January 2018 Sea of stories online
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What are the colors of your cultures? Interview with an actress Lisa Liang

About vibrant green wings of quetzals, soaring around the world in a breathtaking Odyssey and healing communication

AN INTERVIEW WITH LISA LIANG, an actress based in L.A. who has lived in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and the U.S.A.

Joanna: When you came to Valencia 2015 with your show you made the day for many interculturalists in the field. At the SIETAR Europa conference, you made us cry, you made us laugh and talk about your performance “ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey” for hours. It was very powerful. In my case, Your show was the greatest highlight of the congress. What has happened since we saw each other in Spain two and a half years ago?

Lisa: A couple of months later I performed at the Women Playwrights International Conference in Cape Town, South Africa and that was wonderful because there were theatre-makers from all over the world. The pressure was very high because there was a very high standard. I gave the closing performance and … they loved it so I was relieved. I kept performing it at colleges and universities in the USA and at two international schools in Singapore. I was very excited by the latter, as it was my first travel to Asia. My audience consisted of third culture kids and their parents who mostly were adult TCKs. The latter were very touched. They had read books about being TCKs but they had never seen a TCK story played in front of their eyes. They seemed to experience a lot of healing from watching my show and seeing themselves reflected. Even though the details were completely different—they grew up in different countries and had different family dynamics—they could still relate to the underlying truth of what it is like to be an outsider and what it is like to always have to adapt and what it is like to refuse to adapt sometimes because your psyche cannot take it anymore. Right now I am concentrating on the movie of the show. My editor worked very hard on it and added some great special effects. It is a dynamic, fun movie.

Joanna: That sounds like a fantastic plan, as the movie is a great way to reach audiences you cannot meet face to face.

Lisa: That’s exactly what I thought. There are many international schools and colleges that cannot host the show. This DVD is for them. Especially as it includes a Tool Kit with special features such as: questions that provoke discussions based on clips from the movie, additional interviews, recommended reading and viewing lists, etc. There are many suggestions for what to do after you watch the movie. The Tool Kit can help people to support the students to express themselves in a safe way.

Joanna: You have mentioned that you experienced the adult TCKs in their healing process and you experienced them in a deeply emotional state. Was your monodrama a kind of catharsis for you yourself when you started to perform?

Lisa: It definitely was when I started creating it—when I was in the process of writing and improvising and performing it in front of small audiences. Sharing some of my stories took a lot of courage. How many times do we talk about our upbringing nowadays? We talk about politics, recent movies... and it was a little frightening to write down my stories and show them to people, especially the negative ones, as I believed somehow I would be judged. Someone might say: "You had way too much privilege, you were lucky to live in that many countries. Do not tell me that anything about it was hard.” It was really important to give myself permission to just tell the stories, to tell it how it was and to tell it from the perspective of a child. That’s why the main character (me as a kid) is sometimes not sensitive towards other persons—it’s all about a kid reacting to the constant changes. Most of the story is how it was for me when I was four up to seventeen. By the time I started performing the show I thought: “I have worked on the show for years, and now it is a theatrical piece I perform. It is no longer something intimate about me so much.” I was wrong. The first few times I performed it were terrifying, I felt completely exposed, I felt like I peeled my skin off and you could see the muscles and the bones. And then I got over it. I realized that one of the reasons for my discomfort was that I was playing it so earnestly and earnestness in any kind of storytelling is deadly. If you are too earnest, the audience pities you and the performance becomes tiresome. So it became clear I couldn’t perform it that way. I needed to make it funny, and add a different, brighter energy. It worked. Now the show is for the audience, not for me, anymore.

Joanna: Your story is extremely powerful and it is a heroine’s journey, the pendant to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Imagine that there is a teenage girl, called Alina, a TCK coming to you just shortly before moving from L.A. to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and she asks you what to pack so that the relocation is smooth. What would be your advice?

Lisa: She will need the help of her parents to feel safe and to express herself but if that is not the case, if they are very stressed out and dealing with the move themselves, then I would urge her to write her feelings down, go to any TCK Facebook sites and vent: “Hi guys, this is what is happening.” So many people will like and comment on her posts and make her feel that she is not alone. What I have learned from my relocation experiences is that creativity can help enormously. It does not matter how creative you think you are or aren’t, it does not matter how much artistic talent you have or not. That’s irrelevant. But creative expression is enormously helpful and transformative. So if you do not like writing, but like photography or dancing or singing or making collages, you could focus on your passions to find a way to tell your unique story. Maybe no one else will understand that (but I believe some will), but it is yours, it is unique to you and no one else is going to do it that way. And you are honoring yourself by doing it. Storytelling is what keeps us going—talking about how something happened and how it affected us is what helps us feel human together with our fellow humans.

