The theater in Silliman is bustling with activity. I grab a seat quickly to avoid sitting on the floor. As I look around, I see several familiar faces dispersed in the audience. It’s striking to see all of my Asian-American friends at once, each with their own friends. Cultural events like this one always make me realize how large we can be as a group, especially at Yale. As I wait for the hosts to finish their announcements, I’m both excited for and hesitant about the screening.
I’ve been looking forward to the premiere of “Fresh Off The Boat” ever since ABC announced its production early last year. Network television rarely depicts Asians who aren’t typecast as competitive nerds, antisocial geeks, Tiger moms or Kung Fu masters. Growing up, I didn’t even feel uncomfortable about these stereotypes because I felt so removed from these characters. I never expected to identify with or even remotely relate to the Asians on screen, much less be exposed to a story about my own upbringing in America.
But as the show began, I immediately connected with the main character, Eddie Huang. Like Eddie, a Taiwanese-American middle school boy, I also had to uproot because of my father’s entrepreneurial pursuits. Eddie finishing his after-school homework in the restaurant almost exactly reflected my own childhood days, studying in the back of a one-hour photo shop and a teriyaki bowl restaurant. I too remember begging my mother to buy me Lunchables, feeling isolated in my white community and turning to hip hop music for inspiration.
As I saw a narrative that transcended the typical immigrant struggles I was used to seeing, I felt a kind of high that you get from being part of the same inside joke. I got the Huang family.
But I can also see why the show has received so much criticism. Eddie Huang, the producer and author of the original book, recently criticized the network’s distortion of his memoir in an article on Vulture. The show gives off the impression of a typical mainstream production: The scenes feel contrived, the storyline clichéd, the characters flat. Despite these flaws, my mind was made up. The show forged a powerful connection with me.
For once, I finally knew what it felt like to see my minority narrative broadcasted to the very culture into which I was taught to assimilate. I wanted to go back to all of those times I tried to explain my childhood experiences to non-Asian friends in frustration and show them these episodes. It made me wonder if this was what white people feel when they watch “Friends” or what black people feel when they watch “Scandal.” I wondered if I would have felt more confident in my heritage had I, as a child, seen relatable Asian-Americans or Asian-American stories on screen.
“Fresh Off The Boat” marks an unprecedented moment for Asian-American representation in the media. A powerful solidarity emerged that day in the theater because, as Asian-Americans, we are all affected by one truth: When America makes assumptions about who we are, it is based on our Asian faces.
For a long time, I have passively accepted the fact that I would have to prove to others that I was more than my media representation, but with “Fresh Off The Boat,” I may no longer have to. Next time, when my non-Asian friends ask what it’s like to be me, I just might tell them to watch the show instead.
My mother’s given name is Fang. Friends and teachers here have always said it like it’s a sharp tooth. But in Chinese, it’s got a brief but harmonic “ahh” sound, the kind the dentist asks you to make. I like to think that my mother and her name toughened up for America. It makes for a good story, you know? It gives you something meaty to chew on.
In the spring of my junior year of high school, I took an English class called “Stars and Dust,” in which my classmates and I learned how to write creative nonfiction. “It’s about truth. Write what you know,” my teacher admonished after our daily warm-ups. So I wrote about hurricanes. I wrote about ants and ghosts behind bedroom doors, about silence and surgery and scabs. Bluebonnets in desperate bloom along the gray highway. I wrote about roots and my mother.
In a way, I almost felt like I had to. I mistook writing what you know for writing everything you know, and I confused confessional angst with honesty. I saw aspects of my life as little doors to be unlocked one by one and thrown wide open to the foreign eyes of my classmates: One week I wrote disability (so brave!), the next week I wrote ethnicity (so edgy!). An advent calendar of life experiences. Ethnicity especially — actually, race, ethnicity, nationality, the distinctions were muddy to me at the time (“as muddy as the polluted banks of the Yangtze River,” I probably would have written back then). All I knew was that it sounded really poetic to talk about accents and foreign rivers and the nicotine staining my grandfather’s tongue, and the way my mom checked locks three times and called out to me from downstairs, “Mimi, ahh!” These things added texture. They added truth!
