Grammar matters: Dear Evan Hansen and the appeal of the passive voice

A wise woman (Rachel Bloom) once said “nothing was ever anyone’s fault.” The universe is a jerk. We are all just passive players in this large game of life, bent to the will and whims of the unknown forces of fates. We are traumatized and tired, and we should not be faulted for our blunders. Evan Hansen, the titular character of the popular musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, seems to be the perfect embodiment of this sentiment. The story of Dear Evan Hansen was comforting: Evan, just like us in at least some points of our lives, found himself in a mess of bad decisions that were not entirely in his control. Throughout the musical, Evan and those around him were all victims of their circumstances and traumas, and the musical established a soothing, hopeful tone that reassured both their characters and their audience that their pain and struggles were valid and understood. The creators used a grammatical tool – the passive voice – to bring about a sense of victimhood in the characters, and a sense of sympathy in the audience. However, by doing so, the musical neglected an equality important part of trauma: healing, growth, and change – all of which cannot be passive. Dear Evan Hansen utilized the passive voice so well that it lured the audience into a false sense of comfort and inaction, and therefore uphold the status quo of mental illness instead of challenge it.

The name of the musical, Dear Evan Hansen already incited a sense of passiveness. “Dear Evan Hansen” was an address from a message: the person addressed in this case was not a part of the story, but an audience member who was told the story. They neither have much control over how the story went nor how the writer portrayed the story. By naming the musical Dear Evan Hansen, the creators already signified that Evan Hansen, while the main character, was not in control of his own story. Instead of being the active subject, he was the passive object. Even though Evan Hansen wrote his own letters, the name of the musical itself foreshadowed the loss of control of his own narrative: his mother told him to write the letter, then Connor took it, and everyone else mistook his writings for Connor’s – Evan had no control over what his letter did and what he could do with his letter. Instead of telling his own story, Evan’s letter to himself became someone else’s story.

The musical also did not start with Evan: it started with his mother instead. The first song in the original cast album was “Anybody Have a Map?”  The first line of the album was “Have you been writing those letters to yourself?”, followed by Heidi Hansen reciting how Evan should write his letter. She came off as an enthusiastic, yet quite overbearing parent. She wanted to direct Evan on his healing, which pushed Evan into a passive role where he could not express how he wanted to write the letter, or even if he wanted to write the letter. Instead of letting her son take control of his own healing, Heidi forced it onto him without considering Evan’s own autonomy. This first moment of the musical, again, brought forth the idea that Evan did not have much control over his own life. The conversation between Heidi and Evan carried on in a similar matter, as Heidi enthusiastically ordering Evan (or, to put it more nicely, asking him very forcefully) to do things that he was clearly not comfortable with. Listening to the original cast album, we could hear the reluctant and discomfort in Evan’s voice, as well as his desire to end the conversation quickly and escape his mother control.

The next song, “Waving Through the Window,” was a solo song for Evan; here, the lyrics did have a mostly active voice where Evan used “I” statements and active verbs. He also used “we” pronoun as a way to connect with the audience and create a sense of shared identity. While Evan’s discomfort in “Anybody Have a Map?” made the audience sympathize for him, “Waving Through the Window” was a more active effort to connect with the audience. As we listened more closely to the lyrics, however, we saw that Evan’s situation was not in his control either. His song was supposed to be vulnerable and relatable, and the song achieved that emotional effect by showcasing Evan’s struggles. He struggled with social interactions and his fear of judgements, both of which were highly reliant on not only himself, but other people’s perception of him. While he was an authority on his own behaviors (as evident by the lines “I’ve learned”), he had no control over how people truly perceived him. His situation, therefore, was not completely in his control. In fact, he was not in control of the source of his struggles at all, externally sourced as it was. In the first three paragraphs of the song, Evan showed somewhat control of his actions: he had “learned” how to behave, “learned” what not to do, and he even tried to tell himself to “step out of the sun” so he wouldn’t be burned. However, as the song progressed, this control slipped away from him. The music changed its tone from a softer tone to a quicken tone, and the words changed from certain, commanding statements to questions and the more tentative verb “try”. Here, Evan started to realize that what he did was “try”, and that the results of his actions were a big question: “can anybody see?” He started to realize that no, he was not exactly in control of the situation at all. Now, Evan started to identify with the audience through the pronoun “we”: the audience felt his uncertainty on a closer level. As the audience identified with Evan, we felt more closely the struggles in the bridge and chorus of the song: we felt Evan’s loneliness and anxiety on a deeper level. Evan then repeated the questions “did I even make a sound?” several times, the question and repetition emphasized Evan’s uncertainty and lack of control, and we as the audience felt for him. This song established the connection, and solidified Evan as a sympathetic character.

