Theatre Lessons

Asian woman with rice bowl in front of face

In this white porcelain bowl, I have space. My fingers cup the edges as if I were lifting it up to my face, but I cannot because it is too heavy. So I lean forward, close enough to touch the small pool of water. And in my stomach a raging sea begins a mad rush or bitter waves that soon foam in my mouth. It pours, like a waterfall splashing onto the landscape. Sometimes, it touches my face, but I don't care. Here, no one can see me. No one understands the art I am creating. It is one of the few things in my life that I am proud of. Here, no one defines the lines or tells me how to draw. But even that is sometimes violated as the orchestra of voices telling me that I am not good enough, or that I am fat, or that I have a problem, get louder and louder. The pain in my stomach and in my throat become nothing compared to these voices. At times I want to stop, but I cannot. So I let myself go, and when I am finished, I stand back to admire what I have done.

Figures in black wearing masks crouch on the floor, their arms making a wide circle. Jessica stares at the circle, and rocks forward, then back. A voice in the darkness reads a poem expressing the fear and pain Jessica feels as she sits in denial of her problem. The circle represents a toilet; the rocking a purging cycle.

Jessica is the main character in a play written by Ameca Shang. But her words and feelings could be those of thousands of young Asian-American women.

When Shang, a nutrition major, began to study eating disorders, she could find little mention of eating disorders in non-white women. One counselor even told her that Asian-American women don't really suffer from the problem. Believing that statement to be misguided, Shang decided to help end the misconceptions.

First she compiled a literature review, cataloguing the few books and studies that examine eating disorders from a multicultural perspective. Next she interviewed Asian-American women who had had eating disorders. Some of the women she interviewed were strangers, but many were longtime friends. "Through my friends I've seen firsthand what an eating disorder is and how hard it is to face," she says. "I've realized not only how common the problem is, but how serious."

Shang's involvement in theatre presented her with the perfect way to reach the women she seeks to help. Hopes and an Orange Duck, a play she both wrote and produced, was staged in April 1998 as a part of Penn State's Asian Awareness Month. Shang first worked on it in a playwriting class, revising and developing the script for over a year, with the help of theatre arts professor Charles Dumas, who is also her adviser. As the play's director, Dumas organized the actions of the cast and guided their performances. Working closely with Shang, Dumas also helped with the writing and acting. "I was extraordinarily pleased with the whole process," he notes.

The play centers on a middle-aged Asian-American woman, Jessica, whose daughter is in the hospital close to death as a result of an eating disorder. This tragedy awakens in Jessica the memories of her own college years when she was suffering from the same disorder. Through narration and flashbacks, the audience sees what women with these disorders go through and the ways in which their lives are forever changed.

Shang based Jessica's story both on the data that she gathered in her literature search and on reallife events experienced by the women that she interviewed.

"The play is about searching for and finding a voice, an identity, and hope," says Shang. "It's a subtle delivery, but I hope a message with a big impact."

Shang wants her peers to recognize the elements of Asian culture that affect the occurrence of eating disorders. For instance, the stereotypical Asian-American woman is petite, delicate. Many women feel pressure to fit into that mold, even at the risk of their health. Shang found that a lot of this pressure can come from mothers, especially in traditional families. Mothers like "Jessica" often teach their daughters that looks are the key factor in finding a husband and marrying well. "The central issue is self worth," Shang states. "With a focus on family and image, girls do not learn to value themselves, to love themselves for who they are rather than for what they look like."

Shang hopes that her play will also demonstrate what she sees as an urgent need for culturally sensitive counseling for Asian-American women. One scene from the play depicts the lumping together of different Asian cultures. When asking Jessica about her eating patterns, the counselor in Hopes and an Orange Duck asks, "What do you eat? Sushi? Egg rolls?" These dishes, from different Asian cultures, typify the assumptions Americans often make about Asian-American life. "Counselors need to understand our culture as well as the pressures that it can place on our women. Then counseling can begin to help women overcome their disorders," Shang explains.

Ameca Shang received a B.S. in nutrition in May 1998, with honors in nutrition and theatre, from the Colleges of Health and Human Development and Arts and Architecture, and the Schreyer Honors College. Her nutrition advisers are Michael Green, Ph.D., 126 Henderson Bldg, University Park, PA 16802; 814.863.2914; mhg@psu. edu; and Cheryl Achterberg, Ph.D., 214 Willard Bldg, 863.2635; agy@psu.edu. Her theatre adviser is Charles Dumas, J.D., 105 Arts Bldg, 863 9413; cxd28@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 10, 2014