Morris to discuss complicated, multi-cultural upbringing at OAC March 13

Sheila Morris will discuss growing up “half and half,” as the daughter of a Chinese father and white mother, during a special presentation March 13 at the Owatonna Arts Center.

The event, scheduled for 7 p.m., is co-sponsored by the Owatonna chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Steele County Home Economics Association, and the OAC, which is offering the venue for the presentation, said the AAUW’s Mary Kaye Tillmann. A $5 fee will be charged at the door, and net proceeds benefit the OAC.

Tillmann had seen Jessica Huang’s play, “The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin” — which focuses on the relationship of Chin, his daughter (Morris), and various other relatives — and it’s “wonderful,” she said. Morris spoke to the audience following the performance, and when Tillmann learned Morris resides in Waseca, she began contemplating ways to land her as a speaker for the AAUW.

March is Women’s History Month, and the AAUW annually tries to spotlight an important local female story, she added. Morris and her life experiences are “fascinating.”

Initially, Morris viewed the play as a way of honoring her father — and family in general — but, as her brother, Roger, observed, “it’s your story,” and “he was right,” Morris said. “It’s from my perspective,” and other members of the family would naturally have different perspectives.

“It’s important to share our immigration stories, now more than ever,” she added. “I hope the play will get another venue someday.”

Like Morris, Huang is “multi-cultural,” even introducing Morris to the word “hapa,” which means “part white and part Asian,” and Huang discovered the family story in a book titled “The Chinese in Minnesota,” Morris said. For that historical book, Morris and her father were interviewed by author Sherri Gebert Fuller, and when Morris later met Huang for coffee, she felt a special kinship with the playwright.

“We talked for two hours, and I decided I would tell her everything,” even matters Morris had previously kept close to her vest, like her mother’s suicide, and the wife and young daughter her father had left behind in China when he came to America as a 17-year-old in 1939, she said. “I trusted her.”

Though artistic liberties were taken for the production, Morris signed off on them, and seeing her life story dramatized on stage turned out to be therapeutic, she said. “I believe in reconciliation,” and that the souls of her mother, father, and step-mother are “all reconciled.”

She also needed to acknowledge her mother’s suicide, an act that actually opens the entire play, she said. Morris had kept that hidden “in a dark room in the back of my mind” for decades, discussing it only with her closest confidantes, but “it’s OK to hate the action and not hate her.”

“She blindsided us. It was the most unreal thing to ever happen to me,” she said. “It takes time and help to get past it.”

She also learned more about her father, “a paper son,” through the production, she said. For example, Huang discovered the entire 123-page transcript of Chin’s interrogation when he came ashore in California.

Chinese immigrants who were the “children” of Chinese-American citizens only on paper — fraudulent documents with false names — earned the “paper sons” moniker, according to NPR. Blood relatives of American-born Chinese, as well as Chinese merchants, teachers and students, were among the exceptions to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that barred Chinese laborers from entering America.

During her presentation later this month, Morris, who recently retired after serving as co-executive director of the Waseca County Historical Society since 2000, will touch on the way Chinese immigrants were “scapegoated” in America, just as a litany of other minority groups, from the Irish to Latinos, have been before and since, she said. “Politicians would blame the Chinese for ‘taking your jobs’ — (it was) discrimination and prejudice.”

Her father spent most of his working life in restaurant kitchens, but he also assisted with the war effort in the 1940s, helping outfit airplanes for battle, she said. At his site, he was the only Chinese person, and “he loved that job.”

Though the ring of “paper sons” was eventually discovered, the United States government—noting how so many of the illegal immigrants were productive members of society, as well as the fact China was a communist regime—instituted a confession program, she said. President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation to essentially forgive them, but they had to become naturalized citizens, which her father did in the late 1960s.

Her father — like so many of his countrymen — came to America for economic opportunity, since China, especially in rural areas, was impoverished, she said. Youth took seriously the cultural imperative to care for their elders, so earning money was pivotal, and Chin escaped China on one of the last ships to leave harbor as the Japanese closed in on the country’s coasts during World War II.

“I had never thought about (my father’s) time on the ship” over from China, a journey where many passengers committed suicide in despair they would fail the interrogation, Morris said. Many more killed themselves in holding cells after either failing the inquisition or during the interminable wait for admittance into America.

Her father first went to Chicago’s Chinatown, but — told by associates he’d never learn English there — migrated to the Port Arthur Café in St. Paul to work, she said. There, he met Laura, Sheila’s mother.

They married and had two children, Sheila and Roger, but eventually Chin’s first wife and daughter made their way to America, which complicated the dynamics among everyone involved, she said. Morris will discuss those relationships more in depth on the 13th, but “it wasn’t easy.”

Much in the same way Morris couldn’t hold back while discussing the play with Huang, she also understands that she must be completely open about her family history for an effective presentation later this month, she said. “I have to talk about it all.”

Reach reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on @randerson_ryan