“You don’t have to worry about the details of your story. They’re very important, of course. And that’s what makes your story unique, but what’s going to get people is the underlying emotional truth. So however you grew up, they get it.” — Elizabeth “Lisa” Liang
In this episode of Stories from the Field, Felicia Scott and Oana Amaria chat with Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang, an actor, writer, storyteller, and global citizen of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent. As a budding actor in Hollywood, she noticed stories like hers weren’t being told on stage or in film. In this episode we chat about what it’s like to help immigrants, multiracial people, third culture kids, and women of color break this cycle both in Hollywood and in their own lives.
LEARNING HIGHLIGHTS FROM THIS EPISODE:
- The journey from essayist to filmmaker
- The importance of creating a safe space for sharing, listening, and feedback
- Finding your own stories of bravery and failure to become an ally
Hear the Full Episode On:
About Elizabeth “Lisa“ Liang
Elizabeth (aka Lisa) was raised in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and Connecticut as a Guatemalan-American business brat of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent. Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey, the film of Elizabeth’s autobiographical solo show, won the Outstanding Achievement in Performing Arts Award at the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival. The stage production toured internationally in theatres, the college circuit, conferences, festivals, international schools, and the US Embassy (Panama) from 2013 to 2019. Lisa graduated from Wesleyan University. She is an award-winning bilingual actress who works in theatre, television, and film; she also narrates audiobooks. Her essays have been published in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo and the journal Asian American Literature: Discourses & Pedagogies. She had a column in TheDisplacedNation.com for three years. Lisa co-hosted Hapa Happy Hour, the longest running podcast on the mixed-race experience, and leads workshops on writing one’s intersectional solo show, memoir, or personal essay.
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Oana Amaria: So Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining us. As I shared earlier, I was tickled pink to be able to book this together. It’s been a long time, feels like many lives ago since Valencia, when we first originally connected. What really stayed with me was just the power of your storytelling. And that’s the story of you or the image of you I’ve carried these seven years that we’ve had. So I wanted you to just take a moment to really introduce yourself, your path to this work, because I just think it’s so unique and I think unexpected when people hear all the different facets of it, and then how you entered the field of storytelling, of entertainment. You do so many interesting things. So I’d love for you to share with our listeners.
Elizabeth Liang: Thank you. My nickname, by the way, is Lisa. So you can all call me Lisa Liang, but Elizabeth is my real name and my stage name. I just had the privilege and challenge of growing up completely interculturally. My father’s Guatemalan of Chinese, Spanish and Indigenous descent. My mother’s American of Irish, French, German, English descent.
Elizabeth Liang: They met, they got married, they had two kids. And my dad started working for Xerox and Xerox moved us around. So I grew up at… We left Guate when I was a year old and then went to Costa Rica, and the USA, and Panama, and the USA. And then Morocco and then Egypt, where I spent my high school years, and then came back to the States for college and have just been in the States my entire adult life, which is weird in its own way, after growing up the way I did. So grew up with different languages and having to learn languages and then losing languages. My original language was Spanish. Now English is my dominant language, and I have memories of being Guatemalan when I was very, very little and knowing what it felt like and still have that inside. But outwardly I think I’m very assimilated American, which was never the plan. It just happens. You live somewhere long enough, you’re just going to absorb.
Elizabeth Liang: My mom’s an actress, and she worked both professionally and in community theater. And my parents love books. They love reading. They inhale books. They love theater. They love movies. So I grew up in this household where storytelling was the way you relaxed, was reading or experiencing other people’s stories. And it does teach you empathy. All those studies that say people who grow up reading fiction are more empathetic. Yeah. I would say that’s absolutely true.
Elizabeth Liang: And so, I wanted to be an actor or a writer and I wasn’t sure which, and then I was an intern at a casting office in Manhattan, the top casting office in Manhattan when I was in college. And I saw what an absolute crapshoot it is, absolute crapshoot to book a role. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the best audition or the greatest talent. You generally do need to give a pretty good audition and have talent, but that’s not… You look like the producer’s sister who he hates, so you’re not getting it. Or you look like the producer’s girlfriend who he loves, so you’re getting it, is how you’re going to get that role.
Elizabeth Liang: So I thought, “No way am I going to go down this path. I will be an English major and then I will do something.” I moved to LA because I thought, “Well, I really want to work in the film industry and maybe I’ll be an editor or something.” And I ended up working at a film archive, and I really missed acting. So I took an acting class and the teacher, he’s a recognizable working actor, encouraged me and that was the kiss of death.
