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  • “A Home on the Island”: Interbody Performance as a Method to Move beyond Resentment

Introduction: “A Home on the Island,” Parts 1–2

Home is a condition of stasis emerging from the global circulation of bodies. Focusing on the inter-Asian context of East Asia and Southeast Asia, “A Home on the Island,” parts 1–2 is a multisite practice as research (PaR) project that examines the formation of home through commercialized transnational-marriage migration. Part 1, “A Home on the Island: Bodies, Objects, and Narratives,” was conducted on June 28, 2015 as a one-day applied-theatre workshop at National University of Singapore (NUS). Through Boal-inspired theatre games, exercises, image theatre, and scene improvisation, workshop participants explored the notion of home and its formation in relation to migration and globalization. Part 2, “A Home on the Island: The Seal Wife,” was a three-day applied-theatre workshop conducted in Taipei the following year, on October 20–22, 2016. Foregrounding the experience of commercialized transnational-marriage migration, the second workshop examined the structure and internal dynamics of homes created by such migration. During the first two days, this was implemented in the form of process drama through the narrative structure of the seal wife legend. On the third day, playback theatre was implemented to facilitate self-reflections on the workshop process.1 In its totality, this project used performance to intervene in participants’ understandings of family, sociality, and economic exchange.2

This essay utilizes the PaR project to propose interbody performance, an affect-oriented and body-centered performative process, as a method of generating affective shifts that propel an intercultural relationship beyond resentment. “A Home on the Island” accomplishes this goal by engaging ASEAN marriage migrants with socioculturally privileged participants from Taiwan and Singapore in a workshop setting. Through performative collaborations, the participants compared and interwove diverse affects toward home and migration through disruption, disembodiment, dynamization, and distillation. These affects included perceptions, attitudes, feelings, and sentiments, which were qualitatively documented and measured through objects, maps, improvised scenes, workshop artifacts, audio-visual recordings, follow-up questions, and post-workshop written reflections. As an increasingly multifaceted and multisensorial knowledge about ASEAN marriage migrants emerged, the nonmigrant participants began to adopt affective shifts that question the necessity of resentment.

Commercialized Transnational Marriage as Migratory Routes

Since the 1980s, commercialized transnational-marriage migration numbers have soared. Many women from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), such as Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, have chosen marriage as a means of migrating to newly emergent Asian financial centers.3 Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore are among [End Page 27] the popular destinations (Bélanger et al.; Burgess; Chuang et al.; Im et al.; H.-S. Kim; M. Kim; Shu et al.; Tang and Wang; Yeoh et al. 2013a, 2013b). The rise of such marriage migration in Taiwan correlates with the island’s increasing trade relations with ASEAN and its rising status as a financial sub-empire within the global capitalist economy. Currently, there are an estimated 400,000 marriage migrants in Taiwan, with 31.3 percent originating from ASEAN (Neizhengbu Tongjichu).

The directional flow of marriage migration reflects the uneven geopolitical and economic terrains of Asia, which, like other regions, has been reconfigured by the global capitalist economy into core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral states (Hsia 2004, 191). Within this context, commercialized transnational-marriage migration functions as a coping mechanism for the subaltern class; it allows blue-collar working males in core and semi-peripheral states to find wives and continue the family lineage. On the other hand, it provides women from semi-peripheral and peripheral states the prospect of upward social mobility and improved living conditions (Hsia 2000, 58–59; 2004, 199).

In a commercialized transnational marriage, the processes of marriage, migration, and motherhood are pragmatically compressed into an extremely short time span for economic reasons. Subsequently, such a union is often perceived and experienced as a transaction, leading to the commodification of marriage migrants’ bodies (Shu et al. 3). By the patriarchal values of both home and host countries, ASEAN marriage migrants are frequently regarded as servant–wife conglomerates, who are purchased/wedded to perform local productive and reproductive tasks (Liang 339). Their bodies are often desired for their youth and childbearing ability; concurrently, they are disdained for their perceived genetic inferiority and potential for moral corruption (Hsia 2007, 57–60). The general public, the media, and in many instances the immediate families of their Taiwanese spouses frequently perceive ASEAN marriage migrants as individuals who enter matrimony for ulterior gains rather than for love (ibid. 61; Liang 346).

