Event Recap: Susan Lieu’s “140 LBS: HOW BEAUTY KILLED MY MOTHER”

By Jenn Nguyen, Asian Studies Center Communications & Media Intern

On Friday, January 10th, the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) at the University of Pittsburgh had the honor of welcoming Susan Lieu, a Vietnamese-American playwright, activist, and actress, to campus. Lieu is currently on a 10-city nationwide tour for her play “140 LBS: HOW BEAUTY KILLED MY MOTHER,” which tells the unfortunate true story of how her mother passed away during her childhood due to plastic surgery malpractice. The play, performed in the Charity Randall Theater, had the most minimalistic setup possible. The bare stage used a white projection screen and one wooden chair. This simplistic setup wasn’t unique to the Pittsburgh show – Lieu uses only these two props to ensure that her trek across the country is as light as possible. Nevertheless, her quick scene changes aided by background music and videos and photos propped on the projection screen keep audiences attentive.

The show talks about more than just the death of Lieu’s mother. It explores Vietnamese folklore and the cultural practice of spirit channeling, the consequences of strict beauty standards, how Lieu’s family attempted to conceal the death from conversations and questions, and Lieu’s own thoughts on motherhood, as she is currently pregnant with her first child. Spirit channeling, an aspect of Vietnamese culture I was unaware about, is the practice of people summoning deceased loved ones to communicate with those still alive. It gives a sense of comfort and reassurance to those missing their loved ones. If I could describe the play in one word, I’d say “vulnerable.” During the show, there was crying and sniffling from both Lieu and audience members. Sometimes, there was genuine laughter at small jokes included in character dialogues. I loved the show for its rawness and authenticity. Lieu did not attempt to portray herself as a tough person who trudged through her mother’s death nor was she afraid to hide how scared she was to soon be a mother herself. I’m glad I was able to attend the show, which made me think about my own experiences as a Vietnamese-American.

Interview with Pitt to You Mentees and Ambassadors

By Qinnuo (Emma) Li, Asian Studies Center International Associate

With the new cohort of Chinese international students arriving to the University of Pittsburgh for the 2019-2020 academic year, the Pitt to You program is currently in its second phase. Pitt to You, which connects student ambassadors who serve as mentors to international Chinese students, fosters cultural exchange and adjustment for those transitioning to college abroad.

In September, ambassadors and their mentees had a reunion at the William Pitt Union (WPU). Since the mentees have been at Pitt, their ambassadors have introduced them to the campus lifestyle, introduced them to friends, and shown them around Pittsburgh. During the reunion, our international associate, Emma, and Pitt to You program coordinator, Bliss, conducted a few brief interviews between ambassadors and their mentees to learn about both sides’ experiences. The following interviews have been edited for clarity.

Kai Lin Lee, a pre-med junior majoring in anthropology and political science and minoring in history, Kevin, a freshmen majoring in urban studies, and Fredrick, a freshman, are part of this year’s Pitt to You cohort. Kai Lin Lee is Kevin and Fredrick’s ambassador.

What did you enjoy the most about your trip to China?

Kai Lin: It was so incredible to meet so many new students that would soon be attending Pitt. Traveling aboard was incredible, too. Getting to visit the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and other historical sites was amazing.

What was the biggest challenge in China?

Kai Lin: The biggest challenge was definitely not having great connection to cellular data and internet. If we weren’t paying attention to the signs around us, we easily got lost. I also tried to sharpen my Chinese reading skills during the trip, which was challenging yet rewarding.

What did you find most helpful about the Pitt to You program in China?

Fredrick: The Pitt to You program allowed me to preview the campus and school life. I was also able to develop some basic understanding about how college works in the United States, which allowed me to stay ahead during the school year. Guidance and help from upperclassmen, especially as a freshman, was useful, too.

Kevin: For me, being able to meet these mentors and faculty members before we arrived at Pitt helped a lot. It allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the college environment and neighborhood.

What is your biggest challenge at Pitt so far?

