that we’d been feeling.. articulating these desires, interests, pains, sorrows, especially riot grrl. ]

[music break]

introducing amy: A1 i had always, when i was really young, been into music because i’d always been kind of a spaz and i liked dancing around.

[poppy 80s music]

this is amy yao, wendy’s older sister. she was 15 when the band started, but she’s currently an artist teaching at princeton. she and wendy started getting into punk to get out of the crappy world of their high school.

A2 10:25 it changed when i started learning about punk music and feminism. reading through people’s lyrics i learned you could find power from within, and you didn’t have to fit in, and not fitting in was better.

A3 23:48 a lot of those songs were like “fuck you popular people. screw these popular people, you’re all fucked. white man sucks.” and i remember being like, “yeah! finally! fuck them, i hate them,” because they were torturing me and making me feel bad about myself. that was kind of how i got into it actually.

A4 it was kind of amazing to realize because before i felt that i wasn’t friends with them because it was forced on me, and then suddenly i was able to decide that they sucked. that changed everything in my mind because before that i was the victim, but then i was like no, these people are stupid and following the norm and they sucked.

so with this newfound sense of freedom, wendy and her sister dove deep into the world of punk.

W3 Around 20:00: we’d go there and scrimp on eating lunch and bum a few tater tots off someone else so we could save those three dollars to buy a seven inch after school. that was in 9th grade. At that same shopping center when we were in line to buy frozen yogurt one day [door opening ding], a girl turned around and was like, “i’m short 25 cents, can i borrow 25 cents” and we were like, “sure” and it ended up being emily! that’s when we met her.

[music build-up]

E1 introducing emily: anyone with a clear identity, if you look at music or art, any cultural movement, you have a vocabulary, you have a language to kind of explain it, and i know i did that thru zines, thru pen pals, learning about worlds i didn’t grow up in, and expressing what i believed to be my experience.

this is emily ryan. she was 13 when the band started. she, amy, and wendy became quick friends and decided to form the band pretty much right after that fateful meeting.

E2 32:59 everyone comes with a superpower, and my superpower is i had a rolodex. do you know what a rolodex is? and amy and wendy had their own network of people. and then you come together and you say “we really have something here,” and use that momentum and our personalities, and be like “we have something to say.” and it wasn’t so hard because when bands came to town, we would say we need to meet you, we need to tell you our story.

even after wendy and amy moved out of irvine, they did whatever it took to stay together and play. despite often being the youngest people in the room, together, amy, wendy, and emily were a force.

W4 40:53 – we’d write a lot of songs over the phone and write each other letters every week and send each other packages and all kinds of things. back then the answering machine [click answering machine sound] would be on this little cassette tape, and so we’d leave little messages for each other. if one of us wrote a song part, we’d leave it as a message and the other person would figure out their part. and then a lot of times, we’d write songs through the answering machine and quickly practice it in the bathroom before playing it for the first time on stage using borrowed equipment. so you can imagine how not good it sounded in terms of musicianship. if we got together we didn’t always have real equipment, so we’d put rice in a jar and use chopsticks on textbooks and staplers. [sound design here] we’d use a cassette tape and microphones from asian karaoke equipment and keep dubbing the tape over and over again until there was an extreme hiss. it’d be kind of fun to be creative and problem solve to make the thing you wanted or the world you wanted or just the hangout you wanted. yeah a lot of it was just about having fun.

W5 End of 22:24 clip: i can’t remember how we started hearing about the concerts in the middle of the city, but at some point we started going to this club jabberjaw. but at some point we would befriend older kids, either from our school and try to talk them into driving us to these shows. sometimes we’d have to pretend a different band was playing that they liked but then trick them — anything to get a ride.

A4 Amy 26:15 looking back on it, I was just ignorant, and sometimes, being ignorant helped. i remember going to one of my first shows in la at jabberjaw and thinking everyone looked like a giant on heroin. to me they were sort of like disney characters. we’d just go up to people who were complete strangers and ask them questions and tell them about school and people who were bullying us and stuff, and they were totally supportive. it made me feel like i could just do this stuff endlessly, meeting random strangers and they were just nice.

E3: 28:49 if we were dealing with a racist or sexist situation, i do remember we would always try to have a witty comeback and never take it and say, “you know what? we didn’t respond to that.” we would even say we found opportunities to stand up for someone else, knowing that we would probably get the brunt of it or be misunderstood or something.