Joanna: Yes, storytelling is what connects us. The identity mosaic—the prismatic identity that each multicultural person has—can be accessed and understood by nothing but stories. As I remember you were born in Guatemala, moved to the United States and spent a considerable amount of time in Northern Africa. Tell me what colors are your US-identity, your Guatemalan one, and your further identities, shaped by the relocations.

Lisa: The Guatemalan one is the easiest – because I immediately think of the quetzal, the national bird, the most beautiful bird I have ever seen in my life, which has a ruby red breast, and emerald green wings and is unfortunately endangered. Guatemalan textiles are also famous in the world because they are so vibrant and beautifully weaved. So my Guatemalan identity is the colors of the world, but especially red and green. And the USA – I don’t know if I can think of any colors for the USA at the moment because the country is so huge. Maybe grey in many ways as there are so many tensions and anger these days and one half of the country wants everyone else to be the same, think the same and feel the same. It’s sad as there are people here from around the world or whose ancestors were from all over the world, so the country should vibrate with colors, but it feels like there are all the colors and there is an encroaching beige that I am trying to push off. This is just the feeling I have. As for Africa, Egypt is sort of orange and brown because of the dust of Cairo, and Morocco is vibrant turquoise and pink and purple because of the bougainvillea in Casablanca. Panama and Costa Rica are both green, tropical green. These are the colors of my memories and my cultural mosaic.

Joanna: I am delighted with your descriptions. Given the number of places you spent your life in, I am pretty sure plenty of people, especially those who do not know your story, keep asking where you are from. This is one of the questions that drives mad persons who relocate frequently. I am not asking you where you are from. More important is what is home for you and where it is?

Lisa: Home is my husband and home is my parents and my brother, wherever they are. We are spending Christmas and other celebrations at my parents’ home in Costa Rica, which is great! I strongly connect home with people I love, not necessarily with places.

Joanna: We have talked so much about colors that I would like to stay in this creative mood and ask you one question by quoting Paul Gauguin: Where are you heading to? Gauguin chose very intensive colors to paint the picture he considered the most important piece of art in his life. Its title is “Where are we from? What are we? Where are we going?" My question sounds: Where are you going, Lisa? What are your dreams for the future?

Lisa: My dreams for the future… I would like to help heal the world, or at least the cross-cultural people in it who are struggling emotionally (and hopefully this healing will have a ripple effect), with storytelling—with “Alien Citizen” and with my next show, which will be about the concept of home, and specifically my relationship with Guatemala, with my family, and fan fiction where people incorporate their stories and change the original “canon” story. I want to lead my workshops all over the world if I can. I hope the “Alien Citizen” DVD version for institutions will spread and inspire people to tell their own stories in their own way, especially women and cross-cultural people.

I think cinema and theatre and books and dance and all the arts help to achieve empathy. Story sharing is about being vulnerable and brave.

Joanna: What can people win when they have got the courage to be vulnerable?

Lisa: Connection. You make yourself vulnerable only when you think there is a glimpse of hope that it will be heard and seen. I have seen it happen so many times, just as for example at the board meeting when one person said: "My father died last week" and the whole tenor of the room changed. When something like this happens, suddenly people who have never talked to each other before come and say “Actually, I lost my mom last year” and suddenly there’s this connection that did not exist five minutes ago, just because the person was vulnerable. I’m not saying that you should talk about your personal lives at board meetings all the time, but if you need to explain what is going on with you because you’re maybe not giving a great presentation... If you win connection, you can win understanding, you can win friendships, mentors, allies or you could win a moment of grace, just a moment of grace. And we need those.

Joanna: You are talking about healing communication, are not you?

Lisa: Yes. I am sure that we can make people go through a kind of accelerated emotional processing with stories and that they can experience catharsis.

Joanna: They can re-narrate their own stories and take back the power over them. That is the reason why I would really love to develop more storytelling in the intercultural context. I am convinced that because of story sharing we are getting more open towards different perspectives and your show is one of the greatest examples of how this accelerated learning can take place. Thank you very cordially. More information on Lisa’s activities and the show ALIEN CITIZEN can be found here http://cargocollective.com/aliencitizen
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