Fredrick: There are so many activities that you can participate in on campus! It’s very difficult to make a choice of what clubs to join and how exactly to immerse myself.

Kevin: For me, it’s difficult to find where the elevators are in each building. At Pitt, they’re always hidden behind some huge pillar, so I often unknowingly pass by them.

As part of the Pitt to You program, what are you most looking forward to this semester?

Kevin: I think more activities, especially ones that allow me to hangout with friends and explore the city more.

Fredrick: Yeah, I agree. Our mentor introduced us to a lot in the city and the school, but personally, I don’t have enough free time to explore these areas in-depth. It would be great if we could get together sometime in the future.

Kai Lin: Yeah, following those ideas, I am super excited to take you guys to interesting places, like art museums and a shooting range. Whenever you guys want to know more about the city – even small local attractions – we can check them out!

Eryn McCormick, a senior majoring in industrial engineering and minoring in economics, David Wu, a freshman, and Zhen Wu, a freshman majoring in computer science are part of the current Pitt to You cohort. Eryn McCormick is David and Zhen’s ambassador.

What did you enjoy the most about your trip to China?

Eryn: I really enjoyed immersing myself within a new culture, learning about China’s architecture, and learning about its history. It was great to see the Forbidden City. However, my favorite days were whenever I was able to hang out with my mentees, get to know them, and explore all these sites with them, as well. I also really enjoyed the food – I liked the soup dumplings a lot!

What was the biggest challenge in China?

Eryn: The biggest challenge was trying to adjust to the food and the public transportation system, which was a little tough. Overall, there’s little nuances and trying to figure them out was the toughest situation I went through.

What did you find most helpful about the Pitt to You program in China?

David: The most helpful thing is probably getting to know some freshmen and upperclassmen in advance, befriending them, and staying in contact with them. Through this, they were able to give us suggestions on how to adjust to the school before we arrived and helped us feel more comfortable.

Zhen: Yeah, I had the same idea – getting to know more people and make more friends helped a lot. It allowed me to feel more familiar with the school, the city, and culture here.

What is your biggest challenge at Pitt so far?

David: My biggest challenge is arriving to class on time, especially for those held in different buildings because some are very far from each other. I am not used to it yet – you know, running a mile in 10 minutes in 10 AM in the morning [laughs].

Zhen: What’s difficult part for me is finding the right directions to go to classes every day. I’ll often have to use Google Map.

As part of the Pitt to You program, what are you most looking forward to this semester?

Zhen: I think I’m most looking forward to exploring the school and the city more. By familiarizing myself with the area, especially the campus and its resources, I can find out what I like academically and find the right track for myself.

David: I’m most excited about attending more events with my group and hanging out with them more.

Eryn: I am looking forward to not only continuing getting to know my mentees but everyone else in the program, as well. There are some cool events coming up, such as the annual Light Up Night in downtown. That would be very cool to show them.

I was an RA last year, and I missed having the opportunity to program events for people. I am looking forward to constructing events for me and my mentees to do. I am thinking of hosting a little dinner at my house in a couple of weeks to let them relax and hang out and talk to them about how things are going.

An Interview with Kirsten Strayer: Screenshot: Asia Programming Coordinator

The following interview is between Kirsten Strayer, Asian Studies Center staff member and programming coordinator for Screenshot: Asia, and Communications & Media intern, Jenn Nguyen. Strayer is thrilled about the recent launch and expansion of Screenshot: Asia, the Asian Studies Center and Film & Media Studies partnership to deliver Asian-American and American cinema to Pittsburgh. To learn more about Screenshot: Asia, spread the word, or donate, please visit engage.pitt.edu/screenshotasia.

How did you start working at the Asian Studies Center?

I helped run Silk Screen, an Asian and Asian-American film festival, in 2018. Subsequently, the organization folded. Lynn Kawaratani, one of the staffers at the Asian Studies Center, was an advisory board member for Silk Screen, and a few people at Pitt, including herself, were really invested in the idea of preserving Asian and Asian-American film in Pittsburgh. We were in conversation off and on with the Film and Media Studies Program until, finally, the Asian Studies Center was able to gather the materials to put on our own Asian and Asian-American film series at Pitt with them.

