by Leow Hui Min Annabeth, ’16
On the dropdown menu on the New Student Orientation survey, I was asked for my ethnicity.
“Asian American/Pacific Islander?” I’d only been in California for two weeks; over my dead body would I let myself be counted as U.S. American.
“International?” …no, Stanford, that’s not an ethnicity.
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My pink identity card, issued by the Republic of Singapore—it says so in amiably bold sans serif—reads, under the column labelled “Race,” “Chinese.” The census, last taken two years ago, prefers the term “ethnicity,” and defines “Chinese” as “persons of Chinese origin such as Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese, Hakkas, Hainanese, Hockchias, Foochows, Henghuas, Shanghainese etc.,” which is on a certain level tautological.
Here in America, where “Asian” is a race all to itself, I always dither over the “East Asian” and “Southeast Asian” checkboxes, especially when “Chinese/Japanese/Korean” are helpfully enclosed in parentheses beside the term “East Asian.” Then I click “Other” and type into the box “Southeast Asian Chinese.”
That doesn’t even begin to encompass, however, the variation in the Chinese experience in Indonesia, and the Philippines, and Brunei. Only a causeway a whisker longer than a kilometre separates my native Singapore from neighbouring Malaysia, but the social meaning of race changes markedly on either side. Calling myself “Southeast Asian Chinese” both recognises my cultural heritage, and ignores the racial privilege I enjoy at home.
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Sometimes people expect me not to know any English. It is my first language, my mother tongue. I live, think, dream in it—I write in it, and that is life and thought and dream to me.
Sometimes people expect me not to know any Mandarin. True, I am about as comfortable in it as I am in French; but just because it was imposed upon me as artificially as English was, in place of Hokkien or Hakka or Teochew, and just because I am southern Chinese living outside southern China, does not mean I cannot speak it.
Either I am not Chinese enough, or my skin is indelibly stamped with Chineseness; and this quality of being Chinese shifts depending on my geography and my audience. Rather like gender, Chineseness becomes performed along a continuum.
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Last quarter, I joined the Stanford Asian American Theater Project as a frosh intern because they were one of the few student groups whose publicity materials spoke of an “Asian/Asian American” experience. I could not possibly lay claim to being Asian American, another reason I avoid the A3C. “Asian American” is substantially different from “Asian in America.”
But even the category of “Asian American” can be used reductively; and even across the lines of nationality and homelands and diasporas, “Asian Asian” and “Asian American” have the memory of a continent in common. When we interns were assigned the task of helming David Henry Hwang’s Trying to Find Chinatown as a winter show, I would discover a little of myself in both the characters of Benjamin and Ronnie. Benjamin is an eager Asian American Studies major who rages against “Euro-America’s emasculating and brutal stereotypes of Asians;” Ronnie despises how he is seen only for his racial appearance, and judged and found wanting for preferring to share in the artistic traditions of another culture.
English-speaking, Southeast Asian, Singaporean Chinese, stateside for the first time in my life, reading the short play in a hotel room on AATP retreat, I found Trying to Find Chinatown at turns funny, bitter, wry, nostalgic—raising complex questions, offering a multitude of responses and no real answers. It was charming to read. It was challenging to produce. And it will, I hope, be provocative to watch.
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Trying to Find Chinatown will be performed on East Campus at 7pm and 9pm this Thursday, and at Roble Theater on 6.30pm this Friday. Both performances will feature a post-show dialogue with the director, Sarah Jiang ’16, and the actors, Allen Xu ’15 and Justin Bui ’14.
The Asian American Theater Project will also be performing Trying to Find Chinatown at the Listen to the Silence conference on Asian American issues this Saturday, February 2. It will be followed by a panel with Professor Jennifer Brody, chair of the Theater and Performance Studies Department; Sharon Wei, lecturer in the Department of Music and resident fellow of Kimball; and Pearl Wong, managing director of the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco.
All performances are free to the public.
慧敏 Annabeth is a postcolonial feminist deeply passionate about issues of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and post/colonialism—especially when they involve either pop culture or contemporary maritime Southeast Asian. She hates the use of “international” as a noun, and “freshman” as any flavour of word. She also finds quite quaint people who quibble over how she spells “flavour.”