Neuroses of an Asian American writer

I subscribe to The New York Times, but I must confess I often quickly scroll through the daily morning email that arrives in my inbox then delete it. But on this particular day, as I was clearing out my inbox, something caught my eye: near the bottom, a short blurb about The New York Times Magazine cover article featuring Steven Yeun. I guess you could say I’m a fan of Steven Yeun, although I’ve never seen “The Walking Dead.” But I tend to read his interviews because I find him to be particularly articulate and introspective about being a Korean American actor. (While he was born in South Korea and I was born in the Philippines, the experience of growing up in both countries and in primarily white areas in the US is something we have in common.) His answers don’t sound rehearsed; you can sense that he’s trying to figure it out just as we are. What makes “The Many Lives of Steven Yeun” different from other articles I’ve read is how it began, with the writer, Jay Caspian Kang, discussing the neuroses of being a writer or artist in the US who is not white.

“I only want to chart the neuroses that result from realizing that your work will almost certainly be read as an outgrowth of your identity, along with the rage, doubt and ambition this brings on. The problem is that the anxieties never go away. Every capitulation to the “white gaze” comes with shame; every stand you take for authenticity triggers its own questions about what constitutes authenticity. And once you feel comfortable with the integrity of your work, someone says something that flips everything around, and you’re right back staring at your own lying face,” Kang says.

What a punch to the gut. It threw me back to several moments in the past 18 months since I started to work on Yappie: The Musical when I questioned whether I could adequately and authentically capture a voice and experience that was not entirely my own, whether I had a right to, and ultimately, moments of disagreement among the creative team about who exactly I was writing for, which resulted in me writing a rap battle a la “Cabinet Battle #1” from the musical, Hamilton.

As a spoken word poet, my work has always been and continues to be grounded in my own experiences. On occasion I have written poems that tackled issues I cared about like human trafficking, women’s rights, immigration, and more. But I usually did not write in another voice, let alone create characters based on real people or experiences. So, I never really had to ask myself if what I was writing came from an authentic place. Because it most likely always did. Until I started to write the book and lyrics for an original musical.

Kang continues, further ripping apart my chest:

“There’s something I’ve realized over the past decade of writing about race and Asian immigrants. Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement. That presents a problem for writers, artists and filmmakers: Do you take what is in some ways the easiest path and simply cast Asian actors in traditional roles without talking about that choice — a form of colorblindness that merely puts Asian faces on white archetypes? Or do you try your best to document the neuroses because you feel them within yourself — and while you understand that there are certainly worse forms of oppression in this country, there’s some personal or, perhaps, therapeutic value in expressing yourself in front of an audience? But who is the audience? And is there any real value to the narcissistic self-expression of an upwardly mobile immigrant who has nothing else to worry about?”

“Not everybody cares about our obsessing over belonging and not-belonging and displacement.” I listened to Kang say this sentence and I read it over and over. Kang struck at a truth that wanted to escape from my mouth in a conversation with a friend the other day. I was expressing my frustration with the way we talk about race in America, our inability to hold multiple truths at the same time, and the kind of oppression Olympics we seem doomed to repeat. I wasn’t making much sense, but maybe that was the point—to just spill the thoughts out on to the pavement and sort it later.

Then Steven Yeun in this interview said it all: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

Cue the screaming into the void. Decades of it. Of trying to insert yourself into conversations, into positions of power. Of jumping as high as you can, waving your arms in the air, waiting to be noticed so you’ll know you exist, too.

Maybe it’s the isolation talking. And I don’t mean just in the past year. I’ve been isolated from other Asian American writers and artists for a long time now. We’ve also changed as people and I wonder if any of them is questioning who they are in the same way I seem to be. Through my writing, Asian American Studies courses, and relationships with friends, many of whom are Asian American, I figured out my place in the world, how I am perceived, who I am outside of that perception. I had reconciled what it meant to be a daughter of an immigrant and being one, too. I remember thinking once, after writing several poems about mother-daughter relationships that I had no need to write any more of them because there was nothing more to say. I thought the same thing about my racial identity. I spent so many years claiming I belonged here, that this is my home that I never imagined I’d ever feel any different.

It was naïve to think I wouldn’t come back to these questions again, that my answers would not waver. Right now, I don’t know where home is. I don’t know if any of my writing will matter apart from being an act of self-preservation and survival. I feel like I know myself and yet not well enough. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently. Maybe the same. Maybe we’re bound to question everything and know nothing. What I know right now is that I don’t want to feel like I have to start from zero. I’ve spent too many years building up my confidence to have to do it all again because I can’t make sense of these changing, conflicting thoughts and emotions about writing, purpose, identity, and belonging. Making the decision to quit my job 2.5 years ago without a job lined up so I could start graduate school and pivot my career and life direction was already starting from zero. It was yet another reinvention. Maybe that’s it: I’m tired of reinvention.

One Year Later

Public Workshop Performance of Yappie: A Musical Comedy. Cohen-Davison Family Theatre, Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, MD. October 4, 2019. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

Today marks one year after the workshop premiere of Yappie: The Musical (well, half of it. We also changed the title shortly after the workshop performance.) Yappie is a creative project I’ve been working on since July 2019 with composer, Bobby Ge, and producers, Roger Wu Fu and Donna Ibale. I had never written lyrics up until last summer, and I never imagined I’d ever write a musical.

The night before I remember feeling nervous and strangely confident. I was nervous about how it would be received by the audience. Would they find it funny, endearing, irrelevant, terrible? I hoped they would enjoy it at least, but I knew deep down that no matter their reaction, I was proud of my work. Proud that I pushed myself to be a better writer even if there was a great (and very public) chance of failure. (I mean, who writes half of a musical in 2.5 months? Apparently we do.)

The night unfolded better than I could have imagined. The cast was brilliant, the audience laughed, and so many friends came out to support us. My mom and sister sat right in the center, second row from the stage. My former co-workers came together, my former students-turned-friends-for-life brought their friends, a few friends from the DC area made the trek to Baltimore (on a Friday night nonetheless!), and my dear friends from undergrad who have witnessed my writing and performing career from the beginning were there once again to see me embark on a new one. My heart grew exponentially that night. I wasn’t sure I deserved all that support. But I was and am so very happy to be surrounded by such amazing people.

Fast forward a year, and here we are, the arts in a precarious position because of a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and the very necessary uprooting of racism in arts and cultural institutions and organizations.

We were slated to premiere the complete musical in May this year and decided at the start of the pandemic to postpone the premiere to the fall. We will not be staging this production any time in the near future; however, we will be sharing a part of it with you soon. I can’t share in what form yet, but know that we’re working on it and are excited to release it into the world! 🎵🎵🎵

I know our creative endeavor was one among many that had to be delayed, change course, or shelved indefinitely. The pandemic gave me more time than I ever thought I’d have to write the lyrics and script. It also made it incredibly difficult to write. To write about anything other than missing putting on shoes, missing in-person conversations, missing any sort of contact, missing wandering the streets with no destination in mind, missing sitting at a bar drinking a pint, missing being immersed in a live performance with people in a room—an experience that really can’t be replicated. It also pushed us to flex our creative muscles and think of ways to produce a version of it with everyone’s safety in mind.

For this time around, I’m not nervous at all.

Check out the Events page and follow us on Instagram: @yappiethemusical for updates.