There is always not enough talk about #representation in the theater world and pop culture and the challenges that go along with it. Besides fighting stereotypes, we also struggle to find a wide variety of Asian female role models to look up to or characters to identify with on mainstream media. Today, my friend Kitty and I will touch upon the importance of creating our own original narratives for the world to see - because no one Asian woman is the same - and bring up several of our personal favorite examples, both on stage and on screen. I hope this episode will further continue the dialogue of what it means growing up Asian in America and feeling not properly represented in the U.S.
Kitty, previously known as Lixin Lin (no one actually calls her that anymore) was born and raised in Beijing, China. The name 'Kitty' was drawn out of a hat in her first English class when she was 6. She got off the boat in 2011 and studied Theatre and Economics at Smith College. She has been, ehh, pretty straight, so far, and believes in gender and sexuality fluidity. She is an actor, dancer, and director. Her dream job is a Hollywood starlet spy.
TRANSCRIBED BY THOA HOANG
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NGUYEN: Hi. Welcome to Project Voice. This is Jess again, (BOTH LAUGHS) and here we have Kitty Lin. She is a friend of mine. (LAUGHS) Yes. She is a Theater and Economics major at Smith College and today we will be talking about Asian/Asian American representation in the theater world.
NGUYEN: Thank you for joining us today!
KITTY LIXIN LIN, INTERVIEWEE: Thank you for having me!
NGUYEN: You are welcome. So, Kitty...
NGUYEN: I would love to hear more about your experience working in theater. I know that you have a lot of experience working in and directing in several productions at Smith and I am particularly interested in hearing more about your role as David Henry Hwang in Yellow Face. And for those of you who haven’t watched or read Yellow Face, I would highly recommend you to.
LIN: Yes! me, too! It’s a great show.
LIN: And David Henry Hwang is a great playwright!
NGUYEN: Oh yeah, definitely. I think he is awesome.
NGUYEN: I need to read more of his works actually.
LIN: Wait, hang on! I actually have my script right here with me. This is the script that I had during rehearsal. It’s number 5.
NGUYEN: (GASP, LAUGHING) That’s so cool! I really enjoyed seeing you perform last night. I thought you did a great job.
LIN: Thank you, thank you!
NGUYEN: Playing an Asian American man, there was so much personality, it was a very well written, (and there was) sarcastic humor in it, too.
NGUYEN: I guess, for those who of us who haven’t watched Yellow Face yet, can you share with us a little synopsis on what it is about?
LIN: Sure! Um, so first of all, let me just introduce myself a little bit more because, you know we are talking about Asia/Asian Americans representation in the theater world and in entertainment at large. First of all, I am not a U.S citizen. I’m originally from China. Beijing is my hometown, and I came to the U.S for college so Smith, basically, is my first U.S contact (LAUGHS), environment. And yeah, I have always had a love for theater in middle school and high school, but I never really committed to doing it until like first year of college, second year of college-ish. I was really lucky and randomly assigned uhh a professor from the theater department as my pre-major advisor Kiki Smith. You know, Kiki?
LIN: You know she is great!
LIN: Yeah, she is a really cool, short haired, old lady, who teaches costume design.
LIN: And she happened to be my pre-major advisor. And I took costume design with her my first year and got introduced to the fascinating theater world in more details, um, and I fell in love with it! So, I decided to try it out. Yeah and that’s how I got into theater at Smith and starting doing shows and stuff like that. What’s interesting also is that... Wait, let me rephrase this. So my, I took a gap year between my sophomore and junior year and I didn’t really do a lot in the theater department before my gap year. I was kind of this new, shy person, because there weren’t a lot of um, as you know, there weren’t a lot of minority students in the theater department at Smith.
LIN: Especially, Asian and Asian Americans. I think it was kind of... it was almost a weird quota of one person per year.
LIN: One Asian, like, this person is the Asian student in theater this year.
NGUYEN: Yeah, and it is not just theater, but typically, in the Arts as well.
LIN: Right, yeah, as opposed to the big majors, like Econ and Psychology, where half of the class are Asian students. Yeah, and I guess it (was) after the gap year where I gained more real world experience back in China, working productions both on stage and off stage with like legit, like actual theater companies, (that I) became more confident in myself and learned more about how this whole thing operates and after I came back I started doing more auditions and felt more confident in myself. In both acting and in other stuff. So the one show you mention, Yellow Face happened in my senior year. And my first major role in the theater department also portraying Asian American person was Orangutan, in Water by the Spoonful.
