Sunday, June 15, 2014

Huang Ruo: "An American Soldier"

Huang's new opera - a case study of American xenophobia

Huang Ruo's new opera is based on the tragic death of a 19-year-old Chinese-American soldier who was found shot in the head in Afghanistan after being terrorized by fellow soldiers. The circumstances behind his death illustrate the culture of xenophobia in the U.S. military - where women, gays and other minorities too often suffer physically and mentally at the hands of those who should protect them. The problem has become so wide-spread that the victims are now able to band together and speak up with less fear of being silenced.

Such abuses are by no means limited to the military - homo homini lupus everywhere. News reports cover only the most egregious cases because there is no room for gazillions of offences inflicted by people on fellow human beings who happen to be or dare to be different. Ranging from mild to painful slurs can leave lifelong scars - perhaps less visible, perhaps negligible in the grand scheme of things, and perhaps unintentional on the part of the offender, but devastating for the victim, especially after a lifelong accumulation.

Composer Huang Ruo during a rehearsal in Washington.

It is not surprising that a Chinese-born composer would choose the tragic destiny of a Chinese-American as the subject for his opera. But, according to Huang, the suggestion came from California-born playwright David Henry Hwang who wrote some of his best plays about immigrants. "FOB," short for "Fresh Off the Boat," deals with differences between the first and second generation immigrants. "The Dance and the Railroad" tells the story of a former Chinese opera star struggling as a railroad laborer in the 19th century California. "Family Devotions," examines the influence of Western religion on a Chinese family. The titles of his other plays speak for themselves, "Chinglish," "Yellow Face" ..... Most are based on real life stories. So being a second-generation immigrant does not necessarily mean you are mainstream American, if there is such a thing. But some people clearly think there is.

When Francesca Zambello invited Huang to write an hour-long opera based on a contemporary American story, he was working with Hwang on a play in New York. They agreed to collaborate on the WNO commission and chose Chen's tragedy as the subject. "The subject is close to my heart and David’s heart" said Huang.

"So we talked about it at length, about this possibility, and at the end we decided it will be a very good subject, and story, and choice to make this into an opera, because with opera you offer different perspectives and also you can dig into the depth of emotion," Huang told me during a rehearsal for the opera's world premiere in Washington.

"I wanted to explore Danny's perspective, when he grew up in Chinatown in New York - what are the challenges he faced and why he decided to join the Army. "

Chen was born in New York to Chinese-born parents who barely spoke any English. After high school, he was offered scholarships at several colleges, said Huang, so why did he opt for the Army? Chen's friends said he wanted to be a policeman and saw a stint in the Army as preparation for a career in law enforcement. But Huang thinks it was more than that.

"He wanted to be 100 percent American, and this is something not every American child, or teenage boy, or even girl would experience," said Huang. So he joined the Army contrary to his parents' wishes.

Scene from "An American Soldier" 

"An American Soldier" is set in a military courtroom in North Carolina where eight servicemen are on trial in connection with Chen's death. Flashbacks show Chen as a student being taunted for his Chinese background. When asked where he is from, he answers "from America," to be probed further "but where are you really, really from?" 

Tenor Andrew Stenson who portrays Chen understands this. At school, students often remarked upon his "funny" eyes, asked if he can do kung fu or made other remarks indicating that he was different. He told me he continues to face racial profiling even in large, ethnically diverse cities like New York.

"When I was leaving my apartment to come here, one of the ladies in my apartment [building] thought I was a delivery boy and asked if I had anything for her," Stenson said bursting into a laugh.

I recognized that laugh. I have laughed it myself many, many times. As a European, I do not stand out physically and am not a regular subject of racial slurs. But as soon as I open my mouth to say a simplest "hello," I can expect to hear a response such as "Oh, what a lovely accent - where is it from?" Is that offensive? It should not be.

To be sure, I also ask people where they are from - all the time. Not because they look or sound foreign, but because I want to know where the various people in Washington hail from. Very few were born here. Some of them have interesting stories to tell. So why not ask?

But when a "lovely" accent is the cause of years of discrimination at work, becomes a stumbling block on a career path, a thing that sets you aside, and separates you from "real" Americans, you don't want to be reminded of it all the time. In many cases, people who set me aside are not even aware of doing it and most do not intend to discriminate. But in some cases in the past, the discrimination was deliberate, obvious and painful. A number of my supervisors openly argued that I was not suitable for certain jobs because of my accent. Luckily, those who disagreed were more numerous. And over the years, the tolerance for foreign accents at work in Washington has grown along with the steady rise of the foreign-born population in the area.

According to media blurbs, "An American Soldier" deals with "dark undercurrents" in the U.S. military culture. I would say that it deals with deep-seated xenophobia among unaware people anywhere. Those who want to live and work surrounded by people who look like them, eat the same food, drink the same beer, wear the same clothes, watch the same TV shows and speak with the same accent.

America cannot afford that. Drawing attention to a societal malaise can be a catalyst for change as we have seen. Huang told me, "the most important thing is: we do want to bring more awareness to the story of Private Danny Chen’s life, and what happened to him, and what does that mean to our society." 

Until recently, we heard very little about racism in the U.S. military, he said. And about sexual abuse, among other things, I would add. The culture of secrecy has enabled the abuse in the U.S. military to grow to such proportions that eventually it became impossible to keep it under wraps. New measures are being put in place to help prevent the abuse. Chen's death was not completely in vain either because it helped the passage of anti-hazing legislation. 

"I think the greatest strength of America is: we dare to face our challenge and we dare to confront it and to hopefully resolve it in the future," said Huang.

Andrew Stenson as Danny Chen

Here is the link to my VOA report on "An American Soldier."

I am looking forward to seeing the U.S. premiere of Huang's Chinese-language opera"Dr. Sun Yat Sen" next month in Santa Fe.

No comments: