‘Jade Heart’

Can you say ‘Orientalism’?

So a Chicago playwright (white, male) gets “inspired” by a relative who adopts a baby from China.  And this is the result.  Another piece of ventriloquy:

All of us start life somewhere. The road we follow can be smooth or rough; it can lead to places that we might never have chosen. Jade McCullough’s road began on a pile of vegetables in a small village in southern China. Fate then took her to America where she grew up seeing herself as an outsider, rebelling against her differentness.  Like all of us, she struggles to find an identity that fits all sides of herself. She aches to know where she came from and why she had to leave. Her only clue is half of a jade heart found in her swaddling clothes. Its other half hangs around the neck of an anonymous woman in a distant land, a woman who is masked in her imagination, whose existence haunts her. Jade’s journey resembles our own. Ultimately, our existence is a mystery none of us can solve.

Ah, fate! The outsider! Rebelling against her differentness! Struggling to find identity! Aching to know where she came from! A distant land! A haunting existence! The ties to the humanity in all of us!

WTF. You can watch clips here. And marvel at the ch*nky language.  Orientalism as performed by Orientals!  A twofer!  (Wonder if this is the support by the Asian American community that is being touted.  Because I have to say as a Card Carrying Member of the Asian Hive Mind™, I explicitly reject this play. Yeah, I didn’t see it. I don’t think I need to wade into crap to know what it looks like.)

The Tribune has a review here. But the writer apparently isn’t particularly familiar with the adoption community:

In one of those mother-daughter battles, pitched when the central character of Jade is a rebellious teenager, her frustrated mom threatens to send her back to China.And at that point, you sit back in your seat, simply not believing that the character, presented as a fundamentally decent mother, even in such a stressed circumstance, would actually say that.

Other variations on that theme come out of the mouth of Brenda (Ginger Lee McDermott), the mother in question. She tells Jade (Christine Bunuan) that she was taken out of China before “even a smidgen of Chinese” had a chance to take hold. She says some mean things about the assumed actions of Jade’s unknown birth mother. And when a Chinese woman comes over to tell Jade stories, she gets kicked out, with mom saying things like “we’ve had enough Chinese for a day.”

Unfortunately those types of comments are commonplace. And it isn’t 1990:

For sure, “Jade Heart” is a well-meaning play that wants to explore those perennial questions of identity. But it’s all much too pat. Maybe if the action were set 20 years ago — say, in the very early years of international adoption — its structure would feel more credible. Maybe.

The early years of international adoption were not in 1990. But maybe he’s just talking about when adoption from China became popular. Whatever, it makes the mistaken assumption that people today are more aware of the issues. Whereas I think it’s more true that adoptive parents reflect the general population as a whole. Some are likely to consider other viewpoints. And some are not.

But I digress.

Abandoned as an infant on a pile of vegetables, a Chinese girl is adopted by an unmarried American woman and grows up in a white, middle-class American home with only half a jade heart as a clue to her identity. Is she Chinese, American, or Chinese-American? Through dreams and remembrances, Jade McCullough seeks to find out why she was denied the life she was born to, and how she can become fully herself. Jade Heart poses the ageless question: “Who am I?”

Why do white people always talk about the Asian American identity as if it is either/or?  And define which specific identities should be chosen from?  Like, will this kid be Chinese, American or Chinese American?  Because you can only pick one.  Guess which identity will be endorsed and supported by the majority society?  (So when I talk about transracial adoptive parents reflecting the general population, remember that the majority are white.)

And what does it mean to be “fully herself”?  Is she not fully herself if her identity is not fixed?  Or is it that there is some notion of what she should be, and she hasn’t fulfilled that yet?  And is it an ageless question or an age-old question?  Will the majority audience really relate to the themes of identity?  And how is this Chinese woman’s identity portrayed by a white male writer?  (I’d guess he wasn’t adopted either, although I have no way to know.)

It’s Chinese America, as portrayed by the majority.  Got it.

(As a side rant, thrown in for free, I’d say there are some names I’d prefer white adoptive parents didn’t give their Asian kids.  Including and not limited to, Jade, Aysia, Asia, Chyna, Maylee, Mulan … )


Edited to add:  I see that Kai has already addressed this.  Apparently my hive mind works slower than his.  He’s probably closer to the central processing core.

Edited to add:  I did actually see this, and it was as bad as I feared it would be.  Maybe worse.

5 thoughts on “‘Jade Heart’

  1. Asian Hive Mind, Activate!

    You got a lot further into the material than I did. And it doesn’t look like it gets any better as you delve deeper.

    The line about “Is she Chinese, American, or Chinese-American?” set me off, too. I just thought, “That’s an existential question *I* can grapple with, but *you* can’t, fool! you’re missing some basic prerequisites for that!”

    And co-signed on names. Sadly, my own first cousin named her adopted daughter from China “Jade”. Well, what can I say, at least it wasn’t “Eunice”.

  2. Aw boooooooooooooooooo. I heard rumblings about this a few months ago, but really was hoping that was it.

    And a hearty AMEN to the names – Can I also say I get really bloody annoyed when I meet people named Asia, India, China, Chung-Li – even when they’re not Asian? Its like a double sucker punch of racism and commodificiation.

  3. I saw the show last Sunday and there was a talk back with the actors and playwright. The amount of good intentions and heart that was put into this show is quite remarkable.

    How can you judge something you haven’t even seen or read? There are some flaws in the piece but it’s intentions are good. The playwright interviewed many adopted children and did over a year’s worth of research on this subject. It doesn’t claim to be truth but it is one person’s view and it is a fictional story…a play. He, at least, is giving some sort of a voice to the Asian Theatre community.

    I think part of the goal is to educate or at least get people talking about race and the problems that are happening in China where there is a deficit of women to men. But the play as a whole is quite universal. It deals with identity, the mother-daughter relationship, adoption, abandonment, etc.

    In my experience, the people who talk about race are the ones who tend to be the most racists. I am a minority and that topic comes up once in a blue moon. I was raised to see people as people and not the color of their skin and I do that without thinking about it every day. It’s only people who make comments to me that it even comes up.

    Before you go bashing a show, you might want to see it first. Then you might have something to stand on. Don’t to judge a book by it’s cover.

  4. I think a critique of the promotional materials is valid. As is discussion of cultural co-optation and the white lens.

    In any event, if the playwright’s goal is to get people talking about race, isn’t he creating racists?

  5. Pingback: links for 2010-05-10 | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

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