What do you specialize in at Pitt and at the Asian Studies Center?

At the Asian Studies Center, I specialize in programming all of the media, film, and film associated and media associated partnerships. It’s a bunch of everything – I write grants to help with the launch of the Screenshot: Asia festival, manage all of the films that come in during the year and work with Lynn and other faculty members to choose some films, and oversee all of the nuts and bolts stuff for the festival.

My technical specialty is global cinema. I have a PhD in film, and I’ve published on a bunch of different global moments in different places to invoke answers to questions about circulation. For example, I researched and wrote about how film circulated in the 70’s throughout Latin America, global Bollywood, and the contemporary film movement in the post-20th and 21st centuries.

What region do you think produces the best films?

I mean, I think they’re all so different. I’m very attached to Latin America and Mexico, obviously, because I wrote my dissertation on that region. I think film scholars are coming to terms with the idea of how there have been networks in Latin America, Africa, and Asia since the beginning of film, so if I had to choose, I’d say my favorite region for film is the southern half of the world. If I had to choose one specific region, I’d say Latin America, for sure.

You talked a little bit about Silk Screen. Can you explain exactly what the program was, and how that led you to create Screenshot: Asia?

            Silk Screen was an organization dedicated to promoting Asian art and culture in Pittsburgh and was around for about 12 years until its closing. When I was there, I learned a lot about both contemporary Asian film and what was going on in the Asian film industry and the nuts and bolts of running a film festival, which is really hard and a huge time commitment. I really wanted to bring those skills to Pitt in hopes of launching an even bigger project.

For Screenshot: Asia, are you partnering with a professor in the Film and Media Studies Program or moreso with the department as a whole?

We have an executive committee, which consists of Seung-hwan Shin, Kun Qian, Charles Exley, and Neepa Majumdar. They’re basically the people that work most extensively on Asian film, but the director of the Film and Media Studies Program who is currently on sabbatical, Randall Halle, is most engaged with the series. We’ve worked with Halle a lot. He’s most excited about having a constant art and film presence in Pittsburgh and transforming the city into a place that has entertaining movies always being streamed, especially on the weekends.

The question is, “How do we take all of these celebrations – the Polish film festival, projects at Carnegie Mellon University, and the Pittsburgh Shorts film festival – and create a more coherent understanding of the arts?” Halle has a big vision for arts programming in Pittsburgh, and the Asian Studies Center tightly works with him to turn his vision into a tangible product.

What are your current favorite Asian and Asian-American films?

It’s really hard to choose one favorite. For Asian films, I love In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004), which are both from Hong Kong. In The Mood for Love is so beautiful. I love the main actor, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and how gorgeous and immense the film is. In general, I like every genre of film.

I love a lot of Asian classics, too, which includes anything by Japanese film directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasuijro Ozu. I love Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), in particular, which is based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Kurosawa is the master of black-and-white film. You have to remember, Asia is so big, which means Asian film encompasses such a variety of countries and genres. I’m a fan of Iranian film, too. Some of the best projects are from Iran. It’s as if the whole world is in Asia, in certain ways.

As for Asian-American films, I love H.P. Mendoza’s Bitter Melon (2018), which was aired at Silk Screen last year. It’s a hilarious yet dark comedy about a Filipino family in San Francisco. The movie is one of the smartest takes on the contemporary Asian-American experience that I’ve seen. I’d love to screen it again for the Pitt community.

An Interview with Amy Cheng: Los Angeles-based Film Production Assistant & Pitt Film Alumna


The following is an email conversation between Chinese-American film editor and Pitt alumna Amy Cheng and Asian Studies Center Global Ambassador Anthony Gavazzi. To raise awareness about Screenshot: Asia, Pitt’s new Asian and Asian-American film series, and its fundraising campaign, ASC interns are interviewing Pitt film alumni of Asian-American backgrounds to learn about the university’s impact on their careers. For more, visit engage.pitt.edu/screenshotasia.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I graduated from Pitt in April 2018. I grew up just north of Pittsburgh and went to Pitt to study science. I was a biology major on the premed track for two years, but two weeks before my junior year, I completely changed my schedule and switched to a film and media major. I knew from the beginning that I had an urge to explore film and express my creative energy somehow, but it took me two years to realize that I wanted to pursue something film-related professionally.