“The Politics of Resentment”

The negative affect associated with the bodies of ASEAN marriage migrants exemplifies the workings of what Kuan-hsing Chen calls “the politics of resentment” (94–96). Such politics originates from Asia’s long and entangled histories of colonial expansionism, the cold war, and neocolonialism in the guise of the global capitalist economy, which have profoundly shaped the conflicting and turbulent international relations of Asia today. In Taiwan, the politics of resentment is contoured by the experiences of Japanese Occupation (1895–1945), right-wing martial rule under the Kuo-min Tung (KMT [1945–87]), and the island’s emergence as a new financial sub-empire in the era of globalization. In 1994 the government of Taiwan officially launched the “Moving Southward” policy, which encouraged local businesses to invest in Southeast Asia. Its intention was to avoid economic over-dependence on China. At the same time, the Taiwanese sub-empire’s southward economic expansionism during the 1990s discursively resonated with the Japanese military expansionism of the “Southward Advancement” during the 1930s (59). Within such nationalist rhetoric, ASEAN marriage migrants are doubly marginalized as female migrants and “subjects” from the periphery of the sub-empire.

The circulation and intensification of negative affect associated with ASEAN marriage migrants is frequently generated and amplified in the public domain through discourses of Taiwanese nationalism. This then circulates back and infiltrates into the domestic sphere inhabited by the marriage migrants, resulting in discrimination and violence at home (Hsia 2007). This pattern of affective circulation recalls Sara Ahmed’s theorization of how hatred, like other kinds of capital, can be circulated and thus increased (2004, 120). As she explains, it is difficult to locate hatred and fear in the bodies of specific, individual subjects and objects, but it is this difficulty that generates collective bodies and the boundaries between them, such as nations and their borders (123–24, 128). [End Page 28]

Chen urges the reconstruction of resentful inter-Asian relations through “critical syncretism” (99). At the level of individuals, according to him, critical syncretism is achieved through an outward and active integration of others into the self, as well as critical awareness of the region’s lived experience (212). At the level of international relations, critical syncretism aims to forge a more integrated Asia.

Nonetheless, Chen admits, dialogue among the different Asias is fraught with practical difficulties emerging from disparities in country size, colonial experience, and formation of nationalism (213). His method of counteracting the politics of resentment therefore remains an intellectual exercise. I argue that as a scholar of intellectual history, Chen’s practical conundrum chiefly arises from attempting to resolve matters of affect through effect. If the negative affect associated with marriage migrants is bodily, to move beyond it will also need to be affectively actualized through bodies. Despite the title of Chen’s oeuvre, Asia as Method, his idea of critical syncretism remains largely a conceptual formulation rather than an implementable method in practice; yet, his idea is generative in furthering practical innovation. Here and throughout my discussion, I take affect as an augmentation rather than a diametric opposite of effect (Thompson 120). While effect references the cognitive and the cerebral, affect indexes the experiential, such as sensations, bodily responses, and aesthetic pleasures (6–7). In addition, because the discourse of resentment surrounding transnational marriage migrants is largely associated with the body, which in turn profoundly shapes one’s sense of self, I take the body as the material basis of selfhood.

Within the context of marriage migration, where resentment visibly operates, I inquire how we might begin to move beyond resentment toward a deep critical syncretism. Rather than perceiving intercultural conditions in inter-geographical terms, as implied in Chen’s term inter-Asia, I suggest that such conditions need to be reconceived in interbodily terms, where affective practices can be methodologically implemented.

Islands: Locations of the PaR Research

The islands of Taiwan and Singapore have historically been places where cultures intersect and converge through layered experiences of colonization and migration. For travelers and explorers, they are transitional sites and passageways to larger landmasses; for colonialists, they are peripheral though strategic locales in expansionist military and commercial projects. Yet for contemporary ASEAN marriage migrants, these islands are popular destinations where they seek the permanence of a home. Taiwan and Singapore diverge in their geopolitical conditions, with one situated in East Asia and caught in an openly uneasy relation with China, while the other has become an ASEAN mini-superpower. At the same time, both are capitalist societies, with the ethnic Chinese as their majorities that share many affinities in language and cultural values. With their relatively small land-masses, demarcating national boundaries has always been critical in defining the islands’ contemporary existences. To cross-reference these islands’ experiences of home, migration, and globalization, and to examine their perspectives on ASEAN marriage migration, the PaR project was conducted at both sites, with participants from both locales.

Participants: Migrants and Nonmigrants from the Islands

The thirty-four participants form three research subject groups: Singapore-based theatre practitioners in their early twenties, most of whom were NUS theatre majors; Taiwan-based community-theatre practitioners from Nanyang Sisters Theatre,4 who were either in their late twenties to early thirties or in their late forties to early sixties; and ASEAN marriage migrants, who were also members of the Taipei-based Nanyang Sisters Theatre (also known as TransAsia Sisters Association Taiwan Theatre, or TASAT Theatre).5 The marriage migrants were mostly in their mid- to late thirties and originally from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Part 1 of the workshop was held in Singapore on [End Page 29] Nanyang Sisters’ first international tour, during which they presented the play Happiness, No U-turn?! at the Theatre Arts Conference hosted by the Singapore Drama Educators Association. Part 2 was conducted in Taipei as part of a class PaR research trip attended by NUS applied-theatre students.6

Disrupting Affect: Reconfiguring Sociocultural Boundaries

To initiate the affective turn in moving beyond resentment toward ASEAN marriage migration, we began by disrupting the affect associated with existing sociocultural boundaries present in the workshop. Through Boal-inspired theatre games and exercises, we aimed to reconfigure the interbody relationships between marriage migrants and other, more privileged individuals in Taiwan and Singapore. Consider the following example:

Warm-up exercise (led by Nanyang Sisters)

Hung (A), a member of Nanyang Sisters Theatre, leapt into the center of the circle and gave the following instructions to the workshop participants, who were in pairs:

“Place your mouth on her/his cheek.” (People’s cheeks turned red at the touch of others’ mouths; there were some uneasy giggles. An older female Taiwanese community-theatre practitioner joked that she had just taken advantage of a dashing young chap from NUS)

“Place a finger on your partner’s head, and then your other foot on her/his thigh.” (Further awkward apologies, more squeals)

Hung (A) continued giving instructions, telling them to choose a new partner for each activity. In an instant the space was transformed into a pandemonium, bodies madly rushing to grab hold of another body from across the circle in time for the next round of instructions (fig. 1).

Jun Jie Lim, a Singaporean freelance performer, declared his partner, a Nanyang Sister, to be the most beautiful, because “in an ocean of crowd,” he declaimed, “no one but she wants me.” (The others responded with a humorous sigh)

Hung (A), who originally came from Saigon/Ho Chih Minh City, facilitated and established the rules for this warmup. Framed as a task within the context of the workshop, her instructions permitted the transgression of tangible bodily boundaries that indexed intangible ones normatively prescribed by age, gender, culture, and social class within the Asian context. Socially underprivileged bodies, such as Hung (A)’s, took command. In her book Strange Encounters, Ahmed complicates the notion of the stranger, noting that strangers are not just anybody that one does not know, but that certain bodies are considered stranger than others (21–22, 30). In this case, not only are participants strangers in the sense that they had met at the workshop for the first time, but also because their very bodies, and the functions of those bodies, differ. Yet, the exercise asked them to intimately connect to these strange bodies. As an older female Taiwanese community-theatre practitioner was invited to kiss a male Singaporean college student, she broke the bounds of propriety typically expected of a female senior. She had to take the “order” of a younger colleague who normally revered her as a theatre instructor. The directive happened to be a rather transgressive one; it required the female superior to behave toward a younger male colleague in ways that exhibit the intimacy between couples. At the same time, the kiss asked the younger male to accept an intimate act by an older woman. In the mad rush to embrace someone each time new pairs were formed, stigmatized female bodies, such as those of ASEAN marriage migrants, were valued not for their reproductive ability, but for being a potential theatrical collaborator who was capable of thoughts and feelings. Lim considered the Nanyang Sister beautiful not because of her physical beauty, but rather her desire to work with him. With the disruption of order and propriety came feelings of awkwardness and amusement. Yet, these [End Page 30] “transgressions,” in the forms of movements and gestures, physical touch and facial expressions, also dynamically held the different bodies in the same spatial-temporal zone; they kept participants face to face and next to one another, but always in fluid proximities and spatial configurations.

Disembodying Affect: Delineating Asia through Objects and Maps

Prior to our attempts at integrating others into the self, we sought to locate and comprehend one another through an affective route. We proceeded by charting in concrete terms the temporal and spatial dimensions of the divergent affects present in the workshop. This undertaking was necessary to translate embodied and highly personal affects into disembodied and accessible affective patterns, which were fundamental to our collaborative knowledge production later in the workshop.

In part 1 the three research subject groups were mingled into four subgroups. Each workshop participant brought an object that was metonymic of home, linked to a particular time, place, relationship, event, or imagining. Within their subgroups each individual shared memories and histories associated with their object, exhibiting the temporal dimension of the participants’ affects. The exercise was followed by another, in which subgroups created visual maps that documented the paths that they had trodden on the globe in colored markers, thereby marking the spatial dimension of affect. In part 2 participants kinaesthetically charted their movement on the globe in relation to time and space by walking throughout the studio space. I then compared the affective patterns that emerged from both parts, which I further corroborated by examining participants’ written post-workshop reflections and the audio-visual recordings.

Fig. 1. Warm-up exercise with Nanyang Sisters (Singapore, 2015). (Photo: .)
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Fig. 1.

Warm-up exercise with Nanyang Sisters (Singapore, 2015). (Photo: Peilin Liang.)

