Thoughts on Other People’s Children – Sophie
Spaces and borders
I saw Sati’s small room with the tiny bed – a bed for a child, a bed big enough only for one body, a bed that consigns one to a lonely life. It’s a guest bed, a bed that is not for someone staying long, not for a real member of the household nor family. This is Sati’s refuge/non-refuge, her space, though it is temporary and not really hers. There’s a small table with many picture frames upstage. They have yet to be filled with pictures but I can imagine framed photographs of children, upstage, ever present, looking out at us, haunting the background, asserting their absence.
Micheline, Asha and Kathleen began to explore one of the scenes in space. It’s a scene that begins with Sati in shock – something had obviously just happened. There was a discussion about how the scene should begin – should Sati come into her room or did the action take place in her room? Is the room her refuge, and has that refuge been ruptured? Tracing the lines marking out the set, I see a number of borders. Is that boundary respected? Ilana and Ben are constantly in her room, and how they cross that border is telling of each of the characters. If the doorway to Sati’s room is the border between the workspace and private space, Sati also breaches this space by bringing the baby into her room. Boundaries are permeable, porous to some, less so to others. Seeing Ben and Ilana move through the space I thought, the white people in this play go where they want to. Even if they are polite about it, the space is theirs and they inhabit it as such.
I am reminded of when we first started discussing the play and thinking about how to cast it. At the time I thought it might be interesting to have a mixed-race couple, say an Asian wife or husband, someone who is completely westernized. We auditioned actors of all cultural backgrounds for Ben and Ilana. But when we saw white actors it just made sense. The privilege stood out so sharply. There was an ease in how they occupy space. I spoke to actor Brett Donahue about it, because he is so well cast in this role.
B: I’ve tried to be aware of white privilege and especially, I look at myself and I’m the kind of physical embodiment of it you know, hahahaha. I’m a tall, hetero, in shape white male that is good looking and charming and charismatic –
S: If you do say so yourself.
B: Haha, exactly, right. But that’s it. What do people see without knowing anything about me –
S: Yes, they see lots of privilege.
B: Yes. So within that I’ve tried to certainly become aware of that. Things that I can do.
S: It’s interesting that you should mention this because there’s a level of comfort in which you move through the world that other people might not have.
S: Even – if I can say so, in that first reading you were late. Do you remember you were late at that workshop reading?
B: Oh yeah.
S: And you’re late and there’s this whole table of women waiting for you and you come in and were like “Hi guys”.
B: That was the weird thing, I didn’t think I was late at all. But afterwards I was thinking, “Oh what happened here?”
S: What struck me was like, wow this guy’s late but he’s so unapologetic about it. He’s at such ease which is quite amazing. And because he’s a white male and in your words good looking and charming – so you come in and charm people –
B: Well that’s the crux of it. There’s aspects of that I completely agree with. It’s such a fucked up thing. Like if you were to do that, I wouldn’t think, oh well here’s Sophie coming in and charming everyone.
S: Yeah, I would say no, I can’t get away with it because I’m not carrying a whole bunch of white male privilege.
I am more than just this
The play presents a complex web of power dynamics: male/female, white/colour, employer/employee and different axes come to the fore at different times. I watched a bit of the scene where Sati admits to Ben that she’s a bit drunk, that she’s had something to drink. I was pleasantly surprised to see that in that moment Sati is not an employee being apologetic to her employer. Rather, she is a woman being a bit flirty to a man who is giving her some much-needed attention. I love seeing Sati as someone with agency as she traverses through these power dynamics. She’s not a passive recipient of action, someone who has things done to her. She actively is seeking solace and a respite from her loneliness. Later, she asserts her identity as more than her present position: “I am an engineer”.
