Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 05 – The Bearded Lady ("COCOSANTI", Drag Artist)

Oscar Fuchs
Shanghai-based drag performer Cocosanti discusses how drag queens can teach us all that… it's OK to be a little weird.
Oscar Fuchs

The art of drag has gained mainstream popularity around the world, and China is no exception. Shanghai-based drag performer Cocosanti discusses how drag queens can teach us all that… it's OK to be a little weird.

Original Date of Release: 12 Jan 2021.

Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 05 – The Bearded Lady ("COCOSANTI", Drag Artist)

[Trailer]

C: OK, are you ready for this?

OF: I am. Oh my God.

[Intro]

OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.

Today's episode features another guest who wasn't introduced through someone in Season 01, but was someone I was very happy to bring into the project. It's the drag artist and performer, Cocosanti. It's quite a long episode today, so I won't say anything more, other than to mention that there's also an update interview with Sebastien Denes, the Diversity and Inclusion advocate from Episode 11 of Season 01, right at the end of today's show.

[Part 1]

OF: Thank you, Coco.

C: Oh, hey, thanks. I'm a huge fan of your podcast.

OF: Ah, beautiful. Coco, so let me mention your real name just once at the start. So your real name is Jiovani del Toro, right?

C: That is correct. No relation to Guillermo del Toro.

OF: And 'Jiovani' is Italian and 'del Toro' is Spanish. Is that right?

C: Er, yes.

OF: That's a weird mix. Come on, explain.

C: There's no explanation. Like, my brothers are Kenneth, Christopher and Steven. And I am Jiovani with a 'J'. Like, I'm not even the last child. Steven's the last year. I don't know where this came from. My mom was like "Oh, this is probably gonna be my last kid, let's go crazy with it. And then Steven came."

OF: Well, before we go into this, let's see your object. So of course, I asked everyone to bring in one object that in some way depicts their life in China. So what did you bring?

C: OK, are you ready for this?

OF: I am.

C: Kevin.

OF: Oh my god.

C: Yeah, that's why I was curious how you're gonna actually show this on your WeChat groups. Kevin is one of my first props that I ever bought when I started drag in 2017. And that was when I lived in 无锡 [Wúxī]. Kevin is a 20-centimetre dildo. It's a decorative piece, that's what I like to call him.

OF: Well you say decorative, I can see glitter on it.

C: Yeah, he's really hard to clean. It's just, he's… This was a piece that was very much worth it. I also brought him to my first drag show here in Shanghai. And ever since then, even though he doesn't always make an appearance on stage, he always comes with me. He's just interesting to look at. But more importantly, I bought Kevin at a random, like, outdoors sale. He was just chilling on a blanket. It sticks out like a sore thumb.

OF: Yes, like a sore 20-centimetre penis. Let's talk about what this means to you.

C: He's become sort of a good luck charm for me. And I know it's crude. And it's something that is exotic to many individuals. But he does bring me, like, a lot of comfort and knowing that I have a prop that I can use if necessary. If people aren't feeling, like, really lively or anything, you bring out Kevin and Kevin just makes people feel a little bit happier. Mostly because of the shock factor, and a lot because it's just a strange thing you don't see every day.

OF: It's the perfect object that I could have imagined you bringing.

C: Yeah, I mean, I'm not a crude person. Most of my work is very, like, artistically inclined. For me. Cocosanti is just like an extension of myself. You know, she's louder. She's more aggressive. She's very much in your face, but in a loving way.

OF: Mmm. Well, we have skirted around Cocosanti and what you do, but we haven't said that you are a drag queen.

C: Oh my god. Yeah, I'm not good at storytelling.

OF: This is why I'm here. So would you own that title? Would you say you're a drag performer, a drag queen?

C: Yeah, I refer to myself as a drag artist. When I thought about what kind of performance I wanted to do, I wanted to think about referring to myself as something that wasn't specifically aligned with just one concept. That's because mainstream media has taken a lot of the ideas of what it means to be a drag queen. And I am referred to, a lot, as the bearded drag queen. I mean, I'm not offended when someone calls me a drag queen. But like, it's… I'm not suited to create an illusion, like, you're gonna see me and you're gonna have questions, but you're not gonna like…

OF: Like "Wow, is that really a lady?

