In the past few months, I’ve been reclaiming my love for art–literature, films, visual art, fashion, and everything that two years of the International Baccalaureate program has detached myself from.
I’ve no doubt relished in art about experiences that I do not share (I finally read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns) and consequently explored new perspectives and become present to the various privileges I have. Nonetheless, I find myself inevitably returning to Asian-American artists. In doing so, I’ve discovered that my connection toward Asian-American art does not stem from my ability to relate to its content–after all, I’ve indulged in countless books and films about the high school experience and the struggles of being a girl. But what Asian-American art does is unravel me, leave me raw and bare, expose my facades, and force me to deal with my identity in a unique way.
The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu is a must-read for everyone, especially if you are Asian-American. The short story details a magical realist perspective of a half-Asian boy named Jack whose mother crafts origami animals and blows them to life. While reading, I had to put The Paper Menagerie down and just sob. I cried for Jack, for his mother, for the origami animals, for myself, but most importantly for my mother. Liu’s short story confronted me with how seemingly small actions, like my refusal to eat my mother’s food, my brother’s rejection of Chinese school, and my recent lash out at my mother when I said I could not wait to leave my home, have gradual but significant impacts on my immigrant parents. I found myself asking, what else had I done to chip away at my mother? And in that moment, I realized, every time she broke me, I broke her two times more.
Unlike most of my friends, The Farewell did not leave me shedding waterfalls. I have not experienced death within my close family, I’m arguably not close with any of my grandparents, and frankly, I thought the movie was absolutely hilarious as opposed to tragic. But one scene resonated with me–when Billi is sitting on the floor of her grandmother’s home and explains her anger at her parents’ decision to move to America, I am reminded of my own childhood experience with moving and leaving a life I had just become comfortable with (albeit, it was 30 minutes away, but 11-year-old me was devastated). Though Billi’s complaints are valid, what remains unknown is, what about her parents? How do they feel about moving to the United States, away from everyone they have ever loved? Again, I’m forced to confront. My parents, like those of many of my friends, fell victim to the myth of America’s splendor. They watched from afar as their friends became wealthy and famous while they could no longer move up the ladder of the corporate world, and as business boomed in China but stagnated in America. They could leave and return. But I keep them grounded here–and in that way, I am a burden.
Perhaps what Asian-American art has taught me is not about myself. It does not reaffirm the difficulty of navigating the dichotomy between the East and the West, nor the battle with the model minority myth, and definitely not those long hours spent trembling with fear in Chinese class. Instead, The Paper Menagerie and The Farewell bring light to how the manifestation of my own struggles affect others. How my outspokenness makes invisible the subtle, opaque pain of my father and mother.
And I’m so genuinely sorry.