First Place

Introduction: Mark Baker

Continuing Lecturer, Writing Program

Audrey Mai

"Ada Chen: Defining Chinese-America"

Instructor: Mark Baker

“Discovering Asian American artists throughout high school, one of whom being Ada Chen, really helped me overcome some of my internal struggles by helping me see and embrace the value of my heritage.”

– Audrey Mai

Hi everyone, my name is Audrey, and I wrote the essay “Ada Chen: Defining Chinese-America” in my Writing 2 Class. The assignment was to develop a rhetorical analysis of some ‘social justice artifact’ of our choosing, and I decided to write about one of my favorite contemporary artists named Ada Chen, and a couple of her pieces. I found out about Chen and her work around my sophomore year of high school, during which I was going through a bit of a cultural identity crisis. Thanks to a series of very unpleasant experiences with racist creeps, I was becoming more acutely aware of the ways Asian stereotypes (especially ones about East Asian women in particular) impact how I’m perceived and even treated. At the time, I felt like my Asianness did nothing for me but put a target on my back, so I wanted to distance myself from it. It’s sad looking back, but it’s genuinely what I thought I had to do to feel safe, and feel seen as a young Chinese-Vietnamese American teenager. But, discovering Asian (American) artists throughout high school, one of whom being Ada Chen, really helped me overcome some of my internal struggles by helping me see and embrace the value of my heritage. Even though it’s been years since I started really reflecting on my relationship with my cultural identities, it’s still something I very much struggle with and feel a lot of guilt about to this day, which is what really drove this essay. This paper was really personal and at times, emotional to write. As someone whose writing is for the most part only seen by myself and whoever’s grading it... I’m trying not to think about the fact that this is gonna be on the internet. All that said, I would’ve never thought to put my writing out there if it weren’t for my Writ2 instructor, Mark Baker. Thank you so much Mark for your encouragement and guidance throughout this whole process -- I seriously could not have done it without you! And now, I’m gonna read a couple excerpts from my essay!

With a newfound understanding of how I’m perceived in American society due to these experiences of being racially targeted, my plunge into art once rooted in self-hatred soon became a genuine creative outlet for me. Ironically, becoming involved with art and subsequently discovering contemporary Asian artists is what actually opened my eyes to the value and beauty of my cultures. One of the most influential figures in the shift in my worldview was Ada Chen, a young Chinese American artist and jeweler who grew up in San Francisco, like myself. Her pieces were vibrant and humorous, both heartbreaking and uplifting, and most of all, they spoke to my own experiences as an Asian-American unlike any other art I’d seen before. Chen’s pieces are all very explicitly inspired by Chinese culture, while also drawing American cultural references. They are celebrations of both her ancestral culture and her creative influences growing up in America, and the celebratory spirit imbued in her art is contagious. The way Chen’s pieces embodied and defined Chinese American culture gave me something to identify with and take pride in within my ethnicity. What once was only a source of emotional turmoil became a source of community and belonging, which illustrates the transformative impacts of Chen’s work on young Asian Americans like myself.

My damaged relationship with my ethnic and cultural identities, however, is not unique to me; in fact, it’s representative of a fundamental way in which white supremacy functions. This internalized hatred for one’s own heritage comes as a result of the dominant (white American) culture continually devaluing marginalized peoples by silencing their voices and erasing their spaces. And as POC, these structural forces coerce us into embodying white supremacist ideals in order to survive. With Asian immigrants/Asian Americans in particular, assimilation has long been considered something to strive for in our history, and this idea has been passed down generationally. This is where the importance of Ada Chen’s work comes in: it cultivates love and a deep healing for people like myself, whose relationships with their identities have been hurt by systemic inequities. Her art amplifies the complexities, the beauty, and the struggles of being Chinese American, validating our experiences and affirming that we belong in this country beyond racist caricatures portrayed in pop culture and media. Her narrative is a reminder that we collectively have the voice and the strength to confront the silence that invisibilizes our many identities. Today, I struggle to relearn the ancestral knowledge that I have forgotten and study the ancestral knowledge that I was never taught; but with the help of pioneers like Chen, I’m now closer than ever to turning my past of internalized racism into growth and reconciliation.


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