The musical’s plot now continued with a sequence of decisions and actions that Evan did not have control over. Connor, a suicidal classmate of Evan who also bullied him, took Evan’s letter. He then took his own life, and his family mistook Evan’s letter as Connor’s letter to Evan. These circumstances, wildly out of Evan’s control, pushed Evan into an awkward position. He felt the pressure to lie to console Connor’s family and give them some form of relief from sadness. While it was his decision to make up the lies, the audience – because we already connected and sympathized with him, tend to exempt Evan from being at fault. We would see that Evan did not really had a choice, especially after we saw his struggles with acceptance and being heard.  Jared, Evan’s only friend, then helped us excuse Evan’s lies as he helped Evan fabricate more lies and more letters. Connor’s ghost also appeared, not to condemn Evan but also to encourage Evan and play along to the lies.

The two song “Disappear” and “You Will Be Found” then signified the change in the tone of the musical. While the previous song mainly focused on Evan or the people around him and their interactions with Evan, these two songs symbolized a switch in Evan’s mentality. The scope of his social life broadened: these songs did not just talk about Evan and Connors, but about all the “guys like you and me.” They moved the topic from a specific person with a name to the general mass of people who “keep waiting to be seen.” They moved from Connor and Evan to “someone,” “no one” and “you”. The scope broadened toward the general, and then came toward to audience. They repeated the phrase “you still matter” several times during “Disappear” as both a generic statement and a reminder, a comfort to the audience. While Evan connected and comforted the audience with his struggles and vulnerability before, “Disappear” was where he directly reassured the audience that we too, would be alright. In contrast to “Waving Through a Window”, where Evan started with certainty and ended with uncertainty, “Disappear” went the opposite direction. Connor’s ghost was the one who brought up the idea of keeping his memory alive, and Evan grew more confident in the idea throughout the song, finally deciding to create The Connor Project. However, it is important to note that it was Connor who initiated the idea, not Evan.

In “You Will Be Found,” we saw again the overt use of the passive voice. However, it was not Evan that was the object, but the audience, the “you”. Evan now dedicated this song wholly to the audience instead of to himself or the people around him. This song was the show stopper, the key player of the whole musical. It was what made the show so comforting and reassuring: because of those four words. “You will be found.” The passive voice here played a crucial part in reassuring the audience. As a passive “you” who was not part of the action, the audience did not need to put in effort to create active change – Evan and his Connor Project were already doing the hard work for them. Throughout the song, the only instances of active voice had their subject a generic “someone” instead of “you”. “Someone will come running”, “they’ll take you home”, etc., these sentences showed that the audience did not have to do anything to enact these changes in their lives: they could wait and “someone” would come and solve their problem for them. This song, while hopeful and uplifting, actually neglected that healing and growth required changes within the person themself. The song, focusing too much on comforting the audience, neglected that growth was uncomfortable and changes – active changes – was also necessary.

