Kristina Wong was in the town of Gulu, Uganda's northern commercial and administrative center, for only a day when she began to really understand her mzungu (Swahili for "white") privilege. Cramped in a Western hotel for the night, she decided to get out and explore. With a flashlight in hand, she found the unexpected: a food stand that sparked her underground rap career.
A young man named Nerio, who worked at the food stand, attempted to charge her double for a meal. Wong shrieked. Then the two struck up a conversation. "I had a good feeling," says the Chinese-American actress/comedian from San Francisco's Sunset District. "So I followed Nerio into a dark room behind the food stand. It was a makeshift music studio. And we started to record a rap song, called 'Mzungu Price,' which is about the foreigner price, the cost of privilege, of whiteness, and of showing up where you don't belong."
This weekend, Wong will bring her rap prowess and tales from her 2013 Uganda trip to Wynwood with The Wong Street Journal, a one-woman performance art show that asks the question: How do I leave a legacy without being a colonial asshole? The new show breaks down the complexities of global poverty, privilege, and economic theory using uneasy-to-read charts, live hashtag wars, and slide shows from
"I want to be critical of the Americans who are starting organizations that if you look back in history, they cause the same problems," she says.
One of Wong's first performance pieces was Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which she toured with three years ago. In it, the comedian took a seriocomic approach to anxiety, depression, and mental illness among Asian-American women.
After traveling with that show, Wong became a spokesperson on the topic of depression and suicide among Asian-American women. "I didn't realize how difficult it would be to handle that. I lost my mind. I didn't understand what the point of
In 2013, Wong wrote an autobiographical list detailing some of her horrific experiences with white dudes — 9 Whack Things White Guys Say to Deny Their Asian Fetish. It went viral. The list, which shed light on stereotypes among privileged white males, was a great success. But it launched Wong into a crippling existential crisis over the fleeting nature of internet activism.
"All of a sudden, I had a Hollywood manager," she recalls. "Crazy stuff happened out of one essay, and I was like, 'What? How does this happen?" she says. "I would get hate mail from activists who misunderstood my intention. With social media, everyone can engage your message, but it can be polarizing — [made up of] angry things that you throw against the wall just to see if it sticks."
So after too many social media comment battles, Wong reached her breaking point. She decided to journey to a place that many lost, affluent Americans have gone: Africa.
"It's a cliché: Americans go somewhere else to find themselves. I knew it was a cliché, but that's how lost I was."
So for three weeks in October 2013, Wong joined the microfinance nonprofit Volunteer Action Network in Gulu, Uganda. The organization aims to empower underserved women in northern Uganda through health education and political programs, creating opportunities while strengthening families and communities.
The hypocrisy struck her early on. Uganda's history of colonialism can be seen in the "Senior Quarters," a section that rests atop a hill, Wong says. It was developed by British colonizers in the late 1800s. Today it's an area that's home to many Western nongovernmental organizations.
"NGOs have many parallels to colonialism, Wong says. "I have barely scratched the tip of that."
Simply traveling through the country was enlightening, she adds. "I'd always stop and see that a lot of women in rural Uganda sew for their livelihood. I'd just watch people sew. The way people check out a car, I'd check out their sewing machine. Sewing to me is what connects me to the labor women do in the world. Hobbies are the privilege of being American."
Her show at Wynwood's Light Box plays on that notion. But despite the show's dense topic, Wong promises it will be as light as the soft felt she used to sew the set, which is a mockup of the New York Stock Exchange. She says it took her "hundreds of hours to assemble with the help of multiple seamstresses and assistants."
Despite Wong's awareness that she's complicit in a new form of colonialism, she is definitely no longer invisible in Uganda. Her rap album, Mzungu Price, can be heard on local radio stations and in nightclubs throughout northern Uganda, she says. The five songs on the album tell her story of overcoming
"I'm basically yelling at other Westerners who look at my new friends with pity," she says. "It's a white-savior complex thing. What about contradictions? You're wearing clothes made in a sweatshop."
While recording her rap album with Nerio, the two became friends. One day, toward the end of their session, Nerio, an aspiring rapper, asked Wong to sponsor a studio for him. She agreed, as long as he promised to call it Wong Records.
"I was so excited," she recalls. "I thought this could be my Dr. Dre moment."
But when she returned home to America, she wasn't able to send money to Nerio. Even worse, the young man's boss heard rumors about his new studio idea and angrily fired him.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"I felt like the Belgian in Congo," Wong says. "I felt like my presence created jealousy and panic." Luckily, Wong later sent Nerio about $400 in unofficial royalties from performance sales, which he used to buy low-grade equipment and start his own studio.
Though Nerio won't be a part of Wong's Light Box performance, you can witness her recount her entire journey of self-actualized, self-loathing American privilege.
The Wong Street Journal
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, January 28 through 31, at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami. Tickets cost $25 for general admission and $50 for VIP. Call 866-811-4111 or visit miamilightproject.com.