Ada Cheng spent most of her life being told where her place was. Growing up in Taiwan, society made sure she understood it was at home.
As an immigrant to the United States, she was told it was clearly not there; she looked and sounded like, would always be a foreigner. She would never fit in. In academia she was assigned a tenured spot teaching sociology. With it, the Asian woman pigeonhole. And she did not like it.
It took a fifteen-year career for her to finally step out of the line. At fifty, she quit her job, took to the stage and took the mic…
Curtain. Spotlight. Expectant silence. Time to tell her own story now.
“Hello, my name is Ada Cheng. I am…”
a woman, an immigrant, a Taiwanese, an Asian/Asian American, an intellectual, a renegade academic, a storyteller, and a performing artist. These words do not describe me fully, but they each play a part in shaping who I am and how I see myself in the world.
What are you not?
A comedian, though I have done comedy briefly and might return to the scene in the future. I might use comedic techniques in my stories, but comedy doesn’t drive my performance. It is the nature of my experiences and stories that does.
What are some of those experiences?
My parents’ arranged marriage and what it taught me about gender inequality in society; trying to assert my individuality and independence in a culture (Taiwan) that emphasizes conformity.
Leaving home and my homeland because I felt that was the only way out for me as a woman; being an immigrant in the United States and how that taught me how to thrive in between spaces; being a forever foreigner and the sense of alienation that comes with it.
And have you found home here, in the United States?
No, I am not home. Nowhere is home. The only way I can come to terms with it is: Home is in me and I carry it anywhere I go.
It takes courage to do that, to go on the journey you have taken. You once said: “You’ve got to jump off the cliff to fly.” What is the scariest leap you have made so far?
Perhaps dropping everything back in my country and moving to another country for good, though at the time it did not feel that way. I didn’t just come to this country to study as a student; I left vowing to myself that I would never return. That was how determined I was when I left.
The next scariest thing I did was leaving academia. I had spent most of my adult years pursuing advanced degrees, getting tenured, and teaching. Academia was what I knew and was in some way a space where I could thrive as a human being and as a thinker. However, it did become stale for me at some point.
So you leapt again, into storytelling this time. What are your stories about?
A lot of my stories are about inequality in various forms: race, gender, sexuality, and immigration. What I hope to do is to provide social critiques. In that sense, I am not doing anything differently from when I was teaching at the university.
I simply use different mediums, stories in this case, to illustrate the structural conditions that shape our shared and different experiences. At the same time, I use stories to show how people resist those structural effects and assert their agency. So it is the interplay between structure and agency.
Your life is a testament to that interplay; you have challenged the labels the world gave you and have chosen your own.
The motto I have lived by for years is: “Where there is a will, there is a way.”
You have given solo performances, put on storytelling shows, written books, produced podcasts… What is the next leap you will take?
I don’t know what next scary thing I will do. Possibilities are endless. But I do know this: When it is time and when I am ready, I will jump. Life has taught me that you figure out how to fly on your way down.
One nice thing about getting old is that I no longer waste time in self-doubt. Nor do I need validation and approval. I have a solid sense of myself and I no longer get swayed by applause or the lack of it.
A lot of what I have done these past two years has been frightening. It all felt like jumping off a cliff. But I did it and am doing it in spite of fear. I no longer seek perfection because that is an illusion, and failure is not an issue as long as I learn the lesson. I simply do what I need to do and what I want to do, on my own terms. It feels great to come to terms with my own power that way. It has taken a lifetime. I am in a good place.
Speaking of good places, could you share one of yours?
Dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. I love Ethiopian food. I love eating with my hands, tearing the injera apart and dipping it into a juicy lamb dish. Dishes are shared with friends in good conversations. That’s my comfort food.
Catch one of Ada’s performances near you, or explore her work online at http://www.renegadeadacheng.com/
You can also find her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/dr.adacheng/) and Youtube (Renegade Ada Cheng)