I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2018 without a job to begin a career in the industry, specifically in post-production. I was an intern for the American Cinema Editors Internship in 2018, which has provided me with a valuable network of professionals in Los Angeles so far. A year later, I still think it is the best decision I’ve ever made. The program brought me many unexpected encounters, industry knowledge, valuable work and life experiences, spontaneous adventures, and the desire to make a living with something I genuinely enjoy!

What was it like being Chinese-American in Pittsburgh and at the University?

Growing up, our family had a circle of Chinese family friends. I went to Chinese language school every Sunday, and my parents spoke Chinese to my brothers and me. Over the years, I lost touch with the language and grew further away from the culture. I found out that I did not relate to the Asian kids I grew up with and unconsciously developed a contempt for my own culture. I desperately wanted to assimilate with the white majority of my school, but I eventually began to feel like I couldn’t relate to the kids I wanted to be like either. There was always an uncertainty about where I belonged throughout my childhood, and I didn’t understand at the time that this dissonance was associated with my racial identity.

At Pitt, I joined the Chinese American Students Association (CASA) and Asian Students Alliance (ASA) to regain a familiarity with Asian culture, but both didn’t really give me the peace of mind that I had hoped for. Now, because I am no longer passively existing in Pittsburgh, I am slowly gaining the ability to see myself as Asian-American, respect the cultural roots that have been laid for me, and actively understand the potential impact that I can exert through my hyphenated identity.

Did any Pitt classes, professors, or students help you explore or think about Asian and Asian-American identity?

There was one experience at Pitt that made me think about my Asian-American identity. I made a last-minute decision to go on a study abroad program senior year, the Pitt in London Film Program. The people I met in London often asked me where I was from, which I would respond confidently, “America!” They would then always follow up with, “But where are you originally from?” as if my first answer was not acceptable.

It was there that I had truly felt two separate identities. I was American, but I was also Chinese. Until then, I had thought of myself as just one singular identity: Chinese-American. I never bothered to separate the two because there was never a context in which I needed to. It made me wonder: Why couldn’t I just exist as me? I’m still navigating what it means to be American and Asian, what it means to both, and what I can do to uncover the Chinese heritage lost over all these years.

How did your time at Pitt lead you to your current career?

I don’t view my first two undergraduate years studying science as wasted time. If anything, those experiences led me to discover that I was drawn towards film, media, and digital arts. A professor I worked for during my first summer in the research lab actually encouraged me to explore film classes and said that she didn’t think molecular research was something that I actually wanted to do. Being young and naive, I brushed it off and tried to prove her wrong even though she was right.

Pitt’s film department provided me with ample opportunities to learn film theory and access the tools necessary to get hands-on experience with set equipment. Carl Kurlander, one of the professors, was also instrumental in helping connect me to Pitt alum working in the industry. He’s a great resource to obtain insight on how the industry operates and connect Pitt students to those now working in the field.

How do you feel about Pitt launching an Asian-American and Asian film festival? 

I’m really glad to see Pitt expanding its film courses and opportunities for students to get more production experience. This film festival will be a great way for the University to showcase Asian voices and stories since they are generally underrepresented in popular media and at Pitt. It’s important to tell these stories to bring attention to the nuances of Eastern culture and to validate the shared experiences of minority groups. I hope the festival can be a space to celebrate local Asian filmmakers, bring awareness to the importance of cultural identity, and provide opportunities for students from all backgrounds to participate in every facet of the festival process.

What projects have you been working on lately?

