Real Gals is a series in collaboration with GlamourGals, a nonprofit that encourages teens to volunteer in senior homes across the country. The series features profiles on women of all ages, with a special focus on older women—the things they're accomplishing and how they've made their mark on the world.
Anna Michaels-Gaudreau grew up in Shanghai and Hong Kong and traveled with her family to California when she was about 9. She grew to love acting and eventually followed her passion to New York City, where she's lived for nearly 50 years. Today, she's a poet, a drama coach, an adjunct professor of behavioral science at New York Institute of Technology and a writer. (Her recently published book Acting Drama in English is being used as a textbook at Shanghai's Tongji University). She also frequently travels to China to teach Drama in English classes to students there. Here, she talks about the difficulties of coming to America as a young girl, trying to make it in New York in the ’70s as a single mom and her thoughts on aging.
On her parents landing in Shanghai
Anna's father was Italian and her mother was Russian. Her mother was born in Harbin, China (Anna's maternal grandfather was an engineer contracted to work on the railroad there), and Anna's father was a ship captain. "My father actually got boosted up in position because a lot of people didn’t want to travel through Chinese waters. They’re rough and moody and they have their season of typhoons, so he became a full captain much sooner than he might have had he stayed in Italy. And then he never looked back; he never wanted to move back to Italy. My mother only wanted to come to America."
On growing up in Shanghai
"In my childhood, I spent more time with my nanny than my mother. My parents were always doing things, playing mah–jongg, going to luncheons, going to socials or shopping. My father was in and out because he was at sea. I’ll never forget my birthday one year, around when Mao Zedong's Red Army had moved into Shanghai. My mother came to pick me up from school in a rickshaw. I was going to have the rest of the day off because we were going to an exclusive club, Cercle Sportif Francais. Parts of it are still there today, preserved within a hotel. They had fantastic social dinner shows there and tea time. I would swim in the swimming pool there. It was very elegant. My mother had a cake in a box and a gift for me: a little army-type calendar, like a Rolodex, a desk calendar. I was looking through that and there was an air-raid warning and we were hustled into the basement of a nearby shop. The next thing I knew we were home, it was dark and you couldn't have the lights on past a certain time. There was a curfew, too. I was a child, so I didn’t really know that it was a bad or good thing except for the air-raid warning."
On transitioning to life in America as a young girl
Anna traveled with her mother by ship to San Francisco in the early 1950s. (Her parents divorced about a month later. Anna saw her father frequently though; he was always in her life.) Coming from Shanghai and Hong Kong, Anna knew several languages at the time, including Cantonese, Mandarin and Russian fluently, and a little bit of English. Adjusting to American life was a bit bewildering. "I was always one step behind or one step ahead, depending on the topic or philosophy. [The fact that I was exposed to different cultures] was good on one hand, but the first couple of years I was very twisted in America because I didn’t know my place. I came here in a very bad time, during the McCarthy scare and many of us Russians suffered under verbal attacks. A lot of people changed their names or shortened them. I remember we helped people in Russia who were struggling for clothing and other items: My mother and aunt would send underground care packages to them. It was a very different world in America. It’s coming back to that world, by the way [laughs]. So coming to America at about 9, you’re confused about language, food, ethics, acceptance, acculturation, multiculturalism. You get to a point where you want to hide who you are so you can acculturate with the rest of society and be accepted. That was my problem. I spoke different languages, I had a British accent and people just made lots of fun of me. They still do probably [laughs]. Some people like you, some people don’t. It’s ok. I’ve always been a little bit of a weirdo—I’ve always been out of the box a little bit. But then you look at my background and that’s really correct; I didn't grow up in Kansas with the Sunday dinner and church choir service."
On getting married at a young age
"I married immediately after high school. I was just trying to be American. You get married, you have the white dress, you're a virginal bride. I think all my friends were older than me and they were happy and settled and had their houses. And so, of course, you want to do the same thing that Betty Jones is doing. I got separated from him by choice; he didn't want a divorce. I felt that I had outgrown him emotionally, psychologically. I wanted to get back into theater. The biggest regret I have was [marrying young] because I backed up my life for so long—I was more interested in theater classes, workshops and that kind of thing. So I dillydallied and didn't go to university for a long time, like in my 30s. And I was raising two children and I couldn't act and have children. It wasn't until a year before my divorce that I got back into a community theater and got cast in the lead in 1967."
On leaving her life in California and being a single mother in NYC
"Once I moved to New York, my ex-husband wasn't supporting me, so, little did I know, I thought I would be star tomorrow, but it wasn't that way [laughs]. I went sort of backwards because in California I had a home with a pool and a maid once a week and I was playing bridge. I was doing all those things at 22, 23. So the blunt reality of making a living and supporting two children alone in New York City... My parents helped here and there, but they weren't wealthy like they were in China. When you come back out into the world and you're doing theater and it's all glorious—but when the theater isn't paying you and you're not collecting unemployment from the last play you did... The reality is you still have children that have to eat, go to school, get dressed. I'm not the type to owe anybody anything. I didn't go shopping before I paid the rent. It's not my way. You have to be responsible for children and some rearing the best way you can and school and tuitions and everything else. It was economically not the best move getting divorced, because then we become a one-paycheck family. It was a continual little struggle to survive—I could have moved back to California, of course, but I really did love New York. It opened its doors to me, never did close them. I call it my lucky city. It's really shaped me in a lot of ways."
On going back to China after almost 50 years
"I had the opportunity in the last 15 years to go back to China to teach Chinese kids, to give back to my motherland, to see what my core is and see myself as a little girl through their eyes. In a way I was mature enough to handle all of it [by then]. When people talk about 'you're exactly where you're supposed to be...' Well, I had been trying to go back to China for a long time—there was a problem with this or that or a visa—and then one year it was available and I did it. Then I started teaching there. You know how you're born in Iowa, you leave there, you do 100 things and then suddenly you go back to your real home—the feeling's indescribable, unless you've taken that long journey. It was a long time from when I left there at around 9 and when I went back in my late 50s. It was a joy to find out who I really am. Of course, I've always been in touch with my Chinese people here, in some way they found me or I found them through the food or being drawn back to the culture, the New Year or the Mid-Autumn Festival. The first time I went back, the customs officers saw my passport, which says "birthplace China," and they all had big smiles, like 'Welcome back!'"
"Aging is difficult if you think of yourself as 25, which I do, until a particular thing makes me aware that I am what I am and cannot do some of the things I'm used to doing. It's upsetting to a person as outgoing and forceful as I am. Aging in some societies is frowned upon, particularly in America. In every other country I've traveled to, especially China, my age is welcome and looked on as a treasure, but not so much in America. What's disheartening is the disrespect—treating seniors like they don't matter or [like they just] took a stupid pill, or like they can't dance, sing or be merry. To all of us aged chickens, and roosters, I say: 'Carry on like you mean it and the hell with the rest. And keep on dancing!'"
Photographs provided by Anna Michaels-Gaudreau