Trying to Find Chinatown

by David Henry Hwang

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In Benjamin's own words, why did he enroll in Asian American studies in Trying to FInd Chinatown? Why does Ronnie insist on calling him "white"?

In the play Trying to Find Chinatown, Benjamin explains that he enrolled in an Asian American studies class in college because he “wanted to explore my roots...find out who I really am.” He was adopted by the Wongs at birth. As a white child of Chinese-American parents, he wants to learn about their culture. Chinese-American Ronnie scoffs at him, insisting that the Caucasian Benjamin is actually “white” because his skin is white.

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In Trying to Find Chinatown, a Chinese-American street violinist named Ronnie and a Caucasian tourist named Benjamin share a complex and thought-provoking interaction. Benjamin asks Ronnie for directions to Chinatown, which sets off their heated discussion on racial and ethnic identities.

Benjamin assures Ronnie that he (a white male) understands Ronnie’s “righteous anger.” In his Asian-American studies class at the University of Wisconsin, Benjamin learned how Asians have been dominated by the white patriarchy; this social structure marginalizes minorities, discounts their achievements, and perpetuates offensive stereotypes. He enrolled in this class because

I wanted to explore my roots. After a lifetime of assimilation, I wanted to find out who I really am.

Ronnie, one the other hand, thinks that Benjamin is mocking him and points out that the tourist is white. The main reason Ronnie calls Benjamin “white” is Benjamin’s skin color. Ronnie exclaims, “Literally, look at your skin!” Grabbing Benjamin’s hand and holding it up for display, he exhorts, “You’re white!” Ben counters that he was adopted by Chinese-American parents (the Wongs), which makes him Asian American.

Ronnie scoffs at this justification with, “Even though they could put a picture of you in the dictionary next to the definition for WASP.” When Benjamin asserts that his race cannot be judged by his genetic heritage, Ronnie retorts, “If genes don’t determine race, what does?” and “Listen, you can’t just wake up and say, ‘Gee, I feel black today.’” To Ronnie, skin color is what determines a person’s identity.

On the positive side, Benjamin is trying to feel empathy for and a connection with Chinese-American people. On the negative side, Benjamin seems to lump all Chinese-Americans people together, as if they all share the same experiences. Ronnie asks Benjamin, “You think identity’s that simple? That you can wrap it all up in a neat package?”

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