Susan Lieu is bringing her one-woman show 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother to CAAMFest37 on Mother’s Day weekend, May 11-12. Based on the tragedy of losing her mother to medical negligence during plastic surgery when she was 11, Lieu’s show explores grief and healing, intergenerational trauma, body image, insecurity and shame, medical errors, Vietnamese folkloric practice of spirit channeling, and compassion. I sat down with Susan on April 22, 2019 in this half hour interview. You can watch the complete interview on YouTube, or hear it on the Pacific Heart podcast on SoundCloud, Stitcher, or iTunes. Below is an edited transcript.
Tell me about yourself and the show.
I’m Vietnamese American, my parents were refugees. They came over in ’83. I was born in the East Bay, and grew up in Santa Rosa. I grew up in a nail salon – my parents had a nail salon – so that was child care! That’s where I learned what it means to build a really strong work ethic, and it was also there that my world started falling apart. My mom passed away when I was 11 from plastic surgery malpractice, and that’s the defining time when everything fell apart. The nail salon fell apart, our entire family unit – 13 people in a 4 bedroom house – dwindled down to 3 people, there was a separation….
It really broke up the family –
Yes. It’s been about 23 years since she’s been gone. She passed away on Geary Boulevard. For a long time I wanted to know my mother. Also I didn’t understand how someone who was on probation, didn’t have malpractice insurance, had 24 lawsuits against him – how did he walk away free from this? I wanted to track down the man responsible for my mother’s death. In the end I really found out who she was. And I wrote a show about it.
I read that you really began to think about all this on your wedding day, when you reflected on the empty seat that had been left for your mother…
When you get married, you think about the family drama that’s going to happen, and here I had this clear, physical emptiness. It’s one thing to get a new mother-in-law, and have that maternal figure in my life, but…I still want my mom to be there.
It’s such a huge, enormous loss – I’m so sorry for you and your family. It’s a trauma that follows you your whole life…
Losing your parent is one thing – losing your parent when you’re 11 is another.
Exactly…Maybe you can tell me more about the issues you explore in your show.
I explore body, beauty, and death. My mom died from plastic surgery malpractice. She wanted to get a tummy tuck. She’d had four kids, and she wanted to trim down. And all my entire life, I’ve hated my body. There’s little things that my family will say…being a Vietnamese woman, you’re supposed to fit in a áo dài, you’re supposed to be really petite, have all these beautiful angles, and I didn’t. I was a kinda chubby, tomboyish kid, and that was not a beautiful Vietnamese woman. My nickname in my family was “the refrigerator,” and people were like “no one’s going to love you unless you lose weight, okay! No one’s going to marry you.” This was before my mom’s death and after my mom’s death, which was really ironic. Didn’t we learn that we shouldn’t say these things? So I explore body image, because I go through it too… I don’t just say “media, you’re bad! Media, stop!” but it’s also culturally and in society, how do we reinforce things – aunties and uncles and sisters and friends. What are the little things we say? How do we judge people? We really internalize, “gosh I hate my body. I wish I could look different.”
It’s such a common experience, in Asian American families and for women. Probably just about every Asian American family drama I’ve seen has elements of this kind of talk. I just saw The Farewell last week, and there are all those kinds of comments coming at the daughter (played by Awkwafina).
Yes…and going on, to talk about (the show)…the man my mom went to get the surgery from, he had a track record. I would like to have more accountability in the medical space. I’m trying to get people to see that when you walk into any kind of surgery, elective or not, you can’t assume it’s safe. They do not need to tell you they’re on probation. So you need to look up your doctor. Just go look up the background of your doctor. I wanted to create more awareness about that issue. Growing up low income…you don’t want to rock the boat! You don’t want to challenge your doctor. You don’t want to get a second opinion. Doctors are at the top of the social strata. You’re educated. Everyone wants their kids to be doctors. So why would you challenge that person or the system. I would just like people to be more awake to that. (My mom’s doctor) advertised in Vietnamese papers, and talked about volunteering during the Vietnam War! [Note – There are about 5,000 deaths a year directly caused by medical mistakes, and mistakes play some role in perhaps 100,000 deaths a year, a staggering number but less than the 400,000 deaths claimed by a misleading earlier Johns Hopkins study.]
