David Henry Hwang

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Hwang explains his theory of "fluidity of identity"; explain his thinking and how that shows itself in the play Trying To Find Chinatown.

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Hwang explains his theory of the “fluidity of identity” as “there’s the way in which we may think we’re one person, but then we get put in different contexts and we become somebody else.” In Trying to Find Chinatown, he illustrates this theory through the identities of Ronnie and Benjamin. Both characters are not exactly what they appear to be and the contexts cause their fluid identities to change from superficial stereotypes.

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In an interview published in his alma mater’s publication Stanford Magazine (Nov/Dec 2007 issue) during his residency there, playwright David Henry Hwang noted,

I think all writers have their particular area of obsession, and mine is the fluidity of identity. … There’s the way in which we may think we’re one person, but then we get put in different contexts and we become somebody else.

Hwang demonstrates his theory of the fluidity of identity in his play Trying to Find Chinatown. The superficial identities of Ronnie and Benjamin seem to fit neat stereotypes; Ronnie is a Chinese-American violinist and Benjamin is blond, blue-eyed Midwestern tourist visiting New York city. Very quickly, however, Hwang shows that their supposed identities (based on physical appearances) are actually fluid and not fixed to expectations.

Aside from playing the violin, Ronnie is not the stereotypically polite, quiet, classical-music-playing Chinese-American male. Dressed in “retro sixties” clothes with “nineties body mutations,” he is assertive and foul-mouthed. Ronnie himself mistakenly pigeonholes Benjamin as a “hick” and mocks the tourist’s use of the word “fiddle” for violin; Ronnie attacks what he thinks is Benjamin’s hayseed background:

If this was a fiddle, I’d be sitting here with a cob pipe, stomping my cowboy boots and kicking up hay. Then I’d go home and fuck my cousin.

The cob pipe, cowboy boots, hay, and incest are all stereotypical motifs of where Ronnie thinks Benjamin lives.

Benjamin tells Ronnie that he studied Asian-American studies in college because “I wanted to explore my roots. After a lifetime of assimilation, I wanted to find out who I really am.” Ronnie then believes Benjamin is ridiculing him and scoffs, “Literally, look at your skin! … You’re white!” To Ronnie, skin color is what determines a person’s identity to others; however, he is incorrect about Benjamin’s internal identity.

As a white child of Chinese-American parents, Benjamin feels a pull toward Chinatown and Chinese culture, stating, “You can’t judge my race by my genetic heritage.” Ronnie wonders, “If genes don’t determine race, what does?” Here is where Hwang drives home his theory of fluidity of identity. Instead of seeking superficial tokens of Chinese culture—like chopsticks, dim sum parlor, and exotic delicacies such as Peking duck—Benjamin seeks Chinatown as a "home." He wants to find 13 Doyers Street, the birthplace of his adoptive father. This “temple” establishes a connection to his father’s past and his grandfather. Most importantly, Benjamin gains a sense of identity. Sure, he is not biologically descended from his adoptive father; nonetheless, he still feels a strong connection to his father’s place of origin and childhood. As he sits on the stoop at 13 Doyers Street, he has

an ache in his heart for all those lost souls, denied this most important of revelations: to know who they truly are.

Benjamin has found his true identity as a Chinese-American. He may look like a Caucasian person—as determined by genetics—but his identity is fluid and altered by his upbringing by Chinese-American parents.

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