Uninformed Consent

This is a fantastic passage on tricky problems of consent within an intercultural context, from the text Dramaturgy in Motion: At Work on Dance and Movement Performance, by Katherine Profeta. TLDR: Black American dancers ask Chinese musicians if they consent to putting on black face, while explaining racist context to them. Chinese musicians say Ok, but obviously don’t understand/care for the context. Is their consent really consent?

When Ralph took his initial research trips across Asia, his journals were rife with observations of basic similarities and differences in skin color, and he drew many of his observations in distant cultures into contrast and comparison with his own experience of race as a black American. For instance, he observed the rural farmers in China’s Yunnan province and wrote, “many are as brown as me. Stunning darkness.” Later he mused about a correlation between dark skin and punishing labor. When, months later, farmer-musician Mr. Li traveled miles from Yunnan to join Ralph in a San Francisco rehearsal room and sat down to sing to the accompaniment of his san xian—a plucked musical instrument whose name literally means “three strings”—Ralph was immediately struck by an overlapping analogy. The sound triggered the image of “an old black man in the South,” sitting and playing a banjo, singing the blues. And indeed, the san xian as played by Mr. Li did sound uncannily like a banjo to American ears.


Ralph began performing workshop solos to Mr. Li’s san xian, imagining himself dancing as “an old black man” to this rural Yi tune. Later he began thinking of ways to push the cross-cultural analogy even further. He began entertaining the idea of asking Mr. Li and Mr. Wang to wear the makeup of blackface minstrels on stage during his solo, for he fully realized that his hearing of the American “Old South” in Mr. Li’s music was an artificial, mythologizing gesture, imposing his own context upon theirs. He suspected that the makeup would make blatant not just the comparison he was hearing but also how wrong it was—highlighting and making a point of the artificiality of the imposition. Immediately he and I began discussing how the two musicians, who were working out of a very different tradition, had little understanding of the resonances of blackface in America. His proposed gesture was thus clearly for an American target audience, a gesture in which our Chinese guests could not intuitively share.


The first matter at hand was to bring Mr. Li and Mr. Wang in on Ralph’s thinking. We gathered together the two men and the requisite interpreters, including dancer Wen Hui, who was the best at speaking and understanding Yunnan dialect. Ralph showed the group photographs of early minstrels and blackface performers, first describing at length the racist context for that tradition, so ingrained in American theater history. I recorded the rest of the interaction in my rehearsal room notebook as follows:


Ralph explains: “I want you to know that in this work there are racial issues. . . . When Mr. Li sings and plays, and I dance, I think of you two as these old black men in America, singing the blues. I want to dance to your music. We did it in [workshops in] San Francisco and Austin. But [this time] I want to make sure the audience is seeing what I’m seeing. I want to make reference to black men, but to the stereotype of black men, and have those men be playing Chinese music. It may be too strong, but I wonder if you would try it.”


Ralph then turns to the interpreter: “Do they understand? The idea is risky, it’s racist . . .” She attempts to explain further, in Mandarin, and Wen Hui helps by glossing in Yunnan dialect. Eventually Mr. Wang and Mr. Li reply simply: It’s OK. They have no questions to ask, which makes all of the Americans in the room a little uncomfortable.

Within a few days the necessary makeup was purchased, and the blackface episode was tried out in the rehearsal room. Immediately afterward a considerable subset of Ralph’s collaborators, myself included, felt an urgent need to ask him questions. We all wanted to open up a dialogue about what exactly he was doing—a clear instance of a dramaturgical function dispersed across a larger collaborative group. As Ralph remembered it in his published journal: “Cheng-Chieh, Katherine, Wen Hui, Carlos, David and Anita [i.e., performer, dramaturg, three more performers, costume designer] corner and force me to explain what it is I’m trying to say with the blackface abstraction. Six variations of friendly outrage. I tell them that I could maybe answer their questions in 30 days. In the meantime, I’ll dance, while Wang and Li wear blackface, while Li plays the san xian, which all of us now call the banjo.”


