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Asian American Experience

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Asian American theater is far more viable and active in America than one would think based on Broadway or its publication record, though we are beginning to see more Asian American plays in print. There have been numerous self-produced Asian American dramas, performed as monologues or based in the community rather than performed in mainstream theaters. The Asian American experience is as varied as the nationalities that make up this group, with immigrants hailing from Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the South Pacific islands. It is impossible to represent them all in this brief chapter, but it should be acknowledged that each group has its own distinct culture.

The relatively limited period in which people of Asian ethnicity have lived in America and had the luxury of artistic expression beyond survival or evading prejudice has resulted in Asian American playwrights of predominantly Japanese, Chinese, and Korean origins, and this chapter considers plays based on these three ethnic groups. What they have in common is that while each playwright looks at the Asian American experience from a different angle, they collectively expose stereotypes, broaden our perspective of Asian American identity, and encourage people to adopt a greater ethnic understanding and tolerance.

Philip Kan Gotanda’s The Wash depicts constraints affecting Japanese Americans through the problematic relationship of an older couple. Gotanda makes no effort to explain what may seem unfamiliar motivations for his characters, leaving audiences to work them out for themselves. The text is peppered with Japanese American references and Japanese words and phrases that remain untranslated on the stage; this gives the dialogue authenticity but it also makes parts of the play less accessible to non-Japanese American audiences. Instead of pandering to the majority, Gotanda forces them to understand his culture on its own terms.

David Henry Hwang’s F.O.B. looks at differing attitudes toward ethnicity expressed by two young Chinese Americans and a new immigrant, “Fresh-off-the-Boat.” Hwang’s blend of Chinese and American mythology, behavior, and speech allows him to accurately convey the beliefs and struggles of Chinese Americans in America. Giving voice to a group rarely depicted fairly (if at all) in mainstream literature, he challenges stereotypes and offers in their place far more complex characters who deserve more attention.

In Kimchee and Chitlins , Elizabeth Wong looks at a Korean American—run general store that comes into conflict with Harlem locals. Through their story, she depicts many concerns that go beyond the Asian American experience and can be applied to all American ethnicities: problems of interracial discord too often culminating in violence, the demeaning use of stereotypes, the media’s white bias that marginalizes all ethnicity, and the loss of cultural heritage in those who assimilate. Her answer to most of these troubles is to call for heightened awareness of cultural differences among people of all ethnic groups to defuse the ignorance that lies at the root of the discord. She calls for people to reach out across that cultural divide and bridge the gap to strengthen the whole multicultural community.

The Wash focuses on male-female relationships, but through the lens of Japanese American attitudes and culture. After forty-two years of marriage, Masi Motsumoto leaves her husband, Nobu, to expand her horizons, regain her self-esteem, and pursue a relationship with a more suitable partner. Nobu stoically continues in his same routines, refusing to accept that his wife has left him. Culturally restricted from doing anything to fix his marriage, and without the strength to make the “grand gesture” of suicide on realizing that she has definitely gone, he is left devastated and alone.

Nobu and Masi break up partly because he is too stubborn to ask her to return, but also because they should never have been together in the first place. Masi never loved Nobu, and in all their years together never found the happiness she discovers with Sadao Nakasato. In the Japanese culture depicted in the play, a woman is expected to live for her husband and children and not give a thought to her own needs and desires. Living in America, with its cultural ideal of self-reliance and one of the highest divorce rates in the world, certainly clashes with such beliefs. Masi’s Japanese background tells her to stand by her family, so she has withstood years of unhappy marriage before going against her upbringing and leaving her husband. The fact that she continues to care for him—doing his laundry (the “wash” of the title) and preparing his food—even while living in a separate apartment, testifies to the difficulty she has in making a clean break.

Masi and Nobu have a connection she finds it hard to ignore, but it reveals itself to be little more than habit, especially from her perspective. With the  love of Sadao, however, Masi gains the courage to leave her husband’s laundry behind and her burdensome responsibilities to the past. Sadao is an enlightened Japanese American male who can cry in public and feel no shame, contribute to the household chores, compliment his woman, include her in all aspects of life, and allow her far greater freedom—all impossibilities for Nobu, who has a very traditional attitude toward women.