C: Right.

OF: No.

C: Yeah, mostly it's like "What…? How…? How is this holding up? What… What is keeping this together?" That's how I describe my drag.

OF: And you touched upon something that's interesting. So there has been a popularisation of the drag art. But you say that has consequences, it has some impact on what you do and how you think.

C: Right. I think that drag as an art form has blown up in the past 10 years. I think, starting in 2009 with a very popular drag show, there was a boom and a sweeping sensation of, like, people really wanting to get involved with the artistry scene, and really see what's involved with becoming a drag artist. But with that, of course, came a fan base that was a little bit more ready to critique individuals for their art, and ready to bring down individuals no matter what they wanted to do.

OF: You mean, because of the setting in this reality TV show, which is designed for conflict, right?

C: Right, exactly. The idea of this popular drag race television show being, kind of like, the model that people want to see in public became a little bit jarring for me, because I grew up in a city where I've always known drag queens.

OF: Right, so that predates the TV show, in that case.

C: Right, I've always seen, like, the weird and the strange and the aspect of art being portrayed in many different ways. And so, like, when this box was created, it became harder for individuals to really just allow them to be themselves, and really show what they're capable of. Because I've seen some incredible drag performances, and then when I came to China, I missed that kind of performance. Because I was always seeing one kind of performance, and it was the moulded concept of what was created by this popular TV show. There are some phenomenal drag artists here, who can dance, who can do make up like I am never gonna accomplish. But I did miss the aspect of something a little bit weird to it. And so when I started drag here in Shanghai, I kind of maintained those principles. I really wanted to be able to have the opportunity to give the individuals who don't have those opportunities - because they're not an illusion artist, they're not, you know, female presenting, they're not drag queens - to really have a moment to shine, because otherwise they'll be left in the dark. And I'm still sticking to those principles. I want everyone who has talent to be able to show it.

OF: Right

C: Not in the confines of, like, one idea.

OF: Well, let's talk about your idea. I mean Kevin here, sat here on the table, you are purposefully doing that to get a reaction from your audience. I'm guessing that's part of your act.

C: I don't… Let's go back for a second. I am from Boston. Bostonians are very brash, they will find your weakest point and cut you down for no reason. I am also.. I refer to myself as a 'Latinx'. It's not very common around the world, but 'Latinx' is a way to non-gender the Spanish language. Romance languages, they love doing that.

OF: Just, when you compare with Chinese, which has no gender in many regards, it's totally gendered, isn't it?

C: Yes. It's ridiculous. But yeah, I say 'Latinx'. But like, that aspect of me growing up - and also being a queer, little chubby brown boy - I just have a natural innate ability to find the flaws in a human being, and appreciate the flaws. When I find a flaw in a person - like I find flaws in myself all the time - I poke holes at them, and I laugh at it. Because sometimes it's necessary to just laugh a little bit at our imperfections. I need you to know your imperfections are what make you perfect. It is so important to realise that, because if you do not see that those little imperfections - or those big imperfections - make you stand out, then you're just gonna kind of swim with the norm. And it's okay to be a little weird.

OF: Yeah.

C: It's really OK.

OF: I really want to try and dissect your art. So I have seen you a couple of times - probably three or four by now, actually - and I love what you do…

C: Only three or four? How many performances have I had?

OF: Uh-oh. Come back, Coco!

C: No, I won't be flipping tables today. What I like to do in my art, is I like to disarm people. I want you to feel very comfortable when you're around me, and when you're around drag artists, because we are people. And so when people come in, and when they're at a show, I really want them to feel as comfortable as they possibly can be, to get them into a place where they know that they're in a safe space.

OF: Absolutely. No, I have to tell you, when I saw you for the first time, that's exactly what you did. You gave me the weirdness. And you gave me the warmth. And I felt like "Oh, wow. I don't know what that is, but I like it."

C: Yeah, that's alcohol. That's what that is.

