By Eleanor Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly
The final exam for the Re-Writing Difficult Dialogues class at the University of Washington is not going to be a multiple-choice test. Rather, the culmination of this Southeast Asian (SEA) studies course is a public performance of a play researched, written, and performed by the students.
The play, “Ribbons to Roots: The Thread that (Un)Bind Us,” explores various immigrant experiences of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Filipino, and Indonesian communities in Seattle. Based on actual interviews that students conducted with community members, the play probes issues of ethnicity, identity, and personal history.
Co-instructor Tikka Sears says the class is part of a yearlong project that began with the understanding that the SEA department needed to reassess its teaching approach. “Students in our department are increasingly the children of immigrants, not immigrants themselves,” she said. “And sometimes what was taught in class conflicted with what they were being taught at home.”
For example, she recounted that some of the faculty had a tendency to offer a liberal, pro-North Vietnam viewpoint when teaching the Vietnam War. However, many Vietnamese American students are children of South Vietnamese army veterans.
“Students would shut down,” Sears said. So the department decided to “get more of the students’ own narratives in the classrooms.”
During fall quarter, students in the class interviewed community members about their experiences as Southeast Asian immigrants. During winter quarter, students created a script based on those interviews. The project culminated this spring quarter, with the students producing and performing the play.
Because students are not required to register for all three quarters, there was the unique challenge of maintaining continuity with a new group of students every quarter. Only three students enrolled into all three classes.
There was also the other unique challenge — giving a public performance with a class of non-actors. Sears said that, for her, no matter what the final performance looks like, theater is “about how you rehearse. Practicing is when the art happens, when you learn. It’s about the process.”
While the chance to perform was a draw for some students, others viewed it as a necessary evil. Chariya Thach, a senior, said she took the class “despite the fact” that there was a public performance involved. But now, Thach says she is excited to perform because the play “hits so close to home.”
Another benefit of taking the class was that different ethnicities were able to learn from one another, fostering cross-cultural connections. For example, Asian American students of Thai and Vietnamese heritage and a white student volunteered for the Cambodian Student Association’s New Year event, while two Cambodian students volunteered for the Indonesian student organizations’ event.
Students also had the opportunity to learn aspects of theater. They were responsible for almost every phase of the production, including set design, public relations, and promotion. Student Kai-Hsin Chen said, “This class has been as intensive as the issues and themes the play portray.”
Though this particular class owes its existence to a specific grant from the Ford Foundation, Sears said that she hopes a project-based class can be repeated. “Students love to learn like this,” she said.
Ethnic studies used to be about teaching the mainstream community about the ethnic community. However, that is changing. “Typically, the SEA department teaches about Southeast Asia, and the Asian American experience is left to the Asian American studies department,” Sears said. But this class acts as a bridge. The result is “occasionally emotional and always rewarding,” Sears said. ♦
“Ribbons to Roots” was performed on June 6 and June 8 at the Ethnic Cultural Theatre. For more information, visit ribbonstoroots.synthasite.com.
Eleanor Lee can be reached at email@example.com.