Creator And Activist Luann Tan Reflects On Life In Portland And Deciding To Leave

By Erica Morrison (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Dec. 12, 2019 2:45 p.m.

Back in 2017, OPB spoke with the activist and creator Luann Tan about the complexities and challenges of being a Filipino-American woman in the very white state of Oregon.

Luann Tan is a cultural activist and creator of the web series "Gabby Antonio Smashes the Imperialist, White Supremacist, Capitalist Patriarchy." After more than a decade of living in Portland, Ore., she decided to move back home to a more diverse community in California.

Luann Tan is a cultural activist and creator of the web series "Gabby Antonio Smashes the Imperialist, White Supremacist, Capitalist Patriarchy." After more than a decade of living in Portland, Ore., she decided to move back home to a more diverse community in California.

Courtesy of Luann Tan

"I've been asked if I'm Thai or Latina or another Southeast Asian ethnicity. Hawaiian, I've also been asked," she told OPB more than two years ago. "That's not something I've ever really experienced, not back in California."

Now she’s leaving.

Tan came to Portland to finish her undergraduate degree at Portland State University in 2009. She stayed and earned her master’s degree while working for some of the city’s social justice grassroots organizations.

But her experience feeling disconnected – like an outsider – continued.

Today, she's moving back to Orange County, California. But she is paying tribute to her time in the city with the comedy web series "Gabby Antonio Smashes the Imperialist, White Supremacist, Capitalist Patriarchy"; it's about a young woman of color's journey in Portland. Tan stars in the series and says the comedy was inspired by conversations with friends and colleagues about their experiences in Portland as people of color, such as the controversies over ethnic restaurants owned by white people.

“Shep in the series is an [white] entrepreneur and is very passionate about boba [tea)], and those situations mirror situations that happened here in Portland,” Tan said.

The boba cart was inspired by Kooks Burritos, a food cart that shuttered in 2017 after their owners were accused of stealing recipes from Mexican women.

Tan said this is not an isolated incident. She said she recently visited a coffee shop that donates proceeds to the Philippines. She approached the barista and asked if the shop was Filipino-owned. She said the worker told her: “Oh we’re not Filipino but we love the Philippines. Sorry we don’t have any Spam for you.”

“Those kinds of businesses exist here and can thrive,” Tan said.

The series pilot was screened at The Portland Film Festival this year. Tan plans to travel between the two states to continue production.

OPB reporter Erica Morrison sat down with Tan for another conversation about the web series, her time in Portland and her decision to leave. Here are the highlights:

Erica Morrison: What do you hope people get from watching "Gabby Smashes"?


Luann Tan: Well, one because I love the city so much and in a love-hate kind of way, I really wanted to shift the narrative about what Portland is like because we have "Portlandia" to thank for shaping that narrative for us.

I was gung-ho on really wanting to present a story that shows other people that live here and work here and then the complexities of working in your first adult job in a scrappy nonprofit that's trying to survive in a predominantly white city.

Morrison: Let's back up a little bit. Tell me how you got to Portland.

Tan: I picked Portland out on a map, and it was like, that looks cool and moved up here.

Morrison: And you moved up here from where?

Tan: From Anaheim, California. Right outside of L.A. I lived in the area where it was predominantly communities of color, so my worldview was that everywhere is POC.

Morrison: Little did you know when you picked that random spot on the map …

Tan: Little did I know. I thought that moving to another city, it would be easy to find community because you're just moving to a city. I had no idea that Portland was one of the whitest major cities in the U.S.

Morrison: Tell me about the moment that you remember feeling unwelcome in Portland.

Tan: Oh my gosh, there's so many stories. There's one specific story where I was reading at Powell's, a bell hooks book, just minding my business. And a white guy came up to me and was like, "Do you know how to speak English?" … in a really slow syncopated speed. And I was like, 'Yes.' And "How long have you been in this country?" it was really bizarre because the whole cafe just watched.

And that's, I think, the hard part. Because he was also recommending a book. And that's what I struggle with a lot here because a lot of white people that I interact with will have these well-meaning intentions, and yet I am the one –or POC are the ones – left with the story.

Morrison: Why are you leaving?

Tan: You know, it's been 10 years, nearly 10 years, and I miss my family. And having been diagnosed with lupus was pretty challenging this year. So moving back to California to be closer to family sounded like a good idea … I was already kind of on that trajectory of being, exhausted from living here. Mainly in my experience working in Portland.

Morrison: I think it's hard for people to understand what exhaustion is. You know, the phrase is that young people come to Portland to retire and that this is an easy way of life. Tell me more about those frustrations.

Tan: I think it's interesting to be working in advocacy in an organization that advocates for communities of color here in Oregon. The container that we live in – in the city in particular — it being considered like this liberal beacon when really it's so fraught with these intersectional conflicts.

You could be working to change the system, whether you're a person of color or a white ally, but because the landscape itself – the city, the state, how we legislate, all these things – still operate within this white supremacy lens, you won't ever feel those changes or it's hard to feel those changes and that impact.

Morrison: There are people who will say, 'How can you want something to change if you leave? What role are you playing if you're abandoning a city that you say you love, you love-hate, but you're not willing to be here and do the work?'

Tan: I'm reflecting on this quote that Dodgr, the Portland-based artist, said in their recent interview from Willamette Week about how they're moving back to L.A. as well. She said, "As much as I love this city, this isn't my hometown. I've been running away from my trauma. And where does trauma start, at home? The only way I can heal myself is if I go home. I want people to send me off in a way that isn't really sending me off because Portland will always be my second home.

It resonated with me so deeply because I'm committed to paying tribute to Portland, because I see it as my second home. I'm not from here. I didn't grow up here, but I learned everything about being an adult. I spent the majority of my 20s here, and so I feel ready to leave because I feel like I've learned all that I can here.

Watch Tan’s web series, “Gabby Antonio Smashes the Imperialist, White Supremacist, Capitalist Patriarchy,” here. Use the audio player at the top of this story to hear more of this conversation.

Sharing America: A Public Radio Collaboration

Erica Morrison is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in the Northwest and Hartford, Connecticut, St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find more "Sharing America" coverage here.