On Saturday, May 18, 1991, Johnson Liff Casting held an open casting call for the part of Tarn, the illegitimate child born to the prostitute in the Broadway show “Miss Saigon.” Because of the controversy raised over the casting of the principal roles, the ad very distinctly specified “Asian/American child between the ages of 4 and 5, no taller than 41 inches.”
That morning, I boarded the 8:07 A.M. train to New York with Mikki Lee, my “Chewish” (half Chinese, half Jewish) 3 1/2 year old daughter and Mildred, my Jewish mother-in-law.
“Lai, lai, lai!” I called as Mikki Lee began meandering down the aisle of the train.
She ignored me and continued walking towards the conductor who was punching holes into tickets.
“Come here!” I repeated begrudgingly in English. Mikki Lee looked at me reproachfully and walked back to Mildred and me.
Although she understands Chinese, Mikki Lee is not eager to converse in any language other than English. Her reluctance has always frustrated and saddened me. Growing up in a Chinese-speaking home, my sister and I began learning English in kindergarten and grade school. It became, for us, a language of necessity. Chinese was our special means of expressing ourselves, our own private realm into which we could transport ourselves simply by shifting linguistic gears. It gave us another way to share our adolescent thoughts and dreams, and, more importantly, being bilingual provided us with another pair of cultural eyes through which we interpreted and eventually assimilated our world. A rare and precious gift I wanted so dearly to share with my daughter.
We arrived early. The rehearsal room was empty except for a sleepy receptionist sipping her morning coffee at an extremely cluttered desk and a few people setting up rows of folding chairs.
People began trickling in. Slowly, we were surrounded by a most unusual and exotic group of children. For the first time, Mikki Lee found herself among Amerasian children who looked eerily similar in their coloring and facial features.
She grabbed my hand and pointed excitedly at a beautiful little girl with a delicately shaped face and dark eyes shaped like watermelon seeds. Her straight, light brown hair, which was cut exactly like Mikki Lee’s, was swept into a stylish French braid and adorned with a red lacquer barrette.
“Mommy, can you comb my hair like that? With a red barrette, too, please?” Mikki Lee asked pleadingly. Hair ornaments hold a wonderful fascination for her. This time, she was also intrigued by the little girl wearing them. They looked as if they could have been sisters. Same hair color, same curious blend of ethnic looks.
Her parents, catching my eye as I looked up, gave me a friendly smile. I stared.
“Jewish men!” exclaimed Mildred. “Almost every Caucasian father here is Jewish!”
Startled by her unexpected outburst, I quickly looked around the room. Mildred was right. Approximately 20 couples had arrived with their children and more than half were of the Asian mother/Jewish father combination.
“No wonder Mrs. Krautzmacher’s daughter can’t meet a nice, Jewish boy,” said Mildred shaking her head. “They’re marrying Asian women. Poor Rhonda.” I murmured sympathetically and was interrupted by an insistent little voice at my side.
“Well, can she have a donut?” asked a small boy holding up a white bakery box.
Mikki gave the crullers a doubtful look.
“Ho ho sik!” said his mother with an encouraging smile.
I held my breath. Mikki Lee gingerly picked one out of the box and thanked the boy in a shy voice.
She answered in Chinese! My daughter spoke to someone in Chinese! I was thrilled.
“Geshmakt?” asked Mildred, tenderly brushing crumbs off of Mikki Lee’s cheek. “Did that taste good?”
“Bao doe say!” answered Mikki cheerfully, munching on the last piece of her cruller. “I’m so full I could die!”
“Me too!” shouted the little boy next to her. His mother beamed.
“A shainen dank,” said Mildred.
“Yes, thank you very much – oh! I mean, Daw jyeh nay,” I added, trying in vain to keep my tongue from slipping and stumbling through Chinese, Yiddish and English.
We all laughed at the unwieldy mixture of languages being tossed around good naturedly.
I fit in here. I felt an odd sense of home. In this little intercultural microcosm, there were other Chinese women who, like myself, had chosen Jewish mates. In raising . their American children, they were also faced with the challenge of blending complex identities, languages and cultural questions. Throughout the studio, I could see other Asian/Jewish couples shifting naturally from one language to another, one culture to another. It was too good to be true. Here, in this strange and wonderful moment, any child who was not biracial, trilingual or an offspring of an unusual marriage would clearly be at a disadvantage.
Weeks later, I spoke to the publicist for “Miss Saigon“. A PhilippinolAmerican boy was selected from among the 30 children who auditioned that day.
Am I disappointed that Mikki Lee did not get the role? In view of the joyful reaffirmation of my Chinese-Jewishness, somehow it does not seem all that important.
Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer is a cartoonist and writer currently finishing a comic strip about an interracial/ interfaith family, namely, her own.