Fourth-year Theatre student Alex Colle sat down with Yu Liang, a first-year International student from China currently studying Theatre at York. This interview is the first in a two-part series.
ALEX: Tell me a bit about your life before you came to Canada.
YU: In China I graduated from engineering. I graduated at 22 years year old, worked for 3 years, and then I quit. I have a double degree with business administration and I found a very good company. The job was very good for young people. I was the assistant for the boss. The salary was good. But nearly a whole year I didn’t smile. It’s like I was using my life to exchange money. After ten years I knew I could become a manager – a very high manager. You put your life in that industry. Several years later I would have been in a higher position. But there are no valuable skills. I can only use 30% of my energy in my work. The rest – 70% of my energy is towards my relationship with people. That’s kind of wasting time. I didn’t feel like I had a relationship with my work. My work was program manager, and later I became the marketing manager. But I felt that work was far away from me.
In 2015 I went to attend a workshop that was held by a NGO. There I met lots of very interesting people. There were some people who were doing social work for rights for women, for workers, for homosexual people. And some were doing performance arts in a museum, showing some ideas to journalists and photographers. Just seven days. But I felt like I could smile again. I could laugh again. In just seven days I felt I grew up hugely. Some days I even got experience and the improvements as equal as when I did my job. Equal to one year’s experience. If I do the things I like, I will grow up very fast. Much faster than with something I don’t like.
ALEX: I understand that you put up your own play in China. What was it about theatre that spoke to you?
YU: I’m very proud of that. I brought up a period of torment and then I decided to write a story depicting my life. That was the first script in my university experience written by a student and put on stage talking about homosexual boys’ experiences. The growing up experience. When I showed the script to my fellow actors, they had a very, very confused feeling. Some people don’t want to touch this topic. But later, those members in the group grew up a lot. So I think it was quite educational.
ALEX: Did you grow up as well?
YU: Mhm. And just now I mentioned a workshop. It’s for sexual minority. Gay, lesbian, transgender. They healed my heart. Gave me lots of courage. And so did the play. I wrote it in my last year at my first university. I was 21 years old. It healed my heart a lot. Then later when I start working I joined some theatre groups in the city. Some social groups. They were doing playback theatre. It’s kind of like Devised Theatre. Improv theatre. All the actors listen to a story from the audience, and then they start to perform exactly that story. It’s a gift for the audience. In this period in China, I continued to get healed. I felt like when I did performances, I was very peaceful and that I could gain more sympathy or empathy. I could understand people more and understand myself more. It’s like meditation sometimes.
ALEX: In which city did this happen?
ALEX: After that experience, what made you want to move to Canada?
YU: There’s a very strong event that happened. In 2015, three months after the workshop I attended, one student in the workshop was caught by policemen because students wanted to hold a woman’s rights activity to prevent sexual harassment on girls on public transit. On the bus and on the subway, lots of men will harass women. So those girls wanted to hold an activity by sending posters and stickers to educate people. To stop sexual harassment. Five girls wanted to host this activity, but before the held the event, the policemen came to catch them and bring them to jail. No legal documents. They just brought them. Catch them into the jail. Catch them for 38 days. The police officers wanted to condemn them as criminals. They also wanted to bring them to court. But the court disagreed with the police’s decision. Around that time, all of their friends – including me – started to spread the news that the police officers did such a stupid thing against the law and that those girls didn’t do anything to trouble society. Every time we tried to spread the news, ten minutes later the website would be banned. The Chinese government is very good at controlling the media. Controlling social media. Around that time I felt very helpless. It’s like running your head against stone.
During that period there was a very important government meeting. The reason why those policemen caught them might have been because they didn’t want those girls doing anything to influence the meeting. But the meeting is held every year. And before 2015 if the police thought you were doing something stupid or maybe influencing some meeting, they would just monitor you or talk to you harshly and force you to cancel your activity. They won’t bring you into jail for 38 days. So I feel like the government became more and more strict, more and more closed than before. And another reason is that the governors change. Before those governors and the officers were a little bit open-minded. It is like Obama and Trump. The differences.
I felt very disappointed after the whole thing happened. In my memory, I thought China became a country that relied on laws. This was the first time I saw the bias and the domination. So then I thought that if some day I say something, maybe I will be thrown into jail. And my family will get influenced, too. When I wanted to help with something for my friends, I was so weak. I’m just a very, very normal person. What can I do?
So I decided to go outside. One reason was to get to a safer place. The other reason was if I could grow up – become stronger – maybe in the future I can help my friends. If they were in trouble, at least they can come to find me. Maybe I can become a shelter to them. And in this way maybe I can also make sure I have something to protect my family with because the same things happened in China 40 years ago. The Cultural Revolution was when the government came out with very stupid thinking. They thought some people were very dangerous. If you knew more things you were more dangerous. They killed and prisoned lots of scholars, lots of professors. Lots of writers committed suicide. They suffered discrimination. Punishment. It destroys your self-confidence. Every day, everyone passing by you will spit at you. They will damn you. You were condemned as a dangerous person. Betrayal. That’s the beginning. That’s why I wanted to go abroad. Also, to learn something. I wanted to choose something I loved. I already know about doing something that I don’t love. I could just find a place to work. Find a place to stay. I didn’t need to study. This is a way I can solve all the problems and to be satisfied.
