From Asian American Comic Book by Wen-ti Tsen, AARW, pg. 63
blog post ended with us suspended on the ledge of a 3rd-story window of an old
Chinatown building. Cleaning up, after
finishing a mural on the building’s side depicting the coming of Asians to
Massachusetts, I espied below an older Chinese woman first noticing the image. She set her grocery bags down, and studied
the painting. I had a flash realization
of finding an audience and a form.
2-reelers of old, this ending was also the next beginning. I pondered: who was the rescuer, who the
up in the West, I looked for expression in the majority cultures I lived
in. Making art, I referenced Western
models and appropriated mass-media images in my paintings in critiquing the society I saw.
Some years before the mural, working in political circles, I was asked to show
paintings at a conference on emerging identity politics. When the African
American star speaker breezed through the show, I was astounded to hear her
pronounce to her retinue her take on the paintings: "Never seen so many white faces in one place in my
life!"It did not change my work, but it
made me reflect.
So later, working in
Chinatown and the timely appearance of the older Chinese passerby led me to touch on a sort of
Seeing this Chinese woman brought to mind some deep associations: first, of my mother (who died
recently, but is always around 55 in my mind) in body shape and carriage; then,
of the servant I hung out with, who taught me to iron and sew, whose cracked
fingers and purple burnt welts from washing and ironing first touched me. And, this passing woman, seemingly
overworked, heavily burdened, and looking for respite, evoked for me the China
I left, of the past. It was an
expanding circle of empathy that was propelled mostly by personal
connectedness, and partly racial.
see: were this race-based identification to play out on a national scale, for
example, in a country like China, were its animus to move a billion adherents, now exponentially those of WWI and WWII--it would be a terrifying prospect.
Asian Americans, living in the U.S., are a minority. They have faced a dominant
culture that, for centuries, offered them only two options: an entry, if the
men were obsequious and genial, and the women, submissive and pleasuring; or,
be ghettoized as sneaky, inscrutable and alien. The Asian American movement, from 1970s on, constructed its own views of their identities, with a new reading of history, and truer representations
of the lives of Asian Americans. And,
the people are valorized, thus, looking into mirrors: there is no more Suzie
Wong, yellow-faced Charlie Chan or buck-teethed Mickey Rooney.
nationalism and race-identity politics serve well as resistance correctives to
a race-based dominant culture. Yet, as
they are essentially reactive, and can turn separatist and reactionary, I do
not believe they are to lead us to a better world.
episode, too, is to end on a hanging note:
ago, returning to America after a 3-year stint teaching in Beirut, I could not
find a job. With our first-born due in
November, I spread my wares, and got hired by a preeminent billboard company. It was a union shop run on seniority. With no experience, I started as a helper--a
ground-man hauling buckets, and repositioning 40-foot ladders.
spring, I was upgraded to working on the swing-stage--a suspended scaffold with
one man at each end pulling ropes--assisting a veteran picture-journeyman. He helped me do what was needed, but did
not talk much. With an Irish name and
Boston accent, I assumed he might have been somewhat of a racist. On a swing-stage, one relied on each other to
do it right, in all weathers--we did not talk politics. All I knew was, on weekends, he worked on his
house by the sea.
day in May, we were on a job painting a Pan-Am ad on a 3-story-high billboard,
on the roof of a 7-story building, overlooking the expressway. My job as helper was to paint the background
and the 4-foot letters. I was not
allowed to touch the almost-life-size Boeing 747 taking off. As the journeyman painted the reflections on
the belly of the plane, my segment done, I stood against the 2x4-rail, face to
wind, glad as a bird to have survived the winter.
break, we sat on the platform within talking distance.
ahead, the man said: "Once I took a watercolor class at the Museum School. There’s a Turner at the Museum with a
color-stroke just like that," gesturing towards where the sky met the harbor
islands. "Hard to do."
I never regarded watercolors much (lionizing oil paintings instead)--but, after that, I
looked more carefully.