“I Am Who I am”: An Interview with Playwright Zhu Yi

Zhu Yis Headshot for the Dramatists

Last December, a rumor on social media that the renminbi, China’s currency, dropped sharply in value against the dollar caused a panic among many Chinese, including students who live abroad and rely on financial support from family in China. The news turned out to be false. It was a rare moment where a macroeconomic event immediately caused jitters outside of the world of finance and in the lives of regular people, but there was little, if any, mention of them — the very people chattering about and propagating the rumors.

In a scene in playwright Zhu Yi’s A Deal, currently being staged in a workshop production at the Ensemble Studio Theatre through April 22, a couple looking to buy real estate in New York obsesses over every minute fluctuation in the RMB’s exchange rate with the US Dollar. We’re not necessarily meant to sympathize with these still-privileged buyers, but we recognize them as the people affected by currency exchange rates and the people behind the headlines reporting Chinese as major purchasers of foreign real estate.

Their efforts to purchase real estate brings them to New York where their daughter lives. She is a struggling young actress who jumps on to the fast track to fame by fabricating a biography in which escaped oppression in China and capitalizing on the mystique created from people’s sympathy. More than a mockery of the beatification of artists who present nothing more than facile criticisms of the Chinese government, we see the life of a member of a new generation of Chinese living in the United States and working in performing arts.

In New York, the parents also encounter a lover from the wife’s past and stirs up questions whether the right choices — not just about whom to be with but also whether it would have been better to stay in China or to emigrate — were made.

Eschewing conventional social criticisms and weighty burdens often found in narratives about contemporary China, Zhu Yi has created a play that smartly presents parts of the contemporary Chinese experience through regular people who are products of an ascendant China. For some, their stories will be familiar. For others, they will supplement things about China they may have heard about in the news and perhaps help them better relate to people in the Chinese and Chinese-American communities.

A Deal continues at Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52nd Street, 2nd Floor in a production directed by John Giampietro, with three remaining performances at 7 PM, Friday, April 21 and 2 PM and 7 PM, Saturday, April 22.  Purchase tickets here.

We talked to Zhu Yi about the play, how to engage in cross-cultural dialogue, and her interests and experiences as a playwright.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve talked about being a Chinese and seeing the same sort of imagery and ideas that are repeatedly used in entertainment; pandas and Mao. These things have come to popularly represent China. What was your first glimmer that China, your home country and culture, was being represented in this way?

Actually, it was a slow realization. I was exchange student when I was an undergraduate. I went to Oslo University College, and acting with masks was one of my courses. When given an acting task, I would do something very Chinese. I don’t remember what exactly, but it involved throwing cultural symbols into the presentation.

Then, I realized it was really weird. It felt weird. It felt like I was trying to do something interesting. I was trying to be interesting, but it was not really interesting for them or for me, because I am not those symbols. I don’t have a connection with those symbols. It’s not a large collection of symbols. It’s pretty small. It’s like a souvenir store. Great Wall, pandas, Chinese green tea and Beijing opera and calligraphy and Chinese poetry.

Then, I started to think about it. The second time I left China, I came here, to New York, for graduate school. I consciously tried to avoid it because I was more mature and because I saw myself more as an individual.

I realized it’s shameful to capitalize on culture symbols because I don’t feel connected to them. Also, it’s not efficient. It’s not interesting. It’s like trying to take a shortcut, but actually you are getting further and further away.

Michi Barall, Wei-Yi Lin, and Don Castro. Photo by Harrison Densmore and courtesy of Ensemble Studio Theatre.

It causes problems or actually slows the progress of cultural understanding?

Yeah. It’s makes people see you as this exotic creature different from them. When they talk to you, they talk slowly or they think you think differently and you eat differently. Actually, we’re not that different. We’re more than tags of nationalities in today’s globalized world. I feel like the more I know about myself and the more I understand myself as a person, the less I want to flatten my personality and put myself into this box. I don’t want to become the souvenir store.

That’s why when I see a lot of pieces about China or with a Chinese theme, I feel very, very weird. Some of them make me very angry.

For example, this one play — It’s like a chop suey of human rights issues over the entire past century in China. The play packed the stories into one contemporary family.  It wasn’t done as a satire or a metaphor.  It was set as a realistic play.

I felt very angry not because I wanted to defend my country or because I’m ashamed that people criticized my country, but it’s like you don’t see us as humans. That’s what triggers me. I want to restore all those symbols, all those stereotypes, all those images into individual stories, human stories. Instead of seeing an upper middle class Chinese family, you see them as just a family. You see how they got here.

Nowadays, the Chinese students who study abroad, study in the US, are from very different family backgrounds than before, financially. Different from people who came to study in the US 10, 20, 30 years ago. Every decade has been different.

I wanted to write a contemporary story that asked who are those people? When you read major media in the US, every time they mention Chinese students studying in the US, it involves sports cars from super rich families, corrupt parents or corrupt high government officials who secretly send their children abroad. Of course, they exist, a lot of them, but there are also different types.

Even when we look into those stereotypes, we should ask who are they? They are not just this one type. They have their own lives. Who are they? What do their parents do? Instead of defending ideologies, I want to throw more layers into the narrative to make it more about human beings instead of ideology.

Don Castro, Wei-Yi Lin, and Michi Barall. Photo by Harrison Densmore and courtesy of Ensemble Studio Theatre.

You talk about contemporary Chinese. Why did you decide to tell the three stories in A Deal about the actress, her parents and their experiences buying real estate, and their love affair?

Chinese students studying art in the US is a relatively new phenomenon that started about 10 years ago. Before that, Chinese students all came here study computer science or chemistry. Then, later, finance. Now, art. I think it’s very much related to the Chinese economy.

Actually, the play, the preface or the subtitle under the big title is a quote from John Quincy Adams. “I am a warrior, so that my son can be a shopkeeper, so that his son can be poet.” It’s three generations. I think that’s a good summary of the history of modern China.

My great grandpa’s generation, they fought in a war. It was all about survival. My father, when he was little, it was all about survival. “Don’t starve to death. Don’t freeze to death.” Then, it was about getting on your feet. Live a good life. Live a comfortable life. Then, it was about getting rich especially after the gaige kaifang [Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the late 70s, early 80s].

When a generation accumulates enough wealth, they feel comfortable, then their children’s generation can do something, such as enjoying life, and not have to be concerned about making a living or avoiding death. I think it’s a very typical journey in China. Of course, that doesn’t represent everyone in China. A lot of other people didn’t become part of this narrative.

The three stories in the play are actually entangled with each other and rooted in reality and in the development of China. The economic reasons behind people’s real estate purchases are the booming real estate market in China and the appreciation of currency over the past 10 years. People started to feel, “Oh, things abroad are not as expensive as we used to feel like.”  They travel abroad more often, and they start purchasing things abroad.

There’s also this anxiety: “We’ve already reached the middle class. We’ve reached the upper middle class.  Now, how do we maintain this status? We must invest. Invest in what?” Because real estate prices have become so high in China — almost reaching the level of the real estate prices abroad — people just think, “Actually, why don’t we just buy apartment in New York, in LA?” These things used to be so far away and feel so fancy.  Now they’re reachable. They start purchasing apartments abroad. It’s a way to preserve the value of their money and maintain their class. No one knows whether one day the real estate price in China will suddenly crash after increasing for so many years. That’s why more and more Chinese people are buying real estate abroad.

The affair or love triangle in the play is actually very typical because my father’s generation, in the 80s, 90s, a lot of well-educated people chose to go to America.

When they left they sacrificed a lot. They couldn’t see their families and lived poorly. They took part time jobs under the table. They washed dishes to afford tuition. They endured discrimination. Also, their English wasn’t that good. It was a really hard time for them. Then, they made it here and became part of the mainstream society. They got green cards. They got citizenship. Their children went to college. They became middle class or upper middle class.

In the meantime, in China, changes were also happening. The Chinese economy is booming, blah-blah-blah. Those people, their classmates or old friends who stayed, their life dramatically changed. [When they meet again], subconsciously, they compare, they compete. They both want to prove “my choice was right back then” because they had given so much.

It would be terrifying for them to admit, “Actually, I made a wrong choice. What if I stayed? It might have been better.” Or, “What if I left?” It’s unimaginable the choice could be wrong. That story is about when those two group of people who made different choice in life meet again.

Michi Barall, Don Castro and David Shih. Photo by Harrison Densmore and courtesy of Ensemble Studio Theatre.

