Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Blissful, Brilliant, Busy, Biracial Broadcaster (And More!)

Howdy, Hip Hapa Homee pardners! If you’re wondering why Your Hip Hapa has suddenly acquired a ‘cowgirl’ accent, just wait until you read this week’s interview with Dmae Roberts. Actor, director, producer and writer, Dmae lives out West--still the wild, wild, West to some--where she’s heavily involved in the arts.

That’s her working above, and her links below:

Twitter: dmaeroberts



Read on, pardners!

Q: What’s a nice multiracial girl like you doing living in Oregon?

A: Both my parents were survivors. My mom grew up in the ravaged countryside of Taiwan during World War II, and my dad was a child of Depression-era parents in dust bowl Oklahoma.

They experienced poverty on two different sides of the world. My dad lived the idyllic, though austere, farm life on 40 acres with parents who adored him. My mother suffered being sold to work as a bonded servant. It was a form of adoption in Asia in which the girl becomes a servant in the family and then marries the son so she never leaves the family. It was an abusive life for her and really shaped her insecurities and fear of abandonment, later on making her a difficult personality for our family.

My parents met when my dad was stationed in Taiwan a few years after the Korean War. He wanted to see the world and was trained to speak Russian, but switched his orders to Taiwan. I often wonder what made him want to do that and what would’ve happened if my parents had never met. I was born in Taipei Taiwan, and we lived in Japan until I was eight--when my dad quit the military. When we arrived in America, we moved around as my dad looked for work—to Reno Nevada, Boise Idaho, and Eugene Oregon.

We finally settled in Junction City, a rural town outside of Eugene, where my mom found work at a nearby plywood mill. The town was comprised of descendants of Scandinavian settlers who held a Scandinavian festival every summer that drew people from all over the state.

Q: Junction City Oregon sounds like some old West backwoods town. What was it like growing up biracial there?

A: I wouldn’t classify Junction City as the old West. I had some really great lifelong friends there that helped me to survive what otherwise was a dismal childhood. Still, I remember guns were pretty important to a lot of the guys at my school. Friends of my dad sometimes wore shirts that said: “The West wasn’t won with a registered gun.” They were the country folk who would also give you the shirt off your back and help you if your car broke down.

The people who I befriended were the “townies”, but some of them could be very racist, too. My brother fell victim to bullying and name-calling because he looked more Asian than I did. He was picked on and tormented by boys until he graduated from high school. That made him very shy and withdrawn and distrusting of others to this day. His experience with racism, plus my mother’s experiences working at the plywood mill where she was treated as a simple China doll by some of her male co-workers, really forged my commitment to fight racism through my art.

Q: How did you start producing radio shows?

A: At first I wanted to be an actor and a writer, but when I went to college I chose to major in journalism at the University of Oregon so I could make a living doing something other than manual labor at the cannery or plywood mill where I worked summers. That’s when I happened upon KLCC, a community radio station in Eugene. I fell in love with producing radio theatre and short creative art pieces for public radio. Back in the 80’s, it was artsy and new, and you didn’t need to do a direct tie-in to a breaking news story. Anything human, funny, odd or emotionally moving would be put on the air.

Before I graduated, I started selling my pieces to NPR. Then I began applying for grants to produce long-form documentaries. That led to me to producing Mei Mei, A Daughter’s Song--the most personal and artistic piece I’ve created--about my relationship with my mother. We went to Taiwan together when she hadn’t been back for 25 years. We had a tempestuous relationship going for months, sometimes years, not speaking to one another. She had a temper, and I inherited it. When we were in Taiwan, our relationship became more volatile, and I captured that in my recordings. Doing something that intensely personal didn’t help us. When she heard it, she quit speaking to me for a couple years. But because she didn’t read or write, it was the only way I could write a letter to her to let her know how I felt. In the long run it was healing, even if difficult.

When I moved to Portland after Mei Mei, I continued acting and writing stage plays and balanced both careers. Then I took over a non-profit called MediaRites that promoted projects about women and minorities, and turned it into a multicultural media and theatre production organization.

In the last few years, I felt like I needed to focus solely on radio so I endeavored to produce the first Asian American history series on public radio, Crossing East. That project took three years to raise nearly $400,000 and to produce eight hours of documentaries with 50 scholars, producers, musicians and actors. The series ran on 230 public radio stations and won the Peabody. It was a mega-project, and I’m still recovering from the stress of it.

Q: What's it like winning a Peabody Award--twice! You also won for Mei Mei, A Daughter's Song?

A: Some colleagues viewed the first Peabody as a fluke. For me, it capped off a traumatic year producing my most personal and creative documentary. Seventeen years later, I found out Crossing East won when emails congratulating me started flooding in. Yes, I had entered, but I didn’t think lightning would strike twice. I felt tremendous vindication by colleagues who acted coolly the first time. One had told me, “You can only do pieces about your mother for so long.” It felt good to have this acknowledgement that I didn’t win the first time because I was exploiting my mother or my being Asian. I’ve often felt that because I’m not visibly Asian to people that I shouldn’t be producing Asian work…like I haven’t earned that right. In fact, I waited a decade wondering when someone “more Asian” would produce an Asian American history series on public radio. When no one stepped up, I said, “Okay, it’s time!”

There’s great competition in the public radio world, and it has only increased. To win the Peabody twice means it wasn’t an accident or fluke—that it’s deserved. The icing on the cake that year was to win the United States Artist Fellowship of $50,000 that allowed me to take a year off to refresh my artistic life.

