Crip Siblings: Interview with Chun-san (Sandie) Yi
Alice: Sandie, I am just so delighted to talk with you today and what I loved immediately is that you titled our Zoom meeting ’Crip Siblings’!
Alice: And I feel this kinship with you. What does it mean to you to find kinship with other crips everywhere? Whether it’s locally or all over the world? What does it mean to you to find a crip sibling?
Sandie: So I was born with my disability and it runs in my family. And so half of my relatives have my disability which is I have two fingers and two toes and some of my relatives have three toes and one of my cousins has like, a hand has eight fingers. So there’s always a variety of limbs and digits. But in my family, this is not something that we talked about. It always feels like, “Oh, you know this is so normal within the family.” But then there’s a layer of like, “This is an unspoken taboo, because you don’t want to go there, you only want to show that you can be successful.” And I have a sister who has five fingers and five toes and she’s a bit older than me, she’s two and a half years older than me. And growing up in Taiwan, you know, the way that people relate to each other, a lot of time—I mean, I would say that at times I feel like, “Oh, it’s kind of intrusive.” Because people will literally come up to me and say that, “Oh, well what’s wrong with you?” And then it’s like, “Oh, does that hurt?” So they ask questions like this. And I remember at a young age I was always so scared when people were going to just come up to me and say that, “Oh, you are so cute,” or, “You’re so pretty,” because eight out of ten times—or maybe nine and a half out of ten times, the following sentence will be, “It’s a shame that you only have two fingers.” [chuckles] And so it’s like, “Oh, I am cute, but no, it’s a shame.” So I really was conditioned by this fear. Like, no, I don’t want to hear people complimenting me about how I look because they’re going to say something negative about my hands and feet.
And so in comparison that, you know, my sister has five fingers and five toes, and lots of relatives would consider her as the lucky one of the family. And—but then you know it got really complicated when I was a few years younger and she’s a bit older, and then when people complimented me, “Oh, you’re so cute,” and that did not make her feel good. So I always remember how she would be like rolling her eyes on the side, or like she would just be like, “Argh!” You’re all paying attention to her. So as a result, I really hated people complimenting like, “Oh, you’re so cute,” and I always thought, “Well, I have more to offer than how I look outside.” So I grew up with this very complicated relationship, “What does beauty mean and how do my hands and fingers—my hands and feet fit into that, or not?” So it’s a complicated relationship. So for me I think a part of me really longed for kinship and I think it was challenging with my sister because I mean, now I can look back and see that she was only a young child as well, and she was not getting the type of attention that she would have liked. So we are not in close relationships but, you know, like this is something that I have sort of accepted. Like, this is how we both experienced disability even though we never named it.
And in 2006 I attended the Bodies of Work, a network of disability art and culture. There was a festival and that was the first time that I was introduced to a large group of disabled artists in Chicago. And back then I was living in the city for like, six years already, but I never knew anybody with disabilities. And in fact I—I was kind of scared to be included in the festival and showing my art and attending events. There was a—definitely a clear sense of like, “Oh, maybe I don’t belong here,” you know? In fact I did not know what that was about, and I did not know that basically internalized ableism was so pronounced that I just feel like, oh, you know what? I actually did not feel good enough to attend the gallery opening, for example, and it was like a physical expression. Like, “Hey, I’m feeling really tired and maybe I should just go home and skip that opening,” for example. And [chuckles] I actually did mess up the opening hours for the reception. After meeting folks at the festival, I realized that, “Wow, I didn’t have to explain myself to these people. And how did they know? How did they just know what happened?” And I was also reading Kenny Fries’, Staring Back, the anthology that he edited. And then I was just like, there were so many moments I just felt like, “How did this person know what happened to me? I never told anyone, and I thought I was the only one!” So I think that was the turning point that I began, like, “You know what, there’s something about this group of creatives. There is something.” So basically, I came out as a disabled person during that festival and so I began having this hunger to know people.
And that time around 2006, I had already decided to return to Taiwan, and I thought, “Yeah, I would like to know what the disability community is like back home.” And so for a part of me felt like, “Wow, I didn’t realize that coming to the States as an exchange student back in high school I actually found my complete self because I finally recognized that disability is part of my identity. And then, you know, like going back to Taiwan, disability isn’t discussed in the same or in a similar way, like I was really hungry for.
So again, that kinship, I think there’s a longing for looking for my kind of people.
Alice: I think it’s interesting that you do have family members with similar disabilities. Did that kind of give you a sense of at least, you know it’s not just you. Was that foundational for you?
