Otherness and the American Dream

Chay Yew, in “Porcelain” and “Wonderland,” examines various notions of “queer” through his characters, who desperately seek connections, and love, with the people around them. Their lives are marked by death, violence, and tragedy, which occurs not only because they are queer, but also because these events mark them as apart from the rest of society, which “queer” them. Above all, however, they are survivors–and like the word “queer” itself, escape one simple definition by having many definitions, or facets, to their diverse and interesting selves.In Yew’s “Porcelain” the protagonist, whose name is John, murders his lover in a public bathroom. The storyline of this play is broken up by scenes of a tale that John’s father told him when he was a young boy, of a lonely crow that longed to be with the graceful, happy sparrows that lived across the field. The crow eventually flew across the field and lived with the sparrows, but was still an outsider because of the way it looked and acted. After realizing that it will never belong, it flies back home, but its experience has changed it–he is now different from the other crows. With that, it flies away to seek another life, with another family. Many of the characters in Yew’s play, particularly John, embody this metaphor of the crow among sparrows in their desire for a better life and greener pastures.John feels queer–like an outsider among outsiders–because he is not only homosexual, but Chinese as well. His father tells an interviewer about John, saying, “I only have one son. Lone. I don’t know why he change his name to John–English. Maybe be like English friends in school–not be different. Be like them” (84). Yew chooses the name of “John” to call his protagonist by, in order to refer to the term that many hustlers refer to their clients, who are indiscernible from one to the next. He also connects this name with his character’s tendency to engage in sex acts at the public toilets. By changing his name to an English one, John hopes to change the way others perceive him, and to blend in like the crow among the family of sparrows. Many aspects of his identity, however, prevent him from assimilating.His father also discusses how when John used to work at his restaurant, and how “Deep inside, I know he hate working [t]here. Remind him too much of who he is. Where he came from. I come from Singapore long ago–in sixties–sacrifice everything I have so children can have good life in England” (85). John’s father, like the crow, moves from one place to another in search of a better life and better fortune. After his children have grown up and absorbed the English culture, however, he comes to realize that he has no idea who his children are–his daughter dates many white men, his son has been implicated in a gay scandal, and both seem very out of touch with their Chinese identities. Because everyone knows that his son is gay, John’s father also comes to feel like an outsider in his own Chinese community within England because of his shame for his son, and his fear of how people perceive himself and his family.John admits to wishing that he was white so that he could feel a sense of belonging, saying that he sees “pictures of handsome, white guys hugging, kissing, holding hands in magazines like they were meant for each other. Always white guys. But always happy” (58). As the crow longs for the company of the sparrows because of the way that they always seem to be happy, John envies the happiness and love that he sees white gay males enjoying and receiving. He views love as a way to help him find a sense of self-acceptance and wholeness, and views his Chinese identity as the part of himself that prevents him from finding someone to connect with, and who will love him. John and his father both have strong reactions to their Chinese cultures–while John hates this part of himself, his father fights to preserve it in his own way of life as well as his children’s. The dishonor and queering that John’s father experiences due to his son’s homosexuality places them in the same social position, but instead of causing his father to reach out to him, it marks him in his father’s eyes as a source of shame, and he rejects John along with the other members of society.John and his lover meet by “cottaging” in a public bathroom–a queer space of simultaneously public and private nature. John reveals that he hates going to the toilets for public sex, but “[he] just want[s] to be held by these men. For a moment, they do… Then [he] go[es] back and take[s] a long, hot shower. Washing off every memory, every touch, and every smell. Only it never quite leaves [him]. No matter how hard or how long [he] wash[es]. The dirt, filth penetrates deep into [his] skin” (60). The filth refers not only to the unhygienic connotations that public lavatories carry, but also to the dirty, used feelings that John suffers from after performing sex acts there. At the washrooms, he can receive physical affection in spite of the skin he lives in–his racial appearance and identity. But not much more–it is only skin, only sex, and the sensations are fleeting. His desires for a deeper connection, a deeper meaning to these sex acts are never fulfilled– until he meets William Hope.William Hope, as his last name suggests, becomes everything that John has longed and hoped for–his place among the sparrows. Their relationship is abusive and possessive–Will rapes and beats John and in order to control and dominate him, and John accepts it as a part of love and belonging. This treatment influences John’s idea of love, and when John shoots him, it is in part because John feels that Will “belonged to [John]. Only [John]” (95). “Belonging,” then, has two connotations within this play–to “belong” to somebody, to possess and be possessed by them as an object, or to “belong” to a larger group like a community, to fit in and be acceptable. In this way, Yew casts a critical eye on society and its language of love and relationships, commenting on its materialistic nature even in regards to transient, impalpable