Robert Lee – Bookwriter/Lyricist; Faculty, NYU Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program; Artistic Associate, Theatre Royal Stratford East (2007)
A number of years ago, my collaborator and I were invited to present excerpts from our latest show as part of a festival of new musical theatre work. The piece centered on an ambitious, bigoted Chinese immigrant whose relentless pursuit of the American dream flattens everything and everyone in his way. The following day, we heard from the artistic director of one theatre that his audiences were “not ready for an Asian show,” only to read an hour later an article in the New York Times dismissing the show as “yet another set of anecdotes from the annals of immigration.” We were mystified; we had somehow succeeded in being too alien and too familiar at the same time.
In retrospect, this perplexing response sums up perfectly the dilemma I believe Asian Americans have faced since the very beginning, regardless of profession. In a world where societies tend to define and understand themselves through grand dichotomies—black/white, feminine/masculine, wrong/right, evil/good, East/West—we are, it seems, an oxymoron.
Since time immemorial, humankind has sought to make sense of its position in the cosmos through opposition. Our values and mores are significant inasmuch as someone else does not share them. What does it mean to be godly if there are no heathens in the world? Where’s the satisfaction in being right when there is no one to be wrong? What is “goodness” without at least the illusion of evil? The East is only as enlightened, wise, logical and ordered as the “barbaric” West is not. The rugged individualism and openhearted compassion that are the providence of modern Western civilization mean little without the cold, tradition-bound, anonymous masses of the East as a counterbalance. In short, every society feeds on its antithesis: anyone who doubts this need only turn to the international section of any major U.S. newspaper to witness the ongoing subtle and not-so-subtle demonization of China now that our previous enemy in the East—the U.S.S.R.—has been vanquished.
And therein lies the problem, I believe, for Asian Americans: their existence flies in the face of a worldview that has lasted for centuries. As much as we may wish to deny it, it seems on some deep level the idea of someone being Asian (Eastern) and American (Western) at the same time is about as easy to grasp as the idea of a blade that is simultaneously dull and sharp, or a chess piece that is simultaneously white and black.
So, how does all of this translate into real-world behavior? How does a mind, so conditioned to see the world in terms of either/or, resolve the apparent paradox of the “Asian American”?
It can choose to blur the line between race and nationality, in effect replacing the “American” side of the equation with something less contradictory. A black, white or Latino man in a suit passes us on a street in Midtown Manhattan; how likely are we to jump to the immediate conclusion that he is a businessman visiting from South Africa, New Zealand or Peru, respectively? But consider a similarly dressed “oriental” passing us on the same street; now, how likely are we to assume immediately that he was born and raised in the United States? How many of us have not found ourselves partaking in the following exchange at least once in our lifetimes, no matter how highly educated and liberal-minded we consider ourselves to be?
HIGHLY EDUCATED, LIBERAL-MINDED INDIVIDUAL: So, where are you from?
ASIAN AMERICAN: Detroit.
HIGHLY EDUCATED, LIBERAL-MINDED INDIVIDUAL: No, I mean originally.
The opposite can happen as well: the subconscious mind attempts to resolve the “Asian American” conundrum by focusing exclusively on the latter part and ignoring the former, leading at least in part to the “honorary white” status conferred so often upon Asian Americans, and the frequent curious claim “Asians are not a real minority”—a well-meaning platitude which has more often than not opened the door for racial discrimination against Asian Americans without acknowledgment, guilt or even awareness; after all, how can anyone be racist against someone who is not a “real” minority? Witness the recent controversy over Rosie O’Donnell’s remarks on “The View.” Personally, I believe she meant no offense; but the fact someone as intelligent and well-informed as she didn’t realize “ching chong” was offensive and hurtful to Asian Americans (what is “ching chong,” after all, if not a verbal weapon to remind people of Asian heritage of their inherent foreignness) and the fact so many of her fans leapt to her defense by saying Asian Americans were being too sensitive and should just “get over it” more than prove my point.
Of course, a third option is to ignore the paradox altogether. If one wishes not to deal with the moral implications of a war, one may simply deny the war exists; likewise, if one wishes not to deal with the “Asian American” issue, one may choose to ignore the existence of Asian Americans. It has become somewhat of a game for me whenever I come across an article or listen to a speech about racism or diversity, to see whether Asian Americans are even warranted a mention. You’d be surprised how seldom we are.
Now, I should say I am currently working with a wonderfully supportive producer for whom my Asian American background is nothing less than something to be admired and embraced, on a project for which others might have considered my background a liability. I teach at the Tisch School of the Arts with a faculty committed to creating the most inclusive, nurturing and professional musical theatre writing program in the world. I am a proud artistic associate at a theatre that recognizes the medium’s important historical legacy of giving voice to the disenfranchised, and is determined to continue that tradition. I have been blessed to work with countless producers, artistic directors, directors, music directors, actors and other theatre professionals who have made me feel a vital and welcome part of this fantastic playground.
And yet, I have also witnessed and experienced the above mechanisms in action, time and again. But I believe there is little to be gained from crying racism or paying lip service to diversity if society cannot be made to understand the deeper specific issues involved. As long as we try to sum up the challenges facing all minorities in this country under the simple rubric of “racism” or “intolerance,” we fight a losing battle, chasing after the symptoms rather than targeting the disease. The only way I know to facilitate this understanding is to engage people in discussion, through my work, my conduct and my very presence in the business: I have had colleagues, friends and loved ones ask whether I’ve ever thought about writing “a non-Asian piece”; I explain to them since my collaborator and I have only written about Asians living in the United States, I think of our shows as “American pieces.” Said collaborator and I have been accused of writing a character in a manner which was “too western” and not “Asian enough”; we decided we simply hadn’t captured the right emotional tone for the song and rewrote it accordingly, silencing any further concerns about the moment. I have been the invisible partner in the room when collaborating with a non-Asian writer on a decidedly “non-Asian” piece; now, I make it a point to speak up in meetings and rehearsals whatever the situation… frequently. And to Asian and Asian American students and colleagues worrying that writing from their own personal experience will lead to marginalization as an “ethnic writer,” I say I understand—but someone’s got to be on the front line.
In the end, the way I see it is I can either crash someone else’s party or throw one of my own. The latter might require a lot more time and effort, but at least I get to choose the music. To me, that’s the choice when you’re one of the “between” people, the fish/fowls, the ones who tend to fall between the cracks. Me, I prefer to think of it as “living on the edge.”
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