Wednesday, December 31, 2008

G00D 2009

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas/Mao's Birthday in Yanshan

It was the most magnificent classroom, the two full days spent in the small ancient town of Yanshan, in the district of Hekou, an hour outside the city of Shangrao, in the province of Jiangxi, literally named 'river west,' the river being the Yangtse. It was a crossing into knowledge as ingenious as building, well, a bridge on floating boats, to simultaneously learn about Chinese politics, economy, cultural appreciation, historical preservation, art, wit, the Chinese language, rural life and cadre superslicking.

The mensch Abi Basch, who I knew from Austin Texas, introduced me to her friend Li Fan, one of the rare Chinese that I have met who has an astute global perspective, having studied in Germany and effortlessly able to articulate and persuade in Chinese, German, English. (The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is to thank for granting Abi and Li theater and urban planning funds, respectively, and bringing both, and thus me, to each other's attention).

And so I was lucky enough to join Li's group of urban planners, intellectuals and students to engage with the local Yanshan government and its assorted officials/cadres in the strong urging of preserving the Qing Dynasty/Sun Democracy (turn of the century) architecture that upholds the distinct, local flavor instead of mowing it down to build nouveau riche, multi-storeyed condos. Alas capitalism's tendrils reach far and and grip tight, finding no discrimination in the shiny amnesia of gentrification.
Li gave her power point presentation with color-coded maps, text, and computer generated enhancements to provide the vision for revitalizing Hekou.  Attracting Chinese tourism would be a plus, but the idea is to preserve the historical region and also better the quality of life for the citizens, instead of just building, say,  a flashy, tourism street of new structures to prove (to themselves?) that money was well spent on modernization. Li gave her presentation amidst thick cadre smoke, constant chatter, discordant cellphone tunes and the endless pouring of tea. At one point I'd look at a row of cadres, sneakers, parkas, dyed hair, either talking, texting, or fidgeting with the sleekest of phones. It amazes me her ability to focus, to present passionately nevertheless. Halfway through her presentation, a cadre mentions that it is hard to hear her, and so lackeys are sent out to bring microphones in, which arrive a half an hour later and are never used.

Of the cadres, there were also heads of the department of water, of housing, those familiar with the region who would give their opinion about the plan proposed by Li. You could tell who gets respect by chatter level (E.F. Hutton?); many of them were just spouting party line: this is a good plan, we will take it to the higher ups. Others you could tell had a resistance to these academics who wanted to keep them in the old and deprive them of the chance to show modern prosperity.  They also talked of the resistance people would have if the officials were to regulate what they could build with their money (and couldn't build mansions for themselves).

Li reminds me of an elegant German spy. Her ability to make quick decisions and to procure them in the most even-tempered, unflashy way triggers a loyalty in me that I understand to be egoless leadership with the good of the people in mind. A tall man with large, 1980's-frame glasses in our entourage, who I call the Intellectual Chen, makes his appeal to the cadres and throughout the trip, backing Li up on their love of country and culture, and their best efforts to steer faulty government decisions away from self-interest and disaster for a progressing, 21st century culture. 

Of course my Chinese can only appreciate the astounding energy and verve behind the unrelenting pleas of the Intellectual Chen for China to be proud of her worthy traditions, and so I may be spinning a tale as idealistic as the cadres' are 'practical'. The eloquence could be so vivid that even my limited Chinese could pick up on the language brilliance, the coupling of simple words to make profound ideas, the incorporation of historical sayings that keep Chinese wisdom and mind alive. I am a follower of this brainy banter--there's no way I can find out what everything means, and so weirdly I become the woman the patriarchy wants me to be...quiet, attentive, obedient. The gorgeousness of Li as leader is that I feel the field is open for me to comment, she is our leader and the vision behind the whole meeting. It's a matter of my Chinese being up to snuff. If they talk about Taiwan and China, I mention the new Panda ambassadors. If firecrackers pop outside and they say it is for 'Christmas,' o but Christmas was yesterday, I can amend that it's Christmas in America. If they ask me about my experience in China, I can offer that it is a new feeling to be a majority instead of a minority. 

