Mochi’s 15 Most Influential Undergrads: Karmia Chan Cao, Creative Social Activist

Ten seconds after chatting with Karmia Chan Cao, I became one of her many admirers. Originally from Xinjiang, China and now a senior at Stanford University majoring in English with an emphasis in creative writing, Karmia is one of the most incredibly articulate people I’ve ever spoken with—which I guess shouldn’t come as surprise, as her writing talent and success in the theater realm at Stanford has garnered her great acclaim from critics. Karmia writes, scores, directs and performs her own musicals—which include Forgetting Tiburon, a play about a man who endures the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and most recently Abraham Niu and the Friendly Fires about a Chinese-Canadian soldier in Afghanistan who dies from friendly fire.

If that isn’t impressive enough, Karmia crafts musicals due to her strong desire to promote social change through community-based arts.

“While I may not be at the front of a picket line or seeking out a profession in public policy, I attempt to put out the most thought-provoking and emotionally engaging writing and productions in the same spirit,” says Karmia. “I have faith in the transformative power of art—that community-based art has unfathomable potential in bringing about sustainable social change.”

One might wonder where Karmia gets such fantastically original ideas and concepts for her plays. Like many of us, Karmia says her parents inspire her—but she can also draw inspiration from everything and anything. “My influences extend from tree-watching during a simple bike ride across campus to a news story about changing demographics for people with a particular disease,” she explained.

Aside from her plays, Karmia has used other means to advocate for social change. In a particularly courageous action, she wrote a letter to the editor at the Global Times regarding the violent Uygur riots in her native Xinjiang region in July 2009, an incident relatively unknown to the world that killed hundreds and also took the lives of some of her own relatives. Instead of remaining silent and simply accepting the tragedy, she chose to assertively and coherently shed light on an extraordinarily complex situation that the media had failed to accurately portray, and simultaneously urged that people look for the truth.

With a remarkable fortitude and wisdom that utterly belies her age, Karmia is truly someone for us to look up to and a terrific influence for anyone trying to make a difference in their community. “For the young girls who are trying to hear themselves in a sea of noise, negotiating a place under the sun for themselves, my advice is threefold: take your time, trust your gut, and aim to do what you love and learn to love what you do,” advises Karmia.

For now, Karmia remains actively involved at Stanford with STAMP (Stanford Theater Activist Mobilization Project) and the Asian American Theatre Project, the two groups that support her theater endeavors, and also with Oceanic Tongues, Stanford’s first Asian American Writers’ Workshop that aims to cultivate the literary talents of those interested in Asian American identity. She also plans to continue writing, composing, creating and serving through her senior year and beyond.

Says Karmia, “Writing is a way for me to problem solve; theater is an occasion for me to envision change. What does it mean to be this character in this world? Catharsis aside, let's find out.”

Photo courtesy of Karmia Chan Cao