Profile: HotPot! Co-Founder

Check out Alison’s Interview by a local gay newspaper, PGN – posted on their February 2011 issue.

HotPot! and bubble tea

A ccording to RainbowRumpus.org (a fabulous LGBTQ site for kids), in southern China during the late Qing Dynasty, two unrelated women could join together in an oath of sisterhood known as the Golden Orchid Society. The society comprised women who took an oath to the goddess Guan Yin (believed to be transgender) to never have sexual relations with men. Women chose to join the society for lots of different reasons, one of which was a desire to marry a woman. Once married, the women lived together and cared for each other and their families. In a journal written in 1937, a traveler described “two women [who] dwell together, always existing as if they were one woman. They are as close as a stalk of grain coming through a stone.” The Golden Orchid Society is, alas, long gone, but there is a new group for queer Asian and Pacific Islander women, trans and gender-nonconforming folks. This week we spoke to Alison, one of the founders of HotPot!

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.

AL: I was born in Baltimore, Md., but I grew up in a small town called Westerville outside of Columbus, Ohio. I have a younger brother, Chris. My dad is retired but he did IT, computer technology work. He’s Chinese American. My grandmother was pregnant when she immigrated and he was almost born on the boat coming over to the States. My mom is a librarian. She’s white, of German-English descent, dating back to colonial times.

PGN: My mother was a librarian too. What was your favorite book?

AL: I really liked “The Paper Bag Princess.” It’s about a princess who’s engaged to be married to a handsome prince when a dragon burns her kingdom and kidnaps the prince. She sets out after them in a paper-bag dress after her clothes get destroyed in the fire. She rescues the prince but he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her in her tattered clothes and tells her to return when she looks suitable. She realizes he’s a jerk and leaves.

PGN: What are two family traditions that you enjoy?

AL: My mom always gave us Advent calendars. I loved the artwork and the excitement of opening the door and getting a little gift each day counting down to Christmas. My dad loved games, so we played a lot of mah-jongg, which is a traditional Chinese game, as well as other board games. And food — sharing food with large multi-course meals. My dad is the cook of the house and makes delicious dishes, whether it is salmon with ginger and scallion or a spaghetti and meat sauce. Then he usually beats us all in card games.

PGN: Was it difficult being mixed?

AL: Being that we were in a mostly white, small town, I think the difficulty was the exaggerated interest in someone for being a little bit different. There was also some racism and bullying because of identifying as Chinese.

PGN: What’s great about being biracial?

AL: Getting to experience different cultures. Going to big Chinese banquets and weddings as well as celebrating Christmas and holiday traditions from my mom’s side of the family. I got to enjoy both cultures and being mixed also allowed me to develop an appreciation for others who were different for all sorts of reasons.

PGN: We just started the Year of the Rabbit. Do you celebrate Chinese New Year?

AL: It’s been a while, but recently I started doing some traditional things like eating long noodles and dumplings, called jiaozi. On New Year’s Day, you’re not supposed to wash your hair because it washes away the good luck. So I make sure to do it the night before. You’re not supposed to sweep or dust either — again, to keep in the good luck of the New Year. You do clean prior to New Year’s to get rid of any residual bad luck from the previous year.

PGN: What were you like as a kid?

AL: I was a little bookish, but I was also kind of theatrical. I did a lot of dancing, jazz and ballet.

PGN: How were you as a big sister?

AL: [Laughs.] Bossy! I liked to be in control! We have a video from when Chris was young where I’m opening all his Christmas presents for him.

PGN: What was your best subject in school?

AL: It was always math and science.

PGN: And what do you do now?

AL: I help coordinate the Connect to Protect coalition at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. We work to prevent HIV infection in young gay men and other men having sex with men, 12- to 24-year-olds.

PGN: Is it very prevalent with youth under 15?

AL: Under 15, it’s mostly preventative work that we do, a lot of educational work. People aren’t aware what a huge epidemic it is in Philadelphia. We have rates of HIV that are four or five times the national average and a large proportion of that are youth between 17-24. We don’t focus on individual behavior; we focus on structural change. We work with other organizations like the Y-HEP, The Attic and Youth Emergency Services to find things that are upstream that we can work on that will reduce rates down the line. For instance, a youth who gets thrown out of the house due to family conflict and becomes homeless is going to be at risk for unsafe sex and contracting HIV. What can we do to create safe housing for them? That sort of thing, not just telling an individual to wear a condom. We try to work on structural changes that we can address.

PGN: Where did you go to school?

AL: My undergrad was from a little college in upstate New York called Hamilton College. It was a liberal-arts college with a strong science program, so I was a chemistry major with a French minor. I got a fellowship that allowed me to travel abroad for a year studying grassroots women’s literacy programs. I went to Haiti, Cameroon, Senegal and Vanuatu. That got me interested in the connections between social change, health and sexuality, so I went back to school and got my master’s in public health from Columbia University.

PGN: What was memorable from your time abroad?

AL: It was moving to see communities working together to improve their own well-being. I worked with a lot of groups on things like women’s health or the rights of girls to go to school. One moment that comes to mind took place in Vanuatu. There was a woman, Vesale, who took me under her wing. She taught literacy in a rural area that was about an eight-hour hike from her village and she took me with her for one of the trips. It was moving how important it was for her and really made you think, why, in this area — where there were not many books or things to read — why was it so critical? But she understood that knowledge was power. There was no running water, no electricity, all the structures were bamboo and still it was important enough for her to walk for half a day to share her knowledge of reading.

