Over the course of the 2012-2013 school year, group of girls, who had been adopted from China met with me to share experiences and then turn those experiences into a pice of theatre. The girls performed the piece in May of 2013 for their families and communities. After the show, they fielded questions from the audience, and so began a conversation about the experience of Chinese adoptees. Below are some of my thoughts after completing this project.
On May 11, at 6:30 in the evening, a group of girls took their places to begin their show. All of them were nervous. All of them were checking their notes and making sure they remembered the different parts of the play. All of them had been adopted from China as babies.
These girls and I had spent the last year learning how to trust each other. We didn’t start talking about adoption until the second or third session. We didn’t start writing until after that. When we did start writing, we made things ups. We made up stories about bears who like to do plumbing and kids sitting around campfires. We passed around a book of baby names to help us make up names for our characters. We drew a lot of pictures.
Before we would write, though, we would try to talk. At first it was slow. I asked everyone what kinds of “dumb” questions they had been asked while growing up. It was easy to answer. Everyone had some story about being asked about our “real moms.” Most of us had run into someone who expected us to be able to speak Chinese from the age of zero, without any effort. I rushed to jot them all down.
When we wrote, we found ways to write about those things. We wrote about the teasing, but we made it about someone else. We wrote about the annoyance, even the occasional wish for vengeance, complete with cartoonish caricatures. The people we made up juggled expectations that they could not meet, faced stereotypes, and sometimes did not know what to say. Some characters knew exactly what to say and had a lot to share. We drew pictures of them, crumpled them, and drew new pictures.
Learning how to talk to each other was hard. Some of the students bubbled over with things to say. Others spent more time looking at the floor. We all needed time to sort out what it was we were really talking about.
We learned, though. At first, what got us excited as a group was talking about different high school cafeterias. As we kept coming back to our questions and writing and then re-writing our scenes, we started to have more to say to each other. Sometimes the students would pair off with people who shared an opinion to write a scene, knowing that the others were writing a scene about the same topics from a different perspective.
To re-write our scenes, we had to describe more precisely what was going on in our characters heads – what was bothering them or what they really wanted. As our characters became more clearly defined, our thoughts in the room became more clearly articulated. And we discovered what it was we really wanted to say. WE wrote about how they felt talking about adoption. We wrote about race and how it did or did not affect them. No one was looking at the floor anymore.
When asked, “is your perspective in this piece,” the students could and would tell me if it was. And if it was not, they would immediately write up something – the something that was missing that they wanted to say – and read it to everyone so we could all write it down and add it to our scripts. We were making things up, true, but we were also finding a way to speak to each other and, through theatre, to our families, friends, and advocates.
When the girls took their places at 6:30 in the evening, they were ready to share their thoughts with the world.
My parents were never shy about my adoption from China. Given that they are Caucasian, it wasn’t something we could have hidden, but they raised me not only to know that I was adopted, but to proud of it. They worked hard to give me a sense of China and to help me integrate that into my sense of self. They enrolled me in schools that valued diverse models of family, where people would honor my family as much as any other.
There was never any question that they were my parents, that we were a family (and all the growing and fighting that that entails), and that we loved each other very much. My sister arrived when I was five, also from China, and we dove into being a slightly larger family.
Even so, there were a lot of things that did not get said in my family. My parents’ experience of growing up in a multiracial family was decidedly different than mine. They knew that my sister and I might have to face people who treated us differently because of how we looked, but there was no way that they could fully understand the experience. They didn’t know what to talk about with me, and I did not have the experience or understanding to be able to bring it up without their help.
My parents and I spent years learning how to talk about these things. Most the conversations did not start until I returned to Philadelphia after college. The conversations were hard, especially since they reached back into all of our pasts, but they ultimately helped us validate each other’s experiences. It has been a tough, but amazing process.
I wanted to continue this conversation with other young people who had been adopted from China, to give us the chance to validate each other’s experiences and then to share those experiences with our families and communities. I wanted to invite other families and communities to have the same kinds of conversations that I had had with my parents in the hopes that we could all grow from the dialogue.
A group of 5 girls and I started meeting every Saturday to do just that. We met with the goal of sharing experience, and then turning that experience into a piece of theatre. We called the piece Many Ways and shared it with our community last month.
Theatre and Community
When I was developing the idea for this project, I had to write about why I wanted to present these thoughts through theatre. Yes, part of it is because I am a theatre artist, but this felt like a good project to take on because theatre is such a good medium for promoting a voice that may not always be heard. There is an agreement in theatre: you promise to prepare something to say and to try to make it as expressive as possible, and the audience agrees to be there with you and each other and listen. To the whole thing. It is a really special kind of agreement, if you think about it.
When I began this project, I wanted to find a way to begin a conversation. While there has been more and more work done on the lives of children who were adopted from China, the voice of the children themselves has often been absent. As long as this voice is absent, though, it will be impossible to truly understand or validate the reality and depth of this experience.
I knew that theatre’s ability to present truth through a fictionalized lens would be an important part of giving all of us ways to say things that we might be afraid or not quite ready yet to say ourselves. It was possible to make up characters who could experience things that we had experienced, but in made-up contexts that did not feel so private. For the non-fictionalized parts of the play, we made a deal that no one would tell who had contributed each piece – not even answer yes or no – even with our own parents, so that no one could try to piece it together. This way, we were able to share things that we were thinking about and things that mattered to us without telling strangers our life stories.
What was more of a surprise was how writing these fictional characters helped us understand the issues the characters were facing better and opened us to each other’s differing opinions. We could ask what the characters were thinking or feeling, and not be bound to what the person who wrote it had thought when she was in that particular situation. Instead, we could brainstorm what someone might think and hear how each of us thought about the situation. When one writer got stuck, we would talk about the character and the moment and help her get unstuck.
Another thing theatre does is to validate experience. When that audience agrees to listen to a group of girls, the audience inherently tells that group that what they say matters. And it did matter. I think the girls said amazing things and did amazingly well that night, but even without that, the way they carried themselves that evening as they ran around and giggled is something I hope I never forget.
Theatre not only gives us a way to process the world and then a way to talk about what we have discovered, it also validates the expression of those thoughts. I tell people that one of the things I love about theatre is its ability to bring us closer to perspectives, thoughts, and experiences that we may not encounter in our day-to-day lives. My guess is that this validation of expression has a lot to do with that.
Theatre brings people together. We know that, but let’s say it again. Anyone who has done some kind of theatre, be it in school or professionally or with a volunteer community group, knows that there is a special kind of closeness that comes from the intensity of the project, if nothing else. Add a personal commitment to the material and it will only get more intense. Then you physically bring an audience together and ask them to experience something with you.
What better way to start a conversation?
First we brought together a group of girls with a common experience. We used theatre to explore that experience. Then we brought people together again to share that experience. No matter what the topic, no matter whose voice it is time to share, after all of this, I will firmly believe in theatre’s essential place in validating and bringing together our communities.
Photos by Ashley W. Mills.