When you want to talk about contemporary Chinese and convey these themes, do you have a particular audience in mind? Are there any particular challenges that you face when you are trying to bring a story like this to the audience?

I don’t really have a particular audience in mind, but I do hope that this play can be produced in New York City. I wrote it in English. I feel safe when I write in English because I don’t need to worry about censorship in China. I won’t self-censor when I’m writing in English. However, I do hope, and I do believe this story can be understood by the Chinese who are in China.

How was this particular play received in Taiwan versus here? [The play received an award in Taiwan and was previously staged in New York]

To Taiwan, it was interesting because the play, though not about ideology, talked about individuals like a family story through the conflict of ideology — ideologies between China and US. When the play was being received by readers or audiences in different parts of the world, they feel differently about it.

For example, when the play was sent to a Hong Kong Theater Company, their feedback was they felt like the play criticized China a lot and that the way it criticized America was not harsh enough. The play criticized America in the same old ways that had already been done by many others.  It’s not new, not effective, they said.

Then, when it was read by the Taiwanese — I submitted it to a contest, so I can read the jury’s records and see how they made the decision — the record showed the judges thought the play criticized America but only mocked China. They felt like the play was very hard on America, criticizing harshly, but it was too easy on China.

To me, the play is neither. I didn’t want to criticize China or America. I just want to show people who grew up in different environments, how we think differently, and how we have different beliefs. Each of us believes we are right, and it surprises us when we hear other voices. We’re like, “How can you think like that? You’re wrong.”

All of us think we are right. That’s how conflicts start. When we talk about ideology, it’s never really about ideology. It’s about our upbringing; it’s about our parents, what they experienced. It’s about the book you have read. It’s about the person you’ve loved and about the humiliation you have suffered. It’s about your dream of the future. It’s about the youth, the younger days you miss. It’s everything together. Then, it becomes our ideology. Because we are so different, individual experiences are so different.

Why did you choose playwriting as your means of expression?

Compared to what?

Say, being a novelist.

It’s so lonely to be a novelist. You write alone, and then that’s it. Being a playwright, you can work with people. It’s so much fun! A play, when you’ve written it, is not the final product. It’s supposed to be on stage. When you work with directors, actors, designers, producers, each of them bring new things to your play. It changes the way you think about the play, and you have to let go. Let them to surprise you in good ways or in bad ways.

I love playwriting because I’m interested in the stories that happen among humans and the stories that happen between humans and the universe. Playwriting is just a channel I chose. It’s a really good channel because I can actually work with people and feel this exchange — that the stories happened between them. The collaboration adds layers to the story itself.

Wei-Yi Lin and Alex Grubbs. Photo by Harrison Densmore and courtesy of Ensemble Studio Theatre.

For this particular play, how did it evolve as you worked with a director and the actors?

It’s really different when you write and when you hear it in your head. It’s different at the table reading. People read it, and the sentences sound different. Also, it’s different when it’s being staged. This is just a workshop, not a full production. There’s no expensive setting and stuff. When you see people act it out, the logic becomes different. The effect is different.

I revised the script a lot. The story didn’t change, just how it’s being presented. When people work on your play, they put a piece of themselves into it. They’re bringing their own understanding of life. Through working on this play together, you are channeling so many different people, who are so different from you.

When you have people bring a little bit of themselves to the play, are you interested — maybe this is more of the role of the director, but is it important that a person from China or is familiar with China be cast in the play?

The characters are Chinese. We try to cast Chinese actor. Not necessarily nationality wise, but…


Yeah. Also, those who are as close as to the background of the character as possible culturally so that person can understand the character.

It’s really hard to have everyone exactly as the character’s ethnicity and background. The leading actress is Wei-Yi Lin. She’s from Taiwan, and she actually shares a lot with this character in her experiences getting a visa, equity, and green card. She struggled as an MFA graduate actor — an actor trying to get casted, trying to make it in New York. She actually connects with this character in that way.

You’re not only interested in Chinese and Chinese experience, what other themes are you interested in talking about?

Every time, I want to do something different, because naturally, we grow up, we grow older, we experience different things in life. We meet different people. It all changes our perspective in life and the things we’re most concerned about in life.