Despite our dramaturgical grilling, Ralph resisted any implication that he should have immediate answers to these questions. Instead, he wanted to come to an understanding by dancing the troublesome image he had constructed. And meanwhile, as we all continued to wonder, Ralph continued his efforts to make sure Mr. Wang and Mr. Li understood what they were taking part in. He brought more documentation of the American minstrel past into the rehearsal room and invited the two men to dinner off-hours, where (through an interpreter or two) they discussed analogous racial stereotyping in a Chinese context. He kept looking for ways to make them his partners instead of his subjects in this gesture he had devised. Ultimately it was difficult for the American collaborators to verify how much this communication had succeeded, or to even understand what would constitute success. Ralph ended up concluding that even though Mr. Wang and Mr. Li understood on a literal level, they did not have the cultural context to fundamentally understand, or perhaps more important, really care about what he found important. As he put it: “They just look at me curiously, flat. I feel embarrassed, foolish, for bringing this issue to the process. But I’ll do it again, and again. My American exaggeration.”


What might be the ethical balance sheet for this performance moment, which did make it all the way onto the proscenium stage? For the American target audience, in being recognizably problematic it was also provocative, and thus valuable—it stirred consternation, argument, reflection on the bizarre symmetries and embarrassing limits arising from any doomed project of cultural comparison. Ralph had heard the Mississippi Delta in the Yi music. As he later explained, in feeling aware of the limits of that connection, he decided to “exaggerate my thinking and make it shameful because I don’t really know China or the Mississippi Delta.” The exaggeration, the shamefulness, and the wrongness were the expressive point. The transgressive nature of the moment was part of what made it desirable to put onstage—but this conclusion lands, of course, securely within Ralph’s home cultural environment.


As applies to Mr. Wang and Mr. Li’s position, on the other hand, the balance sheet was less knowable to this American dramaturg, as well as other collaborators. For some members of the production, Taiwanese and American dancer Cheng-Chieh Yu prime among them, the blackface episode remained troublesome. When I interviewed her after the Tree tour had concluded, she explained:“[ They] had no real idea about the significance of putting on blackface, even though Ralph tried to explain the history behind it. The issues were too far from their understanding. Their unawareness made me uncomfortable….Wang and Li were willing to do pretty much anything Ralph asked them to do, so the whole responsibility was on Ralph.”


How to discuss and decide, when moments of transgression are attempted within an intercultural performance experiment, whether an idea crosses a line that should not be crossed? What is really at stake, and who gets to say what should or should not go forward? Who has the power to grant permission, and who has the responsibility to decide whether that permission is sufficient? Key in this particular discussion in Tree were Mr. Wang and Mr. Li’s understanding and consent. If they were partners in the gesture, it was felt, then all was well — the transgression would be entirely located within the performance, not within the collaboration. But if they were not fully consenting because they were not fully informed, what then? What was the nature of being informed, anyhow? Was it enough that the relevant cultural history had been literally explained and translated for them? In their seeming “not caring” about the context of American blackface, should we have read an insufficient understanding, and thus not real consent? Or in their “not caring” should we have read their perfectly reasonable understanding that these issues were not their own, and that they would personally not have to deal with any serious consequences from their onstage gesture, for they would soon return to their farm village in Yunnan with an interesting experience under their belts and turn their attention to a host of completely different priorities and concerns?


Although this episode implies many more questions than just the question of advocacy for one’s guests, I will land on that question as a location where the issue might finally reside. In the attention a host shows to a guest, in the regard shown for the “other’s” welfare when invited onto unfamiliar ground, how does one draw the line between appropriate concern and patronizing solicitude? In fearing that Mr. Wang and Mr. Li’s very direct words, “It’s OK,” did not actually constitute consent, were we responsibly advocating for our guests’ well-being or just ignoring what they were telling us? Maybe we were just being self-centered Americans all over again, insisting they should care more profoundly about our context when they were telling us quite clearly no, they did not. When does the host’s concern for guests become just another means of imposing beliefs?


I did attempt to interview Mr. Wang about his retrospective views on the collaboration. This “interview” was conducted after he had returned home, over forwarded e-mails and an intermediary’s phone call, so through more than one stage of imperfect translation, just as our dialogue in rehearsal rooms had been. I asked him if anything had shifted for him since working on Tree, what he thought in retrospect of the time he spent in the United States, and whether he thought Ralph had been adequately respectful of his music and his culture. He replied that the work in the United States had given him enough money to build himself a new home. He also said that our work had been one of the rare times he had been able to earn money from his music, instead of from carpentry or other physical labor, and he hoped for more times like that. He was glad that Ralph had liked his music, and yes, he thought Ralph had been respectful of his culture. He would be happy to work with him again. And that was about all it seemed important to him to relay to an inquiring dramaturg from very far away. Of course, it was not clear what was making it through the filters standing between us, either. The man who contacted Mr. Wang for me and posed my questions ended his e-mailed summary of Wang’s answers with the following words: “Interview with Wang was not so easy. I tried to find something useful from a lot of words about life is hard, need money. But I believe he is a very honest person as a farmer in such a poor village of China who I understand.”