OF: Maybe. But that was something where I was immediately impressed. Because I don't know many people who can cause that range of emotion at the same time. Like usually, it's one or the other. Usually for me it's like "What is that?" And I just allow that question mark to linger, and that defines what that is. That was why, ultimately, I wanted to have you on this show.

C: Oh. Well, thank you for having me. Yeah, no, I really want people to be very comfortable with just enjoying themselves. The reality is, is like, those expectations are set first when a lot of people are showing up. And when you break those expectations, people find a way to kind of adapt. And when people are coming into a space, and they're adapting to that space, you want to help them move through those feelings… and, like, how they can find a way to stay in that space, if that makes sense.

OF: It does.

C: Yeah, like, it's like a potted plant. When a plant starts to grow, you have to be able to move it into a new pot, and really let it flourish into something that it wants to be. So when you enter the space that I'm hosting, I really want you to be, like "Alright, I'm coming in. I'm coming to see this show. This show is gonna be great. I know what to expect. Maybe I don't know what to expect. What's that? Is that a drag queen? Is that a drag king? Is that a person? What is this? Oh, I'm really excited. Oh, now I'm really nervous. Oh my god, they're asking me to come on stage. Oh my god, why am I on stage? I'm sweating and shaking". It's OK. I got you. I'm not just creating art, you are part of the art as well.

OF: Let's move on. Let's go to drag in Asia, because actually it has a completely different cultural background, right?

C: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Drag in East Asia is something that is thousands of years old.

OF: Right.

C: Similar to what drag was for England - you know, you weren't allowed on stage if you were a woman, because you'd be considered a prostitute - the same kind of aspect worked in East Asia for hundreds of years. In China, in particular, we can date back to Beijing Opera. I want to say for the record, I hate Beijing Opera, never in my life have I just hated something so… And I get it, I get it, all right? But my god, there are sounds in there that my head could not fathom. But in the same concept as Western theatre, women weren't allowed to perform. And so men would dress in as characters for the female roles. So when we look at modern drag, which was influenced by Western culture - popular culture, specifically - we can see that in makeup artists who make their money using social media.

OF: Well, tell me about the community of drag performers in Shanghai. Is there one? Or are you all basically individuals?

C: There is a community. There are, like 20, I think. And it's a good mix of international artists and local artists. And it's wonderful to see them. Like, they all have their own personalities and their own concepts. They're my family.

OF: Yeah. Are there any that you would name, like in terms of the style that they bring, which can still surprise you. Like, who would you name?

C: Oh, there's so many. OK, I'm gonna name just a few. And these are people that I've worked with, and people that are really great to see live, so if you've ever had the opportunity to see them, please go see them. One individual - is also my roommate - Momeaux The Monarch, she is from San Diego, California. I'm going to give you a read for all of them. Momeaux does solos, she does not do group work, so don't ever ask her to do a group number. There is Fantasia Valentina, who is a phenomenal makeup artist, who is from China. She is a non-binary artist, but also was one of the first male-presenting makeup artists in China, and started on social media platforms, and really grew her platform. And - she's gonna hate when I say this like this - but she's like the grandmother of makeup artists for, like, especially drag artists. But she has a massive following in China. People come to see her in a show. She scares me every time she dances, because I think she's gonna fall. She just has this movement that makes it look like she's gonna tumble at any point, and I'm just like "****, someone's got to catch her." She also has a new line of makeup brushes, which I did not get. Fantasia, if you ever listen to this, I would like to get a free set of makeup brushes. (Also, I'll pay for one to support). Um Miss UniVers! Miss UniVers is from Russia, very well known in Shanghai as a dancer. Does not speak English. I'm kidding, she speaks English, you just have to like… When you tell her a joke, you have to know that her response does not mean she doesn't find it funny. It's mostly just her like "Mmm, I understand". And it's like. "OK? Oh, OK!". Actually when I first met her, I thought she hated me, and then I just found out it's her face. She's very nice. She's so sweet. She's one of the performers that I work with the most actually, we're both contracted to work at the same club. Yeah.

OF: Well, I have to cut you for time. I'm sure you would have given me many more names.

C: Oh, just one more, just one more. Just one more name.

OF: Go on.

