by Addie Tsai
Author’s Note: This essay is not meant to shame or denigrate sex workers; rather, it is an unpacking of historical gendered and racial stereotypes that afflict Asian American women in particular and which the Broadway production Miss Saigon traffics in.
You own everything that happened to you. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.—Anne Lamott
This story is for my mother, who will not like this story.
This story is for my twin, who will not like this story.
The ways in which this story is for my mother and my twin are different, as are the ways in which they will cringe at the overwhelming image of truth this story may possess for each of them. As Atticus Finch says, You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. . . . Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
Sometimes, only sometimes, it feels as though I’m a floating paper doll hovering inside the skin of my twin. Unlike the varying ways this sentiment has been expressed by those who are untwinned projecting a symbiotic relationship onto all fictional twins ever etched into being, I do not always feel this way. Not only that, I do not find it a source of comfort. Most often, it is a source of confinement. Once you become doubled, the you you felt you were before is suddenly erased into the air before you, as though you were drawn into existence with invisible ink.
There is another way in which you feel you have, quite suddenly, been written, and thus erased, with that same invisible ink, albeit from a different pen.
There is a story that my twin doesn’t want me to tell, but a story which has contextualized most of my childhood and my adult life, in turn.
This is not the story that I wish to tell, not right now.
But, it is the story that leads to the other story, the story I have never told, the story that erased itself with that magic pen, and alongside it, me.
We were thirteen.
We were thirteen, and Miss Saigon was touring.
We were thirteen, and Miss Saigon was touring, and they were holding local auditions for characters, according to my mother, identified as “Vietnamese prostitutes.”
Wait. I neglected to tell you something.
My mother. White.
Let’s start over.
We were thirteen, and Miss Saigon was touring, and the production was holding local auditions to cast a series of young Asian female characters my White mother called “Vietnamese prostitutes.”
According to the Wikipedia page for Miss Saigon, the character my White mother referred to was actually a bargirl. A re-direct to the Wikipedia page for bargirl defines such a role as: “a woman who is paid to entertain patrons in a bar, either individually or, in some cases, as a performer. The exact nature of the entertainment varies widely from place to place; depending on the venue this can be individual entertainment ranging from light conversation to sexual services, or more public entertainment in the form of Go-go dancing or striptease. Variations on the term include B-girl, hostess, juicy girl, and guest relations officer. . . . In addition to entertaining customers individually, in some venues (such as strip clubs in the United States, or Go-Go bars in Asia) are expected to dance on stage, often in skimpy costumes such as bikinis, semi-nude, or nude.”
The other night, I was watching the show, This Is Us. The show’s narrative focuses on three adult characters—Kevin, Kate, and Randall—throughout their childhood and present adulthood lives. Kevin and Kate aren’t, to be precise, twins—they are two-thirds of a set of triplets, the two who survived. They are White. Randall is their Black adoptive brother, meant to replace the baby that they lost, discovered when Kevin and Kate’s birthfather learned that a baby was left at the hospital after being abandoned at the local firestation.
Regardless of the fact that Kevin and Kate aren’t exactly twins, they constantly refer to their twinhood and the usual implications placed on fictional twins from those who write them into a narrative, most often, if not always, by a writer who is untwinned. It should be said, as a side note, that at this point in the show, Randall has his own unlinked story. Kevin and Kate’s stories are always linked. He, too, at this time, erased from the narrative, yet, his story matters because he is involuntarily included, a miracle to fix their tragedy.
In this particular scene, Kate is asleep, Kevin is going through something. Kate’s body jerks awake. I suppose this is intended to be a form of ESP.
However trite, however real or projected, the idea of a twin’s ineradicable connection to her identical twin may be, I cannot refuse the very real fact that there do still remain incidents that technically happened to my twin, incidents that did not happen to me, but live in the blood.
The story that my twin does not want me to tell, but that I must continue to keep on telling, so that I may understand how it, like a ribbon of damage, unspooled to chart my course, is one of those stories. My twin seeing Miss Saigon with my White mother is another.
My mother had a friend. We’ll call him Mario. His family, if I recall correctly, was from Trinidad or a neighboring island. But, my mother first met him when she used to drink after hours at the bar in a local pizzeria called Mario’s Flying Pizza. The first night my mother brought Mario home I was 8 years old, and he showed us a trick where he twirled a toothpick with his tongue until it landed, a perfect straight line from the roof of his mouth to the floor of the tongue.
