July 9, 2020 § 2 Comments
Every day on my way to work, I drive through the East Town neighborhood of Joplin, Missouri, down a street with the dual name Langston Hughes Avenue and Broadway Street. Part of the old Route 66, it used to be called simply Broadway, but in 1976, the city renamed a portion of it as a tribute to the African-American writer and activist born James Mercer Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes was the son of Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes and James Hughes, was born in East Town Joplin, in 1901. Not long after his birth, his father left the US, moving to Mexico, and his mother took him to live in Kansas, with him growing up in Lawrence, Topeka, and Kansas City.
If they had not left earlier, Hughes and his mother may well have decided to quit Joplin in 1903, following the lynching of Thomas Gilyard, a black man accused of killing a Joplin police officer in the rail yards just north of Broadway. Not satisfied with the death of Gilyard, a mob of white Joplinites surged through town burning the homes of black residents, causing many African Americans to flee the city. According to Kimberly Harper, in White Man’s Heaven, of the 700 blacks living in Joplin at the time, at least 200 planned to move elsewhere and not come back. Lynching would later become a theme in Hughes’s poetry.
Hughes lived a mobile life and was an international traveler. As a young adult, he relocated to Mexico to be with his father, and then worked aboard a ship that took him to West Africa and Europe, ending up in Paris for a time. His travels also took him to Cuba and Haiti, and to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. Then, in the 1930s, after he had established himself as a writer, he went to the Soviet Union to make a movie about the black experience in the American south. But the movie never developed and he moved on to China, Korea, and Japan. His travels, as well as some of this writings, earned him a call in 1953 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Some twenty years later, accusations of him being a Communist resurfaced in Joplin during the debate to rename Broadway.
While Hughes’s cinematic plans didn’t come to fruition, he found global success through his writing in a number of genres, including short stories, novels, news articles, non-fiction, and plays. It was through poetry, though, that he is most well known. And while he was born in Joplin, his most famous residence was Harlem, where he laid the groundwork for his inclusion in the literary and cultural movement that came to be called the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes influenced the civil rights movement, as well. According to W. Jason Miller, professor at North Carolina State University and author of Origins of the Dream, Hughes’s poetry was the inspiration behind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s usage of a dream motif, most famously apparent in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
One example comes from his 1951 poem “Harlem” (or “Dream Deferred”), where Hughes asks,
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, which took its name from Hughes’s poem, opened on Broadway (the area in Manhattan, not the Joplin street). “Harlem” was included in an insert in the show’s playbill, and following A Raisin in the Sun‘s premier, King wrote to Hughes, “I can no longer count the number of times and places . . . in which I have read your poems.”
On my twice-daily workday trip in Joplin, I drive past banners on the light poles that read “Dreams—East Town,” with the added tags “heritage,” “tradition,” “connection,” and “community.” And on what used to be Earl Smith’s grocery store at the corner of Langston Hughes-Broadway and Mineral Street, there’s a mural that was painted in 2016. The mural was a community project, with hundreds, including my son and daughter-in-law, participating in its design and painting.
Titled “Belonging to All the Hands Who Build,” the mural pays tribute to East Town’s history. And the name pays tribute to Langston Hughes’s poem “Freedom’s Plow,” which includes these lines about dreaming, and creating, together:
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.
Kimberly Harper, White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909, The University of Arkansas Press, 2010; W. Jason Miller, Origins of the Dream: Hughes’s Poetry and King’s Rhetoric, University Press of Florida, 2015
June 12, 2020 § Leave a comment
Growing up in Taipei didn’t give my daughter much exposure to colleges in the States, so when she got older and came across the WB series Felicity on DVD, she was excited to find a tutorial on the college experience. Since then, she’s become a university student herself and has learned that real college life contains a lot more schoolwork and a lot less draaaaaama than Keri Russell’s version. But Felicity still holds a special place in her DVD collection, and in her Third Culture Kid heart.
When I told my daughter I was reviewing Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s solo show about being a TCK, Alien Citizen, and that Lisa had appeared in season two of Felicity, she was impressed.