C: Dorian T. Fisk, one of the reigning drag kings from Shanghai. Dorian does drag king like I've never seen before. They are a really great performer. They use props like there's no one's business. But also they just look stunning. It's incredible. Yeah. Okay. That's all.

OF: Wow. Thank you. I want to go back to your culture. You've mentioned your background in Boston, you've mentioned your Latinx background… So what was this, tell me about your family?

C: My mother is born and raised in Boston, she is Cuban and Colombian. My grandfather, mother's father, is Afro-Latino. And my grandmother is from Colombia. My father is Taíno and Puerto Rican. Taíno is a Native American.

OF: Right.

C: It's very much not known.

OF: Yeah, I've never heard that.

C: Because if you… Here's the thing. If you know Christopher Columbus, and you think of the "Indians" - I'm doing quotes - that he first met, the Taínos were what history talks about.

OF: Uh huh.

C: The reason why we're not really known is because the majority of us were wiped out.

OF: Right. And then we've touched upon your artistic background. What can you say about how that developed when you were growing up?

C: Oh, er, tee-ball is a sport in the USA, where it's a precursor to baseball, where young children go up to a stick with the ball on it, and you hit the ball, and then you run around the bases. I **** loathe tee ball. I thought it was the most useless… I'm like "What is this teaching you? Just to hit something on a stick? Like, it's ridiculous". So while I was in the outfield, I used to just draw on the field.

OF: How funny.

C: Yeah, I just used to draw, like, little designs and things like that. And my mom's like "Well, he's not liking this, maybe we should just put him in an art class." And then I did an art class, and I was like "OK I like this." And then from there - in schools and after-school programmes and things like that - I started really just exploring different mediums of art, which was great.

OF: So really, it was a synthesis of art and sport right there.

C: Oh, it's so funny you should say that. I have something called synaesthesia.

OF: Oh right.

C: Yeah. So synaesthesia is when your brain has, like, a cross between your senses. So for me, I have lexical synaesthesia, which means that I see colours when I'm looking at some kind of text. So if I'm reading, or if I'm writing, there's a lot of jarring colours that can pop out from the text. Which is why it was a little bit of an issue for me growing up, because I was a very slow reader. I still hate reading. I could get the work done, it wasn't an issue for me. But it was kind of a handicap when I was in school. You know, when the teacher calls on you, and they're like "Can you read this passage for me?" And I was like "I don't want to."

OF: Because when you did so, it would have bright colours coming out of the text.

C: Yeah. Right now, I still have it. A lot of people grow out of it. But for me it still can be a nuisance because, like, you'll look at something really quickly, and then it'll just flash in your face, and that's how I see it for me. However, I learned growing up how to use it to my advantage. So I was able to memorise lines quicker for, like, shows. Math, I could see the way the colours would, kind of, direct me to the things that I needed to do. So I could remember formulas really easily. It translates a little bit when I'm reading Chinese, because I started learning Chinese when I was 11. So I use that to, kind of like, balance between the pictures of the 汉子 [hànzi] and, like, the 拼音 [pīnyīn]. And I was like "Oh, I can remember these together, if I just remember the colour coordination". It still is annoying. And that's why I, kind of, listen to podcasts…

OF: Thank you!

C: …and audio books, because I still love reading, and I love research. But synaesthesia has always been there to bother me.

OF: How bizarre!

C: That's how my brain works.

OF: Well, maybe that's a good place to end this first section, because you talked about how you should embrace the things that are perhaps not perfect about you, whatever 'perfect' means. Apologies to everyone who knows that I've missed out 15 chapters of your life…

C: No don't… You always say "Let's move on to Round 2," and then people are just like "OK." But cue the music for round two! A-ha!

OF: Dammit!

C: Sorry..!

[Part 2]

OF: What's your favourite China-related fact?

C: Um, I don't have one. Only because, here's the thing, the facts that I knew about China keep changing. So like, sometimes I'll come here and I'll be like "Oh, that's an interesting fact". And then I find out a new piece of information, and I'm like "What the hell?"

OF: Yes.

C: "I learned it a different way. That's not… That doesn't work out at all for me," So I don't really have a China-related fact.

OF: Oh that's a good one.