things like love and sex. And those who do not possess or possess anyone, are the queers who stand outside the circle of social acceptance, away from the homes of the sparrows.Later Will ends the relationship and rejects John by telling him, “I’m not queer, Johnny! I’m not one of your kind. I– I’ve got nothing against you–your kind–at all” (96). By marking himself as separate from John, Will reaffirms that John is an outsider among outsiders by the very nature of who he is– a crow that can only stay a short time among the sparrows. By denying their connection, he nullifies the love that John experiences, and John’s sense of belonging and of finding home is reduced to the same filth of the public toilets, to feelings that are no more than skin-deep. John, once again, is a queer–alone because he is Chinese and homosexual.John does not lose Hope, however– when the criminal psychologist points out to him that Will is lost to John because he has killed him, John replies that “He’ll never be gone… [and that he] finally [has] Will all to [him]self now” (110). While he is incarcerated, John folds a thousand paper cranes following the Japanese tradition, hoping that if he does so, the wish he makes will come true. In this way, he goes from one family of birds to another, still searching for acceptance, to belong and to find love. Even though this tragedy has deeply affected him and those around him, he does not lose sight of hope and continues to believe that he can be happy. In the final scene, John holds out a paper crane to the audience, smiling. In this way, Yew fulfills his character’s wish by connecting the audience to him, by queering them and asking to them move past their own societal, racial, and cultural positions and asking for their understanding and empathy.Similarly, in Yew’s play “Wonderland” a Chinese family struggles to find their place within America. In one scene, the father takes his son to a place where they can see the sun’s reflection across the water of the ocean, and they describe it as a “God’s miracle– A yellow brick road… A magnificent golden carpet” (317). This golden carpet becomes a metaphor for a welcoming mat, a path to the family’s hopes and wishes; specifically, each member’s desire to fulfill their own versions of the American dream. Throughout the play, the characters chase after these dreams, only to eventually find that they are as intangible and fleeting as the sun’s light across the water.The character named “Woman” comes to America after marrying the Chinese American “Man.” She has dreamed of creating a home in America for herself, insisting to the Man that “America must be exactly like movies Like Sandpiper… In that movie [Elizabeth Taylor] live in beach house near ocean We must live near ocean We must We must Just like Sandpiper” (295). The Woman builds her dreams on the glittery, Hollywood-style images of America, and her sense of home becomes just as illusory. Her marriage with her husband has been built on falsehood–in order to force his hand, she lies about being pregnant so he will marry her and take her back with him to America. After his experiences change him, she does not know how to support and comfort him, and their relationship grows more strained and distant. Also, as her Son grows up, the two begin to drift apart, and she does not understand his Americanized ways or antipathy towards his Chinese heritage. Her dream of her ideal family and home is shaken when she sees her son kissing his boyfriend and she pushes him away for not living up to her vision, and not being able to fulfill the dreams that she has for him. The Woman’s dreams of finding a place for herself in America is also as intangible and incomplete. As she has had five years of experience in Singapore, she tries to find work as a salesgirl in a department store–but is stopped short by the racism of those she seeks out to employ her (306-307). They use her inability to speak, read, or write properly as an excuse not to hire her, viewing her as a Chinese foreigner and outsider, and she remains a queer in spite of her most ardent efforts. Her son also queers her in the way that he views her and acts towards her, by mocking her fractured English and her Chinese-influenced views. Eventually her family breaks down, and in parallel, she begins to spend less and less time at the Sandpiper, trying her best to get as far away from it as she can. By the end of the play, she has become homeless both literally and figuratively, sleeping in the shell of the mall that her now-dead husband had built, without a son and husband to support her.The Man also desires to find his place within America, as well as within the architectural world. His wife, the Woman, describes him as a “Model minority Always polite quiet mister don’t-rock-boat like he is guest in somebody’s house” (327). All his life, he feels set apart due to his nationality–as a child, he is teased for being Asian, and the Man meets his wife, the Woman, when his company sends him to China for a project, assuming that he will be able to communicate better with the natives because he is also Chinese. Instead of going against these racist standards, however, he does nothing, not wanting to queer and distance himself from others by making waves. Ironically, because he never takes a stand, he makes himself an outsider and queers himself by coming to accept his position as a second-class American.Though the Man dreams of building monuments and skyscrapers, and becoming a revolutionary in the architectural world, the only assignments that his company will give him are malls. He adjusts himself to these commissions, and builds a fantastic super-mall called “Wonderland” which gains him recognition for his skills. This dream, however, eventually turns on him– he “imported more expensive materials Italian marble teak wood titanium [and he] skimmed compromised on the rest” (396) which leads to the death of many people when the building collapses as a result of being architecturally unsound. The Man’s compromise in the building materials for his mall becomes a parallel to how the