Even today, said the panelists, “Do you speak English?” is a question sometimes directed at Americans who appear phenotypically Asian. But not last night: With a loquacious and erudite command of English that outstripped their Chinese, three accomplished Chinese Americans tackled the thorny issue of identity.
Even émigré Bright Sheng, born and raised in China, confessed: “After so long in America, I found my Chinese was slipping and English getting better. For a time, I couldn’t speak either language well.” Playwright David Henry Hwang and writer Jeff Yang, both American-born, seemed to relish their American-ness. “For so long, we were trying to prove that we were more American than Chinese,” said Yang. Hwang chimed in: “but now that China is rising, we want to identify more with that.”
The setting couldn’t have been more fitting for this wide-ranging discussion of Chinese American identity: the brand-new Centre Street. home of the Museum of Chinese in America. Facing a diverse crowd, the three mused on how much things have changed. “In the schoolyard, “Chinese’ used to be a bad thing,” recalled Yang. “‘Chinese American’ wasn’t a well-developed idea.” “But now, they are studying us in college courses!” said Hwang with more than a hint of amazement. “In the past 30 years,” he continued, “the changes have been huge. Who could have imagined that a Chinese American writer [Amy Tan] would be a household name?”
Audience questions focused on the notion of Asian versus Chinese American, the possibility of future rivalry with China, and the topic—still taboo in conservative strains of Chinese culture—of mental disability. One gentleman whose look and manner put him one “fugghedaboudit” away from a Chinese Tony Soprano, said what many were thinking: “Talk to me over the phone, you’d never know I looked Chinese.”
Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China