Chinese in America

Among the reading I did in preparation for my new job at the Museum of Chinese in America were Maxine Hong Kingston’s experimental memoir Woman Warrior and Iris Chang’s document of Chinese American history, Chinese in America. Hong Kingston’s book is entrenched in, and gives graphic voice to, the identity crisis that consumed Asian America back in the 70s. She weaves Chinese mythology, superstition, and ritual with the universal anxiety of being a minority in this country. Though Iris Chang’s historical account of Chinese people in America is told in sober tones, she allegedly committed suicide months after it was released, fearing the CIA was coming after her for exposing government mistreatment of Chinese over many generations. And certainly she was haunted by the ghosts of Nanking, stemming from the images and words that never escaped her body during work on Rape of Nanking, the milestone book about Japanese atrocities against the Chinese.

What’s important for me to take away from these texts is that ghosts and unknowable forces are always at work in the Chinese narrative. There is a spiritual force that drives Chinese identity, rooted as all belief systems are, in imagining and realizing order out of the cycles of construction and destruction inherent in nature. These passed-along, hybridized, personalized stories, myths, religions, superstitions and codes cut deeper and are much more mysterious than the tired conversations about the severity of Chinese parenting. These conversations, rehashed recently in the much-discussed “Tiger Mom” book and that article in New York magazine, reinforce the image of the Chinese as a robotically trained race, de-humanized to the point of being culturally vacant.

Cultural forms are derived from the spiritual going back to when religion alone presided over picture-making. And while Chinese in America are seen as quiet contributors in practical fields like science, technology and  finance, or service industries like laundry and restaurants, it’s the mystical side, the side that is obsessed with superstition and luck, that is so consumed with invisible forces that we have picnics in graveyards…It’s this side of us that will communicate outside of our communities that we are present in the shaping of new culture. It’s this side of us that will truly flip and tweak an American culture that’s ready for new ideas. And while money does buy us a space and staff, ultimately no amount of money can buy the meaning and relevance that’s already been built and that’s waiting to be defined for the future. Because these things are moving targets, as hard to pin down as ghosts, and they are continually being processed at 215 Centre Street and  70 Mulberry Street, where the spirits dwell in boxes upon boxes of our history. As my new boss Alice Mong asked of me in a rhetorical challenge before I started, “Who do YOU want to be?” And that’s exactly the right question to be asking.

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