Chella Man isn’t your average Gen-Zer.
The Pennsylvania-raised, Brooklyn-based artist identifies with multiple marginalized communities: he’s a deaf, transgender, Jewish Chinese American. And despite the fact that many might consider some of those attributes a handicap, the model and activist has been able to leverage his uniqueness into commercial success. In September 2018, he signed with IMG Models, becoming the first deaf, transgender model to do so. The following year, he was cast in the DC universe series “Titans.”
The truth, however, is that none of those accomplishments came easy.
In 2018, Chella launched a YouTube channel to document his gender transition, sharing videos about everything — from taking his first testosterone shot to undergoing that very transition with his girlfriend MaryV Benoit. It was a way of publicly coming to terms with who he was as a person.
“Throughout my life, I felt othered in so many ways,” he recently said in an interview with In The Know. “I have felt othered through my disability. I was deaf, but I could also hear. I felt othered through my sexuality. I didn’t like boys and girls or just nonbinary people. I couldn’t figure out who I liked … I felt othered with my race. I wasn’t completely Chinese. I wasn’t completely Jewish.”
It didn’t help that Chella, who completely lost his hearing at the age of 13 and now wears cochlear implants to help him hear, spent much of his younger years in Central Pennsylvania, where minorities were few and far in between.
“Growing up, the little bits of Chinese culture that I did experience would be potentially from celebrating Chinese New Year, you know, learning little things like how [the number] eight is a lucky number, going to Chinese summer camps even,” the artist, whose Chinese father moved from Toronto to New Jersey at a young age, said. “I sadly don’t remember a lot from that. I was probably about 4 or 5 years old.”
To make things worse, Chella’s grandparents also initially attempted to detach the family from its Asian heritage, in an effort to assimilate into Western culture — something that the artist wished never happened. Though Chella said he did occasionally connect with his Chinese identity through his paternal grandmother’s cooking and his Jewish side by visiting temples, he spent much of his childhood surrounded by what was then mainstream culture: mostly white and Christian.
“The main question was why,” he said. “Why the imbalance? It’s only now I think growing up and seeing the world more clearly that I truly want to dive into my grandparents’ past and understand because I’m at that level, that age level, where I can actually comprehend it and understand the choices they made and why.”
The artist said that his family’s, along with his own, process of Americanization — in which he was somewhat expected to remove himself from his Chinese-ness — bled into other aspects of his life. As a disabled and transgender person, he found himself struggling to live up to the public norm, despite the fact that his family was receptive of his gender identity.
“I’ve always been outside of categories, and, at first, I believed it was hard,” he said. “I struggled a lot with it because I felt I wasn’t supposed to be outside of anything. And because of that, it brought up a lot of frustration and sadness and loneliness.”
In many instances, Chella said he would come across micro-aggressions that seemed to confirm that he didn’t belong. He was never anyone’s best friend — he was always somehow their Asian best friend. In other cases, people would come up to him, jokingly pull their eyes back and walk away. At times, the artist’s experience appeared to mirror that of his father, who similarly dealt with name-calling and hair-pulling, he admitted.
“I didn’t believe people I love could be racist, and I know now that was a huge misunderstanding,” Chella told In The Know.
Over time, through gatherings and conversations with both his Chinese and Jewish families, Chella said he learned that he had to be comfortable in his own skin. At his bat mitzvah, for example, he noticed how his culturally different relatives came together to celebrate his coming-of-age. In another instance, his mother once encouraged him to wear an androgynous-like Chinese outfit so that he wouldn’t feel as if he needed to identify as a cisgender girl whenever he was asked by others to wear a dress.
“There is a lack of validation when you feel othered because you feel as if there is no place for you,” he said, in recalling those moments. “And isolation begins to kick in then. I believe the key to realizing that you do not have to feel othered is to find your own representation, not only within yourself, but within your communities. And realize that, just like you, there are so many people out there that feel othered because of definitions that don’t completely suit them.”
Through this very realization, Chella has been able to use his identity as a tool to raise awareness. In 2018, he gave a TED talk on gender issues for LGBTQ and disabled youth — an experience he has since considered one of his proudest achievements.
“Not only was I publicly speaking about my gender journey and being extremely vulnerable and open about that, but I was conquering a fear and it was one of my biggest fears ever: being able to stand in front of anyone and say anything — that ‘anything’ being my gender identity,” Chella, who has over 429,000 followers and 259,000 subscribers on Instagram and YouTube respectively, said.
Still, Chella acknowledged his journey to self-awareness has just started.
“To be Americanized is to erase a lot of your own heritage in order to stay safe or feel as if you are part of the culture that is predominant in your region,” he said. “And in my case, I feel like I’ll always mourn not being able to know Chinese because growing up, if I had learned Chinese when I was a baby, I think I would have been able to retain it and understand it.”
If you enjoyed this story, you might want to read about hip-hop veteran Sophia Chang’s thoughts on being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
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