How does David Hwang address Asian stereotypes in his play Trying to Find Chinatown?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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In Trying to Find Chinatown, David Hwang manages to turn Asian stereotypes upside down.  Ronnie, an ethnic Chinese from New York City, and Benjamin, a Caucasian from the mid west, are both "Chinese" in different ways: Ronnie is ethnically and genetically Chinese; Benjamin is Chinese because he has been nurtured by Chinese parents, having been adopted as an infant and raised in a Chinese household.  In fact, one can argue that Benjamin, rather than Ronnie, exhibits more stereotypical "Chinese" attributes than Ronnie does.

Benjamin, for example, is in New York City to look for his father's ancestral home in Chinatown, exhibiting a reverence for his father and grandfather that one associates as stereotypically Chinese.  When he asks Ronnie, a street musician, for directions to Chinatown, Ronnie reacts to what he believes is Benjamin's stereotyping:

What are you gonna ask me next?  Where you can find the best dim sum in the city?  Whether I can direct you to a genuine opium den? Or do happen to know how you can meet Miss Saigon. . . . 

Ronnie himself lists several stereotypical aspects of being Chinese in New York City but, unlike Benjamin, Ronnie has no interest in things Chinese and refuses to help Benjamin.

Benjamin's response to Ronnie indicates that he has misread Ronnie's outrage--he assumes Ronnie's objection is based on his ethnic identity:

Brother, I can absolutely relate to your anger. . . . To be marginalized, as we are, by a white racist patriarchy to the point where the accomplishments of our people are obliterated from the history books.

Benjamin believes that he and Ronnie share a common heritage and a bond of outrage centered on the treatment of Chinese by whites.  Benjamin is unconsciously stereotyping Ronnie as an angry young Chinese man because Benjamin believes himself to be an angry young "Chinese" man.

Ronnie's true reaction to being Chinese, however, is far more complicated than Benjamin perceives:

What--you think if I deny the importance of my race, I'm nobody?  There're worlds out there, worlds you haven't even begun to understand.  Open your eyes.  Hear it with your ears.

These words begin Ronnie's long monologue in which he tries to make Benjamin understand that music, not ethnicity, is what defines Ronnie--a concept that questions Benjamin's stereotypical views of what constitutes identity.  Ronnie concludes the monologue, which details his love of the violin and jazz, by asking Benjamin if his music has "to sound like Chinese opera before people like you decide I know who I am."

Hwang's central point in the play is not that stereotypes exist--certainly Benjamin is a Chinese stereotype because he's more "Chinese" than Ronnie--but that stereotypes have nothing to do with how a person defines his or her identity.  Hwang also explores the gray area that exists between the power of ethnicity and genetics, on one hand, and the powerful force of nurture--and that issue remains unresolved at the play's end.  Benjamin finds Chinatown, but Ronnie has never been looking for Chinatown.

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