Walking a Tightrope

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May 31, 2021

Walk up onto a stage, in front of two teachers who don’t know you, in front of everyone else, ignore your heartbeat and answer the question. Easy.
“State your name and grade please.”
“My name is Vienna Cheng; I am a freshman, and I am speaking for the role of Daisy.”
Whispers went through the room. Small wrinkles formed in their foreheads as they wondered what an Asian was doing on stage.
“Alright then, Vienna Chang. Whenever you’re ready.”
They said my name wrong again.
Ignore it. Just breathe.
Remember what you just prepared.
And I spoke.
And for a while, it was like I was really Daisy, living in the 1920s. As if just for a second, I wasn’t Vienna, and I wasn’t in an old theatre room in front of nearly thirty pairs of eyes.
After the audition, I walked out of the theatre room with shaking hands. I gripped my violin case like a lifeline while I listened to my friend Laura rambling about how much fun she had.
“Wasn’t that awesome, Vienna? That was our first taste of high school theatre!”
“Well, I mean, I dunno, Laura. I was, like, really anxious. I really hope I can get a part.”
“You were anxious? I wasn’t. I felt like I was at home.”
Home?
How could I have felt at home there? In that dusty old room filled with white kids, who stared at me because I was a freshman who carried a violin case, who judged me because I was the only one in that entire room with an Asian last name?
I didn’t make it into the show. Laura did.
I didn’t fit in with the white kids, so that’s why I had joined orchestra back in 7th grade. In orchestra, being white was the minority, and almost everyone spoke Chinese. It should’ve felt like home.
But a single conversation at the beginning of the year forced me to reconsider that idea.
“So what’d you get on the algebra test?”
“Oh. Um, I’m not in algebra, actually. I’m in geometry,” I replied.
“You’re only in geometry?”
She didn’t need to say anything else. I could feel the disapproval radiating off of her facial features and posture. She turned away from me and called out to someone else.
“Hey Anaya! What’d you get on the algebra test?”
The other girl winced and hid her face in a joking way. ‘I did really bad on that one…”
‘C’mon, just tell me.”
‘I got a 95.”
‘Oh, I got a 100.”
I watched this exchange with wide eyes. A 95 was considered bad for this girl? I was just barely trying to pass my classes with a 75, but here were these orchestra girls, talking about 95s like they were 50s.
And I realized that place didn’t feel like home either.
I was surrounded by people that looked exactly like me. But I didn’t feel like them. These kids were all taking classes that were so much harder, and they were so much smarter than me, and they played violin better than me. I didn’t fit in with them.
Later that year, Laura and I started dating. But that was right when the pandemic hit, and the Black Lives Matter protests started to happen, and the spike in Asian hate crimes went through the roof. Every single day felt like a battle. And when school started in person again, it was a constant fight between me and everyone else in my classes. My classmates thought that COVID-19 started because Chinese people were being disgusting “as usual” and ate some bats, which, according to them, had started everything.
Laura broke up with me by March after I ranted to her about another fight I had gotten into. I remember she had said in exasperation, “Vienna, why do you always have to be so angry all the time?”
I’m angry because I see Asian women getting shot in Atlanta, because my classmates tell me I have to get “my country” under control, because I feel like I have to fight someone new every single day.
But it struck me that once again, it was because I didn’t belong. As much as I had loved Laura, she couldn’t understand what it felt like to see people hating her culture. She would never know what it feels like to walk on the border between two sides and not fit into either. Good for her. No one should have to know what that feels like.
Today, I’ve picked my side to be theatre and left the orchestra. I joined decathlon instead, and now I’m truly happier. Turns out, the theatre kids aren’t so bad once you get to know them. But I’m still the only Chinese person in the whole troupe. I’m the only theatre person in the entire decathlon team, and I make the worst grades out of them all. I’m never truly going to blend in anywhere, but I’ve accepted that.
Despite everything, I will never stop being proud of who I am.
My name is Vienna Cheng. It’s not pronounced “Chang”, and my Chinese name is 程蔚然。I still walk on the tightrope between my two lives: I am proud to be in both theatre and decathlon. My Chinese identity does not make me any smarter, and it does not mean I cannot be part of theatre. I will always be Chinese, even if I cannot speak the language as well as I would like. My culture is not dirty. I am not disgusting. And I am not a token minority to be stepped on.
I may stand alone where I am, but that just means I have to talk louder. And that’s what theatre kids are good for.

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