The term "Chinatown" often conjures stereotypical images of narrow streets filled with people and a colorful riot of signage. But it means so much more than that.
The Chinatown of my childhood meant weekend trips to visit my grandparents, dim sum, grocery shopping, birthdays, weddings, Chinese New Year, egg tarts, steamed lobster. From the mundane moments of filling orange plastic bags with greens at the vegetable stands, to the excitement of getting a white sponge cake to mark a celebration, so much of that Chinatown was filled with family and vivid sense memories.
It wasn't so simple as I grew older. I was influenced by my father's attitude, who has always seen Chinatown as the place to get away from, and the only measure of success was to leave. I was born and raised in the Jersey suburbs so my experience growing up was much more "mall rat" than "street smart". So I struggled with feeling simultaneously an outsider to Chinatown because I hadn't been a resident with added language/class/education barriers, while feeling deeply connected to a place I've been going to regularly all my life.
As an adult, I realized how important Chinatown was to me, and I've been excited about the ways that it's changed and grown. But I've also been increasingly concerned about the effects of gentrification and how it impacts older generations and the unique culture. My connection is mainly through my family and regular visits to my grandmother, and I had been thinking about how my tenuous connection to Chinatown will change when my grandmother inevitably passes away. I wanted to find a way to participate, but so many organizations didn't feel like the right place for me because of the complexities of identity, and the shame in not feeling "authentic", that I was navigating.
And it's around that time that I found out about Wing On Wo. It seems like I've always walked by a stretch of Mott Street where Wing On Wo sits, catty corner from the Catholic school that my dad attended as a kid, on my way to somewhere else. I hadn't specifically ever noticed the shop, it's one of many that make up the fabric of Chinatown. Mei's efforts to save her family's business and found the W.O.W. project put that bit of Mott Street into a whole different light. It was like the beginning of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy goes from a black and white world into Technicolor. W.O.W. brought up and articulated so many of the complex feelings and concerns that I had about Chinatown and my relationship to it.
Feeling this resonance led to my first donation to the W.O.W. Project to support their programs. I popped into the shop to pick up my donor "reward", and I had a long chat with Gary, Mei's dad, who helps run the shop. Turns out he went to the same Catholic school as my dad, a few years apart. Suddenly I felt a connection; Chinatown was more than a place, it became an opportunity for community.
Last year I jumped at the chance to join the Chinatown Book Club, which W.O.W. sponsored and donated space for. I feel so fortunate to have met and become friends with some folks in the book club, and we come from so many different places and have a multiplicity of relationships with Chinatown. It's a space where we could discuss Asian American histories that are often overlooked or dismissed: the fight for residents to stay in the International Hotel, the laundrymen in Chinatown who politically organized in the early to mid 1900s, the coolies who had been forced into labor in Cuba, the paper sons who passed through Angel Island. We should all be aware of these histories, as they offer lessons to draw on as Americans to not make the same mistakes again. I felt that it could not just be a way to build community within Chinatown, but a foundation for a dialogue and solidarity with other marginalized groups in imagining and creating a future that is more just and equitable.
I've come to appreciate my complex relationship with Chinatown and how the meaning has evolved for me over the years. Earlier, I had seen things in an "either/or" measure of "authenticity", when everything actually exists in many nuanced ways. Chinatown is a community, it's an idea, it's a culture, and certainly extends beyond physical boundaries. It's Chinese AND American. It increasingly needs to be connected to and support Black and brown communities that face similar and diverse challenges. By embracing the complexities, there's more room and opportunities for Chinatown to flourish and grow in the future, on the community's terms.
July 20th, 2020: Chinatown is in jeopardy because of the ongoing pandemic. I know this is a tough time to be asking for money, but it's so important to support grassroots organizations like W.O.W. who are doing the work to build community and solidarity. This is W.O.W.'s four year anniversary and as part of that they're running a fundraiser for community programming and giving 50% of funds raised to an initiative that supports NYC Chinatown’s resiliency in the wake of COVID-19 and Communities United for Police Reform, an NYC campaign fighting for community safety and police accountability.
To help fundraise for W.O.W., I'm giving away a framed 8 1/2 x 11 print from the Ching Ming Project if you can help me collectively raise at least $1000. I'll randomly select a person who has donated in any amount, send me a photo of your donation receipt and I'll enter you in the drawing.
Living in a small apartment means tight constraints, so I constantly shuffle objects to find the exact right place for them. It's like a reverse Marie Kondo, and I ask objects if that's where they need to be. For a time, a particular object might have the proper resting spot, but then I might lose track of it. For years. In the great and slow reshuffling of all the objects, they can reappear seemingly from thin air at just the right moment.
During social isolation, I've found myself doing more shuffling than usual to help reconsider the space I already have available to me. I removed a snag of cables, a blanket and a broken alarm clock from the shelves of a massive dresser that I inherited from my grandmother. In the very back I pulled out a pu-erh tea cake, and I realized that it's been exactly ten years since my first (and last) visit to China.