Yes, Felicity gave Lisa her first TV role, in 2000, but it was far from her last. Since then she’s appeared in a number of television shows, as well as movies and stage productions. Most recently, her TV credits have included Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schooled, Bob Hearts Abishola, Big Little Lies, and Fresh off the Boat. (Want to see a sampling of her on the small screen? She’s Margo in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine clip at the end of this post.)
As I wrote about in my review, Lisa has a lot of cultures packed into her life. She’s the daughter of an American mother of European descent and a Guatemalan father of Chinese-Spanish descent, and she grew up in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and the US.
After watching Lisa in Alien Citizen—and on TV—I wanted to find out how being a TCK affected her development as an actress, so I asked her a few questions. Thanks, Lisa, for the conversation:
In Alien Citizen, you say, “In the theater everybody’s weird. We use our imaginations to create a world that we step into together, kind of like being dropped into one that you have to adapt to.” Tell us what led you to acting and explain more how the stage become a refuge for you as a TCK.
My mom is an actress and had worked both professionally and in community theatre since before I was born, so the smell of theatres and the excitement of the creative process were a “home” to me from a young age. I started acting at school and in community theatre as a kid in Panama, and my love for it only grew as I grew up.
The stage became my refuge as a TCK because it allowed me to express all the facets of my personality, as well as all the facets I dared not explore in real life, without argument. The audience might like or dislike my work, but for two to three hours on stage no one could interrupt me to argue with or dismiss my experience. I wasn’t being a bad guest, nor was I losing the possibility of making or keeping friends, when I portrayed a character on stage . . . even if she was angry or rude or rebellious, or vulnerable or scared. It was a great release.
To quote an essay I wrote for the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, “I also became an actress because the lifestyle bears a resemblance to the TCK lifestyle, with added perks: the immediate family of casts and crews, the insulated world of the play or film, the inherent loss of one another at the end of a project. Actors have no choice but to live in the moment when we are acting, just as we lived in the moment as kids when we experienced a new school, a new airport, a new language for the first time. There was only the here and now, and however frightening it might have been at times, it was also exciting. Based on this, one might expect all actors to have had mobile childhoods. Many have.”
Probably the most famous TCK among actors is Mark Hamill of Star Wars, but there are plenty of others: Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Kathleen Turner, and many more.
“One might expect all actors to have had mobile childhoods.” I can’t help but think about the converse of this phrase: “One might expect all who have had mobile childhoods to be actors.” How has your experience as a “cultural chameleon,” playing new parts in new locations, influenced your ability to inhabit new characters?
My experience as a TCK gave me extra skill at playing characters with regional and international accents or dialects. I’ve played everything from a Cuban lawyer to a Japanese mother to a French maid to a Cockney convict and more, and I’m very grateful that my upbringing made those roles possible for me to play convincingly. Many were “open casting,” racially speaking (I was an actress of color playing roles originally written as white), so I had to convince the audience with my accent and behavior that the character was embodied in me. I’m proud to say it worked.
Being a TCK also taught me to show automatic respect to cultures of which I’m not a member. So when I’m playing a character from a country I’ve never been to, I avoid stereotypes and do a lot of research on that country and the region the character is from. I look for the recognizable and relatable behavior that will make the role seem true as a human being and as a member of that culture and not a cartoon.
Finally, diving into a new role is very much like moving to a new country: there’s excitement, thrill, terror, and dread . . . all at the same time. With every role, as with every country, like every actor I know, I ask myself, “How am I going to do this?!?”
Your SAG-AFTRA resume says that you can portray 24 ethnicities. That’s quite a range. Can you share about any particular role that stretched you or that taught you something you didn’t know before about a place or culture?
One role that required a lot from me was Matilde in Sarah Ruhl’s wonderful play The Clean House. Matilde is a Brazilian standup comic who has moved to the CT/NY area (I decided it was Fairfield County, CT) and is working as a maid. She hates cleaning and she doesn’t much like the town she’s in, so I deeply understood her. Nevertheless, the role was challenging because I had to learn to speak Portuguese, because Matilde opens the show with a long-form joke in her native language. Since she’s Brazilian, I had to learn a Brazilian accent. I tried for São Paulo and hoped for the best.
