My name is Yee Eun Nam and I came to the United States for an MFA in theater design. Every August 22nd, I buy a bottle of champagne to celebrate the day when I came to LA. I don’t think I fully understood what it would mean to study and live in a foreign country, having family 15 hours away, across the ocean, on different continents.
My first year at school was like living in a jungle. It was like being in a video game with the wrong language patch installed. If I didn’t know what I wanted to say in English, I was ignored and called a mistake. I was confused and miserable at that time. So when I finished my first year, I had to celebrate that I didn’t quit, even though I almost did. I was alone in the apartment full of ugly furniture from the prop shop.
My second year and third year went really fast. I was focused on how to blend into the world. I hate parties so much but went to couple of parties and had no idea what to do. I was sitting for hours not talking to anyone. I am an introverted person but had to find a way to make friends. I tried to fix my accent and act like Americans. I also came up with an easier name for them to pronounce. I smiled but rarely talked. The only good thing was adopting a cat. The funny thing is showing my cat’s photos helped me to start conversations with people.
My fourth year, I was finally in the “real” world after graduation. It was like being in The Hunger Games as a freelancer. And to get a working visa, I had to take as many projects as possible within one year. I said yes to everyone and sometimes had openings every weekend. I learned a lot but also started to question to myself about how to live in the US as a foreigner. And this rose the question: “Do I need to be like an American to live in the US?”
I never knew how Asian I was until I got here. When I was in Korea, things were pretty simple. But in the US, things started to get mixed up. I was expected to act like an American. People asked me if my plan was to bring my whole family here for a better life. Or sometimes I was asked if I came to the US looking for freedom. I got used to hearing a joke about getting married for a green card. I was expected to be nice and kind like Asian girls. Do I want to be an American? Does my accent need to be fixed? How should I react to racist comments? How to explain that Asia is not one country? So many questions for years but I never knew the answers.
Time passed and when it became my 8th year, I became “that Asian designer” doing American shows. Finally it was time for me to do shows about Asia. So I started to ask around. And I was very lucky to get some chances to do several Asian shows about different Asian cultures. Those were great years to be part of the Asian community, but also I faced the reality of being Asian in the United States.
As a designer, I always do intensive research to make everything right. They usually become 10 page reports or hundreds of files. I had no doubts about doing this work because I was presenting other people’s story that I had to respect and understand. I thought every one was doing it. Unfortunately, people tend to be insensitive when they do shows about minorities. I had wonderful experiences with most of the Asian shows, but unfortunately, many times I was told to create western versions of Asian fantasies, was lectured about “oriental” design from white people and witnessing how my colleagues insisted in keep the wrong references in their design even though I mentioned they were from the wrong culture.
One day when it happened again I saw my assistant’s face. She was a young Asian person and looked down with no words while the artistic director was talking how he didn’t understand why we were so picky and didn’t want to use a prop he liked from the wrong country. That moment was wake-up call for me. If I didn’t stop, this would continue happen. A similar thing happened a few years back when my Filipino assistant was assumed to be my cousin because two Asians working together was rare for the director. When I realized that, I was so embarrassed that I had been ignoring these thoughts and didn’t stand up for years because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. So finally I said that as long as I was a designer, I wouldn’t put the wrong design onstage because I knew it was wrong. And I became “grumpy Asian designer” for the rest of the process. I started to speak up when I saw wrong references or inappropriate comments against Asian culture.
However, as a young designer in the early part of my career, I was scared to speak up. I didn’t want to lose jobs and was not sure if the world was ready for change. That’s when I met Cha, Kimie, and Rodrigo as well as 60 other artists through See Lighting Foundation. I never got to know other immigrant designers who went though the same struggles and shared the same thoughts in our theater community. They built a community where I finally feel safe and share my feelings and thoughts, which is a big relief under this pandemic. I am so proud to be a part of this group of artists. So next year which would be my 10 year anniversary, I hope we can celebrate safely and continue raising our voices and sharing ideas to continue to work and build a better industry for the future.
A photo of my first set during my first load-in and a grid image photo during one of my projection load-ins. Also, black coffee (like my soul) and reflection of the ceiling light from the school studio late at night with dancing figures I drew.
Banner photo above: First photo I took in LA in a car from the airport to school, champagne bubbles and smiley faces I drew on the cue sheet during the production meeting.