Junot Díaz pulls this kind of thing off. So do Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Julia Alvarez. I couldn’t. I recently reread the story I wrote about my mother, and the words sound nice, and I make a semi-vulnerable mention of my bacne at one point, but it doesn’t feel honest or full. At the end of the story, I tell my mother I’d rather have her homemade dumplings over French fries any day.
Where did that come from? When did my mother’s messy story — displacement and money-tightness and homesickness and unemployment — get distilled into a sappy winter-night bonding scene at a McDonald’s drive-through?
Part of the problem was likely my lack of self-discipline. I was an immature 17 and allergic to self-discipline and trying to hit upon the right chord of truth. I’m almost 19 now, which isn’t much better.
Beyond that, I tried to write my mother’s story in a way that it was never lived. I thought her foreign struggles would be more “authentic,” not only because of the suffering-equals-art trope, but also, at least a little bit, in the way Gauguin painted native girls like fruit and called it art. He liked their rawness, having escaped all the artificiality of society back home. But when my mother counted tips as a waitress in an oily Americanized-Chinese-food restaurant, she had no comforting sense of “keeping it real,” and she never thought, at least consciously, that her circumstances were somehow more authentic or morally resonant. They were simply harder.
There was something else, too. I relished the thought of having something that most of my classmates didn’t, as if experiences were possessions. We were forever disciples of that mantra, “Write what you know,” and we exploited life material for literary material. Equating singularity with creativity, I grabbed onto this thing with slick, greedy fingers and rearranged it onto an Microsoft Word document. I made myself, I made my mother as different and as novel as possible because I wanted to say something original. But all this time, my mother’s been trying to rope in the stubborn runaway vowels that still tell people she’s from someplace else.
I remember stuttering when my teacher asked me to read my story aloud to the class, my own words dragging their feet on their way out of my mouth. My mom, on the other hand? Well, she’s a fang.
I was surprised when the public service announcement warned: “This play may offend white people.” It was an odd start to a play that aimed at breaking down racial barriers.
“The Dance and the Railroad & Bondage,” a back-to-back showing of two plays by David Henry Hwang, is the first Yale performance to focus on Asian-American identity, explains Assistant Director Elaine Zhang ’17. True to its goals, the plays definitely force audience members to explore how painful and complex race and gender can be.
The production is undoubtedly provocative, and in that way could be offensive to many people, regardless of race. But crossing the line of what is socially acceptable is necessary. The plays lack adventure and plot. The conversation is sometimes dry; the characters basically discover themselves, on stage, through conversation. But the play is redeemed because it is a risqué, straightforward and honest discourse on identity.
The backdrop is a simple white sheet painted with the outline of mountains and sun. In a matter of seconds the serenity is broken by Ma, a young, naïve boy who comes up the mountain during a strike to learn opera from Lone, a recluse. In a subtle twist, Ma is played by a girl, Stefani Kuo ’17. The gender switch is an excellent move; Kuo’s high-pitched voice and youthful enthusiasm captured Ma’s boyish naïveté. Gender becomes neutral, following the production’s aims.
At first, the dynamic between Lone and Ma is a bit awkward; as the tension between the jaded and the ambitious collide, the actors almost do not know how to deal with their historic roles. I did not feel a tangible relationship between the two — it seemed like two individuals in stilted interaction. Perhaps it is the nature of the script, which focuses on individual identity at the expense of realistic dialogue. Either way, with time, they warm up and begin to seem less scripted.
“Eight-hour day good for white man, also good for China man,” Kuo delivers in broken English. The meek delivery of the line poignantly captures the defeat, the exploitation, the cultural barriers and the racism that pervade the play. While the text was a bit dry, the actors brought the characters to life, making the production surprisingly captivating.