I continue to watch Li at our lunch banquet (there was Peking duck!) and her continued explaining to the lead cadres of the benefits and the possibilities of setting the example for revitalization that may be exemplary for other towns to be grown with government money. The hallmark of these cadres banquets, as you may know, is the ever-present bottle of bai jiu, white liquor that turns many a cadre face red, and certainly not from blushing.
And wassail we did. The Intellectual Chen constantly pleaded how he couldn't drink because he was ill but could not sway the constant cadre persuasion of keeping his glass filled. This is a time that the Chinese man is most macho, downing glass after glass, toast after toast. I felt the need to hide my party skills, else I would have to go through the habit of toasting each cadre down the line. It's a good life for the leaders--they accompany their guests with delicious dishes and the habit of drinking and smoking. Our entourage stood somewhat impenetrable as none of us smoked and many refrained from drinking. Li herself would toast with apple juice.
Out of a table of 7 cadres (there were 7 in our group), two were big shots that attended the meeting and the lunch banquet and spoke mainly with Li and the Intellectual Chen, three were at the meeting and to accompany me, the three students, the PhD. Wong (who absolutely did not drink) and two, Teacher Wong and Mr. Jie, both born and raised in Yanshan emerged to be our touring guides. 

Teacher Wong is a constant bolt of lightening. At Li's presentation, he was the one who spoke most passionately about her vision for his hometown, and the longest, as he was given the proverbial 'hook' at a Vaudeville show. Teacher Wong became a historian during the Cultural Revolution--when there was no school, he stayed at home and read history. He knows every inch of his district, every nook of history, every cranny of context, what happened to it during the Cultural Revolution, what it is used for now. Later we find out that he was a Red Guard. In fact he was representing the region at a Mao rally for the Red Guards on October 18, 1965 in Beijing. he was a pip-squeak at 13 and so he got rushed to the front and was the kid on the man's shoulder in the front. So vital and keen, to be so lit with revolutionary fervor at adolescence.

Mr. Jie did not have a father who was a cadre, like Teacher Wong, and came from the countryside end. He would go barefoot to collect wood and trade for food and eventually pay for tuition with the collected wood. He persevered in school and made it through to the ranks and now lives the cadre life.

Teacher Wong took us on two 4-hour walking tours, visiting and exploring what seemed to be every house in the district of Li's presentation. The doors are not locked. Teacher Wong walked in unannounced as families were working on their crafts, or eating lunch, or many a time playing mahjong. This must be the part of socialism that is like feudalism, where the folks don't have their own property and whoever is in charge can walk in, show these outsiders the period carvings on the beams, walk through the garden cleared with cement and clear the throat by spitting away. There is an order. There are no rights. Many invited us to sit and have tea. Many kids stared at us. A few glared and told themselves not to pay attention to us. Amidst the dirt roads, there were women in modest garb, but a couple were fashionable with spike-heeled boots. By the river, others were beating their wash with a stick.
Inevitably, huge posters of Mao, the Red Sun, hung over mantles along with deceased ancestors. Teacher Wong declared that his generation here is extremely loyal to Mao. On some walls there are quotations painted, about people having the power to rise up. One of the newer, younger cadres, who had the charisma of a superstar in the way he would describe his understanding and creative problem-solving of his district talked of a growing dilemma in the countryside. Folks would sell their dwellings to go to big cities like Shanghai to make money. After a couple of years, unable to acclimate, they return to the countryside and have no place to live. This frustration turns to violence. This superstar cadre stated: 'If the countryside is a wreck, the nation is a wreck.' 

Yes, why take the Mao poster down. It's actually now predictive, as surely, in light of all this sprinting growth, a neo-Maoist movement is sure to arrive.
On the second day of touring, there was rain. Something about these old towns and rain that evoked Kurosawa movies. Down one street Teacher Wong mentions how it was used in the 1980's movie 'A Turn of the Head, A Smile.' My only reference to the towns were the Chinese movies my folks would take me to see on the weekends in Chinatown, when men with hair buns would leap up to these styles of tile roofs (precursor to Crouch Tiger, Hid Dragon) and sword fight and cut limbs off and even one time cut someone in half. Teacher Wong also repeated many times how he hated the Japanese. 

There is constant discussion about the Cultural Revolution. We see so many of the historical saying that were engraved into the walls, shattered or ground away by the Re Guards during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao's huge motto was 'Destroy the old to create the new.' And so a lot of the ancient village was hit hard by the Red Guard fever. When Teacher Wong talks about his daughter, I ask if he explains all of his Red Guard experiences to her. 'No! She  does not want to hear such grotesque stories. Her generation is not interested in the Cultural Revolution,' and on cue, the Intellectual Chen tells of the importance of telling the younger generation. This is not the first time I've heard it--it's like China trying to proect her young from this anomalous time in her history. I agree with the Intellectual Chen, as there is a whole generation of old folk now so completely tweaked from all the torture and curielty they had to endure at the hands of the youth. Perhaps Teacher Wong does not want to give daughter any ideas.