Evan’s speech went viral without much of his own actions. Again, “someone” put his speech online, not him. He didn’t control how much the story blew up and how far his impact had grown. “Good For You” was the climax of Dear Evan Hansen, where everything came crashing down and people eventually found out about Evan’s lies, again completely outside of his control. They then proceeded to yell at him and pin all the blame on Evan. However, as the audience already grew attached to Evan, we could not help but feel protective over him. We noticed that Evan did not have many choices in what he chose to do (allegedly) and that many people encouraged his ideas for their own gain. We could not help but feel indignant that Heidi, who had never understood her son and an entire adult, was not yelling at her son for his trauma. Or that Alana, who inserted herself into the Connor Project for her own gain, did not feel even a slight remorse that she, indeed, used Connor’s death to become relevant. Jared, who was Evan’s accomplice, was no much better. In fact, Evan was the only one who was sorry for his actions: he was a good person who knew to regret his actions – and we took comfort in that fact.

The tone of the musical changed again to what was similar to the start of “Waving Through a Window”: a shaky, sad, and soft song where Evan again did not have any control over his circumstances. He failed this time, and we recalled what he sang in “Waving Through a Window”: no one was there to tell him when he went wrong. “Words Fail” was a heartfelt song where Evan was again vulnerable and alone. He laid bare his trauma from emotional neglect and his want for an illusion of happiness. Evan was broken, just as his voice broke and the music itself was fractured, and he once again doubted himself. This was the consequence for his actions throughout the musical. He was back to square one, but this song ended differently from “Waving Through a Window”: instead of stepping out of the sunlight, Evan wanted to step in to the sunlight. Instead of despair, the song ended on hope. And that was powerful, heartfelt, and once again, solidified Evan Hansen as a comforting, good-nature character to the audience.

However, this hopeful ending to the song fell flat. There was no explicit effort in Evan to fix what he did wrong. There was no active changes that we get to see on stage. Instead, we had a half-hearted time skip to the future with no real impact on the plot or the viewers. As an audience member, I felt cheated. The ending felt like a generic “and they live happily ever after” ending with no actual impact. It was supposed to be uplifting – that Evan might find forgiveness – but that forgiveness was not deserved if there was no effort putting into righting his wrong. Again, Dear Evan Hansen focused too much on the message of hope and comfort that the show completely neglect the discomfort of growing and being a good person.

~ Rose Nguyen

A dot Ham v A dot Burr: Narrative foils in the American dream of Hamilton: An American Musical

Always think twice before a murder. That was one of the most profound lessons Hamilton: An American Musical taught me. There is always a chance that the duel between you and your nemesis will become the climax of an internationally acclaimed musical. You will spend the majority of two hours and forty minutes narrating said nemesis’ life while simultaneously getting roasted to bits by the entire show. It happened to Aaron Burr, it might as well happen to you too. In the original Broadway show of Hamilton: An American Musical, the sets, colors, costumes, and songs to convey the juxtaposition of Hamilton and Burr’s belongingness on stage, as their presence symbolized the driving and hindering forces of the American dream.

Hamilton as a character embodied the essence of the American dream: the idealization of an American society where everyone, despite their backgrounds and identities, can be successful with hard work and determination. This narrative is integral to the identity of the United States inside and outside the country. For many people, coming to the US means a better chance at success and an opportunity for a better life. Lin-Manuel Miranda agreed with this idea in his musical: he showed that Hamilton, as an immigrant, belongs in the American dream narratives and those who wants to exclude them (Aaron Burr) are the true outcasts. Here, we should consider Lin-Manuel Miranda’s background as a first-generation immigrant whose parents did find success in the US.  The American dream is, for him, real and attainable. His reality reflects onto his musical, yet his reality is not the only reality. Just as the American dream narrative neglects to consider the deeply rooted socioeconomical inequality within the American society, Hamilton: The American Musical also neglected the messier side of history to fit the story into a pretty mold of heroism and bootstrapped successes.