The Temporal Dimension of Affect: Objects of Home

The divergent objects that participants brought were frequently invested with intense affective power by the bodies that had handled and surrounded them. Each of the three research subject groups projected a distinct affective trajectory in this exercise. For ASEAN marriage migrants, the objects [End Page 31] of home often referenced their pasts in another spatial-temporal frame of existence, distant and not fully comprehended by members of their host countries. Two objects were particularly memorable. Chen of Tangerang, Indonesia, brought in a worn wristwatch that she had received on her seventeenth birthday. Unable to afford a birthday party, her parents bought her the watch instead. Out of disappointment she spurned it, a moment of immature rashness that she still regrets. The financial condition of her family later motivated her to take marriage as a migratory route. Lee of Kampong Cham, Cambodia, brought a small notebook scribbled with essential phrases in Cambodian and Chinese; it was her only tool of communication when she first arrived in Taiwan. Mundane as they were, these objects of home foregrounded the harsh living conditions and challenging transitions that shaped the marriage migrants’ experiences of establishing a transnational home.

The objects brought in by the Taiwanese community-theatre practitioners frequently referenced larger historical trajectories and cultural memories of Taiwan. These imaginings of home diverged depending on the ethnicity of their owners and the historical specificity of their ancestors’ arrival to the island; for instance, a photocopy of a certificate of reinstatement and a pink “happy prosperity” apron accompanied by a red envelope of cash. The former belonged to Hsiao-lien Lee, a lawyer, musician, and long-term volunteer at Nanyang Sisters Theatre. His grandparents came to Taiwan with the KMT during the postwar era. The certificate of reinstatement was posthumously issued to his grandfather in 2004. During the White Terror,7 Lee’s grandfather, a high-ranking KMT officer, was falsely accused of being a communist spy; his fall from grace led to the family’s decline and exile. For Yen-chiu Shen, who belongs to the Hok-lo ethnic majority,8 home reminded her of a daughter’s departure from her natal family. She was given a happy prosperity apron and a red envelope of cash on the day of her own wedding. According to Hok-lo custom, the cash is to be kept forever to ensure marital bliss; in pragmatic terms it is a guarantee that the wedded daughter always has some money for a rainy day.

By contrast, the objects brought in by the Singaporean participants tended to be un-nostalgic, lightweight, and impermanent. They were often portable and at times disposable: An old shirt, a warm jacket, a guitar, and an itinerant actor’s travel bag. While the objects did not necessarily evoke a particular place of attachment, they were affectively bound to members of their respective households. These included a microwaveable Tupperware used to carry food that manifested maternal love, and a small box of rice grains, symbolic of the nourishment provided by the previous generation. According to its owner, a Lego boat encapsulated Singapore’s patchwork of influences held together by colonialism and the resurgence of nationalism. For those without earlier generations’ tumultuous memories of migration and colonization, being at home means being mobile and at ease in a global flux of people and capital, aided by a relative degree of affluence and cosmopolitan sophistication. One participant, who lives in Singapore and Germany and identifies as mixed race, brought in her passport; for her, home is the freedom and mobility that lets her escape the rigid harnessing of identity to Singapore’s four official racial categories of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others, to none of which she completely belonged.

The Spatial Dimension of Affect: Maps of Movement

The maps drawn in part 1 documented the body’s most memorable and representative lived experiences. The travels of Nanyang Sisters were infrequent though always momentous and purposeful. These included Lee’s first experience of flying in an airplane from Cambodia to Vietnam to attend her “interview beyond the border,”9 and then to her wedding in Taiwan; Chen’s trip from Taiwan to Indonesia to attend her mother’s funeral; and both women’s trips to the United States and the Philippines to represent TASAT at international conferences on migrant advocacy. The affect of migrant participants was particularly contrasted by that of the Singaporean nonmigrant participants. The Singaporeans traveled far more frequently and further afield. Beyond Southeast Asia and East Asia, their destinations also included South Asia, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. [End Page 32] They also traveled more light-heartedly for vacations, summer schools, cultural exchanges, volunteering, and family visits.