C: Yeah.

OF: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?

C: Oh my god. I do. OK, are you ready for this? 说曹操曹操就到 [Shuō Cáocāo, Cáocāo jiù dào] or 说曹操曹操到 [Shuō Cáocāo, Cáocāo dào], which means like…

OF: Hang on, 曹操 [Cáocāo] is the famous guy from history.

C: Yes.

OF: OK. So hang on, 说曹操曹操知道 [Shuō Cáocāo Cáocāo zhīdào]?

C: 就到 [Jiù dào]. So it's like the Chinese version of saying "Speak of the devil, the devil will come".

OF: Right.

C: Right. All right, so it's really great because it's like, it just kind of rolls off the tongue really fun. And you could always just say like "Oh, 说曹操 [shuō Cáocāo]," like when someone enters a room and you're like, "Oh, this **** is here." That's what you can use. I had a teacher in Beijing who used it very often. And I was like "Oh, OK, you're a sassy teacher!" So it was really bad. But I love that phrase, I don't know why.

OF: That's great, thank you. What is your favourite destination within China?

C: My favourite place in China is any place with a very large window and a coffee shop. Now, the reason being is because, I like going on a train and going to a random city, finding a coffee shop, and just sitting by the window, doing my work, and people-watching. That's just what I enjoy doing. I love doing it in the U.S. as well.

OF: I like that.

C: Yeah.

OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?

C: Same answer for both. It's a combination of three things Taobao, 美团 [Měituán], and 嘀嘀[Dídí]. Once I go back home to the US, I'm going to be so sad that I have to start using Amazon, or I can't order food randomly in the middle of the night, without paying a surcharge of like 500元 [Yuán], you know, or getting a taxi for the price of a cup of coffee. And I get it, I understand why. But my God, it's so convenient. And I hate that I've adapted to it so well.

OF: Oh, this is why it's also the thing you won't miss.

C: Oh, it makes me a monster. I'm gonna have to, like, learn how to be a stable human being without the aid of things that can come to my doorstep whenever I need it. Yeah.

OF: Is there something that still surprises you about life in China?

C: China has grown so fast and so quickly, and so many cities have developed. But one thing that will always surprise me is the obstacles that China puts in the way, that I think it's just for like people to get a kick out of. Like, the only entrance into the Metro is, you have to walk all the way down here. And we could open this stall up, but we're not going to do that. They're just minute, little things that just don't… it's not necessary.

OF: I think it's all the more pronounced because 99% of the things are quite streamlined, are quite organised. And then, why? Why have this one thing which does not make sense?

C: Yes, it's just the little things.

OF: Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or hang out?

C: Oh, I am a huge foodie. And I say this with pride, I'm foodie, and I'm fat, and I love it. That being said, I thoroughly want to give a shout-out to Charlie's…

OF: Charlie's Burgers, is it?

C: Charlie's Burgers. Yes, there are times really, really late at night, where I'm just like "Alright, I need to eat something, because I'm coming home from work at 4am." And I don't mind eating something like 兰州拉面 [Lánzhōu lāmiàn], but, like, I don't want something heavy and oily and greasy. And I'm like "Oh, Charlie's is open. I can just have like a chicken nugget."

OF: What is the best or worst purchase you've made in China?

C: The worst purchase I ever made was these shoes. And being like a 47/48 in China size, I'm thinking "Oh OK, maybe I can, you know, find something that will fit," because everyone has all these really nice shoes. And I have like, three, from the U.S. Because it's the only thing I have. And I bought these shoes, and they were just… I don't know what they were. They weren't designed for a human foot. They're like "Oh, a goat is gonna be wearing this, it'll be fine." It was just shaped so off, and it pinched in ways that, like, never pinched before. And stupid me was like "I'm gonna wear these for a show. They're supposed to hurt like this. It's fine." Those things were so, so poorly made, the heel snapped.

OF: Oh, God.

C: Yeah, I was so angry. I was like "Who is this made for?"

OF: What is your favourite WeChat sticker?

C: Oh, there's so many. Um…

OF: OK, send it to me now.