When I first got to L.A., I didn’t know anyone here or anything about the city. Through networking events and cold e-mailing, I managed to get my first job in the industry as a post-production assistant on a Fox Searchlight feature film, Antlers. The project ended this summer, but I am extremely blessed I had the opportunity to work alongside talented editors and studio assistant editors, as well as learn the intricate post-process for Hollywood films.

After that, I worked temporarily at Blumhouse Productions, a horror production company, as a post-production assistant. Now, I’m freelancing on the side and working on becoming an assistant editor and eventually an editor for television and film projects.

Club Profile: Pitt Fresh Entertainment by Student Artists (FRESA)

By Grace Dong, Asian Studies Center Events Coordinator

Pitt Fresh Entertainment by Student Artists, often referred to as FRESA, is a student-run organization at the University of Pittsburgh that celebrates various Asian pop cultures through music and dance. From teaching dance choreography and filming dance covers, to editing videos and hosting showcases, the executive board and club members manage and run every aspect of the club.

This is my second year in FRESA, and I cannot express how much I changed after joining. Before college, I was already interested in K-pop, but I never imagined myself covering their dances. Auditioning, learning routines, cleaning up messy sections of choreography, filming, and editing, each step required to produce a polished dance cover, is memorable and remarkable. As a K-pop fangirl, dancing idols’ songs definitely makes me feel closer to them.

At the end of every semester, FRESA hosts a showcase for members to perform their dances in front of an audience. This is always my favorite part. Not only do families and friends come to the showcase, but I am also able to watch other members’ performances. We work and prepare for the whole semester for each showcase, and it is a new experience every time I go. I used to be a very shy person, and I refused to perform in front of people. At showcases, I learned to step out of my comfort zone and be open in front of a crowd.

I became more confident after two years in FRESA. I used to be a very shy person, and I refused to perform in front of people. At showcases, I learned to step out of my comfort zone and be open in front of the crowd. Cheering for one another brings us closer together, and I always make a lot of new friends. This club is more than an extracurricular club – it has also revealed to me a new version of myself and introduced me to life-long friends.

University of Pittsburgh Homecoming

By Weiping Xiao, Asian Studies Center Chinese Social Media Intern

Last week, the University of Pittsburgh held a series of Homecoming events, which hosted hundreds of students, alumni, faculty, and staff in attendance. Everyone was filled with passion and enthusiasm.

On Saturday, October 26th, I went to the biggest Homecoming event ¾ the Pitt football game. Since moving to Pittsburgh, I have not watched a football game because of my busy schedule. I was excited that I was able to carve out time to see the homecoming game. For a $10 student ticket and free transportation from campus, it was worth it, too.

It was a raining on Saturday, which dampened the atmosphere. However, I was looking forward to watching the game in action. For this event, our rival was the University of Miami, a very competitive member in our division. My friend and I took a bus from campus to Heinz Field and arrived at 11:30 PM to find seats. The game started with a music performance from the University of Pittsburgh marching band. Hundreds of band members spared no efforts to give the audience a fantastic performance. Afterwards, the game started.

During the game, Pitt’s football players found it difficult to make a touchdown and made a lot of mistakes, which gave the rival a bunch of opportunities to control the game. The game ended with a win by the University of Miami.

I really like the sports culture in the United States. It was exciting to see how enthusiastic students were and watch them continuously chant, although the team ultimately lost. I am looking forward to visiting Heinz Field again for future games and immersing myself more in Pitt’s sports culture.

Korean Language Social Hour

By Xinyu Zhang, Asian Studies Center Confucius Institute Intern

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On Friday, October 11th, the Asian Studies Center (ASC) held a Korean Language Social Hour with the English Language Institute (ELI) in 4130 Posvar Hall. There were a lot of Korean international students and American attendees interested in learning Korean and participating in the planned activities.

At first, students were shy and were not open to socializing with one another. During the event, however, the hosts organized a bingo game and an information gap activity. These games allowed students to warm up and talk to one another. They enjoyed pizza and snacks while chatting with one another in Korean or English and learned a lot about how to speak conversational Korean. The Korean international students in attendance were able to practice their English speaking skills, too.