And the third thing I explore in the show is about death, loss, grief, and healing. What do you do with all this trauma? What you’ll find out in the show is that like most Asian American families, we’re not there to be emotionally supportive. We’re there to eat with each other – but we’re not there to process. In my search to find out who my mom was, I get a lot of resistance from my family. And you’ll see that in the show.
There’s a lot of powerful emotion that goes into this show, as a way to heal and heal others…
I don’t think I went into this (saying) “I’m going to heal other people!” By going deep – I play ten characters in the show – and having to force myself to be really empathetic (to their perspectives) – how do I love them, even if ‘real Susan’ doesn’t get the support and love she needs. And that has been healing for me too.
I’ve had several patients – from young, in their 30s, to over 70 – be overly concerned about their physical appearance. They think they’re only valued if they look a certain way. The obsession with perfection is so prevalent. How do you think that might have affected your mom and other Asian American women?
I talk in my show about watching Paris by Night growing up. It was the one time where we felt “Wow! Vietnamese people are flashy!” It’s a variety show – song, dance and theater! In the 90s it was BIG. We would watch it on our days off. The distinct memory I have is my family saying “Ooh, she can’t wear that áo dài right.” She just doesn’t know how to wear it. It’s not cutting nicely on her. Which means, “Oh, she’s not petite enough. She’s not thin enough.” Are we surprised by this? Girls starting thinking about diets when they’re six years old. They’re already not feeling ‘enough’ when they’re six years old. Historically, women were bought and sold as objects (through a dowry system) – how would you get a higher price? If you look healthy, or “beautiful”….now we have the feminist movement, it’s great, but we come from a very traumatic history of being bought and sold. My aunties, that generation, they’re trying to be protective. To make sure I’ll be safe, and stable, and cared for.
What do you think led your mom to be so concerned about her physical experience? Do you think she had personal trauma that fed into that?
I always wish I could talk to her and ask her these questions. I think there are a number of reasons. One, she had four kids…Your body changes. Two, she was in the nail salon industry. A very popular customer for plastic surgery is the nail salon worker. They are in the beauty industry. They are thinking about beauty all the time… And the third part, which I don’t think people expect me to say, is that my mom was very bold and very goal oriented. She was a boat person. She wanted to leave Vietnam. It took her six attempts to leave, and she took my dad and my two brothers. We come from a very low-income background and she found a way to do it. She was fierce and she was bold. Now when she owns her own nail salon and she wants to look a certain way, she’s going to set some goals and get the money to do it. So I wouldn’t say “oh, women who do plastic surgery – how sad! How sad they can’t see their inner beauty!” I think beauty is very complex. The type of feminist I am, that choice is not binary. It’s not that you’re “good” if you don’t choose to do it, and you’re “bad” if you do. That’s not what it’s about. It’s all about personal choice. So, yes, I think my mom grew up in that era where outer beauty and that trimness to fit that áo dài was very particular. She was also very fierce and goal-oriented. And she found the money to do it.
But at the same time, to swim against the current of societal demands it’s like crossing an ocean (not to trivialize the actual ocean-crossing of the refugee experience). In the social media era, breast implant surgeries have tripled. Plastic surgery, dental surgery have increased dramatically. So clearly something’s fueling that. It’s something that we have to (look at and) change, like what we promote on social media. There’s so much insecurity. Feeling like people won’t hit the like button, won’t appreciate you, and you’ll be outcast in some sense.
Yeah, I really explore “What is beauty?” and “What is worth it?” in the show. If I could turn back time I don’t know I could have prevented my mom from doing the things she did. But I would have shown her the resources to make smarter decisions.