Because of Sati’s assertion of her agency, the line that stood out for me when Ben gives her architectural plans is: “Thank you for this, this is very kind of you, to think of my profession!” I spoke about this to Asha later on. “I can only imagine that someone told me I couldn’t be a performer or an artist and had to go do something else, something I am capable of doing, but my heart isn’t into it or I didn’t train for it” she said. “Think of how much schooling and how much dedication it takes to be an engineer and how smart Sati has to be. It’s who you are.” To be seen as more than what your present circumstance is, to be recognized, to have your past life be acknowledged, is so affirming – and potent. The entirety of who Sati is is not valued in this household. Her value comes from simply being a woman and more to the point, being a woman from the third world.
A: I was reading that book that Hannah credits at the end, the Global Women book and it articulated that something I had a sense of but I didn’t put words to. That as a society in the west, there is a projection onto people of colour who immigrate here, particularly who immigrate here and still have an accent. It’s projected onto them that they just are natural caretakers, that it’s just part of their nature and their upbringing.
S: Because it’s from their culture and there’s so many kids around all of the time?
A: They come from an “it takes a village” and “we take care of our elders” idea. And so, of course, they are so well suited to this. Oh, she’s an engineer but now she’s going to come take care of my baby.
S: She should know what she’s doing.
A: Yeah, yeah. And the shadow side of that is the sexuality that gets projected onto that.
S: Absolutely. I find that really fascinating. The idea of Asian and South Asian female bodies being ones that provide care or sex. In this play that is how they are presented. Finding work in Japan as a woman from the third world, a white man goes to Hanoi, that implies something. What are your thoughts about that?
A: I’m about to start crying. I can’t. I mean, it’s wonderful to see #metoo and see women have this platform to speak up and the courage to speak up and people actually hearing them and it’s beautiful. And it has to be bigger. It is not just happening in Western cities. One of the things about this transmigration of care is that it’s still seen as a predominantly female characteristic to take care or to nurture, whether it’s the very young or the elderly or very young. So in the west, women are coming up against that gender stereotype and are breaking through that by working at these fabulous jobs, and having children. They need help. And in our story, it’s not their partners that help pick up the slack.
S: No. It’s women of colour. And so more emancipated women in the west, the first world, let’s say mostly white women, hire women from the third world who do not have the power to fight against those gender stereotypes. Who are put in situations that are often exploitative.
Motherhood + Career
Seeing Ilana in the play, I saw (in order?) a lawyer, a wife, a mother and a woman trying to juggle all of those identities. And rather randomly, I was reminded of this routine by Michelle Wolf about choosing between a career and motherhood: “I know there’s a lot of people out there who are like, ‘But Michelle, you don’t have to choose. You can have it all. Women can have it all.’ Yeah, stop saying that. You act like ‘all’ is good. All does not mean good. You’ve never left an all-you-can-eat buffet and thought, ‘I feel really good about myself.’ ”
Who earns less stays home, kind of
Ben is in sales. Ilana is a lawyer. I don’t know who earns more. But it’s possible that Ilana earns more and yet Ben continues to work, leaving Ilana at home with the baby while he goes on business trips. Things are changing, but still women are the ones mostly providing childcare. Families often cite finances as the reason women stay home with the kids, as women earn $0.87 for every dollar earned by men. And then taking the time off of work for maternity leave affects women’s career and how far women can advance in their work, in turn leading to lower wages. How can we expect to have more fathers at home until there is gender pay equity and more women in leadership (ie better paid) positions?
Asha and I spoke about unpaid women’s labour:
A: There’s this amazing book I think it’s by an NZ writer about the economy. If we actually paid mothers for the work they do, not just in the house but volunteer work that they do in schools and hospitals, if we actually paid them, the economy would collapse.
S: Right it’s just a bunch of free labour.
A: The point of the book is saying is that we tend to value things with money and we don’t value care or housework or things like that even though it’s what enables us all to do the things we want to do. Here’s a monetary value, do you see how much it’s worth? And sometimes someone actually does need that.
(Now I couldn’t find the book Asha is referring to but I found this tool to calculate unpaid labour. Looks like I do $703 of free work a week. I’m still waiting for my cheque.)