As the scene fades out, the painted sheet abruptly drops and club music comes on. All that remains is a glow-in-the-dark sign that reads BITCH. The change of pace is a false promise, because the next hour is another round of conversation between two people. With the new set comes a new play, “Bondage,” and a completely new perspective on the racial tensions in America. The play transitions 100 years from the historical, external obstacles immigrants faced to the internal identity issues of modern-day Asian-Americans.
While in many plays the setting is three-dimensional but the Asian stereotypes lamentably two-dimensional, these plays feature minimalist, two-dimensional sets to call attention to the many dimensions of the characters and their complex dialogue.
“Bondage” is not action-packed. It is not unpredictable. The setting is provocative, but not sensual. The real strength of the one-hour play is the way it explores territory where most people will not go. Its setting is an S&M parlor. Both characters, who are regular sexual partners, hide behind black ski masks and completely black clothes.
Its characters are playing with chains, whips and collars the entire time. It’s quite novel.
The premise of the play is that racial dynamics, like sexual dynamics, can have catastrophic consequences on people’s identities. At times the sexual atmosphere seemed to be unintentionally awkward. For a few moments it was powerful and jarring, but after an hour it had lost the shock factor that brought people in, and the dialogue dragged.
Director Crystal Liu explained that the two plays were meant to blur gender lines. In the gender flip of “The Dance and the Railroad,” the production was successful. I didn’t even realize Ma was supposed to be a certain gender until well into the play. In “Bondage”, however, the playing with sexual dynamics and gender seemed a bit coarser. Both the female and male parts were played by women, but this seemed to ignore the male-female dynamic that was meant as a metaphor for the dynamics between races in America.
While the deeply ingrained prejudices addressed can make the issue seem hopeless, Hwang leaves the audience with this thought: “The rules that govern the behavior of the old era are crumbling but the ones from the new have yet to be written.” The play is raw. It is unfiltered. Which is important, since the play is about digging below pretenses. It exposes “political correctness” as a masquerade of true racial acceptance, which means that nobody is safe from scrutiny, not even the “liberal.” This play is worth seeing not because it is funny or particularly well-written, but simply because it offers a fresh perspective on race and identity.
It wasn’t until Sep. 11, 2001 that I realized my hometown was only 12 miles from New York City. They were 12 very long miles though, clogged with traffic and striated with densely packed layers of the American cake. Crowded ethnic neighborhoods squatted near buttoned-up suburbs, which butted against gated mansions. Every day, my parents commuted to Manhattan from our home in Tenafly, New Jersey. It sometimes took them ninety minutes to crawl their way across the George Washington Bridge.
But we were still only 12 miles away, so in the weeks after 9/11 we could see smoke rising into our suburban sky. While my mother drove me between piano lessons, the library and Stop & Shop, I’d see plumes gliding like wraiths above us — cresting between treetops, appearing around corners, waiting for us at the tops of hills. Once, my mother pulled over near the golf course on Knickerbocker Road and we just sat there, gaping at the gray wisps that we might have otherwise mistaken for cirrus clouds. My mom already got a prime view of Ground Zero on her daily commute, but it must have been even more stomach-turning to see the smoke from our quiet town, where housewives tended their petunias with fierce precision and the rowdiest residents were Canada geese.
Two of my classmates even swore they could smell the charred rubble. I had never been a good smeller, so I just nodded along. I did a lot of nodding during those weeks.
I nodded when adults talked about “our big family,” and “lifting our neighbors.” As a nine-year-old with reserved Indian parents, I didn’t have firsthand experience of that hyper-American, vaguely Judeo-Christian lexicon of “community.” At first it felt strange to see grown-ups replacing tight handshakes with white-knuckled hugs, treating one another with what I assumed was a very sucralose brand of sweetness. It felt strange watching our disinterested school principal give a speech that actually brimmed with feeling. I don’t quite remember what he said, but he definitely tried to stitch together a flaccid metaphor about our school being like a beehive or an ant colony.