That second night, December 26, towards the end of another banquet (with Peking duck again!) it suddenly came to mind that it was Mao's birthday.  'We have to order longevity noodles with ribs.' it's a tradition to eat noodles for a person's birthday, and I suppose the ribs were traditional cuz it was the Chairman's favorite. The waitress informed us that there were no more noodles.
We visited many buddhist temples and the smell of incense was present, burned or having burned on the mantles to worship the ancestors. Teacher Wong brought us to a newly-build Christian church. 'Oh you should have been here last night for Christmas. It was pouring over with people.'

'Is Christianity becoming popular?' I ask.

"O yes, very popular. And Buddhism too.' Teacher Wong replies.

The Intellectual Chen has a wry smile. 'There's no more Mao to worship.'

'And you're not allowed to follow Fa Lun Gong,' Li adds.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Have Yourself a Rural Little Christmas

Here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green
Here we go a wandering so fair to be seen
Love and joy come to you and to you your wassail too
and all bless you and send you a happy new year
and all send you a happy new year

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Scene by Cherry, Class 2A

Alma:  Tomorrow is Christmas. What do you plan to do on that special day?

Cherry:  I'm not sure. Maybe I will go to a nice restaurant with my friends and celebrate the holiday.

Sherry:  That sounds nice. Do you know the meaning of Christmas?

Alma:  I know it is a western holiday.

Cherry:  Just like the Spring Festival in China.

Sherry:  Not exactly. Christmas is to remember the birth of God's Son, Jesus Christ. He was born many years ago in December.

Alma:  Oh, that's right. I heard of his story before.

Cherry:  That's interesting. I like all the songs about Christmas.

Sherry:  Yes, they all sound so joyful.

Alma:  How about we celebrate the Christmas together? It's tomorrow.

Cherry & Sherry:  That's a good idea.

Cherry:  Oh.  Yes.  Let's.

Alma:  OK. We can make the plan first.

Sherry:  I hope we have a good time.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

Back when it was warm, I had the chance to sub for a class called 'Western Culture.' It's a 'class' comprised of watching American TV shows like 'How I Met Your Mother' and then going over the slang and then listening for the slang during the second viewing. It's like that first time I went into the Lida office and a bunch of students were watching every episode of 'Friends' and not laughing. O, they were practicing their slang comprehension. So yes Hollywood, make your shows according to the Nielsen market and know that you are representin' in English comprehension classes across the world. Then, there is a whole other side of comprehension that may be problematic to the non-sitcom watching American.

Since I didn't have access to the 'How I Met Your Mother' discs, I showed what I did have access to: Kung Fu Panda. I had actually heard from very smart sources, like the NYC actor Debargo Sanyal whose face lit up at the uttering of the title, that it was really good. And so for the 'Western Culture' class, (which was basically my Speaking and Listening class) we heard the fat-ass voice of Jack Black go from a noodle-making panda to a disciplined kung-fu master. It is the American Dream updated for the new, economically expanding Chinese population, and laced with enough core Chinese values in its enactings to hit home with the young Chinese population and charm the pants off of the 'Western Culture' class. They really took to it like it was a really good salesperson. I really took to it like it was the perfect cultural ambassador.

The hugest thing that the students responded to, and quote over and over again:
Yesterday day is history
Tomorrow is a mystery
Today is the present
that is why it is called a gift.

Ah wisdom. You say 'fortune cookie say' but the cadence really hit home. Americans love to make fun of these little ah-so ditties, but in Chinese, they really are concise and wise this way. That was one of the remarkable things about this flick, that it could re-spin these American stereotypes into a good-natured and earnest embrace of the truism (after all, stereotypes are true; they just are not enough to represent the whole truth). Any offense taken may just be one's own self-conscious discomfort with being minority asian in majority america, or you're just a thin-skinned, overargumentative liberal who has no idea what their actually arguing for.

