Jolene Khor, everybody :)
I just realized that we DO NOT have a picture together. That's a sin! Must must!
Since, sharing is caring.
Here it is.
Hello world, I am Sue-Yenn
Her footsteps were even, almost measured, sounding “tuck tuck tuck tuck” every step to her door way at Redwood Avenue. Fumbling with her keys on her right hand, she let her brown hair linger in between her fingers on her left. The wind blowing below her earrings around her neck awakened her tired senses and the weight of her bag pack ceased to exist as her foot began lifting themselves to tap dance and trot the rest of her way back home.
She waltzed into her house and sunk into her two-seater sofa, pulling her phone out of her pocket as it vibrated through her blue jeans. 15 minutes later, a knock on the door forced her out of her comfort. “Hey you, come on in!” she opened the wooden door to the blazing sunlight and the sight of me. Despite our lack of acquaintance, she began opening up akin to a best friend; all I had to do was sit down and ask, politely, for her life story. It was like I had explicitly opened someone’s intimate diary in their unperturbed presence.
“I knew what I wanted to do since I was a child,” she started. “When I was little, my mom asked me what I wanted to do growing up. There wouldn’t be a moment of hesitation before I said I want to perform, I want to perform, I want to perform.” Her clearly enunciated words flew smoothly without turbulence from her lips, landed on the clean page opened on my VAIO notebook, but her eyes, with a single mention of her dream, it was her eyes that spoke more passion and conviction than her diction could convey. I did not know who she was other than her name, Sue Yenn Ng, and her place of birth, Malaysia but I was sold.
She twirled her hair with her index finger, looking out the window at the voluminous trees outside and their orange tinted leaves that would soon be naked in November, shading the small pools of water collected in the ridges of asphalt when she revealed her big plan to pack her bags and head northeast to New York to pursue theatre. Graduation may only come for her after next Spring, but I sensed immediacy in her voice; she was one of the last youth on the planet who understood the cruel intricacy of time.
As grand as the idea of New York may be, two years of raw experience as a non-equity actor in Michigan is weak due to the intimidation the Big Apple can cast on a 21 year old foreign student all the way from Malaysia. That wet foggy morning on her brown suede couch, I caught it – the rare passing moment when she looked away wistfully as if the only thing alive in the room was her and her buzzing television, even when she was talking to me. I stole a moment of her private reflection, her faraway stare and deafening silence sucked me into a vacuum void of everything except the things she was going to tell me next.
Back in her hometown Kuala Lumpur, Sue Yenn looked in the mirror and liked how she saw “somebody”. She was not a nobody – She won first place in the 17 Magazine Star Search contest, she represented Malaysia to Singapore for an acting gig. She felt worshipped by kids in her mother’s kindergarten school. Even so, it wasn’t really good enough by Sue Yenn’s standards. Jack of all trades, she may have been; her voice soared when she sang, her fair limbs floated with grace and charge when she danced and her heart filled with zest when she performed for gung ho crowds during cheerleading in high school, but her lack of formal training made her feel restrained and mediocre even when she was at her best – something she continued to deal with alone when she travelled halfway across the world to Western Michigan University after being accepted into their prestigious theatre program.
Burying her insecurity and self-critique behind closed doors, Sue Yenn watched herself take two steps back during her first year in college despite her many steps forward with a diploma of singing in hand accompanied with priceless exposures to violin and guitar. Closeted and trapped in her Asian skin that only brought cultural barriers which conceded relationships with locals, the first semester breezed by. Without much going on except hopping on the bus at 10 a.m. to class, supplying herself with a daily dose of intimidation and inadequacy, she would go home to an empty house that never became a home until her sister Sue Lynn joined her four solitary months later.
When Sue Lynn who is two years older reached the shores of Kalamazoo, life was a little less lonely for her baby sister. “Do you know those hot air balloons that seem to drift in the air aimlessly?” Sue Yenn questioned me when I asked of her relationship with her Psychology majoring sister. “Have you seen those weights that hold them down so they don’t go all over the place? Well Lynn’s just that. She’s my anchor.”
Most of Sue Yenn’s second semester back in January 2008 was spent working endless hours at Campus Kitchen. “I need the money. I’m sick of working at the cafeteria but my mom said to me, “I’m paying for your education, not to maintain you.”” she told me earnestly. She went on to explain that her parents give both her and her sister money only for rent which is $500 monthly and tuition fees. Nothing more, nothing less. “Mom wants us to fish, not give us fish.”
For serving plates after plates of tortilla chips with French onion dip, fried rice with Chinese pork sausage and macaroni and cheese, she made minimum wage along with not only jaundiced, scrunched up dollar tips but another benefit on the sides. Working with locals gave Sue Yenn a platform to build friendships she needed in order to feel assimilated with the Western culture. It was ironic. The 21 year old came to America to make something of herself in the theatre scene but it was when she busted tables to make long ends meet that she socialized and felt like it was her first, “Hell world, my name is Sue Yenn” moment. And the rest, as I would say it, is history in the making.
Our firsts of experiences may not be what make our lives, but they sure make our memories. Firsts usually occur when we were young – perhaps the reason why they are forever etched in our minds, refusing, dejecting any attempts of dismissal – and though we may overlook them or in Sue Yenn’s case, look too much into them, years down the winding road we would eventually see them with new pair of eyes and be reminded of what was and notice what was not.
Miss Saigon was supposed to be Sue Yenn’s perfect first. It was her first semester at WMU, her first official audition as a serious actress and she felt her destiny calling to her. Miss Saigon was the reason why she wanted to act. When she walked into the audition hall and found that she was the only Asian in the wilderness she was confident the part belonged to her and no one else. Destiny. She looked the part, she played the part. The only problem – she did not get the part. “I was the walking Miss Saigon among the sea of Caucasian faces who auditioned! I remember thinking to myself, I must have been so bad to not have gotten the leading role,” the almost-Miss-Saigon confessed. “I was devastated, completely upset.”
