The Soulmates of Qing Se

It was tight in the Lamp, that was for sure. Her hair drifted in the dark space as if underwater, and her tail looped in on itself. Her human form wanted to sleep, while her serpent form was itching to shed its skin.

At last, Qing Se let herself drift off, loosening her grip on human shape. Once she slipped into serpent form, she had much more room in this cool space within the Lamp. Ironically, once she relaxed and was fully the Green Snake, she awoke in the middle of the night with a terrible itching to shed her skin faster, writhing. Though there was now plenty of space to drift and swim, she thrashed and bumped against the boundaries.

“Damn it, it’s never enough,” Qing Se hissed. “Never a comfortable position either way…”

Suddenly, the darkness in the void gave way to great light, and Qing Se felt as if she were radiating.  She lifted human arms up from her snakeskin and covered her now human face against the bright light. “Really? Right as I’m about to sleep?” Like a mermaid swimming to the surface, Qing Se swam up toward the light, transcending the dark mist, leaving the Lamp to face her new keeper.  

Her human side said to make it a dramatic entrance. Her serpent side said to wait and see.

The Lamp’s bearer appeared to be a young boy in rags, wide-eyed and speechless. Qing Se appeared in human form for his sake and said she would be his friend throughout the course of granting three wishes.

It was not as dramatic as she would have hoped. The boy was so dumbfounded that Qing Se let him think about it while she went back to sleep in the Lamp. Oh, gods. First encounters are always awkward, anyway.

After some comfortable darkness curled up in serpent form within the lamp, bright light cut through and her skin radiated again. When Qing Se emerged again, she was prepared for questions about the rules of wishing, the drill of no murder, no time travel, no reanimation, no turning into an omniscient god, and no making people fall in love (that one was always met with disappointed scowls).  

She wasn’t prepared for the boy’s wide-eyed question, “Who are you really? From before you were captured in the Lamp? Can you remember?”

Qing Se almost stumbled out of her human guise, laughing in disbelief. “Captured! Well, that’s one way to put it. You don’t know much about creatures like me, do you? Curses happen, the way fatal accidents happen to you mortals. Inconvenient, but just a part of life.” She folded her arms back against her head and made herself comfortable on a patterned rug on the floor. “Just concern yourself with your three wishes while you’re lucky to have them.”

The youth did not give up so easily. “Why three wishes? I thought releasing a djinn meant releasing great ancient powers. Why is it now that you serve us?”

“We got bored,” said Qing Se. Her serpent side wanted to stretch out against the oriental rug and scare the mortal for rubbing it in. Her human side whispered that he was only curious. It was on the tip of her tongue to speak of who cursed her, but still she found herself remaining silent.

After a while, the youth sat down on the other side of the rug. “Forgive me. I jumped right into it as if we were old friends. I’ll just think of my first wish, then.”

Qing Se’s human side was content in the silence sitting together. Her serpent side preferred the solitude of the Lamp.

The boy’s first wish was for his mother to be well off, because they had grown up poor and broken. Qing Se saw to it that his wish was granted.

The boy’s second wish was to be made a prince, so that he could have a chance at winning a princess’s heart. Qing Se laughed, “A love story. Of course!” Her serpent side hissed bitterly. Her human side was more hopeful. Her mind was as tangled up as her body in the confines of the lamp, but she prepared to clothe him in wealth and send him to his fate.

“No, not like that!” laughed the boy, draped over in oversized emperor’s robes.

Qing Se flicked her wrist, and the boy was almost drowning in gold.

“Come on, you know this is an illusion,” the boy laughed, his mouth still showing through the pile of gold.

“You’re mortal. It’s all an illusion,” Qing Se said nonchalantly. “Still fun, though.”

“I don’t want to be that kind of prince,” said the boy, shaking off the gold. “I just want a path to reach the princess.”

“A poor prince? Yeah, that’ll be the day,” Qing Se snickered.

“And a bound immortal,” said the boy, raising an eyebrow. “We’re both oxymorons.”

Qing Se dropped her smile. Kill him for that remark, said her serpent side. Wait and see, said her human side. “So what do I even change on you?” she asked him aloud. “If not wealth, what makes you a prince in human terms?”

“Courage, I suppose,” shrugged the boy.  

“That’s it?” said Qing Se incredulously. “You ask of an immortal djinn to give you what you can grow yourself?”