In Act I, the lyrics of Hamilton: The American Musical was clear on labeling Hamilton in a way that fit the American dream narrative, especially in the introduction of his character. The first four lines of the song Alexander Hamilton established both Hamilton underprivileged backgrounds and his eventual ascend to high social status. The description focused on three aspects of his identity: his parental background, his class, and his status as an immigrant, all of which left Hamilton in the margins of society with little to no resources. The odds seemed so stacked against Hamilton, that the introduction of his story was a question: “How?” How does Hamilton, with all of these difficulties, became a “hero and a scholar”? Aaron Burr delivered the question with incredulity, signaling himself as the doubter and non-supporter of Hamilton’s dream. The answer was in the next verse: Hamilton achieved success through hard work, through intelligence and wit, and through resourcefulness. The lyrics listed out these traits with a repetition of the preposition “by”, emphasizing that they were the most important reasons for success. Hamilton’s marginalized identity, which the audience sympathized with, and his bootstrapper traits, which the audience admired, constituted his symbolism to the American dream. However, by only acknowledging one side of Hamilton’s identity and neglecting his roles as a white person and a colonizer, these lyrics also erased a part of history to fit Hamilton into an archetype. By pushing the narrative of the bootstrapped success, the musical also encouraged the audience to ignore the historical context of colonialism and slavery, just as the American dream encouraged people to ignore the socioeconomical inequality in pursue of personal advancements.

Throughout Act I, the sets emphasized Hamilton’s belongingness, and by contrast Burr’s rejection from the main stage through color, costumes, and choreography. The colors of the show – both in lighting and costumes – usually harmonized with Hamilton’s color palette. In Alexander Hamilton, most characters wore white, including Hamilton. In contrast, Burr was the only one in dark clothes in the song. While Hamilton was accepted into the crowd seamlessly, Burr stuck out with his darker palette. While the gold-colored lights illuminated Hamilton as well as the other characters, Burr seemed to cast more shadows under the lights. As Hamilton appeared on stage, the music went silent for a few second, and the audience was immediately drawn toward him. This emphasis was even clearer in the Disney+ filming of the musical, as the camera zoomed toward his face and the audience could see the emotions in Hamilton’s upturn eyes. From the moment he appeared, Hamilton took center stage and Burr moved either to the side or to the front. Because the Broadway stage for Hamilton was a revolving stage, everything physically revolved around Hamilton: the spotlight shined above center stage to illuminate Hamilton’s works and person in a bright warm light. The choreography also moved in a circle around Hamilton, and as he moved around the stage, the ensemble made space and interact with him. This was also a contrast to Burr, who was both another part of the ensemble around Hamilton and an outlier in color and movements. While he did interact with Hamilton, like handing him his book, Burr didn’t really interact with the other cast members in this scene. Physically and visually, Burr was already excluded from the other characters. As the song progress, Hamilton stood out even more from the ensemble, but his standing out was different from Burr’s difference. Hamilton changed from a white coat to a brown coat, the light made his coat almost golden. Unlike Burr’s dark clothes, Hamilton’s change in color did not take away from his harmony with the other cast and lighting – as his color was still in the same warm tone as the yellow lights – but made him glow and stand out. The cast moved toward the front this time and Hamilton seemingly disappeared into the back. However, the moment was brief, and the audience soon found Hamilton again as the ensemble turned their eyes toward him. Hamilton stood over the crowd: he commanded their attention. Burr stood apart from the crowd: he was casting shadows. Putting this contrast into the American dream narrative: the story did not welcome Burr and what he stood for (skepticism and hindrance of the American dream), just as there was no place for such ideas in the idealized America.

Further down the line of Act I, Hamilton started to have meaningful interactions and conversations with the other Founding Fathers.  Here was where his costumes made clear his status as an immigrant among the American men. Hamilton wore mainly warm color in the first acts, while the Founding Fathers had darker clothes in cool tones (similar to Burr’s clothes). This color contrasts seemingly emphasized Hamilton’s difference from the other Founding Fathers, yet he was a “brother” and Washington’s “right-hand man”. In My Shot and The Story of Tonight, the spotlight still focused on him and its gold tone was still flattering toward his colors. In Right-hand man, the lighting changed into blue to match with Hamilton’s uniform. Furthermore, the spotlight was always on him, while Burr always stood on the side of the light. In the war, in the moment of heroism, Hamilton belonged on that battlefield. Burr did not.

