Globalism in the Era of Corona

Stefani Kuo

Since the beginnings of trade and travel, globalization has been the natural world progression. From China's Silk Road to the U.S. and China trade war, globalism has led to a natural increase in international exchange, competition, and interdependency despite its complications. I am a product of globalization. I am currently writing this from Taipei, where I have been hunkering down. I grew up in Hong Kong, spent my summers in Taiwan, and went to the United States for school when I was fourteen. Each year, I traveled to and from Asia to see my family. I speak four languages fluently, and when asked, I do not identify as Asian American but rather an Asian who has lived in America for many years and whose roots lie in Hong Kong and Taiwan. When I was in third grade, SARS hit Hong Kong. For months, my siblings and I were quarantined at home, and my parents balanced working from home with having to home-school their young children. And 17 years later, COVID-19 hit.

Globalism is not just about travel and trade. It is also the internet, the interconnected nature of our economies, and the speed at which the virus has spread and erupted into a pandemic. It is the international exchange of ideas: diversity of university student bodies, international artistic collaborations, and tourism. With the virus's spread, particularly in the West, we saw the exponential rise in nationalism, xenophobia, and racism. This is not a new trend, unfortunately, but rather a magnification of what has already been happening over the past few years.

Having first been identified in Wuhan, China, the virus has been called the "Chinese virus" and "Wuhan virus," instead of COVID-19, names that have resulted in violent racism towards Asians and Asian Americans all over the world. In March alone, Americans purchased over two million guns, the highest number since the FBI began collecting data in 1998. Governments are concerned about cybersecurity on platforms such as Zoom, which has since apologized but not offered a solution to its platform's security flaws. Countries have closed borders to foreign visitors and are increasingly concerned about and outraged against imported cases of the virus. And as of this week, the President of the United States has declared he will be pulling America's funding towards the WHO.

So, what does this pandemic mean for globalism? And for globally-minded artists such as myself?

As playwrights, we are told to continually evaluate who our target audience is. Who am I writing this play for? Where do I envision this piece being produced? And why? As an artist focused on writing multicultural stories in America, I am having to re-focus these questions and the collaborations I hope to find. This is not the first or last time that a pandemic will hit and affect our world. It happened in 1981 with AIDS, 2003 with SARS, 2009 with H1N1, 2012 with MERS, 2014 with Ebola, 2020 with COVID-19, and it will happen again. Each time, the human instinct has been and will be to self-preserve and veer away from globalism and interconnectivity—for good reason, given the danger of international travel and spread—but we must also consider the consequences of such fears.

This is a scary time for non-American artists in the U.S. What will this mean for artists on visas? For those telling international stories that may no longer be of interest in the coming years? And for those such as myself who have family abroad? What will become of international travel? Even within the U.S., what will become of bi-coastal artists who perhaps have taken the ability to work from city to city for granted?

This is a time not only of logistical concern for those who are not sure if they will be able to stay in the United States or travel out of it. It is also a time of violence towards cultures that are not our own. President Trump's declaration to pull funding from the WHO is not only an attempt to shift blame away from the White House. It is also an alarming continuation of an ongoing trend: American and global distrust of international organizations, support, and exchange. And though the news (which I continually try to avoid yet am drawn back to) looms far from our personal work, it is closer than ever to the worlds we are trying to create in our homes. 

In this time of quarantine, isolation, and a lack of face-to-face connectivity, how can we continue the spread of intellectual ideas? Of international stories? And how can we combat the fear of connectivity? Many organizations have made their shows or archives available online. Platforms such as the BBC, Alvin Ailey, the National Theatre, The Metropolitan Opera, and many more have offered ways to experience live performance online. But can we expand our lens to include non-Western narratives?

And in a time when many, myself included, feel as though they are unable to create theatre, or interact with it, especially online, can we encounter different art forms that are perhaps new to us? Aside from online recordings of live performances, what other genres and places can we explore? From watching foreign-language offerings on Netflix, to reading translations of foreign-language poetry, learning more about another tradition of performance, to appreciating music from another culture, I believe this is a time when we can all widen our lens as artists.

I do not think this is the death of globalism, but it may be a temporary regression. And it is one that will affect many of us who are wondering where our place is not only in America, but in the world. Taiwan, where I am currently based, is recognized by only 14 out of 193 United Nations member states. Though it has been one of the most successful nations at controlling the spread of the coronavirus, Taiwan does not belong to the World Health Organization and is not viewed even by its greatest ally, the United States of America, as a country. While I have long been aware of this distinction, I am no longer sure what this will mean for me, an artist looking to tell stories about Taiwan and Hong Kong in America. In this time of what feels like international violence towards Asia, one that is magnified by the lack of global recognition, I am no longer sure what it means to bring narratives from the East to the West. Our physical health and safety are important, but so is our mental wellbeing, and part of that includes the burden many of us international artists carry to tell our stories from abroad.

This is a difficult time for artists. Many of us have become unemployed, have had gigs canceled, productions postponed, and lives put on hold. But it is also a time when the arts are sustaining so many in isolation. From podcasts to online concerts, virtual readings to Netflix binges, culture is at the heart of how our world will make it through this pandemic (along with better governmental leadership, redistribution of resources for those in need, and a greater commitment to our civic responsibilities). While it may be helpful to some, I do not think this is a time when we necessarily need to produce work. This is not, for most folks, an artists' retreat, but a time of great stress and transition. Productivity, a result of the capitalism that has led to our hierarchical society today, may not be easy or possible at this moment. But I do think the sharing of stories is. As is the search for stories outside of our own spheres.

I want to urge us all to keep looking for new stories outside of what may feel comfortable, easy, or normalized. In a time when everything is online, we can look for international collaborations, learn about other cultures and other people's struggles. We can adjust the times of readings or workshops to hours when those in other time zones and continents may be able to participate. We can consider how our stories might affect those thousands of miles away, and remember that although we are isolated, we are not alone in our struggle. We can not only watch and read foreign films and books but also push further to learn more about those narratives and the histories behind them. I urge us to stay awake, to keep our eyes and hearts wide open. Art has been and always will be critical as a reflection of the society we live in. When we emerge from this pandemic, art will be more important than ever. And the knowledge and tools we continue to give ourselves in this time will determine the kind of work we create. It will be the beginning of a new era, and one that I hope will continue to expand and not narrow, ask questions and not become resigned to the status quo.

About the author

Stefani Kuo

Stefani Kuo (郭佳怡) is a playwright/performer and native of Hong Kong and Taiwan. She received her B.A. from Yale and is an MFA Playwriting Candidate at the Yale School of Drama. Currently based in New York, Stefani has worked in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Berlin, Provence, and the U.S.

She has been an awardee of the Jerome fellowship, finalist for the National Playwrights Conference, Jerome fellowship at Lanesboro Arts Centre, SPACE on Ryder Farm, Van Lier New Voices Fellowship, NAP Series, DVRF Playwrights' Program, semi-finalist for the Page 73 playwriting fellowship, Princess Grace Playwriting Fellowship, and the Ground Floor at Berkeley Rep. 

As a performer, she was most recently seen in Bedlam Theatre Company’s six-women production of King Lear at Bristol Riverside Theater Company, PA.

She is fluent in English, French, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Her work in translation and non-fiction involve all four languages, and have appeared in China Hands, and the New York Times. She is currently commissioned to write a play for Roundhouse Theater Company in D.C. which will be produced in the spring of 2021.

She is represented as a playwright by Kevin Lin at CAA and Jacob Epstein at Lighthouse Management.