“An insane amount of courage,” said the boy. Then he quickly added: “While still keeping me alive and rational.”

Qing Se laughed. “Oh, I’ll give you the practice of bravery.” At last, she emerged from this guise, majestic and terrifying, serpentine and coiling. As the Green Snake, she hissed at him with a monstrous grin. In the back of her mind, her human side told her to return to being a proper servant. But her serpent side felt so free.

To her surprise, the boy wasn’t frightened off. He didn’t recoil in disgust, nor try fruitlessly to fight her off, nor pity her limbless form. “That was amazing!” he said, his eyes alight in awe.

Qing Se fell back into human form. “You really weren’t scared?” Then she added, “Well—that’s utterly pointless! It isn’t courage without a little fear.”

“I’ll have whatever you’re having,” said the boy brightly, sitting upright next to her. “That shot of courage to be completely yourself.”

Qing Se stared at him. Humans are weird, said her serpent side. Isn’t it great? said her human side. “You want a drink when you first come back from the princess?” she said aloud. “We can be completely ourselves and talk about how it went.”

“And you’ll tell me who you were before?”

“Yes.” What did she have to lose, anyway? A mortal who treated her like a fellow human was hard to come by. Sure, the last time she slipped a drink centuries ago at the Dragon Boat Festival had painful consequences, but this time she didn’t mess with free will. This time, with no ulterior motive, she offered friendship.

“I can’t wait,” said the boy. And then, magic carpet beneath his feet, he was off to see the princess.

Poor fool in love, said her serpent self. Just like Bai Se.

But how lucky, said her human self. To not know what red threads bind him to fate, and to explore.

It is said that, invisible to the mortal eye, threads bound people to meet one another. Red threads of fate bound people to their true love, and once a match was made, nothing on earth could sever it.   

Qing Se had lost vision of such things a long time ago. She had seen rushed marriages, broken spirits. She could not find it in her heart to believe such matches were meant to be. Even if it produced children like herself, with dualities like herself. Many of her kind had whims to shapeshift into human form and dance for a night. But even in human guise, they could not change that they were bound to their promises. Many an immortal had been trapped in a mistake of a marriage, waiting until a human companion’s death to be freed.  

But Bai Se didn’t look free when her husband died, Qing Se thought bitterly. I could never be like her. And angrily, despite the bliss of friendship only moments earlier, both her human and serpent sides wept.

• • •

She awoke, head rested on her elbows, her long tail coiled snug all around in the dark room of the lamp. Of course, she could have shrunken herself down to make it easier, but it didn’t feel right to not take up space.

She decided to get up out of her slumber and follow the subtle light above her.

But when she emerged from out of the lamp, she realized it was still early. The boy was nowhere to be seen. For a moment, Qing Se panicked that the Lamp had fallen into the hands of another, one who wouldn’t be her friend, one who would see her as servile and soulless, one who didn’t believe magic and humans could mix. But no one else was in the room.

Was the boy in trouble? Did he need her help? Qing Se gathered up her powers and prepared herself to burst out of the room controlling rain and wind, riding the air like a dragon, all to save her friend, despite not knowing where he was, when—

“Guess who got a date!” piped a cheerful, familiar voice.

Qing Se whipped her head around. “Oh thank the gods!” she cried, rushing to embrace him despite herself. “It was you who rubbed the Lamp, wasn’t it?”

“I only just got here,” said the boy, embracing her back.

“But that’s impossible!” said Qing Se, slithering over to the Lamp. “I can only emerge when summoned, when I’m allowed.”

“I didn’t tell you my last wish,” said the boy. “For your freedom.”

If she had been fully in serpent form, her jaw would have hit the floor. “Boy, if you think I’m staying human for you—”

“The freedom to be both your selves,” said the boy, reaching out to her. “Without the shame of the Lamp someone threw you in.”

Qing Se’s eyes filled to the brim. She was ready to tell him. “I couldn’t stand to see my Lady White Snake suppress herself in marrying a man. I slipped her a drink one night to be like the good old days, and when it made her reveal her serpent form, it scared him to death. She bound me to stay while she save his soul, and then the curse was cast.

“I have seen my Lady find life in moments, in festivals, in the people she healed, and perhaps that was enough for her, perhaps it had to be, to fit into a new life. She had so much life in her, from a world of the simple and divine to the world of bustling people. Her human husband came from wealth, but his family brokenness had filled him with his own venom, and confusion. He even shortly ran away to become a monk.” They both laughed.

