Working with One Another & Wrap-Up: Transcript

Marianne
I do want to say just now, the space we’re working in is Spreading Tree.

Nikita
Thank you Spreading Tree!

Marianne
They’re really interested in opening up the space for other creatives and other artists.

Nikita
Last time for the Wellington season, we rehearsed here for three weeks. They run workshops, lots of Japanese things happen here and non-Asian stuff like dance classes and comedy classes — it’s just a hub.

Marianne
This show is on [February] 19-23 as part of the Fringe Festival.

Nikita
Oh, and you can’t be late! You’ll know why once you start the show. If you’re late, you won’t be allowed in the show. So please show up on time. Or come early.

Marianne
It’s a lock-out.

Nikita
Yeah, it’s a full lock-out.

Marianne
Or just be a respectful human being and be punctual, or just come early. Come early.

Chye-Ling [to Marianne]
Do you wanna plug Fresh Off the Page?

Marianne

Chye-Ling and I and our assistant producer, John Rata, we produce a play reading at the Basement Theatre called Fresh off the Page. Normally it’s on a Wednesday, 8:30pm every month and it’s free. So literally no reason to put that in your calendar. This year we’ve reinvented and reprogrammed Fresh Off the Page. We used to reach out to other countries, even, to showcase contemporary Asian work or plays. But this time, after I sampled my play at Fresh Off the Page, we made it an initiative to assist in the development and creation of 10 completely new works. My personal reason for wanting to do this with PAT and Chye-Ling is the fact that I’m really sick of the whole, “There’s not enough of this, so let’s not have it”. And I like to think that I ooze positivity and optimism wherever I can. But let’s make stuff because we do have a voice — let’s amplify the stories we’re not hearing right now, and put it on, have 60-something people see it, and then more can happen from that. I think that Chye-Ling affected me so it’s my job to pay it forward and the 10 will hopefully pay it forward, and there’ll be… millions of plays!
[The February event of Fresh Off the Page is on February 27, 8:30pm at TAPAC due to the Auckland Fringe Festival taking place at Basement Theatre.]

It says a lot about what Chye-Ling—this is just a shout-out to Chye-Lingーto what one person can do that inspires other people because before I became friends with Chye-Ling, she was such an inspo. I was fangirling, and now I’m just like, “I suppose.”

Chye-Ling

We can’t do it without each other and without our community. I think it’s so cool what you guys are doing as well, which is presenting another voice in the landscape that’s filling so many different gap in people’s creative arts. We can’t do everything; no one can do everything. That’s why when you guys popped up, I was like, “Yes — another platform!” I think the moral of the story is that we just need each other and then we can just be more powerful.

Marianne

That’s so loving. I’m going to cry. I saw one of your questions: What’s it like working with these two other people? Yeah, I genuinely feel like I’ve got two other sisters who challenge me and push me and think about things I didn’t think about. It’s been great.

Marianne [to Nikita]
Are you going to cry?

Nikita
No!

Chye-Ling
Please cry.

Puppetry: Transcript

Oscen
You guys talked about this a little bit before, but I wanted to talk about the use of puppets in your show; how that plays into the show and its themes. You talked about the non verbal aspect, so I was wondering how that ties into using puppetry and what it was like rehearsing with that: Was it a new experience?

Nikita
My first proper experience with puppets was at Bread and Puppet in Vermont. For me, it was the first time I was opened to the world of puppets. A lot of the stuff we did over there was a lot of really intense political activism with puppets, and when you’re dealing with really controversial topics, it can be really confronting for people. But there’s something really beautiful about using puppets because it’s not really a person. It’s an “inanimate object”. When there’s something that’s really confronting you’re not sure about it, but when you put a puppet in its place it’s really…

Chye-Ling
Charming.

Marianne
Playful.

Nikita
Charming, endearing, I don’t know: It’s something really beautiful. You can’t judge a puppet; it’s not a person! Ever since I was a kid I loved personifying inanimate objects: Like a screaming kettle was really just going, “Ahhh, I’m really hot!” You know, just playing around. And it also creates a world of surrealism with no bounds. I really love in theatre when things start in a certain place but then it goes to a place you would not expect. So there’s an element of surprise. And so when I realised I wanted to do puppetry — and also having done some shadow puppetry for Chinese Theatre Works, and also seeing how easy it was to make shadow puppets out of trash — something might look like trash but then behind a screen it’s creating something really beautiful. Which kind of goes with the theme, which is like Chinese culture and what appears on the outside isn’t necessarily what’s going on behind closed doors. As soon as I knew I wanted to work with that, of course I knew I wanted to work with Chye-Ling because Chye-Ling’s a really fantastic puppeteer. And then after our first or second workshop I was like, I need another puppeteer, and Benjamin Teh was like, “Marianne Infante”.