So many feelings and memories came back to me. I was taken to the moment when I bought the pu-erh from a tea dealer in Beijing, how I sampled all of these different teas from Yunnan with friends, and talked with the tea dealer about the tea making process. I was deeply appreciative to have that experience. But I also remembered how strange it felt to be in China, and it was a real shock from what I had thought the experience was going to be. Superficially I could blend in, no one would notice me packing on to a train or walking down a street. But as soon as I needed to talk to someone, a barrier slammed down. I felt so guilty for not speaking the language and realized how unforgiving people were when they realize I could neither speak nor read Chinese. I felt tongue-tied and voiceless.
Many of the people I encountered over the month even had a hard time conceiving that someone who looked Chinese could not speak or read the language. And in those moments I've never felt more American, and in an extremely awkward way. It made me question how I identify as Chinese in the context of my American-ness, and I suddenly felt like I wasn't "authentic" enough. That I had failed miserably against an invisible and unknowable standard. I wasn't pushy and loud enough to get to the front of a non-queue at the ticket window of a train station, nor demanding enough to get the attention of a waiter to give me water.
I spent about a month in China and it was excruciatingly difficult. It seemed like there wasn't a way to feel like I belonged in China or the U.S., and that I was always going to be caught between. The pandemic has certainly been a painful reminder, where I've had casually racist remarks said to me as I walk in my neighborhood. Every time I step out the door now I worry about how people perceive me and what that perception could lead to, whether it's verbal abuse or even physical violence. And there's the inevitable, "You're from Jersey? No, where are you ~really~ from?"
This tea, though, is a reminder of something else outside of all of this. The tea dealer said that it would get better with age, so I had set it aside like a good bottle of wine. I forgot about it, in the back of that dresser, but in the intervening years it's been slowly gathering flavor and richness and depth. When it resurfaced, I knew it was finally time to open the package. At first I had doubts. I wondered if it would upset my stomach, and I wasn't sure how much or for how long. In the end I figured it didn't matter and I should just try it, so I broke off a few small pieces and I let it steep.
The tea was mellow, deep and warm. It felt so familiar and comforting. It gave me space to reflect on these past ten years, and how much change has happened in my life and the world. Sometimes better, and sometimes much, much worse. A decade seems both short and an eternity. And in that time span I've been able to find community and a sense of belonging, knowing that I'm not the only one who has faced these feelings. The path was so much harder for those who came before me, and those in the generations after me face different challenges.
The tea, for me, is a little bit like a thread that connects all of us. A line across the ocean that transcends language and time. Can we use this moment to slow down and reflect, take stock of what really matters? And truly understand what our connections are? Can we imagine something different? A more equitable and just society, and really put that into practice?
I tried a little experiment on my most recent trip: delete Instagram and not share anything about my trip ~at all~ on social media. What happened was so interesting. Suddenly I was in this space where I could be with my own thoughts, I wasn't constantly on the look out for what I thought other people wanted to see. I didn't need to have that offhand, improvisational quality with funny captions that Instastories requires. It wasn't driven by engagement or likes.
Instead I started taking photos for myself again and it reminded me of how it felt to shoot with a real camera and analog film all those years ago. Although I was using an iPhone, I was much more focused on composing the image. It was about capturing intimate and in-between moments and how a particular place feels. I had this yearning for my photos to have a more analog feel so I started experimenting with filters on VSCO. I went down the Fujifilm rabbit hole (Velvia!!) and was inspired by other people's imagery and styles. The space on that platform also felt more spare and allowed my images to breathe.
Since I've been back, I've been keeping the practice up. Street shooting, in the moment. If anything, it's so easy with an iPhone and way less fussy than having to tote a camera around. And I haven't missed Instagram at all.
Back at the beginning of 2019, I took a basic sewing class at the New York Sewing Center. I decided, once and for all, that I would learn how to sew. My grandmother was an expert seamstress (she worked in a sweatshop in Chinatown in the 80s) and my mom was skilled enough that she made my Halloween costumes when I was a kid. It's been important to me to continue that knowledge, and I wanted to connect it to my interest in clothing and how it can be an expression of the self. It seemed appealing to have full control over the fit of my clothing and to choose the fabrics and finishes myself.
I love the process of learning how to do something that's new to you. At first you're really excited about it, and you dive into the process. At some point, you hit a level of frustration because you can't make what you had in your mind, or you don't even understand what it is that the instructions are telling you. You're about to give up, you're so annoyed. But you ignore the frustration and keep trying, and you get better at it, and suddenly you're on the other side. And that feels amazing.
Through a lot of trial and error, watching YouTube videos, ordering sewing machine parts on random web sites, poking myself five hundred times with pins, reading books, and scouring forums late at night, I managed to make two pairs of pants and a bunch of shirts this year. The second pair of pants fits me perfectly and they're the most beautiful color. I'm so excited that I have a general sense of sewing techniques and the shape of the craft of sewing. I've put a bunch of projects into the hopper and can't wait to get started.
