Mount Island’s Village Voices is a series of bite-sized interviews featuring diverse rural artists. If you’re interested in being featured, email us at email@example.com.
Dr. Ada Cheng is a professor-turned-storyteller, solo performer, and storytelling show producer. She was a tenured professor in sociology at DePaul University from 2001 to 2016 when she resigned to pursue storytelling and performance. She has been featured at storytelling shows and done her two solo performances all over the country. Ada is the producer and the host of five storytelling shows, including Pour One Out, Am I Man Enough?: Stories of Toxic Masculinity, Talk Stories: An Asian American / Asian Diaspora Storytelling Show, Speaking Truths Series, and This Is America: Truths through My Body. She creates platforms for people to tell difficult and vulnerable stories and communities who may not have the opportunities otherwise. She is an adjunct faculty at Dominican University and works full-time as the Education and Outreach Specialist with Women’s Leadership and Resource Center at UIC.
Her motto: Make your life the best story you tell.
What are you digging right now in terms of music, movies, new shows, books?
I haven’t left my apartment much since the lockdown in March. By the time this is published, we will be a year into the quarantine. I spent a lot of time reading during the first few months. Right now I am at the stage of binge-watching old TV shows on Netflix, the ones I never had time to enjoy before. I have gone through Breaking Bad, Jane The Virgin, American Horror Story, Private Practice, etc. I watch them while multitasking, doing things for work or for the classes I teach.
I also watch them with a different kind of appreciation now. I am taking a class on playwright fundamentals, so I pay particular attention to the script’s dramatic arc, the construction and development of characters, and the structure of dialogues. All this is new to me.
Tell us a story about one of the first times you took up your practice as a writer, artist, dancer, etc.—the first time you put pen to page, brush to canvas, etc. If you work in different mediums, what came first?
I took a chance on myself to pursue art. That’s how the story began.
How I would usually tell it.
I didn’t start doing art professionally or claim the title of an artist until the age of 51. I wanted to become an actor when I was young, but art was a prohibited dream despite my incredible creativity and imagination.
One August morning in 2015, I woke up thinking to myself that I would do better as a standup comedian. At the time, I was a tenured professor in sociology at DePaul University in Chicago. I thought I would work at the university for the rest of my life and die a tenured professor. The action I took that morning changed the course of my life completely.
I signed up for my very first improv class at Second City despite my mother’s discouraging voice in my head. I stumbled into the art of storytelling a month later. I remember rolling on the floor of the classroom laughing uncontrollably, playing silly characters using my imagination, and chasing my younger classmates during our improv games. I recall talking to my improv and storytelling teachers about quitting my job and leaving academia for good.
That summer, I realized that I was truly living my life, remembering the dream I had from childhood, the passion from my youth, and most importantly, happiness, a feeling I didn’t know I could still have.
By 2015, I seemed to have achieved the so-called American dream as an immigrant. I had all the markers for success except one thing: happiness. I was dying inside, and I had to redefine what success meant for me.
I had to dare to make life changing decisions, or I would be dead for real.
Three months later, I sent an email to my colleagues to resign from my tenured position without consulting with anyone. I officially left DePaul University to pursue storytelling and performance full time in June 2016.
I finally jumped off the cliff.
I took a chance on myself in 2016 when I decided to become an artist, not knowing what was ahead of me. What might have started out as an act of desperation and a search for meanings has turned into something rewarding for me, a way for me to tell personal stories, uplift the voices of marginalized communities, and amplify the often unheard stories.
Through art, I found myself and I found my way home.
How does living in a rural place or a connection to a rural place (small town, or teeny-tiny city, village, etc.) impact how and what you create?
I was born and grew up in the city of Taipei, the Capital of Taiwan. Every year my family would travel to Douliu, a small town in Southern Taiwan, where my parents grew up, for summer and winter vacations and the Lunar New Year celebration.
That’s my only connection to a small town (or rural place).
It is in this small town that my mother, who passed the college entrance examination and got into college, was pulled out of school because her own grandfather didn’t believe in college education for women. She wasn’t gutsy enough to rebel, a regret that would damage her self-esteem and haunt her spirit permanently.
It is in this small town that my parents, from two families of similar statuses, were introduced by a matchmaker and wedded while being a stranger to each other. Through this arranged marriage, they were expected to form a union without falling in love first, raise children, and continue the Cheng lineage. My mother told me she was lucky to have my older brother, a son, as her firstborn. A responsibility she had to fulfill as a daughter-in-law since my father himself was the firstborn.
