Monday, March 22, 2021

What's at stake when Asian Americans are invisible?

Kathy Hsieh (center) sitting between Angel "Moonyeka" Alviar-Langley (left) and Matthew Ozawa (right) during the 2017 panel discussion "Asian Arts Leaders Respond to Madame Butterfly." Jacob Lucas photo 

As "forever foreigners" in their own country, Asian Americans h
ave often had little say in how they've been represented in mainstream theater and opera. In our July 2017 panel discussion, “Asian Arts Leaders Respond to Madame Butterfly,” Seattle Opera collaborator Kathy Hsieh provided a moving, and personal testimonial on cultural appropriation, invisibility and powerlessness, what it was like to grow up Chinese American in Seattle, and what's at stake with works like Madame Butterfly and The Mikado. Below are her words from the 2017 panel. A full transcript is available on Seattle Opera's website.

Words spoken by Kathy Hsieh (edited here for clarity) on July 9, 2017: 

When we are talking about Madame Butterfly or The Mikado or any one of these classics that people have loved because they were brought up with it and the music is one of their favorites, the biggest question they always ask is, “I just love it because I love the culture and I love the music. Why can’t we just enjoy something that has always been classically ours?” I do completely respect and understand that sentiment of appreciating a culture and therefore just wanting to be able to see a traditional production of it so you can enjoy that. The reality is: How much do you really appreciate a culture if you’re willing to traumatize the people that that culture is supposedly representative of? And a lot of people go, “Well, but, I don’t understand how that could be traumatizing to people."

If you were actually able to bring in people, the marginalized voices, to actually share in a collaboration, just as using a Japanese American director, he can relook at it in a way that at least starts moving toward centralizing the voices of the marginalized people that it’s supposed to be about. But when you don’t do that, lots of times what you end up with are these assumptions of who these people are. What is worse is when you do it in yellowface and you don’t even give the opportunity to the artists to at least bring their own holistic humanity to the roles, to at least try to add in layers that may not be there if it’s a white director and an all-white cast representing an Asian culture. Lots of times we’re completely white-washed out of our own stories, but these are not our own stories because they were not created by us.

I grew up in Seattle; I went to school from preschool all the way on up; I went to college here and we’re supposed to be 18.1 percent of the population here. The trauma comes from growing up in a society, and never seeing myself represented on stage, or when our stories were on stage, never seeing people who look like me playing those roles, never seeing ourselves represented in the mainstream in a general way or even stories that are actually our own stories shared.

That creates an invisibility where we are basically rendered powerless because not only do I not see myself and feel like I have role models to grow up to be, but all the other people that I grew up with don’t know how to deal with me. I used to do touring educational shows where the librarian would take one look at me and go running from the room. Later on I found out it was because I was the first Asian person that she ever had physical contact with, and she grew up during the era of World War II, where she was told to hate and despise people who look like me. I was 18 going to a ballet class, and wearing my leotard and tights, and this elderly woman was trying to get on the bus with groceries and she couldn’t quite make it because she had a cane. I offered her, “Can I help you?” and she then hit me with her cane and told me to go back where I came from. This is in Seattle.

Those are just two of the many, many, experiences that a lot of us Asian Americans have and that is because of a lot of the only images that people have that are very stereotypical, even when they are framed in a model minority myth that a lot of us Asian Americans grew up with. The highest level of suicide for women over the age of 64 are Asian American. You have to wonder like, there are so many expectations, even if it’s supposed to be a positive, like self-sacrificing, willing to do anything for everyone, straight A students, these are expectations placed on our youth that are really, really hard to live up to. So whether it’s a positive or negative, they create a lot of trauma because we’re not looking at people for the fullness of who we are as human beings. If you really feel like you want to appreciate a culture, start by appreciating and getting to know the people that created that culture.

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