Never let me slip, cause if I slip, then I’m slippin’

My tumble down a full flight of stairs the other day at the museum had to be about something. I had just come back from getting a coffee and some pastries for my colleagues. Walking briskly as one does through a space in which they’re exceedingly familiar, I approached the stairs and noticed a new staff member standing there, waiting for the elevator. Wanting to make her feel welcome, I offered an uncharacteristically jovial, “Hi! How’re you doing?” Her response came back muffled against the industrial grumbling of our barely-used elevator.

I remember thinking how incongruous this scene was (her newness and the medieval sound of the elevator), but I kept going and took a step towards the edge of the stairs. I felt my dress shoes, wet from the rain, slip under me. I then tried desperately to land the next step, but completely missed it and was somehow spun 180 degrees as I began toppling over, my butt hitting first at the edge of a stair. Coffee splashed up and rained down on my shirt and face. I noticed the skylight swirling around – a cinematic dislocation from uprightness, like those scenes in Vertigo where San Francisco spins into distortion.

It was like being plunged into a new kind of medium, like trying to swim for the first time and losing your body in the force of the water. I felt each step hitting me somewhere on my lower back and butt, painlessly. And just as I allowed the exhilaration of the accident to wash over me, I landed with a cartoonish thud at the bottom of the stairs. My colleagues raced over in silent, mortified shock, asking how I was. A few laughed along with me as I noticed my left arm stretched upward, death-gripping the cup of coffee. It felt full.

As we sat around reconstructing the events over fruit tarts and coffee, suddenly the brutal poetry of the accident revealed itself. It turned out that Ryan Wong, our young, precocious assistant curator, was in the elevator that our new colleague was waiting for. Picture this: as Ryan was ascending effortlessly, protected and contained in a rising chamber, he heard me crashing clumsily downward, struggling to catch my balance and ultimately failing that. I became a stunt-double version of myself, abstracted and discontinued in the fall. I lost myself momentarily in the avalanche of my own making while Ryan was moved by the museum’s machinery. I sipped my coffee slowly at that thought, the coffee I fought gravity to save.


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.