Christine Wong Yap (kneeling) presenting a 'Belonging' certificate to Medshare volunteers in their San Leandro warehouse. The organization, nominated by Eric Talbert (next to Wong Yap), sorts and re-distribute medical supplies to communities in need. (Shana Heede Hassol)
Do you feel belonging in your local library, a neighborhood bar, a regular meeting in city hall? Or do you carry your sense of belonging with you from place to place?
New York-based artist and Oakland expat Christine Wong Yap is making that often-intangible feeling visible—by identifying, commemorating and sharing others’ sites of belonging—based on a survey of nearly 100 participants in the nine-county Bay Area region.
Belonging happens when people feel safe, seen and accepted, Wong Yap says. Her questionnaire, issued over a five-week period at the end of 2018, asked participants identify a place where they think to themselves either “This is my community,” “These are my people,” or “I can be me here.”
The answers are scattered across the Bay Area, including sites of natural beauty (Mt. Tam, Ocean Beach, a hiking trail), childhood homes, arts destinations (Balmy Alley, ProArts) and places of worship. For Wong Yap, the questionnaire wasn’t just a means of gathering data to fuel her material output, but a way of asking participants to examine their own sense of belonging and the conditions that create that feeling.
“When we’re more self-aware,” Wong Yap’s Belonging project website states, “we can be more intentional about the spaces we co-create.”
Wong Yap is currently in the “production & commemoration” stage of Belonging, a months-long social practice project that began in November 2018 with her residency at Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.
For the first five weeks, she was in “story collection” mode, distributing and collecting questionnaires in English, Spanish and Chinese. She conducted workshops with the help of community groups like Soccer Without Borders, San Francisco’s Chinese Culture Center and The Beat Within. It’s an expanded version of a similar project she undertook in Albuquerque in 2017, when she was in residence at an arts space called the Sanitary Tortilla Factory.
“I wanted to do something that said everyone belongs here,” she remembers. We’re sitting between two tables at Kala Art Institute, the venerable Berkeley printmaking workshop, with Wong Yap’s notes, sketches and bandanna prototypes spread around us.
In the days before and after the 2016 elections, Wong Yap (and everyone else) was thinking about immigration, about who is given permission to be themselves—or even be—in certain spaces. The first iteration of Belonging culminated in 13 hand-painted signs mounted (sometimes guerrilla-style) at places where Albuquerqueans felt a sense of belonging.
“Being exposed to Latino art, music and history helped me with self-discovery, identity and community,” reads one sign meant for Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center. Other sites included an improv theater, a flamenco class, a church and a pool.
With the Bay Area version, Wong Yap is expanding her horizons in terms of both geography and output. When she presents the project at the Haas Institute’s Othering & Belonging Conference in early April, she’ll have a publication filled with the edited responses, 25 framed and hand-lettered certificates mounted at sites identified by participants, a suite of screen-printed bandannas (for those with a peripatetic sense of belonging), and some maps of belonging in the Bay Area—she’s still figuring that part out.
Surprisingly, Wong Yap says very few respondents were unable to name a single Bay Area site where they feel belonging. “Are there circumstances that would help you feel a sense of belonging?” asks the questionnaire.
“Sometimes people would say, ‘I just need to put myself out there more,’” Wong Yap says. “Some of them were like, ‘The perfect place for me would be a place for international students to listen to new wave and not talk to each other.’” (With a little effort, Wong Yap thinks the participant could make this dream become a reality.)
“There’s very personal levels of belonging and very political levels of belonging,” she says, and the two don’t always align. This is especially true, she points out, for those historically pushed to the margins of mainstream American society and portrayed homogeneous groups: Native Americans, Muslims, undocumented immigrants.
“Maybe the place where they feel belonging is a quilting circle or jujitsu,” she says. The depth of her questionnaire captured all of this. “You peek into their dimensionality or humanity. They don’t have to be limited in the same way that policies lump people together and limit them.”
Feeling personal belonging is hard, Wong Yap says. “On some levels it’s a pretty high level of self-actualization, just to feel confident, safe and secure in your own self.” Systems, rules, rhetoric, politics, policies, migroaggressions—all of this tells people if they're welcome somewhere or not.
But there are simple steps we can take, Wong Yap says, to create a sense of interpersonal belonging with the people around us. Say “hi” to your neighbors, be open and talk to people. Greet some by their name, give them a warm handshake or a hug. “It’s so easy to implement,” she says, “it’s what you’d want to teach a kid.”
“To me,” she adds, “it’s so moving. Don't you want everyone to feel great about where they live?”