A Conversation with Penny Pun
Written by Michelle Tse
Photography by Emma Pratte
April 11, 2018
It is always a rare treat to discover a fellow Hong Kong transplant in the New York theater community, and this time, the blessing came in the form of Penny Pun. Speaking with Penny tugged at my heartstrings and energized my spirits, and I dare anyone not to be inspired by her resilience. Read on to find out more about this indomitable soul, who has and continues to persist through every obstacle life has thrown her way.
Michelle Tse: I want to start with your experience with growing up in Hong Kong. What juts out to you in terms of being differently abled, and growing up in public housing?
Penny Pun: When I started primary school, my parents put me in a special education school. It was about 200 students with only 20 students who had the abilities of a mainstream curriculum, so I have always been hanging around those 20 students throughout my whole primary school education. And then once I reached secondary school, I decided that I would transfer to a mainstream school because I thought I need to get out of the “special-needs world” to “the real world” anyway, I might as well get out now.
So I transferred to a mainstream school and then it was a public school serving multiple public housing sectors, so the kids there were low-income and lower-middle class students. It was difficult. It was just under 2,000 students. I mean in America, it’s nothing, but in Hong Kong, [I went from] a special ed school with 200 kids in one school, and 10 kids in a class, to 40 kids in one classroom. So …
MT: Wait, so it went from 20 kids to 40.
PP: It went from 20 kids in two classes to 40 kids in one class. So it was a lot. And because I got good grades, and most secondary schools in Hong Kong have the elitist practice to put the top 40 students in one class for all courses. I always was around hanging around with those 40 people, so I got a relatively stable social circle, compared to people who got reassigned every year, so that was good. But it was getting increasingly difficult. It’s just more exhausting for me to do something, and then the Hong Kong curriculum for secondary schools get more and more insane as you advance. And my teachers were working us really hard! I mean, I go to school at 8am, and then I have extra classes til 7pm. After I go home, I still have three hours’ worth of homework and studying.
MT: Was this typical?
PP: It was very typical. I was at school, and they’re telling me you’re never getting out of this neighborhood. Only [about] 15 people go to college every year from my school, and then about 25 more go to the equivalent of community college or other diploma or certificate programs, and they were serving about 200 students per grade.
PP: So yep, you’re told you’re never getting out. And I went to this crazy conservative school, like your skirt can’t be above your knees; it had to cover your whole knee. Your bangs can’t go past your brows… stuff like that. So I wasn’t fitting in. I was exhausted. By the time I reached 8th grade, I found out that my friend from primary school died. Nobody bothered to tell me, because he died around Chinese New Year, so everybody was like, “we shouldn’t talk about this right now, we shouldn’t talk about this.”
MT: Why did he pass away?
PP: It was muscular dystrophy. I knew that he was gonna pass away at some point during his (and my) mid-to-late teen years, I just didn’t know when it happened. [Nobody] talked about it, until I called up one of my friends, asking him, “How is he doing?” and he told me he passed away. So yeah… Everything was crashing down, and then I had a breakdown, and I didn’t go to school for four days, which is a big deal for students in Hong Kong because you need a doctor’s note, or else it counts as truancy, and could eventually result in me being kicked out of school. But I couldn’t even get out the door to get the doctor’s note.
PP: Because of my disability, I have always had doctors following my situation, so my parents called my pediatric surgeon and he put me in line to see a therapist at a government-funded clinic, and then I started going to the therapist for like three months before I came back to full school days. I usually just leave early because of panic attacks and other psychosomatic symptoms. I got therapy over the course of a year. It was therapy at a government-funded clinic, so [eventually] the therapist told me that I was well enough to discontinue treatment.
MT: So that was eighth to ninth grade.
PP: Yeah. After that my parents got called up by the Make A Wish Foundation. They were like, does your child want to use it because we have “too much money,” and we have to give it away somewhere. My parents were involved in advocacy for disabled children. That’s why the foundation got their number. My parents asked me what I want to do. I knew that I wanted to be in theater by then, so I told them can I have a summer course at NYU, and they were like no, it’s not how the foundation functions, so I asked for a seven day trip to New York instead, and then [at the time] the revival of Rent was running, so I got to see that because, basically Rent is the reason I’m doing this. During those three months [when] I couldn’t even make it through a school day, Rent helped me a lot with coping with my friend’s death and being different.
MT: Is that how you got into theater?
PP: Yeah. That was when I fell love with theater and started considering doing it as a career. But at that point, all I was doing was watching theater-related videos on YouTube and reading theater blogs. The access to theater in Hong Kong was scarce, especially for a person with low-income.
MT: How did you find it?
