The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 1

Inside an Outsider

by Wayne Wang

Schizophrenia runs in my family, so I can recognize it in a person. I see it in the eyes: glassed-over, as if the inner perception does not correspond to the outer world. My own eyes are fairly clear, yet I harbor a form of schizophrenia. It's not clinical, but metaphorical. I don't think of it as a disease in my case—or, if it is, it's one that's served me well. I would call it something else, maybe the perspective of an inside outsider.
     My father was born in Mainland China, to strictly traditional parents. His was the first generation of Chinese to become Westernized. After the Communist takeover in 1949, he fled to Hong Kong, where I was born. He named me for the actor John Wayne.
     My parents were Chinese Baptists, but they considered Catholic schools best; so my education was Catholic. The urban culture was very colonial British. This splintering in my spiritual and aesthetic upbringings only encouraged my schizoid personality.
     In 1967, with the Cultural Revolution spilling over to Hong Kong, I moved to Northern California, where I lived on a three-thousand-acre farm owned by liberal Quakers while I attended college. I did chores in exchange for rent and was acculturated to Bob Dylan, radical politics, and the sexual revolution.
     After graduation, I attended film school in the Bay Area, where I found myself in a fervent underground arts movement propelled by the visionary works of composers John Cage and Philip Glass and filmmakers George Kuchar, Stan Brakhage, Larry Jordan, and Gunvor Nelson. At the University of California, Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, I immersed myself in the films of the French New Wave, New German Cinema, Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Satyajit Ray.
     I made my first feature film in 1975. I was so pre-occupied then with my work and with assimilating into American culture that I didn't think it odd for a relatively recent Chinese immigrant to be a filmmaker. I didn't even think of myself as Chinese. I faced racism and condescension, but I was immune to them. Yet I was still ambivalent about my place here—I would never tell my film school classmates about the origin of my name.
     In the late seventies I returned to Hong Kong and realized what an outsider I'd become. I lived with my parents and got a job directing a popular TV series, but I couldn't square my burgeoning Godardian aesthetics with the practices of a conventional Chinese melodrama. After nine frustrating months I was fired.
     Back in the United States, I worked in San Francisco's Chinatown and was reabsorbed into Chinese American culture. With grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute, I made the 1982 film Chan Is Missing, a mystery of identity.
     I identified with the film's central character, Chan, who is never seen. He's part of the Chinatown community and exiled from it at the same time. Signs of him are everywhere, but he's nowhere. He's the inside outsider.
     Unlike Hollywood filmmakers, I didn't portray Chinatown as a symbol of mysterious Oriental doom; rather, I took my characters where I found them, in its very real streets. I drew my inspirations from the stories they told me. I was an insider who explored the community with an outsider's eyes.
     While in Los Angeles casting my next film, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, I met the woman who would become my wife. She was also from Hong Kong. We were married by a judge at San Francisco's City Hall, with a couple of friends attending as witnesses. We didn't inform our parents, as they would have expected an elaborate event with all their relatives and friends. Only in secret could we be free to have the small ceremony we wanted. We celebrated afterward at a vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown, with a dinner of imitation-meat dishes.
     A few weeks later my father called from Hong Kong.
     "Do you have something to tell me?" he asked.
     "No, nothing," I replied.
     He pushed on with his questions. One of the Hong Kong gossip magazines had run a story about our marriage. My father showed up in San Francisco shortly after our conversation.
     As soon as he arrived, his questions continued, some of them quite personal. We politely deflected as many as we could. During the days, we went to work and he was alone in our house. Over dinner one night, he said, "What makes you think you can afford to get married? You have only three thousand dollars in your bank account." He'd gone through all our belongings, even our checkbooks.
     As the week progressed, our dinners became almost silent. Eventually he gave up and visited his friends, which made him happier because he had an easier time talking to them. Then he returned to Hong Kong.

During the twenty-five years since, I've made different kinds of films, about both people in my culture and those outside it. When I read Yiyun Li's story "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers," I sympathized with Mr. Shi's daughter; I also had become a new person in America. I'd learned a new language. I gradually shed the burden of my parents' expectations and made my own decisions. Yet my father always cautioned me that Americans have too much freedom, which is why families and marriages here are so precarious.
     Questions of the limit, danger, and necessity of freedom are fundamental for all Chinese immigrants in America. And we all must discover our own answers, even those of us uncertain where we ultimately belong.

Wayne Wang's film A Thousand Years of Good Prayers debuted at the 2007 Telluride Film Festival and won top prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures will release the film this summer.

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