CHATogether Tackles Anti-Asian Racism Through Theater

Arturo Pineda | March 26th, 2021

CHATogether Tackles Anti-Asian Racism Through Theater

Theater  |  COVID-19  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  Asian-American  |  AAPI

Three of the guiding principles demonstrated in the theatre skit, "You don't worry alone, give permission to feel, and be kind to ourselves and others". Screenshot via Zoom. 

Three of the guiding principles demonstrated in the theatre skit, "You don't worry alone, give permission to feel, and be kind to ourselves and others". Screenshot via Zoom. 

“What’s wrong with you?” a father repeats over and over to his son, Kevin. He has just learned from his mother that Kevin mentioned wanting to hurt himself.  Kevin isn't sure what's  wrong—but he knows that the racism stemming from Covid-19 had gotten to him. Strangers over Instagram now blame him for the spread of the virus. His grandmother was almost assaulted on the street. He wants to see a doctor. His dad does not agree.

“I need help,” Kevin said. “I am trying to tell you.” 

Dad (Allan Lee) and Kevin (Jacob Kang) are students turned actors, trying to use theater as a tool to spur discussion and combat anti-Asian racism. Thursday, their skit was part of “Community Care Amidst Anti-Asian Racism and COVID-19: Using Theater Skit to Build Mindset for All to Heal.” The event was hosted by CHATogether (Compassionate Home, Action Together), with participation from the Yale School of Medicine and Yale ITS Climate, Culture, and Inclusion Task Force. Over 80 participants attended the performance via Zoom.

Dr. Eunice Yuen co-founded CHATogether with Stanford psychiatry professor Dr. Steve Sust in response to the anti-Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) bias and xenophobia stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic. By performing skits based on real-lived experiences, the group aims to improve communication between Asian-American children and parents by promoting healthy communication and emotional wellness. 

In the program, the scenes are acted out once, and then a moderator steps in to help a parent and child communicate better. Following that moderation, the scene is redone with new communication, leading to an alternative scenario. In Kevin’s situation, for instance, a moderator gives parents the tools for talking about mental health and suicidal ideation. Other skits include coming out as LGBTQ to parents or discussing anti-Blackness and the model minority myth. View those here

“The skits draw on personal experiences that feature cross-cultural child-parent relationships,” said Yuen. “We wanted a lighthearted way to talk about conflict within the family.” 

She noted that this type of work has become even more pressing over the last year with the sharp increase in anti-AAPI hate crimes. In a report released this month, the grassroots organization Stop AAPI Hate reported 3,795 instances of anti-AAPI hate crimes between March 19, 2020 and February 28 of this year. Those incidences, which represent a 150 percent rise in anti-Asian bias and hate crime, come in addition to  the mass shooting in Atlanta, Georgia that killed eight people, including six Asian-American women, last week. 

That work has also touched New Haven. Thursday afternoon , a newly formed grassroots coalition announced that it will aim to organize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in New Haven to amplify their voices and increase their power as a community. 

2021-03-25 (10)Screenshot via Zoom. 

CHATogether’s role in that work exists primarily around dialogue. In the moderated portion of the skit, Yuen pointed out that much of the tension between Kevin and Dad is rooted in cultural misunderstandings, generational perspectives, and emotions that are bottled up until they reach a boiling point.  All of these combined lead to poor communication and a stigma against mental health treatment.

When Dad keeps repeating “What’s wrong with you?” he may not be aware of the Western context, she explained. 

“In some languages like Cantonese, the equivalent of ‘What’s wrong with you?’ is no different than saying ‘How are you?’” 

For Kevin, she said, the phrase may have registered as accusatory and placed blame on him for his own condition. In the moderated portion of the skit, Kevin admits that he does not know exactly what is wrong, but has never shared his feelings because he is afraid his dad will not listen to him. 

Yuen pointed to the fact that Kevin and Dad have both dealt with racism—the skit makes that much clear—but their perspectives remain different. To relate to Kevin, Dad tells the story of how people made fun of his accent and called him racial slurs when he first moved to the United States. However, he follows up by telling Kevin “to put up with it.”

“We can’t let that get to us,” he says. 

In this kind of scenario, Kevin’s experience with racism is not validated by his father, said Yuen. They are both sharing their experiences, but they are not in conversation with one another. 

“I wish my dad would listen to my words and not judgement me for how I feel,” Kevin says at one point. In response, Dad admits that he tries to be strong by not letting racist instances get to him. He wants to be strong for the family, including his son.

No one should have to hold that stress alone, said Yuen. She suggested that he—and by extension, parents watching—should allow himself to feel those emotions.

Thursday, the staged intervention ended with Kevin asking Dad to change his tone with him. In return, Dad asked Kevin to consider his experiences more. In this alternative scenario, many of the phrases and interactions play out almost the same way— but there are small adjustments  in the places where it matters the most. Dad changes his tone and is less frustrated with Kevin. He still asks what’s wrong but adds that he wanted to listen too. 

“Being sad made me want to hurt myself,” Kevin says.

Dad suggests deleting Instagram. The suggestion is shot down, but he doesn’t get mad about it. He’s trying to give his son a solution to not be sad anymore. 

They once again share their experiences with racism, but this time Kevin admits that he didn’t know everything Dad had been through. They both agree that Kevin should see a doctor. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741. For Asian Languages, call 1-877-990-8585.