PGN: What did you learn from the experience?

AL: I learned an appreciation for humanity and the many different lives and ways that people live, but also that we’re all connected. We all live in the same world and what we do here has an effect on people across the world and vice versa. There’s a lot we can learn from other societies: how to be more considerate of each other, how to respect nature where we live, that subsistence farming is connected to Wall Street. It made me want to be involved in programs that are producing change in a larger way: to recognize that there are bigger influences that impact our individual behavior.

PGN: How did you first know you were gay?

AL: I had a huge crush on a woman. I was living at home with my parents after my year abroad and I was volunteering for the 2004 presidential campaign. She was the volunteer coordinator and I was really drawn to her. We started dating and I started crossing the important people off my list who I needed to tell. I was very fortunate that I got support from everyone, including family.

PGN: Did you have any feelings toward women before that?

AL: I think I was always curious, but I didn’t know anyone gay growing up, so it never seemed like an option. In college I thought about it, but I had an absolutely fabulous boyfriend who I was in love with, so I wasn’t looking to date anyone else.

PGN: Back to health issues, I know in the black community there’s a high rate of diabetes and obesity. What health issues affect the Asian community?

AL: Well, diabetes. Asians across the world have the highest prevalence of diabetes. Hepatitis B and liver cancer are also huge problems. There are more Asian people infected with hepatitis B than non-Asians. It affects hundreds of millions of Asians. HIV is also rising for those who get tested. Of course, though we get clumped together, it varies among different groups of Asian and Pacific Islanders.

PGN: Totally switching gears, I read your bio and it says you’re into bubble tea. What’s that?

AL: It’s a sweet tea beverage invented in Taiwan. It’s got a tea base mixed with fruit or fruit syrup and/or milk with large tapioca balls at the bottom. It’s kind of a smoothie. They shake it to mix the ingredients, creating a foam on the top. My favorite flavor is Karo, which comes out purple.

PGN: You’re into gardening; what’s your favorite thing to grow?

AL: Last year I grew cucumbers and sugar snap peas, which were delicious! Refreshingly crisp.

PGN: What’s a time period you’d like to visit?

AL: I had a lot of fantasies as a child about living in the Victorian Era, wearing the long flowy dresses.

PGN: Others are embarrassed when you …

AL: Bring Tupperware out at fancy restaurants! It drives my brother crazy.

PGN: Did you have a blanket or stuffed animal?

AL: Yes, I had “blankie.” It had a little turtle in the center and was bordered with different colors. I kept it around all through middle school, parts of high school and then it went on a shelf during my college days. It’s still at my parents’ house.

PGN: Who would you like to sit next to at a dinner party?

AL: My maternal grandpa. He passed away when I was 4. I have memories of sitting next to him down in Florida, eating popcorn and laughing and having a good time.

PGN: What’s an early memory?

AL: I have a very strong memory of my mother getting ready to go to the hospital to give birth to my brother, her and my dad prepping me to be a big sister. They got me a little T-shirt that said, “You’re going to be a big sister!” and my mom recorded lullabies for me to listen to while she was gone. I made her a pillowcase in preschool that showed her with her big baby bump in stick figures.

PGN: What was the first R-rated movie you ever saw?

AL: Was “Dirty Dancing” R? I remember sneaking to watch it at a friend’s house and we’d fast-forward to the sex scenes.

PGN: What’s HotPot!?

AL: We are a group of queer women, trans and gender-nonconforming folk who get together to decide what a queer, API [Asian-Pacific Islander] community looks like to us and think about what issues we want to take political action on. We’re not just a social group, though that aspect is important to us. Sharing good food is actually part of our mission statement!

PGN: What are some of the issues that have come up?

AL: I’m proud to say we raised $4,000 to send seven people to the first-ever daylong Queer Asian and Pacific Islander Institute. One of the things on the top of the list was immigration reform as it relates to the LGBT community. There are people who are at risk for deportation back to countries where homosexuality may be illegal or considered incitement for rape or murder. We had a get-together to hear stories about the challenges that LGBTQ immigrants face in this country. We heard personal experiences as well as stories from providers and community leaders. More than 120 people came. We had to turn folks away at the door due to capacity.

PGN: What do you say when people ask, “Why do you need your own group, aren’t we all one big gay family?”

AL: I think a lot of people wonder that. Even though there’s so much diversity within HotPot! — class, ethnicity and culture, etc. — we share similar experiences of racism, family, what home means to us. Sometimes in the larger LGBTQ communities, we can be tokenized. We are the “other.” Our group actually helps to diversify Asian for me. I enjoy learning about other people’s cultures and traditions. In addition, it is a foundation from where I can build bridges with other Asian/API communities around common concerns like immigration reform. HotPot! is a place where we can be our whole selves and that includes our ethnic identities.

PGN: Anything on the horizon?

AL: Well [on Feb. 19] we’re volunteering at ASIAC’s Lunar New Year Banquet at Hibachi. They are the fiscal sponsor for HotPot! It’s going to be great: They’ve got music, great food, a silent auction and a raffle. Tickets are still available. This spring, we’re going to have a community event focusing on the idea of home and what it means. For some people, home is a place they can never return to, geographically. For some, home is a group of people that you have chosen to be family. HotPot! is a place where I find one of my community homes and we want to share that.

For more info on HotPot!, visit hotpotphilly.org.

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