Man compromises his dreams– after the deaths, his license is revoked, and he is never able to construct any more structures. The man’s dreams disappear like rays of light beyond the horizon, and this experience leaves its irrevocable print on the man’s soul, until he becomes an empty shell that his wife no longer recognizes. The scandal after the deaths also serve to further queer him–he is viewed by many as a murderer, and goes from being a contributing member of society to a stigmatized drunk of a broken family.The Son also struggles to find his place in America, feeling like a strange hybrid as the son of Chinese and Chinese American parents. As a young child, he tells his father how the other children at school “come up run up to [him] call [him] ching chong chinaman ching chong chinaman” (330). He grows to hate this part of his identity because of the way it marks him as apart from those around him, and fervently denies any associations with his culture and others of his culture. Doing so, however, removes him from his mother, who comes to epitomize all that he dislikes about himself. The Son is also queered because of his homosexuality, and falls in love with his best friend George. When the Son tries to communicate these feelings about his relationship to his father, his father stops him by quoting Leviticus twenty thirteen– and after “The Man… mutters the magic verse and sets everything in motion… he has no son” (386). The Son, like the character of John of “Porcelain” is an outsider among outsiders because of his dual otherness– his classmates will not accept him because he is Chinese, and Chinese parents will not accept him because he is homosexual. The family, although undergoing similar experiences as Chinese and Chinese Americans living in America, are unable to connect with and support one another, and as a result are queered from the rest of society as well as from each other.The Son also feels queered from his family in that they do not support his dreams of being an actor. His mother asks him “Why you like this? Why? Better be someone else’s son! If you cannot be doctor lawyer engineer architect!” (388). Thus, the Woman queers her Son by pushing him to accept an identity and occupation that he has no interest in, suggesting that if he is not who she wants him to be, then he is too queer to be her son. As an actor, the Son could go beyond queerness and his own issues with his identity by embodying and personifying different people, and finally feel an ease and fluidity in identity that helps him move past how others judge him for who he is. However, he is never able to move past his racial identity because casting directors continue to put him in stereotyped, clichéd Asian roles. Like his mother, his dreams end up becoming nothing more than empty reflections on the water, and he becomes a hustler who allows his nicer clients to have sex with him “without protection Says it feels better [He] wants him to feel better” (408). These experiences echo those with his father as a child, when his father gave the Son money to replace love and his presence. As he grows older, the Son confuses his associations of love with money and when he finally becomes an actor, it is as a porn star selling his body, who needs drugs to function, and survive.Yew titles his play “Wonderland” in order to connect the idea of the super-mall the Man builds to the nature of the American dream. The mall is a place of consumerism and capitalistic undertakings, and similarly, the American dream is built on a sense that anyone from any kind of humble beginnings can come to find money and fortune. This American dream, however, proves to be completely false and misleading, mostly because it is precisely that– the American dream. No hyphenated Americans allowed. “Wonderland,” then, comes to signify America not only as a magical land of wonder and excitement where dreams can come true– but also the emotions that America and Americans instill within the family: hope, anxiety, and a ceaseless wondering about the brightness of their futures. And as the Wonderland crumbles to the ground, taking many lives with it, so too do the family’s dreams crumble, until like the Man, they can only revisit and revisit the scene of the crime wondering what happened and how it could have all gone so wrong.At the end of the play, the Woman and her Son meet by the ocean that the Man drowned himself in. Out in the horizon, they see the sun setting over the ocean, the golden carpet. The Son asks his mother if she sees it, and the last words of the play are hers– “Yes Yes I see I see” (454). These words doubly signify not only her ability to view the sunset, but also what it stands for–the distance between the dreams that she and her family had had to the current situations of their lives. In their own ways, however, they have survived–in the end, the Woman is in the company of the only family has left, however barely reconciled, and the Son, who has by now been in a couple films, looks to the golden carpet and its signal to a better and brighter future. And together, they dream of happiness and a place where they can finally stop surviving, which their status as queers requires them to do, and just be.The term “queer,” when used in the context of Chay Yew’s plays, comes to embody any and all of its definitions–men who are homosexual, people who are different and alone, and these outsiders’ feelings about themselves as being bad or worthless. And though his queer characters are people who exist on the margins of society, the tragedy that fills their lives both separates them from others and makes them stronger, encouraging them to try again and again to connect with others, to find empathy and understanding. And though they continually find that they cannot assimilate into the societies that they exist in, perhaps it is possible that one day they will look past the surface and find one another, one queer to another, to overcome discrimination by being as they are–separate, wonderfully distinct entities who are all connected and same in the experiences they undergo.