Act II started with a similar motif, but now was a fall-from-grace of Hamilton, seemingly undoing the upbeat, classic American dream story of Act I. The immigrant lauded in the war was now actually ostracized from his comrades. The first song of Act II, What did I miss?, started similarly to Alexander Hamilton with a recap of who Hamilton was and what happened in his life. The same question “how”, but this time, it was how Hamilton lost his success. Burr was now smug, smiling as he sang Hamilton’s misdeeds. He put himself onto a higher position on a stair, but he still had minimum interactions with the ensemble. Eventually, his time in the spotlight ended quickly to give up the stage for Thomas Jefferson. What did I miss? had a similar structure to Alexander Hamilton and served a similar purpose. It (re)introduced a major character who would later gain great success, and had that character surrounded by the ensemble in contrast with Aaron Burr. However, the interactions between Jefferson and the ensemble were still not as profound and immersive as Hamilton’s interactions in the first act. While they still danced around him, there was few moments where the ensemble looked at Jefferson or helped with his movement and narration as they did with Hamilton. This showed, even with Hamilton not present, that the story was still his, and no one could replace his present on stage. Tying this to the American dream narrative and Hamilton’s on-stage identity as an immigrant, we can see that this musical was subtly making the case of the importance of Hamilton and his symbolization of an immigrant’s dream. Even though things went quite dramatically downhill for Hamilton in Act II, the structure of the musical still upheld the same ideas. Hamilton was still the main character, the hero of the story, and Burr was still the person who was not in “the room where it happened”.

The contrasts between Hamilton and Burr once against was stark in the song The Election of 1800. In this song, Burr was at the height of his triumph, while Hamilton was at his lowest. Burr was a successful politician with a family, while Hamilton had ruined his career and put his family in an awful position. Yet, Burr’s appearance on stage was awkward among the ensembles. They might be talking about him, but they didn’t pay attention or interact with him, despite his effort to engage. He ran between them, looking from left to right, yet there was no communication between Burr and the rest of the cast. In contrast, they seek out Hamilton, who completely did not want anything to do with other people, to ask for his opinion. They actively tried to engage with him and pulled him into their circle. They were “asking to hear [his] voice”, while Burr was silent between the people. In the end of the song, Burr lost, again. Hamilton, while not explicitly on stage, was the winner of that battle.

The only battle that Hamilton lost was also the last battle of this musical. However, the musical did not end with his death: it ended with how he lived. Who lives, Who dies, Who tells your story was a celebration of Hamilton’s life. The musical ended with another emphasis of Hamilton’s story. Before then, Burr expressed regrets of killing Hamilton, saying that he was the one who “paid for it”. He, with self-awareness, identified himself as the “villain to [the] story”. Indeed, in a story of the American dream, hindrance of that dream was the villain, was the outlier. Burr was self-aware, yet the American dream narrative itself was not. It wants to pretend that hindrance was a personal matter, that the United States itself is void of structural hindrance, and it distances itself from the villain of the story. Hamilton fell into that narrative, and therefore, the musical itself has erased a big part of the immigrant’s story and the struggle they faced against the system that worked to ostracized them. By celebrating Hamilton and distancing Burr, Hamilton actual offered a divisive view of America: it focused on personal advancement, instead of criticizing and speaking out against a system that forced people to compete against each other to not be pushed to the margin.

-By Rose Nguyen.

The art of being different in Miss Saigon: There is one acceptable way to be a woman of color under colonialism. Except she died.

Miss Saigon was one of the few musicals I got the (dis)pleasure of watching live. I didn’t cry a single tear. I was too busy being furious. Highly acclaimed as it is in West End and Broadway, Miss Saigon reeks of colonialism and white savior complex, a white narrative from and for white colonialism. Kim and Chris are both set up to be different from the rest of the characters, but their Otherness had opposite roles in the narratives. Kim was othered not only from Asian characters – shone by the light of purity, innocence, and femininity – but also from the audience whose sympathy she was supposed to garner. Chris was othered from the characters – as one of the only white men in the show – but he was one and the same with the people who were watching him.