It is in this small town that I witnessed my paternal grandmother being emotionally abusive toward my mother and realized that women could easily assume the role of the oppressor and replicate the exact oppression they themselves had experienced before.
It is also in this small town that I was told by my paternal grandmother in the kitchen that I wasn’t entitled to snacks because I was a girl. She didn’t just make sure I heard it; she made sure everyone around me understood that too. I was only a child, but I got her clear message about my place in the world.
My grandmother passed away on the same day my father did, something only fate could manipulate and intervene. I learned that redemption may not be possible, but karma sometimes would be the only answer to the things we couldn’t control.
My mother left her small town, but she never understood that fate didn’t have to turn into destiny.
I never grew up in that small town, but destiny has it that I be haunted by her phantoms forever.
These are the ghost stories I tell.
COVID-19 has affected everyone in the world in different ways. What are your thoughts about this moment and what it could mean for other creatives and artists? What has been the impact to your creative flow?
To be honest, I count myself lucky compared to other creatives and artists. I started my current position at UIC in July 2019 and the pandemic hit eight months later. While I had to cancel a lot of gigs, I didn’t depend on them for survival. Having a full-time job during this time has provided me with the stability that other creatives and artists may not have had. I am not oblivious to the privileges and benefits that come with full-time employment.
For that, I am grateful.
I didn’t feel completely terrible about the cancellations either. Right around the lockdown in March, my calendar was getting full. I was scheduled to perform a new solo I had yet to write and a few talks I had yet to prepare. I felt I could be doomed for a major burnout if I didn’t stop overscheduling myself. I was craving for time and mental space to learn new skills, but I had neither. I was relieved when gigs were canceled. I finally had the time to slow down, to rest, and to recharge.
I hate to admit I have been thriving, but thriving seems to be the right word to describe how I have been managing. This year reminds me of my graduate school experiences, going nowhere and doing nothing but staying home, reading, and learning.
I have experimented with new genres and new mediums this year. I started writing poems when the pandemic first hit, something I had never done before. Words started coming to me in the form of poetry. I enjoyed it so much that I started reading them and taking a couple of online poetry classes. During the summer, I took a playwright fundamentals class and learned how to write traditional plays. Stories started arriving in my head in the form of dialogues. I enjoyed it so much that I am taking another class right now. In September, I participated in a video production and appeared in a short film based on a story I wrote, something I never imagined I would dare to do.
Despite the pandemic, I have continued to produce and host storytelling shows in the virtual space. At the beginning of the lockdown, I had to overcome my fear of technology to transition everything online. I didn’t want to wait for a year or even more without producing events. Physical distancing and quarantine is not forever; I simply need to adjust, adapt, and make the best of the situation. And I did.
As much as intimacy may have been lost because of the technology, the virtual space has opened up different if not more opportunities and possibilities. People who couldn’t attend events previously can do so now without the geographic constraints. My events have been able to draw new audience members from outside of Chicago. I have gained a new following that didn’t exist before as a result.
While the pandemic has brought new possibilities and new creative endeavors for me in ways I never thought possible; I know this deep down. I am also at a point in my life where I’m intellectually humble and emotionally ready to take advantage of these new opportunities.
This much is true. Artists don’t create under ideal circumstances; we create despite our circumstances.
For that, I am grateful.
Imagine you must write a note in a bottle and send it to another rural artist living all alone on some desert island berry patch? What would you want to say to them?
Dear fellow artist,
I hope you are well.
I am writing to you from home.
From a place of being at home.
Solitude is both a blessing and a curse.
We need it for our creative work,
yet we hate it
because it deprives us of the very ingredients that constitute our work:
I don’t know how long you have to stay on the desert island.
Be it because of your own choice or the force of circumstances,
The most important relationship you are going to have is with yourself.
And I hope it is a beautiful one so far.
If you don’t know yourself yet, start now.
If you already know yourself, know more.
If you don’t love yourself yet, start now.
If you already love yourself, love more.
If you don’t trust yourself yet, start now.
If you already trust yourself, trust more.
I am at home
not because of some concrete dwelling I possess,
but because home is in me.
If you are searching for a place to belong,
I am home.
Hope you will be too.