“I do not fear man; on the contrary, I’ve skipped rocks and eaten good food with many humans long ago. But I dread the mortality of such moments, once they each trace their red threads and meet their fate. I exist because of tangled threads, and yet, what good are they?”  

“Best not to see them anyway,” said the boy. “But I’ll bet there are threads all around us that bring us together, all kinds of soulmates for us to find in a lifetime. I’m glad I found you.” Qing Se took a hold of the empty golden lamp and smiled at her friend. Freedom, her human and serpent sides harmonized. She transformed the lamp in her hands and began to pour tea for the both of them. “So! Tell me about the princess!”

About the Author: Ellen Huang is a recent graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University with a BA in Writing & a Theatre minor. She writes twisted fairy tales, directs original skits, reenacts Disney scenes on demand, swims in the ocean, practices pyrography, dresses thematically, and owns a cloak. Much of her fairy-tale-inspired work is grounded in themes of progressive faith and platonic love.

Image by: Racel Hisko via Unsplash

Inheritance

Once upon a time, there was a Buddhist monk named Tang Sanzang. He was compassionate to a fault, and he was prone to being fooled. Nevertheless, he was chosen by the Chinese emperor to go on a journey to Tianzhu, or modern-day India, to obtain Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China to help spread Buddhism. It was a high calling to a dangerous journey ahead.

Guanyin, the goddess of compassion, appeared to Tang Sanzang just as he was leaving Chang’an on his own.

“Go westward beyond the mountains,” she said, “and you will find what you are looking for.”

Guanyin promised to guide Tang Sanzang to three powerful beings who would protect him on this journey and then, without any further instructions, bade him farewell, sending him on his journey to the West.

As Tang Sanzang traveled westward, he gained three companions who protected him and walked with him on this journey.

The first companion was Sun Wukong, the Monkey King and self-dubbed “Handsome Monkey King in the Water Curtain Cave of Flower Fruit Mountain, Great Sage Equal of Heaven, Sun Wukong.” Reckless and conniving yet brave and earnest, Sun Wukong vowed to be with Tang Sanzang all the way to the end. At first, Sun Wukong only wanted the honor and glory promised to him at the end of the journey, but after defeating demons who threatened to eat Tang Sanzang, Sun Wukong saw that this journey was a greater calling, and he only grew in his devotion to Tang Sanzang.

The second companion was Zhu Bajie, a former commander-in-chief in Heaven who was banned to earth for lusting after the Goddess of the Moon. Lazy and gluttonous, Zhu Bajie cared deeply about his own comfort and would constantly prioritize his own needs and desires, including walking away from the group to talk to every pretty woman along the journey. Knowing this fault in Zhu Bajie, many demons would transform into pretty women to distract him, and Sun Wukong came to Zhu Bajie’s rescue every time. As time went on, Zhu Bajie saw Tang Sanzang’s unwavering commitment to the journey, no matter the challenges, and Zhu Bajie was eventually moved to do the same.

The last companion was Sha Wujing. Originally a general in Heaven, Sha Wujing broke a vase and was banished from Heaven by the Jade Emperor, reincarnating into a man-eating sand demon. A little dense, but extremely humble, Sha Wujing repented of his old ways and vowed to be a new man. After meeting Tang Sanzang, Sha Wujing did everything in his power to serve the others on the journey, constantly putting their needs above his own. If Sun Wukong felt hot, Sha Wujing would be the first to fan him. If Zhu Bajie was feeling tired, Sha Wujing would offer to carry him on his back. Tang Sanzang was very thankful for Sha Wujing’s faithfulness and servant heart.

Together the three companions traveled over land and sea with Tang Sanzang, defeating the demons and monsters who threatened to kill the monk and eat his flesh. They overcame many trials and tribulations, but after an arduous journey, they obtained the Buddhist scriptures and safely brought them back to Chang’an.  

****************

The year was 1985. The location: Guangzhou, China. The main character: my mother.

My grandfather was very sick — my mother couldn’t explain to me what the illness was — and needed to see a doctor from the city immediately. But because he was poor, the doctors rejected him at the hospital doors.

“Come back when you can show us you can pay us,” they said. “Until then, go home.”

