03 November 2009

“Dorothy is American.”

The major impetus for me becoming fond of the Oz books was a second-grade production of The Wizard of Oz, in which I played the lead Munchkin and the Winged Monkey who grabbed Toto.

For Grace Lin, author of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, the Wizard production came in third grade. And it didn’t produce such happy memories for her. As described in a recent profile in School Library Journal:

An awakening of sorts occurred when her elementary school put on a production of The Wizard of Oz and, like all the other girls, Lin endlessly practiced for her audition in the playground, singing “Over the Rainbow.”

Her career in musical theater was cut short in the third grade when a classmate said, “You can’t be Dorothy. Dorothy’s not Chinese. Dorothy is American.”

Her friend had called her Chinese. “But I did not feel Chinese. I spoke English, I watched Little House on the Prairie, learned American history, and read books about girls named Betsy and boys named Billy. But I had black hair and slanted eyes, I ate white rice at home with chopsticks, and I got red envelopes for my birthday. Did I belong anywhere?”

When the teacher called her name to try out for the play, Lin passed, saying that at the time she didn’t feel so much “angry, as stupid.”
I can imagine that happening among the kids at my school. Children in the early elementary grades are mighty rigid about the “right” way to do things. But would Grace’s teacher—in the early 1980s in upstate New York—have reinforced the idea that Dorothy as an American couldn’t be a Chinese-American, or corrected it?


Wendy said...

Depends strongly on the individual teacher, I'd imagine, but uncomfortable to contemplate. I remember a bit in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (book, I haven't seen the movie)--wasn't that written around then? when they're looking for a baby to be Baby Jesus, and someone knows just the right foster child, but says something like "But he's Chinese, is that a problem?" and the mother-organizer says warmly that it doesn't matter at all.

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect that Grace Lin’s teacher would have said she was just as entitled to audition for Dorothy as any other girl. By that time most of American society, and especially the educational profession, had embraced “color-blind” values.

(Whether people were and are so good at carrying out those values in practice is another question.)

I think this is a case of young kids having rigid ideas of what’s right without having the experiences or prodding to think through those ideas.

ericshanower said...

Anecdotal evidence: when I was in sixth grade in Port Angeles, WA, I saw a stage production of The Wizard of Oz put on by the local Catholic private school. The girl who played Dorothy was of East Asian descent--I don't know of what particular ethnicity. This would have been 1974 or '75.

PS - The Best Christmas Pageant Ever stars Fairuza Balk, another Oz connection. Although she later played Dorothy, she's Canadian, not of East Asian descent (as far as I know).

J. L. Bell said...

In my fifth grade class’s Bicentennial pageant, based on the musical 1776, John Adams was played by a Japanese-American girl named Karen.

Hey, she had a ponytail and could carry a tune.

Nathan said...

Hey, if Dorothy is sometimes a blonde and sometimes a brunette, I don't see why she couldn't be Asian in another version.

RAB said...

Starting with my childhood passion for the film version of 1776, John Adams has long been one of my favorite Americans...and a female Japanese-American John Adams is possibly the most awesome thing I've read today.