A similar affective pattern resurfaced in part 2. The studio floor was transformed into a gigantic world map through the participants’ acts of imagination. As the facilitator called out an age, bodies conglomerated and dispersed in the space, indicating the coordinates of their physical presence on the globe in the year that each person was that age. At age 20, a range of leisure activities and academic pursuits were the chief reasons that Singaporeans traveled to locations that included New York, London, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Sydney, Taipei, and Seoul. Their trips were temporary and always concluded with the return home. While the majority of the Taiwanese participants had remained in Taiwan, one had volunteered in the Philippines as a schoolteacher when she was 20. By contrast, for Nanyang Sisters Lee and Hung (B), being 20 years old was momentous because it marked their departure for marriage migrations to Taiwan from Cambodia and Vietnam, respectively. As they shared throughout the exercise, their geographical relocation entailed an irreversible change to their identities: Lee remembered seeing, as her first impression of Taiwan, the mountain ranges between Taoyuan International Airport and her husband’s home; Hung (B) vividly recalled the chill in the air, being colder than she had ever experienced in Vietnam, and her first earthquake.10 At the earthquake’s initial tremor, she explained, she thought she had married into a haunted house, but there was no backing out. The nonmigrants later shared that they experienced a mixture of affects upon learning the marriage migrants’ stories: apprehension, fear, loss, loneliness, empathy, and a tinge of excitement intermingled with admiration for the migrants’ courage. They also realized that they could not possibly comprehend or imagine the migrants’ experience in its totality.

Dynamizing Affect: Improvisation toward Critical Syncretism

By disembodying our affect in the forms of objects and maps, we could locate and critically examine the various cultural positions and histories present in the workshop. The next step was to dynamize the affect by simultaneously re-embodying, inter-referencing, and interweaving the different threads of affect present in the workshop through semi-structured dramatic improvisation. Here, I take inter-referencing as an active and conscious effort in comparing and contrasting one’s state of being with those of others. The goal was to facilitate the integration of experiences and sentiments of others, as well as one’s own, into a collective whole.

In part 1, beginning with the objects of home they had shared, each of the four subgroups proceeded to improvise a collective narrative about home. A recurring pattern in the circulation of affect began to emerge. This was particularly exemplified in one group’s scene, which was based on the certificate of reinstatement, the worn wristwatch, the Lego boat, a shirt, and a stuffed turtle toy. The scene was set during the cold war. Three chairs were placed in the middle of the stage, representing a boat that transported refugees across the Taiwan Strait. Accompanied by the onomatopoeic rhythm of strenuous boat-rowing, a couple arrived in Taiwan with a boatman. At customs, the husband was detained and handcuffed, accused of espionage for the communists. The wife then traveled back and forth across the strait to obtain and present a document that proved her husband’s innocence. He was released, and the couple settled down on the island and subsequently had a daughter. On her seventeenth birthday her parents gave her a wristwatch and a shirt, but she spurned both presents (fig. 2).

Through this improvisation, individual affect became, in Lam Yuen Kei’s words, a tragic “epic that etche[d] across chronology, geography, spaces, and themes.” Of the five objects of home, the affect associated with the certificate of reinstatement and the wristwatch was the most poignant and powerful. Consequently, in the improvised narrative the Lee family’s migration experience was chosen as the structural backbone and Chen’s birthday experience as the conclusion, while the affect associated with the other objects was only discernible as part of the larger themes. [End Page 33]

Participants debated ethical and dramaturgical considerations. As Singaporean Joshua Gay pointed out in his post-workshop reflection, when faced with the objects and narratives shared by Nanyang Sisters and several Taiwan-based theatre practitioners, the Singaporean participants often embarrassingly acknowledged the frivolity that defined their understanding of home. They consequently felt ethically obliged to allow the underprivileged to take over in the creative process and be prominently represented in the improvised scenes. Dramaturgically, as mentioned by Lim in his written reflection, turbulent and conflicting stories often offered “the most to work with” in dramatic terms. With these considerations in mind, the participants juxtaposed, overlapped, and intertwined the memories, sentiments, and attitudes attached to multifarious bodies, objects, and body–object relations across times and places. Yet, through the bodies’ fast-paced rhythms, exaggerated movements, and at times self-conscious oversimplification of the narratives, pathos was foregrounded and experienced as outright farce. As the farce abruptly terminated with the spurning of birthday presents, the audience was reminded that the performance they just witnessed was in fact deeply traumatic. However, in presenting the tragic as the comic for the most part, the performance allowed the audience to take in and integrate the trauma of others, cognitively and experientially, without fully living its side effects.

Fig. 2. A collective narrative about home (Singapore, 2015). (Photo: .)
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Fig. 2.

A collective narrative about home (Singapore, 2015). (Photo: Peilin Liang.)

