Dmae Roberts tell two interwoven stories in this personal documentary: the frustration she feels not living up to her mother's ideal of a perfect Taiwanese daughter and the compassion she has for a mother who as a child suffered abuse, starvation, and the horrors of World War Two.
Mei Mei, A Daughter's Song first aired on NPR in 1989.
Dmae Roberts is a two-time Peabody Award-winning radio artist and writer who has created groundbreaking personal, multicultural documentaries. Her documentary Mei Mei, a Daughter's Song is a harrowing account of her mother's childhood in Taiwan during WWII. Crossing East is the first Asian American history series on public radio. Roberts is a United States Artist fellow and is working on her memoir, Lady Buddha and the Temple of Ma. She was published in Radio Reality and is currently working with Steve Rowland to produce Shakespeare Is, six hours on the impact of the Bard.
BEHIND THE SCENES with producer Dmae Roberts
Would you like to dedicate the re-playing of Mei Mei to your mother?
Mei Mei is not a tribute to my mom. It's about a misunderstanding, a rift, a break-up, break down, massive turbulence, massive tempest. This has never been a Mother's Day card. The piece emerged after 30 years of frustration and confusion about the closest person to me since birth -- my mom, Chu-Yin Roberts.
I have mixed feelings about this airing again. This does not represent where my mommee and me ended up after three years of caring for her during her battle with breast cancer. Mei Mei represents where we started from. Since Mei Mei, I produced The Journey of Lady Buddha in an effort to understand my mom's spirituality and the stories of Kuan Yin she tried to tell me since I was a child. And then recently I produced a 13-minute essay with sound about the trip to Taiwan to bring her back to an American hospital three years ago. I will most likely produce a piece about where we ended up, our closeness despite years of fighting, our mending of the rift - though not seamless - while undergoing the horror of an evil disease. That piece will be my tribute to my mommee.
I use this last phrase because that's what I ended up calling her after years of the cold and factual "mother." I spell it this way because that's how I pronounce it. At the beginning of Mei Mei there is a child I recorded in Taiwan shouting "mom-meeee!" In the last three years while caring for my parent and becoming her parent, I allowed myself to also become that child and to call her the affectionate rather than the cold and factual.
What impact did producing this documentary have on your relationship and your mutual understanding of one another?
The documentary didn't bring us closer. In fact she hated the piece and would refer angrily to it. However it did bring some sensitivity to my perspective to her and the difficulties I had understanding her. In time she came to trust that I wasn't just airing dirty laundry but I was really trying to figure things out and to tell her that I loved her but just didn't "get" her. It's traditional in Asian culture for mothers to put down or say negative things about their daughters because bad luck might happen if one is too proud or boastful. My mom never said good things to me but I heard from others that she was proud of me. In time, I had to accept this too as part of the culture, as part of my mom's very being.
To this day and probably more so now, I cannot listen to the piece. It hurts too much. Just too damn honest, I'm sorry. Beyond that honesty, I can appreciate the piece technically and creatively.
You produced Mei Mei more than a decade ago and it's very ahead of its time, both in terms of its honesty and its style. How did you accomplish this?
It's got a lot of radio theatre elements and full of a month's worth of sound from Taiwan I recorded with a Sony TCD5M and two HUGE by today's standards Sennheiser 421's on a stereo stand. I walked around for hours with the weight of 35 pounds of equipment on my shoulder. Still hurts. Nothing like carrying a minidisc and a little stereo mic as I do now. I recorded everything and there are bits of sound layering throughout. A children's choir, puppet shows, opera, streets sounds, marketplace sounds, a temple of singing people. One lady in a temple came right up to the mic I set up to record temple ambience and sang a Buddhist hymn, "Ami Tofa" -- two choruses right into the mic. Didn't ask her. Amazing stuff like that happened all the time.
Sometimes I feel like a one-hit wonder because Mei Mei is the piece people refer to when they think of me. Doesn't matter I put out a 13-part series of other people's personal stories or a three-one hour series that included Lady Buddha or that I'm helping others tell their stories on 1stPerson.org. Mei Mei is what's remembered. The piece was ahead of its time and ahead of me and wouldn't get aired on NPR now. No way. It doesn't fit a format. It's not news, it's not a regular doc with actualities. It's radio literature, it's theatre, it's audio art and it's me ripping out my heart. The latter I can't do anymore. But the audio art part I love and sad to say there doesn't seem to be an understanding or a market for it in public radio now.
What did you hear from listeners? Did other American-raised daughters of Asian mothers reach out to you?
Mei Mei appealed universally. Yes, Asians responded but so did children of Polish, German, Irish, Italian, Latino, African-American parents. One time I played the opening for a group of 20 Seattle city kids who were on a summer work program -- African-American, Latino and Asian. These teens were hard to reach and hard in general. I played the first five minutes and went to shut off the tape deck because I didn't think they'd care. And they all shouted "no!"
Has your sense of identity changed since you produced this work?
One of the questions I have is "will I still be Asian now that my mom is gone?" People think of me as white. I could pass when growing up. I could pass now. Only in my late twenties did I start wondering how to make sense of identity and my connection to my mom and the inherited culture. Inside I'm very Asian. Outside I have to tell people and even then justify it. Tiring. Confusing. So many of us are caught in-between. And more and more so as bi and multi-racial children grow up. Not easy. No real answers. But questions are important.