C: I sent you. Do you see it? So my favourite Corona WeChat sticker is that meme of the dog on fire. He's just, like, sitting in a burning room being like, "Oh, it's fine." Another one is from one of my favourite TV shows, it's like a little cartoon show, and it's just like this lumpy space princess. And she's just like "You're bad. And I like it."

OF: Oh that's great.

C: And then the one I use the most is a flipping-the-hair-back kind of sticker. I use that too often, and it's mostly because I know when I was younger, I used to do that all the time. I'd be like, yep.

OF: And it's the tongue placement too.

C: Yeah, that's… It's literally the face that I make all the time.

OF: Oh that's great.

C: That is the sticker that I use the most.

OF: What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?

C: I am not a singer. I have no musical bone in my body. I really don't. I don't. I like musicals, I like Broadway musicals. But I mostly just kind of like, chill at KTV, while my friends - who are all performance people - sing. But I'm pretty good at Superbase, by Nicki Minaj.

OF: OK.

C: Yeah.

OF: And finally, what other China-related sources of information do you rely on?

C: Oh my god, get ready for this. There is a website called 蛋蛋赞 [Dàndànzàn].

OF: Oh right.

C: Yeah, you really, really need to use it, especially if you don't have access to a lot of film and television online. This website gives you the access to watch a variety of television shows

OF: Oh it's got a good library, has it?

C: Oh it has the best. You'll never have a problem finding something you want to watch on. 蛋蛋赞 [Dàndànzàn].

OF: Wow. OK, you've opened a new door for me.

C: Oh, please, you have to use it.

OF: Coco. What a pleasure.

C: Oh, thank you, Mr. Fuchs.

OF: And finally, you know what's coming next, don't you? If there was anyone in China who you recommend that I should interview for the next season of Mosaic of China, who would you refer?

C: Yes, there is an individual named Xie Xiao. He is one of the heads for CinemaQ, which is a queer film initiative in Shanghai. I think it would be really fun to have a conversation with him, because he has great stories. Because he also does work with another programme called Queer Talks as well.

OF: Well, thank you. I look forward to meeting Xie Xiao. And thank you again, Coco.

C: Thank you for having me. And please, please, please don't tell anyone about this interview.

[Outro]

OF: So, first things first, if you have been questioning whether or not to subscribe to the premium version of the show, I hope today's episode will push you that much closer to making the investment. It's just 2 dollars a month, and it gives you a lot more content in each weekly episode. And just to prove it, here are some excerpts from the longer version of today's interview:

[Clip 1]

C: But that's just me being judgy. Like, I'm gonna always be judgy.

OF: That's your brand.

C: I know, it's so hard.

[Clip 2]

C: The individuals who started the whole thing were slowly pushed to the back.

[Clip 3]

C: I'm smart, China, I am. I have degrees.

[Clip 4]

C: To me from my American mind, I think this is a huge political statement.

[Clip 5]

C:"You look like a troll doll." Well, OK. I guess we're not doing that anymore!

[Clip 6]

C: "Hey, can you send this tomorrow, because I really need it". But I don't. I never need it. I just want it.

[End of Audio Clips]

One quick correction, Coco and I both misspoke when saying the name of his referral for Season 3, which should be pronounced Xie Xiao rather than "Xue" Xiao. Coco also wanted me to clarify his comment on the Beijing Opera. He's a fan of its rich tradition, it's just that his body simply can't cope with the frequency of the sounds that come out of it. Just search online for any video of Beijing Opera, and you'll see what he means.

Speaking of online, there are a lot of photos to accompany this week's episode, I went a bit crazy today, especially with images of Coco, some of which she gave me herself and others that I took from her social media channels. Many of those were taken at the venue where she - and other drag queens - perform regularly, which is The Pearl in Shanghai, so go see her there if you can. And unfortunately, no, you won't be able to laugh at her shoes from now on. Since recording this episode she told me that she has found a trusted Taobao seller for buying heels in her size. Congratulations Coco.

