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From Emma – I Am the 12.5%

October 9, 2013

We have a whole cadre of Lehigh students that have been frequenting the theatre, Chinese-American students who are helping us with translation and story-gathering. On their first meeting, I’m passing through and Mary introduces me to the class. “This is Emma Chong,” she says.

When she says my last name, I swear you can see ears prick up.

Gathering stories from the Lehigh students

Gathering stories from the Lehigh students

This is part of something that has been going, more or less, since the first Pan Show, when I got (almost accidentally) cast as Dynatite. Dynatite was supposed to be exotic, foreign. I’m kind of vaguely like that.

I asked my dad what the break-down was, recently, of his parents’ racial background. I am one eighth Chinese, one eighth Cuban, one quarter Korean from my dad’s side, and half Russian/Jewish from my mom’s side. Three-eighths Asian (37.5%), one eighth of that Chinese (12.5%); that’s it. In my eyes, I don’t look Chinese enough to be obviously Chinese, but I suppose it depends on who you’re standing me next to.

Although even without that, the last name is a bit of a give-away, I guess.

Chinese heritage has never been a part of my upbringing; with the mixed ancestry of my paternal grandparents, their common language was English, so that was what they taught their children. No Chinese, no Korean, no Spanish– just English. They were American kids. I’ve always regretted not learning a second language growing up, not knowing more about Chinese than what I like on a take-out menu. I know more Hebrew than Chinese.

My best friend in middle and high school, Sophie, was first-generation Chinese– has traveled since childhood, speaks English without any trace of accent, but when she talks with her parents, she slips back and forth between languages without thinking twice. I remember listening to her and her family converse in Chinese– the first time, eighth time, twelfth time– and not even being able to identify words, phonemes, anything that I could grab linguistically. Surely I should have been able to identify something, right? Nope.

Gathering stories from new friends on the Greenway

Gathering stories from new friends on the Greenway

(This has improved a little. My Chinese vocabulary now includes “Ni hao,” “Xiè Xiè,” “Mèimei,” and “Shi.” This is in part due to reinforcement through story gathering experience but mostly due to watching Firefly)

And now we’re neck-deep into Journey from the East – gathering stories, conducting interviews, reading Chinese folktales, looking for inspiration at home and abroad. Where do I fit in to all of this?

In gathering stories for the project, I got to speak with a lovely man named Tim; after the interview, we got to talking about me, and was I Chinese (the last name was a bit of a give-away), and did I speak Mandarin (alas, no)?

He told me an interesting story. His American-born Chinese daughter– despite his best efforts– had no interest in learning to speak Chinese. Why would she need to? Her friends didn’t speak it, after all. Playing with her toys one day, she asked Daddy to get her Cinderella doll from upstairs. “Honey,” he gently prompted her “you have to speak Chinese to Daddy, for me to go upstairs and get toys for you.”

Tim imitated his daughter’s response for me– a much put-upon sigh and little girl’s eye-roll– and said that she walked away. She would rather not have her Cinderella than speak Chinese.

“I feel it’s fine,” he added. “I think that what’s more important is her character, the way of her thinking. Different languages are just different tools.”

Gathering stories from local Chinese citizens

Gathering stories from local Chinese families

Tim’s cousin, Lulu, is also highly westernized. Like many her age, she learned English in school, but her first steps away from traditional Chinese upbringing were when she was thirteen and attended church services for the first time. She told me how moved she was, by the story of the crucifixion, by the idea of Jesus’ love. “I was shocked that someone could love me this much,” she said.

She mentioned Jesus and God’s love a lot, during our interview. She also wanted to make sure she wasn’t being pushy with me, about her religious views. She wasn’t at all. I didn’t mention that I had been raised Jewish.

And then there are the Lehigh students that we’re working with. Many of them hold onto their heritage as best they can, friends grouping together based on their capacity for the same language, going out for bubble tea together, cooking their own meals rather than braving American-Chinese restaurants. Others seem to have totally embraced their secondary identity as Americans. Their clothes are mildly hipster, and they aren’t afraid to be a little sassy. It’s fun to watch them all together.

The more work we do on this project, the more we dig, the more avenues open up. I am so happy just to be a part of it all, getting to talk to Chinese Bethlehemites about why they love the Lehigh Valley and what they miss about home and how China has changed over the years. This project– the story is good, and the impact on the community is real, and I’m sure we’ll have two great years of excellent performances out of it– but there’s something personal I get out of it that I never expected.

So where do I fit into all this? I’m still not sure. But a couple of weeks ago, I came to the bemused realization that maybe, in a small way, the story that we’re exploring through Journey from the East is part of my own story. Not much– maybe only 12.5%– but that 12.5% is mine.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2013 1:48 pm

    Reblogged this on Journey from the East.

    • October 9, 2013 3:35 pm

      Yaay, Emma!
      I was wondering.
      This story is taking all of us on a journey, indeed.

  2. alienbooknose permalink
    October 11, 2013 7:00 pm

    That was a really beautiful piece of writing.

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