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 withThe 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 postconflict northern Uganda. With a sly wit, she attacks the nongovernmental organizations that plan to help but don’t.
“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 theater was. I became cynical. I thought, Is anyone going to theater? What’s the point, what’s the value?”
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.”