You are NOT a cultural ambassador
It’s OK to know just a little, not everything, about your own culture
Sydney, Australia, 1995. My worst nightmare.
My father was a political figure in Indonesia. On this night, our family was invited for a suit-and-tie dinner at the state house of Governor of New South Wales.
To my horror, there were 3 dinner tables. My father, mother and I were separated on different tables. I was placed alone with a table of eight Australian experts in politics of Indonesia — political observers, journalists, NGO leaders.
The table started discussions about very heavy topics in Indonesia — about the secession movement in the state of Timor and Papua (Timor Leste did, in 2002). It was a smart, well-informed conversation.
And then the eight experts turned to me. “What do you think?”
I was a teenager not old enough to drink, let alone answer this question. I only remembered having white fish and peas on the plate (that’s where I was staring at, to get away from the focus). I think I gave some simple answer. But they listened, nodded, and affirmed, “This is what an Indonesian person thinks. So it is.” They accepted my opinion as it was, without judgement. Even with respect. Why?
I continued with my fish.
Fast forward to now. Improv 2021.
For many Asian improvisers, we are still the voices of the few in a room of Westerners, and that is a daunting proposition. Asians know about Western culture more than Westerners know about Asian culture. This makes it very tough for us to bring Asian culture into the scene. Because first of all, we feel an obligation to educate and be “cultural ambassadors”.
And the role of “cultural ambassador” — which I felt I was thrusted upon in Sydney 1995 — is a heavy burden to carry. Much less in a completely unscripted, untethered setting where our vulnerabilities are laid to bare. Where you can say the wrong things about your own culture, and feel afraid of misrepresenting your own people.
My opinion, don’t worry about it.
You don’t have to know everything about your culture. You are not an ambassador. You are living, breathing human being, whose personal lens might have been shaped by the culture around you. Some things in your culture might affect you and some might not. And it’s neither right or wrong. It just is. That’s what true life experience is.
I taught a class recently called FAIRY TALES FROM THE EAST, in an effort to bring new cultural references onto the stage. One of the many responses from Asian players was “Oh no! I don’t remember my childhood fairy tales.” We are so used to listen to universally known stories of Three Little Pigs and Cinderella. It’s been retold so many times that you won’t damage the legacy by getting it wrong. But! Different is the case, when we bring our own lesser known Asian fairy tales. Your memories are patchy, and even worse you feel the obligation to get it right, and complete like you are a walking reference.
To this I will say, just give whatever you remember. You can tell a whole story and moral of the Kancil and the Buaya, or just “I vaguely remember there was a boy and a cucumber. I don’t remember the rest”. As much or as little as you remember.
First of all, because, even the smallest detail is already something new for everyone especially Westerners. Your small bit already makes the world a better place. You only need to bring as much as you are comfortable with, not tell the whole story. This is not a lecture on Fairy Tales. This is improv, inspired by Fairy Tales. Improv is: Bring a brick, not a candi.
Second, the parts you do remember are the important parts that shape you. That is who you are. That is not something you had picked up a book and study overnight. That is the authentic, genuine, lived experience.
For a long time, I kicked myself for not being able to reply the Australian experts in Sydney 1995 Dinner with a more informed answer. But now, I understand. It is NOT about getting as much information as possible. It is about what your experience is. And that’s why they respected what I said at the dinner table.
You are NOT a cultural ambassador.
You are a person.
“Thank you for giving us the permission to explore the stories without the fear of being held back by lack of knowledge. This is one thing I am taking away from the session today — you don’t have to know the intricate cultural details if you focus on the prime emotional characteristics /bond”
- Athira Vidyadhar, Hyderabad India.
Dedicated to Athira Vidyadhar.