“I totally had you pegged,” says the boy driving me home. I interrupt to tell him he has to turn left at the intersection ten feet ahead of us, and he cuts across four different lanes the way I might hack at a bagel with a butter knife. He fiddles with the knob on the stereo until Britney’s “Toxic” is a buzz in my teeth. “I thought you were crazy. Like, I thought you did crack on the weekends.”
I don’t. I’m fifteen and adamantly teetotal, partly due to internalized your-body-is-a-temple rhetoric, but also out of misguided moral superiority to my oft-hammered peers. Still, his comment pleases me. We’ve never spoken before, but he sees me, even if inaccurately—blunt bob, lined eyes, consciously-kitschy Warhol soup tee—including all of my efforts to seem bolder and wilder and less inhibited than I really am.
Even now, years later, I’m good with crazy. I’m good with hedonist and bleeding-heart poet and anal retentive. Having a role, however superficial, however demeaning, is a source of comfort. It is nice to be seen, after all. Even if not for what I am.
M. Butterfly’s Song Liling is coquettish, quick-witted, and above all different from the Western women that have surrounded French diplomat Rene Gallimard his entire life. “[Chinese women’s fascination with Caucasian men] is always imperialist,” Song trills in an early encounter with Gallimard, “but sometimes…sometimes, it is also mutual.”
David Henry Hwang’s stage play M. Butterfly deals in false identities of all sorts. I read it while in my final year of high school, pumping out college applications, trying to distill my essence into a 650-word essay. I was a poet, I’d decided. My satisfactory grades in English and single publication in a tiny student zine had dictated it so.
M. Butterfly is, in essence, a subversive and metatheatrical retelling of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. In Hwang’s version, French diplomat Rene Gallimard becomes infatuated with Chinese opera singer Song Liling, whom he perceives to be the perfect embodiment of East Asian femininity: submissive, reticent, modest. While the audience is led to believe that M. Butterfly will follow the trajectory of Puccini’s opera—unavailable white man abandons lovesick Oriental woman, whose grief leads her to suicide—Hwang’s play instead obliterates it entirely. Song Liling is not a demure opera star, but rather a spy for the Chinese government. Perhaps more significantly, Song Liling is a man.
Despite this evisceration of many of the Orientalist archetypes present in Madama Butterfly, there are certain archetypes M. Butterfly’s characters actively choose to uphold. Song, for example, acts as a docile and uncritically devoted Chinese woman throughout his twenty-year love affair with Gallimard.
I keep asking myself why, though I already know the answer. Why carve out two decades of one’s life to play a one-dimensional and even degrading caricature? Why dedicate oneself so fully and for so long to presenting as a gender with which one does not identify?
Song and I are the same. It is nice to be seen, even if in disguise. It is nice to be seen and nicer still to be loved.
The first time somebody commended me for my independence, I took the praise and ran.
It was high school again, and I wanted to know why no one had called. Over the past year I’d been a wound in motion—my brain misfiring, relationships idling, unexcused absences and dropped classes piling up like dust. My friend had missed school the previous day without warning. She’d been feeling depressed. The rest of my friends scrambled to reach her by phone, send her the day’s homework, order her a snack to cheer her up.
I wanted to know why no one had called me. I wanted to know what made her worth saving, why no one had bothered to ask how I was doing.
“Well,” one of my friends said, “you’re just more independent.”
It didn’t matter that independence had never been one of my defining characteristics—I made it one. I kept everything to myself. I highlighted my parents’ inability to support me emotionally, tallied my family’s offenses. As a kid, I set my needs aside so my siblings could grow. In high school, I informed my parents of each unnoticed plummet in mental and physical health. When my brother’s own health deteriorated, I became my father’s emotional caretaker.
It was like each transgression committed by the people in my life formed its own tiny dot, and all I had to do was connect them all into a caricatured outline of an independent girl: scrappy, resilient, alone. I both seethed and smiled every time I perceived neglect, every time I was expected to be wise beyond my years. Another dot, another detail.
