This TCK’s Journey Led Her to Your TV Screen: An Interview with Actress Elizabeth Liang

June 12, 2020 § Leave a comment

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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 Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 9.02.35 AMprofessionally 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.

[photo: “Television,” by dailyinvention, used under a Creative Commons license]

In “Alien Citizen,” a TCK Takes the Stage to Tell Her Stories

February 20, 2020 § 1 Comment

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I’m from the Midwest. Specifically, I’m from Missouri. You may be surprised to know that my state is a rather cosmopolitan place, with towns named Lebanon, Cuba, Mexico, Paris, Amsterdam, and Cairo.

Lisa Liang, on the other hand, is not from Missouri, or anywhere close by. She has lived in Cairo, though. But her Cairo is the really big one in northeastern Egypt, not the really small one northwest of St. Louis. In fact, one of the reasons she created her one-person show, Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey, was to answer the question “Are you from the Midwest?” that she’d heard so many times.

So where is Liang from? Um . . . yeah, about that.

Liang is a Third Culture Kid, which she defines early on in her show (standing on a chair and in a teacherly voice) as “someone who has spent a significant part of their childhood outside their passport country or in a culture that is not their parents’ culture and doesn’t have full ownership in any culture.” Third Culture Kids, or TCKs, have a hard time answering “Where are you from?”

She labels this section of her play “t/c/k 101,” and her whole performance is something of a class on what it means to be a global nomad (another term for TCK). But it’s not a dry, pedantic lecture. Maybe that’s because it’s more like the show-and-tell part of school. Stepping off the chair, she literally lets her hair down and acts out her “business brat” life, scene by scene, character by character.

Liang was born in Guatemala, to an American mother of European “hodgepodge” descent and a Guatemalan father of Chinese-Spanish descent, with her father’s job at Xerox taking the family around the world—to Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and . . . Connecticut. All the while, as she faced the challenges of changing places, cultures, and friends, she was, she says, “trained by all of the adults around me to concentrate on the positives and never complain.” After speaking this line, she quickly slaps her hands over her mouth, something she does many times during the play to show how skilled she became at silencing herself so as not to offend or stand out.

But the younger Liang had reason to voice her concerns, and as we watch Alien Citizen, we become her sounding board. There are the times when she was called names, misunderstood, threatened, and verbally abused. But there are also the positives of living cross-culturally, and she shares those moments as well. Her stories are rich and funny and painful and heartbreaking. And while they’re unique to her, they will resonate with others who understand the significance of such terms as “home base-ish” and “transition fatigue” and “foreign school.”

Foreign schools. International clubs. Places where expats gather. Those are the kinds of places where Liang spent much of her growing-up days overseas and where many of her stories take place. There was the time at the Churchill Club when she had her first kiss. And then there was the time outside the Moroccan American Cultural Center when two young men verbally and physically threaten her and her mother.

Here’s where I need to include a side note. I have the delusion that my blog is followed so closely by some in the cross-cultural community that they would read my review, buy Liang’s DVD, and immediately start playing it for their son or daughter’s TCK sleepover. To them, I say be aware that Liang’s play includes a few occurrences of the F-word (along with some derogatory epithets aimed at her). One instance is when the men outside the cultural center used it to attack Liang—a more extreme example of what she experienced often as a female walking by herself on the sidewalks of Morocco. Another is a time when she used the word herself as years of emotion burst forth in a moment of road rage while driving in the States.

In a Q&A session after one of her performances, an audience member asks what part of her life is the most difficult part to tell in her play. She answers that it is acting out the harassment in Morocco, being afraid that she’d be accused of portraying all Moroccan men, all Muslim men, in a negative way. But, she explains, rather than painting entire groups with a broad brush, she’s simply telling her stories. “I’m saying what happened to me,” she tells the audience. “That’s all I’m saying.”

When Liang came to the States for college, she was again faced with a culture in which she didn’t fit. Many of her classmates wished they were going to other schools instead of Wellesley, but for her, it was her school of choice. And her roommate was a Christian whom she describes as a “fanatic.” She shows us her roommate screaming out her belief that her Jewish ancestors who died in the Holocaust are in hell. “You don’t know how it makes me feel!” she yells. Liang is stunned by the belligerence and self-centeredness she hears—and claps her hands over her mouth again in horror.

Alien Citizen reminds me of Letters Never Sent, written by Ruth Van Reken, TCK expert and co-author of  Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. In Letters, Van Reken writes to her missionary parents about the difficulties she faced growing up abroad. It is good that Liang has found a way to remove her hands from her mouth and tell her stories. Van Reken agrees. About watching Liang’s play, she writes, “It was profound for all of us . . . brings laughter and tears to anyone who has lived this life or knows others who have. It is a great show, presenting the gifts as well as the challenges.”

In Alien Citizen, Liang gives a vivid, outside-in view of the places where she’s lived, where the mundane becomes exotic and the exotic mundane. There’s drumming on turtle shells during Christmas celebrations in Guatemala, walking barefoot across the road to buy orange Fanta in Panama, wind surfing in Morocco, and riding in a car spinning on the ice in Fairfield County, Connecticut. It’s because she’s given herself “permission to speak of the pain” that she can be grateful for all the wonderful things she’s experienced. And through Alien Citizen, we get to experience it all, too.

Alien Citizen is available for purchase on DVD and for rent in streamable HD. The DVD includes a Q&A with Liang and the director, Sofie Calderon, and interviews with Liang’s brother and parents. There are also institutional DVDs that include a digital study guide with over 35 clips from the film, each followed by questions to promote learning and discussion.

[photo courtesy of HapaLis Prods]

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