NGUYEN: Cool, I actually, I’ve never heard of that before.
LIN: Right, that was my junior year. And it’s also considered to be a diverse show, I guess? It was written by a Latina playwright.
NGUYEN: What is it about?
LIN: So Water by the Spoonfu,l basically. there is the real world, and there is an online world. It’s about how drug addicts, tried to come together online in a forum to encourage each other to recover. And this woman who started the online space happened to be a mother who hasn’t been in touch with her children. So there is another plot line in the real world where she fights with for her own problem and her children try to help her. Yeah, stuff like that!
LIN: Sadly people die in the end. I won’t spoil the plot.
NGUYEN: And your character?
LIN: My character, is one of the online forum participants, she is an early- she is in her early 30s. She is actually Japanese eho got adopted to the U.S early on and like during the course of the play, she developed deep relationships with other people in the forum and she actually went back to Japan to search for her birth parents.
NGUYEN: Oh, whoa.
NGUYEN: What did you take away from that experience, like learning, like trying to get (into) character with this Japanese American woman?
LIN: I guess the easy part for me to approach that character is this sense of belonging to two world, but also kind of not belonging anywhere.
NGUYEN: Yeah, today, I just came back from watching Tiger Style A piece that addresses the whole tiger cell parenting. You heard of Amy Chua.
NGUYEN: And it has inspired this play. And it talks about the conflict we face as Asian Americans growing up. How do you compromise two identities, Chinese and American and through the characters, their experiences in term of their personal and professional lives. One of them, a man (who) works at a company, and he faces difficulties getting promotions. He is just trying to figure out how to rise up in the career ladder. Get a leadership position. He worked so hard, but the values he grew up with up learning how to work in a team and he finds that it doesn’t really help him in this work place. He realizes that someone is taking credit for his work because it’s teamwork. He is frustrated about this because he is not being recognized for the work that he thought he was getting rewarded for. Instead, it backfired on him and he starts questioning his upbringing. (What) his parents, has told him to continue doing, is it all for nothing? And then, for the female character in Tiger Style, she is very successful doctor, very successful career life, but in terms of romantic relationships. Well, first of all, the person that she was breaking up is actually not that great of a person. He had these stereotypes. He is one of those people with Yellow Fever. He has these expectations of her, you know? He thought that ending up with an Asian women, who, she is going to be submissive in the house, but in the bedroom.
LIN: OH, God! That!
NGUYEN: Ugh. One of those, good thing that she broke up with him! But, anyways, you see that struggle that she is going through. She is very hardworking, go getter, again, reflecting her parent’s values. And you see them, you know, not really happy about this. You know the siblings. So the female and male characters are siblings, and they realize that whatever they have been learning, or whatever values that they have been taught, haven’t really worked for them and they start blaming their parents, or they start getting angry at their parents. They want to confront their parents, so they confront their parents about it. The parents, you know, (are) first generation.
NGUYEN: They don’t really see that they are at fault and you see this divide. Both sides, their parents come from very different struggles. Anyways, let’s face it! Our struggles I think, this generation is kind of first world, compared to maybe our parents’ struggles, and our grandparents’ struggle; to come over here or who are back in Asia, growing up having to find means of just surviving and to take care of their families and to take care of their basic needs while here, our basic needs are already met. So our values are different, and so basically you see stark differences in the values between the generation. They start going all Western and all Eastern. The final question is how do you translate your Asian American identity? And I think it really depends with every individual. There are no correct answer for it. And it is whatever that makes you happy. (LAUGHS)
LIN: I’m a big believer of that. I am a big believer that whatever you do, no matter your identity, or social identity, the baseline is, you do whatever makes you happy.
NGUYEN: Yeah, there is no right way of, there is no guidebook first of all. How to be Asian American. There is no one Asian American experience.
NGUYEN: I think that is the message behind this. I mean, besides the cultural clashes between the parent and children. Yeah, anyways, going back to Yellow Face, please!
LIN: Yeah, that issue, the Asian American experience between generations is actually discussed, presented in Yellow Face because one of the main characters, other than David Henry Hwang himself. So, David Henry Hwang is the playwright and also the protagonist of the play. He writes himself into the play and he uses his own voice. So he is also the narrator of the play and this play largely based on real events. And another main character is his father, who is a first generation Asian American, who moved to the U.S from Shanghai. In the 30s, I believe. Wait! That is not true! It’s got to be (LAUGHS) too early. His father is a first generation Asian American and he is a banker and he always tell David that you are not doing enough and you should inherit my business. What kind of money are you making writing plays right? That before his big break of Madam Butterfly [which] won him a Tony. Even after that, his dad was still like just come out and I’ll give you a senior position at my bank. Come do it! He was like no dad! That’s not what I want. When his career hit a stone, hit a rock. How do you say this? When his career hit...