PP: “Glee.” I was watching “Glee.” [At the time,] “Glee” was broadcasting in Hong Kong, and I discovered Rent when they did a cover of one of the songs.
MT: Oh, okay. And then, since that trip, how then did you cater your public school education to a point where you were able to get into college here in the US?
PP: So after I came back to Hong Kong from New York—
MT: So this was 9th grade, or 10th grade? 10th grade?
PP: Yes. After my therapy. I knew I wanted to be here, so I started looking at what I can do to make it happen. On the financial side, I found the Sir Edward Youde Memorial Overseas Scholarship for Disabled Students, and applied. In regard to the curricular and academic requirements, I self-studied the SAT, on top of my regular education. I remember I bought two copies of the Princeton Review and registered at the SAT exams they have in Hong Kong. Then asked my teachers to help me generate an English translation of my transcript and write me recommendation letters, which you don’t need for university admission in Hong Kong. They were looking at me weird, but they did it, and I got all my things to Marymount online, and got accepted. A couple months later, I found out that I got the scholarship, and that made it possible for me to accept the offer from Marymount, because it was completely impossible without a scholarship.
MT: Right. And even with the scholarship, you had a timeframe, right?
PP: Yeah, the scholarship would only provide for me for three years. They are open to giving me a interest free loan for a fourth year, but a loan is a loan, not a scholarship, so I graduated college [in] three years.
MT: And the scholarship, was it a set amount of money or was it just, we will provide everything for three years?
PP: It was a set amount of money. It was I think about $32,000 a year, so it doesn’t cover everything. My parents took out a loan for the rest.
MT: Granted, you were here for college and you were in Hong Kong for elementary and high school, but how do you see the difference in the education systems?
PP: I can definitely see that where you get your education means a lot. If I’m a high school student here and I got [the] grades [that I got], I’d have more options in terms of colleges, I think. But my grades in Hong Kong meant nothing here. I got something like a 74 out of 100 GPA, which is pretty low, if you use the American standard, but in Hong Kong, I was the top of my class, and ranking was more important than score. So it’s really important where you get your education, and there is definitely a glass ceiling internationally, and it was a glass ceiling that can only be broken with money—paying for an education at private international schools. And when I was moving from elementary school to high school, my grades also meant nothing because I came from a special ed school. So I basically did not get into the best school that I could have, for my grades, so yeah, there’s definitely a parity, due to the bias that disabled children get “special and nicer treatments.”
American kids just have more freedom with their education. It’s not unusual for you to take a psychology class or theater class or writing class in high school if you wanted to, and discover and pursue your interests early. However, [in Hong Kong] our class schedule is decided by the faculty, because of the culture is so that you’re stuck with certain kids and classes for the next six years of your life, and don’t care if you like it or not, or if it helps you develop to be a well-rounded person.
MT: I left after sixth grade—but I remember my older sister actually had to take physics, biology, and chemistry together for three years, or something like that. Here it’s–for my highly ranked public high school in Silicon Valley when I was there a decade ago, anyway–physics one year, chemistry one year and then biology one year, and I think you do it in the order you wanted to. I actually think from my high school you only had to take like two of the three or something like that, and I don’t think it was even for the whole year, but a semester or two quarters. Maybe things have changed, though. I think my sister had something like thirteen subjects a year in high school in Hong Kong. That’s typical, right? More or less?
PP: Something like that. Twelvish.
MT: And here it’s like five, and seven is a lot. I remember thinking, seven classes, that’s it, really?
PP: And classes are quarter or semester long here. In Hong Kong you don’t really have choices, they schedule everything for you–
MT: The entire year.
PP: They schedule your teacher for you, everything is completely decided for you. Just show up.
MT: What do you wish people knew about Asians or Asian-Americans—I guess Chinese Americans, and Chinese—that you wish they would stop confusing, or asking about?
PP: First of all, I think the biggest thing is that they have to know that not every Asian-looking person is from China. Chinese Americans and Chinese like me actually have really different experiences, and it’s dangerous for someone to generalize all of these experiences. I was just telling the writers of color in my writers’ group that if I sit in on an Asian-American writers’ group, the way I think is different from the way [American-born Chinese] think. It’s not the same thing. Chinese American, and Chinese who moved here, zero-generation, are not the same thing.
And, just ask. I don’t know how to describe it, but sometimes they’ll talk to you and they are really aware of the fact that they are talking to a Chinese person or Chinese American and then they’re just talking to a Chinese American about their experiences with China or other Chinese-American people you don’t even know instead of talking to a person with an array of life experiences.
MT: I really get that. I got rid of my accent early on and oh, the confusion. So similarly, what do you wish people knew about folks with different abilities that you wish they would stop asking about or confusing?