Soon, though, even my principal’s clichés began to make sense. I had never before felt part of a community outside of my family. Now, it was strange how little events accreted to produce a pull of pleasure in my gut: a “hello” from my cooler, blonder neighbor; a snug goodbye hug from my friend’s mother; a watery smile from a typically gruff teacher. It was like my town and school had extended long woven webs, and I suddenly found myself at home in their tangles.
These local webs all fed into the big star-spangled one. Until 9/11, I hadn’t thought much about what it meant to call myself “American.” Now, in Ms. B’s fourth grade class, we were coloring pictures of the flag and discussing national security policy — neither of which, I suppose, was a particularly age-appropriate activity. In our discussions, we learned to use phrases like “liberty versus security,” which we had learned before but had never corresponded to such tangible, kill-those-men-now stakes. For the first time, I found myself thinking about America enough to realize I might love it.
We also learned a few patches of world geography. Ms. B showed us Saudi Arabia on the map, explaining that 1. We got a lot of our oil from there, and 2. That was where Osama bin Laden was from. We talked about Afghanistan as well, but our focus lingered longer on Saudi Arabia, the country we saw as Bin Laden’s true progenitor. We didn’t learn other world geography that year, so I suppose that lesson had served the purpose of demonstrating the vast, reassuring distance between us and the people who lived “over there.”
But far more potent than knowledge of the 6,528-mile distance between Manhattan and Riyadh was the image of Bin Laden’s haggard face, which now stared at us from every television and newspaper. My classmates relished the opportunity to describe how scary he looked, with his grizzled beard, his wild eyes and dark skin. He was a perfect Disney villain. It was easy to imagine his long brown fingers folded together as he hatched diabolical plans.
I didn’t talk about Bin Laden’s face. My skin was his color. My father’s beard was dark and thick. Still, I also didn’t challenge the thought that Bin Laden’s features were naturally threatening, that something about their combination had formed evil incarnate. Later, it would scare me to think how little I questioned the nature of that feeling, the fear of my own skin that had come to rest in even my own bones.
So when my teacher led us in a discussion about racial profiling, I raised my hand with everyone else to agree that sure, yeah, of course it made sense. A popular classmate had shared a story about how her father had recently taken a flight alongside a bearded, turbaned man. My classmate’s dad had ducked into the bathroom and broken federal law by using his cell phone, calling his wife and daughters to say that there was a terrorist on his plane and that he might not make it home. I said that my father had a short beard and no turban. Indians with turbans were generally Sikhs, I said. They were people from an entirely different region than my parents who practiced an entirely different religion than we did.
And when my friend and I were swinging in the playground after school and she sang out “no offense, but your dad kind of looks like Osama bin Laden,” I didn’t know how to tell her I was hurt. Instead, I told her my family was Hindu, not Muslim. That wasn’t true. My father had been a card-carrying atheist for a long time, but “Hindu” now seemed a more credible alibi.
When the only other brown kid in the fourth grade got called “terrorist,” I sat silent. He was a recent immigrant with a strong Indian accent. I didn’t defend him from the name-calling because I was confident, and mostly correct, that my pigtails and lack of an accent would keep me safe from the word. I even savored a bit of schadenfreude when it happened, remembering the time he had chased me around the playground while spitting a Hindi slur that I didn’t understand.
I was called “terrorist” a few times, too, but the group of my detractors (a few third-grade boys with stringy hair) was much smaller than the group that taunted the other boy. I was more than a match for my bullies, shooting back with retorts like “I was born here, ass-wipe,” or “I speak better English than you, turd.” My voice seethed with the coarse, deliberate insults of the American-English vernacular. Try and deny me my nationality now, you cornholes.
