Hmong, Koreans, and Sex Dramas: Reflecting on “The Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity”
In her play “The Divorcee Diaries,” playwriter May Lee-Yang proclaimed that a Hmong sexual revolution is coming. Produced by Theater Mu and performed at the Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, MN, her newest play “The Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity” continues to build off of Lee-Yang’s previous works such as “The Lazy Hmong Woman” and “10 Reasons Why I’d Be a Bad Porn Star” by using comedy and theater to illuminate themes of race, class, gender, sexuality, and identity. The production of the play — from lighting, transition, music, design, movement, costume, to voice — are all fabulously executed thanks to Artistic Director Randy Reyes.
The play centers around Gao Hlee(Dexieng Yang), a 29 year-old Hmong American, personality consultant, and virgin who has an obsession with Korean dramas and is intent on losing her virginity before turning 30. Gao Hlee is hired to coach Benedict (Jung Soo) Song (Brian Kim), the wealthy president of a Korean conglomerate who is venturing to expand his business empire in the Midwest. Gao Hlee is a loving and outgoing woman while Benedict is (at first) an ill-mannered and classist snob. The cast also includes Daebak Kim (Clay Man Soo) as Benedict’s secretary, Gao Hlee’s mother (Phasoua Vang), Gao Hlee’s best friend Z (Khadija Siddiqul), Gao Hlee’s ex-boyfriend and cousin Tou Mong who happens to be a Ph.D. candidate working towards becoming a scholar on the Hmong (Gregory Yang), Benedict’s mother Madame Song (Katie Bradley), and Park Mirae, a Korean woman who is arranged to go on a blind date with Benedict (Joann Ouedekerk).
The show is first and foremost an impressive exhibition of the magic of Asian American theater. Lee-Yang is able to craft a play that speaks to a pan-Asian American solidarity through Asian American cross-cultural consumptions. In this case, it is Hmong Americans who consumes Korean dramas. Indeed, Yang makes the explicit message of how Korean dramas have the affective power to transmute Hmong American social realities into forms of fantastical ecstasy. For Gao Hlee, her indulgence in Korean dramas is a form of “self care” and an escape from the harsh realities of irritating overparenting and Hmong-male chauvinism in her life. Korean dramas are able to generate forms of attachment and bonding for different Asian American communities in ways that create genuine friendships and romances vis-à-vis a mutual spectatorship. The pan-Asian and cross-cultural bondages through the optic of Korean dramas offers powerful domains to explore (and unleash) one’s deepest sexual desires and fantasies that are extremely liberating. Korean dramas represent Hmong women’s empowerment and agency in fantasizing about the perfect Korean prince even when their realities are quite different. Quite frankly, can we really deny that we have not fantasized about having passionate sex with that hot hunk in all those Korean dramas?
What is significant about the play is that it offers up a lens into how Hmong American women’s sexual desires and choices are constantly policed by their mothers and Hmong American men. While the play could easily be a story about “cultural clashes,” it was able to steer into a more nuanced direction about how cinema and fantasy can be consumed in ways that actually empower Hmong American women’s sense of being Hmong. In one particular scene, Tou Mong is speaking at a conference on Hmong men’s empowerment while showcasing his “smartness” as a Ph.D. candidate (perhaps a gesture on the ways social class is also an oppressive structure for Hmong and Koreans). He chastises Hmong women for failing to date Hmong men, but is quickly rebutted by Gao Hlee as she enters the stage. For the record, Gao Hlee and Tou Mong used to date, but they are also cousins! The domain of marriage for Hmong are contradictory: one can marry their cousins with different last names, but cannot marry strangers with the same last names. Yet, what implications does this mean for Hmong Americans as their marriages become more and more heterogenous, including interracial, inter-ethnic, and same-sex marriages? Additionally, one may suspect Tou Mong to uphold all things in “Hmong culture,” but he admits he actually does not want to date Gao Hlee either because she is his cousin! The shift in tone and perspective towards his character suggests that Hmong Americans need a deeper conversation on the politics of marriage. Most importantly, Korean dramas come to stand in for how Hmong Americans can fantasize about and radically reimagine more liberating sexual/social relationships outside of restrictive ones in “real life.”
Lee-Yang pulls no punches in explicating the ways Hmong Americans are still seen as not fully a part of Asian America. Benedict does not know who Hmong are, and Daebak “researches” Hmong on the internet only to find a host of dehumanizing and archaic information about Hmong (including stories of bride-kidnapping in Hmong culture). Hmong are seen as barbarians living in the highlands of Southeast Asia who have only recently migrated to the U.S. as refugees whereas Koreans and other East Asians are immigrants who benefitted from U.S. immigration policies that favored decidedly skilled and highly educated Asian immigrants in the post-1965 era. Indeed, Hmong Americans are belated actors in the Asian American civil rights movements, and thus, the detachments of Hmong from “Asian America” remains vast and problematic. Furthermore, the blurring of “Hmong” and “Hmong American” and “Korean” and “Korean American” in the play suggests that even “Asian American” is a category that needs to be constantly evaluated. In this way, Lee-Yang’s play offers a powerful analysis of the ways the relationships between Hmong and Koreans — and both groups’ affinities within the sphere of “Asian America” — can be both potent and fraught.