OK, I can hear that I'm switching from 'he' to 'she', whenever my mind switches between Jiovani and Coco. Whatever! You can see all these images on Instagram on mosaicofchina_* or for Facebook and WeChat, just search for mosaicofchina - all one word - and you'll get to us. I've censored the photo of the object Coco brought, you'll have to be a Patreon subscriber to see Kevin in his full glory. But you can see all the rest: there are the WeChat stickers; there's an old family photo of Coco with the whole del Toro family back in Boston; some photos of the other Shanghai Drag Queens that Coco mentioned; an image that depicts how words look for people with synaesthesia; and so many more, I just don't have the time to go through them all here, so please check them out, I promise it's worth it.

Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. Stick around for the shortened version of my catch-up chat with Sebastien Denes from SAP, and I'll see you again next week.

[Catch-Up Interview]

OF: Sebastien, lovely to see you.

Sebastien DENES: Same here.

OF: What has been your Coronavirus story?

SD: I would say it's a little bit schizophrenic, because we are here living our life. But on the other side, with all of our families back in Europe, in Italy, in France, we are struggling with them as well a little bit, right.

OF: Yeah, schizophrenic is the right word. And also, you're guilty because you're having quite a normal life compared to your family back in Europe.

SD: Yeah. I think we talked a lot about privilege, last time we talked.

OF: Yeah

SD: You realise how privileged you are to have this key to travel, which is your passport, where we could navigate COVID fairly easily.

OF: Yes, you had choices.

SD: Exactly.

OF: Right. Where are you right now? Is your job the same? Is your situation the same?

SD: Well, I'm actually in a transition. This is something we planned for years. And I'm moving out from Sales & Services to Engineering.

OF: OK.

SD: So…

OF: … Oh, which is where Steve is?

SD: Yeah.

OF: Let's talk about then, Steve, as the example you gave as somebody on the autism spectrum that you hired here in China?

SD: Yep.

OF: Have you noticed that the people like Steve - and other people on the spectrum - managed this situation differently?

SD: Again, it's an opinion, right. So I think they have this capability to adapt to a less social environment. Nevertheless, the challenge for us is, how do we keep the link?

OF: Mmm.

SD: Right? And how do we keep them engaged? Because being in the office is also helping them engaging, socialising with colleagues, and eventually customers as well. And this has been a little bit taken away from them. For example, Steve had a buddy that was sitting very close to him, and being there to help him, and eventually support him, and vice versa. And, of course, with not being physically together, then you need to look for different communication methods, right. And by the way, Steve is not alone. We hired a couple of other employees on the spectrum. We are in the process to hire one right now, because we didn't want COVID to be our excuse not to continue.

OF: That's great. Because it's like a muscle that, if you don't exercise it, it will start to atrophy.

SD: That's interesting, because that's the conversation I had yesterday with a few other people. We were talking about a completely different subject, LGBTQ. It's very easy to be LGBTQ-friendly during the month of June, because it's the month of LGBTQ. Nevertheless, it's all those other months that are tough. Because this is where you need to be consistent. This is where you need to be really inclusive, when nobody's looking, when nobody's watching. When we met 15 months ago, we were establishing a lot of foundations that we see, today, holding our entire building of Diversity and Inclusion within the company. Many of the actions that we started, that I started personally, I am very lightly involved, which means…

OF: …That it's been embedded in the culture.

SD: Exactly. And that's what I'm most proud of. Not so much of what I've done, but much more of the seeds that have been planted, and the trees that have grown.

OF: Well, that's great. And you know, it's nice to hear that a year on, it's not just a story, but it's a legacy. Sebastien, thank you so much. It's been great to catch up with you again. You actually referred somebody who, for certain reasons, could not be part of the next season of the podcast. But we have a very nice person who could step in. And so I will include parts of this interview in that episode. It's still been a great excuse to catch up with you, so good luck with the future.

SD: Thank you, Oscar.

*A different Instagram handle was mentioned in the original recording. That handle is now obsolete, and the updated one has been substituted.

Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 05 – The Bearded Lady ("COCOSANTI", Drag Artist)

Oscar Fuchs: Creator, Producer and Host of the Mosaic of China podcast

Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.

In China, the podcast can also be found at 苹果播客, 小宇宙 and 喜马拉雅.

Internationally, it can also be found at Apple, Spotify, and all other podcasting platforms.

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