Chye-Ling
I grew up quite analogue as a kid, so I didn’t have much TV or movie or any kind of video games in my life because my sister has OCD so we just didn’t really do anything that exacerbated it. So as a result, I think we just played with toys and used our imagination into quite late into our childhood — like, awkwardly late. That, I think, has been the foundation for my entire theatre career, that kind of imaginative analogue mindset which I think goes hand in hand with puppetry. I was working with a guy called Ben Anderson, who has a company called The People Who Play With Theatre who now works in Melbourne. So he would make a puppetry show like every year, and he would just use kind of whatever he had in his house. Bamboo sticks was the only thing he probably purchased from anywhere. But he was an incredible maker and we just really gelled.

Then I did some training with Peter Linz and Mike Schupbach who are puppetry professionals on that side of things from the States with another company last year. But yeah I think the same as Nikita, I’m on the same boat of you can’t judge a puppet, and that’s why it’s so powerful as a tool for theatre because it’s really easy to judge actors and try and see a life behind the actor, and you know all the politics around who the actor is and if their performance is good enough, et cetera. A puppet really transcends all of those boundaries. It’s kind of the impossibility of what it is. You kind of have to buy into it, and it makes you work twice as hard but at the same time you’re believing things that you never thought you would. It kind of just lifts a different part of your brain. I think it’s a really subtly powerful tool that not a lot of people really realise can be used in that regard. Puppetry is a great way to kind of lift the story into a kind of surreal, in-between space that’s kind of magical and exists in its own world, which is sort of where we feel this conversation sits.

Marianne
My experience with puppetry — I’m the same, my parents were the kind of parents who’d tell you you could only watch TV an hour, or computer for half an hour, and it’s dial-up, so you’re doing something for five minutes and waiting for the other twenty five minutes. You know you get those — you pop the paper out and you get a little paper doll and you dress them up? I liked the draw, so I used to make my own paper dolls, and because I was so excited to have a younger sister and we have a five year gap, I felt like I was always directing our make-believe worlds. My best friend fully believed that I was gonna be an actor from the age of five which was when I met her. I’m a very visual person. It’s so easy for me to ignite things. For me, I’m not as experienced as Chye-Ling but it’s so great for me to learn in terms of how a puppet breathes and the pace and the patience and the concentration and the focus that needs to, you know, for the thing that you’re manipulating with your hands—what that thing absorbs from the person that’s controlling it. It’s definitely magical for me because this thing can’t think, therefore I can’t judge it. I did a bit of clowning, a bit of mask work, how to triangulate with my Unitec training so, yeah, it’s a skill.

Chye-Ling
I feel like puppetry is always perceived as, like, The Muppets. Marionettes. Gah, I hate marionettes! When I was working with The Finger Players, which is a Singaporean company—they’re predominantly puppet-based, and the stuff that they do is wild. One of the best shows that I saw was where they had a deathly, almost skeleton-like horror vibe, and it was set in a Singaporean flat but it was all open. You know one of those bars instead of walls and it was just the most terrifying thing when the puppet clampers up with their creepy hands. I think people don’t really think of puppetry as this adult story-telling mechanism and that puppets can create fear or mysticism and surrealism and grief — and because of the unpredictable nature of puppetry as you said before, it can turn from one thing to another. Something happens and it can take the wind out of you — you’re literally seeing something that’s being transformed right before your eyes like a humanoid creature that changes entirely.

Nikita
Because there are no bounds, you have no idea what’s going to happen.

Chye-Ling
Exactly. The western ideas of puppets are the muppets and that’s exactly what we’re trying to break — this kind of binary of what puppetry is. Whereas I think in Asian cultures it’s way more connected to spirituality.

Nikita
During our workshopping stage, and especially when I was in Japan last year, our dramaturg is actually from Singapore — she agreed to help out with our script and so she is our script advisor for the show. We collaborated on a couple of shows but she did an introduction with a puppet but it was very… disturbing. It was like this old woman that lived her life backwards. I can’t really remember, but it was mask work. I think a lot of people don’t realise that mask work is also puppetry.

Oscen
‘Tide Waits for No Man’. What does it mean to you?

Nikita
It was first a song, ‘Tide Waits for No Man’, and the song title was about the great-uncle that passed away. It was a wake-up call for me — the Chinese or English proverb, whichever you believe, basically means that time will always keep coming and it will not wait for you and so what came to me was whether or not I was ready to learn about my culture or start accepting it or start owning it, whether or not I’m ready: tide won’t wait for me. I think when something big happens like when someone is born or passes away, it gives you perspective and shows you what’s really important and so that’s the reason of the title. It has nothing to do about men, it’s just that’s what the proverb is. In Chinese, it’s not “man”, it’s “person”. In English, “man” is like “mankind”.

Oscen
It is nice how it’s three women.

Nikita
It was always definitely how the show was going to be. When we workshopped, we workshopped with Benjamin Teh. He’s a really good friend, an Asian creative, and a writer as well but I always knew I’d have only women on the show, given the content.

Intersectionality & Connection to Culture: Transcript

Oscen
To touch on your earlier point about how it’s ultimately a show about cultural feminism, how does womanhood complicate cultural identity? How is that explored in the show as well?

Marianne
For me, the world is so tough being a woman but to also be a woman of colour makes it so much harder. But also to be a woman of colour who is also figuring out that colour, or—you know? Just trying to put it in simple language. We can all unite as wahine in the same topic, but we all need to acknowledge, celebrate, and tackle the fact that everyone has the little pinnacle of: “Why is it so hard for me?”

Nikita
Everyone’s story is so different, and everyone’s line is in a different place.

Marianne
And for the character, Grace…

Nikita
I was saying earlier that Grace is based on my own experience with some fictional bits in the story. My Chinese name translated means “grace”, and that’s why the show’s called ‘Grace’. I come from a really traditional and more strict Taiwanese side. I know some Taiwanese families back home have actually modernised and Westernised, and when I talk about this they have no idea what they’re talking about so this is an individual story, and I’m sure everyone’s line is in a different place. But there are some key words in the show talking about cleanliness or tidiness of how you should always look as a woman. Your hair should be tidy—

Oscen
Purity as well?

Nikita
Yeah, purity, calmness. Not showing any level of intense excitement or intense sadness. Always being quite stoic or quite calm. The other one is to be silent. I was always the kid that asked why. It wasn’t to defy authority. It was just genuinely because I’m curious. I wanna know how things work. I wanna know so I can understand how the world works, but if you ask why as a woman, back then for me and my family, you don’t need to know. You’re a woman—you don’t need to know. The three key words are: clean, calm, and silent. Those are just symbols. A lot of the show is symbols. But they mean bigger than that, if that makes sense. They mean bigger than that.

Chye-Ling
It’s touching on a concept.

Nikita
Yeah, it’s touching on a concept! When you have a non-verbal show, and even though there are a lot of complex storylines going on, you do need to simplify so people know what’s going on. You have these root things for people to grasp onto, and they can expand in their own minds what this could possibly mean. Historically, there are these rules, back in China a long time ago, rules for how a woman should behave or how she should always keep her appearance or keep her house. And if you know how to read Chinese characters—oh my God, even in the last workshop we had, I was getting so obsessed. The word ‘peace’ (安) can also mean peaceful or silent—it is the character ‘woman’ under a roof. That is what will keep everything in harmony is a woman inside, domestic, where she belongs. And I was just fucking furious. It was just centuries and centuries and layers of this thought, and even a long time ago it was considered virtuous for a woman who loses her husband to take her own life. That is the most virtuous thing you could possibly do in honour of your husband because when you are born, you obey your father. When you’re married, you obey your husband. When you’re widowed, you obey your son. And it’s just like wow.

Chye-Ling
And it permeates to today as well.

Nikita
Oh, totally!

Chye-Ling
These are constructs but if I think about my own Chinese family, my dad’s brothers all got money from their father to go and travel around the world and study wherever they would want to study. And the women got nothing, and they had to work their way up, and all this toil and trouble to get anywhere. And it really has fully damaged them. A lot of them turned to religion; a lot of them turned to Catholicism. I remember talking to one of my aunties and being like, “Why did you convert? This is so bizarre. You were raised in Confucianist ancestor worship. Where did that shift happen?” She said something—it was the saddest thing of all time—it was like, “Because I have never felt loved, and God and Jesus is love.” And I was just like, I’m not religious but I can’t argue with that. This is ridiculous.

Nikita
The Confucius way of thought was very patriarchal.

Chye-Ling
A lot of that stuff still applies now even though we were Kiwi-raised in the room, or 1.5ers, or born in New Zealand. It still carries with it stereotypes that were continuously re-perpetrated, which is so ridiculous when you think about the way that we were raised and born. Even in New Zealand, [we] will still get so much fetishisation, and people treating us within our families. It’s surprising. Our careers are surprising. The fact that we’re very outspoken is surprising. I make a lot of material about sex and relationships and that’s just the ultimate taboo. I will probably never tell my family what I really write about. And the fact that my dad is super liberal and assimilated is amazing but that’s the struggle with a lot of the actors I work with in Proudly Asian Theatre is the parental pressure is just heartbreaking.

Marianne
It’s like, “Will my mum come and see this?”

Chye-Ling
Often, there’s great cases where you put someone on stage and their parents come and they go like, “Oh, this is valid. This is what you should be doing. This is amazing. And they come away crying.” But there’s other cases where it’s like, “Nah, my parents will never see the show, I didn’t even tell them I was in it.”

Marianne
I was really, again, really lucky because from the get-go I was in a household where my mum was the main breadwinner of the family. My Papa also worked just as hard as Ma but Ma had the qualification and my Pa was the one that was always at home with us, helping with our ya-ya, our domestic help. So I was already introduced to a very—I don’t think it was planned; my Ma wasn’t outwardly a feminist; my Ma’s the kind of person that says, “If you want something, you work for it. You work hard.” All that stuff. But yeah, even with that upbringing, I still get the things of, “You can’t do that ‘cos you’re a girl.” And it’s just the most annoying thing in the world. I really wanted to do kung fu and karate lessons as a kid and my Pa was all for it because I’d managed to do table tennis with my dad. And my mum was like, “Nope, you’re a girl.” When it’s your time of the month, you’re not allowed to do physical things; you should just be horizontal. It’s not really possible. I grew up with four cousins — essentially my older brothers, but they’re my Kuyas. And I was the kid who wanted to play basketball in the sun but my Ma, my Tita, my Lola would just be like, “Bring an umbrella! Don’t be out in the sun! Why are you wearing those shorts?” And now I go back there in a tube top and short shorts with my giant-ass hoops, and I’m like, “I’m ready to go out.”

And the Catholicism — my very first time I went back for Christmas, they had these signs on the door of the church that said what you were allowed to wear. If your skirt was anywhere above your knee, the Priest wouldn’t look at you or would tell you off, tell you to go home. Just the amount of fear that’s embedded in people. “Father’s not gonna like that, your spaghetti strap. Girl, you need to go change.” I’m like, “It’s literally 38 degrees outside. I am sweating in areas I did not know I could sweat. Why are you making me do this?” And I was like, “I’m one person trying to be a big voice in a country that has 18 million or however many people.” (Edit: 104.9 million!)

Chye-Ling
That’s the thing. You’re expected—well, not expected—but you know in your heart that in order for things to change and move forward, as the pioneers of what we’re doing right now, we have to be stalwarts and we have to be confident and proud of our culture. But at the same time there are so many aspects of our culture that is inherently against our feminist ideals. When I’m waving the Chinese flag and being like, “I’m proud of my culture”, do I mean I’m proud of the part that says women are lesser than men? Am I proud of the part that has actively subjugated women across centuries and even up to today? I think that’s really hard because that is complicated, and that’s the thing with white feminism is they don’t have to think about that shit a lot of the time. But when we’re navigating things like this, it is complicated because you do want to be proud of your culture and present it in a way that is giving it a lot of love for people who don’t understand it and inherently have that racism, but at the same time you can’t dissociate yourself from the nuances of the fact that this culture also fucks with your life too. It’s more complicated than that.

Nikita
Which is the main question of the show: How much do we sacrifice? How much do we compromise when we want to respect where we come from, respect our culture, but also remain true to who we’ve become? Everyone’s line is in a different place. When finding acceptance, there’s two sides: it’s not just about us. In terms of cultural patriarchy in my family, I can see how my mum regurgitates this stuff even though she’s a woman. I know it comes from a place of love and just because she thinks it’s the right thing. But even her now, she’s loosened up so much more than what she used to be. Back in the day, I remember the first time I cooked them a meal when I was eighteen and my mum was like, “Oh my gosh, you’re ready to be a wife now.” I never wanna get married. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I wanna have a life partner but I don’t wanna get married. But now she’s kind of just accepted it.

But when I go back home to see my grandparents, she’s like, “Just humour them. Just tell them you’re doing the thing.” And I’m like, “Look, you brought me up to be dead honest. I’m never going to lie to them. And if what I say to them really upsets them, at least they know what I’m actually doing. I feel like that’s more honourable than appeasing them.” But I mean now they know I sleep in my van when I go surfing in the middle of nowhere by myself. A girl, out in the water, getting dark, as an Asian woman, is everything they don’t want.

Oscen
Do you feel like you’re forging your own culture with what you’re doing now? And how does that complicate the authenticity of connecting with your own culture? I’m trying to write a family history now and a lot of it is lost and also I don’t know whether I want to tell it, I don’t know whether I want to accept that this is my heritage, but I have to. And I don’t know how to translate that to today. And also from New Zealand, I don’t know how much of that I have to accept or should or how much of it is actually written on my body, in memory. We were in Vietnam and they were talking about in the war, New Zealand sent troops. And my dad was like, “Do we tell them we’re from Malaysia or from New Zealand?” Can you pick and choose? And is that authentic?

Nikita
If I understand your question, everyone’s line is in a different place. I suppose it can be the same with religion. Some people have this part of the religion they take on and others they disregard. When it comes to culture, there are things you’re willing to bend and other things you’re not. Yes, I definitely think we’re creating some sort of hybrid culture within New Zealand just like there are hybrid cultures all around the world with other Asian people and their experiences will be completely different because environmentally and socially it’s completely different. But also, depending on what time period you immigrate over, whatever was going on at the time you left your homeland—Renee Liang in her ‘Banana in a Nutshell’ documentary described it as: when people immigrate, they have this fossilised idea of their culture, and they bring that little time capsule to, say, New Zealand, and then they’re holding onto those values but actually back home everything’s modernised and everything’s changed. … I think that was a really great way of putting it. And then each time another little capsule comes over, there’s different levels. So hybrid-hybrid-different-different-different. And it’s just going to change, change, change. But I definitely know what you’re saying. There’s a time to go hybrid and there’s a time to go: this traditional thing needs to be remembered this way because it’s historical, right? And we can’t rewrite history unless we want to be perceived further later in history as someone that changed it for our own beliefs. And that’s like people rewriting the Bible and all that kind of stuff. When we write from an unbiased point of view and when we write from a personal—historical and personal have to remain different even though we don’t want to include it. It’s what has created this reaction. And that’s important.

Chye-Ling
For me, it’s multiplicity. With what you were saying — all these different layers, that you can’t change, even if you want to — I think that’s when the story becomes really interesting, is when you’re contrasting what can’t be changed with our interpretation of it, or what we wish it were to be, and then if you take it one step further you’re creating that hybridised, new version of — like, I’m now inventing, in a mostly white country, what it means to be an Asian female today. So yeah I think that’s when the stories become interesting, when you’re colliding those three kind of ideas. But I do understand what you’re saying as well, because it is incredibly painful to be like, this is my history and I’m delving back to find my roots in order to empower me because I’m getting a lot of disempowerment from people challenging my identity, so what I’ll do is I’ll go back, find the roots, find some anchors. Then when your anchors are like, fucked up and disempowering — The whole thing crumbles, because you can’t latch yourself onto something that you don’t actively believe in.

But then you can’t unlearn those nasty parts of your family history which are so personal to you, so you’re kind of caught in this bind. And what you’re asking is, can I pick and choose the things that I will root myself to in my culture, the idealised versions, or things that might actually exist, but like those specific things that I do grasp onto — am I allowed to weave through and grab that one thread that is the nice one? I had this really feminist aunty who threw wild parties back in the ‘60s in Malaysia, and she was divorced twice and she was an artist and she is like, my idol! I kind of almost think of her as my grandmother figure because I didn’t know my grandmother that well, and like…am I allowed to just have her? It’s heartbreaking because you can’t, but it becomes interesting when you explore it through stories why that is. That’s I think where the tension and the drama is.

Marianne
And I think the freedom in being able to choose where you find those anchors is actually what is gold, and — it sounds so cliche — it’s what makes you who you are, essentially, by picking and choosing. I don’t fully embrace everything that has been passed down to me as a Filipino woman, whilst now on, from here until the future, I’m going to be teaching my kids what it means to be Filipino Kiwi, which has never happened before me. That’s a choice that I’m making because I want my offspring to know both worlds, then giving them the choice to either lean to that side or lean to the other side, is up to them.

Nikita
One thing that we said before that I kind of wanted to touch on — We were talking about women’s rights, I suppose, and being a woman of colour. I guess it’s real hard because we’re women of colour and we’re a minority because we’re in the West, but when I was working in Asia we weren’t minorities. I was a minority because I was the whitest one. Everyone was really — they were from their countries, they lived in their countries, and it was really interesting to see what they were fighting for. A lot of the women were about women’s rights, so I became really great friends with an Indian woman, and a lot of her work was about women’s rights in India. Then in Japan, also very patriarchal, but it wasn’t about being an ethnic minority. 
I had that moment where it’s like—where you’re the minority, it makes it really difficult.

Internalised Racism: Transcript

Oscen
With internalised racism, it’s very interesting because I’ve met people that just wholly reject their culture but they don’t know how to reconcile this hatred that they’ve had for so long. For you three, how have you found that experience if you’ve had that experience? How do you try to reconcile the guilt but also try to make an active solution to it? I guess this show is like an answer to it, right?

Chye-Ling
It’s definitely a lot of processing through art. As artists, you’re naturally going to flow towards that side of things anyway. I think it takes a certain special kind of courage to be able to do that. I think that it’s interesting the yarn between “what is Asian stories?” and “what is Asian art?” and do you just want to be an artist that’s just making stories that are unbranded in the Asianness but you can’t really avoid it. If it’s part of you, which it is, there’s always going to be that struggle that’s always going to come through your work. So I guess for me, reconciling those things began with my first original work called ‘The Sparrows’ as well, which was developed on the same tour as Nikita when we first met on this tour we did together. That was a fantastical world that I’d created that was from the memories and mythologies I’d been told and experienced through the eyes of an eight-year-old going back to Malaysia for the first time. That exploded into its own massive narrative to try and marry those two—what I’d learned in my training in drama school and what I’d known about stories with a modern mask that was created just for that specific world of the in-between, and meshing all those identities.

But it’s ongoing. It’s still always in my work. ‘Orientation’, my last work, was about sexual stereotypes and my own internalised journey from accepting my race into my love life, I suppose, and deconstructing my own internalised prejudice towards Asian men because there’s always that inevitable thing where people are like, “You’re going to gravitate towards men who are like your dad” but then when you’re an Asian diaspora and your dad’s Chinese, you’re very aware that that’s the trope but you’re trying to avoid that but at the same time you’re like, “Now I’m only dating all white dudes, and this is also problematic. How do I reconcile that?”

I think it’s just the knowledge that Asian experiences and Asian stories are so nuanced and so layered and everything’s on a spectrum, and that’s just a comforting way to look at it for me. There’s always going to be part of my own culture that are patriarchal in nature, like my family’s history is so stained with interesting politics internally and decisions that were made that actively fucked up the females of my family but not the males, et cetera. That’s stuff to carry that’s not so nice, but the choices that we make now learning from that can change things and help bring a reconciliation. And it’s nice to be making a show that’s essentially a feminist piece of work. It’s cultural feminism, I guess. And I think it’s not really marketed as such because it can come across as quite a lyrical piece. But really at the core it’s cultural feminism. That’s how I like to look at it anyway.