Elizabeth Liang: So I got the headshot and made the resume and started doing the rounds and all of that for couple years, not getting anywhere and finally realized you can’t kind of pursue an acting career. You know, having been a casting intern, don’t even do it. It’s a real lottery. There’s no logic to it. But I missed it so much. So I thought, “No, I really, really, really do want to do this. And I really want to do it among professional peers,” because I had taken acting classes. And that’s how I started that, and slowly but surely got a little bit of traction.
Elizabeth Liang: But then I noticed I was never seeing a story like mine told anywhere, anywhere. You might see every few years a story with a young woman who was multiracial and up until, I don’t know, 15 years ago, she was tragic, which has nothing to do with anything. And it was just tiresome. So I started having this really strong yearning to see the story and to see the story about growing up in different countries. So I thought I better write it. And then I didn’t because it’s terrifying and you’re pursuing what you’re pursuing. It’s not like you have time all day to delve into your own story.
Elizabeth Liang: And then my brother sent me this call for essays, call for submissions to an anthology that was going to be by, about and for third culture kids who grew up in different countries and cultures. And so I write an essay that will force me to create my solo show, so that’s what I did. And the excerpts in the essay are the first things I ever wrote for the solo show. Most of them didn’t make it into the final cut of the actual solo show, which is called Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey.
Elizabeth Liang: And I ended up writing the show and workshopping it, and doing everything I could to make it as good as I could. And then I premiered it in 2013 in Hollywood, California. And then it had a life, it had legs. It toured the country and it toured the world. I made it into a film, like a filmed performance. And it’s now streamed all over the world, and professors of anthropology and sociology and psychology and women and gender studies and theater use it as this teaching resource for the students. It helps them have a dynamic class discussions about their own identities because it goes all into that. And it’s also like, “Oh, look, see what happens when a person has all these different intersections of identity in their own single life, own unique life.”
Oana Amaria: It makes me think of so many… I could go down the rabbit hole, but this idea of we make decisions based on our affinity bias and the fact that… Until we create the data points for all these other unique stories, we’re just never going to be able to hack it. Right? So as you may remember, I’m also a third culture kid. So I think that was our connecting point. And what’s so interesting about your workshops is that they’re for a very particular subset of people like us, right? And we couldn’t be more specialized in our typical experiences. So third culture kids, immigrants, multiracial individuals, and essentially the people that felt like you did, that didn’t see themselves in these stories. And so I’m sure it could be nerve wracking. We had a whole thing around code switching and the benefits and how, yes, you’re adaptive and all these things, but there’s also a cost to code switching and it gets really old, really fast.
Oana Amaria: Can you give us some insights on the typical participants that do your sessions or a part of your workshop and what’s the transformation? I’m sure you have so many stories about people walking out, because I think this exploration and identity is so powerful. Like I have chills just even saying that out loud because it takes a lot of courage to identify. It takes a lot of courage to unpack your stuff. It takes a lot of courage to be like, “I do this because I’m coping with this experience I had in,” fill in the blank country or culture or person. So I’d love to hear a little bit about that. And I’m sure people stick in your mind that have these powerful ahas from your workshops.
Elizabeth Liang: It’s true. I’ve been so lucky. By and large, they’ve been women, which is great. And there have been a lot of adult third culture kids. There have been women who are multiethnic, multiracial. There are women who grew up in one kind of monolingual monocultural society and then became expats later on. Or they married someone from a different country, with different languages and traditions. And everyone has a lot of the same fears. I always begin my workshops having them write why they want to create this memoir or solo show or collection of essays, keynote, and then to write down every single fear that they can think of about embarking on this. And there are no wrong fears.
Elizabeth Liang: And I give them very little time. The thing about my workshops is I give people very little time, so there is no time to get precious. There is no time to self-edit. There ain’t no time except what comes into your head and write it down. And generally people fear, they don’t want to hurt somebody. They’re afraid about how they’re going to depict someone who may not come across in a flattering light, or they are afraid no one’s going to get it. Or they’re afraid they’ll do the best work they could do and it will still not land. And it won’t be interesting. It won’t resonate. They’ll fail somehow. Those are all very common. And I always tell people, “If you had none of those fears, if you genuinely thought, ‘Well, everybody needs to hear my story. And I cannot believe that people aren’t begging,’ that would be a very bad sign. And I don’t what the quality of that story might be.”