My mother, 20 years old at the time, went back home to her village and begged every neighbor, cried to them, pleaded with them to let her borrow money for her father’s medical treatment. The villagers, feeling pity for my mother yet moved by her persistence, each gave her a small portion of their daily earnings. After going to every villager’s house, my mother felt that she had finally obtained what was enough. She quickly brought her father and the sum of money to the hospital once again.

When the doctors finally started running tests on my grandfather, they realized that he was too sick and wouldn’t last the week. My mother, again, begged the doctors, cried to them, pleaded with them to save her father. They shrugged, pocketed the money, and left my mother in the hospital room.

My grandfather passed away a few days later in the hospital on his 52nd birthday: December 28, 1985.

That night, as my mother walked back to her village alone, she saw a faint light in the distance. In a flash, a goddess appeared in a white robe, a water jar in her right hand and a willow branch in her left.

“Do you need help?”

My mother didn’t know what to say.

“What do you need?”

My mother looked at the goddess and said, “Money. Money would have saved my father.”

“Go westward to the Golden Mountain,” the goddess said, “And you will find a rich inheritance waiting for you.”

“Really?”

“You will have to go through trials and tribulations to receive it. And you will not be able to return to the way things were. Will you go on this journey?”

My mother talked to her older sister, my aunt, who had just married into a new family about a year ago.

“Big Sister,” my mother said, “Guanyin appeared to me and told me that if we head west to the Golden Mountain, we can gain riches. Will you go with me? We can repay our debt to the villagers for Father’s medical fees, and Mother won’t have to work so hard in the fields.”

My aunt thought about the pros and cons. She knew that she needed to solidify her place in her new family now. Besides, her husband’s family had just started a new business in Guangzhou, and she was counting on her husband’s business to get rich. This was her new family now.

“Why should I go with you?” my aunt said. “I am no longer part of your family now. This debt is your problem, not mine.”

My mother then went to her younger brother, my uncle, to ask if he would go with her to the Golden Mountain.

“Well,” my uncle said, “I think I have more potential of finding a wife here. If I’m so focused on gaining riches, then I won’t be able to settle down and find a woman.”

Finally, my mother went to her mother, my grandmother. My mother didn’t want to ask my grandmother to go on this long journey with her, but she had no one else to turn to.

“Mother,” she said. “Father is gone now, and we have to pay back our friends in the village, but Guanyin has come to help us. She told me that if we go westward to the Golden Mountain, we will gain riches. We can pay back the debt and maybe have money left over to live comfortably. Will you come with me?”

“Daughter, I have to tend to the fields now that your father is gone. Your sister is living with her new family now, and your brother will hopefully bring a new woman into ours. I still have many mouths to feed and no one to support me. You should get married and find someone to go with you.”

With that, my grandmother left for the day to the city marketplace, lifting two baskets of vegetables, one on each end of a wooden rod that she balanced upon her shoulders.

In her desperation, my mother went back to the road where she met Guanyin. In a flash, the goddess appeared before her again.

“Have you decided?”

“I will go, but I have no one to go with me.”

Guanyin smiled and said, “There is a man in the village down the road who has agreed to go on this same journey for a different kind of inheritance. You do not know each other, but do not fear. You both will need each other to reach your destination and reward.”

That night, my mother quietly packed her three outfits, two undershirts, and a pair of shoes into a bag and pocketed the $10 bill that Guanyin graciously provided for her journey. As she waited on that same road, she saw the man walking towards her with his own small bag.

That man was my father. Together, they traveled over land and sea, overcoming multiple trials and tribulations to reach the Golden Mountain.

About the Author: Cindy is an aspiring mental health counselor. She loves Korean food, boba, and her family.

About the image: Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King

The Rise of Awkwafina

2018 has been an especially draining year. We have a racist, corrupt, self-absorbed president. The ice caps are still melting. Aung San Suu Kyi is not the hero we thought she would be. I found 12 gray hairs on my head and oh did I mention that I work for a gun violence prevention organization?

Le sigh.

But all is not lost and I’m not one to stay defeated. McDonald’s still serves breakfast all day and for the first time in 20 years, an Asian American woman hosted Saturday Night Live. This woman also happens to be my childhood best friend.

Awkwafina, aka Nora, and I grew up together in a small neighborhood in Queens, NY. We met in 3rd grade and hit it off right away. I still remember when we first met. Hard to forget an Asian girl with tomboy vibes in a pair of overalls. She always made the funniest faces and had a knack for imitating politicians. I had freshly immigrated from Singapore so it was a pleasant surprise to meet a spunky and rebellious East Asian girl.

