Do you Sleep with a Brick on your Nose?! Was what my brother’s friend in the 5th grade asked me on the school bus one morning. He subsequently would press playfully on my brother’s nose or compare the width of his nose to my brother’s nose to mine. He was sort of the class clown and didn’t seem to have a demeaning agenda, just a playful one. However, I was mortified and with each morning school bus ride, I quietly snuck deeper and deeper towards the back of the bus to avoid him.
Looking back on this, I wonder if that boy had a crush on me; teasing me to get my attention- not in the most PC way of course. That experience, although not impairing my childhood life of art, piano lessons, field hockey, swimming, volunteering, sleepovers, and mall trips; may be a foreshadowing of the seemingly harmless comments and questions relating to myself as a Chinese-American.
I was born to immigrant parents from Hong Kong and Caton, China, who ran the first Chinese-American restaurant in my hometown of Scotia, NY. They bought the old Gibbon’s Diner on the main street in 1977 and turned it into the Dragon Garden, right across from the second-run movie theater; a perfect date night. It cemented my family as the token Chinese family (not to mention big businessman and community supporter- as my father aspires to be) and offered the perfect suburban environment and their realization of the American Dream. On the weekends my mother would drive us around in her mini-van to visit the restaurants of other Chinese people she knew. My brothers and I would hang around the cushioned booths, play on our game boys, and leave with a handful of free pastel mints.
I only took one year of Sunday Chinese School, we boycotted the 45 minute drive to the one school that offered lessons, because we wanted to stay home and watch Sunday Morning Cartoons. I never felt too different than my other friends, being that Scotia is a small community. What was different as I grew older and came to realize, was the sometimes messy communication, cultural ideals, and generational knowledge in my household of my chinese-only speaking Grandmother, ELS parents, and children with slowly diminishing Catonese skills. Some things required more time and patience.
My mother rarely invited guests over for dinner, saying that they would not eat “our food.” And she was right; through her restaurant, she knew what Americans liked. She is able to compartmentalize what is Chinese, and what is American. I don’t know still how integrated she feels, but having that microcosm of Chinese restaurants and an immediate Chinese community and workplace, provided the needed support for an immigrant. And it’s true, I still don’t know if a lot of people I know would be comfortable with the eyes of a fish head, or duck and chicken feet at the table, the mild and slimey texture of perfectly steamed chicken, the requisite “bone bowl” to spit out the bones, a last course of herbal chicken oyster longan soup. To this day there is no greater joy that watching my mother butcher live lobsters on our kitchen floor, for Cantonese-style ginger and scallion Lobster for Christmas dinner.
College was the first time where I met other young adults who were born to immigrant parents as well. Not particularly with a Chinese background, but friends from Central and South America, Europe, other asian countries. Their language skills, knowledge, and ethnic pride were far superior than mine. Suddenly I was “not Chinese enough.” Living together in the dorms, sharing different stories with understanding minds, gave me the thirst to learn with an open my mind.
After living for the past 13 years in New York City, it is enlightening, challenging, mystifying, and a neverending learning experience, in regards to my ethnicity. I am back to “being Chinese” mostly- and not by my will. In a city where a lot of the population is from somewhere else- geographically or nationality, my face is easily lumped into the same. I find myself trying to represent Scotia more that China- and rightfully so, no? Eating my way through many Chinese provinces with New York’s many restaurants, I realized that Chinese food is more than the Cantonese food I grew up with. Working in customer service and education in various NYC museums and institutions provides for every type of interaction, question, or statement. Getting my Master’s in Fine Arts at CUNY Queens College in Flushing made me feel guilty when I forgot about the Chinese New Year. I called my mother, drilling her about this and other holidays, and how I should celebrate them. As an adult, how does one create and maintain tradition and culture, when they’ve never been in a Chinese-driven environment socially. Are these cultural practices the defining factors of what makes one Chinese?
It wasn’t until I was 32, more than 20 years after that incident on the school bus, that I chose to speak about it through my artwork. Something that was forgotten but still in the back of my mind. It was terrorizing presenting something so emotionally charged. How can I truly talk about the nuances and intricacies as a Chinese-American with fine arts? What’s at the core is essentially my direct personal experiences. They are challenging, funny, strange, eye-opening and truthful. It requires a lot of bravery. My experience is probably no different than others’ experiences, but my interpretation and voice is.