"I'm going to teach you how to act like a real Oriental girl."

It's 1990, and a white woman has just said this to me in a room full of stage props behind my junior high auditorium. I'm wearing dragon-print pajamas for my role as Liat in South Pacific. When the choir director offered me the part, I was surprised. I hadn't even auditioned.

The pajamas are supposed to be Chinese—or, like my character in the play, Tonkinese, which I know of only as a breed of cat. My family is Chinese American; in real life, I wear thrift-store dresses and combat boots.

After a few rehearsals, it's clear I can't act, and so the white woman, a classmate's mother, is dispatched to be my tutor.

"Oriental girls walk in small steps, with their heads down," she says, shuffling haltingly. She should know: Before moving to New Jersey, she lived on a Korean military base.

My walk is too fast, too aggressive, she says.

"But this is how I've always walked," I say.

"Oriental girls speak softly," she says. Funny, all the women in my family have to shout to be heard over one another. When she demonstrates the more demure tone I'm to adopt, she uses the singsong, ching-chong cadence kids use to make fun of me. When I attempt this fake accent onstage, I feel like I'm mocking my grandma.

In the end, the director cuts my lines. I stand onstage, silent, an object being sung to. I'm confused; I don't realize yet how angry I am. I don't know yet that all I've failed to do is be someone else's idea of me. But while a blonde girl—her face spray-painted dark brown—sings "Happy Talk" to me in Pidgin English, I decide: Onstage or off, I'll never act again.

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