Elizabeth Liang finds home: Performance at Williams College '62 Center
WILLIAMSTOWN -- "Where are you from?"
It's an easy question on the surface, but a more complicated matter if you're Elizabeth Liang, a child of mixed-race parentage, who grew up in six different countries -- Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt and the United States.
"'Where are you from?' was a question I got with almost boring regularity," Liang said.
But as soon as she tried to answer, many people's eyes glazed over, she said, and they assumed she and they had nothing in common. She learned not to talk about her life experiences.
"I listened instead," she said.
She didn't want to sound as though she were bragging, or as though she thought she was more worldly than her peers, she said, because that would isolate her more.
But after a childhood of staying quiet and trying to blend in, Liang decided she needed to talk openly about the experience of growing up internationally, especially as a mixed-race woman. Drawing on her training as a professional actor, she created a solo show, "Alien Citizen," which she will perform tonight at the ‘62 Center at Williams College.
"[My show is] very personal, from a kid and teen's perspective of living in these countries," Liang said: "What it's like to bike to school in a Cairo suburb, what Christmas in Guatemala is like, what it feels like to get stuck in a sandstorm on the sidewalks of Casablanca. And because I'm a kid and teenager through most of the show, there's all the first love and crushes, and caring-about-being-cool stuff, too."
When Liang was very young, she identified as Guatemalan. That identification dissolved with time. In one scene in her show, Liang returns to Guatemala, tries to talk to her grandmother, and discovers she can't speak Spanish anymore. It's a terrible moment of isolation and utterly relatable for anyone who has had something important to say and not been able to find the right words to say it.
For most of her childhood, Liang found herself unsure of where to say she was from. She had many "homes," she said, and she did not belong anywhere. When she looked for and failed to find other stories like hers, she felt compelled to share her own experiences, so that other people of mixed-race, international backgrounds would not feel alone.
"We all want stories that we can relate to," Liang said. "It's a deep human need that makes us feel validated as human beings. Otherwise, we feel invisible."
Liang chose solo theater as the medium to render her story visible, her isolation on stage echoing the isolation she experienced as a child -- as her reflections on solo theater echo her reflections about growing up internationally.
"You're all alone out there," she said, thinking about performing alone: "No one else to rely on, no one to help you fix any flubs, no one to commiserate with. It is as lonely as you think it might be. It will also force you to develop tremendous confidence and trust in yourself, because you're all you've got."
Though Liang wrote "Alien Citizen" to reach out to people of international backgrounds, people who have lived in one place all their lives are also likely to see something of themselves in the show.
" ‘Alien Citizen' resonates with anyone who has experienced a time of transition -- a time when they're somewhere new, trying to figure out how to belong," said Jane Canova, administrative director for the Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Williams College, involved in bringing Liang to campus. "That applies to people who have traveled, who have lived abroad extensively or who are from immigrant families, but it also applies to Americans who have never lived outside the U.S."
As Liang found out on arriving in the United States, the nation a passport identifies as home may not feel like home. She found culture shock where she expected to belong.
"I was most unhappy in the U.S. because it did not feel like ‘home,'" she said. "There, I experienced racism for the first time, even though we were Americans. It made me realize that feeling foreign only happens when the people around you make you feel that way. That's all it is. Even if you're not from the surrounding culture, if they're welcoming and kind and helpful, you'll feel included. If they're not, you won't."
"Alien Citizen" takes us on a journey through the many potential homes of Liang's childhood, up to the present day, when as an adult she again faces the question she was asked constantly as a child -- "Where are you from?"
"I answer the question much more succinctly at the very end of the show, but you need to see the whole show for it to make sense," she said, with a grin.
If you go ...
What: Elizabeth Liang's solo show, ‘Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey'
Where: '62 Center,
1000 Main St., Williamstown
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18
Information: (413) 597-2425
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