Video Performance Artist Assumes Two Cultures

Gerard Lim, AsianWeek

April 16, 1993

For Kip Fulbeck, the otherwise simple and mundane task of checking a box designating his ethnicity poses a serious problem. Like other mixed-blood Asian Pacific Americans—emphasis on Asian, or is it Pacific, or is it American—Fulbeck must grapple with his identity of half-identities in order to deliver an accurate, if not unsatisfying label of himself.

He is an American recipe made up of several ingredients, so to speak.

“Early on, I used to check ‘white’,” Says Fulbeck, whose mother is of Cantonese descent and whose father has English, Irish, and Welsh blood flowing through his veins.

“That was because I grew up in a white neighborhood, “he explains, “but then I started getting beaten up almost every day by all these bigger white guys shouting, ‘Eat wood, Chinaman!’ because I looked Chinese. That’s just the half of it, figuratively speaking.

“Then I started checking only Chinese after discovering my roots,” Fulbeck says. “Now I check ‘other,’ and if they ask me to explain, I write ‘No’.”

Born in the Southern California town of Fontana, Kip Fulbeck did much of his growing up in Covina, an orange-farming community about 20 miles from Disneyland and a “normal” white suburb.

Now 27, he represents an important segment of an up-and-coming, but previously voiceless generation of Asian Pacific Americans hell-bent on making themselves seen, heard, and experienced.

Well-qualified for life’s adventures and armed with his bachelor’s and master’s degresss in fine arts from UC San Diego, he is out on his appointed mission: Fulbeck wants to get in your face and under your skin. And he is one of only a handful of APAs who gets to do it regularly, if not successfully.

After teaching in the Asian American studies program last year, Fulbeck is currently a full-time associate professor at UC Santa Barbara in its art studio department. But his claim to fame took several intriguing twists and turns before reaching its current state.

At one point, Fulbeck was blindly riding that infamous train running on the model-minority track when he abruptly decided to derail. After only one year as a pre-med student at UCLA, Fulbeck completely shifted gears and took up art after talking to his brother Dave Chan, who had completed medical school and is currently a doctor.

In retrospect, Fulbeck could not have made a wiser decision.

“I asked [Dave] if there was anything he regretted about med school, and he said, ‘I never got to say I made this or did that,’ and it just stuck with me,” says Fulbeck, who has since gone on to make several videos and do a considerable amount of performance art.

Yes, We Have Some Bananas . . .

An almost representative, if not definitive piece of his is entitled “Banana Split”—a sometimes biting, somewhat cynical, and often hilarious video portrait of what it is to be half-white, half-Chinese, and all screwed up. It serves as bitter testament of an otherwise brilliant existence.

Like his fellow mixed-bloods, Fulbeck finds no reason to compromise on culture for the sake of the other(s), nor can he find any compelling justification of why he would need to. To him, multicultural and multi-ethnic means being able to draw from the best—and the worst, if he so desires—of both worlds.

One gets the feeling that “ethnic cleansing” has no place on his vocabulary.

“People should be proud of their heritage, and be able to speak from it,” Fulbeck says. “I remember this Vietnamese student who was writing this poem … stuff like ‘I stand in bliss, to wait your kiss’ because he thought he had to write like that—it was just shit. He then started writing by incorporating multiple languages and it was hot!”

Fulbeck is “hapa”— mixed race Asian and white—and he makes no bones about it. “I constantly shift between two cultures … but I have no home base,” he says. ” I don’t purposely try to [incorporate culture and ethnicity] into my work; it just happens.”

Kwai Chang Prof

If he has yet to smash your concept of a traditional university professor, it might help to know that Fulbeck is a former nationally ranked swimmer, surfs frequently, takes up karate (he’s up to a brown belt), works with bonsai, loves Korean barbeque, and avidly follows the Los Angeles Lakers (“Damn, they lost by a point yesterday!”).

Due to clockwork engagements in Santa Barbara, San Diego and Honolulu, frequent flyer Fulbeck rents living space at all three sites.

In the meantime, he continues to be a one-man television watchdog committee. The trash-TV phenomenon “Studs” has recently attracted Fulbeck’s wrath. He points toward the following unexplained omission: “They’ve had no Asian men with White women on the show; but they’ve done the opposite.”

Fulbeck also wonders about the reincarnation of the “Kung Fu” series starring David Carradine, who is reprising his role as mixed blood Kwai Chang Caine’s grandson.

“I can’t believe the new one—it’s so stupid! We’re supposed to believe that he’s a hapa guy again with a Chinese father and white mother?” he berates. “And another thing—they’re supposed to be Shaolin monks! Who are they having sex with?”

This trend of “hapaness” notwithstanding, Fulbeck does have some words of wisdom for those younger than himself.

“Be honest to yourself and your work,” he says laughing. “Or does that sound too much like Kwai Chang Caine?”

He is currently working on a performance/video project called “9 fish,” which has led him to enlist his Chinese grandmother as an important contributor. It touches on Confucian beliefs, learning to respect the elderly and the controversial issue of euthanasia.

“What is doing the right thing now?” There weren’t any people hooked up to wires and tubes centuries ago,” Fulbeck says.

It represents yet another new bridge for Kip Fulbeck to cross. But in an indirect way, it’s probably nothing he hasn’t dealt with before. Is he a visionary artist or a demon professor from Hades? Chances are, like his heritage, there are two sides of the same coin.

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