That led to my realization I needed to write my memoir expanding on the personal stories that began with Mei Mei. That’s what I’m working on now. And, it’s quite painful to go through all these emotions especially regarding the caretaking I did with my mom during her three-year fight against breast cancer that ended with her dying at home. But, I believe it’s a story that resonates with other people who are dealing with their aging parents now.

Q: I read about your mother's last night and how you cooked for her. Like your mother, mine made me cook, too, even though I hated it. Is it cultural--Asian women forcing domesticity on their daughters while spoiling their sons?

A: That’s a good reason why I don’t really enjoy cooking now. My husband, who’s a gourmet cook, really loves it and does all the cooking for us. I think a lot of men, especially those who enjoy cooking, didn’t have that job thrust upon them at a young age. I remember cleaning and doing chores when I was seven. Both my parents worked so it was important for me to learn how to help out.

By age 10, my younger brother and I were the original latchkey kids, and I was cooking during weekdays for the whole family. I knew how to make Euro-American classics such as pot roast, spaghetti, meatloaf, fried chicken as well as Asian foods like stir-fried vegetables, chow mein noodle—and sushi before it was trendy!

I considered it drudgery. Cooking was joyous, though, for my mom on the weekends. She loved to show off her skills and invite people over for dinner. When she had huge parties, I became the sous chef. She cooked in an intense storm of oil splattering and shouting orders at me to hand ingredients to her. Not pleasant.

Toward the end of her illness, she couldn’t cook and I believe that sent her on a downward spiral. On the last night of her life, I tried to make my mom an Asian dessert of boiled peanuts, but I used the wrong ones and my mom and I were sitting on her bed peeling tiny skins off the Spanish peanuts. It bonded us that night, and it made me long for more times of quiet like that before she got sick.

I’m a good utility cook now. Given a bunch of ingredients, I can usually make something decent. But do I enjoy it? Not so much. Strangely enough, when I talk about creating audio pieces and documentaries, I always use cooking metaphors. Hmmm. What’s up with that?

Q: You do so much. Which do you prefer--acting, directing, producing or writing?

A: I have a short attention span sometimes, so I like to do a multiple amount of things to keep fresh. I don’t tread the boards anymore with acting. I’ve never really enjoyed directing except for radio theatre. So writing and radio producing, some filmmaking and blogging make for nice changes for me.

I also have produced and hosted a live arts show every week for KBOO community radio here in Portland for the last 13 years. That can be time-consuming, but I really love serving a local community and getting to talk with artists. Also, arts coverage in print and broadcast media is limited so I’ve been proud to cover theater, dance, literary and media arts in Portland as well as nationally.

Q: Additionally, you have no less than five websites and a blog. What do you do for fun?

A: I’m happily married with a great supportive husband, and we have two twin tabby kitties. My hubby and I love to travel, but, otherwise, we tend to like to be homebodies when we’re not. I generally have a stack of books and movies nearby for fun. And, because I’m involved in the arts here in Portland, we frequently go out to theatre and dance productions. I’m not doing anything with the blog lately. I think I’ll be moving on from Funding Your Bliss. It was good for me to do to learn how to blog, but my interests are moving to other topics.

Twitter and social media fascinate me. It’s amazing how close you can feel to people you’ve never met and never talked to on the phone--some who have avatar images rather than real photos. That must be similar to how people felt relying on written notes and letters before electronic communication. I’m learning how to be a disseminator of info and content using these new tools. More and more, journalists and media producers will be their own little radio stations and news magazines focusing on their own beats. I’m trying to figure out how to make that work financially, too. Right now, it’s all free and breezy.

My focus in the next few months is on completing my book, and then I’ll see what other personal artistic projects I’d like to do. I’ll be helping a friend produce his six-hour Shakespeare documentaries for radio. That will take two years, so it’s going to be busy!


Whoa! Hip Hapa Homee pardners, I’m jest plumb tired from reading about all the stuff Dmae does.

Another reason Your Hip Hapa has this Western accent tonight is in honor of Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright on the TV cowboy show, Bonanza. Roberts, no relation to Dmae, died on Monday. Media reports say that Roberts, who also had the lead role in Trapper John, M.D., marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery and also walked away from the highly successful Bonanza series after declaring the network racist. Not only did he complain about the way Native American characters were portrayed, but when actress Marlo Thomas played a Chinese woman in yellowface, he was appalled. Roberts also made a case for the way NBC stereotyped Mexicans as banditos, Native Americans in the old West and, of course, the family’s Chinese houseboy, Hop Sing. Roberts, it seems, was also unhappy with what he saw as sexism and violence on the show. Truly, Pernell Roberts was a human of honor.

And, respect to activist/teacher Howard Zinn who penned A People’s History of the United States—one of the first to question Christopher Columbus' tag as a “discoverer of the New World”. Mr. Zinn passed away today.

If you like to be up on the news affecting biracial, multi-ethnic, mixed-race, multiracial folks or transracial adoptees, or cross cultural issues, please join our Hip Hapa Homeez group on Facebook where we post such information. While you’re on Facebook, sign up to be a fan of our Watermelon Sushi film, too. In any case, you will never receive a bunch of messages from us. We only ask for your support by signing up.

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Until next week, here’s to us from

Your Hip Hapa,



Nikki @ Blasian Baby said...

Sometimes when working on a project I wonder if it will get done much less make a difference. It was inspiring to read that Dmae follows thru on her projects...then starts more :)

Yayoi Lena Winfrey said...

But Onica,

YOU'RE inspiring, too. With all the stuff you do, you still took the time to log on here and leave a comment.

We Hip Hapa Homeez thank you, and send you a kiss of appreciation!

Nikki @ Blasian Baby said...

Of course! Gotta see what cool projects you and other hapa's are up 2 :)