Adventures in Teaching Literature: David Henry Hwang and the Ethnic Debate

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In an attempt to bring some of what I do as a teacher (and, in other posts, as an academic) to this blog, I’ve decided to start these little “Adventures in Teaching Literature” posts to explore my class experiences.  Some of these will focus on what I take from a text (or tried to teach my students to take from it) and others will deal with their responses, which will vary from profound to odd to incorrect-but-still-quite-interesting (I’m not sold on the use of “incorrect” here, though).

Now to today’s post:
David Henry Hwang and the Ethnic Debate
If you’re not familiar with Hwang’s work, that is unfortunate.  While he is not remotely a genre writer, his plays are quite brilliant.  He is perhaps best known for M. Butterfly, which won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play and was based on a true story (I once saw an opera version of the story in San Francisco, which was written by Giacomo Puccini and premiered in 1904 — that version was
based on another short story of the same name, written by John Luther Long in 1898).  One of Hwang’s other fascinating works is “Trying to Find Chinatown,” a one-act play set on the streets of New York City.  The only characters of the play are Ronnie (an Asian-American musician who one might describe as having a “chip” on his shoulder) and Benjamin (a white man trying to find his roots in Chinatown).
To say that “Chinatown” (my abbreviation from now on) is about racial or ethnic identity would be like saying  Subway makes sandwiches.  The play’s central conflict is precisely over what “ethnic identity” means.  For Ronnie, the problem is two-fold:  on the one hand, he cannot stand it when people assume he knows something about Chinese culture simply because he looks Chinese; on the other hand, he also cannot stand the thought of Benjamin claiming to be Chinese simply because he was raised by Chinese parents (adopted). 
Benjamin, however, takes a different path:  he sees ethnicity not so much in terms of race or its immediate stereotypes, but rather in terms of one’s upbringing and self-identification.  For Benjamin, a familial and/or blood connection to the past is all one needs to identify oneself with a group.  I’m oversimplifying their positions here; regardless of how they articulate their messages, neither character can come to an agreement on what it means to be Chinese — both believe they have a right to claim themselves a part of that group, but for drastically opposite reasons (and often through contradictory logic — Ronnie’s no-race/race argument and Benjamin’s academic acquisition of ethnicity).

What “Chinatown” shows us, to take one of the obvious interpretations of the text, is how unstable a term like “ethnicity” can be.  If these two individuals cannot agree on what it means to be “Chinese,” then what value does a term like “ethnicity” have, except insofar as it allows us to identify ourselves with a group?  While Hwang would likely not extend this analogy to questions of ethnocentrism and other related isms, “Chinatown” does at least open up the possibility for such considerations.

But I think the text also protects itself from falling into that trap in unique way:  by effectively tearing apart the stereotypes associated with ethnicity and race.  Most of these deconstructions are performed by Ronnie, who loudly proclaims the falsity of the racial assumptions made about him — “loudly” both in voice and action (he plays jazz on a violin, which subverts cultural assumptions about Asians and music).  But Benjamin explodes stereotypes too by suggesting that Ronnie’s rigid assumptions about ethnicity are inadequate to the experience of ethnic identity — he is raised by Chinese parents, and, thus, cannot separate himself from the experience of being raised “Chinese.”  Alone, neither definition holds up, but collected together, they attempt to embody the variations of ethnic identity that must exist in order to account for “real life.”

Teaching this text, then, requires a direct engagement with ethnic experience, which is often difficult when such a text is being taught in an introductory course.  Concepts like “ethnicity” and “race” are complicated and need considerable space/time to be fleshed out for students.  Yet, even the basics, as outlined above, can be fruitful for discussion for students in introductory courses; perhaps it can be used as a gateway into learning about ethnic experience, or at least a unique perspective on life.  I certainly hope so.

And on that note, I’m off.  Feel free to leave a comment!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

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