Marianne
I think it’s just so universal, the things we’re touching on. It’s so stylised in a way that opens up so many conversations in terms of patriarchal traditions, the feminism, and can you actually embrace who you are. Not even just talking about the cultural identity stuff, but just the things that you do and that you want to be involved in as a person without complicating it with all the other layers of who you are. For me, in terms of the internalised racism, I’m on the same boat of I’m still processing, it’s constantly a journey I go through everyday.

Mine’s shaped quite differently because I fully grew up in the Philippines as a young child until 11, so I already had an idea that I’d never had the thing of “I’m so ashamed to be a Filipino” or anything like that. I’ve always been proud—if anything, too proud, I reckon. But then to be proud to be Filipino and also to be proud to be Kiwi, you’re juggling so many balls all at once. And I’m also really into Te Reo Māori and I speak two different dialects in the Philippines—so many things going on. But I had a switch that happened for me when I was twelve. It was a whole year into being in New Zealand when I saw someone bullying my sister in the playground. She doesn’t know this. If she finds out about this, she’ll be shocked. Someone had told her to go back to where she came from, and at the time I was same height as everyone else so I was a bit more intimidating physically. And I was on the student council in intermediate. I picked up this six-year-old kid—who, to his own accord, didn’t know what he was saying—but I said, “You apologise now.” And at the time I still had my Filipino-American accent, and I reflected on this last year when I was writing my own work—all our reflections happen through writing—and someone asked me why I didn’t have a Filipino-American accent but my family does. Because I had that switch that told me that I had to not stick out so I could stand up for my sister. We went to the same school. It’s very close to home.

It’s the same thing when I to go to a movie with my Papa. I would never dare take my Papa to a movie that didn’t have action in it or physicality in it because I would sit through that whole show or movie trying to explain. I took my Papa to Les Mis! Les Misérables is my favourite musical so when the movie came out I took my dad to it. I was like Yeah it’s French Revolution, there’s gonna be guns and war, and literally the whole time Papa just stared blank. He looked at me and said, “Don’t do that again.” Fair enough. But he just didn’t understand. So even now I find that even just to not have that conflict of the language barrier, to also not make my Papa feel uncomfortable, I only invite them to shows that he will understand outside of the language context.

So it’s nice to be able to do work that I’m like, “Yes, come”, and they did go see it in Wellington and they loved it. Everyone was like, “Did it mean this? Was this happening?” It’s so funny—other people’s different conceptions from where they also come from and how they’ve come to be who they are. It’s really great. I’m really happy to promote the show as non-verbal, like, “Come! Haere mai! Come along!” And Basement is also wheelchair access, so everyone please. But also aware that it’s not for everyone, and for me personally I am not interested in pleasing everyone because you can’t, otherwise you’ll be miserable for the rest of your life if that’s your mission.

Nikita
On that topic, the internal racism thing, I still remember when Ling and I first met. Some of our conversations were—I think Ling was one of the first Asian friends I’ve had since—I can’t even remember. Basically when I was growing up all my friends were Pākehā. I didn’t want to be associated with a group of people that couldn’t speak English. There was this inner pride that was like, “I can speak English.” So I did everything I could to be separate from people that were considered, that couldn’t speak English. I don’t know what it was—but just wanting to fit in. My dad’s Pākehā but he’d call me my Chinese name in public and I’d find it the most infuriating thing. But when I first met Ling, I’d never met an Asian so proud of being Asian. Seriously! It’s so apt that the company’s called ‘Proudly Asian’. I was like, Shit, this girl is so proud. Man! And I was so ashamed. It was like meeting the complete opposite.

I remember I would do the thing in high school where I’d give myself shit before anyone else could. Self-deprecating racist humour. And even recently, talking about this inner racism thing, it’s still going on. I had this conversation with my sister, and I was like, “Yeah that’s what I used to do in high school.” And I was like, I can’t believe I’ve never had this conversation with my sister. And she was like, “Wow, that’s like the complete opposite to what I did. I used to hate people like you that would put yourselves down because then everyone would laugh at the rest of us. No, my approach was: don’t say anything and maybe they won’t notice we’re Asian.” Do you know? So there’s different levels of this fear, and it sucks. The other day, I caught up with some Asian family friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. We went out for coffee. And even then, there would’ve been a time when I was scared to do this because I wanted people to know I could speak English. This is an ongoing thing. But being really aware and pushing and reconciling and going, “No, this is who I am” is all good. Especially if you’ve been doing it for so long.

Chye-Ling
There’s a lot of unlearning.

Nikita
Oh man, it’s huge.