NGUYEN: Hit the wall?
LIN: Yeah! He went home to live with his parents for a while and they also... Tension or misunderstanding between generations and they hold different values because they have different life experiences and they fought for different things. Their upbringing and their living standards growing up were so different. This is something. Yeah, even though I still consider myself Chinese, I’ve been in the U.S for almost 5 years. I already feel that my perspective on the relationship between U.S and China or U.S and Asia is very different than my parents. And we have very different views on how I should go about ummmm... my...
NGUYEN: Your life? Your future?
LIN: Yeah, my life!
NGUYEN: As we all are right now.
LIN: Yeah, I mean it is expected. The trick is how to adjust or maneuver it and how to, I guess, not so much find the middle ground, but also try to reach a mutual understanding without necessarily changing each other’s mind. Theater is all about that. After you see a play, you don’t necessarily have to agree with the playwright or director. You don’t have to agree with any of the characters. But it is important that, by putting out a show, the artist sends out a message and the audience watching it receives the message.
NGUYEN: Yeah! Do you find that the in theater world, there is still a lack as well, the same as popular media now a days days. Where we don’t see as much representation. We are starting to see more lot of representation. We are starting to see more and more..
LIN: Yeah, I think it is getting better and entertainment industry whitewashing! This word.
LIN: As much as I don’t want to mention it, it is there! And it is getting mentioned more and more, which is a good thing I think.
NGUYEN: Yeah, we see in Hollywood.
LIN: Hollywood, #whitewashing, #Oscarsowhite, those hashtags, at least now people are talking about it and are acknowledging it. Now with Disney’s Mulan, they are actually casting worldwide for the... they actually wanted a real. It sounds, feels weird to say “real Asian.” They are looking for a real Asian to play the Asian protagonist.
NGUYEN: I know, I was actually talking several of my coworkers about this. How problematic Doctor Stranger is. The whole film is problematic, it is not just the casting decisions. The fact that there is this Tibetan character, in the original comic, right? They had a White woman play this role and this...
LIN: The Ancient One is supposed to be a Tibetan character?
NGUYEN: And so the director, justified his decision. The reasons why he chose a White woman to play this character was is because he didn’t want to chose someone who is Tibetan there might be some political tensions...
NGUYEN: … coming from China, because they know that the second largest group who is watching all these Hollywood movies are the Chinese and so they don’t want to send a bad message by acknowledging that Tibet is a legitimate region.
LIN: (LAUGHS) I mean thinking about, Fresh Off The Boat, the main character they are supposed to be a Chinese family, right? And if I am not wrong, the lead male actor is Korean American. right?
LIN: Yeah! You don’t have to… I think it is already progress to put Asian face(s) to Asian characters. It is not like, oh you are Chinese American, and you can only play Chinese American characters. You can not play Japanese Americans or Korean Americans. That is just ridiculous!
NGUYEN: Exactly, and then other people have asked, Why don’t you pick an Asian American person to play this? You know there are like, ‘Oh, we are just afraid by making another Asian person play this, this would offend whatever Asian country.’ That doesn’t make sense.
LIN: Oh my god.
Instead you are choosing a White person to play this character
LIN: But then you pick Benedict Cumberbatch to play an American!
NGUYEN: Yes! I...
LIN: Oh my god, this argument is just so vulnerable, I can’t even pretend to...
LIN: I’m sorry! (GASPS)
NGUYEN: I wanted to flip a table. (BOTH LAUGH) So, not just that. And then, I have a coworker who is trying to defend it, but she didn’t defend it the right way. So, what she said was that, “Okay so, why don’t they have a character from, have another Asian person play?” Let’s look at the bigger picture here. The whole setting, first of all Doctor Strange, was written by a White man. He selected this specific setting because it has an exotic connotation to it. He is completely exoticizing Asian culture, orientalizing the culture, the characters, and like, why are you having it take place in Asia instead of instead of Europe or the U.S? We have mountains, too. (LIN LAUGHS) Why not there? So what bothers me more, is that you know, my white coworkers, they have chosen to to continue to watch this movie and that’s a problem. I don’t think they really see where I am coming from if they are still watching it. They are paying the movie ticket and so basically, they are supporting this Hollywood system and...
