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Outward Appearances and Inner Alliances? Exploring what it means to be Chinese in America

Outward Appearances and Inner Alliances? <em>Exploring what it means to be Chinese in America</em>

By Jeremy Willinger, Director of Marketing at China Institute

What is it like to be Chinese in America these days? That’s the question that award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, young contemporary curator Xin Wang, and Nancy Yao Massbach, president of Museum of Chinese in America explored last week at China Institute, sharing the paths they, and other Chinese, must navigate to define their identities, shape their artistic output, and defy stereotypes.

The event, titled Divided Loyalty: Being Chinese in America, was part of Carnegie Hall’s Migrations: The Making of America Festival.

The event began with an exploration of the standard Chinese tropes, and how they have shifted throughout the 19th and 20th century. “When I was a kid, people from China were seen as soiled, poor, uneducated cooks, waiters, laundry men,” said Hwang, who was born in America. “Now people think of Chinese as having too much money and too much education! That’s an extraordinary change in one lifetime.”

In fact, Hwang’s new play, “Soft Power,” which will open at New York’s Public Theater in the fall, is a satire set in the future, when China’s cultural influence, or “soft power,” has superseded the United States. How—and will—that happen?

“China wants to create movies that are international box office hits. They want to have international pop stars and create shows that end up on Broadway… My question is always, given a lot of top-down content control, is that inherently at odds with China’s goal of achieving soft power?” Hwang asked. “From an American perspective, I would go, yeah, if you have censorship you can’t create hits. But I don’t even know if that’s true. That might be a very American way of thinking about it. If look at American movies during the Hays code (US restrictions on film content from 1930-1968) there were a lot of restrictions on content and there were a lot of movies that we think are really great.”

In response, Wang argued that China’s technology companies may be driving a new form of global soft power. “Look at Alibaba’s [revolution of Russian e-commerce] and how cheap Chinese smartphones and technology are transforming Africa,” she said. “This is soft power.” China’s Confucius Institutes, arguably part of China’s soft power efforts, have run into challenges in the U.S., facing accusations of outsize influence on U.S. college campuses. “This is a moment of a lot of confusion,” Wang said. “Of course these kinds of espionage and manipulation can happen. But something that can happen isn’t enough to say that they have happened.”

Wang, who came to the U.S. in 2005 as a college student, said that in the art world she sometimes struggles not to be pigeon-holed as an expert in “Chinese” art. This generation of Chinese, including artists, is much more connected to the world than the one before, she noted. “A friend told me, ‘Don’t worry about labels – just keep adding more labels’.” Hwang acknowledged that “the riddle of identity is that there are so many factors to it,” and now that the Chinese are more globally minded than ever, “we don’t feel uniform pressure to become American. The world us huge and there are plenty of things are happening.”

Watch event recap video: