Yee Eun Nam
10 Years in the U.S.
My name is Yee Eun Nam, and I came to the United States for an MFA in theater design. I don’t think I fully understood what it would mean to study and live in a foreign country, having family 15 hours away, across the ocean, and on different continents. My first year at school was like being in a video game with the wrong language patch installed. If I didn’t know what I wanted to say in English, I was ignored and was told by a professor that my acceptance into school was a mistake. I was confused and miserable at that time.
My second year and third years went really fast. I was focused on how to blend into the world. I hate parties but went to a couple and had no idea what to do. I sat for hours not talking to anyone. I also came up with an easier name for them to pronounce.
My fourth year in the U.S., I was finally in the “real” world after graduation. As a freelancer, it was like being in “The Hunger Games.” I had to take as many projects as possible within one year. I said “yes” to everyone. I learned a lot but also started to question to myself about how to live in the U.S. as a foreigner: “Do I need to be like an American to live in the US?”
I never knew how Asian I was until I got here. But in the US, things started to get mixed up. I was expected to act like an American. I was expected to be nice and kind like Asian girls. Do I want to be an American? Does my accent need to be fixed? How should I react to racist comments? How to explain that Asia is not one country? So many questions for years, but I never knew the answers.
Time passed and by my eighth year, I had become “that Asian designer” doing American shows.
As a designer, I always do intensive research to make everything right. They usually become ten page reports or hundreds of files. I thought everyone was doing it. Unfortunately, people tend to be insensitive when they do shows about minorities. Many times I was told to create western versions of Asian fantasies and was lectured about “oriental.”
One day, when white theater makers continued to simplify Asian culture without historically accurate depictions, I saw my assistant’s face. She was a young, Asian American and looked down with no words, while the artistic director was talking about how he didn’t understand why we were so picky and didn’t want to use a prop he liked from the wrong country. That moment was a wake-up call for me. If I didn’t speak up and stop these inaccurate cultural depictions, this would continue to happen. So, finally I said that as long as I was the designer, I wouldn’t put the wrong design onstage because I knew it was wrong. And I became the “grumpy Asian designer” for the rest of the process.
It was not easy for me to speak up, as a young designer, in the early part of my career. I didn’t want to lose jobs and was not sure if the world was ready for change. That’s when I met Cha, Kimie, and Rodrigo, as well as 60 other artists through See Lighting Foundation1. I had never gotten to know other immigrant designers who had gone through the same struggles and shared the same thoughts in our theater community. They have built a community where I finally feel safe to share my feelings and thoughts, which is a big relief during this pandemic. I am so proud to be a part of this group of artists. So next year, which will be my ten year anniversary, I hope we can celebrate safely, continue raising our voices, and share ideas to continue to work and build a better theater industry for the future.
1. The See Lighting Foundation is a grassroots fundraising team supporting low-income immigrant theater artists, this fundraiser was started to give immediate relief to those in need.They are a group of scenic, costume, lighting, sound, projection designers, stage managers, dramaturges, prop artisans, technical directors, directors, and actors for theater.
Most of these artists work under an O-1B artist visa, or are in the midst of their OPT which allows them to work legally in the US. Unfortunately, applying for unemployment benefits poses risks for them. To learn more about this matter, please visit here.
On top of that, O visa holders are issued their visas to allow them to do specific work. Meaning, they cannot legally seek work outside of the field (theater, design, lighting, etc…) they have obtained our visa for.
“Our goal is to give $500 grants to all of our 60 artists in the community on a monthly basis. Most of our theatrical performances have been postponed or simply cancelled with no concrete schedule of when theatres will reopen.” -SLF Team
Yee Eun Nam
Yee Eun Nam is a visual artist and an award-winning designer for opera and theater. Her works have been seen in San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, LA Opera Connects, Kansas City Rep, South Coast Rep, Geffen Playhouse, Mark Taper Forum, Pasadena Playhouse, Latino Theater Company. She is a member of United Scenic Artists, Local 829. She has an MFA in Theater Design at UCLA.
Chae Kihn is an artist and professional photographer renowned for her evocative documentary essays and portraits. She was born in Glasgow Scotland and immigrated with her family to the United States as a young girl. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree. While attending college she took a class in photography and film development. She fell in love with photography and never looked back. Immediately after graduation, Chae sold her car and bought a one-way ticket to South Africa where she worked for six riveting years as a human rights documentary photographer for numerous nongovernmental agencies such as Street Law, Human Rights Watch, Save The Children, Safeline, Anti-Crime Forum, The Franschoek Project. Amnesty International, the Campbell Collection, the University of the Western Cape, Institute For a Democratic Alternative, and Reuters Wire Service.