Film Review Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey by Elizabeth Liang

By Danau Tanu

Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey an anthem for those who grow up internationally, but its genius has thus  far escaped the attention of the international  school community. Elizabeth Liang’s gripping film  and performance is a godsend for international  educators grappling to find creative ways to  address difficult, complex issues relating to  racism and inequalities that speak to both  children and adults.

Written and produced by Liang, Alien Citizen  opens with a booming voice taunting her on  stage to answer the unanswerable questions that third culture kids and mixed-race children  often hear: “Where are you from? … What are  you?” It then follows Liang’s childhood of moving  internationally with her “Guate”-Chinese-Irish European-hodgepodge-American family, partly  to escape the civil war in Guatemala in the 1970s  at first, and then later as a “business brat” when  Xerox posted her father up, down, and across the  Atlantic Ocean. 

Liang—the sole actor in Alien Citizen—seamlessly  switches from one character to another as she  humorously unearths a hoard of deep-seated pain that many children experience but have no  words with which to express. After moving to  Fairfield County in Connecticut, USA, she notices  that “Nobody on TV looks like me, except maybe  Spock on the Star Trek reruns!” Just as Liang is  feeling culturally displaced and needing a sense  of belonging, she begins losing her Spanish, the  language that connected her to her father’s large  and loving extended family in Guatemala.

But she does not stop there. Liang deftly places  those same issues that have been covered myriad  times in expat memoirs squarely in the middle of  a world riddled with social inequalities spanning  across centuries. Liang spares no one from  critique, not even herself.

In a poignant scene, after trying and failing to  speak Spanish to their housekeeper, five-year-old  Liang takes a broom in an attempt to hit their housekeeper, Filomena, while her older brother tries to stop her. My own doctoral research shows that when children are overwhelmed by  language barriers, they sometimes express it in  ways that look like the behavioural problems of a  spoiled, privileged brat, such as by punching their  classmate or yelling “Shut up!” at their teacher  (Tanu, 2018). 

It is not lost on the adult Liang that “Filomena  left her home in the highlands of Guatemala” out  of poverty to take care of her privileged family in  “the coldest, unfriendliest town in New England.”  Later, Liang alludes back to Filomena as she  makes fun of her beloved Chinese Guatemalan  family elders who were horrified by the dark  tan she had picked up from playing in the sun  at her next home in Panama because they were  “obsessed” by anti-indigenous colorism (see  Knight, 2015).  

Liang’s brilliance lies in her ability to convey the  child’s deep sense of loss at the exact same time  she exposes the absurdity of the prejudice borne  out of vast global inequalities. While many with  similar international childhoods to hers struggle  to go beyond addressing identity or transition  issues in generic terms, it is not so for Liang, who  is far too talented and fiercely honest for such a  myopic focus.  

A teenage Liang realises how tender she feels  towards Egypt when she witnesses a group of  Egyptian boys playing soccer appearing helpless in the face of one European boy taunting them  with “fake Arabic.” Liang delicately addresses the ambivalent feelings that emerge when social  class hinders a child’s desire to build meaningful relationships with the local community. 

In high school, Liang becomes “excellent friends”  with Hamed, a local student who does not “speak  any language without a foreign accent”—not even Arabic, thanks to his international schooling— and seems out of place in Egypt despite having  never lived anywhere else. According to the  psychologist Dr. Doug Ota, “stayers” are often  forgotten by school transition programs even  though they are repeatedly left behind by “expat” classmates who come and go as though through  a revolving door (2014).  

The goofy Hamed became my favourite character  even though the Grease-loving Liang (Grease,  the film) won’t dance with him at a school dance  because he is not “cool”—never mind the fact  that the teenaged Liang was just as awkward— because… high school is high school. Be prepared  to cry and laugh (hard) at the same time.

Elizabeth Liang in Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey, ©️HapaLis Prods.