Kim is a virtuous character, but at the same time, she is a fallen woman. Her narrative ties neatly into the virgin–Madonna-whore complex, a complex born from the misogynistic idea that women can either be respected, tender, and completely non-sexual (the virgin and the Madonna) or be tainted and depraved by their own sexuality. At the beginning of the show, Kim was a young, innocent seventeen years old girl. She was then pushed into prostitution and consequentially was ruined. Her struggle, on the surface level, was the struggle to remain virtuous – as she transitioned from a virgin archetype to a Madonna/mother archetype while facing her trauma of being a prostitute, being “ruined” and depraved. Ultimately, her death was the resolution to these seemingly warring forces: to keep her virtue as a mother, she had to not be the “fallen” woman; and the only way to do that was to stop being alive at all. The Western audience can be enraged at this misogynistic narrative. They can sympathize with her tragedy as a woman in a world that was keen on punishing women for things outside of their control. However, the audience cannot see the true insidiousness of her story without relation to her race. Kim was not just a woman, she was an Asian woman among other Asian characters. She wasn’t written to represent her people, however. She was written to represent how the Western world sees her people: greedy, scheming brutes without virtues or pride who ultimately pushed a woman like Kim to ruin.

Since the beginning of her story, Kim had been a victim. A victim of war, as she had no family, no home: she was all alone in a big city. She had so little agency or knowledge of the city life that she could only look up to the sky fearfully during an attack, unable to protect herself. Until a man – because women were always supposed to be “saved” by men – gave her a hand to pull her up and brought her into his world. That man, the Engineer, was not there to save her. He was there to ruin her. In fact, all the Asian men who had a significant role in her story – namely the Engineer and her betrothed Thuy – were in the story to oppose and hurt her. She ran from Thuy to only fall into another insidious trap that led to her complete ruin. Throughout the show, Kim was constantly pushed around – physically – by both the Engineer and Thuy. Kim, a woman – a young girl – was helpless under the thumbs of the (Asian) men in her life. Even her son (a son, and not a daughter) was a tool to make her life more miserable. The Engineer used her son’s future to manipulate her into selling her body again, and Thuy was willing to kill the child in cold blood. It was one of the only moments we saw Kim stood taller than a man. But she stood for her son, not for herself. Kim’s story perpetuated the stereotype that Asian women are most submissive and cannot stand up for themselves, while Asian men exploit these characteristics. Kim’s racial and gender identity might not be that obvious among other Asian characters, but against a Western audience, it showed more than clearly what the West thinks about Vietnam and the East.

Furthermore, there was also a contrast between Kim and the other Asian women in the story. Kim was the example of the “not like other girls” trope – a common romance trope where the lead woman was set up to stand out from the common, boring women around her. In Miss Saigon, instead of only being misogynistic, this trope was also racist. Kim was pure and virtuous, and she was put against a backdrop of women who were not. For the majority of the show, Kim wore white – at first a cheongsam (which is a Chinese dress, showing the lack of research or respect for Vietnamese culture and Asian culture in general by the production team) and then her white wedding áo dài (which is not the color for wedding but for funerals or students, but I again doubt that the production team were aware of that). In her first night as a bargirl, Kim had her pants taken away, yet her modest top and shy demeanor – a contrast to the other girls who strutted on stage in their underwear – revealed that she hadn’t fallen into ruin yet. Her innocence was even more apparent in her duet with Gigi in “The movie in my mind” as they were put into comparison. Kim in her modest white clothes and traditional hairstyles and Gigi with her black lingerie and risqué appearance were in stark contrast. Even the lyrics they sang showed how different they were from each other. Gigi wished for an escape and materialistic wealth. Her wants were practical and monetary. Kim, innocent dreamer she was, wished for love and protection, not money. It was a slight contrast between two women seemingly in the same situation, but because Kim’s wish wasn’t as materialistic, it was her wish that came true, not Gigi’s.