But that’s just the first moment that I wanted to go outside. Now it has been one year and four months and my thinking has changed slowly and now my feeling could be a little different from the beginning. Now it’s more about life. Another reason I left is for me. For gay people in China, it is very heavy discrimination. It is really difficult for you to have a normal life and when you go to a website to read comments from people, 60% of them really strongly discriminate homosexual people or people who have AIDS or people who are minorities. Lots of gay people discuss how to go to Denmark, how to go to the United States, how to go to Australia or New Zealand or to Canada or Germany or England just to find a more free country.
ALEX: How was that transition from the Chinese culture to the Canadian culture?
YU: It’s quite different. I try very hard. I think that the most different thing in China – or for the East Asian culture or for the Middle East – is how people look at relationships between people. How people deal with people. Here, people’s relationships are simpler than in the Asian culture. And here you can express your opinion more straight. But in China I still can’t figure out how to have a conversation with people. Sometimes it can go very deep, but I don’t know what their real thoughts are, or I don’t know after I say something what is their reaction or feeling. People don’t tell you their feeling. And sometimes people don’t want to know the truth or don’t want to know real ideas. Sometimes people just want to be satisfied and want to feel they are better than others. Here, I feel like holding a conversation is easier than in China. I feel that my mind is very straightforward. I don’t know how to deal with very curt people. Here, people work more hard than Asian people. People will work hard, play hard. When you work for one hour, it’s exactly one hour. And you put 100% of your energy to work. You push yourself very strongly. But in China people can work more relaxed. But they will put more time into the work and usually you can’t get paid for working after hours.
In China, how the social structure works is the higher up people deliver the words to the ground. It’s like those words have the power for force everyone to follow. You have to listen to your boss. You have to listen to your manager’s commands. It’s not about how much money you can get. It’s about if you will be accepted by the community. Here, the thing that pushes society is money. Money from the richest people delivers down to the ground. That’s how capitalism manages society. When you have lots of money, you can use it to invest. Money can bring more money. Everyone is part of the machine. In China, sometimes you don’t have enough money but still you can get some food. It’s not socialist, but it’s because some people want to help you a little bit. Depending on the relationship, people will help you cover some fees. The machine is not strictly combined with money. It combines with words delivered from the upper people. If you have to obey the words, then your mind has to accept it. Your mind must accept these words. That’s why China controls social media so harshly. Because in a society based on words, they have to control social media very harshly. They don’t want people to have too much independent thinking. If you think more you will wonder more, then you will not be a very good slave. Here, things are based on money, so people don’t really care what you think about. It doesn’t matter. Some people’s ideas are hugely different. You can say whatever you want. But you have to be honest about money. You pay one ticket for $20. He has to pay $20, too. Every slave has to give money. That’s what they focus on. They are very strict for that element.
Still lots of differences. The first thing that I realized is that when I talk with people back in China, they seem really, really interested. Their face is very excited and very enjoyable. Sometimes they will smile to you and become very kind. Here, when I say something interesting, I feel like people’s face will become serious. Eyes open. The smile disappears and they look very deep into you.
ALEX: Sort of like what I’m doing now.
YU: Yes! Am I saying something troubling? Later I understood that I am drawing attention and they are thinking about it. They pay high attention to you and try to understand and think about if your words are right or wrong. And during normal conversation people smile to you, but it could be just very polite. That’s the thing that I figure out. In China when people’s faces become serious, you must have said something really troubling.
The other thing is here the education system is more fair than in China. For example in theatre school in China, lots of people gave money to the teachers in the auditions. For undergraduates it’s much better. If you become an actor and join a play or a movie or film, usually they didn’t think about your acting skills, they just consider who gave more money. They can control the group. Lots of directors also have to allow the actors to change the script in very stupid ways. Sometimes the producers are very stupid, too. They force the playwright or director to change the script in a very boring or unbelievable way. The government will give lots of restraint to the entertainment industry. Talking about story is about talking about an idea. These ideas are what the government wants to control. For films or theatre or music or writing, it will influence people greatly. It’s for people’s minds, their opinions, and that’s what the government strictly focuses on. If I want to write a story that talks about history 50 years ago, there are a lot of topics I can’t write. You can’t write the real cruel stories. How the society destroys a person. Think about North Korea. Some director wanted to shoot a documentary and the whole country selected performers and rehearsed a lot to give the director a fake daily life.
For traditional Chinese culture, it’s real great. Really great things. I learned traditional Chinese painting. I learned from a very traditional book. The book was written 300 years ago. Lots of ideas. It’s exactly the same now at York. They encourage you to open your mind and encourage the diversity of people and encourage you to think more and to see more. For Chinese traditional theatre, it’s amazing. For my performance in playGround, I feel like I benefited a lot from traditional Chinese plays and Beijing opera. The way they build that – the theatre group – is vey similar like York. They train you very hard and the most horrible sin in theatre is wasting the audience’s time. If you didn’t do well in the performance, that’s your fault. No superstars. No ego.
Stay tuned for part two of Yu’s story, coming next Friday, March 31st! You can hear about why he chose York, what his experience auditioning for different AMPD programs was, how his first year in Theatre has been, and what he hopes for in the future. You won’t want to miss it!