BY KATHERINE XU
As an early aspiring musician, I began playing the traditional Chinese guzheng at five years old. I felt drawn to the ethereal beauty of the instrument and how each string told a unique story when properly plucked. But growing up in a majority-white neighbourhood, I quickly realized that being “unique” didn’t get me any friends at recess. Becoming self-conscious of my Chinese heritage as I entered middle school, I quit. I pursued musical theatre instead and became enthralled by the magic of acting. In a musical, I didn’t have to be “the Chinese girl”; for a few hours a week, I could step into someone else’s shoes. I sang my heart out on stage, but the voice was not my own.
As racism and xenophobia infected the world, I reclaimed my voice and heritage through writing theatrical pieces of my own. While trapped inside during the pandemic, I did what most other teens would do--I escaped reality by binging Netflix. Despite airing over a decade ago, Avatar: The Last Airbender experienced a renaissance during quarantine. The award-winning television series takes inspiration from Asian culture while still catering to a Western audience. Being Chinese-Canadian, the mixture of cultures in Avatar appealed to me on a personal level. In each scene, I heard the same traditional instruments that sparked my passion for music. Though theaters may have been closed, I took the opportunity to use my free time to explore my musical and cultural roots. By combining my appreciation for classic Broadway and traditional Chinese music, I composed a few songs for an Avatar: The Last Airbender musical.
Despite taking place in a fictional world with hybrid animals and elemental bending, the thematic authenticity of Avatar engages audiences of all backgrounds. Anyone, Asian or not, can feel a deep connection with the world and its compelling characters. While composing the music for my adaptation, I ensured that the lyrics and accompaniment reflected this authenticity. My first song, “In the Clouds”, introduces a playful twelve-year-old monk named Aang as he journeys across the world on his flying bison. On the surface, the song may seem lighthearted due to its lullaby-esque structure and jaunty melody, but it has underlying themes of escapism and self-conflict. As the Avatar, Aang is burdened with the responsibility of restoring world peace, while he just wants to have fun with his friends. Many people can relate to the appeal of escaping reality and responsibility. Nearly all of us have dreamt of a world where “we’re free to be whoever”, but as the song warns, “life’s unfair”. Ever since middle school, I’ve been pretending to be someone I’m not--someone who isn’t “the Chinese girl”. Aang and I both long to fit in with our peers, and as a result, we deny the traits that make us unique. “In the Clouds” represents the beginnings of my journey towards accepting my cultural heritage. I’m far from an ideal state of self-acceptance, but that’s okay--we all start at season one. Many listeners reached out after streaming “In the Clouds”, saying that it helped them cope with the pandemic and other struggles they were facing. After receiving an overwhelmingly positive response on social media, I proceeded to collaborate with professional musicians and actors, working to create a full score that values traditional Asian culture while remaining universally relevant.
Musical theatre is not about pretending to be someone you are not. As we connect with our characters, we are telling our own unique stories, like the individual strings of a guzheng. By writing an Avatar musical, I hope more minorities will have the chance to be represented in theatre. And maybe someday, I can learn to embrace my story and be “the Chinese girl” on stage.