Elizabeth Liang: So we want to absolutely acknowledge the fears right there at the top. There they are. Oh, look, everyone’s got them. And some people have different ones and ones that we’ve never heard before, but they’re all valid and unique. And now we don’t have to pretend they’re not there. They’re there. We’ve acknowledged them. We’ve given them their due, and now let’s move forward and start sharing our stories.
Elizabeth Liang: And the transformations that I’ve found is… It’s not therapy. I am not a mental health professional. I always make this as clear as I can to people that that’s not my thing. I can only help you tell your story. And the writing prompts can bring things up. It can bring things up for people. So all I can do is make sure people have Kleenex nearby just in case. And they do not have to share aloud anything they don’t want to share after those first two prompts. But, or and, it is therapeutic nonetheless, to share your story in a safe space, I make it as safe a container as I can, with other people who are listening to you.
Elizabeth Liang: And no one’s interrupting and I make it… This is how safe I try to make the space: I only let people give feedback if the person who just shared wants feedback from their classmates. And they can request a certain kind. So I’ll give my feedback gently and encouragingly, because it’s not a critique class, it’s a creation class. And then, “Would you like feedback, Oana, from your classmates? And if so, would you like a certain kind?” And you can say, “Nope, not today.” Or you can say, “Yeah, I’m not sure about the character of my sister. Is she coming across a little two dimensional?” And then the first person who gives feedback needs to give feedback on only that. If they say, “I don’t know, but you know what I’m really fascinated by? Is your relationship with that first boyfriend.” And then I step in, as the workshop facilitator and say, “Nope. Mm-mm (negative). Sorry, thank you. Oana was clear about what kind of feedback she wants, and that is the only feedback she needs to get from her classmates.” So that you’re not bombarded with stuff.
Elizabeth Liang: And people always respect it. Or 99% of the time they respect it. If they don’t, I step in. And you can also just say, “Please just tell me you thought it was great and I look pretty today.” You are allowed to be completely superficial if that’s what you need, because again, it’s not a critique class. So that causes this feeling of, I think, relief and release for people that, “Okay, I’m not being struck by lightning for sharing this story. Nobody’s throwing up. Nobody’s throwing virtual tomatoes through the Skype screen. This is a safe place.”
Elizabeth Liang: And people can always find something to connect to because we all know how vulnerable it is, how courageous you’re being, automatically that causes empathy and solidarity and a feeling of support and gratitude. “Oh, you just shared that. Well, then maybe I can share this,” because it sparks. People spark each other. So they walk away realizing, for sure, “My story really does matter. And how I feel about that story matters too. I have the right to tell it. There is an audience for it. And I understand my life a little better now because I have been, as I’ve been putting it together, crafting a through line. I’ve been trying to find what’s the theme that keeps coming back, what got me from here to here and why. What patterns do I keep showing?”
Elizabeth Liang: And sometimes the writing, literally the syntax, and the plot as it were, will reflect struggles the person is having in their life. Like sometimes people will sort of skip the nitty gritty. They’ll give you the beginning and the end. And I’ll say, “The middle is really where the gold is. We’re going to have to get in there. We’re going to have to get in there.” And they’ll realize, “That’s kind of how I’ve lived certain parts of my life, where I’ve just kind of maybe suppressed or just gotten through, just muscled through to get to the end of that relationship or that part of my life. And if I delve a little more, maybe I’ll understand a little more.”
Elizabeth Liang: Sorry, that was very wordy. But on the whole, people walk away understanding more that they really do matter, their stories matter, and how they feel about those stories matters.
Felicia Scott: I was going to write my story because I thought, “People would really be interested in my story,” until you shared that maybe that wouldn’t be a good start. So I’m rethinking my career as an author next.
Elizabeth Liang: No, no, I’m so sorry, Felicia. No, of course, your story is… We wouldn’t tell our stories if we thought they’d be dull. I just mean, you know what I mean.
Felicia Scott: I’m totally kidding, my friend. But I love what you said. It reminds me of, I used to do a journaling workshop and what’s happening is it’s the right left brain connection when you write your own story. Something very powerful happens when those two things come together. But I would love to know in terms of when you write your story, when you do your one woman show and when you go in to film, what was those different experiences like? What did you learn differently or new each time you told your story or showed up in a different way?