We had an exuberant conversation following the movie. Here are a few things the students responded to:

We all have our place in the world.
Nothing is impossible.
The word 'flabby'
The pronunciation of 'shi fu' (master) as 'she fu' (like the english pronoun for girl).
There is now a Level Zero.
'Wuxi finger hold' no such thing, American invention?
You don't belong here (in our world)
You don't belong here (in my room)
Fat jokes.
The refrain: There are no accidents.
The illusion: A peach seed can wish to be an apple tree or an orange tree, but no matter what, it will grow to be a peach tree.
Guide. Nurture. Believe.
I need you to believe. You must believe.
Trust in your Master
When you've been trained, you may eat.
He taught you well--but he didn't teach you everything.
The mark of a true hero is humility.
Continue your journey without me. I am proud to have been your Master.
Definitive article swticheroo: I am not a big fat panda. I am the big fat panda.

It seems the students responded to the wisdoms of life and the empowering belief in self which is counter to both Chinese humility and Communist bureaucracy. There were a few things I helped  illuminate to them about the American psyche...and I had some favorite points too:

It was smart of Dreamworks to play off of Jack Black's movie persona. Here he is kind of a dufus schlub, dreaming of being a master and then having someone believe in him and give him the awareness of making masterhood possible. I had to inform the students that as much freedom and possibility that Americans are given, there is huge self-doubt and a constant need of empowerment. You would think if you had all of the resources and materials and power in your country, that all of the citizens would be functional and self-assured (like in Switzerland). But because the U.S. is so huge, and so diverse, with two coasts of possibility, that too many dreams diffuse focus. And perhaps the citizens are more easy to control because they are addicted to materials and do not have a focus of purpose, and so they need constantly need boosting, need assuring, need a Master to keep with them, to constantly advise (ja, Dr. Freud?). 

'O,' said the students. 
(They actually didn't say O. They got hesitant, or just let it gloss over).

Trust in your Master:
'I stayed, because if anyone could change me, it was not me: it was you. I can. I can. I will.'
(Panda's need for Master to continue, before he can wholly believe in himself.)

How are you gonna change him into the Dragon Warrior? 
I don't know. 
Yeah, that's what I thought.
(It sounds like such a dramatic retreat, but 'I don't know' is truly wise and brave. I think it deters co-dependence).

I eat when I'm upset--emotional eating.
(After I pointed this out, the students got this. And understood better why Americans are so fat. And why the Chinese are getting fatter.)

This is one of my favorite pop-culture switcheroos:
Panda returns to noodle shop. We've kind of in the back of our minds been wondering how a fat panda is the son of a neurotic duck. Noodles are foregrounded.
Panda Son: I can't believe I'm your son. 
Father Duck: I have to tell you something:
(Maybe because Angelina Jolie is the voice of the tiger, we're thinking it's gonna be a touching adoption revealing moment).
Father Duck: The secret ingredient is nothing.
(Aha, once again, it's all in the mind. It's what you want it to be.)

And for the final believe-in-your-self grand slam, 4 RBI sweep:
The ever-pursued Scroll, which is the secret of the Dragon Warrior is finally revealed.
The scroll has nothing. It is just reflective. It is just you. No secret ingredient.
This is a moment when the Chinese feel like, whoa, the Americans are really really into themselves--give me some of that!

Panda: You're alive! Or we're both dead.
Master: You are the Dragon Warrior. You have brought peace to this Valley. And to me. I am at peace.
Panda: Should I stop talking?
Master: If you can.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008


This week's lesson had to do with Studying and Working as a Nurse in the U.S.A. Before starting the class, I asked who of the students would like to study in America.  A hush. A silence. A stillness. No one would like to study in the U.S.? Another hush. A twitter. Some movement. Really. That's interesting. Tell me: why?

The students are reluctant, as if they'll hurt my feelings. O, they are giving me face.

I ask with more enthusiasm: Really, I'm interested to know. Of 8 classes, the first response was: too far. Then surveying the classes, I learn: it is expensive. Then: you have to learn English. Across the board, the classline: you need so much money and you have to learn English. It's like any job, I tell them--you have to invest and sacrifice to make lots of money. I tell them, if you know you are happy in China, and you don't need so much money, then that is best for you. Some people are only happy making money, so they are willing to leave China.

Then I hear something in Chinese. I understand 2/5 of it. Wait, the life style is good but...and she says it in Chinese again. I ask what that means. O, you don't feel secure. She nods. Because you see so many guns in so many American movies. Yes. Fantesy, a boy student from Class 6 who never answers any question, responds: It is our motherland.

Yes it is. And it is at this moment that I realize I can never be Chinese, because I do not have this kind of devotion to the motherland. This frees me.

