Friday, December 5, 2008
THE CONTRADICTION OF THE CHINESE-AMERICAN
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.
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 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
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.
V. CHINESE AND/OR AMERICAN
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.
VI. NOW, SYNTHESIS
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.