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.