pAx supports women of color in all of their art forms. We conversed with @shulalaland, a Chinese-American pole dancer and student, about her art, her cultural identity, and the meaning of beauty:
Question: Tell us about yourself
Shule: My name is Shule Chen. Shule means comfort and joy in Chinese. Since my parents had a rough childhood, they asked themselves, "What did we not have when we were kids? Comfort and joy." So being named Shul
e is a very cute blessing. I was born in China and when I was three and a half years old my mother, my father, and I moved to Blue Ridge, Georgia together. Blue Ridge is a very, very small white town in southern Appalachia, so we were one of the first asian families to move there. It was as if everything we did, it was the first time someone had seen an asian person do it. Every year, we would go back to China to, as my father would call it, recharge our cultural roots. That's the main reason that I'm able to speak Chinese and have the knowledge of Chinese culture and history. I pursued a degree in international affairs at George Washington University because I was like, “Oh, I love bridging cultures, bridging communities, and acting as a diplomat for everything that I represent.”
Now I work full time at GW pursing a masters degree. In my spare time, I’m also the social media manager for a fitness startup.
Question: How does your art empower you as a minority or just in general?
Shule: So, I love pole so much. It definitely empowers me because growing up with strict Asian parents, I was told various things such as, that there were certain colors that I couldn't wear because they wouldn't make my skin tone look good or that I needed to cover my shoulders, otherwise, I'd look chubby.
A lot of these things affected me, how I was taught to dress, how I was taught to hold myself and whatnot, but with pole, it's like you go in and even if everyone else in the class are complete strangers, you're totally comfortable with just wearing a crop top and like bikini bottoms. You're just throwing yourself around the pole. You're just being silly. Like, there’s no façade like, “Oh, I have to present myself in a certain way”. It's just you, being you, and having fun.
I told my parents about pole two months in because I was initially scared it was gonna be a phase. After I realized that I was committed to it, I told them and they were surprisingly very supportive.
It's really funny, because they went from being like, what is this to now being very accepting of it. And sometimes they'll even send videos to my grandparents, and my grandparents are straight up just like, look at her go. Like she’s holding herself up and she’s so strong, I love that. And it was just so... unexpected. I wasn't expecting this much acceptance.
So that definitely empowered me to one, be honest with myself, and two, be honest with other people. And when you become honest with other people, and then they accept you in turn, I feel like the relationship is strengthened and it makes you even more happy. So that's definitely how it empowers me.
Question: What do you wish other people knew about your art?
Shule: I wish everyone would give it a shot. I feel like everyone at one point has seen a pole and thought to themselves, “Man, I wish I could do that.” I feel like they should act on it and just try it. I think this has to do with destigmatizing pole in general because you shouldn't stigmatize sex workers or strippers who work with pole. I think it’s important to keep in mind that if you do start or talk about pole, make sure you pay respect to its roots, those who started it. Modern pole dancing was started by sex workers, especially black strippers and black sex workers and that's very important, because I think a lot of people who start pole they're like, so focused on differentiating themselves, by saying things such as, “Oh, no, but I do lyrical pole, I make it close to ballet. Like I'm different.” But what does it matter? There’s so much variety to pole and you can make it whatever you want it to be. Just make sure that when you do, you pay respect to its roots.
Question: What does being from that culture mean to you? What do you love most about your culture, or background?
Shule: What I love most about my culture is the way that it cares about community. I feel like when I came to America, there was a cultural shock because everyone is very self-centric, in the way they do things and the way they think. Whereas, growing up, it was very communal. In China, with everything you do, you have to think about what the social consequences of that action is. For instance, what will my family think? Is this going to help my community or is this going to hurt my community? I believe you need a balance of the two, you need self-love and you do need to be selfish sometimes. But at the same time, I think humans aren't meant to be alone. It’s okay to need others, and it's okay to want to please others because it's a natural human response. I think acknowledging that, accepting that, and then acting out of love whenever you can to build your community is so important.
Question: So now, how do you define beauty?
Shule: I feel like beauty really exudes from the inside. One of my favorite things about pole is that there are so many different body shapes that do pole and in other fitness genres, you may see someone that's plus sized or skinny, and you may be like “There's no way they can do that.” However in pole, the way your body appears does not mean you can't do certain things. I have seen people of all body sizes go upside down, invert themselves, do ayesha, deadlift, and so on. So, you definitely can't judge a book by its cover. When I was a beginner, I used to walk into class and try to gauge the experience levels of other by judging their physical characteristics and now I'm just like, I have no idea what y'all are capable of, and I'm just gonna focus on myself, because you're all badasses. So I really think beauty is about the energy that you exude as a person. Once you have beauty exuding from within, your external beauty will just match that, it's all about confidence. Honestly.
Question: How does the fashion industry make you feel about your own beauty? And if there's a negative component to that answer, how would you want the fashion industry to change?
Shule: I feel like the tradition of fashion trickles down from the top. For instance, whatever the elites wear, starts trends that masses follow. However, I feel that if clothes are meant for people, then the majority of people should decide how the clothes are. I just feel like it's very elitist and I wish it wasn’t. I also struggle with sizing charts since for instance, a six in Victoria's Secret is very different from a six at Old Navy. That was always mind boggling to me. I wish there was a way to make sizing less judgmental.
Question: How does it feel that there has finally been a brand because we were finally founded in 2020? So how does it feel that there's finally a brand that represents you and everything you stand for?
Shule: My only regret is that I didn't hear about it sooner. And that I am not getting a raise soon enough, so that I can buy it. For real though, it definitely makes me really happy. I'm very proud to be in the generation that I am now, because I feel like we're really going to be the change makers of the future. You know, the generations before us were so focused on surviving because they needed to, but with our generation, now that we have survival nailed down, we can focus on thriving, like, how can we be happy? How do we love ourselves and others in a healthy and sustainable way. I love that brands like pAx are like starting to pop up, exist, thrive, and help others thrive. It's all part of this beautiful, movement of love. I love that.
Question: what is your most prized possession?
Shule: So, I went through a breakup in December. I was like really proud of myself because old Shule would have stayed in that relationship with, a narcissist, for a longer time trying to convince herself of excuses. You know, I would have seen red flags pretended I didn't see them. But Shule now, I'm just very proud of myself for showing up and cutting bullshit. My bullshit tolerance down. So I think my most prized possession right now is my courage to choose myself before anything else. In a healthy manner. I'm very proud that I can always choose myself.