During the very dry class material, there is a statistic about how on the West Coast of the U.S., there is a larger number of minority nurses than in the rest of the U.S.: 23%.

Does everyone know what 'minority' means? The usual silence, and then a whisper: shaoshu minzu. Yes! I say. (This is the '2' part of 2/5 that I know in Chinese.) I have them say it a coupla times:  Mi-nor-ity. Mi-nor-ity. And what is the opposite?  Majority. Let's say it everyone: Ma-jor-ity. Ma-jor-ity.

Who is the majority in China?  They answer: Han Chinese. That's right. Who is the majority in the U.S.? Usual silence, but interestingly enough, 2 of the only 6 male students in all of my classes answer: Indians. Really. They smile. Well, you know the majority of the U.S. is white. Bai ren. White People. The White People have thrown the Indians off of their land for the past 400 years. This is news to my classes. 

And then I continue with the demographics: The U.S. is 65% white, 15% black, 12% latino, and 4% asian. And I make it clear to them 4% is not just Chinese, it's all of the asians: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong, Filipino. All of them together are 4%. I've struck a kind of dumbfoundedness in my classes. Although on the West Coast, in my home state of California, it is different. The majority is latino, with 60% and 10% of the population is  asian. All asians.

I tell them that I grew up in the U.S., so I am of the U.S. The language that I understand life the deepest in is American English. I grew up as a minority in the U.S. seeing more white faces in the society and culture than my own. But now, here, in China, I am in the majority, and that is a very strong feeling. (The classes universally chuckle). My face is in the majority, and that gives me a kind of feeling that I have not had for most of my life. 

I tell them the coasts have asian faces but in the big middle of the U.S., it is white, very white. In fact I had been to the middle, to Kansas, to a small town to teach, where they had mostly seen asians on TV or movies, doing kung fu. The people of the midwest are very friendly, and they say what they mean. It's not like they think I'm a freak, they just don't have a lot of experience with live asian faces, just like you students don't have any live contact with white people. There were some International Korean students at the school, but mostly it's white. Some might think think that asians do kung-fu just like you think that everywhere you go in the U.S. it is unsafe.

Even if there are students in my class who wish to study Nursing in the U.S., they are in the minority and will not speak up for the majority to hear.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Through the Beijing Glass

Yes, with the godparents Vera and Paul Chow, us birds in front of the Olympic Nest.
I didn't suck
but didn't eat duck
had lamb from the west
and awed by Bird's Nest
The overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai is comfortable and cozy--was nestled in an upper bunk and slept to the hum of a north-bound train.  Next thing you know, we arrived to the dry air and a pristine chill. The taxi ride to the Beijing Foreign Studies University passed Tiananmen, passed a colorful temple, passed a crumbling city wall. The history was clear and present; the taxi-driver's warbled Beijing accent was not.
The Center for Chinese American Literature Research was started 5 years ago by Emeritus Professor Bing Wu, whose mother is a well-known poet who was a contemporary of Lu Xun's. It is now run by Dr. Liu, who is planning an anthology of Chinese American works.  I was invited by Prof. Wei Zhou, who found me on the Upstart Crow website, initially contacting me to ask for my Chinese name, since she was presenting a paper in Xian at a Chinese American literature conference.

