I have never fallen in love with a place before, but I knew I fell in love, hard, with Onomichi. I slept less and less as the day I had to leave drew closer and closer. I would spend the balmy midnights in this secondhand bookstore called “20 Decibel,” which was open from 11PM to 3AM, and would stroll back into my room at around 1:30AM. One of those evenings, a line came to me:
I leave so that I could come back.
During my application interview for New York University, I remember sharing my frustrations with David Montgomery and Nan Smithner about how relatively little applied theatre literature there is written from an Asian perspective in the field’s canon, in spite of the fact that applied theatre has long been present in the continent, particularly in the form of theatre for development. I expressed my desire to contribute to this body of knowledge.
Having lived in New York for almost two years by then and outside of the Philippines for roughly three, I should have realized my hubris.
What the hell did I know?
Apart from not having physically lived in the region for a significant period of time, almost everything I knew about applied theatre had come from Western scholarship, so how was I to write from an Asian perspective given how Westernized I was? Could I still write from an Asian perspective? What was an Asian perspective anyway?
Confused and hungry for answers, I intentionally returned to Asia this winter. Overall, I spent three months in Japan and three weeks in the Philippines, involving myself in different arts activities. It confirmed my suspicions: I knew very little about applied theatre in Asia. (What else did I expect, being so immersed in my life in the United States?) The terminologies were different, for example, in Japan, the community-based arts were more often called “art projects” and were more the domain of performance artists, rather than theatre artists. The underlying philosophies also varied depending on the artists and/or the arts organization, such as in the Philippine Educational Theatre Association, the line between applied theatre and drama therapy was even blurrier than how I knew it to be in the United States. I facilitated workshops in both countries and realized the limits of translation; speaking in English, unfortunately, just didn’t have the same resonance. I became concerned not only about my lack of knowledge, but whether or not I even had a place in Asia if and when I completed my doctoral studies.
Thankfully, my fears were misplaced; there was room for me. The artists I had worked with, both in Japan and the Philippines, wanted to collaborate in the future. The organizations I had connected with, like Sengawa Theatre in Tokyo, invited me to return anytime. Ateneo de Manila University had agreed to support my dissertation project. I attribute these positive outcomes not only to the knowledge that I had learned from my studies, but also to the values that have been inculcated in me by this field, such as meeting people where they are at and deeply listening.
A part of me, however, remained and still remains conflicted. Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire (1970) warns against “cultural invasion,” wherein people enter and impose their own culture on a community different from theirs, i.e., colonization, the intent to “civilize” (p.152) Because white supremacy exists, I am nervous about carelessly using my Western education. I am nervous to write about Asia in English and possibly exoticize it. In Paradoxes of Postcolonial Cultural, Sandra Ponzanesi (2004) writes, “[s]ome Third World intellectuals have made postcolonial issues their very own warhorse so as to obtain prominent positions within Western academia. In so doing they become complicit with the Western establishment they set out to undermine, and they exploit the cause of truly disenfranchised groups for their own reward” (p. 7).
I do not want to be one of those Third World intellectuals.
During the same interview I mentioned earlier, I declared I would do my dissertation in Asia. While there was a stretch during which I thought I would do my project with the Filipino-American community in New York City, specifically Queens, returning to Asia reminded me of why I pursued further studies in the first place five years ago.
I left so that I could come back.