Since arriving in the U.S. five years ago, Paula Sim feels like she hasn’t found her community. “When Crazy Rich Asians came out and then The Farewell came out, there was such a big media frenzy about Asian representation in media. But these are mostly Asian Americans,” said the Singapore-born actress, who moved to New York after earning an MFA in Acting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. “I was like, that’s not me still.”
That prompted Sim to establish the American Dream Redux, an event series that celebrates the immigrant history in America and the diverse experience of Asian immigrants artists, including those like her who call two countries home. Tuesday at the Asian American Arts Alliance in Brooklyn, Sim moderated the first event of the series, “Keeping the Dream Alive,” featuring a panel of four immigrant artists from the Philippines, India, China and South Korea.
Determined to represent a variety of Asian voices, Sim made sure all the panelists were from different parts of Asia, and not just East Asians. “When people think of Asians, they think of a monolith and they don’t really see how diverse and varied our experiences are,” she told me on the eve of the event. “We wanted to find a way to show that [diversity].” It was important to Sim that there would be an equal amount of voices gender-wise, and for future events, she hopes to include queer and non-binary voices as well.
Until two years ago, every time the Shanghai-born stage director Chongren Fan had to fill out a form, say in a casting seminar, he had struggled with the idea of attaching the word “American” to his identity—he isn’t American but an Asian immigrant. “Then somebody told me that Asian American is not a race, it’s a political identity, a reaction to fight the predominantly white identity,” Fan said. “And then suddenly you’re like, oh, I’m okay with that.”
For Katrina Bello, a visual artist from Davao City, Philippines, the immigrant experience means she is rooted in both places. Knowing two languages, she is able to navigate both spaces and contribute her perspectives to both cultures. “We’re sympathetic to the values in both and we perceive things through two lenses,” said Bello, whose work taps into the beauty of the wilderness and the changing natural environment due to urban development. Kuldeep Singh, a multidisciplinary artist who’s trained in Indian classical dance of Odissi, also feels like he has become more rooted, more native than when he was in India. “I remember a quote in the world of anthropology: to understand one’s own culture, you have to step away. And I think I’ve gone deeper,” he said.
Like Bello, Gamin Kang sees her lack of belonging to either America or her home country South Korea as an opportunity to reach a larger audience. A soloist who plays traditional Korean instruments such as the piri (double reed Korean oboe), taepyeongso (double reed horn) and saenghwang (mouth organ), Gamin has toured around the world performing Korean traditional music with avant-garde interpretations. She takes pride in breaching the cultural barriers between American and Korean society and being able to connect with both audiences.
But that outcome hasn’t always materialized for Singh. “I think the biggest [obstacle] was how you handle materials and how you completely are seen as someone not belonging to this country,” he said.
Both Fan and Sim echo this sentiment as they reflect on their experience working in theater. Whenever Fan tried to touch on subject matter that wasn’t necessarily related to how he looked, people would often push back and say he shouldn’t tell their story because he wasn’t from a particular ethnic group. “White creators can create Asian stories, but why can’t Asians creators create white stories?” Fan asked. This resonated with Sim during times when she was grouped with other Asians to work on a scene together, or when she wasn’t picked to play a leading role because of the stereotype that Asian women are soft.
The challenge of creating art as an Asian immigrant artist doesn’t stop there.
In theater, for instance, there is a constant struggle of tailoring the content and the programming to the season and also to the predominantly white donors. “The majority of the theater corps are baby boomers, and in the next 30 years, there will be a huge demographic change,” Fan told the audience. He’s been trying to engage with both people who are interested in performing arts and those who aren’t in the arts but have the financial means to help. The goal is to plant the seeds for the next generations of supporters. “The change is going to be, you know, it’s definitely very gradual,” Fan said.
Election year is a critical time for artists, including immigrant ones. “As people of color, our work is always inherently political,” Sim said. “We can’t just, we can’t just do work for the sake of putting on a show.” Immigrant artists get to use art as a way of pushing forward their voices, pushing forward their needs and the needs of their community, whether it is to be represented or whether it is to stop discrimination.
Next up in the American Dream Redux series is The Golden Spike workshop (Feb. 6-7) and their Immigrant Heritage Week event highlighting Asian immigrant playwrights in New York (Apr. 13-19).