I can never fully explain the courage it took to open a show by delivering a long-form joke directly to the audience in a language they and I didn’t speak, while sounding utterly confident and helping them “get” the joke.
My courage as an actor grew a lot during the run of that show.
You act out many characters in Alien Citizen, including your parents. How has creating and performing the play helped you understand what it was like for your mother and father raising TCKs?
Giving myself permission to write about the hard parts of my upbringing, and then include some of them in the final draft, helped me to process those experiences so I could then overwhelmingly see and acknowledge all the good in my TCK life. I had to be honest about the difficulties in my family’s dynamic, and bear witness to some of it in the show, in order to move past that and see how much my parents succeeded as parents and how hard it must have been for them to pick up and move and navigate different cultures over and over while raising two kids. My brother and I knew we were loved, without question, and that’s not always a given in families.
Also, interviewing my folks for a “special feature” in the DVD helped me understand how it was for them. They’re very clear that there was no help or guidance whatsoever from the international schools or my father’s employer regarding the emotional challenges their kids would face. That shocks me to this day. My heart goes out to all the families over decades and centuries who’ve relocated and had to learn how to cope emotionally on their own.
You offer workshops to help others wanting to share their stories in solo shows, personal essays, memoirs, and the like. What would you say to TCKs who would ask, “Why me? Why my story?”
Every human being’s story is part of the great, infinite prism of the human story. We have always relied on stories to help us feel connected, and learn how to behave and how to understand one another. Your story will resonate with people you expect and people you would never expect to relate to any of it. I know this from personal experience.
Ask yourself: What is it costing you not to have your voice, your story, in the world?
And remember: Our stories and our feelings about them matter. Honor them.
May 30, 2020 § 3 Comments
Most countries have their majestic views. They’re the sights that populate Google image results and Pinterest collections. I’m thinking Eiffel Towers and Mount Fujis.
In the capital of Taiwan, we could ride the gondola up to the heights of Maokong and gaze at Taipei 101 piercing the skyline of the city, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Or we could stand at the entrance of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park, with its paved square and manicured lawns leading to the majestic bright-white, blue roofed Memorial Hall.
If you visit Taipei, I’d suggest you try to see both of these grand vistas. But living there for a while, I had some little vistas that impacted me more. For instance, there was the view from my favorite seat in a Starbucks deep in the subway system. Through the glass wall in front of me, I could look down a long corridor, lined with shops. The architecture was nondescript, but what impacted me was the constant crowds of people kaleidoscoping by. I spent a lot of time at that vantage point mulling over big decisions.
And there was an ancient tree on a college campus downtown that caught my attention. It was mostly sideways limbs, gnarled and stretching out in all directions. The limbs were so heavy and low that they had to be held up by short concrete pillars so they wouldn’t touch the ground. I admired that tree. It was old and weary but enduring. It was especially picturesque during a rain shower.
What about you, in your host country? Do you have a little vista that brings you joy or peace or hope or inspiration?
Go to A Life Overseas to finish reading this post, and to add your own little vista.
Listening to a Wonderful Immigrant Story in the Walmart Parking Lot while Everybody Was Stocking Up on Bottled Water
May 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
I was sitting in a Walmart parking lot, a few days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO. It was back when stores weren’t yet limiting the number of shoppers. People were still hoarding toilet paper and making a big deal about how people were hoarding toilet paper, and there wasn’t much of it left in the stores by that time. I had a list in my pocket of things to buy, but I stayed in my car for a while listening to NPR as I watched shoppers file out with their carts piled high with their necessities—bottled water seemed to be a must-have that day. I was in the middle of a Moth Radio Hour and I wanted to hear the end.
The edition playing that day was called “When We Were Young,” and in the second segment, “Sandwiches & Neighbors,” Oanh Ngo Usadi tells about her family of seven leaving Vietnam as refugees when she was twelve. They ended up in Port Arthur, Texas. and she introduces us to their landlords, Mr. Water (not so nice) and Mrs. Water (much nicer). “Water” wasn’t their actually surname, but that’s what Usadi’s family called them. She shares how her father opened a sandwich shop to give McDonald’s “a run for its money” and how they were introduced to the significance of April 1 (the hard way) and how a trip to Costco brought about an unexpected affirmation. And that brings me back to Walmart.