I remember a five-dollar Yankee Candle, Island Mango, cracking against the floor like a fallen egg, amber yellow and oozing from its confines. My sister had flung it off the landing in a fit of rage. It tumbled from the second story, as if frame by frame, shattering less than a foot from where I stood below. Shards of stray glass peppered my ankles. I imagined standing a few inches to the right, where my skull and not the candle would have been the egg bursting in its too-soft shell, and the smell of synthetic fruit would have drowned me. Upstairs, my sister slammed her bedroom door. The walls rattled. I broke into ugly, infantile sobs.
My father watched me from the kitchen, eyes heavy with pity, or something like it. I sensed an opportunity in his immobility, in his failure to be moved to anger by a violence I hadn’t entirely escaped. I grabbed a broom from the corner and began sweeping, still choking on tears and spit. My father offered to clean up the mess. I refused. Splinters of glass twinkled like obscene gems as I coaxed them into the dustpan. The broom’s hollow handle had never felt so full, so stable in my hands. How right that I, self-proclaimed victim to my family’s ugliness, was the one sweeping it into a pile, thrusting it cleanly in the trash.
I can’t say that independence is the only abstract attribute upon which I’ve built entire identities. The first time somebody called me smart in high school, I spent the rest of the day cashing in on all my fifty-cent words. Ersatz. Obfuscate. Solipsistic. I had to be sharp and so left myself no time to think. Likewise, being told I was a good listener—comforting, affirming—made me want to play everyone’s therapist, even when inconvenient.
Given this history, I can empathize with Song’s desire to fully embody what others perceived in him, even if that was relentless, unrequited love, lack of independence, and sexual shame. How readily we deny ourselves complexity in order to be seen.
Of course, to imply that our heedless self-reduction is motivated solely by the opinions of others remains a touch too altruistic. “I thought myself so repulsed by the passive Oriental and the cruel white man,” Song laments while criticizing Gallimard’s callousness, “Now I see—we are always most revolted by the things hidden within us.”
Truthfully, we have little say in being seen. It’s one of the more obvious consequences of living. People will see you. People will think about you. People—be it a French diplomat, a belligerent sister, or flighty friends—will love and dislike and feel not very strongly at all about you, and little can be done about any of it. So perhaps what motivates Song and me to simplify ourselves isn’t a fear of going unseen and unappreciated by others, but rather the notion that we can control what we see within ourselves.
I’m thinking of the week after my first breakup, when I danced solemnly down Los Angeles’s dusty streets for hours blasting Prince’s rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” I made believe that I had never been desired by another person in my life. I was determined to find a natural order to my pain, some slow-leaking vein that ran deeper than the rest. If I could explain my heartbreak away as the latest manifestation of a series of endless rejections, rather than a quirk of the body in the wake of a singular incident, it somehow seemed less arbitrary. If no one had ever wanted me, I could tell myself that my undesirability had nothing to do with me. It instead became an endemic, irrevocable entity, drummed into me by the universe at my inception. I was to be rejected, abandoned, eclipsed by sweeter and shinier beings. I was homely Mary Bennet, playing sloppy piano concertos to a derisive audience. Eponine Thernadier, bullet wound in breast, delivering a letter from another woman to the man I loved. Madama Butterfly’s own Cio Cio-San, swathed in silk, plunging the dagger ad infinitum.
Song similarly implies that his masquerade as the “passive Oriental” serves to mask “the cruel white man” within himself. He further expresses love and affection for another man only when dressed as a woman. Though his queerness is never explicitly stated, M. Butterfly is riddled with implications of Song’s attraction to men. “It’s a…disguise,” Song states in reference to his feminine dress—a kimono, at once physical disguise and psychological mask, allowing Song to see himself as a woman in love with a man, a woman whose attractions are deemed appropriate by the society in which he lives.
