Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Girl: You can tell I was born in Hong Kong, even though I've been here six years?
Tam, the protagonist of the play, is Chinese American. He views his own cultural identity as an American of Chinese descent as fundamentally different from the identity of Chinese Americans who actually immigrated from Asia (e.g., his parents). Many of Tam's neighbors have recently immigrated from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. He observes that they are prone to working low-wage jobs, and he feels this makes them poor role models for young Asian Americans like himself. Instead, Tam looks up to figures who are prominent in American media and sports.
Tam's interaction with a girl from Hong Kong in one of the earliest scenes in the play helps to establish his mindset. He judges her by her actions and way of speaking and assumes that she is relatively new to America. She is not ashamed that Tam was able to correctly assume she was from Hong Kong but is genuinely curious as to how he knew this fact. Tam replies with a joke and deflects her question, showing that he is aware of the awkwardness of the exchange. In actuality, he has become conscious of his judgmental attitude toward Chinese people, but he does not apologize.
Girl: Where were you born?
Tam: Chinamen are made, not born, my dear. Out of junk-imports, lies, railroad scrap iron, dirty jokes, broken bottles, cigar smoke, Cosquilla Indian blood, wino spit, and lots of milk of amnesia.
Girl: You sure have a way with the world, but I wish you'd do more than pay lip service to your Cantonese heritage.
Tam is obsessed with the life and career of an African American boxer and looks up to men who represent what he considers American masculinity. His other obsession, as a child, was the Lone Ranger, whom he was convinced was Chinese and hiding his identity behind a mask. Tam is well aware of his oddball personality and how other Chinese people perceive him; however, he is also judgmental toward Chinese people who are still in touch with their Chinese roots. He self-deprecatingly lists stereotypical characteristics of "Chinamen."
Whether he is mocking racial stereotypes held by whites about Chinese Americans or whether he himself believes these stereotypes is unclear. The girl, on the other hand, represents the strong-minded Chinese American who is comfortable with her roots, and she counters Tam's mindset.
Girl: You sure have a way with words, but I'd like it better if you'd speak the mother tongue.
Tam: I speak nothing but the mother tongues bein' born to none of my own. I talk the talk of orphans.
This quote is indicative that Tam either cannot speak Cantonese or he doesn't like to use it. This emphasizes Tam's view of himself as someone who is different from Chinese Americans who are still in touch with their Chinese roots. Tam "talk[s] the talk of orphans" because he was born neither to Chinese nor American culture; he sees himself as a cultural "orphan."