I didn’t have a mask with me, because we weren’t doing that yet, but I had in my head all the reminders to wash my hands and not touch my face. Regardless, I found myself wiping my eyes as Usadi reached the end of her poignant story.
You can listen to the entire episode at The Moth site, and I hope you do. It starts with “Is Love Wild, Is Love Real?” from a man who grew up outside London. His parents were Pakistani Muslims who didn’t believe that love was a useful ingredient in a husband-wife relationship. As he is looking for love anyway, his mother is looking to set him up in an arranged marriage. Enlightenment comes by way of Bruce Springsteen.
And the third, and final, story is “Kid Religion.” In it, the speaker tells about his time as a child in western New York, attending a small Methodist church. His mother, a “labor lawyer from a Catholic Puerto Rican family in the Bronx,” volunteers to teach his Sunday-school class and gets fired for how she answers a question. Years later, after developing a relationship with a girl in a school play, he comes to believe that his mother’s answer was the right one.
If Usadi’s narrative makes you want to hear more about her life, you can read her memoir, Of Monkey Bridges and Bánh Mì Sandwiches: from Sài Gòn to Texas.
May 2, 2020 § Leave a comment
I saw a headline a couple weeks ago that pressed down on my chest like a heavy stone. It read, “‘Don’t You Love Us?’ Millennials Say Their Parents Are Making Them Feel Guilty for Turning Down Invitations to Come Over for Passover and Easter.” While the lead-in question is directed at young adults, asked by parents who don’t understand why they won’t be sharing a holiday meal together during the pandemic, it could just as easily be asked of health-care workers or grocery-store employees by loved ones wondering why they are putting themselves at risk by going to work every day.
So this is another thing that cross-cultural workers face that is similar to what’s been brought on by COVID-19: the questions.
Hands up. When you decided to work overseas, did any of you hear “Don’t you love us?” or something similar, from parents, siblings, children, or close friends? How many of you have heard it more than once, maybe each time you say goodbye?
When we make decisions based on our convictions, when we decide to do something difficult or out of the ordinary because we believe it to be right, our actions often affect others, especially those closest to us. And they have questions, and those questions can land with a thud.
Go to A Life Overseas for the rest of the post. . . .
(Erin McDowell, “‘Don’t You Love Us?’ Millennials Say Their Parents Are Making Them Feel Guilty for Turning Down Invitations to Come Over for Passover and Easter,” Insider, April 9, 2020)
April 25, 2020 § Leave a comment
If you haven’t yet seen the video of the jellyfish touring Venice, here it is. What a peaceful swim.
And to go with that, here are some other videos I’ve collected.
- a ride down the normally crowded canals of Venice—nearly empty because of COVID-19 (a jellyfish’s-eye view, if they had eyes?),
- an 8-hour relaxation video featuring jellyfish, for those of you who are feeling a little bit stressed,
- and for those who might need a pick-me-up, a music video of Japanese pop duo Puffy singing the theme song from their Hi!Hi! Puffy AmiYumi Show. What’s the connection? you ask. Well, the song was produced by co-founder of the American rock band Jellyfish, Andy Sturmer.
April 5, 2020 § Leave a comment
The Netherlands’ Huge Flower Sector Wilts as Coronavirus Hurts Business
The Netherlands accounts for nearly half of the world trade in floriculture products and 77% of flower bulbs sold globally. Top destinations usually include Germany, the U.K., France and Italy. The Dutch exports overall are valued at $6.7 billion and the sector accounts for about 5% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to [Royal FloraHolland’s Michael] van Schie.
Now revenue has dropped by 85% since last month, the cooperative spokesman says.
. . . . .
The decline comes as the Netherlands battles the rapid spread of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, 276 people have died in the Netherlands from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and the country has identified 5,560 cases of infection.
The Netherlands isn’t the only country whose flower sector is suffering. Kenya and Ethiopia are also important producers of roses, van Schie says. In Kenya, flowers are the second-largest source of currency after remittances. Seventy percent of cut flowers from Kenya are sold to Europe, most through an auction in the Netherlands. Farmers there are leaving their roses to rot.