The Center was kind enough to invite me to give a talk once they knew I was coming to Beijing. And so I tried to articulate thoughts of not just Asian American, but specifically Chinese American, to a Chinese audience. Quite a fruitful exercise.  In a seminar room just below the Research Center, I delivered the talk to 20 students, mostly undergrads with impeccable English (BFSU provides 80% of the diplomats, what with over 40 languages spoken). I am the first playwright invited by the Research Center to speak to the students.
It was brought to my attention by one of the students that the contradictions I describe for the Chinese American through Last of the Suns is resonant for the 80-and-after Generation (that's what the one-childers are called). There is now the conflict between freedom, in the form of you get anything you want from a set of parents and 2 sets of grandparents, and tradition, where academic expectations and societal darwinism put a damper on that freedom. How to fly?
Before the talk, there was a lively lunch with Prof. Wu, Dr. Liu, Prof. Zhou, and Prof. Zhang, a retired drama professor. Prof. Zhang was telling of how her granddaughter is not given any free time to play--her mother has legislated piano practice so intensely, that it has become a chore. She dare not say anything, and worries that the child only follows orders and doesn't have curiosities of her own.  Dr. Liu said she does not force her son to do anything--she and her husband are avid readers, and so he just follows suit and picks up books that he is interested in. I asked what Asian American means to them.  Too hard to pin point, they reply.
After the talk, a hand quickly went up: When can we see this play?
I wish for every playwright to find their audience.
Sometimes, playwriting feels like flapping your arms in the dark, aimlessly waving empty hands through the night.
And when you find your audience, suddenly there is a bell in your grasp and you ring and you ring.
Looking through The Beijinger, I notice there are 24 hour bars. I meet Dan, a friend of the Moo, who has lived in Beijing for 8 years and of late makes his living playing jazz guitar for many a cafe or embassy. We meet for Xin Jiang food--that would be lamb skewers and the most awesome sesame bread from China's far west--and I mention to Dan how progressive the nightlife in Beijing is. 'Yeah, there's no last call. I would actually call it regressive.'
My last conversation with Prof. Zhou was on the bus headed towards the subway. I mention how the U.S. and China are both superpowers, one declining and one rising. She kindly sets me straight. ''Superpower' is cold war terminology. I don't think it is in the Chinese nature to be a superpower, or that would have already happened. The Chinese don't want to call attention to themselves. They wish to live simple lives. Perhaps seeing China as a superpower is more a western perspective. The Chinese nature is not to be super. But the Chinese nature is to have face.'

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Highlights of the Contradiction

through the theater play Last of the Suns
As rendered by Alice Tuan

for Beijing Foreign Studies University
December 5, 2008

The talk was 90 minutes. Here are snippets from each of the six sections.


I was born in Seattle, Washington, in the northwest of the United States, to Chinese parents.

My mother is from Shanghai, from a family specializing in business in industry. My father is from Jiangxi Jiujiang, from a military family. His father, my Yeh Yeh, served as a Lt. General in Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist Army. My parents did not know each other in China.

Both of my parents studied at Taiwan University. My father came to the United States for graduate studies in Engineering and found employment in Seattle once he received his degree. My mother also came to the United States to study and also landed in Seattle. It is at this time that my parents met, and wed and started their family.


A kid would come over and push my nose down asking 'Why is your nose so flat?' I would say, 'Because stupids like you keep pushing it down!' Or another kid would ask 'Why are your eyes so small?' and I would naively say 'You should see my father's eyes--they're even smaller.'

It was a funny time.

When I was 5 years old, my father got a new job in Los Angeles, California. That was the first time I went to Disneyland. I liked to go on the fast rides and laughed constantly with my mouth wide open. I liked Los Angeles. It was sunny all of the time so you could be outside. I had no bothers or sisters, so I would play with my dolls and make up stories by myself.


My grandparents arrived 1 month before my sister was born. This was part filial, part pragmatic. Of course my father was taking care of his parents in their old age. But also my Nai Nai and Yeh Yeh would take care of my sister once she was born, and me, while my parents worked.


After Chinese school, we would get lunch from McDonald's to take home. Yup, even Yeh Yeh and Nai Nai. They really liked to eat Big Macs and of course, the frenchfries. Although Nai Nai would eat just a few because of 'huo qi.' That was a great site--to see Yeh Yeh and Nai Nai open sied for the Big Macs. No coca-cola, though, only tea.

When I was invited to sleepover at a friend's house, my parents wouldn't allow it. Yes they were being protective, but there was a feeling of not being allowed to have fun, not being allowed to socialize, American-style. Not being allowed to be close to friends, to participate, to feel normal. I would return home, extremely unhappy.


I was not a good student at UCLA. I had no Chinese rules now. I could do whatever I wanted. And why study? All of the time spent studying for entrance into the name-brand schools didn't get me into any of them. I fully embraced my American individuality and freedom. I would rather be a human than some successful machine.

Even though I had broken away from Chinese restrictions, somehow living free was wonderful but aimless. I wanted to exercise freedom through writing. I wanted to write but had nothing to write. Or what I wrote was filled with anger and confusion. Each time I would see my parents, all were unhappy. My Yeh Yeh and Nai Nai were getting older and weaker. I was made to feel insensitive and selfish. Chinese strategy on an American subject yields failure all around.

I realize Chinese criticism is for one's good, but to American ears it makes one feel like a failure. Particularly when here is no positive reinforcement. The U.S. way of teaching tends to be too generous with its praise, saying nice stuff to encourage and to not hurt anyone's feelings. This is not necessarily useful for the long run, as one might have an inflated notion of self. But the Chinese way of, 'I only tell you when you are bad and won't say anything if you are good' is realist and pragmatic and ego-checking, but somehow, inhuman. It is disciplinarian old school, vs. touchy-feely new school. It is patriarchy vs. matriarchy. It is competition vs. compassion.