Every time I want to probe into a different thing … You can see from the place I write, the timeline, it syncs with my life. My first play when I was in college is called Long Life. I was just becoming adult, and I started thinking about life and death. The changing of our bodies. From a child to an adult and from adult to a middle-aged person. When you’re old, how do you deal with this aging and death? I started to think about that.

Then, I was in relationship. When I fell in love, I wrote a play called I Am a Moon. It summed up my thinking about how people meet and how people miss each other. Just like the moon, we meet each other. The marks we leave on each other’s bodies and hearts. They’re like when a shooting star hits the moon and leaves a crater. When we were born, we were this perfect flesh. As we grow up, everything we experience, everyone we meet leaves a mark on our bodies and shapes who we are.

When you see a person walking on the street, he is like a dressed-up, decent person, but when you really enter this person’s life — you will see all the marks on his body and who he really is. But, really entering someone’s life is as hard and long as the moon landing.

Then, when I came here, I tried to experiment. The first play I wrote was Lifetime Fairytale, an adaptation of a Chinese myth. I tried to challenge myself. I wrote a Chinese story, but it’s different from all those symboled, clichéd stereotypical ways to tell a Chinese story outside of China. I wanted to write it in a very contemporary way and break the form.

When I started dealing with visa issues, I started thinking about what a visa means? What decides where you belong? People around us, how did they come here? How did their fathers and grandpas come here? What would it mean if they came earlier? The land belongs to whom really? Then, I wrote Holy Crab!.  It was my observation of life and society at that time. [We previously covered her’s and curator Gu Qianfan’s Welcome to the Republic of Extraordinary Ability, their creative way of bringing attention to the plight of international artists in the United States.]

Observations and experiences. At the same time, you also have a lot of plays that are very absurd. We Saw Your Boobs and The Euthanasia of a Healthy Young Giraffe at Copenghagen Zoo. What were the inspirations for those?

Those are short plays. I love short plays because you can write whatever. They are those magic little balls. Compared to full-length plays, they are just more playful, and they can be as weird as possible. I feel like they reflect more who I am as an artist.

I was the only child because of the one-child policy, and both my parents worked. When they went shopping, they would just lock me at home and make me read, practice calligraphy, or practice piano. It was so boring. They were obnoxious. They thought they were better than the neighbors because they’re highly educated. They didn’t want me running around with the neighbor’s wild kids. They wanted me to be a lady, practice calligraphy and piano, and read.

I spent a lot of time alone at home when I was little. I just started making up stories to myself. I think that was the beginning of my career. The stories were very weird and just for myself, to entertain myself. So today, I still don’t care to make stories for other people. When I write short plays, I feel very free. Free of the responsibility to educate anyone or to carry any social responsibility.

Your imagination just runs wild?

Yeah. My playwriting education in the US is very different than in China.

In China, it’s still quite traditional the way they teach playwriting.  When I was there as an undergraduate, it was all about basic writing skills. It was about being very realistic. It was about societal meaning — heavy stuff. When I came here, I started to read and see those weird plays. You can just be crazy. I felt free. I was being liberated by those weird plays. I felt, “Yeah, it’s okay to write weird stuff.”

Shannon Tyo and Wei-Yi Lin. Photo by Harrison Densmore and courtesy of Ensemble Studio Theatre.

There are a lot of young Chinese here in the US, New York especially, who are interested in sharing their heritage promoting understanding, changing culture perceptions. How successful do you think you are as a group?

I never identify myself as member of a group. I think every artist should face the world as an individual. The only way to enhance understanding between cultures is to be yourself. Write about the things that you are truly interested in and you truly care about.

I cannot say “Today, I want to promote cultural exchange” and then write about it. It never works that way. I don’t like the plays or the works that are created as tools for advocating things or political purpose to make a statement. Your work is who you are. As long as I’m truly being myself, that’s the way to enhance understanding. Not only between cultures, but between humans.

Let it be a natural approach, a natural engagement with the person rather than seeing it as a cultural effort.

I am who I am. Even if I avoid every Chinese element in my work, I’ll always be Chinese. It’s part of me. Sometimes, I don’t realize, but when I finish a work, it’s very me and you can see my background in it. Ang Lee is like that. He never really emphasized, “I’m Taiwanese.” Even when he make movie about cowboys in Midwest. The feeling, the subtlety in it, you can see it’s him.