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]