Kim’s purity was obvious. What was also obvious but tended to be ignored was that: she was pure among impure Asian women, she was the perfect victim under brutish and scheming Asian men. She was moral and good, the other Asian people were not. Kim’s story was not a story about her being an Asian woman, her story was about how she was different from the Asian people who did not matter. That was why she was sympathetic. That was why she was “acceptable”. She was what a model minority should be. She was who Chris – the white man, the beacon of Western progress – chose.

On the opposite spectrum from Kim on the “being different in Miss Saigon” scale was Chris, the example of the white savior complex, a prince charming who would rescue the princess from the hands of the evil, horrible people in her life. In fact, Chris’ first appearance and interaction with Kim was him “saving” her from another soldier. He was sweet and polite, the true gentleman. He wanted Kim to leave the brothel and was intercepted by the Engineer. Already, Chris was different from both the other soldiers and the Vietnamese Engineer. He was the perfect guy for Kim to meet: “a man who will not kill, who’ll fight for me instead”. While Chris had probably killed before, to Kim he was a hero, a savior from her dreams. This, interestingly, was also what Western colonizers thought of themselves when they invaded other countries – subsequently bringing destruction and death to many cultures. Like the system that he served, Chris directly caused Kim her tragedy. As a White Man, Chris was so painfully unaware of his role in the narrative and the power he held due to both being White and being a Man. In all fairness, we can only partially blame him because the creators – colonialism apologists they were – were probably also unaware of the role of America and Western colonialism and imperialism in the Vietnam war. 

Chris, as a white man, was put into contrast with the Asian men in Miss Saigon, just as Kim was put into contrast with the Asian women. And like Kim, this contrast provided a vision of the “typical” Vietnamese person (uncivilized, greedy, violent) and the white man (polite, gentle, giving). Instead of using Kim to earn money like the Engineer, he wanted to give her money for a free life. Instead of threatening Kim with violence like Thuy, Chris used violence only to protect Kim. He was different. This difference, inherently because he was a white man written by white men as a symbol of white power – gave him power and agency. Chris had choices. He might be a “minority” on stage, race-wise, but his position was still on top of the societal ladder. Chris had choices: of which girl to fall in love with, of which girl to protect. He chose Kim.  

He chose Kim, and that choice – the power of that choice – led to the entire tragedy. Chris might later seem like he didn’t have any agency in the consequence of his action, but it cannot be denied that his initial choice and inherent power played a major part in the story. His lack of choice in the later part of the story stemmed the lack of self-awareness and responsibility of one’s action. This was distinctly a Western, colonialism-apologist perspective, of which Chris was the manifestation. This lack of self-awareness was evident in his song “Why God Why”. “When I went home before, no one talked of the war. What they knew from tv didn’t have a thing to do with me”: Chris and the Western world viewed the Vietnam war as something fictional, unreal. They removed themselves from the guilt of what colonialism did to an Asian country and are unaware of their own benefits from colonialism. Chris talked about Vietnam the same way Americans talk about Vietnam now, as if it was not a real place, as if the Vietnam war was separate from the US. “I like my memory as they were”, he sang. Chris liked his memory of a Vietnam devoid of all humanizing traits, of Vietnamese people who weren’t the people he cared about. He liked his memory guilt-free and his conscience clean. He would have been content with that lack of awareness if Kim hadn’t appeared. Kim, again, became the example of the model minority: her difference wasn’t used to counter the racial stereotype of Asian people, her difference was used to further dehumanize other Vietnamese people.  She was different from the other Asian people – men and women – around her, and therefore she was the only one who deserved to be seen as “human” by the white man.

Miss Saigon was at best, an apologist narrative for colonialism and, at worst, a pro-colonial narrative. It romanticized the Vietnam war, glossed over the violence and damage Western imperialism the US inflicted upon Vietnam, and reeked of hypocritical white guilt and performative sympathy. The story was incredibly insidious not only because it showed racist and misogynistic stereotypes of Vietnamese people and Asian people in general, but also proposed and reinforced a social hierarchy of acceptability and model minority between Asian people under the eyes of the white Western world.

By Rose Nguyen.