In part 2 the dynamization of affect took place within the structure of the seal wife narrative. When I first encountered the narrative, as part of Cecily O’Neill’s process drama workshop, I was struck by the similarity between this legend of Irish, Scottish, Faroese, and Icelandic origins and the many personal narratives that I came across in my ethnographic work with ASEAN marriage migrants. I subsequently adapted the seal wife narrative for “A Home on the Island.” This selection ensured that the migrant participants could selectively reveal personal realities without compromising their experiential truth, as well as maintaining a courteous front that preserved face. To examine the internal dynamics of a commercialized transnational marriage and the home it creates, the research groups mingled in three subgroups. Participants improvised three versions of the seal wife story, followed by three wedding scenes and three possible outcomes after the seal wife’s departure. [End Page 34]

An affective pattern of re-embodying and interweaving began to emerge. Despite workshop participants’ awareness of the often somber condition of commercialized transnational-marriage migration, the collaboration overall took place in a lively and light-hearted fashion. For example, in the planning phase of the improvisation, the subgroups were each requested to create a background story. They did so by brainstorming and writing down on a poster its setting, events, characters, and objects. With great bemusement, these background stories often evoked the complex and melodramatic plots seen in Korean and Taiwanese soap operas widely enjoyed by pan-Asian audiences. For instance, one particular story imagined a whole seal kingdom in which the seal wife was in fact a seal princess kidnapped by the humans, and the seal king swore to avenge her.

In subsequent improvisations, the migrant participants seldom revealed their personal realities. Between the migrant and nonmigrant groups, the conversations mostly stayed within the narrative framework of the seal wife story. Their interaction oscillated between tactful proposition, negotiation, and verification on how their improvisation should be developed and structured. Variations in the dynamics of the process were chiefly engendered by individual personalities and existing intragroup relations. Because of the migrant participants’ reticence about sharing their life experience, the nonmigrant participants often found themselves pondering about what was left unsaid. As a nonmigrant participant noted in his post-workshop reflection, the more they improvised the seal wife story, the more speculative he became about the reality of commercialized transnational-marriage migration, especially from the husband’s perspective. At the same time, like several other nonmigrants, he disliked the improvisation process whenever his nonmigrant peers asserted their knowledge of that reality and how the narrative should develop accordingly, rather than allowing the narrative to emerge through collective exploration.

Unlike the farcical improvisations in part 1, the scenes in part 2 often fluctuated among enthusiasm, humor, guardedness, and dread. At times, the drastic shifts in affective registry were marked by abrupt moments of silence. This was particularly captured in a dramatization in which Ezra Lee, a muscular and bespectacled male NUS student, performed the seal wife, and Hung (C), a Nanyang Sister, the fisherman. Lee’s cross-dressed performance elicited constant streams of laughter, wherein the seal wife was resuscitated by the fisherman from a dehydrated half-coma, gave birth to three children, and prepared food in her new home’s kitchen. Yet, when the children showed their mother her long-lost sealskin, the laughter tapered off into uncertain giggles. The poignancy of the improvised narrative, which had been kept at bay by Lee’s comic performance thus far, finally came forth. As if in a trance, she tenderly caressed the sealskin with her face and donned her skin. Walking solemnly into the ocean as if in a ritual, she hollered a chant of the seals to the rhythm of a handheld drum (fig. 3). A split second of complete silence fell before the melodramatic quality of the performance ushered in another wave of roaring laughter.

Such drastic alternations in affective register can be read as indexes of critical and cognitive shifts in participants’ perspectives and identification. In a wedding scene created by a different subgroup, Yi-wen Phan, an NUS theatre major, performed the role of the seal wife. The wedding ceremony was a low-profile event depicting the fisherman and the seal wife alone. Throughout the scene they silently and intently observed each other without articulating a word, while two migrant participants in the background conveyed their thoughts and feelings (fig. 4). Reflecting on her embodiment of the seal wife character, Phan says that “it is fascinating to think through what would her thought process be like as she sees her sealskin. What feeling would that be and how she reaches the decision of returning to the sea. . . . I remembered trying to get into her head to understand what she is feeling.” By walking into the skin (and the shoes) of the seal wife, Phan was transposed into the reality of the legend. There, she began to experientially and cognitively inter-reference herself with the seal wife, thereby producing an embodied and situated knowledge about ASEAN marriage migrants. As she reflected in her post-workshop writing, the knowledge in turn instilled in her “a high level of respect for [the] marriage migrants,” whose courage and sacrifice was unimaginable by most people. [End Page 35]

Fig. 3. The seal wife returning to the ocean (Taipei, 2016). (Photo: Yu-te Jhuang.)
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Fig. 3.

The seal wife returning to the ocean (Taipei, 2016). (Photo: Yu-te Jhuang.)

Fig. 4. At a silent wedding (Taipei, 2016). (Photo: Yu-te Jhuang.)
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Fig. 4.

At a silent wedding (Taipei, 2016). (Photo: Yu-te Jhuang.)