Elizabeth Liang: That’s a great question. Thank you. Yeah, every time I did it, it is… And by the way, it’s crafted. I’m not improvising. I crafted that sucker. It is a piece of theater. I’m not just up there sharing. It’s a piece of theater that I worked very hard on. And it’s not perfect. Like I can look at it now and think… Even while I was doing it, I knew, “Oh, I could make some changes, but I’m tired. So I’ll just try to compensate via the performance and make it more dynamic here, make it funnier there.”
Elizabeth Liang: But what I learned was that I never knew what was going to make people cry. And it seemed that every time I did it, people cried, but I had no idea when or why. And the same with laughs. There were a couple lines I felt were my, “This is absolutely going to get a laugh.” And so when that didn’t happen, it would be a shock and I’d realize, “Oh, you better look into what you’re doing right now.” But people would just chuckle at stuff that I had no idea was amusing.
Elizabeth Liang: And then pretty quickly, after the first couple weekends of performances, I realized it was too much of a downer. I was getting so earnest because my director didn’t want me to rush. And then I overcorrected and was so earnest that it was not fun to play. And I can only imagine what it was like to watch someone being earnest for like 90 minutes. So I went back to what I had originally wanted to do, which is to make it as funny as possible, but without rushing or being glib. And that was really a good lesson to learn, how to let a joke land, which I knew as an actor, but when it’s your own story, that kind of gets in the way. And it gets kind of hard to even understand what’s happening when you’re up there. Because you’re very much a deer in headlights at first, at least I was.
Elizabeth Liang: And so it was good to learn, yes, make it as funny as you can so that the most serious parts land firmly, but don’t be glib and don’t be earnest. It’s this fine line of authentic truth telling, but keeping people entertained. And then when I shot it to make a film, what I learned from my director of media was, “The camera’s right there, Lisa.” Everything that I had learned to really bring it to the people at the back of the house, in the large high school auditoriums that had a thousand kids in them, I had to reign it, reign it, reign it, reign it, reign it in, because it was just too much. Just what you’ve heard about film acting. On stage, you show. You have to. You use your entire body. And on film, you actually think more and let it come through your eyes.
Elizabeth Liang: And I guess what I learned each time was there was always somebody, usually there were quite a few people and I’d be feel very, very lucky to have a wonderful response. But sometimes, if the audience was small enough, there might be a person who needed to see the show that day, that night. There was always someone who’s like, “You said exactly how I feel, but I haven’t been able to put it into words. And now I’ve got the words, so thank you.” That was wonderful because I had no idea what people were going to think of the thing. I sincerely thought I might have to cancel performances in the first run. And I thought I might have to cancel the show because I had no idea if anyone was going to come, besides my friends. So it was transformative for me to do it. And I can say that it was transformative for audience to see themselves in some way represented.
Elizabeth Liang: And the last thing I’ll say is you don’t have to worry about the details of your story. They’re very important, of course, and that’s what makes your story unique, but what’s going to get people is the underlying emotional truth. So however you grew up, they get it when you’re talking about having been betrayed, having been bullied, having fallen in love for the first time, having made your first kindred spirit friend. The details are what make it unique and interesting, but what will resonate is that thing underneath.
Felicia Scott: I love what you said. There’s always somebody. And I think sometimes even in what we do with facilitation, you have to remember, there’s always somebody. And what you’re saying is exactly what they need or it’s the exact empathetic moment they need to get through. And so that’s very powerful to hear. So would love to know what’s going on that’s exciting you right now? What is a project that you’re working on or something that’s forming in the back of your mind you’re marinating on?
Elizabeth Liang: It’s the new show that doesn’t feel new anymore because I’m working on it for years now. And I walk away for six months and then come back. But I’m starting to feel like, “No, I’m ready to really do it.” And it’s a show that’s about the concept of home and my birth place of Guatemala and my family there. And especially my grandmother and how, for me, as I say, an alien citizen, I’m not from a place. I’m from people. And I feel that I’m from my parents and my brother. They were my home when I was growing up. And now my husband is my home. And my country were my grandmother and her siblings, who were the pillars of the family. And what it’s like to start knowing in your life that you are this culture and then to start to lose it and lose it and lose it. But it never is completely lost. You’ve got it inside. But outwardly…
Elizabeth Liang: And things like when you lose language and there is shame. There shouldn’t be, but there can be shame about losing language and shame about having to relearn it because you shouldn’t have ever have lost it. And there is no should or shouldn’t, it’s just a belief, all of that. And what happens when the people who you think of as your country and your home, if one of them becomes… Because I adored my grandmother, she was wonderful, but she was also mercurial. So what happens when, if home is a person and the person is sometimes slightly unsafe? And all of that.