E4 9:12 something that was really identifying of me and amy and wendy, was that we were really able to rationalize and validate what we needed to do. as a teenager, we were those people who were consummate salesmen. we would always be able to do that, and i think that’s why, as teenagers, we were able to get a hotel room in olympia and be like, we need to be here, it’s really important for us to be at yo yo go go. or in the same vein, the reason we were able to get my dad to lend us his car, his toyota preseda, and have us take it on a west coast tour. in so many instances if you look back, the only way we got things done were we were pushy and able to articulate why we needed to do something — why we needed to be somewhere, be seen, take up space. we were like, no we need to be there, they need to know we’re a band, those types of things and messages.

E5 38:33 it’s a huge deal! people had to make an effort to come to see people like me on the stage. that was really big because you might not have seen a picture of us — that’s not how things worked back then. you might not know it was all 3 asians, but word of mouth gets around. so having shows people attended? we opened up for our first west coast tour with sleater kinney, and they said you need to play with us. so all of that support — people wanted to champion us, which was so so important. it goes a long way.

they got really good at hiding their second lives from their parents, even though there were some close calls. 

E6 40:50 iif i had to do my psat saturday morning but play a show after that, i made that happen. and i got a good score so i could say yeah i got that done. we delivered on our responsibilities and made time for what we needed to do, so that’s what helped keep us afloat. we delivered on our responsibilities and made time for what we needed to do, so that’s what helped keep us afloat. by no means were we sacrificing one for the other. if we were more one way, it would’ve been easier for the parents to step in.

W7 I was still this nerd — I was never invited to high school parties and didn’t even know about them, I didn’t really have friends in school, and I ate lunch alone. We snuck out and went on a secret mini tour of the west coast with Sleater Kinney and Bikini Kill. we were doing really fun things, like in a nerdy way. we didn’t drink or do anything wild in that definition of wild, but it was wild in the sense that we went all the way up to washington without our parents knowing we left the state.

W8 36:45 There was probably a nervousness about our parents finding out. Like at the end of our tour, when we were recording the album with Kill Rock Stars, we weren’t necessarily paying attention to the quality of the recording or anything like that. It was the end of our tour and our parents were beginning to catch on that maybe we weren’t at a math camp an hour away from home. We felt like we were running out of time and were just trying to get our record done as fast as possible and get home so we wouldn’t get in trouble.

this was my favorite part of my interviews with them — listening to them recount the fearlessness of these girlhood years. it’s so wild to imagine these tiny asian girls stomping into a room of people like 10 years older than them and getting all up in their faces and being super sassy and loud. but still the thing that became more and more special to me as time went on, was the story of their friendship, and the way that it allowed them

W9 48:44 we were best friends in a really intense way and we were all sort of obsessed with each other at that time. and my belief and confidence in the other two, amy and emily, i believed they were really talented and great people who should be writing songs and performing onstage that i was happy to be part of that. i never really thought i was that great, but the three of us, together as people who were best friends at the time, created a certain swirl of energy that would build up and become its own momentum, that made it so much easier to be someone who could get up and perform onstage. it became its own dynamic that allowed for its own form of extroversion, even if it wasn’t how i was naturally.

W10 36:45 a lot of it was about adventure. Our goal wasn’t to be the best musicians or have a lot of fans. Our goal was to have fun and to hang out with each other and to experience things and to have an outlet and to connect with people. It was just an outlet to reach a world that would feed us… all of the things we were hungry for because we weren’t finding it in our direct homes or community lives.

W11 48:44 being an outsider for so much of my life, culturally and growing up, being told that we were shy. everything that was being told to us was that we were on the outside and we didn’t count, you end up with this really pent up energy that’s like, actually i’m a person and i exist and i have things to say too. and so when we entered high school and so many different things were happening to change, you’re hitting a breaking point, and you’re like, i might be shy but i have a lot to say too. being someone who didn’t have a voice you end up realizing how much you do have to say.

[music fade out]

[short break]

as someone who’s spent a lot of my life asking for permission to be myself, who still feels a lot of guilt and shame around not being the version of myself i feel that i’m supposed to be, whatever that is, emily’s sassy lime came as a sort of miracle to me. i think so often, asian american women and girls, and so many others in our communities – queer and trans people, people of color, immigrants, prisoners, disabled people – so many of us are made to think that our voices don’t matter, are shamed by our current systems into feeling silenced and small. or that we only have value in certain ways.

but emily’s sassy lime makes me want to dream up bigger, freer futures for us than i would’ve thought possible growing up. i want this for all of us, and for other young asian girls too. i’m learning now that actually, i have a lot to say. right now, i’m saying: any asian girls out there listening to this — dream big, and fucking go for it.