[End Page 36]

Post-workshop reflections of the nonmigrant participants further demonstrate such knowledge. Some reconceived the seal wife as a female subject caught between being a “free woman” and a “loving mother,” whose autonomy paradoxically came at the cost of relinquishing her closest attachments. Her partial affiliation with the ocean and the island romantically reminded a participant of the longing Weaving-Girl in the Chinese Valentine, who could only meet her lover the Oxherd once a year. Although in the seal wife narrative such longing was not associated with the female protagonist, several participants saw in the seal wife a human being whose struggles, interactions in a foreign land, and reasons for leaving her children were universally relevant. Participants admired her courage and resilience—attributes absent in the original legend.

Through repetitions of this narrative, the group realized that multiple endings were possible. This in turn prompted participants to ask what could have been done to amend, salvage, or exacerbate the seal wife’s marital and familial relationships, and how and by whom. Many re-evaluated their presumptions. For instance, one participant mentioned during the workshop that humans express affection through hugs and kisses, but seals may express the same feeling through play. Adding to this observation, another commented that culture and gender also shape the ways in which affection is differently conveyed and accessed. Many participants debated whether or not the seal wife’s decision to pursue a life of her own was the ideal outcome.

It was the fisherman who underwent the most drastic personality makeover by far, as evidenced in the participants’ post-workshop written reflections. While they initially saw him as a violent and even “nauseating” perpetrator and patriarch, by the end of the workshop he emerged as a desperate, marginal, and lonely figure in the village. He was capable of guilt, remorse, and feelings for his wife, despite his ineptness at self-expression. A participant observed that the most romantic feat the fisherman ever accomplished was perhaps catching lots of fish for his wife. Although nothing could justify the act of taking his seal wife by force, participants suggested that he was better comprehended as a product of his upbringing. A participant who had previously worked with the marriage migrants added a further thought: that if the fisherman was to escape self-imposed male stereotypes, re-education would be necessary. Such realizations suggest that the group began to view one another in less dichotomized terms and that at least in some instances participants could apply the knowledge produced in the workshop to real-life contexts.

Distilling Affect: A Marriage Migrant and Her Feelings

Playback theatre was implemented to distill the affect at the conclusion of part 2 of “A Home on the Island.” In playback-theatre performances a facilitator invites audience members to share their stories, one by one. The stories are then improvised in realistic and expressionistic modes on the spot by a group of actors and a musician. Within the intercultural context of this particular workshop, a translator was stationed next to the facilitator to translate between English and Mandarin. After each round of storytelling and improvised enactment, different volunteers came onstage to serve as the actors, musician, and storyteller.

The procedure began with rounds of sharing about what might have happened after the seal wife returned to the sea, followed by further rounds on personal experiences of searching for something in life. These improvisations became increasingly personal and functioned as multiple layers of affective filter; they were intended to distill the most direct articulation of the marriage migrants’ affect, and to confirm affective shifts in the nonmigrants toward marriage migration. Liu, who originally came from Saigon/Ho Chih Minh City, resonated with the improvised scenes. She eventually stepped forward and shared her experience of returning to Vietnam after spending more than two decades in Taiwan. After her mother passed away, Liu contemplated making investments with her siblings and eventually retiring in Vietnam. However, disagreements arose between Liu and her siblings over how her plan would be carried out, both financially and logistically. Through [End Page 37] this conflict she realized that she was now more Taiwanese than Vietnamese, despite remaining a perennial Other in Taiwan. Her story was of resignation, but also of resilience and hope.

Liu appointed me to play her in the improvisation. In order to dynamize her affect as accurately as possible, I listened deeply and carefully to her narrative. Afterward, Liu watched me performing her. From a somewhat distant researcher I was instantly transformed into a research subject. Through my embodiment, I was double-tasked to corroborate the nonmigrants’ speculation about the lived reality of ASEAN marriage migrants, as well as to observe my own affective shift toward them. In the improvisation I inter-referenced my body with Liu’s and performed with an imagination shaped by all of my previous effect–affect and intercultural experiences, as a migrant and tourist. Even then I knew my embodiment was inadequate in documenting Liu’s affect: there would always be a distance among my body, her body, and my embodiment of her body. Yet, as I shared with the group after the workshop, it was the awareness of such distance that held my own assumptions and biases toward the cultural Other in check.

Interbody Performance: Traversing Borders through the Body

In “A Home on the Island” the participants affectively traversed cultural, class, and gender borders through the body. The nonmigrants’ affect toward ASEAN marriage migrants subsequently became diversified and nuanced, leading to greater empathy. Drawing on the experience of the workshop, I argue that interbody performance insists on the body as the source, rather than the end point, of any affective circulation within an intercultural context; it foregrounds the body as the total sum of effect and affect, and it is socioculturally situated. As the “existential ground of culture” (Csordas), the body derives agency by continuously embodying, interpreting, and negotiating culture.