A part of me agrees with the “choice” aspect, but another part…knows that we all could “use” plastic surgery according to a plastic surgeon. I always wish the plastic surgeons would say “Hey, are there mental health issues here, or maybe you could talk to someone about your feelings about yourself before you do this.” Do you explore mental health issues in your show?
I make a couple of jokes about therapists (laughs)! For me in my family, I went to a therapist to process my grief. I talk about this in the show. I’m pretty vocal about it. I don’t really hide anything in the show. I talk about therapy in my public profile as well, because it’s really important. Especially having a family that didn’t want to process my mom’s death, and we still haven’t actually had a real conversation about my mom’s death…to talk about what that last day was like for you, how you are doing now, or what feels empty for you. It’s very hard to have those conversations. For us as Asian Americans, our parents might not have shown us those models, to support each other in that way. In my generation, it’s our responsibility to find more tools to be able to process things, so we don’t continue to pass on our trauma gene.
Thank you for pointing out the importance of therapy. And also breaking silence, and talking about things that are difficult. It’s so common to Asian American families. We don’t know what our parents went through or why our parents made the choices they made, from internment to so many other things…What are you seeing come out of your work?
It’s been really beautiful. After the show it feels like a funeral meets a wedding. Everyone wants to share with me what the show triggered for them. Maybe some distance they feel in their family, some body stuff, something that went wrong medically. And what I’m seeing with audiences is that when I shine a light on my specific trauma, they’re also shining it on theirs, to look at it. People say right after the show they start calling their moms! What are the conversations they need to have with people who are still alive…we don’t walk around like we’re actually mortal. We think we’re going to be around forever, right? I think my show is this big reminder that we don’t know when we’re going to die. We can’t predict anything, as much as we try to control – we don’t have control.
The quality of relationship through transience is so important. Maybe you could talk about how Buddhism influenced the show.
I start off the show by lighting incense. I grew up with ancestor worship. It was really important for us to pay homage to where we came from. And Buddhism as well. And what you hear in the show is my dad says things like (in Vietnamese) “let it go.” There’s something very Buddhist about letting go of things in the past, and the pain. But..at what point is it ok to let things go? When you’ve processed it, or is letting go a way to stuff it? That’s the tension of what is true ‘letting go.’ …My take is we need to go through that…
Know what “it” is –
Be angry about it, be sad about it! Eventually maybe that can convert to something very positive.
You talk about even trying to find a seed of compassion for the doctor.
Seeing that my mom was not with me anymore on my wedding day…this all started from a seed of anger and revenge. Of “How can people get away with this kind of stuff?” The more I learned about his past and then I started to search for his children…over time I learned that they went through their own pain of losing their dad too. We all suffer. So what do you do with that. Do you prolong it, do you agitate it, or at what point can you forgive? And I do reach that point in the show. I do.
So important and so hard to do, especially in these times. I talked about compassion with some young activists, and some of them said “Well, this is asking us to do ‘emotional labor’.” I was kind of startled by that. It’s obviously not an easy thing to do to forgive or to have compassion for someone who has hurt you, taken someone from you. What would you say to that comment “this is emotional labor?”
At this point in my life I’ve got two gears when I interact with people. In this moment right now, is it ‘life-taking’ or is it ‘life-giving’? There’s only two gears. You’re either bringing me joy like Mari Kondo, or you’re not! I can continue to direct energy and be angry, and it takes energy, and it’s not going to produce anything beautiful. It’s not light. So yes, I hear these folks talk about emotional labor, but I see it as confronting it and feeling it and going through that grief, it’s processing it – and yes that takes work. But what comes out of it is this ability that’s much more life-giving. So yes you have to do the emotional labor, to think about…I’ve thought about the doctor during meditation retreats. And I’ve practiced metta, lovingkindness, towards him. May he be strong and healthy and free from mental suffering. May he love and accept himself as he is at this moment. I think about his kids. At this point, sending any negative energy or feeling mad about it – is actually bringing the collective down. I’m not going to justify his action, I’m not going to put him on a pedestal, I’m not going to honor him – I’m not going to put out energy that way. But at this point, having this form of acceptance and kindness towards him, it uplifts and continues to give light to the work that I’m doing. I think if I sit with that darkness energy forever and hold onto it, this grasping and grasping, this continual resistance, doesn’t allow space for what can possibly be.