Did you get a whiff of autumn in the air the other day? I certainly did, and memories of going back to school came flooding back to me. It's especially poignant because I'm going to be on the other side of the lectern this year teaching an evening undergrad class — Interaction and Communication — at the School of Visual Arts.
Why teach, and why now? I'll admit that for years I've considered teaching but I've often lacked the confidence and motivation to do it. As an introvert it was a scary prospect to have to stand in front of a group of people and capture their attention for hours at a time expounding on a topic. I always felt like I needed to be more of an expert...well, at basically everything. I've come to the conclusion that the feeling will never go away and it's better to interpret it as a desire to learn. Having to be responsible for someone's educational experience seemed like a huge burden that I wasn't ready to take on.
And that's exactly why this moment feels like the right time to teach. Given that many of these students will end up in the tech industry, what questions are they asking about what they're designing? These are the students that will one day be shaping the experiences of millions (if not billions) of people. Will they be asking the "for whom" and "why" questions, the really hard ones? Design shouldn't just be paying lip service to empathy. If designers are supposed to be user advocates, we need to do a better job as a discipline to consider those questions and be prepared to persuade our colleagues to stand behind them. Asking these questions from the beginning means we're making products, services and systems more humane - in the sense that we're making them for all humans, not just a small privileged subset of them.
And this starts at the foundation. Students need to get comfortable asking "for whom" and "why" from the beginning; of course the "how" is important, but the most beautiful app that has really clever interactions is abhorrent if it supports and enables harassment or discrimination. It's so important to understand how to critically think about the existing structures and systems around us and imagine different experiences and outcomes.
So yea basically I needed to get over my fears because this is so much bigger than me.
At SVA there's complete freedom to build the course curriculum and set grading policies, and they believe that the most effective teachers are active practitioners in the field. On one hand that's awesome, the curriculum can emphasize what I believe are the essential principles in approaching design and I can choose exactly how to structure the course. It's also incredibly daunting to write a course from scratch - the first thing a friend of mine who's taught undergrad said to me is "don't write your own curriculum from scratch the first semester you teach, I really regretted that." Sooo what am I doing? Ignoring that advice. (Mainly because there *is* no standard course to base anything off of, every section is unique to the instructor.)
Derrick and I have been shaping the syllabus over the course of the summer and it reminds me a little bit of the process of doing a perspective drawing. Find the measure, mark off the drawing surface with the measure, and roughly lay out the structure. Then go back in and layer on details with increasing fidelity while keeping the whole drawing in mind - you never focus too much on one spot or it'll become unbalanced. But it's ok to not work up the entire drawing in excruciating detail, it's finding the right places to add that detail. You have to periodically fuzz your eyes out a little bit to see the big picture.
I've been considering the flow of each session but also how each session has to flow across the entire course. Does it all connect? Do the concepts in one build to the next? Where do the outlier topics go in the sequence? They're important enough to cover but stop the flow in some way. How early in the semester can I introduce a concept? Is that concept better conveyed through a lecture, discussion or exercise? Is this too ambitious for a semester? Rather than trying to answer those questions right away, we started with a rough outline of the semester and we've been moving, tweaking and refining the structure as we add a little detail to each session.
It feels very meta in that I want to do some user research on students before even writing this syllabus because creating a course *is* a design project. What level of knowledge can I expect? What are their work habits and attention spans like? What assumptions am I making about how they work? Leaning on educators for anecdotal evidence is what will have to suffice, for now. We'll iterate as we learn more about our students, so I suppose the syllabus in its current state is our MVP. I've also started questioning what my pedagogical beliefs are and that I don't really have a great perspective on that! So I've given myself some homework so I can feel a little more grounded in the why's and how's of teaching.
If anything this is forcing me to brush up on things I thought I knew, but from the perspective of explaining it to someone who has no knowledge or experience of the thing you're talking about. It's given me fresh eyes as I've been flipping through reference books and reading articles I saved forever ago. I've been considering what got me excited about being a designer and figuring out how to convey that excitement. I want them to walk away from this class feeling like they've only touched the surface and that there is so much possibility for helping shape the world around us in meaningful ways.
Thanks to my co-instructor Derrick Schultz who asked me if I wanted to teach this course with him and gave me the kick in the butt to say yes. I'm so grateful to all my friends and colleagues who have been involved in education that have put up with my pestering to give me tips and advice.
Once in a while I review this “Daily Routine” list I made ages ago in a to-do app. I’ve never checked anything off of the list because they’re always in a state of “to do”. Doing items on this list help me stay grounded.
Karate or running
Read something thought provoking or inspiring
Drink enough water
Get rid of something unneccesary
More than ever, I need this list. Too often I get sucked into the spiral of social media that feeds my sense of helplessness and, now, fear. I refuse to be paralyzed with fear. I refuse this helplessness.