In donning a kimono rather than a cheongsam, Song performs Asian femininity haphazardly, knowing that it ultimately matters little whether he is Japanese, Chinese, or any other East Asian ethnicity. He appeals not only to the perception that he is feminine, but also to the perception that he is one-dimensionally East Asian, and therefore one-dimensionally alien and exotic. As Song points out, these respective perceptions may actually be synonymous. “I am an Oriental,” he says. “I could never be completely a man.” In this admission, Song implies that his queerness and East Asian femininity, and perhaps East Asian identity alone, are mutually incompatible under the Western gaze. His performance of Asian femininity, in all its bastardized, oversimplified glory, effectively erases his queerness—the very queerness he refuses to acknowledge.
And just as Song Liling has his kimono, wig, and powder, I have my independence, intelligence, and blameless, solitary fate. I too can convince myself I’m something I’m not by playing a simpler role, a list of qualities acknowledged into existence by others. Because while they view us through a simpler lens than we view ourselves, they may also view us more favorably.
There was a point in my adolescent lifespan where I realized I was not the exception. It came when I was seventeen. A year of failures. I’d been trying to live outside of everything: flee the state, shed my family, take without giving anything of myself. Teenage hubris. I was rejected from almost every college I applied to—blue-tinted screen after blue-tinted screen, “After careful consideration, we are unable to offer you…” I would be living with my family for the next year, in the house of falling candles, my brother just beginning to learn how to crater white walls. I hooked up with my friend of four years, after which he never spoke to me again.
“This was good for what it was,” he said.
I heard it then: the past tense rattling like a bullet in its chamber. I had been ousted from my own body, made an instrument for use. It was the last time I saw him.
That loss arrived in August, but I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge it until winter. I spent the rest of the summer nursing my humiliation, trying to coax her back into my body, the version of me that had traced the bare skin of his ankle so gently it made me want to scream.
I wanted to live outside of myself. I wanted to be a daughter, a friend again. I can’t count the number of movies I watched with my parents that summer, splayed across their laps like a sheet. How many times I roped my friends into walking aimlessly through the park with me, just so I wouldn’t be alone. Independence was a costume I’d grown too large for.
That summer, I hear Madama Butterfly’s “Love Duet” blaring. Rene Gallimard, in a kimono and wig, bleeds out on the floor.
This is the ending the audience didn’t know they were anticipating. Expectations obscured by gore and Chinese silk. Song abandons his decades-old disguise, revealing himself to be Madama Butterfly‘s cruel and deceptive Pinkerton. And Gallimard wishes not to have Butterfly, but to be Butterfly—to embody undying love rather than receive it. An inversion of the Orientalist story we’ve become accustomed to hearing. An inversion Gallimard cannot stomach from his jail cell as Song stands before him in a two-button suit.
“Tonight, I’ve finally learned to tell fantasy from reality,” Gallimard declares. “And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.”
I want to read something into the fact that Madama Butterfly’s “Love Duet,” rather than the music of Cio Cio-San’s death scene, is playing as Gallimard takes his life. Despite Gallimard’s insistence that he loves only the fantasy of Song Liling, he reaches his purest and most sacrificial form of love for him here, when forced to confront Song in all his truth—his masculinity, his cruelty, his deception. He conversely denies himself love—and life—by retreating his furthest into an idealized self.
M. Butterfly’s final scene moments are devastating. But they’re also warm and intimate. For the first time, Song and Gallimard see each other, learn something true and fundamental about the other. I want to believe that amid tragedy, Hwang is giving us permission to abandon the act. To choose the human warmth of reality where fantasy often prevails. The curve of Gallimard’s still body, the dull glow of Song’s lit cigarette, warns of all that is lost in the creation of a smaller, infallible self. Look, they say, even our ugliest parts bleed when severed.
I don’t yet have a poignant story that affirms Hwang’s message of self-acceptance. I’m still working on it. But I know that sometimes, when I’m forced to retreat into my parents’ warm orbit for comfort, when I’m bested in some cerebral debate and it turns out I’m not as independent or intelligent or affirming as my streamlined fantasy of self would dictate, it feels like the ground beneath me has shifted, evaporated entirely. I’m plummeting, and there’s nothing.
Hwang is suggesting I need to fashion some kind of net to catch me. I agree. There has to be something there, when the person we think we are crumbles away, to save us from that horrible fall.