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Playwright who lost mother to plastic surgery malpractice explores impossible Vietnamese beauty standards in solo show

Features like a high nose bridge were highly valued when Vietnam was under French colonial rule.
Image: Vietnamese Beauty Standards
After her mom died following plastic surgery, playwright examines impossible Vietnamese beauty standards in solo show.Courtesy of Susan Lieu

On the morning of Sept. 27, 1996, Susan Lieu was arguing with her mom about trying out for her school's volleyball team.

Joining the team would give her a way to hang out with her friends, she said. But her mom wanted her to focus on school. She also didn't want her daughter to participate in extracurricular activities because they always cost money.

Lieu grew frustrated and recalled saying “I hate you!” as she left home for school. She didn't know that morning would be the last time she'd speak to her mom.

Her mom headed to a plastic surgery clinic that day to undergo a tummy tuck, chin implant and rhinoplasty. Two hours into the surgery, her mom lost oxygen to her brain. Five days later, while she was in a coma, she died.

“I’ve had so much regret and so much shame for that for decades,” Lieu said about their last conversation. She was 11 years old at the time and nobody in her family ever wanted to talk about what had happened.

Lieu, now 34, unpacks her story of loss, grief and healing in a solo show she wrote called “140 LBS” — a reference to her and her mom's weight — which has been on a 10-city tour throughout the last four months. The show premiered in February 2019 in Seattle, but Lieu has been performing previous versions of it since November 2017.

When she first performed her show, it ran for 25 minutes, and centered around the day of her mother's death and her quest for revenge.

The human brain can go without oxygen for less than five minutes before cells begin dying, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. But Lieu's mom's brain was without oxygen for 14 minutes before the doctor called 911, she said.

Lieu spent four years researching the surgeon under whose knife her mother died. And when she first began publicly telling her story, her goal was to avenge her mom's death.

“But the more I shared about it and when I started performing it, I realized that this story isn’t just for my own grieving and healing, but it’s actually for everyone,” she said.

Lieu's show explores multiple themes and topics, such as parent-child relationships, intergenerational trauma, body insecurity and shame. It also tells the story of how her mom pushed for the family to migrate to the U.S. after the Vietnam War, and examines the ideal of Vietnamese feminine beauty.

That ideal can be traced back to Vietnam's colonial history, Nhi T. Lieu, an independent scholar based in Austin, Texas whose expertise is in immigration, gender and Asian American studies, and is not related to Susan Lieu, said.

Nhi Lieu noted that features like a high nose bridge were highly valued when Vietnam was under French colonial rule; and light skin has always been valued because it is an indicator of being of a higher class.

In the 1980s and 1990s, after thousands of Vietnamese had already fled to the United States following the Vietnam War, breast augmentation was a popular procedure in American culture that Vietnamese immigrants and refugees desired, she said. She added that those decades also saw the emergence of a fitness craze and a push toward dieting and slenderness.

Feminists and scholars have argued that the choice to undergo plastic surgery is empowering for women, Nhi Lieu said. Yet at the same time, it can come at the cost of death and disfigurement, she added.

“I argue it was also this way for them — at a deeper psychological level — to metamorphosize from this refugee subject that was escaping war to somebody who is grappling with, 'I’m a survivor and I’m now able to blend in,'” she said.

Since Susan Lieu wrote the first version show in 2017, it has evolved into a full-length, 100-minute production called “Over 140 LBS” that premiered Feb. 6 in Seattle. In this newest version, Lieu places more focus on her family's dynamic and dysfunction, and less on what happened the day her mom died. It delves into themes covered in previous versions of the show, including intergenerational trauma and beauty standards. But this time, Lieu, who is just one month away from giving birth, is exploring them through the lens of pregnancy.

“Everyone has dysfunction, but also I think there’s so much strength and power we can draw from our family,” she said. “I show what my parents went through as Vietnamese boat people, and how we can continue to support each other when things get hard.”

As Lieu wraps up her 10-city tour in Seattle, she said her pre-performance warmup routine has changed from sprinting and holding balancing poses to slow dancing with her baby while holding her body — her mom’s last gift to her, she said.The routine allows her to slow dance with three generations and helps her firmly ground herself in the story she's telling, she said.“I have no theater training but I’m able to create something that really connects with people’s hearts and minds. And I’m doing that because it’s telling the truth. I’m doing that because my mom is out there helping me. “So I hope I’ve redeemed myself from the last conversation,” she said.