One time when we were filming our show “Mo and Fo’s Excellent Adventures” with her dad’s camcorder, she farted on command. I was really impressed. Her grandma and my mom would take turns babysitting us as a pair but for the most part, we were at the park near her home burying treasures, talking shit about classmates, watching SNL or learning how to pogo stick.

We lost contact after we parted ways to go to high school: she went to the famed LaGuardia School of Performing Arts to play the trumpet and I chose the nerdy path and went to Townsend Harris. We tried to find time for each other but distance and the pressure of higher education got to us. Nevertheless, we found our way back into each other’s lives after college at the peak of social networking. When we reunited, we were fresh out of college and woefully underpaid. We knew that neither of us took the stereotypical Asian American career trajectory of Doctor/Lawyer-hood and it was during this time that she told me about her side project as a rapper.

When Nora released “My Vag” on Youtube, I choked hard on my matcha latte from laughing. Everything about it screamed Nora and her rebellion against the Asian American stereotype. It was brave and I was proud of her resistance. She had made it seem like a small project but when I went to see her perform the song live at a street food festival in Flushing, the Asian American community showed up and were clearly smitten by her. Her brief YouTube and rapping fame opened doors to other opportunities and she eventually landed impressive supporting roles. I cheered on the sideline as her career slowly took the interest of Hollywood but I never imagined it would get so big.

I knew early on that Nora would be part of a bold project called “Crazy Rich Asians”. I had my doubts that the general American audience would care for a movie with an all Asian/Asian-American cast, but I made everyone I knew, including the lady at the Japanese grocery store, to promise me that they would go see it. The movie broke box office records.

My family and I watched the earliest show we could find. I showed up to support my friend and our community but didn’t expect to cry over the relatable mother-daughter bond, or laugh so hard from Nora’s comedic timing. I yearned so deeply for more movies like this. For a moment I forgot that my friend was on the screen and I was carried away into a world so familiar to me. It was undeniable that Nora was part of something big and important. For years, Asian Americans had struggled to have three dimensional characters in Hollywood and she had been part of the team that broke that barrier and succeeded.

There were those who criticize her, but I think they’re all full of shit. Instead of nitpicking her for a perfect role model of Asian American womanhood like we have for those before her, why not embrace her uniqueness and give her the space to grow into her new identity. She is an unintentional recipient of this onus to represent Asian American women in film and I know she doesn’t take that lightly.

The rise of Awkwafina and the success of my friend has been the good news that I needed. Behind that hilarious, crazy vision that is Awkwafina, Nora is a serious, sensitive, and brave person. She embraces her imperfection and listens deeply. She knows that she’s breaking the ceiling for other Asian Americans in the industry and as the friend who saw her through the awkward phases, I know she’s the right person for this.


About the Author: Recovering former Conservative Christian, full time activist. I have to keep my identity anonymous because I work for a gun violence prevention movement and only in America is this a safety issue.

Cover Image: Copyright NBC Universal

Notes on Playing the Asian in Otherwise “Important” Plays

“Claire.”

“Francis.”

And so went our pre-show ritual. You know, I really didn’t have much of an affinity to my middle name—Claire—until I heard my scene partner pronounce it with the affect of a certain Kevin Spacey. The comical whiteness of our pre-show exchange reflected the blinding whiteness of our onstage relationship, and though I was purported to be the biracial one in this theatrical treatise on privilege, you wouldn’t have known by our off-stage antics.

Rather, the grounding came from within. Never had I been so readily handed a role so excruciatingly close to my own life experience. Never had I felt the scrapes and chafing between two worlds grinding within the life of my own character. There was no charade of essentialized performance to represent a whole race. There was no mindless exposition to establish my Otherness—or any other character’s Otherness for that matter. There was only the awkwardness of my character’s earnest allyship—an assimilated mind inside of a mixed brown body.

I wandered around the concrete grounds of our warehouse-turned-theatre space barefoot, alternatively sounding off vocal warm-ups and dropping into a squat to ensure my body was warm. The summer heat in Santa Barbara warmed the pavement, electrifying an already grueling, ecstatic rehearsal process. The audience would be let in the gate any moment—best stay out of sight. Behind the brick walls of our warehouse performance space, I clasped my hands together and let out a giant squeal. I would be seen that night in a role that mirrored exactly the woman I’ve made myself to be. For any other regular, highly-castable actor that might be boring, passé. For this hapa, a revelation.