When her shot came to test her acting chops for the second time on American soil, Sue Yenn did what she does best in defiance of her self-esteem resting restlessly on a thin barbwire; simply because she knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it – audition. On present day, Sue Yenn turned to me with a straight face, “Here’s the thing. I learned the most valuable lesson an actor can learn the hard way. An actor’s job is to audition, not to act. If you are lucky, you get the gig. That’s how it is.”
The audition was a role in The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee theatre production. No it was not Miss Saigon, but it was a chance to work with professional equity actors at a small recognized theatre. The entire theatre department in Western Michigan University competed with 1,800 others from all over the nation. There were nine parts to be auditioned for and casted, three of which were snagged by WMU pupils. This time, Sue Yenn was one of them who travelled 75 minutes every summery Tuesday to Thursday for a month to Mason Street Warehouse in Saugatuck.
Her debut success suspended part her lack of self-belief, sunk her incredulity of her capabilities to lower levels but it also raised a new concern, one that posed as much as an obstacle as a blessing in disguise. “I hate being an Asian actor. Roles in plays are mostly based on the original cast, and how many solid Asian roles are out there for grabs, you know?” For those who have modesty holding their backbone in place, accompanied with a spine weakened by self-consciousness, they question their success as an involuntary reflex. “The breakout role I got was an Asian schoolgirl in Spelling Bee. For a long time I wondered if I got that role just because I was Asian and I was needed to fill the part.”
After an hour of burying her toned full-figure in the comfort of crème cashmere blanket and suede pillows, Sue Yenn rose to split her legs to her sides and stretched to reach her toes. As chatty as ever, she said, “Another thing that sucks about being Asian, and I’m sure you get me here – we were taught to shut up. Right? Right?” She was turning her head towards Sue Lynn for accord. Sue Lynn, who came home from lunch an hour ago and had been observing her sister tell her life story since, nodded. She continues, “In Chinese elementary school we were taught to shut up and just tahan tahan tahan.” Tahan means ‘endure’ in the Malay language. “We had trouble opening up and talking to people here because of our culture back home,” Sue Lynn offered.
As if being a minority in a foreign country isn’t enough of a challenge, Sue Yenn doesn’t think the small town geography of Kalamazoo helps. Three weeks ago Sue Yenn travelled east to New York to visit her vacationing mother and felt perfectly in place at that corner of America because “to be a minority in New York is to be the majority.” Kalamazoo is pretty much otherwise. Last summer, Sue Yenn and four of her best girlfriends popped into Y-bar for a girls’ night out. But when they made a trip into the bathroom together with beers in hands, giggles and harmless gossip on their lips, an American on her way out walked into them and announced with snide, “Woah. Asian invasion!” Her friends continued giggling, but Sue Yenn did not.
She certainly was now, giggling away while recalling how mean girls can be to each other. Sue Yenn grew up as an avid church-goer, but her father who now works in Bangladesh and is in a long distance relationship with her mother, was not Christian. So in a feeble attempt to nudge his way into the holy temple every Sunday, Sue Yenn with Sue Lynn performed every Christmas. It was year 1994 when she was to perform Silent Night with the choir with a solo on her part in front of her family and close friends. A perfectionist even at 6, she practiced every night even though she was losing her little voice. On Christmas Eve, her solo came like she anticipated, but her sweet voice did not. She froze. After the performance, the pastor’s snotty daughter came up to Sue Yenn backstage and said, “The whole performance was perfect, until you ruined it.” Sue Yenn was upset, she didn’t remember if she cried, and the night might not have been perfect, but at that moment it certainly was ruined.
Having done some growing up since then, Sue Yenn realizes now it is not about being perfect, but “to have friends in the theatre world you have to be somebody. If you are talented, people would want to know you. But if you’re too good, you become intimidating. It is good to be at par, in between the two.” With that being said, Sue Yenn remains grounded to Earth despite being awarded a theatre scholarship worth a thousand dollars a year.
Rubbing her feet tired from doing bombershays in class, she told me about her packed schedule which includes rehearsals for a traditional musical theatre Carousel. As tired as she said she is expecting her body to be starting next week, with Mondays to Fridays of 8 a.m. classes that progress to work until 9 p.m., which moves on with dance practices that end at 11 p.m., she had a face of someone who is doing what she loves and there is not a hint of dread. If anything, she sounded excited to begin.
“I barely have leisure time. When my friends ask me out, my answer is always, “I can’t, I’m sorry.” Well, I can, that is if I don’t ever shower or sleep,” she laughs. As a performer, Sue Yenn feels she needs to take care of herself – watches what she eat, get enough sleep. “That one time I went to Y-bar with my girls, I drank once to toast to a friend’s birthday. Not only did I get snapped by the ‘ang moh’ in the bathroom, I had a late night – I went to bed at 3 a.m. Next morning during my voice lesson, I could not sing – at all! I croaked my way through 15 minutes before my instructor sent me home.”
“But I have no complains. My life is great. I am lucky to be in America, doing what I always wanted to do.”
“Really? Are you sure?” Sue Lynn teases.
“Well okay, if I can have one thing in my life right now… I want a professional masseuse in my house massaging every inch of my body every night!”
All credits to Jolene. I even stole her picture. =.="
One heck of a writing skill huh.
Feel so *pai-seh* that I cannot write anything like she lorh...
Maybe that's why I am a Music Theatre Performance major and she belongs to the world of creative writing called Journalism.
Keep it up babe, I'll see you in New York Times one day.
Or, you could just write a musical, and I can be in it. hahahaha... :)