LIN: Well, there are two things I want to say in response to that. First of all, one of the problems you were are kind of getting in, I want to expand, is that Asian characters or some other minority characters are still treated as a special category. We are treated as the ethnic character, so to speak, not the just a normal character. It’s like the characters, on the script, you can just their name and age, without mentioning anything else, as opposed to our characters, you have to specially say, Asian, and only those characters get to be played by Asian actors, or ethnic actors. I mean, Black actors, African American actors, they have been through this earlier and longer than us enough that they have, they have been starting to get just normal, flat out characters, right? You can have a Black protagonist, without the show or entire movie being a Black movie. But then if you have an Asian character as the protagonist, it immediately labeled an Asian movie.
LIN: Or an Asian show. So I think, that is apart of the problem. We are still a part of a special category and Asian characters are still, can only play Asian themed movies, like the special category. And the second problem, I think you mentioned, boycotting some shows or movie that you think are problematic. I think that is only part of the solution, because those movies were already made. Decisions are made by the producers or whoever is behind the production. The audience has no control over that. Or we Asian American, or Asian artists have no control over that, by boycotting them, I mean how many people, can really. It’s Benedict Cumberbatch, you are going to see it right?
LIN: I think the bigger, the more active approach is to create jobs for ourselves or create opportunities for ourselves. Nobody is going to do it for you. This is one of my biggest philosophy in life. No one else is going to do it for you. If you want something, if we want something, we are going to have to do it ourselves.
NGUYEN: Yeah, that’s true!
LIN: And, yeah, encourage, either do it yourself or encourage our people to come together, whatever, or put ourselves out there for them to see. Create our own job. Write a film that is so good that they have to make it.
NGUYEN: Yeah, exactly! We all have our own narratives to tell. We are not just a race.
LIN: Yeah! I think one very big example is Aziz Ansari. The Indian American...
NGUYEN: Yes, Master of None!
LIN: Comedian, he is so great! He created Master of None. He wrote it, he starred in it, he directed it, and you know!
LIN: You know how many Indian protagonist in a major-
NGUYEN: There are still a couple issues in that show, we can definitely we can definitely talk further about it. I think what he does is great because he is introducing new stories. I mean, not new for us, particularly, but new on T.V. Another great show that I love is Dr. Ken. I don’t know how many people watched it, but it is one of my favorite. It is a sitcom, a family comedy show and unfortunately it’s received low ratings because critics have said that it just like any other show. These jokes, we have heard this before, it is nothing surprising, and to me, that’s not the case. You see an Asian American family on T.V. Finally! And they are doing normal family stuff. They are funny and they are real. There are families out there that are like that. You know, we don’t see that represented as often on T.V before until Doctor Ken. He is normalizing the Asian American experience, and we need more stories like that. And critics who are giving low ratings, they don’t understand, they don’t see that the show speaks a lot to us Asians.
NGUYEN: We just want shows that are day to day, that speaks to our situations day to day. It doesn’t have to be anything grand. No more Kung Fu movies!
LIN: Yes, please! No more exotic women!
LIN: I’m so sick and tired of it.
NGUYEN: I just want a normal story! And Ken, the writer behind this has talked about it. He stood by (the show) and, I really appreciate that. You mentioned Fresh off the Boat earlier, too. That is a different Asian American experience and I can relate to that as well with parents who are immigrant(s). You know, I think those two shows are really big examples of how different the Asian American experience can be with different generations.
LIN: Hmm, I don’t know. I think, if you are not represented, as much in the population, you might not get represented much in the media and in entertainment. I don’t know how to solve that or challenge that.
LIN: We still have to try.
NGUYEN: I think it is just, it’s just creating stories, being open to sharing your stories if you are in that position and it can be hard, because sometimes if you act and it is like a survival matter, where you have to work in order to feed yourself, you face this dilemma of perpetuating a stereotype or an image that you don’t agree with, but then you also have to play this role so you can feed yourself. I can understand that. I think creating is important and like for Asian women, and Asian American women specifically, I listen to a podcast recently on Bullet Train and watched Wong Fu Productions. They talk about how there are not a lot of Asian women stories. Oftentimes, Asian women playing those stories, some of the early videos centers around an Asian man’s perspective and having the Asian woman as a love interest versus a main character or something.
LIN: Very, very typical!