To recount the complexities of a play on privilege would take volumes. Was the show selected and produced out of white guilt, or was it something Santa Barbara audiences truly needed to hear? Was it fair that a play written by a white man for the contemplation of white audiences asked so much emotional labor of the female black character that the plot so heavily hinged upon? Was my character simply the token Asian, or was the fact of her biracial-ness, her performative whiteness, or her desperate efforts at allyship something of an abrogation in of itself?

“Racism is a white person’s problem.”

My scene partner donned a loud pink button down, and in the corner another colleague a pale yellow polo. Next to me, Sarai wrapped her locks with a flourish while I ironically put in little almond-eyed bobble earrings (a signifier of my character’s internalized racism). Random lines of dialogue zipped through the air—belted, screeched, recited presto, soliloquized melodramatically. We’d worked damn hard to earn that green room. Just two weeks before, we were stumbling around with binders, tripping over overlapping dialogue. Now, on the precipice of opening night with a tight, two hour and fifteen minute show firmly within our grasp, we looked back at our tattered scripts with sheer disbelief. Abortion, emotional labor, systemic racism, unconscious bias, militant feminism, performative allyship, white East Coast liberalism—we’d entered into the beast, surrendered ourselves to nearly two hundred pages of eviscerating dialogue, and come out the other end more polished perhaps even more whole human beings.

And yet, in a show so devoted to calling out the problem of privilege, there was a shocking lack of discussion amongst castmates about how the play was working on or calling out each of us. No check-ins, no discussions, no revelations. In the whirlwind that was our socially-minded season, we’d failed the most basic function of self-care: collectively processing how the play was massaging its way into our psyches.

I’d attempted, much like my character, to signal allyship with my black castmate by taking her to lunch and complaining about these deficiencies, but to little avail. Later on I would find that she and I had wildly different coping strategies: I dealt with the proverbial silence by filling it with chatter about my experience. She did just the opposite. After all, why open yourself to your castmates only to make them more uncomfortable with their experiences? Why not just get on with what we can all agree on—a phenomenal text—and assume we’ll all leave the production better humans for it?

In that way, the effects of the play proved wildly ironic.

And yet, here we were—drunk on summer heat, reeling from adrenaline, only a bit worse for wear. The emotional bruises might not have manifested until weeks afterward, but in that moment, we threw ourselves into the work. The good work we’d waited all year for, besides.

A loud joke about spiking the prop wine, a slight panic about where Evan had put his “German dungeon porn” card, and suddenly it was a half-hour later. The sun had vanished behind the pristine white façade of Santa Barbara’s downtown, the audience had settled, and the door to the space awaited us.

“Go out there and slay.”

I made eye contact with my partner, whisper “merde” under my breath, and let my body and my character become one.

 

 

About the Author: Lindsey is a playwright and theatre maker based in Santa Barbara, CA.

 

Narrative Unity

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant—”

Let me tell you a story.

It is 2013. A (white male) casting associate approaches my desk. “Look, I know this is…kinda…racist but do you know anyone in Chinatown or who’s Asian who would like to be in an episode of —- (small cable reality show)?” I laugh off his question and answer politely saying I do know some folk and ask him to send me the casting information, flipping through my mental rolodex of Asian American friends who have told me they really want to be on a real TV/movie set. But I hesitate before sharing any names, because really, what roles would they play? What grotesque caricatures would they need to mime? He never gets back to me, but I see the end result of the episode. I QC every gong sound effect and make sure the episode is clear of any copyright infringements. It’s my job and I’m damn good at it. Of course, the episode is awful — Long Duk Dong stopped midway during Sixteen Candles and asked, “Isn’t that a bit much?” The Asian “opponents” of the show’s white “heroes” have a catchphrase: “We’ll show you how this is done ASIAN STYLE!” The Oriental villains intimidate the two leads like they’re on the set of a pan Asian, no budget production of The Westside Story. But the “heroes” who will not kowtow to these Asian thugs win the day and seize the (Asian style!) loot.

It is 2015 and my Boss’ Boss (white male producer) walks into the office I share with my boss toting a small toy Japanese flag. He is back from a 2-week shoot where they have worked long days and even longer nights. As bosses go, my team actually likes him. He is competent and a laughing, steady harbor in a sea of constantly panicking, antagonistic Production crew. He plops the little flag ceremoniously into my pencil cup.

