Conversation With Sandra Tsing Loh

The multifaceted writer-performer offers the Loh down on physics, family, motherhood and life in the San Fernando Valley.
By Pamela J. Johnson
"Different media are good for telling different types of stories," said Loh, a USC College alumna.

Photo/Tatjana Loh
USC College alumna Sandra Tsing Loh is a Los Angeles-based humor writer, performer, musician and radio personality. She has authored several books, including the semi-autobiographical “A Year in Van Nuys.” She hosts the “Loh Down on Science” on KPCC-FM and is a pianist and composer. She also writes and performs solo shows. Tsing Loh earned her bachelor’s degree in physics at Caltech and did her graduate work in the English department and the College’s Master of Professional Writing Program. This fall, she will return to USC to co-teach a playwriting class in the MPW program.

PJJ: Why did you take a quantum leap from physics to writing?

STL: I went into science because my father is Chinese and in science. And he felt that we would starve on the street if we did not all become engineers, basically. So it was never a question that you wouldn’t go into a scientific field in school. Otherwise, a liberal arts major, that didn’t make sense to him. That wasn’t like an education at all. I wanted to get my physics degree then I would be free of my family obligations, then I could go and do something else.

PJJ: Still living in Van Nuys?

STL: It’s ranked by any number of hip, trendy magazines as one of the worst [cities to live in America], but it’s a great place to live. The media tell so many stories that are kind of unrelated to actual experience. We [her husband is a musician] don’t have endless funds that we could choose to live anywhere on the planet, anyway. Although we’re not totally hamstrung. But it’s not like we have the choice, let’s move to Big Sur.

PJJ: Why do you take such a multimedia approach to storytelling?

STL: Different media are good for telling different types of stories. I think that in this day and age, peoples’ attention is so scattered. There’s the Internet; there’s every kind of thing. And public radio has suddenly become a big thing. I think the forms change all the time. It’s always good to be flexible and to keep coming up with new and different kinds of genres that you’re writing in. It is an ever-changing time.

PJJ: You studied with the great funnyman Shelley Berman at USC in the 1980s, before his comeback on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” What did you learn from Berman and other USC professors?

STL: I grew up hearing Shelley Berman’s monologues. I thought he was always very precise and interesting and classic and funny. So [before I came to USC], I’ve always admired how precise he is with his language and performance. I was at USC for about six years. I really enjoyed college a lot. Too much perhaps. [English professor] Tom Gustafson was great and continues to be. I took a writing comedy class with Shelley Berman. Studied with T.C. Boyle there too. He also was a great influence and great help in getting me started in terms of just how to think about a career. I got a lot out of the Master of Professional Writing program. Met a lot of friends there. We brainstormed what we were going to do. How we were going to become writers. We were just trying to figure out how we could make a dent, how we could get our work out there.

PJJ: How has being the mother of a toddler and kindergartener changed your life?

STL: I wasn’t a person who always wanted to be a mother. My husband, who is about eight years older than me, was sure he wanted to be a parent. And I realized that we had been together for 10 years or so and that that would be the next leg of development. I’m not saying we were getting bored of each other. But, you know, a little. So we realized we wanted to have a family. So I just kind of jumped in not knowing much about kids at all. But it’s been great. It really forced me to engage in my community in a way that I wouldn’t have had to before. I think certainly schools have been a big part of that. And that’s such an amazing, evolving picture in Los Angeles in our public schools. It’s a huge time of extreme immigration patterns. That’s a challenging but really exciting time. There are people doing amazing stuff in public education right now in L.A. So it’s an exciting time to be a part of this city.

PJJ: You wrote and performed “Aliens in America,” largely based on your experiences as a daughter of a German mother and Chinese father, both immigrants. Do you hope your children who are of mixed race feel less like a stranger in their own land?

STL: The irony is, so I married a man from South Dakota, looks like a Norwegian. When I grew up in Malibu, I was the only brown kid in my school. Now my daughter who has bleach-blond hair is the only blonde in her kindergarten class of 22 because her school is heavily Hispanic, Armenian, Bangladeshi, Filipino and more; all great kids. But the demographics of the city, there aren’t that many blond children. When I see her little blond head disappearing into a sea of brunettes, part of me goes, ‘Oh I hope she doesn’t feel . . .’ Then on the other hand, all the kids look like me, her mother. So she doesn’t really notice anything is off. So I think it’s just a fascinating continuing story. That’s America.

PJJ: Whatever possessed you to play a midnight concerto for spawning fish on a Malibu beach?

STL: I thought I was going to be the next Laurie Anderson. Not really knowing what that meant. You know, I was in my 20s, I thought being a conceptual artist would be a cool thing, but it turns out to succeed in the fine art, high-art world, I am just more of a humorist. So I was not going to be the next Yoko Ono.