Building cultural bridges
So that I may hear your blood inside you.
The cool stream
And my blood
The surging flood
With closed eyes, the two lovers advance towards each other, Meeting, they do not physically touch, but glide over the body of each other as each moves in response to the other's body heat. The image is very sensual. It is also extremely pertinent to contemporary Australia. Because the philosophical ore to this scene is the re-questioning of the concept of the Other in contemporary Australia. Because the young man in this scene is Vietnamese-Australian, and the young woman is Anglo-Australian.
We are witnessing a scene from The Monkey Mother, the latest production of Citymoon (the Vietnamese Australian Contemporary Theatre Company), presented at PAT Theatre and the Fairfield School of the Arts during Sydney's recent Carnivale festival.
The Monkey Mother continues Citymoon's exploration of new movement vocabularies - drawing upon contemporary performance practice, mime, voice, text, martial arts (especially kung fu) and traditional Vietnamese performance styles to create an exciting and dynamic production that celebrates new directions and new expression in contemporary intercultural performance.
The Monkey Mother is about the pressures for change in a traditional Vietnamese family. It explores issues of immigration and adaptation to a new culture, and spotlights the shifts and compromise that are necessary as individuals negotiate new relationships with each other in a post-colonial, multicultural world. In the end, the concerns of The Monkey Mother are not just about Migrant Experience, but ultimately the Human Condition itself.
These issues are explored by the juxtaposition of two narrative strands. One is a (manufactured) myth about a monkey who discovers a human baby in the forest, and determines to raise him as her own, even though to do so will bring her grief. The other reveals a Vietnamese mother in the Australian suburbs, divorced from her culture, alone in a strange society where she does not speak the language. Her only contact with the outside world is through her son. But he has an Anglo girl friend - resented by the mother because she is afraid of losing her son.
Just as these characters cautiously build bridges between each other's lives, so does the work of companies such as Citymoon through their engagement with the multiple cultures and communities which together are shaping contemporary Australia.
But Australian culture and public identity is still overwhelmingly, monoculturally Anglo-Celtic, despite the evidence in our everyday lives of another reality. The blue-eyed blondness (with occasional freckled red-headness) of Australian soapies does not correspond to the diversity of cultural backgrounds of the Neighbours in many streets where we live. Though we proudly proclaim "I am, You are, We are Australian" we still refer to some friends as "Vietnamese/Lebanese/Greek" and others as "Australian", even though all concern may have been born in Australia. And, of course, the word "Reconciliation" prompts images of unresolved, on-going negotiation, not of a soon-to-be-reached mutual resolution.
Thus, in terms of our culture and identity, we do indeed live in interesting times (not forgetting the ancient Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times!").
But, more optimistically, this cultural negotiation is also energetic and diverse, with signs of progress and change, Throughout Australia there are, increasingly, pockets of activity: groups giving voice to the stories of their communities, and these stories becoming known to the wider community; organisation such as ANPC who actively encourage and support talented emerging artists bringing a fresh voice and world view; and not least of all, Youth culture that is comfortable with diversity - not only in terms of social interaction but also in cultural expression through artistic fusion. And for groups such as Citymoon, there is much that is satisfying in exploring the differences and commonalities between cultures.
The process of The Monkey Mother was emblematic of this. Its audience came from both contemporary performance (cultural hegemonic, philosophical Post-Modern, accustomed to abstract, multidisciplinary performance) and the Vietnamese community (accustomed to linear narrative, complicated naturalist plots and sub-plots, archetypal characters and lashings of sentiment and emotion).
The plot line was thus kept simple, clear and relentlessly linear; the characters were clear archetypes the journey of each character readily understandable. But, in contrast to this, the linear plot line weaved seamlessly back and forth across the two narrative strands; the narrative text was advanced through naturalistic dialogue, poetry and movement; stylistically scenes were abstracted away from naturalistic presentation.
The result was rich and stimulating mix that excited non-Vietnamese audiences with its strong integration of Vietnamese culture with contemporary performance, and challenged Vietnamese audiences with new possibilities for the presentation of a contemporary Vietnamese-Australian worldview.
In all such cultural sharing, each gains from exposure to the other, and questions are raised that becomes part of an on-going dialogue, Vietnamese audiences were still baffled by some abstract parts of The Monkey Mother (future familiarity with the style will help to overcome this), but were extremely moved by the emotion of the piece. Many said afterwards, with pride, that they had been moved to tears.
Non-Vietnamese audiences, on the other hand, were stimulated by the strength of artistic collaboration between each component of the work (music, set design, lighting design) and the resultant beauty of the production, but were sometimes baffled by its supposed "sentimentality".
But such emotionality is an essential "Vietnamese-ness". It has been said that every Vietnamese is a poet, and equally that the core of the Vietnamese character is an embrace Feeling and Emotion. The Monkey Mother was never mawkish or maudlin - but neither did it ever embrace Post-Modern irony. But perhaps, culturally, we are moving beyond the Post Modern. Perhaps, we are seeing a return to the honouring of text, of traditions, of emotion and feeling - not as a retrograde step, but as a new configuration in response to our culture and society have much to gain from the Asian cultures already existing within multicultural Australia. But as we have seen, these questions are still being negotiated, solutions are not simple and the process is not easy.
The climax of The Monkey Mother is the acceptance of the Anglo girl by the mother, and the handing on of the mother's role to the new generation in the new country, But, just as the mother does, the girl must sacrifice much, abandon much, in order to understand and reconcile. Before outing on the traditional Vietnamese dress of the mother, she must first symbolically peel off her own skin. Her pain parallels much of the migrant situation. In attempting to reconcile two cultures, it is not just the migrant who must shed the old to be accepted in the new. For true conciliation, healing and growth, the shredding must be by both sides.
At the end of the play, in a further resonance if the yin and yang that underscores the play, the Vietnamese mother dies as her Anglo daughter-in-law is giving birth to a son. This child is the optimistic image of a new generation in Australia. The image of a new generation who will create a new Australia.