It sounds like you’ve done a lot of work to build that reservoir, that can hold that difficulty. I’m sure, as with all trauma, all these emotions circulate. But thank you for doing the ‘heart-work’, which the audience will appreciate….You had a circuitous route to performance. Maybe you could tell me about that.
If you look at my past history, I used to lead the rallies in high school, I was always on the PA, with my chocolate company (Socola Chocolatier, founded with sister Wendy Lieu), with my sister, getting everyone riled up and excited about XYZ. So I’ve always been a performer. And I always wanted to be in the play. But I always felt it was too late. In high school, “I should have done it in middle school!” When I was in college at Harvard, my classmates were already Screen Actors Guild folks. They were already SAG status. “Oh, it’s too late.” It’s always too late. And when I was living in San Francisco in 2011, I said “it’s still too late…but what if the Mayan calendar is true?” …What if it was the ending of the world? What would be my biggest regret. So in 2011-2012, I started doing standup comedy in San Francisco. Because I do feel this joy to have the microphone. I do feel in total, full orbit when I’m on stage. And I didn’t know exactly what that content would be like, as a stand up. I did all these things. I did tiger mom, I did my pitfalls in relationship – I was just saying ‘stuff.’ But I didn’t have the discipline, nor did I have the continued dedication to keep going. I was scared. It was fun but I was scared. But I loved it. I knew I loved that element, but what was I supposed to share? After I got married, I was thinking about actually having kids, and I didn’t want to be resentful towards them, I didn’t want to be like “you can do whatever you want when you grow up,” but really know that I didn’t do what I wanted to do when I grew up. So I gave myself time boxes, give it two or three years, I wanted to explore lots of mediums, try lots of things, and in this era today of social media, I was also paralyzed because “augh, I don’t have a million followers! Augh, I don’t have a lot of views and I suck!” But that’s not the point of the creative process. The point of the creative process is to kill your darlings, implode things, keep finding things that resonate for you and the audience, and see what marries really well. So I took a solo performance class. The assignment was “tell me a five minute story.” The first thing I said was, “I want to avenge my mother’s death.” So I started telling the class this story of this quest that I had been on. They were all like “oooh, that’s really intense, Susan!” I was like, “is it? Great!” So I spent the last 16 months developing small shows, I call them ‘episodes’, of 20-30 minutes each, and each time my audience base gets bigger and bigger and people are telling me what it means to them….I’m still avenging my mom’s death. But what we’re avenging is changing the conversation about body, beauty and death. It’s being able to know that you’re in the driver’s seat of choosing the thoughts in your mind that are creating your reality all the time.
Another Buddhist concept. “With your thoughts, you make the world.”
That’s right. And just being really conscious and intentional about it. So I hope I create a space of possibility of healing, of looking at things, of taking care of some past feelings that are hurtful, by sharing my story with audiences. I’m still avenging my mom’s death, but now just reaching a new conversation about things that bring people a lot of suffering, that I hope can bring them more joy.
We do need to change the narrative. Because the cultural thoughts that get laid down on us are powerful and in many cases oppressive and restrictive, to change our possibilities. So thank you for changing the conversation, and creating a new narrative for everyone that sees your show. I look forward to seeing your show next month! Any final things you wanted to say?
Sure – a behind-the-scenes of what it meant to be a performer. Before every show, I look at myself in the mirror, and I say three things. “I love you…I thank you…I forgive you.” I’m saying that to me, my mom’s saying that to me, and I say that to the world. And I think it’s really important for people to forgive themselves. And I hope by this show, by people watching it, they’re also able to do that for whatever they need to do that for.
Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. You can find out more about him at www.RaviChandraMD.com, where you can read his latest outburst of poetry called 36 Views of San Francisco, and sign up for an occasional newsletter. Read more MOSF blogposts here.