The nature of Mr. Wang’s last communiqué, arriving as it did through the filter of what the interviewer/translator had found “useful” and manifesting above all the stark contrast between our contexts and material resources, was very familiar. It encapsulated well how I often felt about the experience of collaborating with him. Often his words as reported seemed direct, easy to understand. Yet the situation was not direct or easy at all, because so much was not available for communication. And the exercise of my imagining what would be said between us, if the means for communication were somehow further developed, was still ultimately an exercise of imposing my cultural context and frames of understanding on his.

Beyond the cultural context, there’s also an economic context at play – worrying about racist implications of an act you are partaking in (especially in a part of the world in which you are just a visitor!) belongs to the domain of those who aren’t fully preoccupied with basic needs. With the post-dance interview in mind, it was impossible for them to give any sort of an informed consent. The recent blackface incident on China’s CNY programme also shows that a segment of the population (the producers, the censors, and presumably a significant part of the audience) whom we expect to be cosmopolitan (and hence, in a position to know better than these collaborators) simply isn’t acquainted with these issues. I know from the context I grew up with that many Chinese are blind regarding their racism — the Singaporean ones are too used to being the privileged majority, the Malaysian ones feel righteous because of their govt’s treatment towards them, and I suspect for China Chinese it’s the same case as for Singaporean Chinese.

There was no way any amount of explanation would have caught the collaborators up on the context they needed. With the extent of the collaborators’ ignorance, the responsibility for this act really just falls on Ralph. Arguably he should not have gone ahead. But what does this say about the possibility of collaboration between people of different means, exposure to the world, and education levels?


Ways of thinking about life

When you get to a comfortable enough stage financially — given the lottery you drew when you were born, with regards to which country and how well your ancestors did, I think most middle-to-upper-class Singaporeans eventually get there — there might come a point when you wonder what all you’re doing is for.

For some, life can very much be like a game: grind, conquer the next milestone, grind again. If you believe in the milestones, then you won’t have these existential crises. It’s probably possible to submerge yourself fully in the demands of the corporations you work for, thinking within the confines of each problem set presented by continuous tickets on your scrum board.

In a convo with yw last night: some people see the ‘what’s of a situation as the end in themselves, vs being more interested in these ‘what’s as the means to the ‘why’s and ‘how’s. To illustrate: “I’m going to USA to work/study” vs “What does USA offer you beyond SG? What do you want out of your experience over there? What are your long term plans? What are the sacrifices your family has to make in order to make this happen?” It can be hard to talk to people in the first camp, as I remember instances in which I try to probe but hit a wall, and get responses like “I dunno”, “It’s just liddat lor”, “Why so curious?”, but of course probing means getting on a more personal level that our friendship might not be at yet. I wonder what do other people analyse? At what point are different people’s intellectual curiosities satisfied? Are there people who are satisfied with the first surface-level answer of things?

If there are such people, then I would imagine these people to be the ones less prone to existential crises. Or: these crises would descend upon them without them even knowing their shapes, only aware of a gnawing, reckless desire to overturn the status quo, whatever the cost to family or friends.

Personally, I need to have a myriad of interests beyond that offered by work. I need to have that after-work time to pursue other threads, to feel, by the time I turn in, that I’ve made some incremental step in satisfying some thirst higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy. I hope to eventually go back to creating things, no matter how small, but for now, I want to expose myself as much as possible to critical theories on a variety of subjects. I realize that what inspired me back in uni days were my literature modules, with those academic papers developing theories on structure, device, word choice, always trying to get at the heart of things, the thoughts that might not even have been conscious to the writer or society as a whole. Putting a name to things we take for granted is the first step to the archeological uncovering of the structures of thought or emotion. Just like in physics when we use metaphors of particles and waves to think about light, humanities is full of these metaphors that help us make sense of what is not visible, and it’s always a pleasure to chance upon a metaphor that becomes so apt for an abstract phenomenon.

