In Conversation with Vicky Zhuang Yi-Yin Theatre, Racism and Celebrating Dual Culture

A spirited individual, Vicky Zhuang Yi-Yan who looks Chinese is a Pakistani at heart. However she considers both countries as a reflection of her identity. And through her plethora of work in theatre and entertainment, this vibrant ball of talent is creating stories which make you sit back and ponder. With her latest masterpiece ”Hijr/Separation’, a story of a family who is left with many things unsaid, Vicky is already proving her craft as the film has won 12 awards already. Social Diary had the pleasure to speak to this massively talented writer, producer and director to know more about her journey- professionally and personally.

SD: How were you able to get the best of both worlds- Pakistan and China?
Vicky: When I speak about the best of both worlds, I am talking about the cultural richness of both these countries. The diversity, history, traditions and language have always fascinated me since my childhood. At home I’m living my Chinese life and when I am outside my home, I’m on a completely different side of the world. I speak both Urdu and Chinese, and easily code switch, as the need occurs, and that still messes with a lot of my friends when I get a phone call from home when I’m hanging out with them. I haven’t had a chance to travel to China in the past 20 years, but I still feel the pride of being Chinese, and at the same time, I also feel the pride of being a Pakistani. It’s like having two children to be honest, to hear both of them do well you get extremely happy about it. I just don’t like it when in sports it’s China vs Pakistan, then I’m like, “I’m not watching this.” HAHA.
SD: What are the greatest things you have been able to attain while living in Pakistan?
Vicky: I’ve been living in Pakistan forever now. I think the greatest thing that I have been able to attain so far is my long lasting friendships, even if most of them are not my chaddi(childhood) buddies. I love my experience of being me and it has shaped the kind of person that I am right now, so yeah, growing up here really was a journey that I deem worth for me, although 15 year old me would’ve argued with me but it’s all part of the process I guess.
SD: How did your interest in theatre and performance come into the forefront?
Vicky: In grade 3, I was part of a school play where the school hired a professional director to helm a tiny production. I was the only third grader in the play and enjoyed every moment of rehearsals. My interest in theatre piqued again when I was in A Levels, and it just felt like something I really wanted to do. Unfortunately, I thought I had given up on it when I went to business school, but then somehow, it was able to pull me back into its world again in college when I did my first commercial theater production, The Corpse Bride, directed by Hashim Ali and then I co-directed and wrote the play, The Forsaken, the following year with my friends, Hamza Ghaznavi as the other co-director and Sarah Gilani, our art director, and then I guess the rest became history when I met Kanwal Khoosat, Iram Sana, Fyque Nadeem and Sania Saeed and we kind of cosmically got together and decided we wanted to stick with each other a bit longer and created OLOMOPOLO Media back in 2013, and we’re still at it with OLOMOPOLO.
SD: What are the major genres covered in your theater’s performances?
Vicky: Generally, drama. But it really sits across multiple themes, spread across a myriad of genres and we’ve tackled many things through our productions. We’ve also been able to push the boundaries in terms of performances by constantly challenging ourselves and the narratives that we are so used to in our society. The best part is that we work with different age groups so it really is a fun mix of things to do.

SD: Can we draw a parallel between the dynamics that define theatre in both countries; have you ever had any productions and shows that touch upon the cultural similarities and differences between the two?
Vicky: I haven’t seen a theatre production in China yet. As I mentioned, I haven’t been there since 1997. Our productions mostly tackle stories with local contexts, and the only production that I remember focusing on another culture was A Thousand Cranes which was a story about a Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki. However, at OLOMOPOLO Media, we do have a separate project that celebrates different cultures; OLO People. In it, we do have one celebration that we partake in: The Lantern Festival. It is usually hosted by me, and I usually tell people about the way Chinese people living in Pakistan celebrate Chinese New Year. I have done a fun segment where I compared how both cultures are marriage obsessed and how we celebrate Chinese New Year like Eids here.

SD: What does your social media initiative ‘thecheenichronicles’ signify?
Vicky: I created The Cheeni Chronicles a long time back but only started to kick it off a bit recently. The Cheeni Chronicles was my way of documenting my experiences and talking about dealing with being a human being, and in quite recent times about racism and diversity. The idea was to show that no matter where you live in the world, your identity is always a part of your journey, and that being different is supposed to be celebrated and not to be discouraged. It’s a growing passion project, so let’s see where it goes.
SD: Your views and thoughts on tackling racism in a country you were born and bred in?
Vicky: Racism is a tough subject here. In Pakistan, racism is a result of the homogeneity of the society. The moment somebody sees somebody being different or looking different we kind of start tearing them down, or taking a dig at trying to make fun of them because they aren’t part of the supposed ideals of the supposed majority. So in terms of views and thoughts, the only way we can tackle racism or any kind of discrimination is by just treating human beings as human beings. I mean it might sound cheesy or childish, but at the end of the day, I really do believe in the phrase, “treat others the way you want to be treated” as a guiding principle.

We’ve been taught that in schools, and even at home, but most of the time we forget about it. If you don’t treat the other person like a human, it simply means that you don’t see yourself as a human. Oftentimes, our actions are a reflection of how we see ourselves, and if we keep hurting people emotionally or physically then it’s quite frankly showing the real you. And this really is a way of tackling any kind of discrimination to be honest. It’s so simple, but at the same time, when it comes to actionable behavior, it really is a tough one.

SD: Do you feel the current pandemic crisis might create a strong impact on racism and help in creating a global unified village?
Vicky: At this point in time, it’s too early to say whether this will create a global unified village or not. This pandemic has definitely shown the ugly side of humanity, but at the same time it has shown the resilience of human beings as well. We are seeing a lot of people trying to do good, supporting those who are suffering financially or health-wise. We are finally being shown the importance of doctors and nurses in the society as they usually were the unsung heroes. The pandemic has caused an issue of racism especially for people who look “Chinese”, and by that I mean there are a lot of people who cannot distinguish between Asians from different countries and so make a blanket decision on the fact (often wrong) that a certain person is from a certain region of the world

People have become quick to judge and I’ve seen people using the coronavirus as a new slur for “Chinese” people. And this judgment is a result of fear mongering and “othering”. However, at the same time, because this pandemic is affecting EVERY single country in the world, it shows that this virus doesn’t care about your race, and so we all need to work together to fight it. Rather than wasting time on looking for a scapegoat, I think if people worked together, did their part in protecting their loved ones and the people around them, their neighborhood etc, supported wherever they could, then I think we’d end up in a better world. I am hopeful though, I think that we will come out of this more united, if not absolutely united. This pandemic will definitely be leaving us with a lot of lessons for hue towards getting better soon.



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