The Many Shades of Yellow Face
A few nights ago I went to see Yellow Face, a production of David Henry Hwang at Stanford University. The play was inspiring and raised many questions about culture, race, and identity. Perhaps most of all, it provoked concerns of authenticity and community. What are the borders of our communities and who are the gatekeepers? While race is an obvious marker of group membership, it is not the only one, and others may even be more important ways of determining who is included and who is excluded.
As I watched the performance I was most struck by my varied feelings toward Marcus, the white man who becomes Asian, in his own mind and in the eyes of others. I noticed that I reacted cynically, seeing another Dancing with Wolves hero, in which the white man finds his identity as an Indian. I heard the song in my head, “You gotta pay your dues, if you wanna sing the blues” telling me that I was resistant to seeing a white guy as Asian.
As part of a post-play panel I spoke of how I was reminded of my own experience in Asian and Asian American contexts in which my presence as a mixed race person has been challenged. I feel both completely different from Marcus, because I am Asian by ancestry, and also share his experiences. I feel empathy for him and for the people I know who have an affinity for Asian cultures and identify with them, yet are seen by others as not Asian, or not Asian enough.
I thought of Lane Hirabayashi, who I know from the days when we were both asserting ourselves as hapa unapologetically in Asian American communities. In my book, When Half is Whole, Lane reminds me that “The key thing we were working for was authenticity and self-definition and the self-acceptance that comes with that.” While Lane’s presence as a leader in the Asian American was once questioned by others, he simply lived his identity, finding that identity consciousness is overcome by a sense of identity won in action.
With the massive increase in the numbers of mixed ancestry Asians, the question of inclusion today extends to people like Marcus, who have no “Asian blood.” Can they too be included? Lane’s response: “I’m more interested in who is contributing, that’s my value—if they do something for community building, culture building that what I value. To me it’s a matter of personal preference and identity and that’s their right. And it’s not a matter of genetics or of being Japanese ancestry. If people who are not of Japanese ancestry want to contribute something, and they are sincere and effective, then I am happy to work with them. I might even value them more, in terms of community, than someone who is of Japanese descent but isn’t interested in participating.”
In this sense of community, while acknowledging the critical concern with how we are perceived by others, we also proclaim the right and ability to self-define and assert ourselves. Though others may try to define by exclusion, we are defining ourselves by inclusion. We are connecting to the diverse parts of ourselves and in so doing, connecting with wider communities of people, cultures, and histories. This process of creation is healing and empowering for both individuals and communities.
I feel that the play challenges our beliefs about authenticity and identity. I imagine that those in the audience reflect on their own identities, some feeling empowered to look deeper into their own history, and reclaim the power of the resilience of their people and ancestors. Others may be moved to cross barriers, both psychological and social, and connect to diverse communities through actions that unite us and build ties instead of borders.