“Here, this is for you.”

“Thanks?”

“It’s a Japanese flag!”

“Cool, I’m Chinese American.”

“No no, you’re all the same.”

And he laughs and laughs his heavy smoker’s laugh all the way out of my small office. My boss a half-Cuban, half-Italian American man who makes small talk generalizations like, “All the best classical composers were German!” says nothing. I for once decide not to laugh politely or banter for points. I am tight-lipped to this senior producer’s face and immediately go back to work. The flag stays in the cup as a plastic totem of who I am to whom.

It is 2017 and I am sitting next to the most prolific and widely read Asian American female author for the past couple generations. I try to contain my excitement over the fact that we are breathing the same air, but fail miserably as I steal glances at this attentive, quiet, graceful woman who has done so much good and perhaps a fair amount of hurt with her work–though, whether this is her fault for perpetuating stereotypes or society’s inability to move past singular narratives is a question I try not to wrestle with while I’m sitting so close. So far, the evening has been a fascinating exercise in helping bak yun or lo fan (or whatever word your folk use) understand the multifaceted humans who are Bay Area second and third generation Chinese American women.

At one point an Important Person (white male) frustratedly asks, “But what about Chinese exceptionalism?” and I, unbidden, loudly guffaw. I make an attempt to look worldly and nonchalant to cover my embarrassment for his unwitting embarrassment, but I probably just look befuddled. The question underlying this topic is, aren’t you proud to be Chinese? The sentiment underlying that projects onto my face the ancient civilization of China, the inventor of paper, gunpowder, and mysteriously beautiful and docile women. Or maybe he sees a strong authoritarian country of economic prowess, where the speed of industrial development is matched by the rise of families who can pay for homes in America with suitcases of cash. It’s hard to say, but the topic is so surprising to most of the other Chinese American women in the room that I feel safe in my chagrin. As stammered answers to the question swirl around me, I contemplate the black & white frozen faces of California miners (old timey white men) on the wall of the restaurant. My mind tries to fill in the gaps, where are the Chinese miners? The Chinese building the railroad? The Chinese immigrants forced to do “women’s” work that white miners refused to do? I turn my eyes back to the table, politely wait for a fellow participant to finish her answer and then open my mouth to speak.

Together these three tales reflect one story. It is a story that keeps repeating itself across different eras and across different industries; from people with good intentions, from people who are content to flatten and package identity and culture for profit. And I am sick of this narrative.

But I get it. I am in the business of storytelling. It’s a thriving economy of competing narratives– what is right and wrong, what will make you feel complete, who can you trust, who is at the center of your story. Of course, it is largely an illusion of choice for only a few narratives consistently win out. In our most prosaic moments — family dinners, turning on Netflix, loitering outside church deciding on lunch — those narratives drive who speaks and who is heard. Their dominance bullies us into believing that this is how it is, that’s the way it’s always been. It’s the TruthTM.

But let me tell you a story.

That night in 2017 the competing narratives of Dominant Culture and Strong Emerging Voice circled each other like Miss America contestants, ferocious in their politeness. But different from so many spaces I’ve traversed before, the dominant narrative had to endure the pretense of listening while the lived experiences of a dozen or more Chinese American women filled the dining room. The clink of silverware played counterpoint to their soft/loud/boisterous/genteel/passive/assertive voices. It was wild and beautiful and the room could not contain the universes hidden within each woman.

This is my story: I have been complicit through active engagement and passive silence in letting a wrong and harmful narrative flourish. But another narrative exists that delivers good news to the poor, proclaims liberty to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, sets free those who are oppressed, and forgives all debts. It’s a narrative that I desperately cling to through my bouts of ashamed self-awareness and unrelenting arrogance. This Narrative affirms that I can be redeemed; asks that I take part in redeeming; shows me how my narrative thread is part of a wholly magnificent tapestry.

So tell me a story. Is it yours or does it belong to someone else?


About the author: Vanessa is a third generation Chinese American and Angeleno who received her Directing/Production MFA from UCLA, along with crippling student debt. Her nonfiction work explores Asian American identity and culture as seen through her feature doc The Laundromat and podcast The Bull & The Badger. To make a dent in the debt, she works in the film/tv and tech industry writing, directing, producing, and managing post production.