Sandie: I think that at one point it felt like, oh, the type of disability culture that I am going for was only in the States and I had known a couple artists from the UK. And so I felt like, “Oh, it’s like very like UK and US based.” And I think like at the beginning I did not think about these differences, but I think the way that folks were commenting on the way—and on my viewpoint about disability made me realize that, “Oh, I thought that, you know, embracing disability,” I mean, it feels good. It feels like, you know, liberation and it feels like, “Oh, wow, I can take away that shame.” But I mean, this might help if I provide some examples. So when people see me talking about disability when I first went back to Taiwan, they’re like, “Oh, you are very optimistic just like the Americans.” And I’m like, “Uhuh, what does that mean?”
I think in Taiwan we have this impression like this, you know, the Hollywood side of things of about American cultures. Just like, “Oh yeah, happy and California sunshine and all that.” So it’s like a very stereotypical and very single-sided American story that we get to see as TV viewers in Taiwan. So I think like people are like, “Oh, you’re very optimistic and you don’t worry about people looking at you.” And I was like, “Well, it’s not that I don’t worry. It’s like, I finally learned a set of language to talk back or to know it’s okay to say no, and I don’t want to answer intrusive questions.” But, yeah. And then people were just like, “Oh yeah, you are able to be so positive about disability because you’re prettier,” for example. And then I just feel like, “Oh, that was totally not something that I—that ever came across my mind.” And then people were like, “Oh, you know what? You could just go on TV and then show them your hand and then you’ll get a lot of popularity.” And I’m like, “Oh, that sounds really scary.” So apparently there were a lot of inspiration porn going on as there are here, that I think that was like the very specific image that people have about disabilities. Like, if you can overcome it you will be able to show people how brave, how pretty, how happy you are as a person. And so it was really frustrating, and I was like, “No, I—it’s not that kind.” And I began reaching out to disability activism organizations, and then I learned, wow, what charity model really looks like especially in the Taiwanese and Chinese cultural context. So it was just lots of learning and it almost felt like—a very unexpected culture shock. I did not think that I would have culture shock going back to my motherland, but it was completely a huge shock.
Alice: Since you are an artist and activist that lives in Chicago which has such a deep wealth of disabled organizers, I am curious about your thoughts on the way disabled people in Taiwan organize and connect? Were there things that you noticed that were very culturally specific?
Sandie: Yeah, looking back I saw a lot of like just Taiwanese crip wisdom. The way that people, you know, fix up their motorbike, and it’s like basically they can wheel themselves on to, you know, right next to their motorbike, and then like it works. And then the way that people just, you know, create any things out of just things that they can find, and it’s like, “Wow, that’s brilliant.” And, and you don’t see that much like in the States. I was really pointing out to my friend, “Like, this is brilliant,” and they were like, “Oh, well, because we cannot do what other normal people do and I was like, “Well, it’s not like secondary. Like, it’s not like a second class citizen.” But it’s like, “Wow! That’s like… really cool.”
Alice: It’s always so exciting about the way people change the space and change their structures, right? I think that’s what it means to be disabled in a not disabled world. But it’s not seen as wisdom. I think that’s the—that’s part of the work that’s for—and even here. Like, so much of what we do on our own to make our lives a little better, right? Because we—you know, we have to do these things. But it’s still not kind of seen it as art, you know? And this brings to mind your work with crip couture, because you do a lot of wearable art. It’s really interesting how you talked about your kind of growing up, and the way you felt about your body and your fingers. But here you are now really transforming and looking at your own body critically and all bodies, right? How did you get to this point where you’re really kind of using bodies as this medium to really interrogate what we consider beautiful?
Sandie: So I started taking metal working classes back in undergrad, and I was also taking fiber and material studies classes, where the work was on conventional materials to create jewelry, to create small sculptures. So I started working with my body by accident because I think I was not thinking about my body as—you know, as any relationships to disability or, you know? It’s just like, “Oh yeah, I’m still very young.” And—but I think what happened was literally like the nature of art materials and the specific kind of materials I’m referring to, you know, actually came from the social interactions I had with people. For example, touch by shaking hands, and where I had made gloves for myself. And so these are very utilitarian objects, but by wearing them and interacting with people in the city such as, you know, be on the bus I wear mittens and then there was one moment I just realized, “You know what, this is the moment I don’t have to even try and hide myself because nobody’s asking. Yeah!” That was like a sense of relief but then quickly I was like, “Wait a minute, but am I trying to hide my disability?” And then like trying to—oh, I do not have the concept of disability yet, but at least like, “Am I trying to not show my hand, but I’m not being my authentic self?” So I had this conflicting dialogue within myself and then I began making gloves and make the connections with my memories about trying to fit in, or what does that mean to have numerous doctors suggesting that, “Hey, you should like cut part of your bone from your pelvic bone or like your toes so we could build you a thumb.” And stuff like that. And so the materials I use literally come from my senses.