To redirect the circulation of affect from the personal to the public, interbody performance is implemented in the “co-presence” (Fischer-Lichte 51, 60) of participants from divergent socio-cultural backgrounds who simultaneously perform and spectate. Affective practices, which enable affect to reinforce and work in tandem with effect, subsequently foster the dynamic alteration of interbody relations. Such practices frequently operate through what Scott Marratto describes as “intercorporeality”: the oscillation between identification with and alienation from “my own body” (9). By shifting tangible boundaries between the self and others through physical and kinaesthetic interactions and thereby shifting intangible sociocultural boundaries, the goal of interbody performance is to produce multisensorial and multidimensional knowledge of individual bodies. For the participants of “A Home in the Island,” the marriage migrant reemerges from a female object to a subject, and the affect of her body questions the necessity of resentment.

In addition to its application with marriage migrants, my proposal of interbody performance as a method opens up questions about its other potential functions. It potentially offers a body-centered method of seeing beyond the East–West bifurcation in the study of intercultural performance. It could be useful in examining other contexts of underprivileged intercultural encounters, where bodies frequently, if not always, experience disorientation and damage as they traverse borders. The applications and implications of interbody performance as a method remain to be seen within contexts beyond commercialized marriage migration in Asia. [End Page 38]

Peilin Liang

Peilin Liang is an assistant professor of theatre studies at National University of Singapore. She is particularly interested in underprivileged intercultural encounters and their manifestation in aesthetics, agency inscription, and performance pedagogy and practice. Her research subjects include the body, physical transformation, popular theatre, hand puppetry, indigenous theatre, and community-based theatre for women, seniors, and youths. Her works have appeared in Contemporary Theatre Review, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Performance Research, Theatre Research International, and Research in Drama Education. Her current monograph project is titled Transformance: Bodies in the Contemporary Theatre of Taiwan.


1. For further information on playback theatre, see Jonathan Fox, Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre; and Jo Salas, Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre.

2. The project is ongoing. For the next three years I will be taking students from Singapore to Taiwan to conduct another PaR project with a group of Hakka pear-growers, earthquake survivors, homemakers, and grandmothers who have run a theatre company of their own since 2000. Aging will be the focus of “A Home on the Island,” parts 3–5.

3. ASEAN currently comprises ten countries: Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei.

4. Founded in 2009, Nanyang Sisters Theatre has been at the forefront of promoting the welfare of ASEAN marriage migrants in Taiwan by touring performances based on members’ life experiences.

5. I refer to the participants by their full names, by their surnames only, or by no name, depending on the individual’s preference. Throughout this essay, I draw on the insights and written post-workshop reflections of all the participants, including, from the 2015 workshop, Cherry Chang, Chen, Kenneth Chia, Joshua Gay, Hung (A), Lam Yuen Kei, Hsiao-lien Lee, Lee, Isaac Lim, Jun Jie Lim, An Lin Loh, and Yen-chiu Shen; and from the 2016 workshop, Chia-chi Hwang, Hung (B), Hung (C), Ezra Lee, Min Jie Lee, Lee, Liu, Yi-wen Phan, Daniel Sim, Rebekah Tan, Lara Tay, Joseph Teo, You-hui Wang, and Zi-niao Yeh. Three participants with the surname Hung wished to be identified by their surname only, hence the parenthetical A–C. A written consent was obtained from each of the participants prior to commencing the PaR research.

6. Special thanks go to my collaborators Show-shun Lee and Shu-hui Chen. The project is an intersection of my ethnographic research with Nanyang Sisters, which I first began in 2014, and the pedagogy that I practice at the theatre studies program in NUS. In between attending to the practical details of running the workshop, I reflected in and on the action as organizer, co-facilitator, translator, participant, and principal investigator of the project. At the end of the project, there were observable changes in the attitudes and behavior of marriage migrant and nonmarriage migrant participants, which were conducive to moving beyond resentment. My formulation of affective practices in interbody performance came after the project. These practices are by no means intended as prescriptive measures against resentment, but rather as methods and conceptual frameworks that may be further applied and adapted beyond the context of marriage migration to help comprehend the ways in which resentment operates.

7. The White Terror refers to Taiwan’s forty years of postwar political suppression (1947–87) under KMT martial law.

8. The Hok-lo are the largest ethnic group in Taiwan, constituting approximately 70 percent of the population. Their ancestors mostly came from Fujian in China during the Ching dynasty.

9. The “interview beyond the border” is compulsory for marriage migrants and their Taiwanese spouses before the migrants enter the country. [End Page 39]

10. The Jiji earthquake that she encountered struck on September 21, 1999 and measured 7.3 on the Richter scale. It was the largest to strike Taiwan in fifty years.

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