PP: To be honest, just ask. In a very scientific way, it’s a medical condition. There are so many variables in every body. I have cerebral palsy, and what I can do as a person with cerebral palsy versus another person with cerebral palsy is completely different. Our set of abilities are completely different. So if you’re confused, personally, I don’t mind that you ask. And yeah, just don’t make assumptions as to what I can or cannot do.
I have a friend who is having a house party in Brooklyn next Saturday and he was so nervous, he didn’t know if he should ask me or not because his house is not exactly accessible. So and I was like, just tell me if you want me to come, ask me to come and just tell me what the situation is because I’ve been living with it for 20 years and I probably know how to solve this problem or get around it. It’s just problem solving. The situation is not as awkward as you might make it.
MT: Can you talk about job opportunities as related to accessibility?
PP: I think there’s still a lot of work in terms of accessibility in the theater field, and the lack of accessibility of the offices and backstage areas of theatres directly limits my job opportunities. I think the front of house is usually accessible, not because of anyone with disabilities, but because of senior citizens and the enforcement of the ADA. But in terms of like administrative offices, I think that it’s still difficult for them to imagine a person with any kind of disability will work here alongside them as equal. So the physical inaccessibility is just one manifestation of that. I’ve been in accessible offices before, and in there I still felt like I’m not welcomed and I’m disrupting their space. So like, it’s just a matter of the industry not being able to imagine us working alongside them.
MT: Can you talk about the workshop you mentioned earlier? And I know you’re doing a few internships as well.
PP: So the workshop that I’m doing is from Rising Circle Theater Collective, called INKtank. We’re given 12 weeks to develop a full play that we’ve already sent in. It will be presented with a reading at the end of the program. We will be partnered with a professional director of color and professional actors, and it’s really awesome. I don’t know how much I can say publicly, but I think Raquel [Almazan] and Monet [Hurst-Mendoza] have really successfully made it into a people of color’s space. Every theater says that they want to “do diversity,” but like, you know it’s still a White space, where people of color are put into the position to educate and to defend, and this space is clearly a space for people of color, where we get to lead and heal from the traumas of being in certain White spaces. Because it was the first meeting, we weren’t talking about plays. We were just talking about being a person of color in the theater industry, how to deal with it, and that this program, even after we finish it, we will still have it as a map or as a resource for these kind of things. It’s like the best thing ever.
MT: That’s amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before.
MT: Although, Musical Theater Factory is pretty good at that. But yeah, it’s hard to come by. Can you talk about your internships?
PP: At The Play Company, I’m the literary specialist and I research about the plays that come by and I provide dramaturgical support whenever they need it, because I can, as someone who can speak Chinese, to provide translation support. I’m in my first week, so I don’t have much to share yet.
I also have an internship at PEN America, which is awesome. They’re really interesting and intelligent people doing really important jobs. My job there is as an administrator, and I enter a lot of membership info. They have the Free Expression program, which just released a report on Chinese media censorship, so I get to help out a lot with that just because I’m a person in my office who can read Chinese. I also get to go to really cool parties for writers–a lot of networking, a lot of international work, which I really like. They’re not an organization that is constantly promoting diversity as some sort of buzzword, but the diversity is just there, because they’re looking at the world, and the world of literature internationally, and nationally. They’re looking at the whole thing.
MT: Can you talk about Pan-Asian Rep? I know you were selected last year.
PP: I was selected for the 2017 Pan-Asian Rep NuWorks Festival. My ten minute play got chosen, and it was my college thesis in a way. The assignment was, in first semester of my senior year—although I didn’t really officially have a senior year—I was to be partnered with a professor, cast Marymount students, and put on a short play in the black box theater. So I did that. Then my director submitted my play to Pan-Asian Rep NuWorks Festival, and I got in.
I’m really glad that I was unusually vocal about the casting process when I did my casting at Marymount. I stood strong that I would hold an equitable audition, and cast students of color only, because they usually won’t do that. On the official casting call, it’s like, “We are open to considering all actors,” you know that way of thinking? All actors?
MT: Oh, yes.
PP: Yes. We did the play and it was supposed to be the end of it. I mean, we were lucky to have a great team of people, and to be able to receive a second production in a professional setting. And those two actors [I casted] are just phenomenal, [even though] they’re sophomores. So I’m really glad that when the play got accepted, I actually got to give the opportunity to those two actors of color who are sophomores, who are constantly underappreciated, to do a professional production before any of their classmates can get out there and do something.
MT: That’s amazing.
PP: So I’m very glad that I made that happen for them. Also, I don’t know if it’s related, but the actress in my production never got cast at Marymount, ever. But the semester following that production, she got cast. So…
MT: That’s amazing. Thank you so much for chatting with me.