One of the latest projects used some skin flakes. So I work with my close crip sister and mentor Rahnee Patrick. I served as her personal assistant (PA) from time to time and I helped her with bodily hygiene. And her skin grows a hundred times faster than average people so the project became like a care relationship, like attending to her body and then also, you know, just like having my crip hand attending to her body. That—all of these interactions and then the act of collecting her skin flakes after each lotion session, I began working with, you know, skin flakes and fabric and they always felt like sort of relics. And exploring the concept of, well, I want to have crip as a heritage, as something that we treasure, as something that we preserve. So we preserve our own culture and there—I want evidence, so leaving like traces of us.
Alice: You’re like a crip archeologist.
Sandie: Oh, I love that term. Thank you.
Alice: And I think so much of what artists do is about yourself, not just creating, making things, and not just showing things or teaching people. It’s an act of love, right? I think it’s an act of community care. Can you talk a little bit more, I think, about what you feel like as an artist the relationship between, kind of you know, your work and the kind of the way you feel about the communities that you’re part of, you know, in terms of engagement? Not just through your work, but really through your actions and your interactions and your relationships.
Sandie: [chuckles] So recently I was nominated for an award and was under the category of visual art. And then I think in the process of submitting my materials I was like, “You know what, I don’t think I can compete with others in this exclusive category because that’s not really what my work is all about.” So it’s interesting to have these questions or these realizations because I do see myself like, yes, a lot of time my work is about community engagement. But it really depends on my capability at the time and maybe if I have the energy level to work with people who come to, let’s say, community workshops. But maybe for a specific period of time I only have the energy to work like work with one individual. So it’s just like there are so many forms and it just really depends on what’s happening. And sometimes I feel like I am an educator more and sometimes I’m like, yes, I need to put my activist role—like, I need to full front it. But sometimes it’s the artist-scholar. So it’s like a mixture of a lot of things and it’s very much like, yes, because of the nature and the need of our communities, like, we have to do multiple things at one time. And so my connection with the disability community, I feel like that’s just fine. Like right now I feel like, “No, I know I cannot live without it.” [chuckles]
Like when I adopted my dog about four months ago I—the reason I decided to adopt him was because the previous owner told me that, “Oh yeah, he has alopecia, so he doesn’t have hair and then he has something going on with his spine.” And I am like, “Yes! This is the one!”
Alice: This is the dog!
Sandie: Yeah. [laughs]
Alice: That dog is the one for you!
Sandie: Yeah. So and I feel like—again, like looking for my own kind this kinship still plays a role in my work and in my personal life. So it’s like I have been creating just, like little prints here and there with the shape of my hand and… I just feel like, “Well, these are not art objects for sale or I’m not running a company or I’m not doing it to get popularity.” I mean, I’m not a commercial-based artist or a designer, so it’s also hard to define or put me into one specific category. But I have to say, like my work is very much about disability culture and more like culture making.
Sandie: I love your questions and our time talking together.
Alice: I feel like we could do this forever.
Chun-Shan (Sandie) Yi
I make wearable art that addresses bodily and social experiences. Centered on histories and narratives generated within and performed by the body through everyday social interaction, my work aims to facilitate dialogue between the wearers and the viewers of these objects.
Crip couture focuses on body reconfiguration through mapping the memories and the living experiences of the disabled bodies. medical and surgical intervention. Altering the purpose of conventional prosthetics and orthotics, which aim to create more-or-less standardized body form and function, I blend prosthetics and jewelry to make a range of garments, accessories and footwear. Each wearable item is designed based on an individual’s medical experience, physical position and state of mind. Rather than rejecting the notion of physical alteration, I provide intimate and empathetic bodily adornment, not as a correctional physical aid, but as a tool for remapping and engaging with a new physical terrain, one embodied with personal standards of physical comfort and self-defined ideals of beauty.
As a collection of wearable works, this project explores the impact of ethical and medical decisions made about the body; the boundary between ethics and aesthetics; the idea of the body in flux; and body ownership (reclaiming the body). The objects and their wearers call for a recognition of collective Crip experiences and suggest the possibility for a new genre of wearable art, Disability Fashion.
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