Strangely, though, when I read the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, I felt like he was writing about my alienation. He wrote through many identities that would speak of many philosophies. But he was from 150 years ago. I needed help now. When I went to seek counseling at UCLA,  the nice white man had no idea about what to do with this dual psychology, this cultural schizophrenia. I would explain my thoughts, tell of my displacement. He told me: 'Just study harder.' When there is no one to help, you help yourself.

II.  LAST OF THE SUNS, the play

This plays intends to reflect aspects of one Chinese American point of view by:
--introducing dynamics between the Chinese and U.S. cultures
--relaying the stress of modern life trying to uphold old traditions
--procuring dramas of misunderstanding

In this play, I have completely fictionalized historical aspects of General Sun, in order to heighten and mythologize his character.

Yeh Yeh/General Sun--wavers in and out of past and present
Twila Sun--wavers in and out of Chinese and American
Sonny Sun--American, Valley dude
Ho Ping Sun--General's son, isolated Chinese in America, traditional
Ni Lee--General's daughter-in-law, Chinese in America, trapped between 2 eras, traditional vs. modern

Monkey King--trickster of many identities, multi-faced, fluid
Eight Pig--literal, gluttonous, the way only superpowers can breed

If one culture is clear in its value, transparent as a sheet of glass, then I will touch upon themes that accumulate to form the prism that I see Chinese American to be.

Ni Lee:  Here anything is possible with hard work.--Chinese discipline + American promise.

Children's success hugely important.
Doubly so for immigrant who is isolate from resident culture.
The Children become their culture, their huge center.
Conflict when children adapt American standards of free will.

Monkey King and Eight Pig reflect the immigrant isolation in that they cannot understand the western concept of 'unconscious' which they represent in the play.

This reflects a Chinese American disposition in that Chinese American know American ideas better and more directly than Chinese, so in a way, they don't know what they represent in the world.

Feminist elements.
Discarded women in the patriarchy
Unhappy modern women who 'can have it all'
Detached from maternal instinct due to need to win at all costs.
Ni Lee a modern capable woman caught in filial duty to husband and husband's family.
A huge repressed fury from the sanctioned inequality.

American and Chinese culture can agree on the lesser importance of women.

In a way Ni Lee and Twila both want to be heard but have different ways of going about it. Ni Lee, the Chinese, won't say anything, and just suffers, but longs to be heard with full attention, like a camera. Twila, the American screams for attention, 'look at me!' her strange hair and eyes, shouts to be heard with outrageous actions, goes against feminine norm by being tough and alienating. Both tactics yield deaf ears.

Hypocrisy vs. Duplicity
Hypocrisy, where word and action do not match up.
And example, the promiscuous use of sorry. Empty words. No thought before action and then just hapless 'sorry.' Not aware of inconsistency, or just doesn't care. Whatever.

Duplicity, aware of the double face. Saving face. Say opposite of what really is true to save face.

Words vs. actions--Better to say and then not do?  Or to not say and just do?
If not going to do it, why bother saying it?
Can words persuade, alter mood?

This cultural barrier
(In the play, Twila was to be an Olympic champion but could not take being treated as an ice-skating machine anymore and 'defected' from her family by sabotaging her Olympic trial and running 'screaming from the rink.' The day of the play she returns after a 5 year absence)

Twila: You need other people cheering for me before you can food good about me.

How about directly?  Twila wishes her mother to love her American style, to give her support and kind words.

Ni Lee: Children don't tell parents what they should say.
Twila: Then the parents have to share their life stories or their children will run screaming from the rink and find out about life from someone else.

Twila needs guidance, needs mothering. Ni Lee feels humiliated, cannot forgive her daughter for losing her face in front of the world. 

The title
The family Sun
The nationalist Sun
The boy of parents, son (Sonny has run away at the end)
all revolve around Yeh Yeh, the sun
Last is another word for endure, the family's endurance


patience/instant gratification
public space/private space


Writing to me is the last place for freedom.
You can decide about all the things you are taught.
You can determine what your world truths are.
You can find your own voice, your natural voice.

In 1988, I saved up enough money to be able to write for 6 months without working. In those six months, I came up with the first draft of the play called General Yeh Yeh.

I didn't know how to write. I just wrote. And kept on writing.

