Reviewed by Jennifer Su
Featured Image Courtesy of Dahlia Katz
There are the stories our parents tell us about our families and their origins, the stories we find in search of identity, on displacement and belonging, and then there are the ghost stories. For those of us in the Vietnamese diaspora, ghost stories are more about re-encountering family than about being haunted. I am used to hearing about ghosts, but I am not sure if I will ever see one in my lifetime, because I know, deep down, I do not believe in them—I consider that another loss upon that original loss of life.
Death makes us revisit the past, although it is impossible to change and impossible to recall completely. The fallibility of memory with the passage of time is what Julie Phan explores in Fine China, through flashbacks, sisterly fights between the main characters Audrey and Kim, and a visit from their father’s ghost. While the story is based on Phan’s own relationship with her sister, the two sisters represent the duality of expectations that the children of refugees commonly internalize—to make one’s parents’ sacrifices worth it, while taking advantage of the freedoms we have. Sometimes these two goals are one and the same, and sometimes they are not. Thus Audrey buries herself in her studies to the detriment of her wellbeing, while Kim leaves the family to prevent causing further pain. Their family dynamic reveals the common tropes of Asian tiger parent versus repressed child, East versus West, filial piety versus individualism, gratitude versus greed.
As with all things in life, these dualities are not so clear-cut. In the end, both sisters want their families to be happy—they just have different ways of creating that happiness and of communicating their love. It is all the more impressive to realize that Phan is playing Kim, the character based on her sister. As she shares in the playwrights’ notes, the creation of Fine China allowed her to heal and to become mindful of her own relationships. Knowing this, we should pause to consider how differently we would speak to one another after the event of death. What would we say to our own ghosts?
Mourning lingers in the air throughout the show as Kim and her father fill the theatre with smoke, like a temple burning with incense. In alternating scenes, they take turns escaping the confines of home with the excuse of their cigarettes, allowing them brief respite from familial expectations. They are reunited in the final scene, as Kim smokes the cigarette left on her father’s altar, while his ghost comes alive through Kim’s subconsciousness—mirroring each other in habits and speech. Like father, like daughter.
Phan humorously reminds us that even when ghosts are real—when they show up to remind us to replenish their altar with oranges and cigarettes—they are also projections of our own wishes and regrets. To see a ghost is not to be haunted, but to be given a chance to talk to the deceased once more. Pay attention when someone tells you a ghost story; it is a story about second chances.
Image Courtesy of Dahlia Katz
Though not a ghost in A Perfect Bowl of Pho, Nam Nguyen’s father and his story of hard work burdens Nguyen as he grapples with the politics of putting on “a show about pho”, which is much more than simply a musical about the origins of Vietnamese food. As the left-leaning son of patriotic South Vietnamese refugee parents, Nguyen takes us back and forth between scenes of communist struggle, the Indochinese boat crisis, and his father’s experiences of political repression by the communists. The story of Pho Binh, the cannibal hero, and Nguyen’s parents’ sacrifices altogether complicate a singular narrative of Vietnamese refugee-ness. Can one eat human flesh and also be a hero? Did the Viet Cong bring peace by reunifying the country? Are my parents uncool for supporting the liberal notion of human rights? The inherent ambivalence of racialized, refugee settler identity is one that cannot provide neat answers or story endings.
This ambivalence also appears in the title slides prefacing each skit, sometimes in English and Vietnamese, demonstrating the limits of translation, but also the possibilities of broken language in the diaspora. In English: “In which a pho chef makes commentary on 2019 politics”; in Vietnamese: “For those who can read Vietnamese: Mr. Trump isn’t your friend” (perhaps an attempt to politicize our conservative elders). In English: “Nam is sort of a commie”; in Vietnamese: “This punk is aware he’s Viet Cong” (note: do not ironically call yourself Viet Cong if you are not Vietnamese). Nguyen’s self-deprecating admission that he may be disappointing his parents is also a reminder of the dangers of remaining politically ambivalent.
Then there are the moments where language fails, even in song and rap. Some stories are best left entirely unspoken, creating a challenge for the playwright. Silent prayer and further meta-theatricisms relieve the vulgarity of putting cannibalism on stage. It is perhaps the best one can do in recognizing that reviving the past is taboo and traumatic for many Vietnamese refugees, leaving their descendants to excavate it with a crude urgency.
Image Courtesy of Dahlia Katz
When asked what makes Fine China different from other immigrant stories, Phan says it is not all that different, that its specificity also speaks to a shared Asian immigrant experience. A truism worth repeating: we need more than a single story. It is easy for the white critic to lump immigrant and refugee stories together, and easy for Asian artists of the diaspora to declare the year of Asian-American representation. At the same time, easier to sell these stories when we can ride the wave of representation.
“Who’s to say if we’re Vietnam Pimpin’, or Pimpin’ Vietnam?”
— A Perfect Bowl of Pho
We form our identities in relation to others, and in the context of an art world that is performatively and earnestly desperate for “diversity”, we can even excel at selling them. When a friend ordered shrimp pho during a trip to New Orleans, I reacted like a purist: “You know that actually isn’t pho!” It turned out to be delicious, because shrimp is fresh in New Orleans, and the Vietnamese people there are proud to serve pho using the best of what’s available to them. Accepting the complexities of family, of food, and of stories as a whole means transforming ambivalence to action, whether it is repairing our relationships or reconciling our politics. Now I wish I’d had the shrimp pho too.
Fine China by Julie Phan & A Perfect Bowl of Phở by Nam Nguyen
A Saigon Lotus & Hotake Theatre Company Production as part of fu-GEN Theatre Presentation Series
January 23 – February 10 2019, at the Factory Theatre
Jennifer Su is a Toronto-based artist with an academic background in socio-cultural anthropology, working primarily in photography and film. She is the recipient of the DGC & WIFT-T award at the 2016 Reel Asian International Film Festival for her first short film 36 Questions, and was one of the commissioned artists for the 2018 Festival of Recorded Movement (F-O-R-M) in Vancouver.