Having put into words what my current goal was, it became easier to think about how to accomplish it. I was so happy to find out that Singapore pre-empted my needs and provided everyone with a JSTOR membership: logging in at http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/ and going to JSTOR from there is such a magical thing that sates your intellectual thirst for free. For free! What a glorious time to be alive.

If you’ve had similar questions on where life is going, perhaps you can share how you’ve reconciled it so far. I’d love to read how other people are thinking things through.

If you can only watch one movie this year, it should be Lady Bird.

Once in a blue moon I watch a movie that reignites my hope in the cinematic industry.

(and then I watch a blockbuster and it dies again.)

Lady Bird is that movie. It’s a rich slice of life of a high school girl in her senior year, living in Sacramento and wanting to get out of the city for college to experience art, culture, something else. Her family has financial difficulties but she’ll figure something out when she gets there, if she gets there. She tries out theatre because she thinks she might have a performative streak, she falls in love, she giggles about masturbation and wonders with her best friend what sex is like. She’s irreverent and just gonna stick to her beliefs, thank you very much, but she’s not malicious. She’s chaotic good. Through it all, even as the competing threads of social life, relationships, friendships, family, and academics threaten to overwhelm every adolescent, her sense of self stays intact: defiant, unwavering, warm. And best of all: the movie’s funny.

I am in love with this movie; it envelopes all its characters, warts and all, in its warm embrace. It captures the contradictions of the prickly mother-daughter relationship and the search for identity remarkably well. It is full of heart, which is really what I want in an art piece.

In closing I want to leave this quote from the movie: “Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?”

19h and 12 time zones away

I had that dream again, of an impending flight to USA, the anxiety of my unpreparedness. “I have to fly tomorrow, there should still be plane tickets right?” The dream me thought, when in real life I would never be caught so naked, especially with such an upcoming displacement of self (guess this is my version of the naked dream that other people have. except never actually getting on the flight.)

Dream me also wondered why I was heading to Pittsburgh. “I have to finish my masters?” was my own reply. “Wait, I don’t need to finish it to get a job there,” I responded to myself. “Are you saying you don’t know why you’re going to Pittsburgh??” I spurted in surprise. My subconscious returned a 404 upon realizing it didn’t have an answer and expelled me to my conscious. After washing up and while on my way to the MRT, I remembered I already completed my masters.

Never got used to the idea of how far USA is from Singapore, and as if the amount of preparation one has to do is proportionate to the distance to the destination, I still have that overwhelming feeling of having missed something in my packing, two years after returning home. What did I forget? What will I regret?

On my first night of landing in Pittsburgh, I stayed in a Super 8 motel, waiting for the next day to get my apartment keys. Everything looked detached. Big, with so much sky. Zipping across and back for a quick burger at Arby’s, I tried to reconcile myself with all that space, felt it expanding the gap between my heart and organs. I’d forgotten something at home. Admission letter, rental agreements. Papers holding my identity into a semi solid form on this foreign land.

the stars in santa cruz, the wives in california


Currently riding on the happiness of finding a band I kept trying to hunt on Spotify, but failed to do so until just this night. Back in the days before Spotify took over my music-listening habits, I used to have a local library of about 30GB, and would listen to that whole library on shuffle on my commutes to and from school, and during nights where it was just me and the streetlamps outside.

This album I would loop while furiously trying to finish uni coursework. I first heard this band while attending a Stars concert in Santa Cruz; they were one of the bands travelling with Stars, and were so obscure (still are?) I couldn’t even find much of an online presence. Nevertheless I bought their album on the spot, after they played just 3 tracks in that concert. For me this album will always remind me of cold Santa Cruz nights, rainy nights heavy with fog, 5am nights walking back from a good chunk of life debugging C code in the lab. Being utterly, deliriously happy by myself, sometimes missing vestiges of romance I left behind in Singapore, what with the upside down topsy turvy time zones.

It feels like the people closest to me are so different from me. Where will I find my fellow literature/game/english-and-mandarin-music/art/nature-loving BFF? Or maybe Santa Cruz was teaching me to find some of my most memorable experiences through venturing out by myself… To remember queueing for an hour for a front row standing experience rocking next to my favourite band with a $30 ticket.

singapore, ltd

One reason I stopped writing was because I didn’t feel I had the right to — because the period I truly discovered writing was also my most heartbroken — also ecstatic — the lower you go the higher you fling up to on the rebound. If writing is catharsis, I don’t deserve to write, because I have nothing to confess and make sense of, feeling around with blind hands for the right words and objects.

