Being half-Vietnamese and growing up in the Deep South, Michelle Glick went a long way from conservative and, in her words, “innocently” narrow-minded, Alabama to diverse New York City, where she became an actor and a playwright. One of her latest works, “Asian Belle,” became the summary of her personal experience and a revelation at the same time.
Chatting with Glick over the phone, Review Fix enjoyed the opportunity to ask questions that the show did not clearly answer.
Review Fix: How did you come up with the idea for “Asian Belle”?
Michelle Glick: It all started when I took a writing workshop. I don’t think the play would be possible had I not been encouraged to do it. In the last year or two, I decided that I needed to be scared when I work, instead of concentrating on things that I am comfortable with, and I chose a solo show because it scared me more than anything. I remember a quote: “When you are a creative person and you feel a lot of fear, that tells you what you need to do,” and I don’t know who said it. When I started writing, stories about my mother and my childhood just started coming up, even though it was not what I intended it to be.
RF: What was the original idea?
MG: The original idea was me doing a bunch of characters. It was still meant to be personal, but not as personal as this. I did put a 20-minute show in October, which was about my wedding. When one is getting married, it brings out the insanity in the family and you see people behaving weirdly, like you’d never expect them to be before. I wrote about it, and it came out funny. Looking back, I would say that doing that show gave me the courage to write about something deeper. At first, I thought I would just elaborate more on the piece I had already written. I would show up on my writing workshop and start talking about something completely different. I felt that I needed to tell stories about my mother, how she came here, and my growing up Asian in the South, for some reason.
RF: Besides the fear you felt, what else was difficult in writing about yourself?
MG: I guess, allowing myself to write about it. Many people who write solo shows make it very personal, and it is usually about the stuff they were trying to hide. That’s why I couldn’t have done this without being in a workshop. I needed the guidance and critique I was given. Our group was very supportive. Sometimes I would think, “Oh, this is way too personal; people don’t want to hear about that.” And they would say, “No, you are actually right on target.” My mother’s monologues were extremely difficult as well. I didn’t want to embarrass her or disrespect her in any way, and at the same time I wanted it to be real.
RF: What does your mother think about “Asian Belle”?
MG: Oh, gosh! She doesn’t know. She knows that I’m doing a show that I wrote, and she knows it’s personal. She’s seen the artwork, which is me in a traditional Vietnamese wedding gown. However, my mother doesn’t know how much she is involved in it. Eventually, she will see my show. I thought I had to go through my first run without telling my family. Once you get the feedback, you feel more comfortable with telling that story. Even when rehearsing and performing, I was aware that if I knew my mother would see it, it would have affected me.
RF: Who is the “Asian Belle”: You or your mother?
MG: I always knew that it was me. But now I think we both are Asian belles, women who ended up in the South. She is Asian, I am half-Asian. We are similar, yet I also have different dilemmas from what my mother has.
RF: Do you think it was extremely hard for your mother to be different from you because you grew up in what was, for her, a foreign country?
MG: Absolutely. We have a good relationship, and I’ve always loved her, but when I was a kid, we often fought. I am the oldest child, and maybe this had something to do with it, too. Sometimes she didn’t understand me. I was her first child born here, an Americanized kid. And I didn’t understand her. I have started understanding her recently, getting older, allowing myself to be closer to her. My show helped me a lot, too. I became curious about the things I never cared about when I was a kid. I was always trying to fit in and be very American. I traveled to Vietnam several times as well, and it helped my curiosity.
RF: When you were a child, who did you want to become?
MG: The first thing I ever wanted to be was Miss America. That was when I was probably six years old. As I got older, in high school, I wanted to become a lawyer or a psychologist. With the lawyer, I liked to be in a position of power. I liked being smart. And with psychology, I understood people pretty well. And I also wanted to be an MTV VJ. I grew up in an MTV era when people were watching all those videos. I grew up looking at people like Karen Duffy or Martha Queens. That was a big part of the culture when I was a teenager.
RF: In your opinion, how would your personality be different if you grew up in more multinational community, like New York City, for example?
MG: I think I would have been more worldly earlier on. I would have been more aware of other cultures. Where I grew up, we were just about the only Asians; there were also one or two Jewish families. Growing up, I didn’t really know what a Jewish person was. That’s why I’m really thankful that my mother is from another culture. Had she not been, I don’t think I would ever become curious. People growing up in places that are not so mixed just don’t have the opportunity to be so curious. It is actually very innocent, as it is what people are used to; it is all they know.
RF: What is the boldest thing you have done in your life?
MG: For me, the most recent thing was getting married. My parents were from two different cultures, and there was a lot of miscommunication. As I said in the show, they are divorced now. Because of that, I always viewed marriage as something I would never want to do. Once I met someone, it was a big deal for me to decide whether or not to get married. It took a lot of courage.
RF: What about moving to New York? Was it just as difficult?
MG: It definitely was. But I was at the point of my life when I needed to see what else there was in the world. I bought a one-way ticket, I packed my suitcase that didn’t have wheels, and I just showed up in New York City. I didn’t have a job or anywhere to stay, but I always wanted to live somewhere where people look different and where you can hear many different languages walking down the street. I love that about New York.
RF: How does living in New York City help people to become more open-minded?
MG: You learn about different cultures and dissimilar people and through their stories you find out what they have been through. For example, in the part of my play when I talk about my uncle, I say that he owned a nail salon and that a woman named him Henry. My whole point was that this woman just renamed him as though he was her pet, talking to a man who was a war hero, lived in a concentration camp and then came here on a tiny boat. She renamed him without knowing what he experienced. Even though it was not intended to be that way, it was a bit belittling.
RF: Is this what you would like people to walk away from your performance with?
MG: Well, a big part of it is learning about something the audience never thought of before. I hope people realize that it’s not always easy to be here for someone from another country, and that maybe, next time someone sees a little Asian lady who can’t speak English walking down the street, they will have more compassion for her. It’s not that she doesn’t want to learn the language; it’s just that it’s a little bit harder for her.