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Chau’s 'The Specter': Vietnamese American play explores transgenerational trauma

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When Quan Chau ’21 first expressed interest in travelling to Vietnam to explore his paternal roots, his parents adamantly opposed. His father, after all, had fled the Vietnamese coast amidst Communist bullets aimed at the small boat carrying him to safety. For his son to return, the father reasoned, would be to subject him to Communist brainwashing.

That sliver of a transgenerational experience, in part, led Chau to create “The Specter,” a short video-play exploring the trauma that can occur when long-articulated life-narratives of parents conflict with truths being sought by their children. Chau, who graduated from William & Mary in May, presented the play as part of his APIA (Asian and Pacific Islander American) honors project.

In a pivotal moment in the script, Vinh, the son, finds himself at Mỹ Lai, site of a civilian massacre by U.S. troops. He is confronted by a Vietnamese official. Vinh attempts to counter the local account of events with the propaganda embraced by his father, Pham, i.e. that Mỹ Lai was staged by Communist troops to cast dispersion on U.S. soldiers. Vinh's insistence on that narrative results in his violent arrest.

“When all was done, I had written a play about a child of immigrants dealing with the effects of carrying on that narrative," Chau said. "The last scene, a mental breakdown, emphasizes that this is not something to be taken lightly.”

The production earned Chau high praise from his professors and from others with whom he worked.

“Quan Chau’s work on his honors thesis raised the bar for excellence that we are privileged to support in our student’s work,” said Francis Tanglao-Aguas, professor of theatre and Asian & Pacific Islander American studies.“ The agency and independent self-reliance that Quan demonstrated in ‘The Specter’ is the aspiration of the APIA faculty in respect of how we want our APIA graduates to utilize their W&M education. Quan employed a global framework that was also multi- and interdisciplinary, traversing sociology, psychology, theatre, pedagogy, and ethnic/cultural studies.”

Chau’s quest for identity
Throughout his high-school years, Chau was living what seemed to him a “non-hyphenated” American life. Although as an adolescent he had asked his parents if he were Vietnamese, Chinese or both, their reply that “You are American” sufficed for years. In the Richmond suburb of Midlothian, he excelled academically; he thrived in theatre.

“I did not look at myself as Asian,” he said. His view of himself changed when he enrolled in the “Intro to APIA” class at William & Mary.

“Growing up, I never understood my positioning as an Asian male,” Chau, a theatre and biology major, explained. “Being in theatre, which historically is a mostly white space, I’ve been surrounded by mostly white people telling mostly white stories by mostly white people. It wasn’t until coming to college that I realized I am also Asian.”

The realization pushed Chau to read more Asian stories. At William & Mary, he studied psychology, learning how members of Asian cultures tend to “somatize” trauma by experiencing its manifestations through physical symptoms such as headaches or backaches. In contrast, in Western societies, symptoms of trauma may include depression. He also explored how the children and the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are affected by pressures to carry on a “master narrative” in order to preserve memory.

Then, for Chau, a capstone-opportunity emerged when he received an AMES-Freeman fellowship and a separate Catron grant to study in Asia during the summer of 2019. Everything—funds, travel plans, a pending stint with Malaysia’s Masakini Theatre—was lined up. The pandemic suddenly shut everything down.

Given the changed circumstances, Tanglao-Aguas suggested that Chau meet his grant obligations by writing and filming his own play.

But what to write? “It would be my own story,” Chau pondered. “It would be about being Asian.” He visualized himself performing the role even as he etched it out mentally, beginning to understand what it would mean to be an Asian American actor.

“Whenever I pictured myself onstage, I never pictured myself as Asian,” Chau recalled. “I pictured that character as default. So, onstage, I always pictured myself as a white person. I have realized that I have much more to offer as an Asian.”

As he began to sketch out “The Specter,” he spent time with his parents, listening to their stories about losing their business, fleeing Vietnam and coming to America.

Tanglao-Aguas put him in touch with Sabera Shaik of the Masakini Theatre, who agreed to serve as director and who helped him create scenes using traditional Asian shadow puppetry, despite a 12-hour time difference. Megan Rudman signed on as editor, leading him in how to portray the characters, how to change his body, how to manipulate his voice. Together, they employed the traditional Jo-Ha-Kyu three-part story structure as a format for the piece.

“In the end, my story of ‘The Specter’ is a uniquely Vietnamese American thing, but the theme of intergenerational trauma can be applicable across cultures,” Chau said.

As he created the piece, he struggled with understanding two sides of an argument, in his words by “parsing through bias; parsing through media.” He came to understand that he could not divorce himself from the trauma experienced by his parents.

“Everyone’s identity is sort of a mix of everyone else’s,” he said. “Your upbringing is integral to who you are, and to reject that is to reject yourself.”

Chau sees “The Specter” as a beginning in his own bid for self-discovery.

“As a person I’ve learned about what has affected me in my life, about certain things that I never realized. My goal is to understand what my story is,” he said. “It became self-therapeutic in terms of enabling me to see things from the perspective of my parents.

“Why would somebody feel so strongly about not going back to their homes, even though they may have great memories of that place?” he said. “Psychologically, it’s you can’t go back, so you replace those memories with fear.”

Beyond the personal, his end-goal with the play — the writing, performing, filming — was to help validate the stories of others, to let “others who are in the same position to know that their stories are real.”

As his work progressed, so did the rise of the coronavirus and subsequent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.

“That increased my drive to tell this story,” he said. “I felt it was important to tell Asian stories and to have Asian representations out there.”