“The Ugly American” may be the popular phrase for unseemly American behavior abroad, but wouldn’t another term be apter? How about the clueless American? The overeager American? The dorky American?
In Wong Street Journal, Kristina Wong self-awarely personifies all of these traits as she first recounts her sense of state-side alienation as a Chinese American, then describes a journey that took her much further out of her element: a volun-tourism trip to Uganda that she took after realizing that several years as a solo performing artist depicting mental illness (in Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) had sucked her into a selfie spiral.
To say too much about Wong’s particular experiences abroad is to spoil her storytelling’s best surprises; suffice to say there’s nary a dull moment. She cheerleads, snarks, sings, dances, and stocks the stage (pun!) with an abundance of soft-sculpture visual aids representing the Western economics and technology that hold the world in their thrall. She’s sewn the props and set pieces herself, and to spell out her ancestral connection to the world’s Asian sweat shop laborers, she opens the show by deadpanning the audience while feeding a huge bolt of dollar-print fabric through a sewing machine. Her main medium, felt, also deftly conveys her message. As a teaching tool, felt helps soften and simplify the elements in a story, just like Wong’s humor softens and simplifies the hard-edged implications of empire and exploitation. Indeed, Americans’ impact on the world should be felt—not just by the impacted abroad, but also by us. In the intermission-less span of 90 or so minutes, Wong draws us through three phases of her life: pre-, during-, and post-Africa.
Pre-Africa, Wong assesses how she, a typically modern and Westernized person, divides her time. When she breaks it into percentages (spoiler), a large chunk of it is online. With a knowing sparkle, she acts out the mania of the cyber popularity contest, discusses the relative merits of “nuance versus clickbait,” and invokes her most potent lexical weapon: the words “white privilege!” The crowd goes wild.
Next, Wong explains what compelled her to visit Africa and volunteer for a micro-loan organization, how she got there, and how she adapted to unplugged life (“My fingers! They itch to scroll!”) She recounts that while some of the trip went as planned, she also somehow managed (spoiler) to stumble into an informal international rap career. In this portion of her story, another buzzword emerges: “mzungu,” a Swahili term for a rich white tourist. Plot twist: Wong, so accustomed to being seen as Chinese American in the U.S., quickly learns she’s just another mzungu by Ugandan standards. How does that make her feel?
Post-Africa, Wong finds her worldview transformed, and despite the cliché her sarcastic side worries that might make her, no amount of teasing or chiding herself puts the feeling to rest. Perhaps the only remedy is awareness and activism. As she seriously and thoughtfully confronts the issues behind the phenomena she’s seen abroad, any vestiges of the dorky/clueless/overeager visitor to “the country of Africa” finally fall away.
Boom Arts has chosen to augment Wong Street‘s run with a series of post-show talkbacks between Wong and a rotating roster of local panelists. (Upcoming guests include rap artist and aficionado Mic Crenshaw and African film-fest curator Tracy Cameron Francis.) In last Friday’s talkback with Candace Kita (of Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon and Portland Emerging Arts Leaders) and arts journalist and MediaRites executive producer Dmae Roberts, Wong seemed thoughtful and calm, in contrast to her high-wattage stage character.
“How do I sit with my contradictions,” she mused, “and keep my presence in certain places from becoming an oppressive force?”
“What’s an activist? A guard dog? It’s tiring to say ‘no’ all the time. A perfect example? There’s no perfect way …”
“The man gets you twice: making you feel sh—y, then wasting your time protesting it.”
But these philosophical takeaways don’t upstage Wong’s more engaging story, a tale of a person who stepped away from social media to “friend” real people in another part of the world.