I now know in playwriting, it's important what people say, but it's equally important what they don't say.

Perhaps this is a way into eastern and western character: the new westerners are youthful, bold, have nothing to hide--they say it all out loud, talk and talk and talk. The older easterner is more guarded, aware of appearances--they say what should be said, and there is gravity in what they are not saying.

The First Scene
My Yeh Yeh inspired this play, yes. The event that sparked the writing: his warming his tea in the microwave. I remember being awoken by the constant beeps, as he could not find the start button.

Something about an old world man using new world technology, all the power at hand, but unable to start.

And so it started, as a short radio play for LA poet Philomene Long's playwriting class, broadcast on left Pacifica station, KPFK.

Language intersects character.
WHAT is said and HOW it is said tells a lot about character.

The beginning of the play starts with a child-like tone. The more we age, the more child-like we become. A full circle.

Monkey King and Eight Pig speak in rhyme and as Yeh Yeh joins in, he rhymes with them as well.

As Yeh Yeh casts his 'playmates' away, we hear his monologue as a powerful general decrying his loss to Mao, criticizing the detour of ideology towards that hairy Marx man.

When Yeh Yeh talks to Twila, we see him in the exterior world; he is indeed 100 years old, unable to hear, constantly braying 'HAH?!'

Ho Ping and Ni Lee have immigrant language strategies.

When speaking English, Ho Ping has a heavy accent--he speaks broken English, which is son uses as ammunition:  'Turn off it?  Speak right!'

When Ni Lee speaks English, she speaks with a Hong Kong British accent. This gives her an imperial feel, as Queen's English garners an air of respect.

When Ho Ping and Ni Lee are speaking fluent English in the play, this signals that they are speaking to each other in their native tongue, in Chinese.


The duel worlds coming together in the play is key to the success of the Chinese American psyche. And perhaps a healthy launch into a 21st century global mentality. One that does not solely embody one culture or another, but rather includes ways of living as the individual finds most meaningful, whichever culture it may come from, thus laying a path for global citizenry.

There was a time when I was completely confused by the label Asian American. What did it mean? I was like a snake, eating its own tail, trying to understand this label beyond the tidy comparisons of east and west. It must be more than Asian or American. The more I wrote, the more confused I was as to what I was supposed to represent.

In the American theater world, I am supposed to represent Asians, even though I am American. I am supposed to know about the Chinese, even though I went to American schools and was never taught Chinese history. When I attempt to show the fusion of the contradiction, the whole complexity of the Chinese American, beyond the surface comparisons, it is not easily understandable by American audiences. Or not as relevant. Or not as entertaining.

It  is not about entertaining Americans with exotic or pitiable or modernizing Chinese culture, which can seek acceptance by imitating western culture. It is about forming a new mentality, fusing the contradictions, so that it is not east or west, but rather east and west.

I finally understood that Asian American is a marketing label. A tool to better sell the package. One that looks yellow on the outside, but still can explain to the white on the inside.


It is one thing to write and another thing to be heard.
You can write as you like or you can write to meet the market.
Writing practices a faith in one's own ideas:
to believe when others don't
to test the 'truth' of an idea (there are so many truths)
to question its sustainability.

In the contextualization of the label 'asian american'
for Chinese and American alike
I knew I needed to better understand the asian side of the label
and so I knew I needed to live in China for an extended time.
I not only can observe the New China
I can also reaffirm what I appreciate about the United States.

How lucky I feel to be a writer at the beginning of the 21st century. A time of two mindsets: the literalness of paper vs. the porous ether of the internet. Opposite schemes. We are in that moment where the 20th century still has its imprint on systems and values and beliefs. But the 21st century will require an evolved set of systems and ingenious comprehensions to handle the further complexities of the modern being.

It's a new time, a new way to be. The rules are changing as the borders of countries become less apparent because of our shared global culture. Now is the chance to coexist contradictions, to house oppositions within one mind, without having winners or losers, without having one better than the other. This can deepend democracy. It can uplift humanity. This is an exciting beginning for the new millennium.

A head start on thinking about, of being in the 21st century.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Alice Through the Beijing Glass

Taking the night train to Beijing--11 1/2 hours yo
Got an upper, soft sleeper, chug a chug a chug
Gonna give a talk at the Beijing Foreign Studies University--
'The Contradiction of the Chinese American'
through the theater play Last of the Suns

hope i don't suck
gonna have duck
wish me some luck

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