My first obsession in the world, as far as I know, was The Wizard of Oz. It’s a trite obsession among theater folk, sure, but a real one nonetheless. I watched the movie so many times I could recite the majority of its lines from memory– in fact I still can. I was enthralled by the story, the visuals, and most of all by Judy Garland’s tour de force, sixteen-year-old performance in the role of Dorothy Gale. Dorothy’s film journey from bleak, sepia-toned Kansas to technicolor Oz and back has been my greatest fixation starting at age three. I loved and devoured the books, sure, but the books didn’t have Judy and her tearful, special-Oscar-winning line reading: “There’s no place like home.”
Over time, the movie has only gained more meaning for me. At eighteen, I moved from my home in California’s Bay Area to New York City for my undergraduate degree. I was wildly homesick the entire first year and beyond. After eight years in the city, I moved from Brooklyn to Bloomington to pursue my MFA in playwriting at Indiana University. Now I’m doubly homesick: for my home in California, for my adopted home in New York. “There’s no place like home” pounds in my head as I find footing in the Midwest, the region of Dorothy Gale.
My childhood home is nestled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains in Mountain View, California. Growing up, it was a sleepy midsize town peppered with an orchard or two; it’s now the founding place of tech giant Google, with neighbors Apple and Facebook taking up residence in nearby Cupertino and Palo Alto. Every time I go home now, there’s a new three-story building adorning El Camino Real, glass windows shining like jewels. There are new restaurants lining Castro Street, new French bakeries and new upscale Vietnamese eateries, a new name and ownership on the hole-in-the-wall tacqueria place.
I come from a mixed race home: my mother is Chinese American and my father is Irish American. In my childhood home, the San Francisco Giants are king. The Lunar New Year is a time to come together and consume copious carbs. We watch the Superbowl with dozens of fellow Americans swarming our kitchen table for appetizers. We take our shoes off at the door. We drink craft beer. We eat zhook when we’re sick. We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day hard. At Thanksgiving, there is turkey and stuffing and gravy and nuo mi fan and lumpia and sweet potatoes and at least three kinds of pie. I was lucky enough to grow up in a close relationship with both my grandma and my po-po (my mother’s mother.) They both lived about ten minutes away from my house; they and the rest of my family are my light and inspiration.
As I grew up, a variety of people married into our family or came into our home: Korean Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans, Hawaiians and Pinoys. My family is in the grand tradition of the mixed American family. Well, it’s not really a grand tradition; it’s a tradition that was illegal less than fifty years ago due to anti-miscegenation laws in this country. As a mixed American, my home is always in question. “Where are you from?” they ask by the score. “No, where are you really from?”
During college, I turned from acting to playwriting as I realized the dearth of roles for people like me: queer, chubby, mixed race Asian girls. I remember one fraught afternoon perusing book after book in NYU’s library, trying to find a character of my demographic. Of course, at the time, there were none. I could spend my life chasing best friend and coworker roles, I thought, or I could create roles that were complex and layered, roles that deserved their own story. I could create onstage the people I knew, the people I admired, the beloved constituents of my life. In fact, my mom always urged me to write a play about my family, my home. There weren’t many plays about Asian America, after all. “We’re so funny,” she’d say, “Don’t you think we’re funny?” After half a decade of playwriting, I’ve finally attempted it (sorry, Mom! Hi, Mom!)
On April 7 at 3pm, I’ll be presenting a reading of The Well-Tempered Clavier, a new autobiographical play about my mom’s Chinese American side of the family. The comedy follows the Choi family over twenty years, four weddings, and a funeral as people from different walks of life marry into their family (sound familiar?) It’s a love letter to my family: to our struggles as Chinese Americans adjusting to mainstream culture, to our victories building a home in California, to our shortcomings as we consider assimilation as a bargain: something gained, something lost. I often feel the expectation to conform, to disappear into white culture. It’s trite, almost cliche as an Asian American to hear an enraged “Go back to where you came from!” or “Go home!” on the street. For many of us, home is a more complicated concept. I write this missing home something fierce. Home is where my family is; home is Mountain View and Bloomington and Brooklyn. Home is California and home is Hong Kong. Home is the fields of Ireland and moss at the feet of the Leshan Buddha. Home is Notre Dame football and Giants baseball and — Oh, Auntie Em.
There’s no place like home.
The Well-Tempered Clavier
A new play by Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin
April 7, 2018 at 3pm, room A200
Join us for a reading of a new play by MFA candidate Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin. The Well-Tempered Clavier is an autiobiographical comedy following a Chinese American family over twenty years, four weddings, and a funeral.