NGUYEN: Yeah, who is playing outside of that love interest role and I think that it is harder to get a show, too. We not only have to fight not being Asian, but as a woman.
LIN: As a woman, yeah. It’s tough but, again, again, no one is going to do it for us. Just like you creating this podcast, we need to get to work and get ourselves represented. Ali Wong, the great comedian, female comedian.
NGUYEN: I love her! (LAUGHS)
LIN: One of the writer, of Fresh off the Boat, she’s so great! I recommend anyone in the audience right now, who hasn’t seen her either, stand-ups or her show...
NGUYEN: Yeah, she is...
LIN: Go watch her stuff, she is hilarious!
NGUYEN: I love her because she just doesn’t give a shit, like she is funny, first of all!
LIN: Oh! There can be bad language in this podcast!
NGUYEN: Yes. Oh, yeah! (LAUGHS)
LIN: No, she doesn’t, no, she doesn’t give a shit!
NGUYEN: She really doesn’t, that’s real talk here. She doesn’t give a shit. She is funny, and she just tells her own story. She is not using someone else’s to get a laugh out of people. And you know, she’s proud of her sexuality, too, which I like. She makes jokes about sex and her own personal life.
LIN: Yeah! So many nasty jokes!
LIN: Baby Cobra! Have you seen Baby Cobra?
NGUYEN: YES! I’ve seen that.
LIN: You mentioned that she talks mostly about her own stories, and that’s our advantage. We have so many authentic materials that can be used into creating arts or other works that we need to put out there. So, take advantage of this and same with Aziz Ansari with his Indian American show.
NGUYEN: I also appreciate you, sharing your background, too.
LIN: Oh, absolutely!
NGUYEN: Yeah, I originally, the description of the podcast series, was, a podcast series from empowering Asian American women, but also what does it mean to be Asian American? And interviewing some people including you, who aren’t legally American, but you have been immersed in the American experience.
LIN: We are Asians who live in America.
NGUYEN: Yeah, you are Asians who live in America!
LIN: And we have our own Asian American experience.
NGUYEN: Exactly, and I do think that’s just as important to share to the audience, too.
LIN: Yeah, it’s kind of like a time warp here. That if we, I mean, people like me who are not citizens yet, but are from Asia and is now living in America. Many of us, will go on to become first generations.
LIN: And many of us who decided and end up staying will have second generation Asian American kids. So it is kind of like (LAUGHS) we are living our parents’ lives in some way.
NGUYEN: Oh, wow!
LIN: By trying to figure out our position, or trying to fit in or trying to figure out how to settle down in this new world for us and have our children grow up in this environment. I don’t know. I haven’t thought (about it) that far, but it is definitely something I’ve seen closely.
NGUYEN: Hmmm, that’s great. I guess I wanted to ask if you know of any of resources or spaces that you think our community should look into.
LIN: Well, I mean, it depends on which area you are interested in. To look for resources, but I definitely say, the most important thing is to go out there and look. Resources are not going to reach out to you. As much as you can reach out to them. For example, I’m in theater, I can reach out to like, Facebook groups. There are Asian American actors and Asian American people in the T.V and film (industry). There are all sorts of groups out there that you kind of just first get yourself into the door. Find your own community and join them. I think something that is good is happening, is that we are forming more communities and helping each other more.
NGUYEN: I agree.
LIN: I think that is really important. Share resources! ‘Cause if everyone can find one resource, but if everyone can share them, then everyone has 100 resources.
NGUYEN: I definitely see a lot of, seems like with our generation, we are more open. We are taking more initiatives to reach out and to like you said, foster that community. Build that allyship.
LIN: I think that is the millennial thing, too. Which is good!
NGUYEN: Yeah, I think that is good (LAUGHS). Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.
LIN: My pleasure!
NGUYEN: And I am so happy that we made some time out for you to...
NGUYEN: …for you to share.
LIN: I would love to hear if your audience has any feedback for what we talked about, what we talked about today. I would love to hear about what kind of opinions are out there. What resonated, or not.
NGUYEN: Yeah, I’m curious too. I would love to see some dialogue happening online. I want to hear your feedback, so if you guys have any, please please, please, Tweet @projectvoiceaaw or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have a (CHEERING) Facebook page so please follow us if you want to get the lastest news on our podcast. Thank you again Kitty!
LIN: Thank you so much for doing this, Jessica!
NGUYEN: You are welcome. Have a wonderful day everyone, wherever you are. Okay, bye!
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