Various Asian and Asian American elements, cultural motifs, and pop cultural signifiers are infused throughout the play. K-pop songs are played between the different acts starting with 2NE1’s “I Am The Best.” Karaoke is (unsurprisingly) a significant element of Asian social life. Hmong and Korean food are deliciously weird/weirdly delicious. Messages about ramen, ghosts, spirits, and dragons are central to the character’s identities and their ways of understanding gender and sexuality. The play is rife with stereotypes: the domineering Korean and Hmong mothers, the ways marriage, dating, and courtship are played out in traditional Hmong and Korean societies, and the hypermasculine and hyperpatriarchal Hmong men’s empowerment movement. These elements offer ways for viewers to reflect on the absurdity of stereotypes, but also the serious ways they play out in “real life” that works to constrain and encumber the lives of Hmong and Koreans. In many ways, these jokes, motifs, and in-between-the-line components of the play gestures towards a politics of Hmong American and Korean American-centered knowledges meant to be consumed and enjoyed by themselves away from the gaze of outsiders. Indeed, while there were many white people in attendance, the play never felt compromised to “explain” these unique Hmong and Korean styles to non-Hmong and non-Koreans.
One of my absolute favorite scenes from the play is when Benedict and Gao Hlee encounter the racist, yellow-fevered, misogynistic white man generically named Gary Johnson (also played by Katie Bradley) at their conference hotel. The ways Lee-Yang was able to parody and underscore the ludicrousness of Gary’s character speaks volumes to recent whitewashing of Asian characters in Hollywood films such as The Last Airbender and Ghost in a Shell. Gary is portrayed as an over-caricaturized person who cannot sing for shit while embodying all the racist things about America. Gary’s character should provoke the discomfort (and also laughter) of anyone who takes seriously the problems of white supremacy and racism in the U.S. today. Gao Hlee films Gary’s tirades with her phone and states that people of color cannot do anything to stop the racism of white people, but can only record them as a means to shame the racists on the internet in bringing justice to communities of color. The power of Lee-Yang’s theater is that it is able to provide political and social commentary that is seriously effective through the use of humor.
I appreciate Lee-Yang’s sensitivity in including elements of queerness into the play. As a play that radicalizes gender and sexuality, and as a playwright whose oeuvre provides commentary on social issues, the inclusion of Daebak is refreshing and a mere joy (added to that is Clay Man Soo’s incredible talent as an actor)! However, therein lies my biggest critique of the play, in that Daebak’s character may inadvertently reify and perpetuate the tiresome and cliché trope of the gay character falling for the straight guy whose love is never reciprocated. His seeming reconciliation of his love for Benedict towards the end of the play was bittersweet and surprisingly benevolent. Daebak’s self-discovery is admirable and the fact that “gay” was never explicitly articulated to be his identity gestures towards the fluidity of queerness as a mode of identification that resists the demand for one to proclaim oneself as always “gay.” Indeed, Daebak at one point seems to be surprised that Z would suggest he is “gay.” Daebak’s affection for Z is itself queer, radical, and profound as the viewers are left to wonder about the fluctuating sexualities — between “gay,” “asexual,” and “queer” — of these two characters. The play certainly could have done more to illuminate queer love, desires, and identities in ways that does not render it tangential to the overall narrative, but it certainly represents a major intervention into gender and sexuality within Hmong American playwriting and theater. All in all, Daebak and Z are deeply humanized, fun, and complex characters whose parts in the play certainly enlightened the trajectory of the storyline.
Queerness also shores up in other spaces as well, including the fact that Gao Hlee does not have a father. This fact leads Tou Mong to ostracize Gao Hlee as an “orphan” even though her mother is still alive. Hmong families have existed outside heteronormative male-dominated nuclear family formations, including polygamy, single-mother households, teen marriages, and same-sex marriages. I would love for Lee-Yang and other artists to explore these non-normative Hmong family formations in ways that do not always implicate them as negative, exploitative, shameful, or subservient to the all-powerful narratives of “free-will love” assumed to exist in the West. I certainly believe Lee-Yang is onto something when in the play Gao Hlee is flabbergasted to hear that Benedict would think “Hmong culture” is barbaric when it comes to gender and sexuality. This is a gesture for Lee-Yang to continue to use queerness as a lens to radicalize gender and sexuality in the “Hmong sexual revolution” within her playwriting.
Lee-Yang’s plays and her major works are powerful and a much-needed intervention into the conventional ways Hmong Americans have understood and have been understood as it regards race, class, gender, and sexuality. I immensely enjoy Lee-Yang as a playwriter and I believe her work is so important for all of us who are theater fanatics but who are also invested in using art, theater, and humor to speak to larger social issues. “The Korean Drama Addict’s Guide to Losing Your Virginity” is a funny, entertaining, and culturally important production that will remain a classic work in Hmong American theater.