While Masi is prepared to move on with her life, Nobu lives in the past. He hates change; when he eats at Kiyoko’s restaurant, he always sits in the same seat and eats the same meal. Nobu is nostalgic for the way life used to be—as indicated by the old lullaby he sings—but other people’s lives move on and Nobu is left behind. His kite is a symbol of a freedom he is unable to grasp—the possibilities of America he feels are unavailable to him because of his Japanese heritage. At the close of act 1, scene 9, Nobu imagines that his kite soars high, showing his longing for the greater freedom he felt as a child, but the weight of his own life and the traditions he feels he must live by keep him and his kite on the ground. He gives the kite to his grandson, Timothy, as a sign of acceptance; Timothy, whose allegiance to his cultural background is weaker, may be freer to fly it.

Nobu is attracted to Kiyoko, but just as he never flies his kite, he never allows himself to consummate this relationship. He is unable to believe that his wife has permanently left him—this is partly why he never asks Masi to return. It is not his ego that causes him to think so but a culturally induced disbelief that a wife can behave independently. He accepts her visits to bring him food and do his laundry as natural, because he still sees it as her duty. Nobu is a narrow traditionalist—from insisting that his kite be built a specific way to rejecting his daughter and her child because she married an African American. He loves his wife and children, but his pride prevents him from expressing that love, and he cannot accept their behaving independently of him.

Curley Sakata, Kiyoko’s cook, provides an interesting contrast to Nobu. Like Nobu, he has a firm sense of his own identity but without being so restricted. His outlook on life is more open-minded, and he mocks Nobu when he sees him. It is partly his Hawaiian upbringing, but Curley takes life as it comes and enjoys it. He drinks beer, despite Kiyoko’s complaints, because he likes to drink. He has none of the terrible self-control that leads Nobu to bottle up his emotions. But Nobu is disgusted with men like Curley, seeing them as brash and undignified, and could never behave in that way.

Nobu and Masi’s children are third-generation Japanese Americans, and we see in them a clear dilution of Japanese ways and a stronger embrace of mainstream American culture; their names, Marsha and Judy, reflect this. Both are concerned for their parents, but do not exhibit the traditional Japanese sense of duty. Of the two, Judy is more rebellious: long before she suggested that her mother leave her father and she herself married an African American without parental consent.

Despite Nobu’s self-centered behavior, Gotanda ensures that we still feel sympathy for him because he is a victim of his culture rather than a real tyrant. We are shown his tender side when he is with Kiyoko and when he sings his lullaby. Even Masi has to admit that he has always been very loving and good with children, and we witness this when he finally meets his grandson. Despite all this, however, Nobu sadly ends up alone, and it seems to be a fate he cannot avoid given his cultural background and his inability to adapt to changing circumstances.

In F.O.B. three young people with different degrees of connection to China form a relationship triangle twisted by gender and ethnicity. All three lie, creating and evading truths, as they move around each other in an uncomfortable dance of courtship. Steve, the new Chinese immigrant, vies with second-generation Chinese American Dale for the attention of Grace, a first-generation Chinese American who resents the patriarchal background of both Chinese and American cultures to which the men subscribe, alternately leading them on then slapping them down, and finally settling on Steve as having more promise. But the real conflict here lies in their differing outlooks on life.

Steve, the newcomer, takes on the persona of Gwan Gung, a Chinese deity, to build up his self-esteem. He is distressed to discover how little people in America care or even recall this figure, but what relevance does such a violent, mythic god have in modern America? While he need not abandon his Chinese roots to advance in American society, too strong an adherence to older Chinese ways may impede his progress. Steve’s background remains uncertain: is he the son of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman come to get an M.B.A. to help out the family business, or an impoverished immigrant from mainland China escaping the hardships of his homeland? Because he is meant to represent all immigrants, he can be both and everything in between, and he conveys the concerns of anyone coming to American shores from another culture. One thing he insists on is the deceptiveness of the American promise, and the lies of the white Americans who pretend to offer so much, yet in reality give so little. However, it is a promise in which Dale still believes.