Marianne
I also find that I realised much later on, you know when you start being a parent to your parents? When you get so defensive before there’s even anything to be defensive about? Whenever I go to the supermarket or anything with my parents, I’d speak for them because I don’t want my Papa to stress out or my Mama to stress out because there’s the language conflict thing, while I’m the one who can speak English and I didn’t have an accent and instantly there wasn’t any reason for anyone to discriminate me other than seeing I’m brown. And subconsciously I just realised I did that. And only recently I was like, “No, my Papa’s talking to this person. I’m gonna let him talk to this person in the way he wants to talk to that person.”

Chye-Ling
And it’s up to that person to deal with it.

Marianne
Yeah! I don’t want to make it easier for that person to understand and actually connect with my Papa. But at the end of the day, I’m like, “If you eff with my Papa, I’m right here, Pa. Come get me.” And also my sister and I had the same conversation. She called me a white Filipino. I don’t know if I told you about that. I was just like, “Am I supposed to be offended?” Because I don’t feel offended but I feel like I should be because I feel like I ‘white-out’ myself, whatever the term is. That’s a bigger conversation and I wrote a play about it.

Chye-Ling
That’s what really surprises me when you say I was really proud of being Chinese. I definitely wasn’t always that way and I think there’s something to being biracial, Pākehā-Chinese. I was raised pretty white. And my dad assimilated when he came over—he was 18. And he did that thing of self-deprecating humour. He was the class clown, the funny guy. He would always put himself down first and put everyone at ease, and they’d be like, “Ah, cool. He’s like a cool, fun Asian guy.” Really different from the rest of his family. Very non-stereotypical Asian, which I think is a game to warm people up. But I think because he gave me a very Chinese name, I think that has influenced every single aspect of my life. If I’d been named ‘Becky’—

Marianne
‘Emma’, ‘Beth’—

Chye-Ling
Yeah, or like ‘Victoria’, things would be really different. I feel like I can be white-passing, like some people don’t notice or they give me that shifty look of “I’m trying to figure this out” but they don’t immediately go, “Oh, cool! Are you Chinese? Because I’m Chinese, blah blah blah.” Because I have this name, Chye-Ling Huang, it’s such a flag. Every time I have a conversation with somebody or every time I get picked up in an Uber, it’s always like, “What is this? What’s going on?” So I feel like I really had to accept and learn to articulate and learn to be comfortable with almost defending my Chineseness and proving my Chineseness because it’s the opposite for me.

Whereas, for someone who has a different face that is very obviously Asian—for me, because I’m mixed race with someone who is white, my mum is white, it was always the defence of like, “Yes I am Asian enough. Yes this is a part of me. Don’t tell me I’m not Asian enough for this situation or what you think an Asian person should be.” It’s ironic in that way. Even though you probably were raised more Asian or had more of those influences and are more obviously presenting as an Asian person, you were less confident and less likely to be waving the flag. I think it’s just a defence mechanism in a way for me because I constantly have to justify why my face didn’t match my name.

Nikita
So your name is Chye-Ling Huang. My name is Nikita Tu-Bryant. But then in recent, very very recent years, I put my Chinese name into—so my artist page on Facebook is my full name, English and Chinese. But that took a lot of courage. And it’s taken me so long to get here. It’s gonna keep going.

Marianne
I never use my full name in anything. It’s very long.

Oscen
What’s your full name, out of curiosity?

Marianne
Well, here’s the thing. When people ask me, it’s like: Do you want it with the accent or without?

Everyone
With!

Marianne
But I feel like people need to know it in context without the accent. So with the accent, it’s Marianne Therese Nunag Infante. But when I don’t say it like that, when I’m like, “Marianne Infante”, it’s definitely washed my name away from any sort of essence of my Spanish-Filipino heritage and all of that. It’s so fascinating. Like ‘Asian enough’—that’s something that really took a hit for me when I left uni. I was always the Latino roles or the sexy blah-blah-blah. I was like, I’m fuckin’ Asian! I can do that and be sassy and be full-on and be vulnerable and whatever.

Chye-Ling
I can be sassy in my own ethnicity, sassy as a person.

Marianne
Sassy Filipino! They exist! Because I subconsciously stripped myself away from the accent—this is my comfortable way of speaking [Kiwi accent]—I was like, “How do I become ‘Filipino enough’?” And again that has sparked up anything I’m doing now, essentially. I did everything I could to become attached to Proudly Asian Theatre. I’m proud too!

Background to the Show: Transcript

Oscen
We’ll kick it off with an introduction about the show itself: Your roles, when the show will be running Auckland, and how it went in Wellington.

Nikita
The show is called “Tide Waits for No Man: Episode Grace”, or in Mandarin 歲月不饒人: 雅安. We’re performing it at Basement Theatre in Auckland in the Fringe Festival from the 19th of February until the 23rd of February. I play Grace in the show. I wrote the show and I directed the show and I composed the music and play the music in the show. That’s me.