Elizabeth Liang: And then I’m also writing original fanfic scenes based on Peter Jackson’s films of The Hobbit, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, which I’m not a fan of. Not a fan of book, I’m not a fan of those movies, but I fell into the rabbit hole of fanfic, found some great fanfic on it. And when I was getting stuck on this show that I’m talking about, I started just for fun writing fanfic scenes and realized, “Oh, they’re paralleling. They’re paralleling what I’m writing about in my real life, except that it’s so much easier to write about this over here with these characters over here, so much easier. So maybe they can be my entry and I can kind of meld them.” So I’ve been saying it will either be uniquely entertaining or an exercise in humiliation. I don’t know yet.
Oana Amaria: I think we can all empathize with the exercise in humiliation or learning to be real humble, real fast. Right?
Elizabeth Liang: Yeah.
I think about… Because you talked about what it feels like to be betrayed or what it feels like to be bullied. And I think for all of us, it takes us back to three or four moments in time. And it makes me think of the people that in those moments stood for me or pulled me aside and said, “I’m going to show you how to do this,” or stand up for me. And that’s burned into my mind. I’ll never forget that. And I wonder… Because many of us in the inclusion space are teaching others to learn to be allies and to be practitioners and to be inclusion champions. And so if you think about those moments for you, what is your one request or your one question for the space and for people that are the evangelists in their organizations, on their teams, on how to be better allies, more nuanced, whatever that is for you. But what’s that one call to action that you would make?
Elizabeth Liang: I would actually ask them to share with one another and with all of us, what is the thing they do in the moment when something comes up and they need to be someone who stands up for, speaks up, is that guy or that gal or that person? Because no one ever wants to be that person, but sometimes it’s the only right thing to do, and it’s excruciatingly uncomfortable. And I would love for them to share because it will help all of us. What do you do in that moment? Do you take a breath? Do you think about something that happened in your life? Do you remember that person who did it for you? What’s the thing that grounds you so that you, “Okay. Now I’m going to say the thing and do the thing”? Because if we all shared that with one another, it would help us all so much to then do it more.
Oana Amaria: I have a little kid and one of the things you learn with little kids is to narrate what’s happening so they understand. Right? It’s a parent tip. So I’ve found myself at times when I’m in an argument with my husband narrating my feelings and I was like, “Oh, wrong person.” But it sounds almost like that, right? Like, “Here’s what’s coming up for me. Here’s the fear I have.” And I think that’d be such an interesting thing to work on.
Elizabeth Liang: It’s storytelling. Right? If you tell the story of what happens internally in you before you do the thing that’s brave, it will help all of us maybe try that, or feel like, “That’s exactly what I do,” or, “Oh, I do something completely different, but that’s interesting.” So I guess my call to action is tell the story of what happens when you are called upon to be brave and be the person who speaks up, and when you do do it. And maybe even tell the stories of when you don’t. Tell one story of a time you didn’t and what that felt like later, or right then. And I will be astonished if there’s someone who doesn’t have that story. I would be flabbergasted if there’s someone who’s like, “Oh, no. No, I’m always a champion at all times, 24/7. You can count on me to be a superhero,” because I’d love to meet that person.
Felicia Scott: Tell us the story of when you don’t. That’s the humanity piece. It’s that vulnerability piece. Not my perfect piece that we all need to hear.
Elizabeth Liang: Right.
Felicia Scott: So we’re about to wrap up. We’ve enjoyed our time with you, but before we do, anything that you’d like to ask us, share, anything like that before we…
Elizabeth Liang: Just thank you guys so much for having me. I was looking at your website and was… You do everything. You guys are saving the world. So thank you. And here’s my little plug. You can find me at elizabethliang.com and it sends you to all the different websites. Like if you want to know about my workshops, where I help you tell your story, it sends you there. If you want to know about me as an actor, it sends you there. And if you want to know about Alien Citizen, the film, and how to watch it, it sends you there too.
Oana Amaria: I love it. Well, thank you so much.
Felicia Scott: So very much. It’s been fantastic.
Elizabeth Liang: Thank you.
Felicia Scott: And thank you for sharing your story, not just with Firefly, but with the world. We really do appreciate it.
Elizabeth Liang: Oh, thank you. My pleasure.