Steve has a pride that insists he need not hide his origins, nor does he feel limited by them; he wishes to be himself and mocks Dale’s efforts to conform. Steve sees himself primarily as a Chinese man in America, whereas, in his efforts to advance in American society, Dale has behaved subserviently and tried to eradicate every aspect of his Chinese heritage. Rightly recognizing that whites remain a privileged race in America, Dale desperately tries to fit in by becoming white, only he cannot escape his skin color, which will forever betray him. For all his talk about mixing with people who drive Porsches, it becomes evident that he has not been accepted by this group and is alone. He has also estranged himself from his family, calling them “yellow ghosts” (32). Sadly, it is he who is the ghost, since he has no identity, having given up his heritage in an effort to embrace another that refuses to even see him. Having worked   hard not to be Chinese, he ends up being no one. The equality he seeks is a sham; Steve sees this from the start and refuses to play the assimilation game.

Arrogantly, Dale prejudges Steve, determined to see him as a Chinese bumpkin to justify having set aside his own heritage. What lies beneath his arrogance is self-loathing at his own inability to be white. He hates Steve because he sees Steve as representative of everything he has spent his life trying not to be in terms of speech, behavior, and appearance. Steve switches between playing the role Dale has assigned to him and defying his every expectation; he switches from perfect English to broken English, but then suggests that they dine at a French restaurant rather than a Chinese eatery. In this way Steve toys with the stereotype that Dale is determined to believe. Dale voices this stereotype in the Prologue and reiterates it in the coda to show that he has refused to learn anything from meeting Steve. Steve contradicts Dale’s whole description of what a new immigrant is like, for he is neither ugly, stupid, clumsy, nor clannish.

Having come to America as a child, Grace recalls how she was shunned by American-born Chinese Americans because of her poor English. Unlike Dale, she is less resolved to become totally American and refuses to view the Chinese as a backward race. She speaks to Steve as the woman warrior Fa Mu Lan, but out of nostalgia rather than pride. Her description of Fa Mu Lan as a “ghost” indicates her belief that she has lost her Chinese heritage as a result of living in America, and her tale of how Fa Mu Lan returns home to a slaughtered family indicates the lack of connection she feels toward her Chinese relatives.

Though Grace feels disenfranchised in terms of ethnicity, America has empowered her as a woman, and she will not allow either man to dominate her. Caught between the extremes of Dale and Steve, she declares that it is hard for her to be either Chinese or American in America, and feels excluded from both worlds. As the three play out their mock Chinese opera, Grace displays an uncertainty toward either culture, since both threaten her as a woman. When she mimes killing Steve as Gwan Gung, she is killing those elements of Chinese culture she sees as demeaning to women. When she finally chooses to go with Steve at the close, we can see this as a decision to recommit to her heritage, although she does this on her own terms by forcing Steve to give up his role as Gwan Gung and become a fellow human being with whom she can be an equal.

Assigned to cover a Harlem clash between blacks and a Korean American—run store, television news reporter Suzie Seeto, the protagonist of Kimchee and Chitlins , is tricked by a jealous colleague into broadcasting a biased story. Suzie’s brief report results in hate calls and an escalation of the conflict, as each side strives to be heard. Suzie decides to follow the story past the day or so of coverage usually given to such events by the media to discover what sparked this unrest. Rather than support her quest for truth, her boss suspends her, but she continues to investigate the social tensions underlying the clash until   she reaches a life-changing understanding. Witnessing four black youths attack a Vietnamese boy whom they take to be Korean, she recalls her own distress at being confused with another Asian girl at school. This allows her to recognize two truths: first, although prejudice and discrimination demean and belittle, people do not take time to look closely at anyone outside their own cultural group; and, second, she has been hiding from the fact that she is “yellow.” Where this knowledge will take her is an open question, as she remains suspended and unsure of her future, but at least it will be a more honest future.

There remain conflicting reports over what occurred to make the community boycott the Korean American store and protest outside with signs. Suzie tries to discover what happened to Matilda Duvet while shopping at the store. The Reverend Carter says the Koreans attacked Matilda and have been insulting blacks since the store opened. The Koreans say Matilda fainted after getting violently upset over a mispricing, and insist they have been courteous to everyone. Matilda is too busy worrying about relatives back in Haiti to even recall what happened. Grocer Mak has his business ruined and the ultimate blame can be leveled at nothing specific, just a general atmosphere of mistrust and easy hatred, exacerbated by the unfulfilled dreams of both sides. This is the story Suzie finally wants to tell, but her white boss, Mark Thompson, does not see it as newsworthy.