Chye-Ling
Wellington was good. It was our first show. I am Proudly Asian Theatre’s creative director, Marianne is our current producer for “Tide Waits”, and we both act in the show as well. It was our first show that we ever did in Wellington so we were stoked for the opportunity to collaborate with Nikita on this because she has a lot of networks but mostly in the music scene. She’s primarily a musician in Wellington. I was very curious as to how that crossover would go because it’s not just a theatre show—it’s non-dialogue, it’s movement and puppetry and shadow puppetry with music throughout the whole thing. So you’re already performing to a non-theatre audience that Nikita’s bringing, in a town that’s outside of your normal networks, with a show that is quite experimental in nature. But it went really well, and our houses sold well and our reviews were great so we were stoked.

Marianne
And I think in terms of this project, it’s really important to highlight that this is the team, as well as Nic Cave-Lynch and Wendy Collings, two Wellington-based artists, who helped us with the lighting design and operated sound and light for us. Between the three of us, I choreographed the movement with the collaboration of these two women as well. We’re all trying to hit our marks for marketing, producing, and who’s doing this, who’s doing that, but it’s literally just a big Asian wāhine collaboration, and it’s been so delicious and good.

Oscen
And how long is the entire process in terms of initial idea…?

Nikita
It’s probably been five years now. But before it first got final-workshopped, it would’ve been four years. So the first inception of this play was five years ago. It started with my great-uncle passing away in Taiwan, and I hadn’t been home back to Taiwan for a really long time. And I remembered being quite close to him when I was younger and him coming to visit and hanging out with him, but then it’d been about ten years since I’d seen him and he passed away and so it was this really weird feeling of ‘I’m sad that this person is gone but I technically don’t know him anymore. I’m not going back for his funeral, so am I allowed to feel sad? But I do feel sad.’ So it’s this real weird permission to feel a certain way.

So I wrote a song for my band to play—my band, Nikita & The Spooky; it’s a cinematic folk band based in Wellington—and the song is called “Tide Waits for No Man”. It was inspired by him and his wife. My great-aunt is still alive; she’s amazing. I could talk about her for ages. And so that song kick-started my realisation that I was really ashamed of being Asian when I was growing up, really didn’t like to speak Mandarin. It’s obvious: I’m Asian. But I was like, “No, this is not me.” All my friends were Pākehā. And so I went into this self-shame thing and then I went back home to Taiwan after fifteen years of absence, and that’s when I decided I needed to write a whole show about rediscovery.

But when I first wrote it, it was a really big epic story. It was like: A man’s passed away, and all these different family members are reflecting about this man’s life. And through each of their reflection you learn about him but you never ever really—he’s not a main character. And I really believe in truth, so when people die, whether or not they live their lives really well or did really bad things, sometimes people can be glorified when they die, and I want the full picture of a human being, not just all their good things. So the idea of this story is the man that has passed away, he had really good relationships and really bad relationships. Initially, it was like a whole family tree full of people, complicated family relationships—and I was like, Okay no, this is too much. Each character needs their own episode. So I started with Grace, which is essentially inspired by me because she’s an artist that’s grown up in Aotearoa. I felt it was relevant that I started with her because she knew the least about her culture, and then while I’m relearning my roots I can work further up the family tree and the story would become more and more rootsy, if that makes sense. So a lot of elements of the show are modern sounds meets traditional sounds. But the further up we go, it’ll be more traditional. Did I just answer your question?

Oscen
Yes! Did that require a lot of research?

Nikita
Oh, it was a lot. I went to Japan four times to work with lots of Asian artists, collaborated in non-verbal theatre. That’s why it’s non-verbal. Well, there’s a lot of reasons why it’s non-verbal. I wanted to make sure that anyone could come to the show and understand, that it didn’t discriminate against whatever language you spoke. It says this in the director’s note—I don’t know if you guys experienced this growing up—but watching movies with my mum as a kid, I was always pausing, explaining, pausing, explaining. And it wasn’t until recently that I was like, “Man, that would’ve been so hard.” She would’ve come across that all the time. Her English is great now, but for all the people that are still starting out with whatever language that exists in the country that they’ve immigrated to. I did a lot of research in Japan where I did a lot of non-verbal theatre and then I went over to New York to a theatre company called Chinese Theatre Works. Kuang-Yu—she is Taiwanese—and [Stephen Kaplin] is Jewish-American, and they do traditional leather shadow puppetry. It’s quite incredible—actually, similar to Indonesian shadow puppetry.

Oscen
Like the Wayang ones?

Nikita
Yeah, really detailed, and they’re flat. And then through them they told me to go to Vermont to do Bread and Puppet. They’re not an Asian theatre company but they do a lot of sustainable art, a lot of activism. I’m quite an activist as well, I suppose, especially environmentally. They do everything from recycled materials, all that kind of thing. Basically all these different things that I went overseas in search of have just come into this show. I was looking at some of the stuff and I was like, Yeah that’s definitely heavily inspired by Bread and Puppet, and so on. So there was a lot of research and a lot of reading about history and learning calligraphy again, all that kind of stuff. But it’s been so fun—it’s been really fun. And I remember writing with Ling on our tour. I was just getting really excited about everything.

Oscen
You said that this is going to the roots. Are you planning on having more episodes in the future?

Nikita
There’s probably going to be a total of five episodes. It’s going to be four or five; I haven’t quite decided yet.