In the years to come, as the U.S. dropped bombs and the brown bodies piled higher, I kept pointing, like Ms. B had, to the world map. I traced the distance between India, Iraq and Afghanistan with an insistent, angry finger, railing against American ignorance in my school, in the news, on the playground. Didn’t they know the different shades of brown? Why couldn’t they tell that mine was the harmless kind? In later years I lamented the poor geography lessons that made Miss Teen South Carolina refer to “the Iraq and the Asian countries.” What I was also saying was, “Go ahead. Just leave me out of it.”
Sep. 11 jumpstarted a years-long process of re-forging my identity, of scrubbing myself a little whiter, and redder and bluer. I played down my inconvenient attributes and played up my convenient ones. I responded to every racial taunt like a bargain-ready shopkeeper. “Go ahead, you can take this skin, take this heritage, take this bearded father — I don’t need them, anyway.” Just give me my home back, even if you have to cut it with a hyphen.
In the weeks after 9/11, people planted flags like flowers — big ones on lawns, small ones in windows, mini ones on jacket lapels. I came home from school one day demanding to know where our flag was. How on earth, I snapped, had Ba and Bapu lived here for fifteen years without buying at least one?
My father, in what might be called a very “American” move, did not drag me over his knee and spank the respect into me. Instead, he promised he’d buy us a flag on his next trip to Stop & Shop. When he came home a few days later, he told me the flags were sold out. Instead, he’d bought an eight-inch vinyl decal.
I complained that it wasn’t enough but I took it from his hand anyway, carefully peeling the sticker from its plastic skin. I claimed for it the most prominent territory in our white colonial house: the exact center of our front window. When passersby looked into our living room, they might see our brown faces, but they’d see the red-white-and-blue decal first. It would be a compass, one that never pointed east.
At the beginning of this year, my 20th, just before I arrived at Yale, I came out as bisexual; had my first sexual relationship with a man, in which I felt profoundly feminine; began this voluptuous ceremony; affirmed beauty; affirmed the affirmation; and returned to innocence, to whimsy. I wanted to be young; femininity was, to me, essentially youthful; beauty was youthful; was feminine; I wrote about flowers, butterflies, perfumes, jewels; purchased a kimono; asked my mother for her mother’s old beaver-fur jacket, and her silk robe, and her golden bracelet; began to wear a ring; to go out to parties with groups of straight girls, and to grind with them at those parties; to drink beforehand, ecstatically, ritualistically; and drinking and dancing were intimately connected, they were part of my ceremony. When I went out, I became the butterfly I wanted to be; exquisite, darling; fluttering about. I wanted to create an exquisite self: one that could laugh, and call things darling, and adore things, and think them splendid; I wanted to invent a truth and inhabit it; and I still believe it is a truth, but I do not deny that I created it: I am coded by straight girls as gay (I have, after all, largely rejected my bisexuality; and might even be gay, for all I know; the matter is delightfully undecided, just as the matter of daisies is undecided; of why daisies exist; and I do not know, but I kiss them anyway), so I cuddle with straight girls in my bed, so I, as I said, grind with them; and I do not desire them, and they do not desire me. But why do they not desire me? Because I learned to be gay.