In all this, Liang never loses sight of the child  bewildered by the constantly changing world  around her. As she takes the audience with her  from Guatemala to Costa Rica, the US, Panama,  Morocco, and Egypt, we see a young child  gradually shut down from “transition fatigue” as  she turns into a teenager in her sixth country. All  the while, her adolescent body is subjected to  regular sexual harassment that she could neither  fend off nor comprehend at that age.  Covering everything from mobility, identity  confusion, racism, class prejudice, and sexism  to eating disorders, Liang distills the essence of  these difficult and deeply personal experiences  and presents them in a manner no scholar  possibly could. And she does it with superb  comic timing.

The film is a dynamic viewing experience thanks  to director Sofie Calderon and editor Daniel  Lawrence. Shot at different angles in front of a  live audience, the energy of the performance and  the editorial pacing are top notch. Audio effects  enhance the atmospheric storytelling while  visual effects add welcome texture, with scenes  changing to the sound of a Xerox photocopy  machine.

What’s more, because Liang is a master  storyteller of childhood emotions, international  school students will instinctively pick up on the  complex issues more than you might anticipate.  In fact, Alien Citizen gives voice to what these  students already know but are rarely invited to  talk about. Indeed, it is a film that you “feel” as  much as you see. 

It was a crisp evening in March 2014 near  Washington D.C. when I reluctantly dragged  my jet-lagged body to the hotel ballroom of  the Families in Global Transition conference to  watch a live performance of Alien Citizen for the  first time. I had initially thought, “What can one  woman in a black T-shirt and jeans possibly do on  a near-empty stage?” I entered late and slumped  into my chair. 

But by the time the stage lights faded on Liang to  signal the end, a third of the 142 attendees were  bawling out our eyes.  

“It hit you hard, huh?” It was the American  international school educator who had been  sitting next to me. He looked amused. I was a  dripping wreck of snot while he looked curiously  as fresh as when he first sat down. So, I glanced  around. The ones sobbing seemed mostly to  be those who identified as having spent their  childhoods “growing up among worlds.”  

It was the first time we had heard our stories told  with such compassion and brutal honesty.  

*This review was first published in the EARCOS 

About the Film 

Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey is available on DVD  and digital streaming in Individual (home use) and  Institutional versions: www.aliencitizensoloshow. com. The DVD includes a Q&A with Elizabeth Liang  and director Sofie Calderon, and interviews with  Liang’s brother and parents. The Institutional DVD  and Streaming License both include a digital toolkit  with over 35 clips from the film, each followed by  questions to promote learning and discussion. 


Knight, D. (2015). What is colorism? Teaching  Tolerance, Fall(51), 45-48. Retrieved from colorism 

Ota, D.W. (2014). Safe Passage: How Mobility Affects  People and What International Schools Can Do About It.  Stamford, Lincolnshire: Summertime Publishing.  

Pollock, D., Van Reken, R.E. & Pollock, M. (2017).  Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (3rd ed.).  Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. (See also  

Tanu, D. (2018). Growing Up in Transit: The Politics  of Belonging at an International School. New York:  Berghahn Books. TanuGrowing 

About the Author 
Danau Tanu, PhD, is the author of Growing Up in  Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International  School. She is currently in Tokyo as a Japan  Foundation Research Fellow at the Waseda University  Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies (WIAPS). Learn more  about Danau’s work at or via  Twitter/Instagram @danautanu.

About Elizabeth Liang  
Elizabeth Liang (aka Lisa) is an actress, writer,  producer, speaker, and workshop leader. Her one woman show, Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey, toured  internationally and is now an award-winning film. Lisa  is an autobiographical storytelling workshop leader;  published essayist; co-host of the longest-running  podcast on the multiracial experience; bilingual  actress on stage and screen; and keynote speaker  on intercultural and intersectional storytelling.  She grew up in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama,  Morocco, Egypt, and Connecticut, and is a graduate of  Wesleyan University. 


Instagram: @hapalis 



LinkedIn: liang-intercultural/

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