I have also begun to feel how limited my experience is, yet am unsure how to reach beyond. It is true that I am entrenched in my comfort zone, and for as long as I am in this country, will remain so… I have gotten the rhythms of my city down pat. The furthest I go, I reach through books (I don’t delude myself that my kind of traveling expands horizons.)

In an episode of The Art of Design, Tinker Hatfield said that experiencing life is how he creates his designs. The episode is spliced with shots of him skateboarding and driving his van to the beach with his surf board. Is that the life he’s referring to, to experience? No domestic scenes in that episode; he talks about how tired he was, 20h work weeks, hardly any time spent with his wife and children. We only see them in a photo. Could be privacy reasons, or a true reflection — life to experience is very much exterior… I suppose when you consider success on a scale as his, which is defined by the exterior, you cannot expect that he is referring otherwise.

The novels I enjoy reading the most navigate the reader through thick thoughts, motives or lack thereof, constantly balancing on the fine edge of plausibility (in the sense of whether it’s possible for character A to do this, given what we know of their personality thus far).

Yet there is a jaded sense within me, that any new Singaporean I get to know cannot be too different from what I’ve known already or can expect.

Pickerel smile

Wanted to share this poem by Sarah Howe that caught my heart — it’s really about the joy of poetry interpretation.

Sarah Howe

pickerel, n.1 – A young pike; Several smaller kinds of N. American pike.
pickerel, n.2A small wading bird, esp. the dunlin, Calidris alpina.

I see it clearly, as though I’d known it myself,
        the quick look of Jane in the poem by Roethke –
that delicate elegy, for a student of his thrown
        from a horse. My favourite line was always her
sidelong pickerel smile. It flashes across her face
        and my mind’s current, that smile, as bright and fast
and shy as the silvery juvenile fish – glimpsed,
        it vanishes, quick into murk and swaying weeds –
a kink of green and bubbles all that’s left behind.

I was sure of this – the dead girl’s vividness –
        her smile unseated, as by a stumbling stride –
till one rainy Cambridge evening, my umbrella
        bucking, I headed toward Magdalene to meet an
old friend. We ducked under The Pickerel’s
        painted sign, its coiled fish tilting; over a drink
our talk fell to Roethke, his pickerel smile, and
        I had one of those blurrings – glitch, then focus –
like at a put-off optician’s trip, when you realise

how long you’ve been seeing things wrongly.
        I’d never noticed: in every stanza after the first,
Jane is a bird: wren or sparrow, skittery pigeon.
        The wrong kind of pickerel! In my head, her
smile abruptly evolved: now the stretched beak
        of a wading bird – a stint or purre – swung
into profile. I saw anew the diffident stilts
        of the girl, her casting head, her gangly almost
grace, puttering away across a tarnished mirror

of estuary mud. In Homer, the Sirens are winged
        creatures: the Muses clipped them for their failure.
By the Renaissance, their feathers have switched
        for a mermaid’s scaly tail. In the emblem by Alciato
(printed Padua, 1618) the woodcut pictures a pair
        of chicken-footed maids, promising mantric truths
to a Ulysses slack at his mast. But the subscriptio
        denounces women, contra naturam, plied with hind-
parts of fish: for lust brings with it many monsters.

Or take how Horace begins the Ars Poetica,
        ticking off poets who dare too much: mating savage
with tame, or snakes with birds, can only create such
        horrors, he says, as a comely waist that winds up
in a black and hideous fish. The pickerel-girl swims
        through my mind’s eye’s flummery like a game
of perspectives, a corrugated picture: fish one way
        fowl the other. Could it be that Roethke meant
the word’s strange doubleness? Neither father

nor lover. A tutor watches a girl click-to the door
        of his study with reverent care, one winter evening –
and understands Horace on reining in fantasy.

Here are some pickerels for you:

Credit: Charlesjssharp (Wikipedia) Credit: North American Native Fishes Association / File Photo

For completeness, here’s Roethke’s poem, which I hadn’t read before Howe’s:

Elegy for Jane
(My student, thrown by a horse)
Theodore Roethke

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.