And learning to be gay is a dangerous thing. I have learned to be gay; and girls have come to see me as a child; a little boy, to be hugged and kissed. You will, no doubt, find this familiar. You have likely seen a feminine gay man, and thought him childish; like a little boy as he flutters about. At least, I did for a long time. We see something childish, in fact, in any gay man; he is not a true man; he has not grown up; cannot; and cannot really have sex, either, left as he is with the anus; and, therefore, is an eternal virgin who, in the eyes of straight men and women, is essentially a eunuch; a castrated boy; because his sexual experience is ignored by their discourse; banished from it; it makes straight men and women uncomfortable to think of men having sex with each other; they would rather pretend it doesn’t happen; imagine away the penises of gay men; and return them to childhood, to the eternal childhood of the eunuch. Or they parody it; delegitimize it; use it as an insult (cocksucker, etc.); and in that way erase it, take from it its seriousness; remove from it the quality in it of the sacred; which is essential, for me, to the sexual act, and its intimacy. Or they (in my experience only straight women) sensationalize it; exoticize it; like they would a circus act; and I act, because I have learned to act; I perform, as I am told elephants were taught to perform, and monkeys; and midgets and bearded women; so that when they ask questions of me, with what is, in retrospect, a kind of grotesque fascination (“What is it like, to, you know, taste another man’s, you know?”), I take delight in it, I am glad for the attention, because I have finally been given the opportunity to speak about what for seven years I have endured in terrified silence, because I do not consider how I am caged; that I have left one cage (that of silence and shame) only to enter another (that of the spectacle); and they gawk; and they laugh; and, suddenly, I have become something quite different from a friend; I am a pet; I do tricks; I have walked into a far more insidious cage, because of its subtlety. (To learn to be gay is, in one sense, to learn to be a spectacle. In the sense, that is, of the “gay best friend.”)
In this way all gay men are infantilized, parodied, sensationalized. But feminine gay men especially are so. We are seen, paradoxically, as bossy; weak; mawkish; prissy; and therefore not worth listening to; better to ignore; to imitate; the feminine gay man being, of course, the most imitated, the most mocked, of gay men, because we are the most exotic, the most unmistakable, the least able to “pass” as straight; because we are free with our gender expression. Minorities, after all, are understood by normative discourses only in their difference, so the feminine gay man is the model against which all gay men are held; and so, too, when I came out, it was this identity I held close. I remember saying to a close friend of mine on the phone, “I’m becoming gayer every day.” But it was this identity I had always wanted, secretly; this identity against which I had fought for so many years; and, in this way, the self I am creating is a truth.
Furthermore, my cage protects me. By acting the “gay best friend,” by parodying, and exoticizing myself, I make my sexual practices unthreatening; present them as not serious, as, perhaps, frivolous: so I can introduce them into the heteronormative discourse without challenging that discourse; because to present them as serious, as sacred, would be to equate homosexual and heterosexual intimacy; and that, in the eyes of the discourse, is a cardinal error; and laughable. So I hide in plain sight, and in this way, I do not make myself vulnerable to mockery; and therefore protect myself from shame; but am able to vocalize my experience, to put my desire into language. This is unsettling; this new closet; how do I find my way out? Should I?
But my assumption of this identity has also brought me into intimate contact with myself; with my own beauty. It felt natural; it still does. Now I can say: I have a voluptuous soul. In this sense, learning to be gay was about learning to let myself be gay; to let myself love men; with my heart; and with my whole body. It was about learning to let myself be as feminine as I am; to write about flowers; to perfume myself. It was about learning to let myself pick shirts from the women’s section if I liked them; to wear eyeliner if I wanted; about seeing the feminine in my body in the midst of a sexual act. It was about celebrating, because of this love, my youthfulness; about loving, at last, what I am now.
And my desire for innocence? It is simply because my body feels newly born; and I myself do as well. The sexual act between two men is often a site of intense creativity; being, as there are, no unchanging sexual roles; no oppressive power relations. It is a vast sexual space. A space returned to innocence. Free of the historical weights of virginity; of pregnancy; of marriage. There is a freshness to the gay sexual act, and to the feminized male body; but the innocence of these forms is not the innocence of children; it is the innocence of the unexplored; the uncodified; of what is untouched by language. To infantilize me is to not understand me, to fear me. Because I am more than a man; I have outgrown the concept; and there is not a word for me anymore: I exist beyond language.
At least, the language of our mainline cultural discourse. There is, after all, a lively queer discourse. So I should say: I exist beyond your language. But you are welcome to learn mine; my queer discourse is not painful, it does not bruise; it welcomes: To all, it welcomes, like an endless caress.