When I was still young enough not to know better, his skin reminded me of toasted almonds, perhaps if only because I thought it connected us—he and his skin, me and my almond-shaped eyes—the shape, it seemed, fit only for those of my father’s tribe, and those like him. It would come much later that I would understand he was an object in my eyes back then, and we, for him, I would also come to understand later, would never cease to be anything other than objects, like the mole in my back he often called sexy, the one that poked out of the dip in my bathing suit that one fateful summer.
We never questioned how often this 28-year-old man came to the house, or the number of times he remarked upon our backs laid bare the summer we saw him the most often, upon our collarbones, upon our exotic features. The number of times he stated, without shyness, how he’d be knocking the door down if he were our age. At the time, we had two options. One was to remain with my Chinese father, silent and cruel, full time, a father of whom I was terrified but who provided constant care. The other was to remain with my mother, loud-mouthed and wild, carefree and vivacious, and all of the men that traipsed in and out of her front door, for who knows why.
I was infatuated with Mario. At some point, early in, I decided to bury that infatuation, to transform it into the affections a parent-less (in metaphoric terms) child might have for the men that surrounded her with any kind of positive attention. At some point, early in, my twin became bait. There is not a day that goes by that I do not wonder what my transition provided, how my retreat from this temptation opened my twin up to what, to whom. This is another way to say that I have never forgiven myself for not taking the fall, so that she may have been able to live a different life. A life in which her skin would not be forever tinged with Mario’s consumption.
After I told my brother, who told my mother, what his intentions were, both past and future, she did the one noble act she has ever done as a mother. She did not do this noble act to protect my twin, not fully. But it was an act, nevertheless. She filed charges against him, charges that affect him to this day, thanks to the Sex Offenders Database.
My mother decided she needed to spend some time bonding with my twin, to make sure she was okay. My twin thought Mario loved her. She was convinced of this, even after he a psychological evaluation determined he had pedophilic tendencies. As for me, my betrayal revolted her to such extremes that she claimed she could no longer look me in the face. What did she see when she looked in the mirror, I wondered. What side of what face could she no longer acknowledge?
I wondered something else. What was it, I wondered, that made my mother decide Miss Saigon was the thing that would help form a union between herself and the child who she exposed to such a hideous trauma? What did she erase from my twin’s body to make of her a victim of her friend, now labeled ever after an offender? What did she erase from my twin’s body to misrecognize her Asian skin?
My mother had been saying for weeks that she wanted us to audition for roles in Miss Saigon. Afraid of my mother’s often volatile reaction when we confronted her about the ways in which she would offend us, we brushed it off nonchalantly, saying that we were too shy to audition.
What we didn’t say: Why do you want your 13-year-old twin daughters to audition for roles you believe are meant to represent prostitution? We are not Vietnamese. The context of this entire production is based in White patriarchal notions of Asian women, of yellow fever. Who do you think we are? As a point of fact, what, exactly, do you think we are?
It reminded me of the time that I was talking on the phone to my mother, the first time I heard her say the word Oriental. In hushed tones, afraid to criticize the mother whom I eternally hoped would love me over her own shadowy image in an invisible pond, I told her that I preferred she use the word Asian. Her response: I had three of THEM. I’ll call THEM whatever I want.
I knew then what it meant for someone who claims to accept you to erase you in the air with ink that once could stain the fabric of a blanket, and now, like magic, evaporates like dew before you. If your mother could disavow you so quickly, who’s to say who couldn’t, wouldn’t, won’t?
What brewed underneath what we didn’t say (i.e. what I should have said): After your friend made of my twin his sexual object, after your friend made of your child a victim, to have his way with and be done with it, what is it you get out of turning your children into sexualized property on stage, what is it you get out of perpetuating that Asian women are, quite literally, tokens meant to satisfy cultural fetishes in order to feel okay about losing the war, what is in this for you?
I will not cry
I will not think
I’ll do my dance
I’ll make them drink
When I make love it won’t be me
And if they hurt me I’ll just close my eyes
and see the movie in my mind.
Addie Tsai holds an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College. She has collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel. Addie is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Dance at Texas Woman's University. She teaches literature, dance, humanities, and creative writing at Houston Community College. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has been published in such journals as Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Volta, Denver Quarterly, The Offing, The Feminist Wire, BanangoStreet, and The Collagist, among others. She is currently nonfiction editor for The Grief Diaries. Her academic work has been published in The International Journal of Screendance.