Suzie is Asian American, but speaks only English, and according to Mark has “nothing exotic, nothing Asian about her” (416). But Mark’s view of Asian culture is blinkered by stereotypes, so it is hardly surprising that he patently ignores events showing anything more complex. Suzie is rankled that people might think she got her job through affirmative action rather than by merit; she also feels unhappy that because of her ethnicity she is always picked to report on race issues. She longs to be promoted to anchor and escape her ethnicity, but by the close of the play she has done neither.

On arriving at the scene of the protest, she gets footage of the outspoken Reverend Carter calling the storeowner a “Korean monkey” (404), suggesting that he go back to Korea. Suzie is shocked to hear such undisguised racial slurs and attitudes, seeing them as anachronistic in the supposedly enlightened 1990s, but that is only because she has been leading a sheltered life. The deeper she probes into this neighborhood, the more she realizes that the hatreds and prejudices so deftly exposed in the 1960s have not evaporated; they have just changed direction or gone underground, ready to resurface at the slightest provocation.

The Reverend Carter admits to being prejudiced and a bigot, but declares, “A black man in America can never be a racist. To be a racist, you have to have power” (431). He does not even have the power to force the media to pay attention to him as he tries to use the boycott to bring some more pressing concerns of the black American community into the spotlight. The Asian American community is no less marginalized. Ignored by the dominant white   society, these subcultures are left to bicker with one another, their hatreds fed by ignorance of each other’s cultures. The Koreans are guilty of stereotyping the blacks in their community just as they themselves are stereotyped by blacks and others in the neighborhood. Both ethnic groups are wary of each other, but it is largely because they cannot see past the stereotypes. Wong’s use of black American and Korean choruses, who constantly disagree as they comment on the action and forever harp on their differences rather than commonalities, deftly presents these warring subcultures.

People like Nurse Ruth Betty see Mak as insulting because he does not touch her hand when taking money or look her in the eye, but his behavior is dictated by what is proper in Korean culture where his actions would be viewed as highly respectful. Both sides make fun of the broken English of the other rather than try to listen to what they are saying. It becomes obvious that these ethnic groups have more in common than they realize or allow themselves to recognize. Neither can get a bank loan to start a business; both are overworked, underpaid, often mocked or mistreated; and all are undervalued by America as a whole. A telling moment occurs when we learn that Ruth Betty, Suzie, and Soomi have all fantasized about changing their appearance to look more like women of the dominant culture, and, more importantly, less like women in their own.

The reactions to these events by Willie and Soomi, the storeowner’s nephew and niece, indicate the extreme responses people have in their quest for a solution to troubling social problems. While Willie gets a gun and threatens violence, Soomi offers to nonviolently counterprotest by singing songs and displaying a sign stating “Yellow is Beautiful”—an ironic echo of the black American slogan of the 1960s. Neither approach seems workable, so both Willie and Soomi try to act more American and assimilate into the larger culture. Wong suggests that none of these responses are valid, and offers another option. Mak and Barber Brown, fellow businessmen, have a friendly relationship, but they are not true friends and have not invited each other into their homes. That kind of close, personal interaction, in the end, is what Wong suggests is necessary if the community is to go beyond mistrust and become unified.

The title refers to foods that are prized by each culture as part of their heritage and identity; the possibility of connection is raised by the potential friendship between Brown and Mak. Mak gives Brown some kimchee to help cure his sinus problem, but Brown finds that the kimchee alone just makes him sneeze. However, he discovers that if he mixes the kimchee with his chitlins, he has a tasty meal that clears his sinuses. The symbolism in this is obvious: if each side can overcome its deeply held prejudices and join hands with the other, together they can create a stronger, more effective community. But when Brown offers the true hand of friendship by inviting Mak into his home for dinner at the close, Suzie points out that such an idealistic ending has only been invented, leaving it for those watching to make it a reality.


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